Examining ‘The Corbyn Effect’

This review was first published on Social Europe.

On the eve of the British General Election last spring, the plight of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, languishing some 15% behind Theresa May’s Conservatives, seemed part of the wider crisis of European social democracy besetting its sister parties in France, Germany, Portugal and even Scandinavia.

The next six weeks saw an extraordinary turnaround. Labour’s vote soared to 40%, some 10% higher than its 2015 performance, and the biggest rise in any party’s share of the vote since 1945. The Tory government, anticipating a post-Brexit landslide, lost its majority, sending it into a chronic tailspin.

The Corbyn Effect is the first collection of essays exploring Labour’s turbulent journey to the edge of power under Corbyn’s leadership. It comprises primarily sympathetic contributions from veteran leftists including Hilary Wainwright, Andrew Gamble and Martin Jacques, and several younger writers best known online. Amidst these swirling perspectives the Corbyn movement’s core principles shift into focus.

One is the assertion of an unapologetic cosmopolitanism against accommodation with right-wing populism or centre-left concerns to appease perceived working class social conservatism with additional measures to restrict migration. There is unease that even the liberal Corbyn has thought it necessary to equivocate on freedom of movement and commit to ’fair rules’ governing labour flows.

White supremacy by any other name?

A powerful Maya Goodfellow essay argues that privileging ‘traditional’ white working class concerns over non-white workers amounts to little more than a form of ‘white supremacy’. Principled progressives should instead seek to challenge fixed ideas of identity and culture and shine ‘a light on the countless workplaces where migrants and British-born people live and work side-by-side and unite to demand better pay, rights and living conditions.’

For Goodfellow and others, Labour’s rise vindicates Corbyn’s strategy of building support through a radical programme capable of appealing to those who usually don’t vote rather than triangulation to appeal to those who do. The party’s challenge is to consolidate and extend the support it won in 2017, a coalition encompassing not just the infamous ‘metropolitan elite’ but also low paid public sector and precarious workers, students, and the poorer working class in former industrial areas, amongst whom Labour retains significant support (though it has indeed fallen back among the older working class).

That strategy should continue to be driven by the programme of mass canvassing and political outreach associated with the pro-Corbyn group Momentum. But there’s awareness here that much work needs to be done to build sufficient support to deliver a majority, requiring, for Jeremy Gilbert, ’an effort in public political education and socialist proselytisation such as Labour has not undertaken since the 1940s.’ And the quality of that engagement will need to rise ‘above the level of moral condemnation of austerity’ associated with much of Corbyn’s support.

Another dominant theme is the insistence that the building of an electoral bloc must be a step in a longer-term project to build a social movement capable of sustaining a government aspiring to radical political and economic transformation.

Beyond statist managerialism

Syriza’s Marina Prentoulis argues that Labour will need something like the ‘solidarity networks’ that built a wider base of support for her party. A Corbyn government won’t have to work within the parameters imposed on Alexis Tsipras’s administration but, as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has himself acknowledged, a reforming programme that challenges established interests is likely to face stern extra-parliamentary opposition.

There are interesting thoughts here about the substance of Labour’s agenda. There is praise for the bold social democratic intent of the 2017 manifesto, with its commitment to the principles of universalism and a strong state. But there is also an appeal for a social democracy that goes beyond statist managerialism. Hilary Wainwright draws a contrast between a paternalist ‘power-as-domination’ according to which the state seeks to do things for people and ‘power-as-transformative capacity’ exercised by people themselves once given greater opportunity to access and shape political and economic systems.

This diffusion of power might be facilitated by opening fresh paths to participation in local and national government, the decentralisation of the media and the democratisation of public services and utilities. It would extend to the workplace through the promotion of cooperative models of production. Indeed McDonnell’s bracing Alternative Models of Ownership report and Corbyn’s speech to the Cooperative Party indicate Labour is moving in this direction.

Some of the enthusiasm for ‘radical participative democracy’ here highlights the propensity of the Corbyn movement to flirt with a ‘left populism’ that champions ‘the people’ in opposition not just to the ‘elites’ that currently hold power but to the institutions of representative democracy themselves.

A searching essay by Eliane Glaser notes this conflict within Corbyn himself. Sometimes Corbyn, a parliamentarian for some 35 years, can be heard promising a ‘complete break’ against a ‘rigged system’ that serves ‘Westminster elites’. But for Glaser Corbyn is most effective when explaining what he would do with power, not when attacking the institutions through which it would be exercised:

When he is at his best, the appeal of Corbyn is his authenticity; but an authenticity of ideological substance, not hick anti-Westminster style. … Corbyn found his mojo when he turned away from populism and towards the combination of rhetorical sincerity and co-ordinated grassroots campaigning.

Jo Littler locates the emotional appeal of Corbyn’s message in his insistence, against neoliberal orthodoxy, that individual freedom can only be realised through collective agency. With his gentle demeanour and heartfelt language Corbyn seeks to reclaim the language of aspiration from the right, and presents an ideal of collective provision that evades conservative stereotypes of statist authoritarianism.

The book skips many of the hard economic challenges a Labour government would face. Only Prentoulis asks how the party is going to resolve its politically astute but contradictory position on Brexit: promising both to end freedom of movement and retain tariff-free access. She notes that even battle-scarred Syriza retains its conviction that the economic transformation it wants for Greece can only, ultimately, be achieved within a European context. Labour’s ambitions for fundamental change depend on political and economic alliances across the EU and beyond.

Hopefully, subsequent collections will pay closer attention to these issues. But for now The Corbyn Effect offers a window into a movement trying to shape a rush of ideas and excitement into a programme for government, and doing so in the knowledge that, should it win power, its success or failure will have profound implications for the future of European social democracy.

The Corbyn Effect, edited by Mark Perryman, is published by Lawrence & Wishart.