CORBYN’S bid to be Labour leader has taken the entire political establishment by storm. The groundswell of support that pressurised just enough Labour MPs to nominate him then soared, making key trade union executives – including Unite and Unison – issue their backing. Even before the other candidates abstained on Tory government welfare cuts, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign was ballooning into a genuinely popular mass movement, with meetings around the country booked out and overflowing.
To those in the Party and media who ignored the huge anti-austerity vote in Scotland and preferred to see the 2015 General Election result as a linear shift to the right, this is a colossal shock. To others, including this magazine, less so. We have argued for many years that British politics is suffering from a crisis of representation, where the needs and interests of the overwhelming majority of people are flagrantly and routinely disregarded by governments of all stripes. This crisis reached a new intensity under New Labour, when Blair and Brown pushed policies such as privatisation, tuition fees and an illegal war that were hostile to the best traditions of our movement and deeply unpopular with Labour voters.
Even at the last election, policies such as bringing rail and post back into public ownership were supported by most voters, including UKIP and Tory voters, but were put forward by only the Greens. Now this and a range of other ideas which already command majority support are being articulated by a credible and inclusive candidate. Beyond this, the whole tenor of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign breaks with the elitism, careerism, backbiting and egoism that now dominates politics at the top. The integrity of the candidate has proved as inspiring as the political ideas he is putting forward.
Unable to halt Corbyn’s momentum, his opponents have been reduced to claiming he can’t win an election beyond the party faithful – as if the other three candidates could! While loser after loser – Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock, David Miliband – is wheeled out to bemoan Corbyn’s unelectability, polls are showing that UKIP and SNP voters and others would be more likely to vote for a Labour Party led by Corbyn than any of his rivals.
It was Tony Blair who let the cat out of the bag when he said that not only couldn’t Corbyn win, but it wouldn’t be right if he did. It’s not Corbyn’s inability to appeal to the wider public that the Blairites fear – it’s the fact that he could be only too popular, building a movement, taking power and undoing much of the neoliberal regime New Labour inflicted. The pitifully poor performance of Liz Kendall in this contest, however, shows just how sidelined those ideas are – for now.
What we are experiencing is undoubtedly the most important political development since the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the explosion against the austerity consensus has been triggered from within Labour. For socialists in the Party, this raises new challenges. How can the momentum and creativity of this new movement be maintained beyond the leadership election?
A Corbyn victory will not make his detractors within our movement evaporate. The vast majority of Labour MPs and the party machine will remain hostile. Plots to oust him are already being prepared. It’s clear that the transformation that Jeremy Corbyn proposes – of both our Party and society – cannot be carried through by one person alone, from the top, but will need a mass movement to make it happen. The Party must be reconfigured into a genuine social movement, linking up with the unions, students and communities that so desperately need change.
We need a conference of the campaign very soon after the election result and the foundations laid for a new rank and file movement rooted in the Labour Party. But we must also learn the lessons of past failures and take seriously the desire for unity. Old divisions and sectarian self-interest must be put aside – or they will repel not just the new generation who have come into activity, but also those who have walked away in the past but been re-energised by Corbyn’s brilliant campaign.
We face a perhaps unique opportunity. The magnificent movement created in the last three months both vindicates the old Labour left but also challenges it profoundly. We have much to contribute but much to learn.