Britain: the Corbyn movement, 5 years on – lessons for the left

This weekend marks the fifth anniversary since Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader. This marked an enormous turning point for the Left in Britain. Now, at another crossroads, we must learn from the experience of the Corbyn era.

Five years ago, on 12 September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. This was an almighty political earthquake; an event that shook the establishment to its core, transforming the landscape of British politics forever.

The ruling class and its agents inside the Labour Party were left dumbfounded. Drunk on their own propaganda, they believed that a self-proclaimed socialist could never win.

So sure were the Blairites of their permanent domination of the party that, back in 2014, they themselves had suggested opening up the vote in future party leadership contests to registered supporters.

This, combined with a move to ‘one member, one vote’, they believed, would allow ‘moderates’ to have their say, diluting down the influence of the ‘pesky’ unions and any ‘cranky’ old socialist stalwarts amongst the party’s grassroots. In effect, they hoped to turn the Labour Party into a replica of the US Democrats, with primary selection processes.

Instead, however, Corbyn’s campaign became a lightning rod for all the anger and discontent that had accumulated in the depths of society. It was an historical accident that reflected a greater necessity – the need for a real opposition to years of Tory austerity, decades of growing inequality, and a broken status quo.

Far from swaying the contest in favour of the right wing, the 100,000 registered supporters who signed up in the course of the leadership election massively swung behind Jeremy, who gained 84% of the vote in this category.

But Corbyn’s call for a ‘new kind of politics’ also struck a chord amongst the existing Labour membership. Tired of the New Labour spin and lies, and disillusioned by the Tory-lite approach of Ed Miliband, almost half of voting members ended up backing the left-wing backbencher.

The Blairites’ champion, Liz Kendall, meanwhile, finished in last place. It was a humiliating and devastating blow to the Labour right wing – one which they would never forgive or forget.

“It’s your turn”

Corbyn McDonnell Formby standing Image Socialist AppealThe Blairites expected Corbyn to be embarassed in the leadership election, but they were left with egg on their faces / Image: Socialist Appeal

The right-wing grandees only had themselves to blame, however. Overflowing with arrogance, it was they who allowed Jeremy onto the ballot in the first place. Notorious scoundrels such as Frank Field and Margaret Beckett were amongst those who had ‘lent’ their nominations to the Islington North MP, in order to ‘open up the debate’.

Of course, their actions were not fuelled by a sense of generosity, but of spite. The Blairites thought that the Left stood no chance. The bookies agreed, putting Corbyn at 200-to-1 odds to win. Jeremy would be trounced, they assumed, and the few remaining left-wingers in the party would be forced to leave in ignominy.

Unfortunately, many tired and worn-out pessimists on the Left believed the same. Journalist Owen Jones, for example, stated at the time that the Left shouldn’t even run a candidate, but should focus on rebuilding its forces by organising a tour of local meetings.

Even the small Socialist Campaign Group of MPs described Jeremy’s campaign in tokenistic terms; a case of ‘going through the motions’. “It’s your turn,” was how one left-wing MP was said to have convinced Corbyn to stand, John McDonnell having stood to be Labour leader on two previous occasions.

In both cases, the mistake was – and is – a lack of perspective. Both the bourgeois commentators and the ‘left-wing’ cynics are incapable of seeing things dialectically. Instead, they are empiricists: fixating only on the surface of events, rather than seeing the turbulent and volatile processes developing beneath.

David Cameron’s Tories had just won the 2015 general election – their second in a row. But for those with eyes to see, all the signs were present that this was not going to be a ‘strong and stable’ government.

Less than a year earlier, the Yes campaign had narrowly lost in the Scottish independence referendum, as workers and youth looked to deliver the Westminster elite a kick in the teeth. This was a clear indication of the growing anti-establishment mood within society, which had found an outlet north of the border through the mass movement for independence.

Disgracefully, Labour had joined hands with the Tories and Liberals in the establishment’s ‘Better Together’ campaign, otherwise known as ‘Project Fear’. Disgusted at Labour’s role in the referendum, hundreds of thousands of Scottish workers and youth swung behind the SNP in the 2015 general election, and Labour was trounced in one of its former heartlands. This dramatic shift foreshadowed the Corbyn Revolution itself.

At the same time, support for the Liberal Democrats had collapsed following their participation in the coalition and their betrayal over tuition fees. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage’s UKIP were threatening to peel away Tory voters on the right. To cauterise this wound, David Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The rest, as they say, is history…

Unstoppable force

Grassroots LP ImageHundreds of thousands rallied to Corbyn in 2015

In the wake of the Tory election victory in 2015, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, looking to launch an immediate fightback. And it was here that the #JezWeCan movement began in earnest, with Corbyn speaking to the massive crowd assembled in-and-around Parliament Square.

The atmosphere was electric. And it was clear, even at this point, that Jeremy could win – if only those demonstrating could be convinced to sign up and vote in the Labour leadership contest.

For the Labour right wing, alarm bells began to ring almost immediately. With his tweed jacket and ‘straight-talking honest politics’, Jeremy stood out by a mile in comparison to his besuited triumvirate of right-wing opponents.

In the first televised debate, for example, Corbyn went on the offensive in relation to questions over immigration, putting forward a clear, class-based position, in contrast to the nationalist-pandering of the other candidates.

As a result, one audience member – a firefighter and former-UKIP voter – stood up to assert that he would be backing Jeremy. He was tired of all the old establishment politics and centre-ground nonsense, he stated. The right-wingers were taken aback.

As the summer progressed and the CLP nominations trickled in, the right wing began to sweat. Early opinion polling indicated strong – and growing – support for Corbyn. And mass #JezWeCan rallies were taking place in cities and towns across the country. It was clear that Jeremy might actually win.

The Blairites quickly pulled out all the stops, with the help of their friends in the press, of course. The smears and slanders quickly began to roll in. And they haven’t stopped ever since.

Corbyn was declared a “terrorist sympathiser”; a “friend of Hamas and Hezbollah”. A string of New Labour relics were brought out and dusted off to opine their hostile views. Army generals spoke ominously about the possibility of a coup, were Corbyn ever to reach Number 10.

Even Blair himself stuck his oar in, stating that those members who were considering ‘following their hearts’ and voting for Jeremy should “get a transplant”. Needless to say, the war criminal’s intervention only backfired, pushing even more people into the Corbyn camp.

The trade union bureaucracy, meanwhile, did their best to assist. Their support for Andy Burnham – the wolf in sheep’s clothing, who was presenting himself as a ‘soft left’ – was clear. But pressure from rank-and-file union activists eventually caused the leaderships of Unison and Unite to buckle and throw their weight behind Jeremy.

Back at Labour HQ, the full force of the apparatus was deployed in an attempt to block Corbyn supporters from joining and voting. Tens of thousands were caught up in the #LabourPurge, with left-wingers barred, or even chucked out of the party, on all manner of trumped-up charges and spurious grounds.

In the end, however, the establishment was powerless to stem the tide. They simply had nothing to offer politically; nor the weapons in their arsenal to hold back the army of workers and youth who were signing up in droves.

An historic mass movement – an unstoppable force – had been created, turning the world of British politics upside down. And so, on that fateful Saturday in September, Jeremy Corbyn was declared to be the new leader of the Labour Party, winning in the first round with an astonishing 60% of the vote.

Two parties

Of course, the Blairite shenanigans didn’t stop there. In fact, wounded and antagonised by the scale of their defeat, the right wing’s efforts only escalated and intensified.

From day one, Corbyn and his team attempted to compromise with his critics. Renowned right-wing gangsters like Hillary Benn and Angela Eagle were given prominent positions in the shadow cabinet. And no action was taken against those who continued to stir up trouble inside the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

Indeed, the PLP became somewhat of a viper’s nest for Corbyn and the handful of genuinely left-wing Labour MPs who backed him. After all, this was increasingly seen by the Blairites as their last bastion; their Alamo.

With grassroots members emboldened and new activists flooding in, local parties were being transformed. After decades of being stranded in the wilderness, the Left was taking back control of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). Meanwhile, Momentum was founded to help put the Corbyn movement on a more permanently-organised footing; to create a ‘Praetorian Guard’ around the leader, in the words of some liberal commentators.

As the months went by, it became clear to all and sundry that there could be no unity between the mass left-wing membership and the Blairite saboteurs. Votes in Parliament – such as the question of bombing in Syria – only confirmed the chasm that existed between grassroots activists and warmongering, careerist MPs.

At the end of the day, this was – and remains – a class divide. In reality, the Labour Party is two parties: on one side, a party of workers, the poor, the oppressed, and the youth; and on the other, a clique of big business politicians.

The former represent the future, yearning for socialist change. The latter represent the past, defending the capitalists, imperialists, and landlords. How can there ever be ‘unity’ between these two camps, which represent fundamentally opposed class interests?

‘Chicken coup’

OwenSmith2 Image Chris McAndrewThe Blairites tried and failed to oust Corbyn / Image: Chris McAndrew

This contradiction was never resolved. And yet the opportunity to do so – in a relatively effortless and painless way – presented itself on many occasions.

After the 2016 Brexit vote, with the country in shock at yet another political earthquake, the Blairites seized the moment to carry out a military operation to remove Corbyn.

In preparation, the whole of the right-wing press, in one chorus, tried to throw the blame for the result onto Corbyn. They demanded that Corbyn follow Cameron’s lead and fall on his sword.

Then, right on queue, one right-wing shadow minister after another resigned, popping up in front of TV cameras, as part of a highly coordinated campaign to depose their party’s leader. Among the resignations was one Keir Starmer, who quit as shadow minister for immigration. In a vote of no confidence, 172 Labour MPs called on Corbyn to resign.

But the now-infamous ‘chicken coup’ quickly became unstuck. In an unprecedented move, thousands of grassroots members and activists flooded onto the streets in defence of Jeremy Corbyn. In London, for example, an estimated 10,000 assembled outside Parliament at 24-hours notice to back the left-wing leader.

A leadership challenge was launched. But the right-wingers had a problem. They had no champion to fight on their behalf.

Instead, learning their lesson from a year earlier, they hoped to keep Corbyn off the ballot altogether. The right wing attempted to sow confusion by citing a passage in the party constitution, which stated that any leadership challenger needed a certain amount of backing from within the PLP. But the clause clearly did not apply to the incumbent – a conclusion that, after much tension, even the courts agreed with.

Unable to block Jeremy bureaucratically, the Blairites were forced to muster up a representative for the contest. But the mountain laboured, only to bring forth a mouse: Owen Smith.

Once again, mass meetings in support of Jeremy Corbyn erupted across the country. People queued for hours and even scaled the sides of buildings in order to hear the Labour leader speak. In many cases, Corbyn would deliver the same speech multiple times in one evening, in order to address the huge crowds.

Many of these events bore more resemblance to a rock concert than a political rally. Labour under Corbyn had been transformed from a party into a social movement.

Knowing that their horse didn’t stand a chance in a fair race, the party machinery – still under the control of the right wing – was once again deployed in full. The McCarthyite witch-hunt against socialists resumed, and thousands more were purged from the party.

But it all came to naught. On 24 September 2016, Jeremy Corbyn won his second leadership victory, increasing his share of the vote to 62%.

Smears and slanders

Chris Williamson Jeremy Corbyn Image Socialist AppealMany of Corbyn's allies were thrown under the bus in other to appease the right. None of these offerings were enough / Image: Socialist Appeal

The Blairites were crushed. They had tried everything and achieved nothing. Furthermore, they had been completely discredited, revealed for the traitors that they were (and are). Their failed assasination attempt had only made Corbyn’s position as leader unassailable.

At this point, Jeremy Corbyn could have swept out the saboteurs without so much as lifting his little finger. 172 right-wing Labour MPs had forced him to face a democratic reselection process. He could easily have easily demanded the same of all of them. And no doubt the membership, enraged by this treachery, would have happily sorted the wheat from the chaff.

But instead, again, an olive branch was extended. And the right wing wasted no time in resuming their plots and schemes.

Most of these emanated from the deputy leader’s office, with Tom Watson (elected to the position in 2015) putting himself at the epicentre of the Blairites’ efforts. Mysterious donations poured in, meanwhile, to ensure that the right-wing campaign was well-financed, and thus outside of official party control.

The establishment had slung all manner of mud at Corbyn and the Left. But none of it seemed to stick. Until, that is, they hit upon a claim that seemed to have some legs – in large part because it was endlessly echoed by the right-wing media. This is, of course, the assertion that the Corbyn movement – and thus the Labour Party also – is riddled with anti-semitism.

There is little need to go into this hysterical smear campaign, which the right wing continues to use to this day in order to attack the Left.

The majority of members see completely through this. The idea that Jeremy Corbyn – a lifelong anti-racist campaigner – is anti-semitic is laughable; as is the suggestion that the Labour Party is “institutionally anti-semitic”.

Indeed, the fact that those peddling this line most vociferously all happen to have been vocal Corbyn critics from the outset seems to be beyond mere coincidence. Rank-and-file activists are not stupid: they can see that this is yet another attempt by the establishment to throw dust in the eyes of ordinary people.

Nevertheless, if you repeat a lie often enough, and with enough force, then it can have the desired effect. And so the Labour right wing has parroted the same allegations again and again, in a concerted effort to discredit the Corbyn movement and purge the Left from the party.

And as has become clear with the #LabourLeaks revelations, the bureaucracy at Labour HQ even went so far as to actively frustrate investigations into accusations of actual anti-semitism, in an attempt to manufacture a crisis inside the party.

From the inception of this myth, however, the left leaders failed to stand firm. Instead of telling the truth and giving confidence to grassroots members, prominent left-wingers such as Momentum founder Jon Lansman and journalist Owen Jones caved in and accepted the accusations of anti-semitism.

Along the way, left-wing figures like former Momentum vice chair Jackie Walker, Anti-Racist Alliance founder Marc Wadsworth, and Corbyn-supporting MP Chris Williamson were thrown under the bus. But the Blairite juggernaut relentlessly rolled on, refusing to be sated by any concessions. When given an inch, they demanded a mile.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell also went along with this strategy of appeasement – all to no avail. Instead, claims of anti-semitism continued to be used as a stick with which to beat the Left. Meanwhile, left-wing activists became increasingly disillusioned and demoralised, worn down by this war of attrition.

Coming out fighting

Corbyn May Image Socialist AppealLabour's surprisingly good performance in the 2017 election was a bombshell that rocked the political establishment / Image: Socialist Appeal

When Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017, things seemed to have reached their nadir for Labour and the Left.

The party was trailing around 20 points behind the Tories in the polls. Murdoch’s rags were licking their lips at the prospect of ‘Blue Murder’. And whilst Corbyn was constantly under fire from his own MPs, the Prime Minister was praised by the establishment as a ‘safe pair of hands’.

The yellow press went all out for the Tories, stooping lower than ever to try and smear Corbyn. The morning after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, The Sun even ran a frontpage headline screaming ‘BLOOD ON HIS HANDS’, relating to some non-story about Corbyn and the IRA.

But with his back against the wall, Jeremy Corbyn came out fighting. Within weeks, Labour’s fortunes had been turned around, thanks to a bold campaign based on mass doorknocking, large-scale rallies, and a radical left-wing manifesto.

Whilst Labour supporters were mobilising to kick out the Tories, however, right-wing MPs were actively conspiring to prevent a Corbyn victory. Prospective candidates distanced themselves from the left-wing leader; party resources were funnelled towards safe seats instead of winnable marginals; and the most zealous Blairites even called on voters to put a cross next to the Conservatives.

All of this has again been subsequently confirmed by the leaked Labour report, which shows how unaccountable right-wing officials – operating under party general secretary Iain McNicol – sabotaged the chances of bringing a Labour government to power.

But, in truth, all of this was known to left activists at the time. Indeed, one documentary following the campaigns of Blairite MPs such as Stephen Kinnock showed the visible disappointment on the faces of these traitors as the exit polls were announced.

The 2017 election result was yet another golden opportunity to sweep the careerists out of the PLP. Although Labour had not won, the result felt like a victory. Thanks to the inspiring Corbyn-led campaign, the Labour Party had gained its largest swing in the vote share since 1945. Facing a hung parliament, meanwhile, May and the Tories were shattered.

The result was a vindication of everything that socialists had argued for: the importance of a class-based approach; the need for a mass campaign based on bold policies; and the possibility of a Corbyn government.

The Blairites were firmly on the backfoot. Once again, they had been proven wrong. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, was cheered on by hundreds of thousands at the Glastonbury festival.

No doubt Corbyn’s team were aware of the sabotage that had taken place. And if the wrecking behaviour of the Labour right wing and party bureaucracy had been publicly revealed, the Left could have easily mobilised to deselect all the worst offenders in the PLP.

In this way, the party could have been united on a genuine basis – around the programme presented in the 2017 manifesto – without so much as a drop of blood being shed. And yet the call never came, and this enormous potential to complete the ‘Corbyn revolution’ was squandered.

Left bureaucracy

Even this was not the final chance, however. Over a year later, by the time of the 2018 annual conference, the Left’s position inside the party had been strengthened even further.

By this time, CLPs were overwhelmingly dominated by the left wing. Iain McNicol had been replaced by Jennie Formby, a Corbyn supporter, taking many of the old right-wing officials with him. And the NEC was strongly balanced in favour of the Left.

This transformation from top to bottom was reflected at the conference, with the Left having a clear majority amongst the CLP delegates. But instead of utilising this strength, Corbyn’s office attempted to constrain it.

Led by the conservative bureaucracy of Unite the Union, the trade union delegates voted down an attempt to see ‘open selection’ (mandatory reselection) discussed on the conference floor. Yet 90% of local party delegates voted in favour of seeing the motion debated. And no doubt a similar proportion would have liked to see such a policy passed.

For many activists, this came as a shock. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey had been a visible and vocal defender of Jeremy Corbyn against the Blairites. And the union had even passed official policy calling for mandatory reselection at its own conference in 2016, at the height of the ‘chicken coup’.

This demonstrated the real role of the current trade union leaders: to act as a bureaucratic bulwark against genuinely radical change. The same can be said of Lansman’s leadership of Momentum, which had similarly resisted calls for open selection and which shut down internal democracy within the Corbyn movement.

More recently, the Momentum leadership has changed hands, and the Lansman clique are no longer in control. The big affiliated unions, meanwhile, are all set to have general secretary elections in the coming year.

This represents an important opportunity. Grassroots activists in the labour movement must organise and fight for a militant leadership that will not compromise with the right wing, but will mobilise workers around a clear socialist vision.

Election defeat

Corbyn Boris Tories Out Image Socialist AppealLabour's defeat in 2019 was a huge blow to the left / Image: Socialist Appeal

The failure to clean the Blairites out of the party ultimately proved to be the Corbyn movement’s undoing.

Under pressure from the establishment, Labour’s position on Brexit gradually shifted away from a class position, and towards a liberal Remain stance. A swathe of Labour MPs – from Keir Starmer to John McDonnell – even began to publicly call for a second referendum.

By the time of Boris’ prorogation of Parliament, Corbyn was even garnering praise from bourgeois commentators, who commended him for his ‘statesmanlike’ behaviour in ‘defending democracy’.

The contrast with Johnson was quite telling. When ‘moderate’ Tory MPs opposed their new leader, they were quickly purged from the party. The same could not be said of Labour’s ‘moderates’, however, who were consistently allowed to continue with their vandalism.

As a result, the Tory Prime Minister was able to go into the election presenting himself as the champion of ‘the people’, against a Parliament that was seen as obstructing Brexit. Labour, on the other hand, had become tainted by their association with the establishment.

Whereas the Corbyn-led campaign in the 2017 election had correctly emphasised class questions, cutting across the Brexit divide, by 2019 Labour’s position was confusing at best; and was dominated by a deafening chorus of Remainers at its worst.

Without a clear socialist position, Labour was caught between two stools. As in 2017, the party leadership attempted to raise class issues, pointing the finger at the “elite” and the “rigged system”, and rhetorically asking: “Which side are you on?”

But by this time, however, the polarisation over Brexit had been whipped up to unbearable levels. And, for those who supported Leave, Labour was seen as blocking the democratic mandate of the 2016 EU vote by backing a second referendum. In contrast, Boris was promising to “get Brexit done”.

The emphasis of Labour’s manifesto, meanwhile, gradually drifted and became unfocussed – more a case of quantity rather than quality regarding the demands presented.

Ultimately, on a capitalist basis, there is no solution for working people either inside or outside of the EU. Only the fight for a socialist Britain as part of a Socialist United States of Europe could cut the Gordian Knot of Brexit. But this perspective was never raised. As a result, Corbyn found it impossible to square the circle.

The left leaders clearly made errors. But the Blairites – the most ardent defenders of the liberal capitalist establishment – did not miss any opportunity to add to the confusion and the cacophony. A section of them even went so far as to split away and form an abortive ‘centre-ground’ party – Change UK: the Independent Group – using Brexit and anti-semitism as an excuse.

And, lest we forget, it was the Labour right wing who had presided over the loss of working-class voters in vast swathes of the country: to the SNP in Scotland; and to UKIP, the Tories, and ‘none of the above’ in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of former industrial areas in Wales, the Midlands, and northern England.

The fact that right-wing Labour councillors were helping administer austerity at a local level certainly didn’t help. This created an awkward juxtaposition between the radical policies on offer from the left leadership, and the reality of cuts on the ground. As one dismayed voter was reported as saying: “How can I trust Labour to give me free broadband, when they can’t even keep the local library open?”

Labour was clearly divided, at war with itself. Corbyn had shown real strength in being able to put up with the avalanche of personal abuse thrown his way. Nevertheless, he came across as weak for failing to decisively stand up against his internal opponents; and for attempting to triangulate over Brexit. It was no wonder in the end that many working-class voters stayed at home, or even ‘lent’ their votes to Johnson’s Tories.

From Corbyn to Starmer

Starmer Corbyn Formby Image Socialist AppealStarmer won the leadership by promising everything to everyone, but has ultimately served the interests of the right / Image: Socialist Appeal

The 2019 election defeat was a hammer blow for the Left. Hopes were roused, only to be dashed. The fact that Corbyn and McDonnell immediately fell on their swords and accepted all the blame for the loss only added to the demoralisation.

The Blairites, on the other hand, could not contain their glee. Right-wingers such as Jess Phillips were visibly delighted at the result, knowing that this would pave the way for Corbyn’s departure. New Labour dinosaurs such as Alan Johnson, meanwhile, spat blood on television, demanding that Momentum activists be expunged from the party.

The whole establishment mobilised in an effort to crush Corbyn and the movement behind him. Flying in the face of reality, liberal commentators repeated ad nauseum that this election had nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn leadership. Unfortunately, they faced little resistance from the Left.

The right-wing gangsters had seemingly gotten away with their crimes. The only solace was that turncoats such as Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, and Mike Gapes had failed to keep their seats, having stood for the Liberal Democrats and Change UK. But this provided little comfort in the face of an emboldened right wing in the PLP.

The more astute right-wingers knew that they could not beat the Left in the ensuing leadership contest by revealing their true colours. Instead, the name of the game was ‘unity’ – a hollow mantra that could be endlessly repeated, acting as a placebo to soothe the pains of those who had tirelessly suffered through years of strife and civil war.

Step forward ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer. Promising to ‘end factionalism’, this knight of the realm was all things to all people. To the left, he promised to maintain the core values of Corbynism. To the right, he provided enough dog whistles to indicate his real intentions.

The establishment and their media mouthpieces, meanwhile, happily obliged in painting this dull, grey figure as a ‘responsible’ and ‘serious’ leader. They knew that this was a man they could do business with.

On the other side, the Left’s torchbearer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, did little to inspire. All the worst mistakes of the Corbyn era were repeated in quick succession: capitulating to accusations of anti-semitism; calling for ‘progressive patriotism’; and failing to call out the Blairites for their treacherous actions and behaviour.

Furthermore, RLB created confusion on the Left by calling for a vote for Angela Rayner in the deputy leadership election. But Rayner was clearly a candidate of the right wing, and was effectively running on a joint ticket with Long-Bailey’s opponent, Keir Starmer.

Taking on board all of the weaknesses of Corbyn, without any of his strongpoints, Long-Bailey’s campaign never took off. The mass rallies and grassroots enthusiasm seen in the 2015 and 2016 were nowhere to be found.

Richard Burgon’s campaign for deputy leader provided more hope, with demands to bring back Clause IV, amongst other things. But the secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group was left high and dry by the Lansmanite bureaucracy, which gave their backing to the so-called ‘left’ Angela Rayner instead.

RLB and Burgon did raise the demand for open selection in their leadership campaigns. But this was unfortunately raised in the softest of ways – posed simply as something ‘nice’ and ‘democratic’, rather than as an essential requirement in the struggle to create a genuinely united party; a unity based not on vacuous rhetoric, but between members and their elected representatives around clear socialist policies.

As a result of these limitations of the left candidates, Starmer was able to win the leadership contest in the first round, with a convincing majority of 56%. Unlike in 2015 and 2016, there was no groundswell of registered supporters. Thousands of new members did join in the wake of the election defeat, but the majority of these were right-wingers returning to kick out Corbyn.

But in surveys, even a majority of Corbyn-era joiners had said they would support Starmer over Long-Bailey. While this was partly the result of his blatant opportunism, it also shows how a movement can quickly unravel if it does not continue to advance.

After all, in order to convince people to vote for ‘continuity’ over ‘unity’, it was above all necessary to explain who was genuinely to blame for Labour’s defeat: not Corbyn and the Left, but the renegades who have used every opportunity to undermine the efforts of grassroots activists and their democratically elected leadership.

Revolution and counter-revolution

Starmer vs party Image Socialist AppealFurther attempts to purge the left could cause a backlash and a reopening of a civil war / Image: Socialist Appeal

This is the dynamic seen in every revolution: the movement must move forward, or it will sink. Activists cannot be permanently mobilised. Eventually tiredness sets in.

Counter-revolution will bide its time, waging a war of attrition until, sensing weakness, it pounces. And unlike the Left, the right wing acts with confidence and ruthlessness. The counter-revolution knows that they have the full backing of the establishment. And they will show no mercy in purging their opponents and attempting to regain control.

This is the situation the Labour Left now faces. Taking his marching orders from the Murdoch press, Starmer is conducting a “scorched earth” strategy against the Corbyn movement.

The shadow cabinet has been stuffed with right-wingers. Rebecca Long-Bailey has been sacked over false accusations of anti-semitism. Jennie Formby has been replaced by the Blairite David Evans. And saboteur ex-staffers are being paid off with members’ money.

At the same time, the new Labour leader is shifting the party rapidly to the right. Starmer has sided with the Tories against Black Lives Matter activists. He has cosied up to landlords and abandoned renters. He has unilaterally overturned conference policy in support of Kashmir. And he has consistently refused to provide any genuine opposition to the government over its disastrous and murderous handling of the pandemic.

But a return to the so-called ‘centre ground’ is easier said than done. In the way still stand hundreds of thousands of left-wing members. These workers and youth joined the party to fight for socialism. There is no appetite for reheated Blairism amongst the rank and file.

The problem facing Starmer and the ‘moderates’ is that the time for moderation is long gone. The ‘centre ground’ has collapsed. There is no room for reforms. Capitalism is in a deep crisis and cannot be patched up.

Attempting to purge the Left from the party, meanwhile, would provoke an almighty backlash, and could even lead to renewed – and more determined – attempts to drive out the right wing. Already, illusions in the idea of ‘unity’ have been shattered. Polarisation inside the party is increasing.

The biggest danger is demoralisation. Understandably, thousands have ripped up their membership cards in disgust at Starmer’s rightward turn. It is the responsibility of the leaders of the Corbyn movement to turn the situation around.

Marxist leadership

Labour’s civil war is far from over. It is a struggle of living forces – the outcome of which is yet to be decided. And the upcoming NEC elections represent a vital opportunity to turn the tide and score an important victory.

But to seize the moment, we must learn the lessons of the last five years. There can be no more compromises or concessions. The left leaders need to acknowledge that this is a gloves off, no-holds-barred battle. This means taking a firm stand against right-wing aggression, and mobilising activists around bold socialist demands.

We need to drive the Blairites and bureaucrats out of the PLP and Labour HQ, and transform Labour back into the mass social movement that it was becoming at the height of the Corbyn era. And these goals can only be achieved by filling grassroots activists with confidence and determination; by organising around the call for open selection and bold socialist demands.

We must avoid judging how things will turn out purely from the surface appearance of events. The election of Corbyn in 2015 demonstrated how things can – and will – turn into their opposite. In the same way, we can safely say that the Labour Party will be transformed and re-transformed by the tumultuous events that lie ahead.

However, history never repeats itself exactly. Workers and youth in Britain have now been through the experience of Corbynism – including its limits. The next wave of political struggle, therefore, will be on a higher level than the last.

But to succeed where previously we failed, we need a clear-sighted and resolute leadership; one that has fully absorbed the lessons of the last half decade. This means building the forces of Marxism, in the labour movement and on the streets.

This is the task that Socialist Appeal – the Marxist Voice of Labour and youth – is urgently undertaking. We call on you to join us in this goal.

Originally published 11 Sept at |

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