Beyond Parliamentarism: Historical Bases and Prospects for Corbynism

Who would have thought? Britain, of all places – that island so often lamented to be devoid of rev­o­lu­tion­ary his­tory and thought, the land of Fabi­an­ism with­out Marx­ism, the home of Thatcher and Blair and the City – now has one of the most rad­i­cal lead­er­ships of a major social demo­c­ra­tic party in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist world. The elec­tion of Jeremy Cor­byn to the lead­er­ship of the British Labour Party is an expres­sion of enor­mous dis­con­tent and anger at ever-wors­en­ing con­di­tions since the cri­sis of 2008. Very few antic­i­pated any­thing approach­ing Corbyn’s vic­tory at the begin­ning of the race, not least Cor­byn him­self. But now, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, it is pos­si­ble to iden­tify the con­flu­ence of ten­den­cies that led to this per­fect storm in the sum­mer of 2015 – and an analy­sis of the his­tory of the Labour Party can illu­mi­nate sit­u­a­tions and strate­gies for the British left in the com­ing years.

The Contradictions of Blairism and the Rise of Corbyn

While its his­tor­i­cal mem­ory has been obscured by the suc­ces­sive dom­i­nance of Thatch­erism and Blairism, Britain had a vibrant left in the 1970s, with a strike rate that was among the high­est in Europe. High lev­els of labor mil­i­tancy and other forms of extra­parlia­men­tary mobi­liza­tions also strength­ened social­ists within the Labour Party; its strength within the party as a whole is man­i­fested in the party pro­gram in 1973, which called for nation­al­iza­tion of the 25 largest com­pa­nies in Britain, as well as  the elec­tion man­i­festo in 1974 that pub­licly pro­claimed its goal to “bring about a fun­da­men­tal and irre­versible shift in the bal­ance of power and wealth in favor of work­ing peo­ple.” The Labour left, with Tony Benn as a lead­ing fig­ure, devel­oped the Alter­na­tive Eco­nomic Strat­egy as a left solu­tion to the stagfla­tion­ary cri­sis, based on exten­sive pub­lic own­er­ship and indus­trial democ­racy, as well as refla­tion buffered by cap­i­tal con­trol. Much of the party estab­lish­ment, espe­cially the par­lia­men­tary party, nei­ther sup­ported eco­nomic poli­cies pro­posed by the left, nor even had any plans to carry out these plat­forms adopted by the party itself; how­ever, the left gained power in local par­ties and some key unions, which gave them greater pow­ers at Annual Con­fer­ence and the National Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee (NEC) of the party. In the end, though, the left’s influ­ence in the party hardly trans­lated into actual power at the par­lia­men­tary and gov­ern­men­tal level. Even though the Labour Party was in gov­ern­ment for 11 out of 15 years in the period between 1964–79, with high lev­els of labor mil­i­tancy, the Labour gov­ern­ment by Wilson and Callaghan was pro­foundly reluc­tant to take any left­ward path; fac­ing the cri­sis of prof­itabil­ity and infla­tion, the Labour gov­ern­ment opted to resolve the cri­sis mainly through vol­un­tary income restraint from the union lead­er­ship and the “proto-neolib­eral” fis­cal pol­icy of retrench­ment after 1976.

Faced with a Labour gov­ern­ment dras­ti­cally at odds with pol­i­tics of the activist base, the lat­ter chan­neled its energy towards the move­ment for intra-party democ­ra­ti­za­tion, which they saw as a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion for social­ist trans­for­ma­tion. The Cam­paign for Labour Party Democ­racy (CLPD) was estab­lished in 1973, and gained momen­tum as the Labour gov­ern­ment began to increas­ingly alien­ate and dis­il­lu­sion the base. In 1981, the CLPD activists suc­ceeded in win­ning one of its key demands, elec­toral reform for the party lead­er­ship race. Pre­vi­ously, party lead­ers had been elected solely by the Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs); under the new sys­tem, MPs retained only 30% of the votes, while an equal pro­por­tion was allo­cated to local party activists in the Con­stituency Labour Par­ties (CLPs) and unions gained 40%. Among the three sec­tions of the party, the CLPs were the bas­tion of the Left. In the 1981 Deputy Lead­er­ship elec­tion, in which Tony Benn stood against Denis Healey on the right, more than 80% of the CLPs’ votes went to Benn, while the clear major­ity of MPs and the union lead­er­ship voted for Healey, giv­ing him the nar­row­est of vic­to­ries. Cru­cially, how­ever, the CLPs were not only a left vot­ing bloc, but also active polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties. They were not mere elec­toral machi­nes; they also orga­nized sol­i­dar­ity demon­stra­tions and social­ist polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion.

The ascen­dency of the Labour Left came to a major halt in 1981, when the party estab­lish­ment was able to suc­cess­fully use the sev­ere elec­toral defeat in 1983 under the left-lean­ing leader Michael Foot – in large part caused by the defec­tion of the right that formed the new Social Demo­c­ra­tic Party (SDP) – to go on the offen­sive against the left in the name of elec­tabil­ity. Neil Kin­nock, the new party leader elected in 1983, was the per­fect fig­ure to com­mence a long offen­sive against the left, as he came from the so-called “soft left” wing of the party. The strat­egy involved both repres­sion of left activists and weak­en­ing of CLPs insti­tu­tion­ally. Numer­ous activists were stripped of par­lia­men­tary can­di­dacy, sus­pended from the party, or  expelled out­right, for tak­ing posi­tions such as refus­ing to col­lect the Thatcherite poll tax, oppos­ing the Gulf War, and crit­i­ciz­ing the party lead­er­ship as racist (the party exec­u­tive con­demned the Black Sec­tion as “divi­sive and con­trary to the cen­tral prin­ci­ples of the Party”).1 At the same time as the Kin­nock lead­er­ship was pur­su­ing these “witch-hunts,” they were also push­ing for strip­ping the CLPs of vot­ing rights that they had gained in 1981; instead of the local CLPs debat­ing and decid­ing on their vote at party meet­ings, where sub­stan­tive delib­er­a­tions could take place, what they pro­posed as “One Mem­ber One Vote” (OMOV) would instead give a postal bal­lot to each party mem­ber. It was thought, both by the pro­po­nents and the oppo­nents of OMOV, that remov­ing the power con­cen­trated among the activists would strengthen the power of those with resources and means of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion, namely the party lead­er­ship and the mass media. OMOV also enabled the lead­er­ship to turn the rhetoric of democ­ra­ti­za­tion against the left, blast­ing them for seek­ing to con­cen­trate power among those “unrep­re­sen­ta­tive” rad­i­cal CLP activists. OMOV for the CLP votes in lead­er­ship elec­tions was finally intro­duced in 1993.

By the time Tony Blair rose to party lead­er­ship in 1994, even the CLPs had become much less threat­en­ing to the party estab­lish­ment, due to the com­bined effects of expul­sion and res­ig­na­tion. Blairism was able to estab­lish absolute dom­i­nance in the party by suc­cess­fully dis­or­ga­niz­ing and oblit­er­at­ing all viable intra-party alter­na­tives; this was the most cru­cial fac­tor that ren­dered TINA (“There Is No Alter­na­tive”) a real­ity, lead­ing Thatcher to claim that her biggest polit­i­cal achieve­ment was to have changed the Labour Party. 

How­ever, Blairism was not able to build an active, mass social base sup­port­ing it, hence lack­ing real hege­mony. Blair sought to cre­ate what polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Meg Rus­sell aptly called a “mas­sive but pas­sive” mem­ber­ship2; those who pay party dues and pos­si­bly can­vass dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns, but oth­er­wise are not active in the party, and hence do not pose an inter­nal threat to the lead­er­ship. Such pas­sive mem­ber­ship is indeed con­gru­ent with the  strat­egy described by polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Anthony Downs – he argued that polit­i­cal par­ties had the sole, uncon­tested aim of max­i­miz­ing their elec­toral suc­cess, and that par­ties would only seek to chase vot­ers with exoge­nously-deter­mined pref­er­ences that they can­not change.3 Blair per­fected such Down­sian pol­i­tics – chas­ing the vot­ers in the mid­dle, as indi­cated by the lat­est polls and focus groups, to pri­or­i­tize above all else the max­i­miza­tion of short-term elec­toral chances. But the “mas­sive and pas­sive” for­mula began to col­lapse after the elec­tion eupho­ria of 1997. The remain­ing mem­bers were pas­sive enough not to threaten Blairite rule itself, but its sup­port was tepid and con­di­tional, and fur­ther sig­nif­i­cantly under­mined by the Iraq War; indeed, as early as in 1998, the left slate Grass­roots Alliance won the major­ity of the mem­bers’ votes for the National Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee. The state of mem­ber­ship was worse. Once the Tories were gone, there was lit­tle to remain enthu­si­as­tic about the polit­i­cal creed whose main self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was its abil­ity to win elec­tions. Pre­dictably, the mem­ber­ship itself began to pre­cip­i­tously decline after 1997, halv­ing in less than a decade.

Such trends began to alarm even the New Labour lead­er­ship, which after all depended on the free cam­paign­ing labor of mem­bers. Ed Miliband’s lead­er­ship – which rep­re­sents a par­tial repu­di­a­tion of Blairism, while remain­ing firmly within the con­fines of New Labour – intro­duced the “Refound­ing Labour” ini­tia­tive in 2011, in the name of fur­ther democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the party. The rhetoric of Refound­ing Labour is quite strik­ing, in its attempt to absorb the left cri­tique of New Labour. It sought to begin by amend­ing  Clause I of the Party Con­sti­tu­tion, shift­ing the party’s stated pur­pose away from a par­lia­men­tary-cen­tric one. Now we are told that Labour’s goal is  “to bring together mem­bers and sup­port­ers who share its val­ues to develop poli­cies, make com­mu­ni­ties stronger through col­lec­tive action and sup­port, and pro­mote the elec­tion of Labour rep­re­sen­ta­tives at all lev­els of the demo­c­ra­tic process.” Such a sym­bolic repu­di­a­tion of the purely elec­toral­ist and par­lia­men­tarist con­cep­tions of a polit­i­cal party was accom­pa­nied by cre­ation of the “Sup­port­ers’ Net­work,” which involves grow­ing a net­work of non-mem­ber “sup­port­ers” who would help in cam­paigns but with­out rights as mem­bers.

The reform of lead­er­ship elec­tions in 2014 can be seen as an exten­sion and cul­mi­na­tion of the process begun with Refound­ing Labour. With the pre­text of a man­u­fac­tured alle­ga­tion around Unite’s scheme to “rig” par­lia­men­tary selec­tion process in Falkirk, the party’s Collins Review pro­posed the intro­duc­tion of a pure OMOV sys­tem for lead­er­ship elec­tions, elim­i­nat­ing both the votes of unions and MPs, as well as the exten­sion of fran­chise to the “reg­is­tered sup­port­ers” who paid £3 fee. The change was pri­mar­ily dri­ven by the desire to reduce union influ­ence, as unions have recently become sig­nif­i­cant left forces in the party; but MPs’ spe­cial votes were also removed alongside the unions’, to bol­ster the claim of democ­ra­ti­za­tion. To the extent that New Labour still com­manded pop­u­lar sup­port, such mea­sures of “democ­ra­ti­za­tion” would have strength­ened the party’s capac­ity with­out threat­en­ing the exist­ing power struc­ture. No one had the slight­est con­cern that the pur­suit of OMOV to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion could actu­ally open up a dan­ger that the left could take power; after all, what­ever the wide­spread dis­con­tent with New Labour, in 2010 the left lead­er­ship can­di­date Diane Abbott won only 7.4% of the party mem­bers’ votes and fin­ished last among the five can­di­dates. How­ever, deep­en­ing aus­ter­ity mea­sures by the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment since 2010, and the rise of rad­i­cal anti-aus­ter­ity move­ments in the wake of the eco­nomic cri­sis since 2008 – the stu­dent move­ment of 2010, mass pub­lic-sec­tor strikes in 2011, and the Scot­tish inde­pen­dence move­ment of 2014 – have trans­formed the polit­i­cal land­scape, prepar­ing the ground for rejec­tion of a party lead­er­ship which con­tin­ued to refuse to fight waves of Tory aus­ter­ity.

We can now iden­tify the struc­tural con­tra­dic­tions of New Labour, which spec­tac­u­larly exploded in the sum­mer of 2015. Blairism at its most pow­er­ful rep­re­sented the per­fect tri­umph of neolib­er­al­ism as TINA. But its dom­i­nance led to two coun­ter pres­sures; democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the party for the pur­poses of legit­i­ma­tion and secur­ing vol­un­teer resources, and anti–austerity move­ments out­side the party. At the same time, the lack of its own active mass base left it vul­ner­a­ble to oppo­si­tional forces, whose emer­gence was facil­i­tated by the two above–mentioned counter–tendencies. Fur­ther­more, the depth of New Labour’s dom­i­nance – in terms of the absence of a well–organized alter­na­tive – con­cealed the shal­low­ness of its hege­mony, ren­der­ing its sup­port­ers inca­pable of ward­ing off threats until it was too late. And the weak­ness of par­ties to the left of Labour in Eng­land, com­pared to most Con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean coun­tries and Scot­land, is what led to the expres­sion of anti–austerity pol­i­tics in the Labour Party, in which, out of all labor par­ties, neolib­er­al­iza­tion had pro­ceeded to the fur­thest depth. Corbyn’s vic­tory was def­i­nitely not inevitable; it is not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that one of the New Labour MPs may not have lent their nom­i­na­tion to him, or even just sub­mit­ted it a few min­utes late, which would have pre­cluded his can­di­dacy to begin with. But such “acci­den­tal” aspects of the win do not pre­clude deeper ten­den­cies at work, and they are also impor­tant in terms of under­stand­ing the polit­i­cal land­scape we now encoun­ter with Cor­byn as party leader.


The Contemporary Left and Possibilities of a New Party Form

What are the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions fac­ing the the new Cor­byn lead­er­ship? No amount of elec­tion eupho­ria can hide the most fun­da­men­tal fact that Cor­byn is in an extremely frag­ile posi­tion in the party. Most obvi­ously and con­se­quently, more than 90% of MPs are New Labourites of one sort or another, reflect­ing long years of New Labour dom­i­nance; no other party leader in his­tory started with such a hos­tile Par­lia­men­tary Labour Party, pre­cisely because MPs used to have sig­nif­i­cant votes in lead­er­ship elec­tions. While Cor­byn appointed John McDon­nell for shadow chan­cel­lor and his shadow cab­i­net does exclude overt Blairites, the sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence of New Labour fig­ures in the shadow cab­i­net is to some extent unavoid­able. New Labour rem­nants can relent­lessly attack Cor­byn, with the solid sup­port of the bour­geois media – from Daily Mail to the Guardian edi­tors – that they can count on, com­bined with real or imag­ined threats of cap­i­tal flight and dis­in­vest­ment; such attacks can lose the party sup­port in polls and/or by-elec­tions, which, hav­ing caused it in the first place, they could fur­ther use against Cor­byn. Their claim of Corbyn’s “une­lec­tabil­ity” is indeed backed up by their own abil­ity and will­ing­ness to under­mine his elec­tabil­ity through intra–party attacks. Such desta­bi­liza­tion will provide an oppor­tu­nity for New Labour forces to attempt to kill Cor­bynism, either through an intra–party coup or more sub­tle forms of coop­ta­tion.

The state of the party beyond the Par­lia­men­tary Labour Party (PLP) does not nec­es­sar­ily offer com­fort for Cor­bynism, even if the strength of New Labour approaches nowhere near that in the PLP. After all, it was a party still largely New Labour until a few months ago: the sud­den­ness of Corbyn’s surge meant that the forces back­ing him have hardly pen­e­trated any part of the party struc­ture, not even the CLPs, once the bas­tion of the left. Corbyn’s sup­port among the CLPs was, in fact, much weaker than the actual votes he won; while he won 59.5% of the votes, among the CLPs that endorsed a can­di­date, he only won 39% of them. Among all CLPs, he was only endorsed by 23.5%. (Com­pare to 1981, when 78.3% of CLPs voted for Tony Benn.) A poll sug­gests that he won greater sup­port among reg­is­tered sup­port­ers than mem­bers, and among the mem­bers, great­est among those who joined after the 2015 elec­tion. Iron­i­cally enough, the struc­ture of Corbyn’s sup­port base bear a strik­ing resem­blance to the form which New Labour regarded as its own: masses of party mem­bers, oth­er­wise rel­a­tively lit­tle engaged in the life of the party, vot­ing for a pop­u­lar fig­ure in an OMOV elec­tion.

Of course, the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence is that more than ten thou­sand activists vol­un­teered for the Cor­byn cam­paign. But the struc­ture of Cor­bynism, at least at this moment, is dis­tinct from that of the New Left of the 1970s that was first and fore­most based in the CLPs. Indeed, an elec­toral sys­tem tra­di­tion­ally cham­pi­oned by the left – votes at CLP meet­ings – would most likely have been more dis­ad­van­ta­geous to the Cor­byn cam­paign, whose sup­port­ers are less involved in the CLPs. The con­se­quent dan­ger is that most of the Cor­byn vot­ers, espe­cially (non-mem­ber) reg­is­tered sup­port­ers, remain atom­ized and iso­lated after the elec­tion; plebisc­i­tary democ­racy must be extended into delib­er­a­tive and par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy in the party. The ten­u­ous posi­tion of Corbyn’s lead­er­ship ren­ders the ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tional strat­egy cru­cial. There is no pos­si­bil­ity of Corbynism’s sur­vival with­out the Labour Party becom­ing a social move­ment, as Cor­byn him­self made it clear. 

What does a social move­ment party look like? Most impor­tantly, such a party becomes an agent of suc­cess­ful polit­i­cal artic­u­la­tion. As polit­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists Cedric de Leon, Man­ali Desai and Cihan Tugal have argued, polit­i­cally-artic­u­la­tive par­ties “integrat[e] dis­parate inter­ests and iden­ti­ties into coher­ent sociopo­lit­i­cal blocs”; or, as Anto­nio Gram­sci put it, such a party func­tions as a “con­struc­tor, orga­nizer [and] per­ma­nent per­suader” of the pop­u­lar will.4 It means not only that elec­tions and par­lia­ments cease to be the sole focus of party activ­i­ties and that party activists become involved in other social move­ments, but that it artic­u­lates a com­pre­hen­sive world­view, based on insti­tu­tions that become the focal points of social life for masses of mem­bers and activists. Despite their tragic fail­ures in the end, the pre-1914 Ger­man Social Demo­c­ra­tic Party (SPD) and the post­war Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI) became mass par­ties with social roots, with their daily news­pa­pers, read­ing clubs and sports clubs, the­aters and bars. Even in the British Labour Party, many local CLPs in the 1970s and ‘80s used to serve as the orga­niz­ing cen­ter of var­i­ous social move­ments, even if the scale is not com­pa­ra­ble to the SPD or PCI; CLPs orga­nized or par­tic­i­pated in demon­stra­tions against Thatcher, sent activists to the anti-nuclear camps at Green­ham Com­mon, and to the picket lines at the Min­ers’ Strike. Such mass par­ties have become decid­edly out of fash­ion in recent decades. As tra­di­tional par­ties have become hol­lowed-out elec­toral machi­nes, the most vibrant ten­den­cies in the con­tem­po­rary left move­ments, based on the cre­ation of alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties and more pro­found forms of polit­i­cal engage­ment and iden­ti­ties, tend to eschew the party form. But any party that seeks to trans­form the exist­ing power rela­tions must build these polit­i­cally-artic­u­la­tive capac­i­ties and become actors in the entire ter­rain of strug­gle, within and out­side the state, over social rela­tions of force. The promi­nence and resources of a major party in the whole soci­ety does give it an advan­tage in terms of becom­ing a pole of polit­i­cal attrac­tion. How­ever, there do also exist seri­ous con­tra­dic­tions. The logic of elec­tions does indeed dif­fer from that of mil­i­tant mobi­liza­tions; while the lat­ter depends on depth of activist com­mit­ment and capac­ity to dis­rupt, the for­mer depends on large num­bers with lim­ited com­mit­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, opin­ion polls have cer­tain dis­ci­pli­nary and per­for­ma­tive effects that reify the sta­tus quo. The polls show­ing rad­i­cal posi­tions as unpop­u­lar, based on the exist­ing state of “pub­lic opin­ion,” shift the bal­ance of power within the party so as to dis­ad­van­tage those advo­cat­ing for strate­gies to change the exist­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion of polit­i­cal opin­ion; and as the party accepts the exist­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion rather than seek­ing to change it, it gets repro­duced. It is not easy to escape the Down­sian ghost. 

The suc­cess of Cor­bynism - trans­for­ma­tion of the Labour Party into a left social move­ment party with artic­u­la­tive aims and capac­i­ties - faces addi­tional dif­fi­cul­ties, since it involves trans­form­ing an exist­ing large party with pow­er­ful forces opposed to it. Such a polit­i­cal project requires both inter­nal and exter­nal strug­gles, which are inter­con­nected. They need local par­ties as politi­cized social hubs in the com­mu­ni­ties that engage in a mul­ti­tude of extra­parlia­men­tary strug­gles, while cul­ti­vat­ing com­pre­hen­sive and deep polit­i­cal iden­tity among the activists.Without active social mobi­liza­tions that can shift the polit­i­cal cul­ture of the coun­try more broadly, inter­nal strug­gles for Cor­bynism have lit­tle chance of suc­cess. The move­ments can strengthen the Cor­byn lead­er­ship inter­nally, by weak­en­ing the claim that it is elec­torally dis­as­trous, and less directly but per­haps more sig­nif­i­cantly, by threat­en­ing cap­i­tal with dis­rup­tion from below so that the sec­tion of bour­geoisie would come to regard attacks on Cor­byn as too risky. At the same time, the Labour left can­not neglect what are con­sid­ered purely inter­nal strug­gles in the party, even if they seem eso­teric or less rel­e­vant to broader social move­ments; mobi­liza­tions in gen­eral must be con­verted into con­crete forces at the speci­fic loci of power in the party. It is cru­cial to always pres­sure New Labour MPs at the CLP level, with a seri­ous threat, pos­si­bil­ity and strat­egy of des­e­lect­ing Blairite MPs. While such an esca­la­tion strat­egy always bears a risk of defeat the hand of greater offen­sives from the right, it is unlikely that such offen­sives would cease in reac­tion to “peace­ful” strate­gies on the left. Fur­ther­more, the Corbyn’s base must be orga­nized to also cap­ture all other elected office in the party; despite resound­ing vic­tory for Cor­byn, the left has not suc­ceeded in other elec­tions in the party. While the left has major­ity of the member–elected NEC seats, their can­di­dates lost big in the races for Deputy Leader, Lon­don may­oral can­di­date and mem­bers of the Con­fer­ence Arrange­ment Com­mit­tee (Angela Eagle, Diane Abbott, Katy Clark and Jon Lans­man, respec­tively); as they all hap­pened this sum­mer, left can­di­dates could have won if the Cor­byn vot­ers had also voted for them. 

The dilemma of such a strat­egy is appar­ent from the expe­ri­ences of the Labour left in the 1980s; the ten­sion between seek­ing to cap­ture and trans­form the party, and engag­ing in broader social move­ments. They sought to broadly mobi­lize for the left alter­na­tive, by secur­ing the party first; but the trench war­fare in the inter­nal strug­gles made it dif­fi­cult for them to fully become active in extra-party social move­ments. It was also the source of strate­gic dis­agree­ments among dif­fer­ent Labour left groups; the more move­ment-ori­ented wing of the Labour left crit­i­cized the CLPD, not with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, for being too absorbed in arcane intra-party affairs at the expense of broader mobi­liza­tion. But one impor­tant lesson for Cor­bynites from the pre­vi­ous round of Labour left strug­gles is the impor­tance of cre­at­ing a mass group or net­work that orga­nizes the Labour left, which simul­ta­ne­ously fights for trans­for­ma­tion of the party and mobi­lizes against aus­ter­ity more broadly, with­out becom­ing explic­itly sec­tar­ian. Even though trans­for­ma­tion of the party requires them to be active within the party, they must not sim­ply be absorbed by the offi­cial party orga­ni­za­tions, such as the CLPs. For the Cor­byn surge to trans­form itself into a pow­er­ful force over the long term, such a polit­i­cal for­ma­tion is nec­es­sary, to pro­tect the Cor­byn lead­er­ship from attacks and keep trans­form­ing the party to the left with­out get­ting co-opted by the party machi­nes; and it can become a ker­nel of the polit­i­cally artic­u­la­tive forces. Some intra­party left struc­ture from the 1970s still exists; the CLPD is still active, and is con­nected with the Grass­roots Alliance, which runs a left slate for party com­mit­tee elec­tions. Jon Lans­man, a long–time orga­nizer with the CLPD, coor­di­nated the Cor­byn cam­paign. But much of the Cor­byn surge came from out­side the exist­ing struc­ture, and there are def­i­nite dis­tinc­tions in polit­i­cal cul­ture between the CLPD and many of the Cor­byn activists. CLPD, by the process of self-selec­tion, is com­posed of those who remained in the Labour Party through the deep­est of Blair years, rather than join­ing other extra­parlia­men­tary social move­ments or the Greens; and they pos­sess insti­tu­tional knowl­edge nec­es­sary for the strug­gles of the party. On the other hand, many of the Cor­byn cam­paign activists tend to be influ­enced by the hor­i­zon­tal­ist cul­ture of the “Mil­len­nial” left. For Cor­bynism, devel­op­ing a mutu­ally-sup­port­ive rela­tion­ship between these dis­parate polit­i­cal cul­tures is cru­cial.

Despite the broad pop­u­lar­ity of the Ben­nite left among the party activists, the activists then strug­gled to cre­ate such a mass autonomous orga­ni­za­tion; and despite its influ­ence gained through skill­ful orga­niz­ing, CLPD never had more than 1,200 mem­bers nation­wide at its peak, and other intra-party for­ma­tions had dif­fi­cul­ties attract­ing the sup­port­ers who would oth­er­wise agreed with its pol­i­tics, espe­cially out­side Lon­don. With­out min­i­miz­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of cre­at­ing such a well-orga­nized group that keeps the activist base con­stantly engaged with­out get­ting absorbed into the party appa­ra­tus, there are three fac­tors that cre­ate a more favor­able con­di­tion today, com­pared to the 1970s and 80s. The most impor­tant is the most obvi­ous: the left has already cap­tured the lead­er­ship, with the whole insti­tu­tional and sym­bolic power asso­ci­ated with it. Despite the leader’s weak stand­ing in the PLP, its office com­mands more deci­sive power within the party appa­ra­tus, which can pro­tect left activists from “witch-hunts”; but the sym­bolic dimen­sion is no less cru­cial. Any attempts to trans­form par­ties to the left involve intra-party strug­gles, which are vul­ner­a­ble to accu­sa­tions of divi­sive­ness and dam­age to the party. But it is the side opposed to the lead­er­ship that is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble, because of the com­mon iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of party with its lead­er­ship. Robert Michels once called the posi­tion of a leader in a party, as “Le Parti, c’est moi”; it is far more dif­fi­cult for the right to attack the left for divi­sive­ness, when they are the ones opposed to the leader. 

The sec­ond fac­tor is the left­ward shift of the major unions. His­tor­i­cally, union bureau­cra­cies had mostly been the pil­lar of con­ser­v­a­tive rule within the party, main­tain­ing close con­nec­tions with the party estab­lish­ment; their right­ward turn since 1982 was cru­cial in caus­ing the demise of the Ben­nite left, and they facil­i­tated the per­se­cu­tion of the left under Kin­nock. But New Labour, whose rise they them­selves fed, began to alien­ate the union lead­ers as they largely refused to reverse the Thatcherite indus­trial rela­tions frame­work. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite – the largest union in Britain – in par­tic­u­lar became a pow­er­ful critic of neolib­eral con­sen­sus in the party; Unite endorsed and cam­paigned hard for Cor­byn, whose cam­paign team was even based at the Unite head­quar­ters, and he indeed earned endorse­ments of unions that rep­re­sent 70% of all union mem­bers in total. Because the party-union link has sur­vived, unions still hold con­sid­er­able power inter­nally, most impor­tantly in the National Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee (NEC). Of course, the left can­not just count on union machi­nes to always sup­port them; but with a mobi­lized union base, they are in a more favor­able posi­tion today. Finally, the pres­ence of social media today gives an advan­tage to the grass­roots. With­out resort­ing to the com­mon trope that exag­ger­ates its roles in con­tem­po­rary move­ments, it does solve one speci­fic prob­lem that plagued pre­vi­ous attempts at orga­niz­ing the grass­roots left nation­wide – to build robust con­nec­tions among left activists in dif­fer­ent con­stituen­cies and coor­di­nate cam­paigns across them. 

How­ever, strate­gic risks for Cor­bynism remain sig­nif­i­cant. Work­ing inside the party still rid­dled with Blairites ren­ders it dif­fi­cult to avoid asso­ci­a­tions with the neolib­eral ten­den­cies in the party. For exam­ple, Sadiq Khan, the party’s May­oral can­di­date in Lon­don next year, has claimed that he seeks to be “the most busi­ness-friendly mayor of all time”. Cor­bynites face the dilemma of dis­cred­it­ing them­selves by cam­paign­ing for such a neolib­eral can­di­date, or refus­ing to do so and face the charges of dis­loy­alty to the party. The sit­u­a­tion is even more con­tra­dic­tory in Scot­land, where the left is pre­dom­i­nantly pro–independence, there exists a grow­ing left party that emerged out of grass­roots rad­i­cal­ism of the inde­pen­dence move­ment, and the elec­toral sys­tem does not pun­ish smaller par­ties. The leader of the Scot­tish Labour Party, Kezia Dug­dale, is thor­oughly a New Labour fig­ure; she claimed that Corbyn’s lead­er­ship would leave the party “carp­ing on side­li­nes.” In Scot­land, the left can­not sim­ply orga­nize around Cor­byn in the way it can in Eng­land; pro­mo­tion of any Party inter­ests as such is Anglo-cen­tric and harm­ful to sol­i­dar­ity with the Scot­tish rad­i­cals.

No one on the left should have an illu­sion about the Labour Party. The immor­tal words of Ralph Miliband, at the open­ing of Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism (1961), still cap­ture the most fun­da­men­tal insight into the party; “of all polit­i­cal par­ties claim­ing social­ism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dog­matic – not about social­ism, but about the par­lia­men­tary sys­tem.” Except that it does not claim social­ism to be its aim any­more, and it is exceed­ingly unlikely that Cor­byn can trans­form it into one, how­ever much he wishes.  If the Cor­bynite forces can­not break such par­lia­men­tary dog­ma­tism, it will be unable to seri­ously threaten the cap­i­tal­ist class inter­est, and to break the tyranny of TINA, in the world in which even social democ­racy has been ban­ished for the most part.

  1. Richard Hef­fer­nan and Mike Mar­qusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Vic­tory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party (Lon­don: Verso, 1992), 75–76, 288. 

  2. Meg Rus­sell, Build­ing New Labour: the Pol­i­tics of Party Organ­i­sa­tion (Bas­ingstoke: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2005). 

  3. Anthony Downs, An Eco­nomic The­ory of Democ­racy (New York: Harper, 1957). 

  4. Cedric De Leon, Man­ali Desai, and Cihan Tugal, “Polit­i­cal Artic­u­la­tion: Par­ties and the Con­sti­tu­tion of Cleav­ages in the United States, India, and Turkey,” Soci­o­log­i­cal The­ory 27.3 (Sep­tem­ber 2009), 193-219, 195; Anto­nio Gram­sci, Selec­tions from the Prison Note­books, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geof­frey Now­ell Smith (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1971), 10. 

Author of the article

is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies social democracy and labor movements in Europe.