In an exclusive edited extract from his new book The Corbyn Effect Mark Perryman describes a decisive rupture in British politics.
After resigning following Labour’s May 2015 General Election defeat Ed Miliband triggered a leadership election of an entirely new type. Labour MPs had lent a left candidate their nomination before, thanks to this Diane Abbott had stood against Ed in 2010. She came fifth in a field of five. The crucial difference in 2015 was the Labour electorate. Not just one party member one vote, but ‘registered supporters’ could also simply sign up for the price of just £3 to get a vote too. I’d never been a member of the Labour Party and previously hadn’t even considered joining either. From 2001 onwards I’d avoided voting Labour if I possibly could, putting my cross instead against the Socialist Alliance and Respect, more recently the Greens. In 2015 I had a ‘Vote SNP’ poster in my window, fat lot of good it did them though as I live in Lewes, East Sussex, but the thought counts.
When the opportunity came to vote for a Labour leader I could actually believe in, share some ideals with, have faith that they could make a difference to the mish mash of honourable defeat and shoddy compromise I’d witnessed for most of my adult life I duly signed up to the rather surprising notion that I was entitled to have this vote. OK I admit it, my ego was slightly dented when my past political misdemeanours weren’t sufficient for Labour’s rather spookily titled Compliance Unit to have me purged but I let that stand and cast my vote for Jeremy.
The registered supporter scheme has all the potential to entirely reinvent what a political party looks like. The strong power barriers to entry are undermined, the exclusivity of the party card, strict ideological identification, subscribing to all manner of policy positions, a one-size-fits-all model of activism, endless rounds of meetings, committees and conferences to attend, a bewildering rule book to navigate and the expectation as well that one is Labour to the exclusion of any kind of affection for any other parties. All of that is undermined by this change.
Jessica Garland in the book The Corbyn Effect I have just edited points to the successes the new mass membership have achieved already but the uncertainty over these advances too.
The expansion of partisan support appears to have delivered in the 2017 election,particularly the mass canvassing campaigns, but how successful can the party be inengaging its new half-a million-strong support base in the future?
In place of this conservative organisational culture, what some call ‘Labourism’ is at least the beginnings of a soft power organisation, or as Jessica calls it a party founded on ‘open affiliation’. For myself, the identification was simple enough, with a guy called Jeremy Corbyn and the hopes I projected upon him. I shelled out my £3 and at that point my loyalty to Labour wasn’t much more than that. I certainly didn’t consider I was signing up for life. Shallow and inconsequential, opportunistic even? Yes I suppose so but my guy won and now I had my toe in the party I was willing to give more, to see if this could be made to work, shifting Labour to the left, me and several hundred thousand more. British politics, the Labour Party had never seen anything quite like it before.
Of course in rediscovering the energy of a left on the move it’s easy for anyone to become nostalgic about the era in which we first experienced that heady feeling. Forme that was the late 1970s and 1980s. Rocking against Racism, huge CND protests against Cruise and Trident, Ken Livingstone’s GLC, the 1984-85 Miners Strike, Red Wedge. And it is tempting to transfer those experiences to what is going on now, as if nothing’s changed and we’re back to some kind of 21st Century Bennite heyday. When Jeremy was first elected Labour leader Guardian writer Gary Younge very expertly positioned the yearning for ‘the Corbyn effect’ to represent meaningful, radical change in this precise, nostalgic, context:
If this really were a return to the eighties, as some suggest, then he (Corbyn) would have a peace movement making his case for him against war and a vibrant trade union movement making the case against austerity. As it is he doesn’t even have a party he can rely on. He did not emerge to the Labour leadership organically from adeeper organisational base but disorganically from a wider, amorphous, alienated sentiment.
This is what more than anything June 2017 has changed. ‘A shock to the system’. As Gary, this time writing shortly after the election, described it while identifying both the reasons why and the potential released:
This (General) election was the first time since the crisis that a mainstream party had offered principled opposition to austerity and shifted the conversation from immigration to investment in public services. We were told that voters would not buy it. We were told it was not possible. But when the clock struck 10, the tectonic plates shifted. And for just a minute, until we found our footing, we felt a little giddy.
In the early hours of Friday 9th June ‘a little giddy’ was putting it mildly how I was feeling. I’d spent most of the previous day, organising charabancs and car convoys full of Labour members to help with the ‘Get out the Vote’ (GOTV for the uninitiated) operation in the Tory marginal seat of Kemptown in Brighton. The Tories were defending a 690 seat majority, if Labour was going to get anywhere close to halting the widely predicted May landslide this was a seat we just had to win. The Greens had stood down in the cause of a Progressive Alliance, a big plus as they’d got over 3000 votes in 2015. But this was more than cancelled out by Ukip standing down as well to aid the Tories regressive alliance, their 2015 vote a whopping 4,446. Ours was a good campaign, a superb candidate in the young leftwinger Lloyd Russell-Moyle, huge turnouts to canvass, full of enthusiasm, this was a seat Momentum had targeted to help and it showed, in a good way. Old hands provided the tried and tested organisational infrastructure, newer ones trod the streets, knocking on doors, fired up sometimes by the helpful and inspiring training sessions with organisers over from the Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
On polling day I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of response we’d get on the doorstep. We were based in Moulsecoomb and Bevenden, mainly made up of sizeable council estates. The Daily Mail and the Sun had been ramping up the viciousness of their attacks on Corbyn as the polls tightened and the vote approached. If this had cut through the reception might be none too friendly. That old pessimism of the intellect weighing heavily on my optimism of the will. I needn’t have worried, Labour voters queued up to tell us with unrestrained enthusiasm they’d voted for the party, on the Brighton University campus we were mobbed for anything with Labour on it the students could wear to show their support, and at the campaign HQ throughout the day more and more activists turning up to help out, then coming back telling the same, positive story.
But there was still no real sign of the scale of the change so I thought after a long day, check the exit poll, see how much of a majority the Tories are likely to have, how much of a reduction in seats lost Labour had managed, then early to bed. Wow! Pyjamas off, hurriedly dress, jog round to the Lewes Labour Party offices where the optimists had already camped out with big screen, beer and wine, packets of Pringles for the long good night ahead. Tectonic plates shifting Gary? When the Kemptown result came through it felt more like an earthquake. A Tory marginal transformed into a 10,000 Labour majority.
Yes there is a danger in looking back too often in order to explain the present. But Corbynism in 2017 feels like the kind of rupture with a pre-existing consensus that Thatcherism became in 1979. Then it was a break with the ’45 post war settlement, now it is with neoliberalism. Stuart Hall’s January 1979 essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ in the magazine Marxism Today was not only the definitive description of Thatcherism but should also be read as the definitive account of what a hegemonic, transformative politics looks like. It just so happened that at the time it was the right that understood and articulated this to devastating effect, not the left. In those intervening three decades we’ve travelled from old times to new times with more than our fair share of hard times. Now pregnant with possibilities it is Corbynism which has the potential in the coming period to be both hegemonic and transformative, which using Hall’s original terms of engagement, ‘works on the ground’ to ‘win space’ and in the process ‘changes the field of struggle’ with an ‘alternative logic’. We’ve waited long enough for such a moment. A Great Moving Left Show looks like it just might be about to take the stage threatening to let the good times finally roll. Cue Ohh- Jeremy Corbyn (repeat).
The Corbyn Effect is edited by Mark Perryman with a foreword by Paul Mason, and published by Lawrence & Wishart. It is the first serious attempt to understand this exciting new phenomenon, the meaning, limitations and potential of Corbynism. An essential post-election read, The Corbyn Effect makes sense of Jeremy Corbyn and the fundamental shift in our system of ideas 2017 has made possible. Available now, from Lawrence & Wishart here
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.