The Corbyn Effect, a diverse collection of arguments on left politics, is politically uneven but offers many insights into the upheavals in the Labour Party argues Alex Snowdon
The Corbyn Effect, ed. Mark Perryman, foreword, Paul Mason (Lawrence & Wishart 2017) xiii, 274pp.
The Corbyn Effect is a collection of seventeen essays exploring the unexpected phenomenon of Corbynism. Most contributors are Labour Party members who share, though to varying degrees, the enthusiasm for the Corbyn project expressed by the book’s editor, Mark Perryman. Between them they cover a lot of ground, from Gerry Hassan’s examination of Scottish Labour to Monique Charles on ‘Generation Grime’, from Jack Kellam’s discussion of populism to Jo Littler’s shrewd critique of meritocracy. It is a rather dizzying collection, opening up all sorts of potential avenues for further exploration.
The book is very much of its time: capturing a particular conjunction in British politics, and offering considerable insight into it, though with the risk of dating quickly. It was published in the wake of the surprisingly good results for Labour in the June 2017 general election and it captures the subsequent optimism and confidence regarding the Corbyn project. Though the book is largely analytical, Perryman has included some guidance on winning Labour’s battleground seats. This expresses a constructive desire to channel the analysis into political action, though the purely electoral focus of that material also reflects the way in which Corbynism is tending to skew attention towards the electoral field rather than extra-parliamentary channels (there is relatively little explicit consideration in the book of trade unions and protest movements, and certainly no strategic thinking that encompasses them).
The collection has a distinct place in the growing literature about the upheavals in the Labour Party since Corbyn’s first leadership election campaign in the summer of 2015. Alex Nunns (in The Candidate) and Richard Seymour (in Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics), examined Corbyn’s success in becoming party leader and the wider rise of a Labour left taking shape around him and the politics he represented. This book does something quite different. While there is some overlap with the ground covered by Nunns and Seymour, there is a wide diversity of angles covered and a more current feel, with essays written after the general election. That is broadly a strength and it offers a sense of something new and distinct. It is also different to the new book, For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power (edited by Mike Phipps), which outlines policies to take the left-Labour project forward. While there is some policy discussion, it is not the primary focus of The Corbyn Effect.
The book is structured in four sections – a rather forced structure, as chapters within each section are often quite unrelated. This is one difficulty that unsurprisingly comes with a multi-author collection of this kind. Another one is the lack of cohesion politically. While a fair few of the contributors could reasonably be dubbed Corbynites, quite a few are not. One of these (Des Freedman, a media studies professor who provides an excellent account of the media framing of Corbyn and the limits of its influence) is on the radical, anti-capitalist left, but the others could fairly be characterised as coming from Labour’s ‘soft left’ (Perryman seemingly has a fondness for the Compass network, which I find difficult to fathom). A number of contributions from such political quarters either don’t properly grasp what Corbyn represents or they offer unconvincing prescriptions for how to take things forward.
Contradictions of left reformism
Perryman’s own account of ‘The Great Moving Left Show’ – the dramatic shift in the Labour Party since 2015 and the comparative success of Corbyn-led Labour at the polls in 2017 – is very good in tracing the origins of the left’s breakthroughs and assessing the significance of what’s happened. Perryman has an eye for relevant historical events and traditions, enriching his discussion of recent developments, though I think he is patchier in his application of political concepts. He was associated with Eurocommunism in the 1980s and the ideological coordinates of the Marxism Today school appear still to inform his analysis heavily. As editor he selected the contributors and it is notable that Eurocommunist and neo-Gramscian influences crop up in the book, including references to Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Stuart Hall. I remain unconvinced, though, that such ideas have much to offer in understanding current trends, still less in providing solutions to contemporary problems.
Paul Mason’s brief foreword regrettably exposes the limits of much current left-reformist thinking, and also the pressures of compromise with both the Labour Right and the British state and establishment. This is not the place for a discussion of the merits and weaknesses of Universal Basic Income, but Mason’s passing advocacy of it reflects in my view a misguided view of how to extend the Corbyn project politically. He is on much surer ground when he emphasises the need for massive public investment, but perhaps naïve to suggest that a Labour government might pursue this without serious challenge from the ruling class. A number of other contributors are much sharper about the challenges ahead and some of the implications for Labour, and indeed for extra-parliamentary struggle by the wider labour and protest movements.
Mason makes other comments indicating an underestimation of the continuing power of the British state and its capacity for seeking to block the democratic aspirations of a prospective left-wing government and its supporters. Most seriously, he wrongly advocates the downplaying of foreign policy, urging an agenda of ‘economic change combined with the promise of relative geo-political stability’ (p.xii). Yet this is unprincipled (for any serious socialist), politically incoherent in adopting conservative foreign policies while pursuing a more radical domestic agenda, and unappealing because it underestimates the popularity of anti-war, anti-militarist politics in Britain today.
Mason also raises – approvingly – the spectre of a second referendum on EU membership, yet this would be electorally damaging for Labour while also diverting attention from the pursuit of left-wing economic policies that mark a decisive break from the neoliberal EU. Foreign policy and Brexit are both topics that get some brief comments in the book, but there is no sustained discussion of either. These are very unfortunate omissions, as both are politically very important and will continue to be so. Crucially, they are the two most contested fields of policy for both the British ruling class and the right wing of the Labour Party. The left has to be well-armed politically and intellectually to counter the attacks on these fronts: they cannot be shirked.
The centrality of anti-war politics
Hilary Wainwright does address foreign policy in her essay, which is one of the strongest in the collection. She recalls Corbyn’s courageous and solidly anti-war response to the Manchester and London terror attacks, which threatened to derail Labour’s momentum during the general election campaign, and offers it as a basis for Labour moving forward as an anti-war party. Wainwright quotes Unite’s chief of staff Andrew Murray – like Corbyn, a former Chair of Stop the War Coalition – writing about Corbyn’s linking of growing terrorism and insecurity to the successive invasions, occupations and bombing campaigns by Western forces under the ‘War on Terror’ umbrella: ‘in so far as no party-political leader has dared make this linkage publicly since 2001, we can say that Rubicon has crossed’ (p.114).
Wainwright is also commendably clear about the continuing weaknesses in Labour’s foreign policy stance, criticising the 2017 manifesto for its compromises on defence, recognising the need to go further. Other aspects of her essay are interesting too, for example her comments on the limits of parliamentarianism and the ways in which trade unionists’ aspirations have found expression in a revived, left-moving Labour Party at a time of relative industrial quiet. She is very good on the influence of social movements: ‘The diverse energies of the movement that lifted Jeremy Corbyn to the party leadership came as much, if not more, from outside the Labour Party as from inside’ (p.117).
Jeremy Gilbert’s ‘The Absolute Corbyn’ and Andrew Gamble’s ‘The Resistible Rise of Theresa May’ are both very strong summaries of important political crises, with insights emerging from taking a longer view and attentiveness to contradictions. Gilbert’s focus is largely on Labour’s long-term crisis, while Gamble examines the crisis of the Tory Party while also providing an exemplary account of the 2017 election. Gilbert is astute about the history of the Labour Party since the 1980s; its rival political currents, its trends, its conflicts. He gives a strong sense of how Corbynism emerged from the impasse of a Labour Party that had become compromised and exhausted, with little to offer in the wake of the 2008 Crash and the failings of both neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy. As with a number of other contributions, I think he is rather weaker when he moves on to prescriptions for how to build on the breakthroughs so far.
The need for theory
An interesting aspect of the book is how it draws on academic or political traditions to make sense of current developments. Many of the contributors work in universities, every essay is supported by references, and there are plenty of academic sources cited. There is a curious challenge for the Labour left when it comes to writing analytically and theoretically about politics. It doesn’t really have any significant intellectual tradition native to itself – Keynesianism is about the closest it gets, but it hardly takes account of the numerous developments (socially, economically, politically) since 1945. This means that those on the Labour left are obliged to borrow from an eclectic range of writers and theorists, often academics. There is a lot of lively thinking in The Corbyn Effect, yet also some reminders that the Labour left’s revival is starting from a low base theoretically.
I like Phil Burton-Cartledge as a blogger and find him very insightful about Labour politics, but I think his contribution here, which borrows heavily from Hardt and Negri, reveals the lack of a solid intellectual basis for left Labourism. The attempt to match theoretical insights around immaterial labour, the knowledge economy and networked resistance with the future of Labour politics doesn’t quite work. This is partly, I think, because of weaknesses in the theoretical work itself, but also because the analysis of British society and economy is partial and underdeveloped. It is part of a larger problem too: left reformism is inherently unstable and contradictory, pulled in different directions, and it tends to rely intellectually on an eclectic mixture of ideas lacking the coherence and sense of totality to be found in the Marxist tradition that underpins and guides the radical left.
Having said that, the attempts to apply serious theoretical resources to contemporary problems, in Burton-Cartledge’s essay and in several other contributions to the book, undoubtedly represents a leap forward for the Labour left compared to, say, a decade ago. They are, by necessity, wrestling with large social issues that had until recently seemed extremely remote or abstract, but which are now more pressing. Until recently there seemed little practical relevance in anyone considering what a left-wing government might do in office: how it might intervene in the economy, or what precise redistributive measures are needed, or how international issues from trade relationships to NATO could be approached. There is, more generally too, a sense of horizons widening on the left, as it has become a serious and meaningful political force in British society.
The most disappointing and frustrating essay is by Marina Prentoulis, who (as a Syriza member herself) offers an apologia for Syriza’s disastrous record in government. This is a missed opportunity: though called ‘Lessons from Syriza’, Prentoulis’ essay determinedly refuses to learn the lessons. A more thorough and honest assessment of Syriza’s record is required; a sound grasp of the perennial big issues around the power of the capitalist state, the role of the European Union and the limits of parliamentary politics would also be valuable. James Doran is much better in ‘An Antidote of Pasokification’, though this doesn’t explicitly wrestle with the challenges faced by Syriza or other left insurgencies (from Sanders to Podemos). Doran is very sober about the state of social democracy in Europe and perceptive about the distinctive elements in what has happened in the British labour movement since 2015.
There are too many contributions for me to comment on each individually, but I should mention that Jo Littler’s essay brilliantly skewers the myths of meritocracy, dissecting what was wrong with both the Blair and Cameron versions of social mobility. She connects her call for a return to focusing on ‘equality of outcome’ (instead of the neoliberal rhetoric of ‘equality of the opportunity’) with Labour’s 2017 manifesto, For the many, not the few, and specific policy ideas that can redress inequality and be of benefit to working-class people.
Des Freedman’s piece on the media is a superb example of how an academic can write something informed by their professional expertise but also be utterly concrete and political, influenced by their political commitment. He examines political bias against Corbyn and discusses the sources of this bias and how it works concretely. He also writes perceptively about the limits of the media’s influence, the forces counteracting it, and the contradictions between the media and popular consciousness. He gets the balance just right, for example in recognising the role of social media for Labour campaigning without buying into some exaggerated claims made for it.
Overall, The Corbyn Effect is a very welcome, highly topical and in some ways innovative contribution to ongoing debates about left-wing politics, the Labour Party and the re-shaping of British politics, packed with insights into recent political history, especially the turmoil in the Labour Party and its social and political roots. There are serious omissions, the politics and quality are very uneven, and I have many differences with individual contributions. However, it signifies a wider political seriousness on the left: a willingness to engage with big questions and rise to the new challenges being thrown up. Breakthroughs create new problems, but they are better problems than the old problems. The discussions about how to build on these breakthroughs will continue.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in People's Assembly, Stop the War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the NUT. Alex blogs at Luna17 .