If Corbynism is to be more than a moment, Mark Perryman argues this requires new kinds of left politics
Four years from now has all the makings of a historic moment. We might want a General Election to come sooner, and do all that we can to make it possible but it is almost impossible to conceive how that might happen. So put 05.05.22 in your forward planners because should Corbyn’s Labour win it will mark the kind of decisive turn in the very different ways that Attlee achieved in ’45 with the making of the post-war settlement and Thatcher in ’79 with the beginnings of the neoliberal consensus that a Corbyn victory would bring to a decisive end. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we underestimate its importance at our political peril.
Ways and means of adapting to this situation vary though with the Corbynist Labour Left now of a numerical and political weight that dwarfs even the heyday of Bennism debate around the axis of movement versus party may appear somewhat unnecessary. Yet precisely because the Corbynist ambition is to transform Labour from a party into a social movement the arguments that emerge are sharply relevant.
The Triple Axis
Firstly, there is the argument that activity in and of Labour downplays the significance of mass extra-parliamentary politics. Or to put it another way, are you coming on the demo this Saturday or going for another Labour doorstep canvassing session? The danger inherent in this counterposing the two is that it inevitably privileges one form of activism over another. My point would be that we not only require both but each needs to be transformed, too. If ‘mass politics’ is defined as the occasional London march from the Embankment to Hyde Park or thereabouts we surely have a problem. The impact of the recent UCU strikes was because they were everywhere or likewise #metoo because anybody affected by the scourge of sexual harassment could sign up, flash the hashtag and join in. The Corbynite Left absolutely get this, the necessity to build a pressure for change from below, and thus are natural allies of the extra-parliamentary. But we also want to win power, via elections to council chambers and Westminster. This means canvassing, not simply ticking boxes on a call sheet, but hundreds of thousands of doorstep conversations, arguments when called for, putting a human face to our politics, engaging and involving streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities in this process of change. Jeremy Corbyn our calling card, the possibility of change our message.
Secondly, the criticism exists that too much of Labour politics is inward looking. Yes there is an inclination towards what was once jokingly described as ‘resolutionary socialism’. But the changed circumstances of Labour are in danger of being misunderstood. There are some 600,000 Labour Party members of whom some 60% actively support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and politics. Providing the means for Labour to become a bottom up membership-led party is thus a crucial part of our process of wider change. Without it we, the members, are left as a stage army, a feudal party, the serfs to the parliamentary barons. Of course MPs have a special role to play but to entrench deference in any party’s culture is the antithesis of socialism, challenging the party’s organisational culture an essential lever towards a better, fairer politics.
Thirdly, a line of argument occasionally takes shape, primarily from the Marxist Left that all this Corbynite enthusiasm is all well and good but it lacks intellectual rigour and theoretical depth, aka Marxism. You can almost read the finger-jabbing whataboutery as this kind of critique is being written down. Yet one of the most encouraging things about Corbynism has been the wave of a new generation of activist-thinkers, or to use the Marxist lexicon ‘organic intellectuals’. Most, if not all, fully capable of absorbing a broad range of progressive ideological forebears and influences, including Marxism, while not signing up in total to one school or another of analysis. And in my book, the better informed as a result thank you very much.
The late 1970s Rock against Racism and Anti Nazi League, the 1981 People's March for Jobs from Liverpool to London, the huge CND campaigns of the early 1980s, the victorious anti-poll tax campaign of the late 1980s. Where would any of these have been without the SWP, the Communist Party and the Militant Tendency? When it comes to extra-parliamentary campaigning it was ever thus. The Stop the War Coalition of the early 2000s for another generation, the protests and occupations against the tripling of university tuition fees a decade later, all likewise depended on the outside left to organise and staff. Alongside the political commitment to mass politics there is a single-minded determination and dynamism that affords this.
Yet also free of the numerous and time-consuming other responsibilities being part of the Labour Party carries with it. Momentum in particular seeks to combine the two, in but not entirely of Labourism, however it isn’t easy. Labour’s organisational culture is a maze to navigate which by its nature is risk averse and mired in a cautious conservatism. Undoubtedly this is changing; good. The influx of huge numbers of new members, many with a campaigning and social movement background is forcing this change which has barely even begun. The outcome is still uncertain, nevertheless it is unlikely Labour will remain the party that it once was. And at the same time those numbers joining Labour from the Left have seriously depleted the ranks of those on the Left who for their own reasons choose to stay outside of the party.
But there is another dynamic too. In Lewes, East Sussex where I live just down the road is Hastings. Here Labour in June 2017 came within 346 votes of winning that seat off the Tories. If it is won next time then Jeremy Corbyn will be well on his way to marching into Number Ten on the morning after the vote before, 6th May 2022. With the added bonus of seeing Amber Rudd losing her seat . There are 66 similar seats across Britain, the Tory marginals Labour needs to win on a 3.69% swing to form a government on its own, plus 19 Labour defences with majorities of less than 1000. We all live in or near one, What could matter more than winning and saving those seats? Not at the expense of our politics but to fulfil our politics. And there should be no need to apologise to make this the Left’s number one priority over the next four years. The next General Election Labour can win but it will take mass politics of an entirely new type rooted in those constituencies to overturn their Tory majorities and shore up our own. If that’s not an extra-parliamentary campaigning politics I don’t know what is.
The Great Moving Left Show
Almost forty years ago the Marxist social theorist Stuart Hall wrote a seminal essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ for the Communist Party’s magazine Marxism Today. In early 1979 he described what was underway at the time, an ideological transformation and political restructuring of the old order:
It works on the ground of already constituted social practices and lived ideologies. It wins space there by constantly drawing on these elements which have secured over time a traditional resonance and left their traces in popular inventories. What shifts them is not ‘thoughts’ but a particular practice of class struggle: ideological and political class struggle. What makes these representations popular is that they have a purchase on practice, they shape it, they are written into its materiality. What constitutes them as a danger is that they change the nature of the terrain itself on which struggles of different kinds are taking place; and they have pertinent effects on these struggles.
Stuart of course was describing what became known as Thatcherism. But he was also describing the processes by which any political bloc , Left or Right, takes power in a parliamentary democracy (insert sic if required)) inside and outside of parliament. He called it the ‘Great Moving Right Show’. Our moment is shaping up to become in total contrast ‘The Great Moving Left Show’ its consequence will be the shaping of Corbynism. Our turn to make not just a bit of a difference but history.
Mark Perryman is the editor of the collection The Corbyn Effect published by Lawrence & Wishart and available to purchase 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.