Andrew Murray, Is Socialism Possible in Britain? Reflections on the Corbyn Years (Verso 2022), 272pp Andrew Murray, Is Socialism Possible in Britain? Reflections on the Corbyn Years (Verso 2022), 272pp

Andrew Murray’s reflections on the Corbyn Project focus on lessons for the future, giving important insights, finds Kevin Crane

For a period of only four years, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has generated a remarkable number of books, something that long-time senior Unite the Union official and leading Stop the War Coalition activist Andrew Murray was very aware of when writing his own contribution. So much was this the case that he has felt the need to explain how he was and was not writing it: ‘A balance sheet of 2015-19 that discusses the personalities, office gossip, parliamentary arithmetic and swings-and-roundabouts of polling would be a tedious triviality.’ Politeness presumably being the only thing preventing him from mentioning how many other books are already out there for that kind of thing.

What Murray has done instead is produce a book that tackles the question in the headline title. Is Socialism Possible in Britain? is an attempt to apply a theoretical analysis to the aforementioned balance sheet and come away with some lessons that may be of future use. Indeed, one of the most positive things that I could possibly say about the book is that it is actually quite focused on the future, rather than being stuck in an embittered time warp that has become something of a comfort zone for too many people.

The early chapters set the framing extremely well, by going back to a potted history of the Labour Party, the project that it has historically been, and the many critiques that there have been about that project. It is through an understanding of Labour’s historic role that Murray wants to analyse what so-called ‘Corbynism’ (a word that Corbyn and so many others never accepted) was and was not.

Tests Failed

The least pleasing parts of this book to read are inevitably the two issues which shattered the movement: the antisemitism crisis and the Brexit crisis. It would hardly be possible to avoid writing about these. The chapters on antisemitism may not be something absolutely everyone agrees with, but I felt Murray handled the difficult and complex subject fairly well. The Brexit sections manage to be more satisfying because there is so much more to unpack in terms of the shape of the Labour Party.

Brexit caught both main parties in a metaphorical vice, but the reasons for this were not the same. In the case of the Tories, there was a relatively simple clash between their elite core and their mass base, ultimately resolved by Boris Johnson imposing the immediate will of the base on the elite.

In the case of Labour, the party’s base was hopelessly riven, with fundamental divides between the metropolitan and provincial voting blocs made very obvious. The resolution to this was ultimately catastrophic, as we all know. What makes Murray’s retelling of it worthwhile is his suggestions as to why it was such a disaster: crucially the metropolitan, more educated, and skewed-younger base in London and university cities could not comprehend the way that a more working-class, provincial and less educated person considers the nation-state.

As Murray points out, the critical difference between Johnson and Theresa May’s approach to their general elections was that where May offered nothing but capitalist technocracy and further austerity, Johnson was offering a significant amount of state intervention in the form of his ‘levelling up’ agenda. This resonated with working-class voters, because ultimately, they see the state as something in which they hold a stake, and it being deployed in their service is a deal they can get behind. This feels culturally foreign to people from middle-class backgrounds, and that’s likely why they struggle so badly with the reality of such a large portion of the electorate being Tory/Labour floating voters, rather than Labour/Green/LibDem floating voters which they tend to be. As much as they may tend to denigrate such thinking about the nation-state, it’s worth saying that it is actually more rational that the imagined stake so many middle-class people absurdly think they had in the European Union.

The light-mindedness of pro-EU sentiment in and around Labour is really the only area where Murray cannot resist having a few digs, and I do not blame him. I had forgotten, for instance, the inanity of slogans like ‘Remain and revolt’, a risible non-strategy beloved of the Novara Media set which boiled down to ‘we’ll just stay in the EU but not follow its fundamental rules’. Unserious thinking like this, sadly, had serious consequences.

Tests Passed

If the failings need to go on the permanent record, so too should the achievements. These were strongly clustered around the 2017 general election, and none was greater than the response to the horrific Manchester Arena bombing. On the night that the bombing happened, it was genuinely expected by many of us that an ISIS-affiliated terror attack would tilt the entire election campaign hard to the right, absolutely isolate the anti-war left and hand a solid victory to the Tories. As Murray writes in the book, Corbyn was under enormous pressure to ditch his principles and not link the bombing – carried out by a young man who had been directly involved in the Libyan civil war that was ushered in by Western military intervention – to the wider question of war and imperialism. Corbyn ignored this terrible advice, coming as it did from a combination of cowardly miscalculation and genuine reactionary political views, and in doing so managed to win the support of a massive chunk of the population who had not forgotten the lessons of the anti-war movement in the previous decade. It was easily the proudest moment of that election campaign, and also the moment that opponents of Corbyn have been most determined to obliterate.

Murray spends some time in the book more generally discussing the relationship between anti-imperialism and the left, and it’s one of the strongest things about the book. He urges that imperialism must be understood as a system, not a set of policies, and this is why breaking from it is so fundamentally hard to do. It’s also critical to understand that the Labour Party right are not pro-imperialist because they are enthusiastic about the merits of this or that war, but because it is a requirement of being loyal to the British state.

The 2017 election campaign essentially didn’t happen, as far as mainstream politics and media is concerned in Britain, and the reason for this is that it served as rare example of a coalition being built in the country that pulled together mass constituencies of the working class that are often divided by geography and culture, under the leadership of a left that was loyal to them and not political and economic elites. This was a substantial threat to the British establishment, who have spent the years since not only destroying that coalition, but obsessively re-destroying it over and over.

What Can Be Recovered?

Murray wrote the book in 2021, and the fast pace of events since then mean that some of his conclusions have been overtaken. He did not know when writing it, for instance, that the Russia-Ukraine war would happen, causing British politics to be thrown into a jingoistic frenzy of militarism that we have almost never seen before. He didn’t know that the energy, and then food price, crises were going to hit. He didn’t know millions of workers would be engaged in mass strikes. He couldn’t have predicted the pathetic demise of Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, or the lunacy of the Truss administration, nor their replacement by the vapidity of Rishi Sunak’s government. What he did predict, and this is arguably being borne out, is that the conditions which brought ‘Corbynism’ into the world would not reduce but actually intensify and that this will mean that there will, in some form, be a next time.

Murray’s conclusions are fairly open-ended as to what the next recomposition of the left will look like, but he expresses scepticism that it will be within the Labour Party. He bases this on the observation that Labour is shaped by past times: ‘If history would oblige by presenting a blank sheet of paper for the construction of a broad electoral organisation aiming at socialist transformation it would seek to inscribe new ways of connecting Unison to Black Lives Matter, Stop the War to the Socialist Health Association, Young Labour to Extinction Rebellion, Walthamstow to Wakefield, Glasgow to Grimsby.’

In the time since he wrote this, there has been a near-complete collapse of the Labour left and mass defections from the party on scales that are both unprecedented and beyond what might have been reasonably expected. This means that when he urges us to look back at Corbynism as a reference point for future projects, those projects are probably going to be some form of new party. I think we should very much hope there will be such an initiative, and little books like this will indeed be useful contributions to the debates that will arise within them.

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