hyde park cnd CND national demonstration, Hyde Park, 1983. Photo: Flickr/ Alan Denney

Alex Snowdon welcomes Paul Mason’s latest contribution to the Corbyn debate with a few strategic caveats 

It has become a predictable and tedious mantra of the Labour Right, and its legions of media commentators, that Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party – and the support he continues to receive from a growing membership – is a return to the 1980s. In particular it is the 1980-83 period that MPs and columnists have in mind, suggesting that current developments are a re-run of Michael Foot’s leadership and the rise of Bennism during the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory governments. 

This is meant, of course, in an entirely pejorative sense. That era is safely classified as a disastrous one to which Labour cannot possibly return, climaxing in the catastrophe of the 1983 general election. 

It is tempting to dismiss such analogies as irrelevant nonsense. But the arguments do need to be refuted. It also makes sense, more generally, to return to that era as a means of understanding the Labour Party’s evolution and as a guide to making sense of Labour’s opportunities and challenges today. 

Refuting the myths 

Paul Mason’s article (see link below) refuting the alleged parallels between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot is therefore timely and welcome. He correctly points out that the Labour left’s boom was at the same time as a broader right-wing shift in British politics, a time when Thatcherism (though very far from universally popular) was relatively strong. Although he doesn’t mention it, the rightwards-moving split which led to the founding of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and a good electoral showing for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 was another manifestation of this. 

The situation today is quite different. As Mason notes, neoliberalism is discredited. There is a crisis of the neoliberal political centre and, while right-wing forces can capitalise on that, it is clearly an opening for the left. The current surge in Labour membership is not something seen in the early 1980s and it indicates a wider enthusiasm for an alternative to a politically bankrupt status quo. It’s worth adding, too, that there is greater sympathy for the left among the trade unions – whether at the level of leadership or grassroots – than was witnessed during the Bennism years. 

In fact the left has been more successful recently than in the early 1980s. Foot was, as Mason remarks, a compromise candidate not a triumph for the left. His time as leader was characterised by vacillation, incoherence and lurches between left and right (for example, he expressed ardent support for the Falklands War, seeking to outflank Thatcher in belligerent jingoism). 

The more left-wing current around Tony Benn garnered a lot of success, mainly among grassroots members, but was ultimately unsuccessful: Benn may have lost only extremely narrowly to right-winger Denis Healey in the 1981 deputy leadership race, but it was a defeat nonetheless. This time around, the left has actually won a leadership election – comfortably – and now looks set to do so again. 

During the Foot era the Labour left appeared to be faring well but it was short-lived, had shallow roots, and the longer-term trajectory was very much to the right. The poor result in 1983 was widely interpreted as showing the folly of left-wing policies; the conclusion was that Labour needed to adapt itself to Thatcherism. Neil Kinnock came from a left-wing background and used this credibilty to co-opt a ‘soft left’ layer which had previously backed Benn, but his entire period as leader was a slow march to the right. 

With every election defeat – 1987 then 1992 – the proponents of this rightwards shift were strengthened, and the left became ever more marginalised (symbolised by a dismal vote for Benn in the 1988 leadership election). Big defeats for the organised working class – above all the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 – reinforced the power of the right wing, in both the Labour Party and the union movement. 

The massive anti-poll tax movement threatened to tip the balance the other way, yet it found only a faint echo in the upper echelons of the Labour Party. Also, the eastern European revolutions and collapse of the Soviet Union were utilised to argue that socialism was finished, neoliberalism was triumphant, and there was no alternative. Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994 took the process even further. 

Paul Mason’s article recognises that ‘Corbynism’ has emerged in very different circumstances to Bennism and must be understood in that context: it is a vibrant and hopeful response to discredited neoliberal policies which have eroded the post-war settlement of public services and a strong welfare state, accentuated inequality and hollowed out democracy. It is not even slightly an exercise in nostalgia or an irrational psychological spasm (as the likes of Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland are fond of arguing), but a materially grounded and entirely reasonable response to changed realities. 

But the article also raises some questions and difficulties that really need thinking through. There are three in particular.

Political and industrial struggles

Firstly, Mason’s assessment of the relationship between political struggle and industrial struggle in the 1980s is problematic. He writes: 

‘The leftism we carried with us into the Winter Gardens in 1980 had its origins in the syndicalism of ordinary workers in the 1970s. To the shop stewards I met in the years between Benn’s 1980 speech and the miners’ strike, Labour politics were a sideshow. The unions had achieved control of many workplaces and – it seemed – could go on calling the shots. In the year Benn made his electrifying speech, the steelworkers’ union had just won a double-digit pay rise in an all-out strike.’

This exaggerates the strength of the unions at that time. The bigger story of the steelworkers in that period was that they lost – and there were consequently mass closures of steel works. The even bigger picture was one of rising unemployment and an assault on manufacturing, combined with a major Tory and employer offensive against the unions which scored many successes. There were major strikes throughout the decade, but most were defeats and this eroded workers’ confidence and strengthened the grip of a conservative union bureaucracy. 

The ‘political upturn’ of Bennism was, then, to a certain extent shaped by the downturn in industrial struggle by the unions. There was a substantial element of people looking to Labour, and a stronger Labour left, as compensation for the weaknesses on the industrial front. But the deeper direction of travel was to the right precisely because of the big picture of repeated defeats of workers’ struggles against a backdrop of unemployment and insecurity. Any shift to the left inside the Labour Party was therefore likely to be short-lived. 

The other major factor driving the Labour left’s resurgence was the bitter experience of the Labour governments of 1974-79, led by Harold Wilson then Jim Callaghan, which had caused massive disillusionment. This period was in fact the birth pangs of neoliberalism: Labour politicians were in office but not in power, obliged by the return of capitalist economic crisis and the demands of international capitalism to repeatedly inflict public spending cuts and wage freezes on their own supporters. 

One response to this experience was a shift to the left, embodied by a politician – Tony Benn – who had learnt from his own experience of ministerial office how powerful the obstacles to even mild social protections (never mind positive reforms) could be. 

  • Workplace and social issues 

This question of the relevance of industrial struggle leads on to a second problem with Mason’s arguments. He writes: ‘Today, work is much less central to the left project, and for a variety of reasons. It is precarious, hard to organise. Also, the things the left wants to achieve have become more social, less industrial. There is, on the left, an implicit understanding of political philosopher Toni Negri’s claim: that the “factory” is now the whole of society,and the subject of change is everybody – especially the networked youth.’

This is wrong at both ends. Mason is underestimating the significance of ‘social’ struggles’ in the past, while underestimating the significance of work-related issues and struggles today. It is true that workers’ struggles dominated the 1970s, but they were never the whole picture. 

In the 1970s and early 1980s there was a range of other struggles from rent strikes and housing campaigns to the women’s liberation movement and large demonstrations defending abortion rights, from the Anti Nazi League and black community struggles to the Right to Work Campaign’s marches against unemployment, from the Anti Apartheid Movement’s resurgence after the Soweto Uprising in 1976 to CND’s mass protests in the early 1980s. 

If we look at the history of the British labour movement there have often been links between economic, work-based struggles and wider political or social movements. Chartism united democratic demands and economic grievances. The mass protests of the Irish and unemployed, and in defence of free speech, in the 1880s fed into the explosive wave of militant workers’ struggles known as the New Unionism. The Great Unrest of 1911-14 was simultaneous with suffragettes’ protests and turmoil over Ireland. Rent strikes accompanied the workers’ strikes of Red Clydeside during World War One and in its aftermath. And so on. 

But it’s also wrong to dismiss the politics of work in 2016. Many of Corbyn’s most resonant and appealing policies are to do with the world of work, whether it is pledging to repeal the Trade Union Act and other anti-union legislation, ending poverty pay and zero hours contracts, investing in job creation, the promise of a National Investment Bank, or many other policies and ideas the Labour leader has talked about recently. The world of work is in fact at the centre of his political alternative. 

This political vision encompasses policies – like funded childcare – that directly link the ‘work’ world with the ‘social’ world. It would be a mistake to separate and juxtapose ‘work’ and ‘social’, just as it’s a mistake to downplay the importance of people’s conditions and experiences of work. 

As for workers’ struggles, it is true that we have had 25 years of historically low levels of strike action. The emphasis on electoral politics by so much of the left is explained partly by the long-term weaknesses in the unions. But if the breakthroughs associated with Corbyn are to be sustained – never mind built on – then this will have to change. The hopeful green shoots we’ve seen this year – junior doctors, national teachers’ strike, railway strikes and so on – will have to bloom into something bigger. Electoral politics alone will not suffice. 

Many of Mason’s ‘networked youth’ are workers – and others will become workers in time. They will be stronger if organised collectively in combative trade unions. The strengths of social movements and the tremendous enthusiasm around Corbyn need to be used to fuel more powerful union organisation and a renewal of workplace resistance. 

  • Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition  

Thirdly, there is Mason’s claim: ‘This generation, by contrast, understands that the most revolutionary thing you can do to neoliberalism is to put a party in government that dismantles it.’ 

This contains an important ingredient of truth. The ambition and political generalisation involved in seeking to transform Labour into a left-wing party and get it into government represents, in some ways, an advance. Over the last year there has been a lifting of the left’s sights generally – a sense of actually shaping mainstream political debate and being a relevant force to be reckoned with. 

But this raising of the stakes brings big, important issues to the fore and gives them an acute practical relevance they haven’t had for generations. The question of the limits of electing a government opposed to neoliberalism is one such issue. Mason makes this revealing comment: 

‘The rule of law is stronger now. Everybody involved in the Bennite movement sensed that Britain’s legal institutions were so weak, its police, security services and judiciary so politicised, its constitution so malleable, that the scenario in Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup was not paranoia. Today, though the secret state is large, it is under much stronger legislative control. Should a leftwing Labour party come to power – either on its own or in coalition with left nationalists – it is likely to be able to govern relatively free of politicised sabotage from the state.’

This demonstrates admirable optimism of the will, but lacks the necessary complement of pessimism of the intellect. It seems rather naive to assume that the secret security state no longer has the potential power it used to possess. It is certainly wrong to suggest that other elements of the state are less ‘politicised’ than three decades ago – all the evidence surely runs against that assertion. And that’s before we get on to the role of the media or the power of finance, big business and their institutions, both at national and international levels. 

The power of both the state and of corporations remains huge. It won’t be broken simply by electing a Corbyn-led government. Whether we’re talking about this side of such a government or after its formation, there is an undeniable need for mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation. This is a vital counterweight to the power of the nation state, media, transnational institutions, the City of London and big business.

The Labour Party’s membership surge and leftwards shift in the grassroots, with a left-wing leader, are very important and hopeful breakthroughs. But it would be a grave error to reduce the movement to the Labour Party, or to put all our eggs in the electoral basket. 

Corbyn’s initial success, in being elected party leader, was fuelled by the protest movements of the last 15 years (above all the anti-war and anti-austerity movements) and Corbyn’s strong association with those movements and with numerous workplace disputes. Last June’s huge national demonstration, organised by the People’s Assembly, was one key catalyst in Corbyn’s rise to the leadership. 

As Corbyn himself repeatedly insists, this is about a movement of people not simply the role of a solitary leader. That movement is not confined to members of the Labour Party and its activities cannot be confined to internal Labour Party struggles and electioneering. In the last 12 months there have been numerous campaigns, protest movements and strikes: from protests against bombing Syria to the Convoy to Calais in solidarity with refugees, from the fresh wave of Black Lives Matter protests to strikes by junior doctors, teachers and railway workers. 

The impact of these campaigns and strikes is amplified by having a left-wing Labour leadership. Sometimes this is explicit, for example when Jeremy Corbyn voiced support for County Durham’s teaching assistants, overwhelmingly women workers campaigning for fair pay, or when Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, have popped up at picket lines for the junior doctors. 

Equally importantly, such extra parliamentary struggles strengthen the left inside Labour. The protests against bombing Syria, February’s national Scrap Trident demonstration and the strikes are all examples of this. There will be many more to come. 

Transforming society

If we are going to achieve real social change – against the might of the British political class, the establishment and the state – we need to make advances on all fronts, and bring them together in a concerted offensive. In particular, the breakthroughs in the Labour Party not only require sustaining but need to be used as a lever to promote a more combative labour movement. Ultimately, there must be a willingness to confront our powerful enemies and not be limited by the constraints of parliament. 

This broad perspective draws attention to something else. Revolutionary socialists have been much derided lately, with a red scare about ‘Trotskyists’ by Labour’s right wing. Some on the Labour left have sadly echoed the derision towards socialists outside the Labour Party (even Mason lapses into this, with his concluding reference to ‘re-enactment groups from 20th-century Marxism’). 

But one of the most important lessons of history is that revolutionary socialists – with a general anti-capitalist perspective and a deep commitment to extra-parliamentary forms of struggle – have a crucial role to play. It is the radical left that has a formidable record of initiating and shaping a great many different struggles on the streets and in the workplaces. It has always had a larger strategic vision than the internal battles of the Labour Party and winning votes, with a relentless focus on self-activity and mass mobilisation. 

This radical left also has a political vision that goes beyond the limits of parliament and of reforming a crisis-ridden system. In the current period, this can underpin an independent left-wing politics that is impervious to the huge pressures of holding the Labour Party together, of appeasing right-wingers and of narrow, ‘centre ground’-chasing electoralism. Such independent politics also require independent organisation, with anti-capitalist activists grouped together and operating independently of Labour. These elements are as necessary as they ever were. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.‚Äč He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).