Andrew Murray shows that Corbynism’s roots in social movements and rebellion against neoliberalism will mean its enduring significance, argues Chris Bambery

Andrew Murray, The Fall and Rise of the British Left (Verso 2019), x, 246pp. 

This excellent book arrived my way shortly after the December general election and I have read it through something of a hangover following the reverses inflicted on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in England and Wales. 

So why bother with a book charting the rise of Corbynism in the wake of that reverse? There is one very good reason for doing so and that is because Andrew Murray locates the rise of Corbynism within the various social movements which have repeatedly arisen over the last two decades, the largest that against the 2003 Iraq war to which Andrew was central. 

That is important because the Corbyn wave was very different to previous Labour left currents. Different from, for example, the wave of support that gathered around Tony Benn after Labour’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and came within a fraction of electing him to Deputy Leader. Those that rallied behind Benn, whether new or old members of the Labour Party, had a commitment to it and were mobilised to battle internally to change the party. The Corbynistas had a commitment to Jeremy but did not in the main have a deep commitment to the party itself, in the sense they would stay with it whatever happened. 

Time and time again talking to established Labour activists or elected representatives, they would report that many of those swept up in the Corbyn wave, especially the younger, ones, were not interested in internal procedures and found ward and constituency meetings boring. That brings me to another difference with the Bennite movement of the 1980s. As the tide turned within Labour and the trade unions went down to crushing defeat, the common sense for many members was to shift rightwards in the wake of the new Neil Kinnock leadership and then to fall in behind Tony Blair and New Labour. 

The vast majority of Corbynistas are not going to do that. The new party leadership which will replace Jeremy will shift towards the centre but the Corbynistas won’t, but neither will they hang on inside the Labour Party. They will move onto whatever new social movement emerges to challenge the neoliberal order. 

Andrew Murray is also very clear in locating the Corbyn surge within the realities of work and life within that neoliberal order and the growing rejection of it, particularly after the 2008 financial crash. What Jeremy did was give representation to that just as Bernie Sanders in the USA and, as I write, Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic. 

The anger and injustice felt over something like the avoidable tragedy of Grenfell, admirably charted in this book, is not going anywhere. Corbyn, like Sanders, could represent that because he wasn’t the smooth and banal model of a neoliberal politician and talked about what Tony Benn called ‘the issues’. 

Here it is worth saying that Corbyn’s success in the 2017 general election and the huge membership growth Labour recorded stand in sharp contrast to the way Social Democratic parties in Europe have shed support as they cling to the neoliberal elite consensus. The once mighty German Social Democrats most recent electoral results suggest they are as much a zombie party as Deutsche Bank is a zombie bank. 

After a setback, which is what the December 2019 general election was, it is always easy to cling to the hope that ‘our day will come’. But what this book shows is that Corbynism flowed from certain features of British society and the neoliberal order which have not gone away one bit. That breeds resistance and rebellion. In the near to medium future that might not take off via the Labour Party, but it will find a means to express itself. Corbyn himself will still be there as he, and Tony Benn, always were. 

I would have no hesitation in saying you should read this book because it is not just charting the history of the recent past, but it also charts the likely course of events in the future. So, let’s dust ourselves down, there’s no time for tears, and prepare for future battles.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.