Jeremy Corbyn Image source: Getty

As underdog becomes front-runner Chris Nineham looks at the factors behind the Corbyn surge

No-one predicted this and the establishment are aghast.  As commentators and the Labour right recover from their shock, their instinct of course is to find contingent explanations; the other candidates are poor, the Party is in post-election spasm, people are following their hearts not their heads and so on and on.

It is true that Corbyn’s three opponents are peculiarly uninspiring and inept. In particular Cooper and Burnham made a dreadful error in failing to vote against the Tories Welfare Bill.

But though accident has played a part, such a political eruption doesn’t happen without major subterranean shifts and it is important we identify them. One  is the hollowing out of the Parliamentary Labour Party. There are some more left wing MPs in the recent intake but for all their differences of emphasis, Cooper, Burnham and Kendall dramatise how the so-called left of centre in parliament has failed to resist the lure of neoliberal politics. In this they are out of step with wider society and with the Labour Party membership. So, especially since the welfare vote, the contest has crystallised into one between continuity and change, between austerity lite and anti-austerity.

Scotland comes South

More than anything, Corbyn’s insurgency reflects the widespread contempt for mainstream Westminster politics. It is the Scottish effect coming to England. The Scottish referendum result and the resulting SNP landslide showed that anger and opposition can remain submerged until a movement or a political figure expresses them passionately and clearly. 

The Corbyn ascendancy shows that many on the left were correct to say last year that the anger that drove the Scottish insurgency exists everywhere. The fact that his candidacy has led to thousands of people joining Labour shows too that this disenchantment on the whole isn’t anti-political. It translates into apathy and abstention much of the time because there is normally no clear alternative on offer. 

Here Corbyn’s outsider status – the thing that so many of the commentators think disqualify him from serious politics – is an asset. People like the fact that he doesn’t bend his message to different audiences or calibrate his policies according to  what pundits say is ‘realistic’. 

Can he win?

But it is not just that he talks straight and has principles and conviction – vulgar and disturbing though that is to the commentariat. The reaction at his rallies and hustings show he is popular above all because he threatens to break the neoliberal stranglehold on Westminster. His promises to tax the rich, scrap student fees and trident, renationalise chunks of the economy and in general tackle austerity head on are cheered to the rafters.

The right’s immediate response is of course that this makes Corbyn unelectable. But where is the evidence? Fudging the issue didn’t work for Ed Miliband in May. ‘Playing to the centre’ has meant in practice abandoning Labour’s natural constituency. Accepting Tory economic myths makes Labour look like the other parties, and leaves neoliberal logic intact. If you are going to vote to ‘balance the books’ you are going vote for the  right.

If Corbyn could attract all the Miliband voters and a decent proportion of the people who have switched off from politics or switched to UKIP recently he could win an election. The opinion polls show that many of Corbyn’s positions are vote winners. Though you wouldn’t know it from the media, on rail nationalistaion, rent controls, student fees, increasing taxes on the rich,scrapping trident and a host of other issues, the majority back Corbyn’s line.

The movement and the message

The other secret to Corbyn’s success is his active involvement in protest movements over the years. He has fought consistently alongside so many people for so long there is a huge pool of activists who support him, trust him and think it’s important to get him elected. Given the scale of the demonstrations in the last decade and more against war and austerity this is a formidable base of support and activism which has been vital in generating the buzz around his campaign, providing him with a ready-made network of activists that will promote and defend him.

No wonder the Labour establishment is hysterical. There is a lot of talk about the right splitting away as the SDP did in the days of Michael Foot’s leadership in the 1980s. That must be on the cards, but in the shorter term the right are going to do everything possible to stop or stifle Corbyn. First there is the gathering campaign to prove him unelectable, accompanied by smears and general ridicule.  There are rumours that MPs will try to force a re-vote if he wins, though this would be a desperate and dangerous move which might backfire. If he does win there will be huge pressure on him to work for  unity and drop his more controversial, divisive policies and appoint an ‘inclusive’ shadow cabinet.

Learning from Greece

However this plays out exactly, there are three things socialists need to bear in mind in the next weeks and months. The first should be elementary; the Corbyn campaign has opened up a huge opportunity for the left which can popularise left wing arguments and strengthen left wing organisation. People who stand on the sidelines commenting and don’t help Corbyn will be talking amongst themselves.

The second is to grasp that this political opening puts a premium on strong movements. It would be foolish not to pay close attention to the Greek events simultaneous with the Corbyn campaign. Syriza was a product of popular resistance to crushing levels of austerity, but most of the left in Greece bought the idea that having a left government would deliver them.  The Syriza leadership’s strategy of working within the system without being prepared to break with the EU or confront the banking and business interests that has doomed them to defeat. Only mass movements in the street could have forced them to the left and created the conditions for an orderly exit with the beginnings of popular control. But by the time of Tsipras’s surrender the movements had been allowed to subside.

Greece is a tiny economy on the edge of the EU. The idea that an anti-austerity opposition will be allowed to develop unchallenged in one of the biggest economies in the world and one of the centres of neoliberalism is fantasy. If Corbyn wins his team will face an onslaught immediately not only from the within the Labour Party but from the whole array of state institutions, corporate and financial lobbies national and international.

It is only in the context of popular mobilisations that there is a chance of withstanding this level of pressure. The networks of activists who have flocked to his meetings and promoted his campaign need to be mobilising now to ensure  that if he wins his victory will be part of a broad movement for change. Protests have been called by the People’s Assembly and the TUC at the Tory Party conference just three weeks after the election results are announced on September 12. They start with a TUC-led demonstration to the conference centre on October 4 but are planned to continue right through the conference with counter-rallies, direct action and a whole range of protests.

Finally, organisation flows from politics. If the Corbyn surge has partly been a product of the growing mass movements of the last decade and a half, we must insist on the central importance of popular mobilisation in new circumstances. We can’t leave this to chance or bank on spontaneity. We have to consciously reject the common sense that ‘politics’ is all about elections and that change comes through incremental reforms.  This is the role and purpose of revolutionary organisation. We need political networks that are tactically flexible but understand that the center of gravity is always in the movements of working people rather than in parliament.

The impetus for change is growing. We are in a time of political quantum leaps. In these circumstances razor-sharp politics are needed. The Syriza experience shows moments of  hope can give way to bitter dissapointment if mass movements are allowed to lose the initiative. But if we go into the next phase organised and with our eyes wide open, big opportunities can open up. 

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.