Jeremy Corbyn's path to victory lies in remembering his roots and staying connected with the streets, argues Alex Snowdon
I think Jeremy Corbyn will win the Labour leadership election, but it isn't inevitable. In some ways it's a tougher challenge than last summer, when Corbyn was first elected. If Owen Smith is going to win it will be due to the wider political climate, a series of tactics by his campaign, and perhaps a few weaknesses on the part of Corbyn’s campaign.
Owen Smith's path to victory
Here's how I think that ‘worst case scenario’ of a defeat for Corbyn could plausibly happen. Constant media vilification of Corbyn, especially the allegations of abuse and intimidation by his supporters, could go some way to persuading some Labour Party members that it's just not worth holding on to him. They may largely agree with the current leader, but if this is what the media will continuously do to Labour if Corbyn continues in post then it's just not worth it.
This is reinforced by the constant mantra of insisting that Corbyn is unelectable. All the evidence is that Labour would do the same or worse in polls with Smith as leader, but poor polling for Labour (which we're seeing now) is still likely to help the challenger not the incumbent. All Labour members care about being electable.
Notice, too, that Smith (while largely stealing Corbyn's policies) has differentiated himself on immigration. This plays to the idea that on some issues Labour needs to get more in tune with existing public opinion to be electable.
Smith's adoption of many of Corbyn's policies may be unconvincing (and has been greeted with mockery) but this, too, could boost his challenge. He knows what he's doing. There's a layer of voters in this leadership election who could be persuaded that a Smith leadership would retain most of the Corbyn policies they like while being more media-friendly and plausibly prime ministerial.
If these policy pledges are the carrot, then the threat from most MPs of refusing to work with Corbyn is the stick. It is a powerful weapon: the 'no confidence' vote by MPs was overwhelming and the resignations by front benchers were sweeping, so everyone voting in this election knows that a vote for Corbyn will sustain the war between the leadership (backed by much of the membership) and the bulk of the PLP.
A desire to avoid that - and instead have a fully staffed and relatively cohesive front bench, with a leader who commands most MPs' support - could prevail. Labour is a parliamentary party: there is always a strong pull towards what works best in the logic of parliamentary realpolitik.
Finally, Smith's vow to fight for a second referendum on EU membership is a shrewd move. Most Labour members who support, or are inclined to support, Corbyn voted to remain in the EU. Smith is cynically seeking to exploit this in his favour. Corbyn - having been obliged to campaign for a remain position despite many of his own instincts – risks getting trapped in a rather weak position on this issue.
Also remember that Smith is the single challenger to Corbyn, whereas last time there were three candidates on the right. The Labour Right has become better organised and seems to have recruited many people to the £25 supporters’ scheme. It is also very well-funded, which will mean sustained and serious campaigning between now and September.
I don't think all of this will be enough to get Smith over the finishing line. But it could be. Even if it isn't enough for victory, we could see the challenger getting a large minority - over 40% - of votes, therefore emboldening the majority of the PLP. It would be a serious mistake for Corbyn supporters to complacently assume that he will be re-elected comfortably.
How can Corbyn guarantee victory?
Firstly, Corbyn's campaign needs to be relentless in promoting clear priority policies that can galvanise support and offer a bold alternative to a failed political status quo. This is what made the difference last summer - and it needs to be done again.
There is little political traction in complaining - however justifiably - about the behaviour of MPs or the party bureaucracy's dubious manoeuvres. The campaign will be won on politics. It needs to be outward-looking, political and concrete in offering alternative policies.
Secondly, the policy platform needs to be more bold and radical. If Smith can merrily steal most of Corbyn's 'softer' policies then simply repeating those policies will be insufficient.
This also reflects how the political landscape has shifted recently. Osborne's last major act as chancellor was to drop the fiscal targets that had served as a mantra for the government since 2010. Theresa May and her ministers are discussing economic stimulus, not simply obsessing over cuts.
The ground has shifted. Corbyn and McDonnell now need to decisively articulate bold policies for large-scale public investment in jobs, infrastructure, housing and public services. It means foregrounding such things as a national investment bank, public control of public assets (energy, transport etc.), a massive house-building programme and investment in creating climate-friendly jobs.
The combination of the austerity project's obvious exhaustion and the vote to leave the EU has opened up a new set of possibilities. If Corbyn is going to unite working class people who voted Leave with those who voted Remain it will be on the basis of a version of Brexit that benefits the vast majority of people.
Putting forward ambitious, and joined-up, policies on jobs, housing and services is essential for undercutting the attempts to use the issue of immigration as a battering ram against the left. These economic policies need to be accompanied by a clear and unequivocal defence of migrants and their rights.
This need for radicalism also implies that there should be no compromise on those issues - like Trident renewal and freedom of movement - where some on the Labour left are advocating making concessions. Opposing Trident is the correct position for several reasons, one of which is that scrapping the hugely expensive programme would liberate funds for socially useful investment. The defence of migration is not so controversial when coupled with pledges of large-scale public investment - a working class politics that can undercut the racism and scapegoating.
Thirdly, there has to be a focus on public mobilisation - marches, protests, rallies - nationwide to galvanise support for Corbyn. The campaign can't be treated as merely an internal party battle. There's much more at stake than that.
And once Corbyn has won re-election, there will be the broader challenges of resisting sustained attacks from not only Labour’s right wing but from the British state and ruling class, and of winning mass popular support for the politics represented by Corbyn.
Also, conducting the campaign purely on that ground is beneficial to Smith when we consider the balance of political forces inside the PLP and the powerful pull of parliamentary realpolitik inside the Labour Party. Corbyn's campaign needs to be treated, and pitched, as a political movement not simply a leadership campaign. There needs to be an appeal to the whole labour movement and an emphasis on active mobilisation, not simply casting a vote in the leadership election.
This is important for winning Corbyn's re-election. But it's even more important in laying the groundwork for life after the leadership election. It is through mass protest movements, re-building trade union strength and workers' resistance that we will win victories, re-shape politics and raise the prospect of a serious left-wing challenge to the neoliberal status quo. The pro-Corbyn mobilisations can be a springboard for further collective action, and a boost to anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-racist movements, not simply a tool for Corbyn's re-election.
Building a stronger left
The establishment pressure on Corbyn's leadership is so enormous that a sustained movement is needed in response. But it's more than that: popular mobilisations can build a left that is powerful in the field of extra-parliamentary struggle - strikes, direct action, protests - as well as Labour Party politics. This, in turn, acts as a constant pull to the left on the Labour Party, in which the conservative PLP (and the wider pressures of electoral politics) acts as a constant pull to the right.
There's a constant danger that activism becomes trapped in the structures and routines of the Labour Party, and is limited to electioneering. Labour leftwingers need to work with a range of people to build independent, broad-based movements of resistance, and to strengthen the trade unions (which organise millions of people beyond Labour's ranks).
The Labour Party has mushroomed into a party of over half a million members. There are mass rallies taking place to support Corbyn. Nonetheless, there are many, many people outside Labour's ranks who will be involved in political activity through anti-cuts demonstrations, refugee solidarity work, housing campaigns, anti-racist protests, strikes by teachers, junior doctors and others, and many other campaigns and mobilisations.
The left as a whole will be stronger if it connects with these people, and treats such movements as the basis for developing a more influential left. This cannot be a left that is restricted to electoral politics, but one that links bold political demands with taking action on the streets and in the workplaces. This is the best way forward for anyone wanting an effective left-wing Labour Party, but also for the even larger and more important project of building a combative working class movement that can re-shape society.
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.
More articles from this author
- A dangerous moment for the Corbyn project - weekly briefing
- The left needs to hold the line and fight the smears – weekly briefing
- European elections: results and prospects
- The weaponising of antisemitism
- The insignificant seven: what the left must do
- Luciana Berger and the plot against Corbyn: this is no time to retreat
- Contemporary Trotskyism - book review