In his speech at 'The Corbyn Moment', Alex Nunns argues that it's participation which will be critical in avoiding the perils of Pasokification
In late spring 2012, Jeremy Corbyn visited Greece, then in the midst of a wild austerity experiment. He was shocked at the hardship he saw. The main social democratic party, Pasok, was in the process of collapsing. Its rival to the left, Syriza, was replacing it. Corbyn went to a Syriza rally and met Alexis Tsipras.
On his return Corbyn wrote that Pasok’s ignominious demise was a “vivid warning” for social democrats everywhere. He was exhilarated that the vacuum had been filled by a socialist alternative.
Following Pasok’s demise, although it became fashionable to say that people were rejecting social democracy, in reality social democracy was no longer on offer. The material basis for it was fatally undermined by the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1980s: the economy switched from industry to finance and services; trade unions were beaten back; and the institutions of social democracy—above all the welfare state—were gradually eroded.
In response, social democratic parties became more neoliberal. New Labour was the standout example, but a conviction that neoliberal economics was an unchallengeable fact of life infected the worldview of social democrats everywhere.
When neoliberalism suffered its great catastrophe in 2008, it took social democracy down with it. Even the delivery of the most modest social democratic promises—investment in core public services—was impossible while accepting the constraints of austerity.
One of Corbyn’s advisors said to me, “It isn’t that social democracy has failed, it’s just ceased to exist.”
Centre-left politicians increasingly resembled a detached, technocratic elite. Yet their traditional voters were among the hardest hit by austerity. Not unreasonably, many withdrew support.
The consequences of that continue to be visible around Europe. You can’t miss them. It’s worth taking a step back and thinking how remarkable it is that in 2017 the French Socialist presidential candidate won 6%, and that the Dutch Labour Party evaporated. We’ve seen what’s happened this year in Germany and Italy. It’s no longer just peripheral countries like Greece. This is continent-wide.
Except for Britain. But actually it did happen here. Despite the first-past-the-post system providing some protection, Labour was not completely shielded. The dramatic collapse of neoliberal-infected social democratic parties around Europe did find an echo, but it was hidden, happening within the Labour Party.
Labour was traditionally said to be two parties welded together, a socialist one and a social democratic one. But since 1994 it has really been three parties: a socialist one, in which the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell were increasingly marginalized; a social democratic one, with a ‘soft left’ and an ‘old right’; and a neoliberal one, with Blairites and Brownites.
The neoliberal strand, which reigned supreme for so long as New Labour, had by 2015 collapsed like its European centre-left equivalents, mortally wounded by the crash of 2008. But because this tendency still operated under the shell of Labour, no one knew. It took a leadership election to find out.
An extraordinary combination of agency and chance, including a radical rule change to how Labour elects its leader and the surprise presence of a left candidate standing for the position in 2015, meant that in Britain the anti-austerity movement could make its home in an established party.
It had already tried other avenues. Around the same time as Syriza took power in Greece in 2015, in Britain a “Green surge” saw thousands join the Green Party. Another party presenting itself as part of the anti-austerity left and experiencing a surge in membership was the SNP.
But outside Scotland, the anti-austerity movement found its path blocked by first-past-the-post. Labour’s was the last door the movement knocked on. Surprisingly, it found it not just unlocked, but wide open.
The potential advantages were immense: Labour not only had the infra- structure, name recognition, and deep-rooted support to benefit from first-past-the-post, but also its residual link to the trade unions was the reason many socialists remained in it.
There were also disadvantages: an entire party apparatus and a host of MPs that essentially engaged in sabotage after Corbyn became leader. But looking at the experience in the rest of Europe suggests that, even allowing for the very different electoral systems and circumstances, the British experience—in which the left has taken leadership of the established social democratic party rather than challenging it—has so far been preferable.
Of course it wasn’t enough to elect Corbyn as leader. His position had to be constantly defended. And it won’t be enough to elect him prime minister either. It will require even bigger mobilisations if a Corbyn government is to be successful.
Having its origins as an alternative to Pasokification provides no guarantee that Labour won’t go the same way as Syriza in power. The pressure to compromise will be immense; the institutional blockages formidable. There will be retreats and defeats.
But there are ways to defend against this inside and outside the party.
Inside the party it requires democratisation so that the membership can exert counter-pressure. Traditionally democratisation has been presented as a way to hold the leadership to account once in government. That will be important even with Corbyn in Number 10. But there’s another dynamic at play: the leadership will need the members’ help in its own battle with elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). We saw this with the vote on whether to bomb Syria in December 2015: a potentially huge rebellion was avoided after Corbyn simply emailed the membership asking for their views. The overwhelming response against the bombing had a direct effect on the parliamentary numbers. That was an ad hoc initiative, but with democratic reforms it can be systematised.
Labour also needs to reach out into its surroundings. This is what Corbyn has in mind when he says Labour should be more like a social movement. That’s particularly radical in Labour terms, a direct affront to the traditional parliamentary perspective in which the wider organisation exists to perpetuate the PLP. He wants a party that can begin to transform society even as it forges the alliances needed to win elections. Practically, that means local parties involving themselves in community campaigning. Before the election efforts to kick-start this process were blocked by the bureaucracy. The leadership’s enhanced position now means it is beginning to happen.
Of course, a successful Labour government will need wider mobilisations outside the party—pressure from below, from the social movements and campaigns. One danger to guard against is that this kind of activity dies down as large numbers of people on the left put all their time and energy into the Labour Party.
But, without wishing to sound complacent, there are reasons for optimism.
First: Syriza may have been the original response to Pasokification, but the situation in Britain is so vastly different that there’s no need to presume Labour will match its fate.
Second: the historical context. We’re in a precarious historical moment, first because of the 2008 crash, now because of Brexit. Brexit could be a disaster, but it’s also possible it could create some unique historical circumstances. For example, the CBI business lobby is currently backing Corbyn over May.
Third: without placing too much importance on the role of individuals, Corbyn is incredibly stubborn. His and John McDonnell’s history of involvement with social movements can’t be contrived. They are well aware of all the dangers that lie ahead. It’s encouraging that they have shown they’re at their best when under most pressure.
Fourth: the Corbyn movement thrives on adversity. Adversity is the fuel of activism, and there will be plenty of it. So far the movement’s greatest advances have been made in the toughest moments, and it has consistently exceeded expectations.
Reflecting on the reasons for his success in 2015, Corbyn said:
It is not just here; there are equivalent movements across Europe, the USA and elsewhere. It’s been bubbling for a long time. It is opposition to an economic orthodoxy that leads us into austerity and cuts. But it is also a thirst for something more communal, more participative.
It’s that participative potential which will be critical in avoiding the perils of Pasokification. That’s the great promise of Corbynism that, so far, has been only partly fulfilled.
Alex Nunns’ book The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power is available in a new updated edition, expanded to include the inside story of Labour’s extraordinary 2017 general election campaign.