Keeping Corbyn in the Labour Leader’s office, and Labour out of government: ‘socialism fans’ and the culture of Corbynism

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, and (following a vote of no confidence and a leadership challenge) re-elected to the same post in September 2016. In February this year, many of those who had re-elected him expressed disappointment at his effectively unconditional support for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s invocation of the Article 50 process to leave the European Union; perhaps to placate them, Corbyn subsequently called for a demonstration in support of those who would suffer the most from EU withdrawal, but then failed to turn up. Part of the public rationale for Corbyn’s three-line whip on the Brexit vote was that if the party opposed it, then that might lead to a loss of support in predominantly working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands that had voted Leave by large margins: constituencies such as Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the party nevertheless went on to lose vote share in by-elections later the same month. But despite all this — despite Brexit, which Labour Party members and voters had overwhelmingly voted against, and despite what was arguably the worst by-election performance for an opposition party since the late 19th century (see O’Hara 2017) — Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party are still for the most part Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and they’re not going anywhere — and neither, therefore, is the man himself. Asked whether Corbyn’s continued leadership of the party was a good thing, the answer from sidelined Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, was pragmatic: ‘It doesn’t matter; that is the situation’ (interviewed in Walker 2017). This impasse will not endure forever: Prime Minister Theresa May has called for an early General Election, and Corbyn (who has been asking for one since December last year) has given his support. But in the six weeks that we have left until the Labour Party is overwhelmingly (and perhaps irreparably) crushed, it may perhaps be worth reflecting on how it got into this appalling mess.

I’m not sure this is a great idea

‘Seamus, I’m not sure this is a great idea’

1 Getting the Labour Party out of the government business (and into the business of keeping ‘socialism fans’ happy)

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the best way to find out what a particular group thinks is to survey a random sample of about a thousand of its members — and this is exactly what Ian Warren of Election Data has done, by commissioning a YouGov opinion poll of the Labour Party (see Warren 2017). Warren plans to spend some time exploring the implications of the poll’s findings, but he has already very generously made them public.

Perhaps the most striking finding of Warren’s YouGov poll is that, among sampled members who joined before Corbyn became leader, 28% approve and 62% disapprove of his leadership, but among those who have joined since he became leader, 69% approve and 20% disapprove. A further finding is that Corbyn’s leadership has the approval of only 47% of those members in the sample who voted Labour in 2015, but of 73% of those who voted for other parties. Both of these findings support the view of Corbynism as a hostile takeover of the Labour Party. The party has long been attractive to such takeovers because, since the early 20th century collapse of the Liberal Party, it has consistently been one of the two most dominant parties in the British parliament. However, it was recently made more vulnerable to takeover by rules changes that gave anyone who joined the party or registered as a supporter an equally weighted vote in its internal elections.

Corbynism is the exploitation of that vulnerability in order to increase the influence of a particular faction within the Labour Party. This faction is sometimes referred to as Labour’s ‘hard left’ wing, to distinguish it both from the party’s ‘centrist’ wing (think Tony Blair or Harold Wilson) and the ‘soft left’ that lies between the two (think Ed Miliband or Neil Kinnock). However, it is perhaps more useful to refer to it as the party’s ‘Bennite’ faction. This emphasises its long-term leadership by Tony Benn, father of Melissa Benn, the author, Hilary Benn, the decidedly non-Bennite MP whose sacking from the shadow cabinet prompted the 2016 leadership challenge against Corbyn, and Stephen Benn, the 3rd Viscount Stansgate. Although originally a centrist, Benn converted to Marxism in the 1970s, acquiring a devoted following among the more radical elements that were by then flowing into the party membership. Although he was never successful in his attempts to become party leader or deputy leader, Benn was responsible for the party’s adoption of its most radical manifesto ever: a programme of industrial nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the EU’s predecessor organisation, the European Community. When Labour went into the 1983 general election on this manifesto and led by Michael Foot, a representative of the party’s ‘old left’ (think Aneurin Bevan or Richard Crossman), it received its worst defeat since before the Second World War. Foot resigned as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Neil Kinnock, a left winger who had not supported Benn.

With the party under Kinnock’s leadership, Benn and his associates — such as Ken Livingstone, who had become leader of the Greater London Council in 1981, and Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to parliament for the first time in that fateful 1983 election — were unable to prevent the expulsion of their allies in Marxist-Leninist groups such as Militant (originally known as the Revolutionary Socialist League), and were progressively sidelined from the late 1980s onwards. Their defeat seemed cemented in 1995 when Tony Blair amended Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution to replace its commitment to public ownership of industry with a commitment to unspecified ‘democratic socialist’ ideals, subsequently rebranding the party as ‘New Labour’ and (together with his then-ally, Gordon Brown) leading it to an unprecedented run of three general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005.

However, the balance of power shifted with the party’s demoralising 2015 defeat under its ‘soft left’ leader, Ed Miliband. Following Miliband’s resignation, Corbyn — at the time, a largely forgotten Bennite — secured sufficient nominations from fellow MPs to gain a place on the leadership ballot. In accordance with rules changes agreed under Miliband, the ballot was put to members, registered supporters, and affiliate members of the party, whose ranks were swelled by large numbers of people joining specifically in order to vote for Corbyn. Corbyn’s victory was convincing, although it is noteworthy that – despite the influx of new members – he was not the first choice of 50.4% of party members.

After winning this internal election, Corbyn swiftly moved to install his allies at the top of the party. His long-term friend, John McDonnell — another Bennite, who once described Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky as his ‘most significant’ influences (Eaton 2016) — was appointed to the most senior shadow cabinet position, and a number of Marxist-Leninists from outside Parliament were given important posts within the party. While Labour centrists often refer to Communists as ‘Trots’, i.e. Trotskyists (that is, supporters of revolutionary proletarian internationalism as represented by the Fourth International), the prevailing ideological climate of Corbyn’s circle tends more towards the other primary stream of European Marxism-Leninism, i.e. Stalinism (that is, support for the totalitarian Soviet state as well as — for unclear reasons — its gangster capitalist successor state, the Russian Federation). The antifascist blogger, Bob from Brockley, explains as follows:

Corbyn has had a weekly column in… the Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star, and he has used that column to promote a basically Cold War second camp worldview, most recently in promoting Kremlin lies about Ukraine. …

After leaving Oxford, Seumas Milne [whom Corbyn appointed as the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications] cut his political teeth in a group called Straight Left, whose USP in the small but crowded market of the far left was that it thought most other Communist groups were insufficiently appreciative of Stalin’s achievements. Milne has stayed true to that formation, regularly arguing that Stalin’s achievements (e.g. in the field of marriage equality) outweigh his crimes, and generally projecting a pro-Kremlin geopolitical line.

…[Moreover,] there are rumours that another graduate of Straight Left, Andrew Murray, is a potential next General Secretary of the Labour Party (and Murray’s 27-year daughter Laura has recently been given £40K job as Corbyn’s ‘political adviser’). Murray is Chief of Staff for Unite and as such quite a player in the labour movement — but is a member of the Communist Party of Britain. The CPB, among other things, recently affirmed its support for North Korea and for Assad’s genocidal fascist regime. How a member of the CPB could even be considered as a potential senior Labour official is mind-boggling.

And then there is Socialist Action, a formerly Trotskyist party but now basically Stalinist (it worships the Chinese Communist Party and Fidel’s Cuba). Its cadre Simon Fletcher, formerly part of Ken Livingstone’s team, was Corbyn’s campaign chief of staff and under Ed Miliband apparently designed the £3-a-vote system that got Corbyn elected; its leader, John Ross, is allegedly very influential on Team Corbyn.

(Bob from Brockley 2016)

Fletcher quit the month before last, but you get the picture. Let’s not get carried away, though: whatever the political background of the Labour leader and his circle, there is no need to assume that all those who voted for him are current members of revolutionary Communist organisations. Although some sort of Communist influx has undoubtedly occurred (see Cohen 2016), especially within Momentum (the ‘grassroots’ pro-Corbyn organisation founded and owned by Corbyn’s old friend, Jon Lansman, and now riven by conflict between its Trotskyist and Bennite wings; see Democratic Audit 2017), and Colin Talbot (very much an ex-Trotskyist) has argued that there are very large numbers of aging ex-Communists who may have ‘turned to Corbyn as the political equivalent of going out and buying a Harley’ (2016), Corbynism appeals to a wider (but not that much wider) group of mostly middle class people whose primary cultural identification is with ‘the Left’. Such people are keen to support Corbyn because they see him as one of their own: a vegetarian pacifist who has never been interested in the tedious work of winning elections and scrutinising legislation but who has (in his own words) ‘always [been] passionate about justice, the environment, and war and peace’, and who, in his youth, ‘got arrested in most countries [he] visited for demonstrating’ (interviewed in Nelson 2015).

Although Corbyn was originally elected with broad support from existing members of the party, his power base within it now primarily consists of people who joined it in order to re-shape it in his image and their own. These people might best be thought of as ‘socialism fans’, and are quite different from traditional Labour Party members and voters. They are people who joined the party not because they agreed with its goals and wanted to help it achieve them, but because they identified with the culture of Leftism and sought an active form of cultural participation — much as theatre buffs might join an amateur dramatics club, or history enthusiasts might join a medieval re-enactment society.

The difference between those who joined the party in order to help its representatives get elected to local and national government and those who joined the party in order to place and keep Corbyn at its helm is as stark as (and in many ways parallels) that which George Orwell saw between, on the one hand, ‘the warm-hearted, unthinking Socialist… who only wants to abolish poverty’, and, on the other hand, ‘the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-in-your-beer reformers… and the astute young social-literary climbers… and all that dreary tribe of… sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers’ who flock to ‘Socialist’ organisations and drive away ordinary working class people who might otherwise be inclined to join or vote (1986 [1937] p. 169). It is not just that members who voted for Corbyn in 2016 (i.e. after and despite the bad opinion polls, the dreadful showing in the May elections, the loss of the referendum, and the vote of no confidence from those it was Corbyn’s job to lead) are — as Warren’s YouGov poll shows — far more likely than those who voted against him to engage in low-investment forms of political activity, such as sharing campaign messages on social media, and far less likely to engage in high-investment forms of political activity, such as delivering leaflets or knocking on doors. It is that they have a very different idea of what the Labour Party is for, viewing it not as a party of parliamentary government or opposition but as an opportunity to engage in demonstrations, protests, marches, and rallies — as well as thrilling social media battles against insufficiently radical Labour MPs (and their supporters). These are the people for whom Corbyn was speaking when said ‘We’re all in power. We just don’t realise it. We have the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand’ (interviewed in Nelson 2015).

Engagement with the business of parliament is irrelevant — perhaps even an impediment — to the socialism fan’s enjoyment of such ‘power’. Thus it seems unsurprising that, of those who voted for Corbyn in the 2016 election, only 11% consider ‘[u]nderstand[ing] what it takes to win an election’ to be among the two or three qualities most necessary for a Labour leader (compared to 55% of those who voted against them), while 30% and 31% respectively consider ‘[m]ov[ing] the party to the left’ and ‘[t]ak[ing] on powerful interests’ to be among them (compared to 2% and 6% of those who voted against him). This is why arguments such as the following (between a well-known former Corbyn supporter and two members of the public, one of whom has kept the faith) arise over and over and over again:

Beyond support for Corbyn, what are the politics of the Twitter-using Corbyn supporter above? He understands Corbyn’s project as that of ‘[t]ransforming the Labour Party’ – but what does he want it transformed into, and what would he have it do once transformed? Without further investigation, it is impossible to guess – though it is telling that he appears to regard the ‘decimation’ of the party (and therefore an end to its engagement with the practical business of government) as a price worth paying. A few days later, a Corbyn-supporting social media user used the relatively less public platform of a Facebook group to inform me that it did not matter whether the party lost votes as it turned towards Socialism, because votes for a party that was (on his view) insufficiently Socialist were no different from votes for the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. As he continued, ‘I want Labour to be firmly socialist’, ‘I think New Labour must be permanently exterminated’, and ‘the important thing is having Labour as a socialist party and eradicating New Labour for good’ (anonymised Facebook comments, 15-16 March 2017). What end could be achieved by transforming Labour if it could not then be elected to government? The end is purely symbolic: a ‘firmly’ Socialist party, and the defeat of Labour centrists. There is no further end. It is recognisably the same politics advocated by Corbyn-supporting journalist Paul Mason in conversation with the more sceptical Carole Cadwalladr:

In America, he says, ‘what the Occupy generation chose to do was to occupy the Democratic party and that’s effectively what [we] have chosen to do here: to occupy the Labour party. …

‘We, on the left of the party, didn’t want this fight. But it’s like what General Sherman said in the American civil war: “You’ve chosen war. We’re going to give you all the war you can take. …

‘I want to lay waste to the whole neoliberal hierarchical tradition that Blairism and Brownism represented’
(Cadwalladr, 2016)

We see more of the same in the following, by the influential left-wing author, Richard Seymour:

Winning elections is not an objective; losing votes is not a problem; the goal is to transform Labour: to take it out of electoral politics, to refocus it on the exercise of ‘social power’, and above all, to democratise it, i.e. to put it under the control of anyone who wants to join it, rather than those of its representatives who have been elected to parliament or to local and regional government by the general public and who do the day-to-day work that this involves. If that goal is ever achieved, it is hard to imagine what the party would do next, because those who share a desire to take it over do not necessarily share much else in common besides a hatred of Tony Blair. In fact, the most likely outcome would be a series of splits, for example between those who wish to abolish private property and those who only want to nationalise the railways.

Corbyn’s leadership can be advocated by liberal environmentalists and revolutionary Communists, as well as by mutually opposed sub-groups of the latter, because his own ideology is impossible to pin down beyond a commitment to a ‘Socialism’ that he defines only in the vaguest possible terms: ‘You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else’ is his clearest statement yet of what the word means when he uses it (interviewed in Nelson 2015). What manner of policies for the governing of a country could one derive from such a position statement? Almost any — which means that all those who wish to can imagine that Corbyn would govern in accordance with their own preferences. But the defining feature of Corbynism is that it is only incidentally concerned with the outside world, being primarily a politics of coalition between members of the self-identified ‘Left’, who will be able to work together only as long as there is no goal beyond the achievement of mutual dominance over the Labour Party.

For example, the Stop the War Coalition, whose president was Tony Benn until 2014, whose chair was Jeremy Corbyn until 2015, and which retains Corbyn’s full support, is a front for Britain’s largest Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party or SWP (of which the above-quoted Richard Seymour used to be a member), and supports the barbaric Daesh/IS (Hodges 2015). Meanwhile, the Morning Star — a Stalinist rather than a Trotskyist publication — supports the equally barbaric Kremlin-backed Assad regime and likewise retains Corbyn’s support (Hughes 2016). What rational sense can this make? It’s not just that these are groups that no reasonable and humane person would want anything to do with. It’s that Trotskyists and Stalinists were at each other’s throats even before Stalin had Trotsky murdered — and that Daesh and the Assad regime are at war. Similarly, Corbyn can insist that ‘[w]omen deserve… unflinching support in the face of violence and abuse’ (quoted in Sanghani 2015) yet ignore his own feminist supporters when they demand that he distance himself from Stand up to Racism (see Bienkov 2016) over the well-documented willingness of the SWP (for which it is, of course, yet another front organisation) to tolerate sexual violence towards women when perpetrated by its own senior members (see Penny 2013). Because all the associated speaking and demonstrating and demanding (to return to Corbyn’s above characterisation of the kind of ‘power’ that he and his followers appear to understand themselves to wield) is covered by the umbrella of an amorphous Leftism with no need for ideological coherence, relatively substantial numbers of socialism fans can be recruited to the support of often rather nasty groups even as the majority of the population is repulsed.

Corbyn, with his vague passion for ‘justice, the environment, and war and peace’, is the ideal figurehead for this cultural or aesthetic Leftism and its cynically tactical coalitions: a apparently blank canvas onto which socialism fans can project their fantasies. Since 2015, his own saintly figure has been the focus of perhaps the largest coalition of all, devoted to the single issue of getting the Labour Party out of the government business by installing him as its leader and keeping him there. As the rest of this article will argue, it scarcely matters how particular Corbyn supporters might choose to define their politics, because they all speak the same language in support of this shared goal.

Corbyn Haiku: Jeremy is not / a typical leader - one / reason we love him (Hylda Sims)

‘Corbyn Haiku’ by Hylda Sims (page image from Williams 2016)

2 The commonplaces of Corbynism

One has to start somewhere, so I’d like to start with a quote amalgamated (note the ellipses) from three comments that a single individual made on a mutual friend’s Facebook post on 27 February 2017. Between his posting of the second and third comments, I commented that the Labour Party is not primarily a socialist party but has ‘always had room for socialists — provided that they can reconcile themselves to electoral reality’ (see Hodgson 2016 for full discussion of this point). This comment of mine is referenced in the third of his:

a centrist-Labour would now be what was once considered right wing. Corbyn is hardly hard left, but mainstream politics has lurched so far to the right it’s normalised the right doctrine and neoliberalism. As Raymond Williams scarily predicted, the values and ideas are of neoliberal capitalism are so normalised it appears to be the only way, the way it’s ‘always been’.

If the only viable choice is a right leaning Labour party, or an extreme right Tory party, dictated mostly by the right wing and corporate owned media, then really democracy and decency are already lost.

‘Electoral reality’ is exactly what Raymond Williams warns about. This is the way it is, there’s no room for change. Corbyn represents a genuine difference. If the choice is between Extreme Tory and Tory-Lite, then what is even the point? Corbyn has repeatedly been on the right side of history, and his policies have genuine popular appeal and yet it’s increasingly clear the media control what people see and hear.

There’s nothing special about the above, but that’s the point: the most striking thing about it is its sheer predictability. Although not all attempt to understand contemporary politics by reference to the work of Marxist literary critics who died three decades ago, uncounted ‘Corbynites’ say more-or-less the same thing on a daily basis, both on social media and off it. For example, the day after the above Facebook comments were made, the aforementioned Morning Star bluntly asserted that ‘[p]eople understand Jeremy’s message to be true’ in an editorial published under the headline ‘The only political leader offering radical change’ (Morning Star 2017), and an article published later the same week in Socialist Worker — the official newspaper of the aforementioned SWP — argued that ‘Corbyn’s “hard left” policies seemed normal inside the Labour party when he first became an MP in 1983’ but ‘[n]ow they are regarded as very left wing’, and, as a result, ‘[m]ost of the media have waged a vicious campaign to undermine Corbyn’ (Sewell 2017).

Like those articles (and indeed the social media posts and the Paul Mason interview statements examined in the previous section), the Facebook comments above are assemblages of what rhetoricians call topoi or ‘commonplaces’: ideas or themes that are — within a particular culture — frequently revisited and rarely challenged. Some social psychologists call these ‘discursive’ or ‘interpretative repertoires’, but it doesn’t really matter what term we use. Within particular groups, people adopt the same ways of speaking, which imply the same ways of thinking (Billig 1996). The following are clearly recognisable as the kinds of things that Corbynites say:

  • Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are what the public really wants;
  • Jeremy Corbyn only seems to be ‘hard left’ because the Labour Party has moved to the right, leaving him behind;
  • Without Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party would be virtually indistinguishable from the Conservative Party and there would be no point voting for it;
  • Jeremy Corbyn is different from other politicians;
  • Jeremy Corbyn brings change that powerful forces seek to prevent;
  • Jeremy Corbyn has always been ‘on the right side of history’;
  • If members of the public think they don’t want Jeremy Corbyn, that’s only because of the malign influence of the media.

The only thing missing from the above list is the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn is actually very popular with the British public. If you haven’t heard such lines before, then you haven’t yet met the people who joined the Labour Party in order to get Corbyn into the leader’s office and keep him there — the people for whom Corbyn’s leadership is the only good thing about the Labour Party — the people for whom supporting Corbyn is the very point of being in the Labour Party.

Taken literally, these ideas are a mixed bag. There is never any clarity as to what Corbyn’s ‘difference’ from other politicians consists in, nor as to why it should be considered a good thing. The nature of the ‘change’ he is said to bring is similarly nebulous. The grand-sounding claim about ‘the right side of history’ only means that he voted against the invasion of Iraq. And while some of Corbyn’s policy positions are potentially popular with voters, those are positions that are shared across the Parliamentary Labour Party, including by centrist MPs (see Francis 2017). As for the idea that Corbyn originally represented the mainstream of the Labour Party, that is true only in the limited sense that his entrance into Parliament was via the disastrous 1983 election, which the party fought on a manifesto that was largely the handiwork of one of its most left-wing MPs. And Corbyn is not, of course, popular: polls of voting intention are currently giving the Conservative Party a lead of as much as 21% over the Labour Party, while two-way polls asking whether respondents would prefer Jeremy Corbyn or Conservative leader Theresa May as Prime Minister put May ahead by as much as 36%, with even ‘don’t know’ getting more love than Corbyn.

But the power of commonplaces arises from repetition, not from rational consideration in relation to empirical evidence. Indeed, their very point is that they are never subjected to critique, serving instead as accepted starting points for trains of thought that never threaten to call them into question. For Corbyn’s supporters, a good argument is an argument both founded upon and re-affirming Corbynite commonplaces, while a deceptive or mistaken or otherwise Blairite argument is an argument that does not.

We won’t vote Labour without him — apparently

Party loyalty – Momentum style

3 The culture of the Left

One of the most interesting aspects of these commonplaces is their ability to circulate between groups that might otherwise appear to have fairly fundamental disagreements, including supporters and opponents of Britain’s membership of the European Union, as well as both Stalinists and Trotskyists. This is because they have their roots in the culture of the 21st century British Left — which is shared across multiple left wing groups and left-identified individuals unaffiliated with any specific group — rather than in any particular political analysis — which is the sort of thing that socialists and Communists will feud over until the end of time (hence the virtually microscopic size of all British parties to the left of Labour). Here, for example, is an editorial published nearly two years before the above social media comments in Solidarity, the official newspaper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty or AWL, a Trotskyist organisation formerly known as Socialist Organiser, membership of which is proscribed for Labour Party members:

The huge support for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader is a reminder that what seems like an overwhelmingly dominant right-wing ‘consensus’ in bourgeois politics can be limited and unstable.

It shows that large numbers of people, including working class and young people, still want a politics that is different to, and to the left of, the consensus of neo-liberalism

(AWL 2015, 5)

We can read this and the more recent quotations we have already seen almost as a single text. Left politics, identified with Corbyn, are positioned as ‘different to’, ‘offering radical change’ from, or ‘represent[ing] a genuine difference’ with regard to a ‘normalised’ or ‘consensus’ position described as ‘neoliberal’ or ‘bourgeois’ and identified not only with the Conservative Party (‘Extreme Tory’) but also with all Labour MPs not overtly affiliated with their party’s left wing (‘Tory-Lite’). This politics is not really ‘hard left’; rather, it is ‘popular’, ‘underst[ood]… to be true’ by ‘people’, and supported by ‘large numbers of… working class and young people’, such that any apparent lack of enthusiasm from the general public must be explained, whether explicitly or otherwise, by conspiracy theories — for example, involving ‘a vicious campaign’ waged by ‘the media’, which has ‘control [over] what people see and hear.’ The latter is particularly important because it functions as an alibi for the failure of the rest. For example, while I was writing this, a message was posted to a popular Labour Party Facebook group using a reference to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing consent (1988) to support the argument that it is not the Labour leadership but the media that need to change: ‘Labour politics is fine’, the poster concluded, and if ‘a political party that clearly represents the interests of the vast majority of the population cannot obtain the commensurate backing’, this can only be explained through media bias. A fine way to insulate oneself from other people’s opinions while justifying one’s own opinion on the basis of their supposed interests! To accept this line of reasoning is to accept then the Labour Party will never again win elections because it cannot change the media, but to assert that its future defeats won’t matter, because they won’t be the party leader’s fault. If indeed one regards elections in which the general public participates as in any way important – which many enthusiasts of ‘party democracy’ apparently don’t.

Such thinking goes all the way to the top of the current party, with Corbyn’s closest parliamentary ally, John McDonnell, informing two journalists at the Guardian — a newspaper that was intensely critical of Blair (especially over the war in Iraq) and that publishes numerous pro-Corbyn commentators — that because their employer ‘became part of the New Labour [i.e. Blairite] establishment… you feel dispossessed because your people are no longer in power’ and therefore collude in the media’s attempt ‘to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people’ (quoted in Asthana and Stewart 2017, emphasis added). Corbynite commonplaces all the way.


Corbyn in 1990, speaking against the ban on membership of the Trotskyist group Socialist Organiser (now the AWL) for members of the Labour Party

4 ‘Working class politics’

But what is ‘the establishment’ and who are ‘the people’? In practice, the former simply means whoever held positions of influence in the Labour Party before Corbyn’s election as its leader, and the latter simply means the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and its allies in various left wing organisations, some of whose members are banned from joining Labour.

On the subject of organisations proscribed for Labour members, I turn now to an editorial published just after Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader in The Socialist, the official newspaper of the Socialist Party or SP: another Trotskyist organisation that formerly practised entryism under the name of Militant but subsequently shifted to competing against the Labour Party in local and parliamentary elections, latterly in partnership with the SWP as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or TUSC (from which the SWP has recently withdrawn). The editorial, which also writes of ‘huge enthusiasm for Corbyn’s pro-worker platform’ (Socialist Party 2016, 3), argues as follows:

The battle against Labour’s right is not simply a battle between two wings of a party. Behind them are the class interests of the different participants. The right ultimately represents the capitalist elite, which was delighted with the Blairite transformation of Labour into a party that could be relied on to act on their behalf, and is fighting to turn the wheel of history back to that situation.

(Socialist Party 2016, 3)

It’s worth thinking about this carefully. Its scope is the Labour Party itself (from which ex-members of Militant are banned), and its concern is with whether the party shall remain in the state to which it was transformed by Blairite Labour MPs for the benefit of the ‘capitalist elite’ or shall be re-transformed by Bennite Labour MPs for the benefit of… well, who, exactly? The idea appears to be that Corbyn’s leadership will deprive the ‘capitalist elite’ of the tool that the Labour Party supposedly became under Blair. The Labour Party does not have to win elections for that goal to be achieved. Indeed, it could simply vanish – or fragment into micro-parties indistinguishable from the rest of the British far left.

The image of heroic struggle within the Labour Party is given graphic form in a drawing on the cover of the issue of Solidarity from which I quoted previously, which shows workers (standing on the left, of course!) cheering Corbyn on while senior Labour Party figures (including Blair himself with a badge that reads ‘Tony Tory’) and obese, drunken journalists (standing or sprawling on the right) hysterically condemn him as an ‘extremist’ or a ‘disaster’. The drawing is captioned ‘The Socialist who stood in a Labour leadership election’, and accompanying front page headlines are ‘Back Corbyn’s campaign’ and ‘Fight for working class politics’, while the article quoted above carried the slightly different headline, ‘Back Corbyn, fight for working-class politics!’ From Corbyn’s mouth come vague, policy-free statements of rejection: ‘I don’t agree with austerity’ and ‘I oppose attacks on the working class and the poor!’

Cover image, Solidarity no. 372 (used without permission)

Cover image, Solidarity no. 372 (used without permission)

This is, I would suggest, the sum total of the Corbynite project: the installation at the head of the Labour Party of a ‘socialist’, i.e. a person upon whom Marxist-Leninists can pin hopes, and who makes statements aligning him- or herself against right wing policies (such as ‘austerity’) and with ‘the working class’ and ‘the poor’. What do actual ‘working class’ or ‘poor’ people think of this? They certainly aren’t very keen to vote for it (see Bertram 2017 for analysis).

In contrast to all the above, and without claiming that it typifies the views of any particular group, I offer the following report of a working class person’s discourse on Corbyn, simply to remind my readers of what the Labour Party might look like to those who turn to left-of-centre politics in hope of what George Orwell characterised as ‘better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about’ as opposed to the revolutionary’s ‘vague threat of future violence’ (1986 [1937], pp. 163-4):

My Mum, brought up working class in a railway worker’s house, got a phone call today from the Labour Party about her direct debit being cancelled.

She gave them both barrels about how Corbyn was a traitor to the working class by dooming Labour to opposition and bringing about a further decade of Tory government. She said that she would not give another penny to the party until Corbyn had gone. She told the person on the phone that the best government she had ever known was the Blair government and that Gordon Brown saved the world only for this Jeremy Corbyn ‘tosser’ to put it all at risk.

I would like to apologise to the poor bugger who made that phone call as well giving a big shout out to my Mum.

Woodcock (2017)

Unheard of talk! Blair’s government the best that a ‘working class’ person had ever known? Perhaps the National Minimum Wage and the Sure Start Centres and the extra billions for education and the National Health Service counted for something after all. And Corbyn a ‘traitor to the working class’? The latter accusation is more typically levelled at Labour Party centrists such as Blair and Brown — the ‘Tory-Lite’ leaders who (we are frequently informed) took the votes of working class people for granted while selling out their interests for the sake of ‘neoliberal capitalism’.

Although Trotskyists, Stalinists, and Bennites alike tend to present Corbyn as the champion of ‘working class politics’, it should be recognised that his programme has very little to offer working class people in the here-and-now. Even in the fantasy scenario of a Corbyn-led government, the hoped-for benefits to the working class would still be indirect: rather than implementing policies to the direct material benefit of actual working class people (one thinks again of the National Minimum Wage), a hypothetical Prime Minister Corbyn would — according to the AWL — implement policies to facilitate the working class’s fulfilment of the destiny assigned to it by classical Marxist theory, i.e. the overthrow of the capitalist order and the institution of social ownership of the means of production and exchange, which an elected government could not achieve even ‘if it wanted to’ (AWL 2015, 5). In the real world and at the present moment, in which the proletariat does not yet acknowledge its revolutionary future role, actually existing working class people are of interest only insofar as representations of them can be conscripted in support of arguments over who will lead the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, those same actually existing working class people re-pay the compliment by taking little or no interest in the Labour Party. Though Trotskyists claimed that ‘[t]he surge into the Labour Party in support of Corbyn [was] made up of hundreds of thousands of working class and impoverished middle class people, who want[ed] to see a party that st[ood] in their interests’ (Socialist Party 2016, 3), a survey carried out before the 2015 General Election and again in December of the same year found that, at both points in time (i.e. both before and after the increase in party membership driven by Corbyn’s leadership campaign), over 75% of Labour members lived in households headed by someone in an ‘ABC1’ occupation, i.e. that less than one in four would ordinarily be classified as working class (Bale, Poletti, and Webb 2015). A leaked internal report prepared for Labour’s National Executive Committee the following year found that ‘[t]hose who are under-represented’ in the party membership ‘tend to be either young singles/families who rent properties on a short-term basis and require financial assistance or those who live in rural communities’, while ‘high-status city dwellers living in central locations and pursuing careers with high rewards are highly over-represented’ (quoted in Syal 2016). In socio-economic if not in cultural and political terms, the new membership was indistinguishable from the old membership. The fight to transform Labour from a party seeking to achieve limited although concrete reforms through engagement in the work of local and national government into a social movement more interested in exercising ‘the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand’ is therefore probably best understood as a form of middle class identity politics (the identity in question being ‘left’).

The immediate beneficiaries of Corbynism are not working class people per se, but members of ‘left’ political organisations or factions either (a) seeking power within the Labour Party, or (b) directly competing with it in their efforts to win votes in elections and/or to recruit members. Some of those people are working class, but most are not. The Morning Star responded to last summer’s challenge to Corbyn’s leadership with an editorial headlined ‘Justice must be won for the working class’, in which it argued that ‘[t]he cumulative anger and frustration that’s been building in working-class communities across these lands over the last few decades has found an outlet’ in support for Corbyn and opposition to his detractors in the Parliamentary Labour Party (Morning Star 2016). Given the historically low vote share of candidates for Corbyn’s Labour Party in the strongly working class constituencies of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central last month, such assertions can no longer be taken literally (if, indeed, they ever could). Keeping Corbyn as Labour leader wins no justice for the working class; it only consolidates power within the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and provides members of Trotskyist and Stalinist organisations such as the SWP and CPB with a path to greater influence within the Labour Party and greater esteem within the wider Left. The anger and frustration that really troubles the Morning Star is that felt within the revolutionary socialist sects that take themselves to be the guardians of the best interests of the working class of Marxist theory and feel aggrieved that the UK’s largest left-of-centre party is not run by the most left-of-centre people in the UK.

5 They, Daniel Blake: the great spoken-on-behalf-of

One of the defining moments of Corbynism was the release of I, Daniel Blake (Loach 2016): a critically-acclaimed BBC Films movie about a tragic working class welfare claimant. It was directed by Ken Loach, a long-term friend of Jeremy Corbyn and the creator of an hour-long promo video in support of the latter’s re-election as party leader. I, Daniel Blake had such an impact on Corbyn’s followers that many of them renamed themselves ‘Daniel Blake’ on Twitter in perhaps the quintessential statement of socialist fandom. ‘We are all Daniel Blake’ was another popular slogan, and — coincidentally — the headline of an article that appeared in the same issue of The Socialist as the editorial quoted above. Following the unprecedented drop in Labour’s vote share in the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central by-elections last month, Loach wrote in defence of Corbyn’s leadership in a Guardian article (an article, that is, in that same Guardian that John McDonnell subsequently attacked for its supposed anti-Corbyn bias) saturated in Corbynite commonplaces.

The article begins with Loach’s recollections of his own visits to Stoke-on-Trent and Whitehaven (the centre of the Copeland district), promoting I, Daniel Blake with Labour Club screenings organised by activists from Momentum, the privately-owned pro-Corbyn organisation briefly discussed above. Having pointedly criticised Labour activists outside Momentum by commending the behaviour of the Momentum activists in question as ‘a model of how Labour activists should work’ and recalled audience complaints of ‘[t]he failure of Labour governments… and, importantly, Labour councillors’, Loach cut to the chase:

Now let’s ask the real questions. What are the big problems people face? What is the Labour leadership’s analysis and programme? Why is Labour apparently unpopular? Who is responsible for the party’s divisions?

The problems are well rehearsed but rarely related to the leadership question. A vulnerable working class that knows job insecurity, low wages, bogus ‘self-employment’, poverty for many including those in work, whole regions left to rot: these are the consequences of both Tory and New Labour’s free market economics. … The central fact is blindingly obvious: the Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson years were central to this degeneration. That is why Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn and his small group fight the Tories in front and deal with the silent mutiny behind them. Yet the MPs, unrepresentative of the members, are doing immense damage. How come the media don’t put them in the dock? It is they and their backers in the party bureaucracy who have been rejected.

It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. … If Corbyn can be removed, it will be business as usual, with scant difference between Labour and the Tories. If it is to transform society, the party itself must be transformed.

(Loach 2017)

As we see from the above, the priority for Loach — who in 2013 founded the rival Left Unity party and in 2015 campaigned for it against Labour — is the transformation of the Labour Party (yes, that again), which — on his account as much as on that of the Trotskyists and other Corbynites quoted in previous sections of this essay — must (naturally) precede any significant external politics. What is at stake is not the day-to-day work of parliamentary opposition to the Conservative government, nor the short- to medium-term ambition to replace that government with a Labour government that would implement specific policies for the benefit of actual working class people (say, a higher minimum wage and an improved public health service), nor the still less glamorous equivalents in local and regional government, but the eternal — and fundamentally aesthetic — imperative for ‘difference between Labour and the Tories’, i.e. for Labour to be led by the kind of person for whom a socialism fan would like to vote. Exactly as in the examples quoted in the previous sections, there is a historic struggle in progress, with, on one side, Corbyn and his followers, and on the other, a coalition between the Conservative Party, past Labour leaders and cabinet ministers, and ‘[Labour] MPs, unrepresentative of the members’: because the job of Labour MPs is to represent whoever currently constitutes the majority of the (now very middle class) Labour membership, rather than the ordinary voters whose representatives in parliament they officially are. But this inversion of democracy is no problem at all, because, under Corbyn’s leadership, the party is not unpopular, but only ‘apparently unpopular’, its true popularity presumably concealed in the voting booth and revealed only at screenings of I, Daniel Blake.

Loach’s essential argument is that the sufferings of working class people require Labour MPs and bureaucrats to submit — and submit enthusiastically, for the quiet resignation with which they accepted the result of the September 2016 leadership election is here condemned as ‘silent mutiny’ — to Corbyn and his circle, who will rule over the party in the name of the working class — that is, of them, Daniel Blake.

6 Selling a piece of St Jeremy: ‘I don’t actually care.’ ‘You do!’ ‘But I don’t.’

An example of such an attempted enlistment can be found in John Harris’s short video documentary about the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election (Harris and Domokos 2017). The film is well worth watching as a whole, but the part to which I would like to draw attention is the interaction, from 08.11 to 09.41, between a Labour Party activist and a potential voter. I have transcribed the interaction below, where PV is the potential voter and LPA is the Labour Party Activist:

PV: What you go- what you gonna do for the community and that?

LPA: What do you think needs to be done for the community?

PV: Pff. I dunno. Like, some better shit, init, like, you know what I mean? Like, build fucking, like, I dunno, like, more youth centres, stop closing shit down.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: Like, help people that are vulnerable and that. Put people in better housing.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: You know what I mean? Stop sending people to jail for stupid shit.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Are there any people that you think represent your views, do you feel like the Labour Party represents the, the —

PV: Nah.

LPA: Why not?

PV: ’Coz they’re all full of shit, man, they’re all like upper class people that’ve, you know what I mean? There’s no —

LPA: Yeah.

PV: No people who’ve actually lived it in there, is there?

LPA: Is that something you would vote for? If people were talking about, like, opening more youth centres, and, uhm, making fairer like justice system and things like that?

PV: Yeah.

LPA: Because that is what, uhm, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, stands for at the moment.

PV: But everyone says that, everyone makes, like, promises and that but shit don’t get done, does it?

LPA: One thing I’d say about Jeremy Corbyn is that he’s quite different from politicians that’ve come before – like, do you know that none of the Labour Party want him, basically, like, to be the leader?

PV: No-one wants him ’coz he’s a dick.

LPA: (laughs)

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Why do you think that?

PV: Well, he was saying stuff like, ah, he doesn’t wanna use our c-, our Trident missiles and all of that shit

LPA: Yeah.

PV: ’Coz if someone come over here and started blowing us up, like, what are you gonna do, pour ’em a cup of tea and be like, ‘Yeah, crack on.’

LPA: But do you not know that Trident costs, like, six hundred billion pounds, so if we didn’t have Trident, all the things that you’ve just said — youth centres, better justice system —

PV: Yeah but the thing is, I don’t actually care, like.

LPA: You do!

PV: But I don’t.

LPA: You do!

I shan’t dwell on the fact that the estimated cost of Trident renewal is not £600 billion but £17.5 to £23.4 billion according to the Ministry of Defence, which supports it, and £100 billion according to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which opposes it (Fraser 2015). It’s easy to make a mistake in the heat of the moment.

It is more helpful to focus on the radical disjunction between the priorities of the activist and the Stoke resident to whom she is speaking. The latter expresses concern for the local community and with things that affect his life directly: local issues such as housing, youth centres, and institutions that have closed down, as well with what he regards as unjustifiably high rates of incarceration among community members. But instead of talking about what the Labour Party has done for Stoke-on-Trent, or for people like this potential voter, or about what the previous Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central achieved, or about the merits of Gareth Snell, the Labour candidate for whom the activist is nominally canvassing, and about what Snell might yet do to improve this specific Stoke resident’s life, what does the activist choose to talk about? Why, the leader of the Labour Party, of course! Moreover, she talks about him by commending him for his difference from other politicians and she evidences this difference by stating that other Labour Party politicians do not want him to be their leader. To an individual not steeped in Corbynite commonplaces, it must have seemed a funny sort of praise for a leader — and a still funnier sort of reason to vote for one of the people he will lead. Among Corbynites, the truly great thing about the Labour Party still appears to be that its MPs are led by someone they don’t want to be led by. But in the world of ordinary people, that is not really a hot sell.

Neither is opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, which many British people believe to be necessary to their own safety and that of their families. And, given that — in conversation with a potential voter focused on local issues — this particular activist can only argue for the benefits of such opposition through appeals to the attractions of entirely hypothetical policies — Corbyn has never proposed investing money saved from Trident in youth centres, there’s no connection between Trident non-renewal and justice system reforms (which Corbyn has not in fact proposed), and, in any case, the Labour Party voted to renew Trident despite Corbyn’s opposition, so this is all rather beside the point — it is hardly surprising to hear that the potential voter in question doesn’t care about what he’s hearing. The activist doesn’t seem to believe that he doesn’t care, but I do. Why should he care about the virtues of her grey-bearded, white-faced saint? All that has nothing to do with him.

At the end of the day, the activist speaks as she does because she’s there for Corbyn’s sake, and the potential voter to whom she speaks responds as he does because he’s not there for Corbyn’s sake but because it is his home and he lives there. His concerns relate to the conditions of his day-to-day existence; hers, to the internal power struggles of the Labour Party. To a member of the Labour Party, it may matter greatly whether the latter has a representative of the self-described Left for a figurehead, but what can that matter to anybody else? Indeed, this particular non-member expresses frustration with Labour for being full of what he calls ‘upper class people’ who have never ‘actually lived it’ — which, give or take a quibble over the meaning of ‘upper class’ (which in Britain traditionally refers to members of the hereditary aristocracy, such as Tony Benn, rather than to the merely well-connected and well-heeled), is an accurate description of the wealthy, metropolitan, privately-educated career politician that Corbyn empirically is.

The fight to defend Corbyn’s position as Labour leader may be carried out in this man’s name as a presumable member of the working class, but that doesn’t mean he has a dog in it.

7 The beating heart of Corbynism

During the Cold War era, the Communist Parties of North Korea, China, the Soviet Bloc, and elsewhere gained what legitimacy they had as rulers of their respective territories from their claim to represent the workers — but as everyone but the Stalinists now admits, they only ever represented their own interests as the elite of a now-discredited political system. Corbynism makes the same false claim, but its ambitions are smaller: rather than aiming to govern a state, it aims only to govern a political party. And while it can’t win an election in which the general public participates, it can probably still count on winning multiple internal leadership elections, because the only people who can vote in those are the kinds of people willing to join a party led by Jeremy Corbyn. I have made no pretence of trying to persuade such people in this essay; if a three-line whip in favour of the Tory Brexit bill and the loss of a safe Labour seat to a Tory candidate are insufficient to dislodge St Jeremy from the special place that he holds in their hearts, then nothing I can say will make a difference. There are enough socialism fans in the UK to vote Corbyn into the Labour Leader’s office, but not enough to vote him into number 10, Downing St, and they’re rotten useless at persuading anybody else that voting for Labour candidates might be a good idea, so this — to be perfectly frank — is where we’re stuck (at least until 8 June).

Corbynism is a paranoid and inward-looking politics, obsessively focused on the relationships between and within the groups that make up the self-identified Left. It has little interest in — and still less to offer — the outside world. While Corbyn alienates most members of the public, enamoured socialism fans regurgitate a stock of commonplace platitudes to anyone who will listen, reassuring themselves that the leader of ‘their’ party is a politician wonderfully unlike all others, and that they are right to support him, and that anything that others might suppose to have gone wrong must have been somebody else’s fault (if indeed it was wrong at all). That’s what they’ve been doing ever since he got onto the leadership ballot, and it’s what they’ll still be doing on 9 June, no matter how many talented and hard-working Labour MPs are reconciling themselves to the end of their political careers.

Because that’s just how socialism fans like it. If it wasn’t, they’d shut up and go home.

8 References

Asthana, A., and H. Stewart. 2017. “Labour Caught in Struggle to Survive Media Attacks, Says John Mcdonnell.” Guardian, March.

AWL. 2015. “Back Corbyn, Fight for Working-Class Politics!” Solidarity, no. 372 (July): 5.

Bale, T., M. Poletti, and T. Webb. 2015. “Full Members Able to Vote in Labour Leadership Election (Until December 2015 – Incl.).”

Bertram, T. 2017. “The Copeland Test: Labour’s Core Vote.” @theobertram, February.

Bienkov, A. 2016. “Jeremy Corbyn Supporters Demand He Apologise to Rape Victims for ’Laundering’ SWP’s Reputation,” October.

Billig, M. 1996. Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology (2nd Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bob from Brockley. 2016. “Free Advice for Jeremy.” Bob from Brockley, October.

Cadwalladr, C. 2016. “The new left: don’t call them Corbynistas”. Observer, 18 September.

Cohen, N. 2016. “Marxist-Leninists Are Now the Labour Party’s Moderates.” Spectator (Coffee House), December.

Democratic Audit. 2017. “Losing Momentum? The Power Struggles That Are Hobbling the Corbyn Movement.” Democratic Audit, UK, March.

Eaton, G. 2016. “Exclusive: John McDonnell Named Lenin and Trotsky as His Biggest Influences in 2006.” New Statesman, March.

Francis, R. 2017. “The Medium and the Message.” @Rob_francis, March.

Fraser, R. 2015. “Reality Check: How Much Would Trident Replacement Cost?” BBC, April.

Harris, J., and J. Domokos. 2017. “’They Don’t Care About Us’: The Anger and Apathy Behind the Stoke by-Election.” Guardian, February.

Herman, E.S., and N. Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hodges, D. 2015. “Jeremy Corbyn Has Become the Left’s Enoch Powell: There Is No Point Pretending That Corbyn’s Views Are No Longer the Views of the Broader Labour Party.” Daily Telegraph, December.

Hodgson, G. 2016. “The Terminators: Have Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn Destroyed the Labour Party?” New Politics, July.

Hughes, L. 2016. “Jeremy Corbyn Backs Morning Star After Newspaper Praises ’Liberation’ of Aleppo.” Daily Telegraph, July.

Loach, K. 2016. I, Daniel Blake. UK, France, Belgium: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch.

———. 2017. “Don’t Blame Corbyn for the Sins of Blair, Brown, and New Labour.” Guardian, February.

Morning Star. 2016. “Justice Must Be Won for the Working Class.” Morning Star, July.

———. 2017. “The Only Political Leader Offering Radical Change.” Morning Star, February.

Nelson, N. 2015. “Jeremy Corbyn: If I Don’t Win Labour Leadership, I Can Always Go Back to My Allotment.” Daily Mirror, July.

Orwell, G. 1986. “The Road to Wigan Pier.” London: Martin Secker & Warburg.

O’Hara, G. 2017. “What Is the Meaning of Copeland and Stoke?” Public Policy Past, February.

Penny, L. 2013. “Laurie Penny on Sexism on the Left: What Does the SWP’s Way of Dealing with Sexual Assault Allegations Tell Us About the Left?” New Statesman, January.

Sanghani, R. 2015. “Jeremy Corbyn: ’I Want Half of All MPs to Be Women’,” July.

Sewell, D. 2017. “Must the Labour Party Move Right?” Socialist Worker, March.

Socialist Party. 2016. “Corbyn Movement Must Seize the Initiative — or Face Defeat.” The Socialist, no. 923 (November): 2–3.

Syal, R. 2016. “Disproportionate Number of Labour’s New Members Are Wealthy City Dwellers.” Guardian, January.

Talbot, C.R. 2016. “Corbynism: Not Turning Labour into a Socialist Movement, but Turning a Socialist Movement into Labour.” The Public Investigator, July.

Walker, P. 2017. “Jeremy Corbyn Doesn’t Consult Me on Strategy Decisions, Says Watson.” Guardian, January.

Warren, I. 2017. “Labour Membership Poll Results, 2017.” Election Data, March.

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Williams, M. (ed.) 2016. Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. Nottingham: Shoestring Press.

34 thoughts on “Keeping Corbyn in the Labour Leader’s office, and Labour out of government: ‘socialism fans’ and the culture of Corbynism”

  1. Excellent. Well researched, written and argued. Accurate as far as I can recall from my 4 decades of familiarity with the ‘extra-parliamentary left’. Particularly like the concept of ‘socialism fandom’.

  2. Thanks for this – been reading all I can about the Corbyn phenomenon – this comes closest to explaining it (I live in Australia but family in the UK – including some Corbyn supporters which has me scratching my head)

    1. Whereabouts in Australia are you?

      I am English but moved out here when I was 10 (cos Thatcher won the 87 election). I am in Sydney now and involved with the ALP

  3. Hi Daniel

    Interesting analysis (although I’ve not had chance to read it all thoroughly yet). Given all of the above, which local candidate (or national party, depending on how you view your vote) will you be voting for in the forthcoming general election and what are you hoping the outcome will be?


  4. Brilliantly argued, wonderfully written and despite the fact that trying to persuade members of the Corbyn Cult of anything is futile I still think this is an important piece of writing.

    For what good it will do (probably little sadly) I am going to try and get as many people as possible to read it and hopefully some people to actually absorb its crucial message.

    Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  5. Bravo. An immense amount of work has gone into this, and it will reward several readings. Unfortunately it seems to make the possibility of JC resigning after the inevitable catastrophic GE result very unlikely. I’m in the position of working my socks off for 7 weeks for a Party I feel less & less at home in, in the knowledge if he doesn’t go, I probably will.

    1. I just can’t imagine how tough this election is for you. I was born in England and moved to Australia as a 10 year old, the reason being that on election night 1987 my dad said ‘we are not spending another 5 years under that bitch” and drove to Australia House the next week to apply for emigration, so as you can see I have had the Labour creed in my blood my whole life.

      I am a member of the Australian Labour Party and ran the Digital and Social Media for a seat at last years Federal Election (we lost) and I just cannot imagine what it must be like to be in your position. May is unbelievably incompetent, totally lacking in charisma and is just so beatable, yet you are stuck with Corbyn, who not only ‘can not’ be elected, but sadly ‘should not’ be elected.

      Now if you had a really strong local member, say Jess Phillips or HIllary Benn I can see it being easier to put aside your feelings towards Corbyn and go out and work hard for Labour at the election, but what do you do if your local candidate is a Corbnista? I do not envy you your dilemma mate.

  6. I really enjoyed this essay. It went a long way to explaining why the Corbynistas are only interested in controlling the Labour Party, and not in trying to govern.

    One question it didn’t really touch on is how the Corbynistas mustered sufficient numbers to take over the Party. Obviously the rule change was the mechanism that allowed them entry, but I have a hard time believing that the hard Left could have taken over Labour at any other point in the last 30 years if the change had come sooner. It seems to me that it’s the combination of the rule change and the rise of social media that has allowed them to organise and infiltrate so easily.

    1. “One question it didn’t really touch on is how the Corbynistas mustered sufficient numbers to take over the Party. ”

      There was an unusual coming together of circumstances. First there was Corbyn who had no real heart for the first leadership election and only stood because other more favoured candidates of the Parliamentary Left declined to stand. But his great advantage was that despite his years in Parliament and on the fringes of the revolutionary left, a search of the internet provided nothing by way of quotes apart from some advice to Tony Blair about when he should resign.

      There was a quite widespread hatred of Blair, mainly because of Iraq, and the other candidates were essentially Blairites, who between them managed successfully to split the vote.

      There was the betrayal by the Lib-Dems in the coalition, Labour losing two general elections and the need for a scapegoat/s.

      There was the hatred of the United States of America and Israel, fuelled by what was seen as American and British imperialism in the Middle East, Libya and Afghanistan and of course that evil of all evils “Capitalism”.

      There was the long organisational experience of the likes of the former Militant Tendency and SWP who had waited a long time for the opportunity to re-enter the Labour Party, ably assisted by the likes of Ken Livingstone who had his own reasons to seek revenge on his own party.

      Finally there was social media and the ability to organise a small army of promoters, organisers and supporters, without the need to leave the comfort of their armchairs and computers, other than to attend the odd rally, meeting or screening of Daniel Blake. In this the Guardian’s Comment is Free and its former journalist Seumas Milne ably assisted by Momentum, provided a platform and inside information that allowed daily reinforcing of support for Corbyn, with one line posts, often without a scintilla of political analysis but with massive abuse for Blairite “Red Tories” and so on.

      1. ***But his great advantage was that despite his years in Parliament and on the fringes of the revolutionary left, a search of the internet provided nothing by way of quotes apart from some advice to Tony Blair about when he should resign. ***

        But a search of the internet in those days did reveal some other rather unpleasant things lurking under the Corbyn counterpane. For example, among others:

      2. I see it the other way round: it was social media, or just the internet at first, that fuelled the hatred of Blair, Israel, the US, etc. I’m not sure it really mattered what was happening in the world. The ability for all and sundry to get on their internet soapbox and spout off about things they barely understood was bound to lead to the kind of political extremism we’re seeing now with Corbyn, Trump and UKIP.

        There’s no nice way of saying this, but social media has drawn people into politics who aren’t well informed and don’t have very good reasoning skills. I think in the past these people wouldn’t have been anywhere near so politically engaged.

  7. Brilliant. If only the Corbynistas would read and digest the contents. But then they would probably condemn it as MSM or something.

  8. One other thing to add, when you have wasted your time ploughing through as many columns with clearly had little or no research go into them, that are poorly argued both stylistically and from the sense of their actual content…. on the nations Opinion Pages, it really is depressing that someone who can write like this, with such passion, knowledge, research and just quality prose is only writing on his personal blog, when the Goves and Boris’s of the world get mid 6 figure salaries for poisoning the national dialogue with their well located tripe

  9. A dreary, hollow hit-piece, laboriously constructed and referenced, but presenting nothing worth refuting.

    1. ‘Nothing worth refuting’. Rather – it is irrefutably a truthful analysis. The dreary hollow thing is Corbynism.

  10. Probably the best analysis yet of the current state of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s capture of that party and the politics and lack of politics of those who have propelled him to that position. Its content will be used time and again in my own confrontations with those of his supporters and Corbyn himself who would prefer to see a tiny rump of opposition Labour MPs, sitting on the back benches, keeping alive the flame of whatever interpretation of socialism they hold, rather than seeing another Labour Government, with whose views the have fundamental disagreements.

    For my own thoughts on the political and social background of one of Corbyn’s recent and most enthusiastic converts, see my research about Jane Haybroek who recently announced she is an assistant coordinator of her local Labour Party in Crawley and is currently canvassing for the coming elections on May 4th.

    Haybroek, a barrister, is a former Lib-Dem supporter who joined Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election campaign, but has consistently publicised her disturbing anarchist views. She has also displayed her conspiracy theorist tendancies, claiming the 7/7 London transport bombings to be the responsibility of the UK security services, compared British soldiers serving under NATO in Afghanistan to the very worst World War II Nazi war criminals in occupied France and supported her teenage son’s view that the Tottenham rioters gave Prime Minister Cameron a good hiding.

    It goes without saying that she is a fervant supporter of the antisemite Ken Livingstone about whom she wrote:

    “Now, can someone please tell me why Ken Livingstone saying that Hitler supported Zionism is anti-semitic? It’s true. He did. For his own evil nefarious ends, admittedly, but he supported the Zionists’ desire to create an Israeli state.

    Unless, of course, telling truths that are uncomfortable for Zionists makes you a Jew-hater….”

    She has praised antisemitic comments on The Guardian’s Comment is Free and also compared Britain in 2013 to what was happening to Jews in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia during the Second World War.

    On the 2007 London Transport bombings that killed 52 innocent passengers she wrote about the British Security Services:

    “or the third option, which is that they knew it was going to happen and did nothing to intervene because they saw the political value of letting it happen.”

    “There is some dispute as to whether, if they (the bombers) got on the earlier train that was slightly delayed, and thus arrived at Kings Cross at 8.28, they would have managed to get from the Thameslink station to the Underground in time.”

    “the 7/7 bombers left Bedford on a train that was cancelled.”

    “The rationale for the 7/7 truthers is that in constructing the evidence to cover their tracks, the state got sloppy and attributed a non-existent train to the ‘bombers’.

    On the riots in Tottenham she posted:

    ‘Or, as my 16 yr old lad put it when he saw Cameron on the telly this evening:’
    “Well, Mr Cameron, this is what happens when you f**k people over.”

    She is also a long time supporter of disgraced solicitor Phil Shiner?

    She also posts as BeautifulBurnout / CalamityJane123 / BuddhistBarrister@0Calamity,
    DanielBlake, dharmawarrior and MsLizProbert.

  11. Straight Left, mentioned above, were chiefly organised in the 1980s around the theme of “saving” the Morning Star from the perceived (and chiefly imaginary) threat offered to old skool tankies by the then eurocommunist leadership of the now defunct CPGB. But this is half the story. Earlier, in 1977, a faction of hard-line Stalinists had split from the CPGB and formed the New Communist Party. To a great extent, Straight Left represented those Stalinists in the CPGB who did not join this schism in the ranks of the Communist Party.

    As a result, this recent article from the New Communist Party not only confirms many of the points made above about “socialist fans”, but also the continuities between Corbynism and the very hard left in British politics. Note how it is titled, “All out for a *Corbyn* victory”.

    The NCP has a long history of tailing along behind the Bennite faction in the Labour Party, but this article takes the biscuit.

  12. A very good analysis. I think you correctly identify the cultural rather than political basis of Corbynism and it is very interesting to read about this in the context of the wider British left.

  13. There’s more denialist memes emerging everyday including the claims that in Norway Corbyn would be a mainstream politician (Norway’s left wing PM went on to become NATO’s Sec Gen) and Corbyn is to May what Attlee was to Churchill (noble underdog who’ll win despite being written-off). Corbyn’s salary puts him in the top 2% of earners (threshold for top 1% according to ONS is 162K, the value of his home may put him into to the 1%ers) despite this, because he makes jam and owns an allotment, we are told he’s one of us. Also, despite being as welcome on the doorstep as a Jehovah’s Witness – Corbyn supporters claim doorstepping (as well as marching) wins elections. Watch out for Labour’s collapse in South Wales – as native I’ve yet to meet anyone Welsh w/c who thinks Corbyn’s anything other than a joke (p.s. and they didn’t know he made paid appearances on Iranian state TV and nodded in response to antisemitism).

  14. Your support for your claim that “the Stop the War Coalition…supports the barbaric Daesh/IS” is Hodges (2015).

    In that article, Hodges notes that “Stop The War published several articles. One claimed it was wrong to compare Isil with the Nazis, whilst a second compared Isil to the International Brigades who had fought Hitler and Franco’s fascists in Spain”.

    STW took both articles down but the second, by Matt Carr, can be viewed here. In it he writes that “Daesh…is…a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated”.

    I can’t find a copy of the first article. However, this HuffPo article says that it contained the words “we oppose both terrorism and dictatorship but believe foreign intervention does nothing to deal with them”.

    Much as I have little time for STWC, it seems to me that neither of the two articles Hodges refers to amount to supporting evidence for your claim that “the Stop the War Coalition…supports the barbaric Daesh/IS”.

    1. When STWC claimed it was wrong to compare ISIS with the Nazis, it doesn’t say whether that was because they are worse or better than the Nazis. Hodge in his article writes:

      “Isil has issued a fatwa “to its members authorising them to ‘kill newborn babies with Down’s syndrome and congenital deformities and disabled children'”. It went on to claim: “activists recorded more than 38 confirmed cases of killing babies with congenital deformities and Down’s syndrome, aged between one week to three months. They were killed by either lethal injection or suffocation.” ”

      So if not the Nazis, with whom or what should we compare them?

      Yet Corbyn’s supporters in STWC actively campaigned against military action to defeat ISIS and as Hodge writes – “had been responsible for much of the harassment of those Labour MPs who had voted for military action. Indeed, Stop The War had specifically asked its supporters to prioritise the targeting of Labour MPs, over the targeting of their Conservative opponents. ”

      ISIS has made it clear time and again that they are not open to negotiation and as recent action has demonstrated will only be defeated militarily.

      As for the comparison with the International Brigades, it’s worth quoting Hilary Benn’s speech to parliament:

      “We have a moral and practical duty to extend to Syria the acts we are now taking in Iraq,” Benn told the Commons, addressing his party directly.

      “We are here faced by fascists,” he said of ISIS. “Not just their calculated brutality but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt.”

      “And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated and it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists were just one part of the international brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco.”

      “It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It’s why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice and my view, Mr. Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria, and that is why I ask my colleagues to vote in favor of this motion tonight.”

      Hilary Benn was roundly condemned as a traitor and a “Red Tory” by Corbyn’s supporters.

  15. I was a Labour Party member until 10 minutes after Corbyn’s re-election. With a heavy heart, I emailed them to say that I will no longer give any money to a political party that seems to be hell-bent on forming an ineffective opposition. My monthly contribution which I’d been giving for 15 years now goes to Alzheimers and Cancer Research. I was born and raised in Wigan. All my family are Labour supporters. I lived through the Thatcher and Major years, being unable to vote. My first General Election as a voter was in 1997. For all of New Labour’s faults, Blair recognised that to make real change required the goal of changing the party to gain mass-appeal and to ultimately form a government. The National Minimum Wage, SureStart, record-levels of NHS satisfaction, massive investment in schools, free entry to museums etc. The first seeds of electoral meltdown were sown by Ed Milliband allowing Osborne and Cameron to blame Labour for the financial crash. The gullible British electorate bought the lie. The wife and I watched the excellent movie, The Big Short a few months’ ago and I sarcastically said to my better half “which actor plays Gordon Brown? Didn’t he cause the crash?” Incidentally, Osborne and Cameron borrowed more money than every Labour government in history combined and whilst I’m at it, immigration (the grand Tory theme for the previous two elections) is still not down to the “tens of thousands”.

    Now the traditional working-class vote is haemorrhaging to UKIP and crazily, even the Tories, Scotland has been lost to the SNP and now, even Wales is under threat from the Tories. Deluded Momentum members though keep telling me that they are part of a mass-political movement that is going to change things and shout down or insult anyone who has belonged to the Labour party longer than they have and hold opposing views. I accept that the Labour Party is a “broad church” but surely its raison d’etre is to form a government and implement change. My 6 year old son can look forward to 20 years of damaging Tory rule, just like his dad remembers.

  16. An American friend of mine used to say that the only rule of politics was that something beats nothing every time. Corbynism offers nothing, while May, despite being grotesquely incompetent, at least appears to offer something.

    I’ve voted for and donated to Labour all my life, but until Corbyn and his Stalinist Tendency are removed from power, I won’t waste a vote or a penny on the party. There are better causes to fight for than a rabble of clapped-out student politicians with dodgy attitudes and a record of bettering their own lives at the expense of everyone else.

  17. Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Allington?

  18. What a brilliant, insightful, well-researched and thorough piece of writing!

    As an ex-serviceman, I followed a link here from a post on the Army Rumour Service website posted in a reply on the thread entitled: “Jeremy Corbyn, how can they not see?”

    I am of Polish origin, with family that had suffered under both German Nazi occupation and Soviet Russian Communist occupation and I noted that in reality, when it comes to human values, there is essentially no difference between the extreme left and the extreme right. Both ideologies are more akin to dogmatic religions than to any rational political ordering of human society for the benefit of all of its members.

    I have always believed that people should be given equality of opportunity, which can only happen in an open and free society and that such a society can only be guaranteed by a constitutional democracy underpinned by an open and free economy.

    As far as I am concerned, Socialism (as opposed to Social Democracy) is and always has been “Communism Lite” and as Labour has always had a socialist strain within it (as well as a social democratic strain), I shunned Labour, in the same way as I have always shunned parties of the extreme right.

    The only party I ever joined (for a short while) were the Liberal Democrats after the Social Democrats had united with the Liberal Party to form what I believed could become a genuinely effective modern political party. Then their inconsistencies and general “wooliness” put me off and I cancelled my membership.

    However, I was taken in (conned is probably more apt a description looking back) by Tony Blair when he took over the Labour Party and the social democratic strain appeared to have gained the upper hand in the party. For the first (and last) time in my life, I voted for Labour. I then proceeded to watch slack-jawed as socialist policies destroyed the economy and Gordon Brown at the Treasury disregarded longer-term prosperity for short-term political gain, driving the country ever deeper into debt.

    While I have considered that the Conservative and Unionist Party (to give it, its full name) has often chimed with my inclusivist, unionist (both U.K. and E.U.), globalist, meritocratic views and has often offered the soundest and most practical economic policies; the narrow, nationalistic, parochial “Little Englander” faction that now leads the Conservatives appears to be intent on leading the nation to a “disunited kingdom”, to economic impoverishment and to mediocre irrelevancy. The Conservatives in their fear of having their votes stolen by UKIP, have in fact only turned themselves into a more electable form of UKIP.

    Labour is increasingly left-wing. Conservatives are increasingly right-wing. Who now represents the common-sense middle-ground? I despair that there is not a viable liberal democratic, socially inclusive, economically sound political party that can take the United Kingdom forward to become again a leading force in Europe and the world.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment, Condottiere. I usually reply to most comments on my blog, but I haven’t managed to in this case because it’s all happened a bit too quickly – I had no idea that this essay would get as much attention as it has (there’s an improved version of it now on the New Statesman website, which gives you an idea of how it’s taken off!).

      In view of your comments on socialism and social democracy, I would very much recommend Colin Talbot’s essay on this topic. Talbot argues – correctly in my view – that the Labour Party has never really been a socialist party but always been a ‘broad church’ that is predominantly social democratic. What Corbyn has done is to change the balance by bringing socialists from outside into the Labour Party.

      I’m growing increasingly confident that the takeover has failed, that Corbyn will be ousted, and that his die-hard supporters will leave the Labour Party in disgust (many of the most die-hard of them are not in the party anyway). It is very unfortunate that this is unlikely to happen before the general election. But I believe that the country will soon have a properly functioning Labour Party again, and that what you call the ‘common-sense middle-ground’ will ultimately prevail.

      – – – – – – – – – –

      Edit (27 June 2017): It’s now looking much less likely that the above will happen ‘soon’, and much more possible that it won’t happen at all. But let’s wait and see.

  19. Well, thankfully this turned out to be bobbins. Although to have published it at the time of a general election campaign suggested that it was you that wished to keep Labour out of office, not Corbyn, who worked tirelessly with a million knives sticking out his back.

    PS who did you vote for, and what did you want the outcome to be?

    1. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ‘bobbins’. I regret having relied to some extent on what is coming to be called the ‘clause 1 argument’, i.e. the argument against Corbyn on grounds of electability. The weakness in that argument, although few realised it at the time, was that electability is relative. But it’s a fairly minor component of the essay above, albeit one that surfaced in both the introduction and conclusion.

      I’m not going to talk about how I voted on a public platform such as this, but the result I was hoping for is the one we actually got, i.e. a hung parliament. I felt that this was the best way of limiting the damage that both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May were likely to do if given a majority. So I’m feeling relieved.

      1. OK, but you would remove this sentence, which seemed to me to set-up and justify the whole piece: “But in the six weeks that we have left until the Labour Party is overwhelmingly (and perhaps irreparably) crushed, it may perhaps be worth reflecting on how it got into this appalling mess.”
        I think there is far more to the outcome than electability being relative. Yes, May was quite bad although didn’t have any major presentational stumbles or public melt-downs and there was no balancing piece from you before the election about the awfulness of May and her threat to Tory success.
        Without that balancing piece I would say that the outcome of a hung parliament was in spite of your article, rather than being helped by it.

        1. Yes, of course that sentence would go (and I said as much in response to a comment further down this page). It was how I set up the piece because of the time at which I published it: the essay actually took several months to write, but once the election was announced, I knew I would have to put it out immediately or wait until 9 June, because otherwise Labour Party comrades wouldn’t have forgiven me (I was a member of an affiliate organisation at the time, though I have since resigned). That was the frame I chose because, back then, the evidence was that Labour was about to be crushed. And of course, it was crushed in the local elections, because May’s campaign didn’t really start to come unstuck until the release of the Conservative manifesto. If I were publishing the essay today, I would frame it differently, focusing instead on why middle class voters have swung so heavily towards Labour, while working class voters appear to have swung towards the Conservatives. I’ve written about this elsewhere.

          As for the relative nature of electability, the Conservatives failed on multiple levels: it was a woeful manifesto, the national campaign was incompetent, and what our friends from across the Atlantic would call the ‘ground game’ appears to have been total chaos. And yet they still managed to rack up their highest share of the vote since 1983 and beat the Labour Party by a wider margin of seats than they did when it was led by Gordon Brown.

          Not just Labour, but the whole of British politics is the most horrendous mess right now. The two main parties need major changes at the top, but until one of them makes those changes, the other will have no incentive to.

  20. I note that although you claim to always respond to comments on your blog my own are still awaiting the Rubber stamp from the moderation gatekeeper. What was that about “a month is a long time in politics”.
    With respect to the polls, pollsters, the commentariat and Establishment Media elite Bubbles as Echo Chambers would you now consider that perhaps you have been in one for some considerable time?
    They do say nothing succeeds like success.
    I made a longer post, of which I have kept a copy yesterday. I will be blogging it along with links to your own blog in due course, Those who claim expertise in these matters should stand up and defend their wildly wrong prescriptions when they are found to be not just wanting but fantastical. I assume you would agree that such standards should also apply to you.

    1. I note that although you claim to always respond to comments on your blog my own are still awaiting the Rubber stamp from the moderation gatekeeper.

      No, I’ve never claimed that. The amount of time I have for managing this blog is fairly limited; I wouldn’t be able to do that. As you will see from looking at the comments above, I do approve negative comments. For example, I approved the one you posted here: The web address in that one and the above reminded me that I had seen an earlier comment with the same web address in it. Unfortunately, it was such total gibberish that I mistook it for computer generated spam. That said, if you are going to post multiple links to your blog in every comment, then I will regard your posts as spam, whether computer generated or not — I’m not here to provide free advertising.

      Those who claim expertise in these matters should stand up and defend their wildly wrong prescriptions when they are found to be not just wanting but fantastical. I assume you would agree that such standards should also apply to you.

      Oh, I’m more than willing to stand up and defend what I’ve said. I’ll be publishing a few pieces over the next couple of months, and one should be out quite soon.

      For the time being, I’ll say that I can only see two sentences in the essay above that I would cut out if I was publishing it today, which are the last sentence of the first paragraph and the last sentence of the second-to-last paragraph. Labour was defeated on 8 June, although not crushingly, and — in terms of seats — ended up only slightly further behind the Tories than it did under Gordon Brown. At the time when I wrote the above, I expected Labour to do even worse than that in the General Election (although it did just as badly as I expected in the local elections a few weeks before it, when hundreds of Labour councillors lost their seats). But the real problem with Corbynism — the one that I discuss throughout every part of the above essay between the introduction and the conclusion — is not electoral but moral. There’s a terrific essay about the dilemma that this presents here:

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