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The Corbyn Movement: What Path Forward for the Left?

29-Oct-2020By Tom Barnard and Stephan Kimmerle

Today, October 29, the Labour Party suspended its former leader Jeremy Corbyn. We stand in solidarity with Jeremy and reject the accusations that the Labour Party under his leadership was institutionally antisemitic. There is no basis for these accusations as the British website Counterfire points out in exploring the allegations in detail. But clearly this marks another milestone in the revenge of the right wing against the left leadership Corbyn represented between 2015 and 2019. We publish here some articles to shed some light on the strength and weaknesses of the Corbyn movement that are of international importance for those who want to rebuild a socialist and a combative working class movement.

In 2016, and again in 2020, the U.S. left, and especially the socialist left, was excited and inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign. For the first time in decades, a candidate referring to himself as a socialist was espousing policies well to the left of the mainstream of the Democratic Party: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, taxing the rich, while calling for a political revolution against the Billionaire Class.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar experiment was taking place. In the summer of 2015 Jeremy Corbyn, a left, social democratic Member of Parliament of the British Labour Party, was nominated to run for the Party’s leadership. Though regarded as a fringe candidate, centrist Labour MPs who did not politically support him wanted to make a show of broadening the debate by including a socialist voice. Normally Corbyn would not even have made it on the ballot, but what happened next almost nobody expected.

Changes in the rules of the party by the moderate wing of the party made it very easy for new people to vote within the Labour Party leadership election. These changes were initiated to limit the influence of trade unions and the membership of the party to consolidate the neoliberal orientation of the party that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had championed.

Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party had mirrored the policies of the Democratic Party’s neoliberal Clinton wing. Blair moved the party towards openly neoliberal and anti-working class positions such as “ending welfare” and supporting globalization. Blair’s “New Labour” also abandoned a working class agenda, introducing market-based reforms in the education and health sectors, instituting student tuition fees and reducing certain categories of welfare payments, and refusing to reverse the privatisation of the railways enacted by his Conservative Party leaders John Major. Later Blair even acted as junior partner to the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq.

Unlike the through and through pro-capitalist Democratic Party in the US that Blair tried to mirror, the Labour Party was originally launched as a working class party in the struggle to overcome capitalism. Blair tried to get rid of all the remnants in its program and the links of the party to the trade unions and working class militants.

However, in 2015 the backlash against Blair’s neoliberal policies of austerity and “New Labour's” neoliberal politics resulted in hundreds of thousands joining the party in support of Corbyn. He was elected in 2015 with 59 percent and re-elected in 2016 with 61 percent, despite opposition from the parliamentary wing of the Labour Party. Membership in the Labour Party grew from 200,000 in May 2015 to more than 580,000 by 2020, making it the largest party in Europe. Under his leadership Labour’s positions moved to the left, opposing the British involvement in the Syrian war, demanding the renationalization of the railways as well as an end to austerity.

In addition to the growth of the Labour Party itself, a grassroots organization called Momentum was founded as an activist organization of left Labour Party supporters. Controversial since its inception, it operated similarly to the DSA in the U.S. focused on developing grassroots electoral activism. Unlike DSA however, it was in its internal structure a very top down run organization with no real say of its members over its policies and without democratic structures to give chapters a say and develop its own campaigning. While initially carried forward by the enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands, this lack of democracy limited its ability to become a real force on a much larger scale in electoral politics.

Momentum polarized the Labour Party, with Blairites accusing it of infiltrating the party to purge parliamentary leaders it found too conservative. Unfortunately, this was untrue, as for all it’s social media and electoral presence, Momentum members did not attempt any systematic campaigns against Labour Party Councillors and members of parliament, nor did Corbyn mount any serious battles against Blairites in the party.

Nonetheless, the Conservative and Liberal parties, as well as Blairite Labour Party parliamentary figures struck back hard at Corbyn. A vicious campaign by major media outlets, hounded and slandered Corbyn relentlessly. For them, he was much too far left, called “looney”. They said he didn’t represent Labour’s base. There was even a major campaign mounted against his so-called antisemitism, based on Corbyn’s long-standing support for the Palestinian people.

Looming over all of this was the Brexit referendum calling for Britain to leave the European Union, a huge issue for the British people. As the real hit of a hard Brexit is now looming for the end of the year, we will produce and publish more material on Brexit in the coming weeks.

Under the impact of the dominance of Brexit in the discussions in society and an indecisive stance that Corbyn himself took (see article here), , Labour suffered a historic defeat in the election in December 2019, and Conservative Party Leader Boris Johnson was reelected. Then in April 2020, Corbyn resigned and Keir Starmer, a moderate candidate who presented himself as ‘centre-left’ candidate won the Labour Party's leadership election with 56 percent of the vote.

Starmer tried initially to appease the left wing of the Labour Party with promises of inclusion. Corbyn himself stated he wanted to “Make sure our party is always proud to be a socialist party,” but it was not to be. Starmer sacked Corbyn supporter Rebecca Long-Bailey from her position in the Labour Party’s shadow cabinet. And on October 29, Corbyn himself was suspended and de facto expelled from the Labour Party group in the British parliament.

Though a newly elected Momentum leadership has tried to steer this organization in a more radical direction, opportunities to organize the hundreds of thousands inspired by Corbyn´s call for a socialist future seem over. Activists are turning their back to Labour, some try to keep the left organized within Labour, some call to leave the party.

This marks the end of five years of struggle where working class people tried to use the Labour Party again under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in their defense against the daily hardships of capitalism. With this end of Corbyn-ism, what's left now from this movement? What could be the next steps in Britain and what are the conclusions the left internationally could draw from the rise and fall of this attempt to fight for working class interests in the political arena?

Below are a variety of views from key figures on the left on these questions: