Tomorrow, Jeremy Corbyn’s term at the helm of Labour will come to an end. Some of The Social Review’s editors and contributors give their thoughts on his leadership:
“Corbynism changed what we thought was possible within electoral politics”
It is impossible to overstate how necessary Corbyn’s victory was for the Labour party. Had it not happened, there is a very good case that the party would have split from the outside in the same way as other European social democratic parties. Better to be on 202 seats with 32% of the vote than on 45 with 7%. It needed to, at the very least, adopt the possibility of radicalism – even the right wing of the Labour party now sounds properly like the right wing of a labour party, instead of a pathetically constrained American style party. Though the line about winning the argument gets mocked too often, it is undeniable that Corbynism changed what we thought was possible within electoral politics.
And yet. With some exceptions (the very specific moment in 2017 during and just after the election), the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was extremely bad for me; not only on a political level, but because of issues that no one person is really at fault for. My bad experiences with Corbynism are fundamentally those of culture. The deeply unhealthy culture which was created by both sides of the Labour party around the leadership issue made every disagreement a moral inquisition; for compromise to be impossible. There were weeks where it seemed that a vast amount of my time was spent watching people I liked fall out and give each other panic attacks. But all of that is very small next to the miserable shame that was watching the treatment Jewish friends and activists got, and the contempt in which the leadership treated them. It will take a long time to fix that.
So what happens next? The truth is that due to circumstances, “next” is sort of an undefined state that won’t really come along for at least six months and maybe two years; and even then, “next” will not be anything we even know. That said, while that might be a dream long dead, if there is to be a future for Labour, it has to rebuild the 2017 coalition: the leafy, pro-European liberals who would not turn out (or who went Lib Dem or Green) in 2019; the young people energised about the politics of their future who didn’t seem to believe as hard two years later; the small towns who were bitterly disappointed by the combination of Brexit and mistrust in Corbyn. Right now, it does not feel like that will be possible, with return to a normalcy that has been completely smashed to pieces.
Julia Blunck, Editor
He failed – but we all remember how close he got
Jeremy Corbyn’s term in charge of the Labour Party, like most Labour leaderships, was a failure. Of course it was. He took control of a party in low spirits which had lost the last two elections and had 232 MPs, and leaves a party which has lost the last four elections, has 202 MPs and is under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
But it’s not that simple. It never is. There’s no getting away from the above facts, but there’s also no pretending that the last few years in British politics haven’t been a bit out of the ordinary.
Firstly, any leader would have struggled to weather the challenge of Brexit – I’m not convinced that there actually was a good answer to Labour’s quandary. My best guess is that the party’s eventual position was about right, but that the lengthy hesitation before settling on it did considerable damage. Who knows; maybe we should have gone full FBPE or headed straight for Will Sorenson’s beloved LEFTA. Equally importantly, the Brexit divide presented the Conservatives with a golden opportunity which they eventually seized. Secondly, however, the left has rediscovered its sense of purpose. A party which looked exhausted in 2015 saw a huge influx of members, an upsurge in enthusiasm and at least at one point a considerable improvement in fortunes. Labour lost in 2017, but we can all remember how close we got to victory.
Labour’s 2019 manifesto didn’t connect with the electorate as its predecessor did. There are all sorts of explanations for that (including a challenging external environment – Brexit couldn’t be fudged again and the Tory campaign was less shambolic). A personal view is that one key mistake echoed one of New Labour’s original sins – a failure to recognise when an argument had to be made and won. Blair (and especially Brown) were so worried that the country was fundamentally Conservative that they tended to do ‘good by stealth’, which unfortunately meant that many progressive policies were easily rolled back once the Tories returned to power. Corbyn’s team, however, thought that too many of their policies would automatically be popular, resulting in (excellent) initiatives like free broadband being sprung on an unsuspecting electorate which hadn’t really begun to think about the issue before.
At any rate, the next step must not be either ‘continue Corbyn’s work’ or ‘bury his legacy.’ Politics is rarely kind to simple explanations. In 2015 (and in 2017) we were told that Labour’s Scottish woes were squarely due to the party having drifted too far right. We were told – and I certainly thought it might be true – that the route back to relevance and indeed success was to unashamedly challenge the SNP from a proudly left-wing standpoint. Maybe that was necessary. But it hasn’t been sufficient, to put it mildly. When things go catastrophically wrong for a party, and they did go catastrophically wrong for Labour in December, they rarely have one cause. Still less frequently can they be solved with one step. Moving left was not a panacea for Scottish Labour. There’s a lesson there for the UK party (and it isn’t ‘move right.’)
Since the beginning of the leadership contest, the world has changed with terrifying speed. None of us know what ‘normal’ is going to look like when it eventually returns, or what context will confront Labour’s new leader. However, one thing is for certain: a nuanced view of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will serve his successor far better than characterising it either as a golden era or as an aberration to be consigned to the past.
Hugh Brechin, Deputy Editor
“The 2019 manifesto … is as comprehensive a set of solutions to the challenges of this century as we yet possess”
Like quite a lot of people of my age in politics (whether they wear it as a badge of honour or mention it occasionally, chagrined), I joined the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn. His election was profoundly exciting, charged with a sense that at last young left wing people might at last have a vehicle for things they actually believed in; an alternative to austerity, to placidly unequal neoliberal technocracies, to what is now widely termed “capitalist realism”.
Corbyn was elected in the month I moved to this country. More than most, I think, due to the blank-slate nature of starting a life in an unfamiliar place, I owe much of the shape of my adult life to the unassuming MP for Islington North. Pushed into politics on the wave his election created, I have held some species of drone tier role pretty much continuously throughout the Corbyn years. Almost everyone I know in this country, I know through the party. I am a complete hack; my internal world smells of risoprint.
My feelings about the man himself have waxed and waned throughout this time. I am a big believer in the unglamorous side of politics – I respect a contact rate – and I found, in the first few years, the seeming disdain I often encountered on the absolute boy’s side of politics for this kind of grunt work extremely unedifying. This is, I should say, no longer the case; I think it is something the grassroots organisations of the left recognised as a real weak point, and latterly the organisational networks and campaigning tools brought to bear by Momentum have left all other internal groupings in the shade.
The problems I have had with Corbyn stretch a long way beyond 500 words – his handling of the anti-Semitism crisis was utterly disgraceful and to many wholly discrediting; his tacit support for the Ortega regime was something I personally found particularly difficult to parse. This being said, mapping the 2019 manifesto onto the current state of play, it is clear that it is as comprehensive a set of solutions to the challenges of this century as we yet possess. I think it is also fair to say that this is not a set of positions, or a view of the world that the Labour Party could have arrived at without the disruption of Corbynism – one with real moral animation, a grounding in green issues and a sense of the horribly, brutally possible nature of our current moment.
A dark thought I had on December’s terrible, terrible election night was that the people whose arguments I had dismissed as being entreaties to “dream smaller” were right; that a paucity of imagination is a political plus after all. I think events have shown this to be very much not the case; “broadband communism” has gone from a punch line to a necessity in three short months. Holding on to the animation and imagination of Corbynism should be the concern of the new Starmer administration, who have already made all the right noises when it comes to clearing out many of the era’s less savoury elements.
Morgan Jones, Editor
“What follows this isn’t likely to look much like Blairism”
As a veteran of the exhausted impotence of the Miliband years, it’s easy to see what upsides there were of Corbynism. The party relearned how to argue again from its core beliefs – a far sight from the desperation of ‘speedy boarding for veterans’, or what David Axelrod characterised as the party’s “vote Labour and win a microwave” policy tendency. Our instinctive stance of taking an almost embarrassed defensive crouch in arguing for the things we believe in was blown away by the 2017 result, where we came within a handful of seats of locking the Conservatives out of power. It is an open question how much that result was a positive one driven by support for our manifesto, versus a negative one driven by revulsion at Theresa May’s. Nevertheless, it is proof of concept that a socialist manifesto, in the right circumstances, does not have to be dead on arrival. (Though make of that what you will, given the circumstances that had to arise for it.)
The energy of the new membership is something that is likely to stay with the party in some way. It was said of failed 1964 libertarian US presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that he won his election, it just took 16 years to count the votes – a reference to how influential his platform was on Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Equally, the history of the Labour Party shows that the party goes through almighty internal ruckuses every 25 years or so, but that what emerges from the smoke tends to be a definitive settlement. What follows this isn’t likely to look that much like Blairism. For all the fretting about Rachel Reeves’ response to the political economy of 2013, if she is to be Shadow Chancellor, we’re unlikely to see much of a repeat of the benefits bashing of the Miliband years or rank latter-day New Labour policies such as Jim Purnell’s high-interest emergency loans. Even if the 2020 Labour Party’s instincts would allow it, two million people are about to come into hard contact with the benefits system. The political impetus is not going to be there for responses of the sort that disillusioned members and powered Corbyn to the leadership.
At the same time, we should bear in mind that many of our first instincts just got creamed at the ballot box. Even if we have in a lot of ways ‘won the argument’, it doesn’t do us much good that the public would largely prefer it if the Conservative Party put our ideas into action. We shouldn’t take the rancid Chris Leslie-esque position of arguing from the right, but we should also be wary of taking this pandemic political economy as a blank cheque to continue to demand everything we ever wanted all at once. If there’s one thing to learn from the 2019 election, it’s that an overstuffed wish list of a manifesto won’t win us trust, and won’t get us taken seriously.
We need to pick and choose our battles of where they align with public opinion – covering rent forgiveness, ending the 5 week universal credit wait, improving universal credit for those out of work – and be serious and specific about what we’re trying to win at any given time. This doesn’t have to be a ‘we can’t have nice things’ prospectus: more one which recognises that if we seek to create a new Jerusalem, we can’t build it in a day and without any trade-offs. If we can get this right, the Corbyn years won’t have been for naught. The ultimate lesson for how much hope we can still hold is how much of Labour’s 1983 manifesto made it into 1997’s.
Tyron Wilson, Editor
Yearning and heartbreak
I grew up under New Labour and I grew up in the Woodcraft Folk, and so a certain kind of utopian leftist politics was always with me. I knew that New Labour was kinda rubbish, especially after 2003. I always yearned for something more left, something that wouldn’t capitulate. I wanted a transformed world, right? Anyone can see that the world isn’t right and I wanted someone to help change it.
In 2015 I had a vote in the leadership election, though I’d resigned my membership in the Miliband years because I was frustrated with Tristam Hunt’s capitulation on education policy (I was a teacher and am a child of teachers). And there was Jeremy Corbyn, who I didn’t know much about, who was obviously Different from the others on the stage, who just seemed to be selling the same thing that had cursed us the last five years and longer. So I voted for him. I don’t really think it was the right decision, given what followed, but it felt hopeful in that summer of 2015. There was that charge in the air.
And then it was rubbish, really. The PLP kicked and screamed and hated every minute, and some of those objections were valid and some were not. But more than that it became clear over time that he himself was kinda crap, prevaricating, uncertain. There was all sorts of stuff that was exciting in those days, interesting energy, a Labour party that seemed to be articulating a future, but it felt increasingly there was a vacuum at the heart. And I wasn’t a member, then. Had I been in 2016 who would I have voted for? Neither, really. By then it was clear to me that Corbyn didn’t seem to have it, but Owen Smith felt rubbish too – exactly like all those people I hadn’t voted for in 2015.
2017 came and I thought it was going to be a disaster. But I felt I should join the party and campaign in good faith, because whatever the result I wanted to be part of what was next. It was good. Felt purposeful. I increasingly disliked Jeremy himself and it became clearer and clearer he was morally flawed, but I thought I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and feel sad. I’m glad I got involved, then – and then 2017 was so… successful? Well, not quite, but the loss that felt like a win, because we’d all priced in a disaster.
The next two years, though, were torrid. Looking back they feel like wasted years, nothing years. It felt like maybe Labour could do better, at first, but over time I became more pessimistic. All the warning lights were red, but people kept convincing me maybe it would be OK, maybe we could surge again. The antisemitism crisis grew. Time after time I wondered if I ought to stay in this party, but those I’d grown to consider my comrades gave me strength and reassured me that it was worth articulating a vision of the future, that even if disaster fell we could pick up and keep on going. That’s what I hoped for. Then disaster did fall, and it felt worse than I’d ever dreamed.
I feel like I waited my whole life for a Labour Party to come that could speak the language I cared about, and seemed to stand for values I believed in. I thought it had come, in that weird summer of 2015, and by the end of 2019 I felt heartbroken. I feel shit supporting a party and a leader whose morality I doubted, but I also feel shit for all those people who tell me I’m not truly a socialist, not worth being in the party, not worth calling a comrade, for not liking him. I feel like I’ll carry this irrational woundedness for longer than I should.
Corbyn, the political hero?
Corbyn’s leadership was often analysed through the lens of political heroism rather than political leadership. His qualities were drawn from a relatively novel vocabulary in politics; typically, a good leader will be described as wise, strong, decisive, charismatic or any such variant. Corbyn, however, was inspiring, moral, principled, selfless, someone who put the rights of the oppressed before himself. Corbyn was frequently elevated beyond a regular politician into someone holier, someone untouchable, reaching its zenith in the summer of 2017.
This was further aided by our contemporary political context and his own aesthetic qualities. We live in a time of populism, with a growing need for politicians to be seen as superhuman. Indeed, after 2015, the Labour Party needed a hero – as Ciaran writes, Labour required a purpose, and the arrival of a man whose politics have always derived from egalitarian principles was perfectly timed. Aesthetically, Corbyn has also always been anti-political; he has looked like an old man since the 1980s, lives in a downsized, unassuming house, sports a beard, an unpolished look, and so on. Indeed, Corbyn’s age allowed him to construct an image as a political Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or Obi-Wan Kenobi – an aged hero famed from the glory days of activism, come to save Labour at its darkest point.
The incredible deference paid to Corbyn personally has always felt at odds with the communal spirit of socialism his followers claim to espouse, which leads me to think that, for many, and perhaps even Corbyn himself, personal advancement and maintenance in power was paid greater heed than what was best for the party. I think fear is to blame: the history of the Labour Left, constantly compromising and being shut out of the room, is more than enough to fuel a lifetime of anxiety. The early successes of Corbyn as a political operator encouraged his personal intertwining with socialism; you were not a socialist, but a Corbynite.
The problem with embedding one man so deeply within a party’s political philosophy and swathes of personal careers is that, once he has to go, it becomes untenable for everything else to stay. The elevation of Corbyn into a political hero – a political god, at points – eschewed self-awareness of his leadership’s faults, most damningly his association with and allowance of anti semitism within the party. It encouraged a dogged determination to stay in power, still driven by that same fear of losing, always defended by vouching for Corbyn’s politically heroic qualities and dismissing criticism as smears against an honest man with popular policies. What a dramatic twist of deserving irony that the result of Corbyn’s leadership is that same failure they feared most of all.
Jasper Cresdee-Hyde, Podcast Editor
Continuity with Change
While there is no doubt Corbyn has given the Labour party purpose it previously lacked, there are a number of areas that should be regarded as a complete failure to live up to the kind of party that was promised in 2015.
The rightly maligned immigration mugs of the Ed Miliband era were thrown out, but our immigration policy has barely changed: in 2017 Labour’s manifesto went further than its 2015 predecessor, with current leadership contenders Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey both calling for immigration to be reduced during the election campaign.
They took their lead from the manifesto’s vague yet matter-of-fact assertion that “Freedom of Movement will end when we leave the European Union”. 2019 was little better, while Labour had promised to defend Freedom of Movement, this was dependent on a remain vote in a second referendum – which amounts to the 2015 status quo. Taken against the backdrop of the passing of Labour Campaign for Free Movement’s motion at conference, it’s hard to see Corbyn’s Labour as anything but a continuation of the Miliband-era approach to immigration, but with softer rhetoric.
The very policy issue Corbyn was elected on – welfare – has seen a similar softening of rhetoric coupled with piecemeal policy proposals. In 2017 Labour’s welfare policy was non-existent, with £7bn of Tory welfare cuts being kept in the manifesto. Welfare has always seemed like an afterthought under Corbyn’s leadership; which is still, perversely, an improvement on previous Labour leaderships, which went out of their way to demonise welfare claimants. This does not excuse the lacklustre manner in which welfare policy was approached during Corbyn’s tenure. Labour’s 2019 policy was simply to scrap Universal Credit, no replacement was ever mentioned or proposed.
Over the next two years millions of people will come into contact with the welfare system who otherwise would not have, due to coronavirus. Labour needs to have more to say than that it will simply scrap Universal Credit. It is an indictment of Corbyn’s leadership that it currently does not.
Taken with the failure to win elections, disgraceful handling of antisemitism and falling back on stitching up selection processes, it is increasingly hard to see the positives of Corbyn’s leadership, when we are forced to live with the consequences of its failures.
Ciaran McGurdy, Contributor
“The Corbyn project is one I will look back on with sadness”
I entered the Corbyn leadership a naive and angry fifteen year old who voted for Yvette Cooper in 2015 because everyone else in my family did. I leave the Corbyn leadership a tired and angry twenty year old who voted completely differently to the rest of my family in 2020. By nature I think I’m an angry person. I’m angry at the current government, I’m angry about the general state of the world and I’m angry at quite a bit of the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn.
The Corbyn project to me is one I will look back on with sadness. I’m glad Labour is a firmly anti austerity party, and there won’t be a return to mug-based policies. Corbyn won the 2015 leadership election because he best answered the question “what is the Labour Party for?” His answer of a radical anti-austerity movement has been accepted as a consensus, certainly by those running for leader this time round. Yet the legacy of the Corbyn project is also a hard Brexit, an EHRC investigation into institutional racism and an 80 seat Tory majority. I think that outweighs the other side.
There have of course been highs. Getting messages from people I barely spoke to in school, when being in the Labour Party was distinctly uncool, saying they were voting Labour, or canvassing for Labour, or asking which seat they should vote in was pretty cool. Obviously the 2017 election and those few weeks where I genuinely thought Jeremy Corbyn might become Prime Minister felt amazing, purely because for someone so used to losing (at football, at politics, at whatever basically) it looked like my lot might actually win for once. Of course we didn’t, and it felt increasingly like the strategy was just “let’s do that again.”
And there were the lows. The EHRC investigation. Panorama. Allegations against people, including members of Corbyn’s own team, being dismissed by some purely because they were onside (to be fair, something not limited to one faction of Labour). The constant antagonism, like there was always some enemy that all of Corbyn’s ills could be blamed on (although some elements of the PLP didn’t exactly help themselves at times). The total lack of introspection that laid the ground for the catastrophic situation we find ourselves in.
Ultimately, the rank culture under Corbyn was an important factor when it came to weighing up who I voted for this time. The result isn’t out yet, but I’m pretty confident I’ve gone zero for three in picking a winner. Do I think Keir Starmer will sort out this culture problem? Yes. Do I think he has the right answers to tackle our electoral problem? Not necessarily, otherwise I would have voted for him. What I will say is that the Labour Party will continue regardless of the result in 2024. It is, and will remain, the best movement for progress and to improve the lives of working class people regardless of who is leader, as it was under Attlee, under Blair, and under Corbyn.
Sean Smyth, Contributor
There is a bitter taste in my mouth as I watch the political project I’ve put so much time and effort into dissolving before my eyes. A lot has happened since 2015 in my personal life, and the constant rollercoaster of the Labour Party under Corbyn was one consistent thrashing in my life. So to see it come to a halt, particularly in these circumstances, is something to behold.
I’d categorise the Corbyn project, overall, as overcompromising, and overcompromised. In defining itself solely in opposition to a Conservative Brexit, Corbyn’s Labour completely failed to make a positive case for a Labour government’s relationship with Europe, either inside or outside of it. In being in compromise to his own unity shadow cabinet, Corbyn compromised with the worst elements of managerial liberals, ditching freedom of movement at the behest of Keir Starmer. In compromising the left’s radical policy agenda to a fiscal credibility rule which stacked the cards against itself, Corbyn’s Labour put all of its incredible radicalism at hostage to taxation and continued economic growth.
The project was built on compromises, and was compromised from the start because of this. Left compromise to work with people who are absolutely undeserving of our movement’s support, with the ghoulish enemy of our enemy deemed our friend Chris Williamson allowed to ride with the PLP for far too long. An inability to call antisemitism antisemitism when it comes from friends would collapse the trust in our party from all corners of the UK. The continued nepotism of left insularity, characteristic of CLPD and Unite would hamstring Corbyn’s successor. Nothing has changed.
It is easy to imagine that Corbyn tried to live the left dream of the Labour Party without doing what needed to be done to achieve that. Ultimately progressive, democratic, and anti-racist, the dream was never realised. Democratic reforms lay in waste and tattered. Antisocialist MPs sit in the PLP still ready to punch left and crush a genuinely radical movement. Antisemites remain across the party, sheltered by jobs for the boys. The left must learn from these failures. We may not get another chance.
William Sorenson, Contributor
A Complicated Legacy
When we look back on the legacy of Corbyn’s leadership, it is important to consider the circumstances of his victory. The pre-Corbyn Labour Party had completely flatlined, and the timidness of the Miliband era was the logical culmination of a set of guiding principles that had run their course – a failed attempt to shake off the zombie of a kind of New Labour politics that hadn’t had anything new to say for years. With this in mind, aspects of the Corbyn era were part of an absolutely necessary modernisation of the party.
It would be pointless to pretend that this necessary break with the past wasn’t overshadowed by a huge moral failure when it came to effectively rooting out antisemitism. It has been notable that all three of the leadership candidates have acknowledged to some extent the struggle the party now has to win back the trust of the Jewish community. The case against the party here is undeniable and is one of the first tasks for the next leader. Repairing the party’s damaged relationship with its own Jewish affiliate, let alone the wider Jewish community, requires urgent action and not just lip service.
The internal problems and the catastrophic loss in 2019, to varying extents, had some basis in the way in which what Jeremy Gilbert calls the Orthodox Left functioned internally within the party. He describes how “many on the radical left agree with former MP Alan Simpson, that the dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies of the orthodox left smothered the creative and democratic potential of Corbynism”.
This argument isn’t a comprehensive explanation of all the nuances of exactly what went wrong (nor, I expect, does it claim to be) – blame for the problems within the party over these last 5 years is shared considerably more widely than any narrow grouping. But the critique seems to ring at least partially true. The names of the most dogmatic, sectarian and generally unhelpful members of Corbyn’s inner circle are well known. The leaked Andrew Fisher resignation, in which aspects of the operation in LOTO were slammed, reveals the extent of this rot. This chaos doesn’t seem unconnected from what felt like a shambolic election campaign in 2019, in stark contrast to the effective and impressive campaign the party ran in 2017.
It would be foolish and short-sighted to claim that there aren’t aspects of the project that must be taken forward. Labour under Corbyn represented a sincere attempt to build a radical social democracy against serious odds. The party’s commitments to universalism, democratic public ownership and the development of the Green Industrial Revolution must not be retreated from. Equally, the fact industrial action was rarely, if ever, equivocated over during Corbyn’s term as leader was a huge positive. This was no longer the era of “these strikes are wrong while talks are ongoing”. No future leader should oversee the return to the timidity of those days and a key priority must be to strengthen the power of labour further.
Keir Starmer is about to become leader in a genuinely unprecedented period of British politics. It is a moment that demands a real paradigm shift and he must not shy away from the radicalism that preceded him. However, the party must quickly move on from the institutional failings that squandered its potential and address the issues surrounding antisemitism that destroyed trust in the party amongst many in the Jewish community.
Joseph Hamm, Editor-In-Chief