Corbyn and the Future of Labour – A Verso Report: Review and Discussion

Date finished: February 10th 2017

I’ve outlined before that you should be following Verso Books in some capacity because they’re a fantastic publisher of great political books, among others, mostly of a left-wing bent (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Corbyn and the Future of Labour, a free eBook released in September 2016 (which you can download here), collects a series of articles an essays on the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn looking at its past, present and future.
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  • Tariq Ali provides a summation of Corbyn’s tenure thus far, chronicling the various crises his leadership has been forced to weather as carried out by internal and external opposition.
  • After that is a somewhat baffling piece on the atmosphere at a Corbyn rally by Joanna Biggs. I think some editing may have been missed on this one, as it concludes a touch nonsensically, which I’m sure is just an unfortunate error. It is a free eBook, I s’pose.
  • In short article ‘The Coup’, Rachel Shabi outlines how the second Labour leadership election sought to undermine the grassroots movement that had given Corbyn his overwhelming mandate, and that the party was seeking short-term, quick fixes rather than committing to the slow growth and necessarily planning required to react to Brexit and Tory rule.
  • Following that, George Monbiot rails against Labour’s past tendencies to legitimise Tory policy by echoing it in their own manifesto, through Blair and Miliband, a fair criticism.
  • Jamie Stern-Weiner comments on the groups “fomenting anti-semitism whilst claiming to combat it” in the accusations leveled at Corbyn’s Labour of anti-Jewish sentiments pervading the party and effectively shows the paucity of the evidence and the hyperbolic reaction by forces hardly known for their sympathy towards Corbyn in the first place.
  • Richard Seymour attacks the visionless Labour Right and its lashing out at Corbyn whilst being unable to present a viable alternative to him, opting ultimately for the nonentity Owen Smith who crashed and burned, and expresses a hope that, after a second leadership win, Labour can present clear alternatives to the Tories and Labour right by proposing solutions to the Southern Rail debacle, the ongoing victimisation of junior doctors and other similar issues.
  • Hilary Wainwright analyses the crises Labour has weathered under Corbyn in terms of Ralph Miliband’s seminal work Parliamentary Socialism, seeking to show that the Labour party has always wrestled with the contradictions of a staunchly parliamentarian Labour right and a democratic socialist left, and that the ultimate threat of Corbyn’s movement is to undermine the traditional establishment machinations so determinedly guarded by its supporters by threatening a new system.
  • The Question of Leadership, is perhaps the stand-out piece in the whole book, because it’s the most constructively critical of Corbyn, and elucidates some rather interesting points. Jeremy Gilbert speaks on the two leadership perspectives. The first, a marketing-style leadership, which uses business ideology to present a leader who can sell the party and its policies to the public, all of which are designed to be very appealing and easy to sell. He remarks, “From this perspective, the practice of politics is fundamentally a matter of making one’s particular political brand the most popular in the consumer marketplace.” The second, a socialist leader which embodies some broadly Marxist ideals and whose policy is often swayed by union groups.

    Within this framework, Gilbert argues that Corbyn’s leadership has achieved the first part of the latter leadership form by creating a grassroots movement that appeals to the dispersed groups that were last appealed to by Labour in 1983. They’ve got this far, but Gilbert believes that they fail to realise the importance of considering the marketing perspective as well. On the other hand, he says that the Labour right understand only the marketing perspective. The need to marry the two seems overlooked. But, he argues, the only way forward for Labour is to push to reform the electoral system through a long-term strategy of compromise, and a willingness to weather the storms ahead in order to build a strong power base of honest politics that goes against the grain of alternative facts and misinformation.

  • After this, Alex Williams takes a look at levels to which Neoliberal ideology has pervaded the Labour party, and, similarly to Gilbert’s piece, argues that Corbyn must enact a long-term strategy to reform the British electoral system within the parameters of the Marxist concept of hegemony.
  • Up next, Ellie Mae O’Hagan sets out some possible directions and moves for the Corbyn leadership in the wake of the coup, arguing for a realistic embrace of its rather bad polling, and a long-term strategy towards reunifying the party by giving its MPs a concise, uncontroversial message to get behind and build momentum from there through strong opposition, clear communication with the public and the media, and by capitalising on grassroots activism.
  • A short interlude with an irreverent checklist of things Labour leaders should and shouldn’t do by author Michael Rosen.
  • Aaron Bastani discusses the Corbyn leadership’s promise to engage in new digital media to transform its future campaigns by using his experience to suggest possible avenues for Labour to explore that combine grassroots socialism with the new technologies in the digital sphere and a hierarchical group to conduct the digital battle to win an election.
  • Finally Lindsey German ends with a piece that takes a look at Corbyn’s anti-war record in the context of Labour’s rather pro-war stance through history, that has continued under Corbyn on the Labour right which finds itself unable to shake itself of its Blairite warmongering.

Of course, Corbyn and the Future of Labour was released in September 2016, so it’s arguments have become somewhat dated by the intervening six months. Labour has been caught between a rock and a hard place since Brexit, culminating this week in Corbyn issuing a three-line whip to get Labour MPs to vote for the government’s Brexit deal, which resulted in the resignation of Clive Lewis from the shadow cabinet.

This YouGov poll summarises Corbyn’s problem: Labour voters are so divided over Brexit that there’s no possible right course of action for him to take. Whatever he does, the media will attack him and so will Labour voters. In this sense, voting with the government was probably his attempt to get the whole ordeal behind him as quickly as possible in the hopes of repairing the damage after the event.

As much as I like Corbyn, and indeed voted for him in the first Labour leadership election, I don’t think his position as party leader is tenable. The party continues to deliver mixed messages, partly through disorganisation, partly through undemocratic attempts to undermine Corbyn, and partly through the difficulty of the events it finds itself in. How can Labour be united and competent in such a divided Britain?

The ideas in Corbyn and the Future of Labour are powerful, interesting and hopeful expressions of the fight that the Left needs to continue. But Corbyn isn’t the one to lead that fight. He’s weathered the storms of resignations, coups, media mudslinging, Brexit and more, but it’s taken its toll on his electability, and Labour’s polling (not that we trust polls any further than we can throw them in Britain) is abysmal.

Corbyn was perfectly electable before the various attempts to undermine became a self-fulfilling prophecy. That, after all, was the idea. But now it seems as though the Labour right, the madness of Brexit, the right-wing media and the Tories have won. We now live in a country ruled by a woman no one voted for, pushing through an agenda that little over a quarter of the electorate support, whilst buddying up to an unintelligent psychopath who lost the US election in terms of net votes.

In response to that disastrous and downright disturbing state of affairs, the left needs to build a movement in response, but Corbyn’s too damaged at this point to lead that movement. He’ll be a valuable member of it, but he won’t be the one to parachute it to success in 2020 or thereafter.

7/10
Related Reading 

The Establishment – Owen Jones

The Anti-Inauguration – Verso Books

The Brexit Crisis – Verso Books

 

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