Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected 2015 rise to the leadership of the U.K. Labour Party and his recent resounding victory over the right-wing forces within the party that tried to dislodge him are sending shockwaves throughout Europe – waves that could reach the shores of the U.S. if events continue to unfold in the same direction.
During the past decade, the right wing of the Labour Party (i.e., Tony Blair and his followers) has fallen into disrepute for embracing similar, although less severe, austerity policies pushed by the conservative Tories. These unpopular, neoliberal policies include cutting back and privatizing government services, reducing labor protections, and lowering taxes on corporations, all of which translate into less security and a lower standard of living for the working class. Tony Blair’s eager and uncritical participation in the 2003 Iraq war only compounded his unpopularity.
Corbyn, in contrast, has been a steadfast opponent of war and austerity for decades, even though these positions until recently condemned him to political isolation within the Labour Party. He led an anti-war coalition for years, and as a socialist has championed strong labor rights, a generous government social safety net, and a reversal of privatizations.
The political narrative of the right wing of Labour, which has controlled the Party with a vice-grip, has attempted to maximize obfuscation. When Labour Party center-left candidate for prime minister Ed Miliband suffered a defeat to the Tories several years ago, the right wing argued his loss was due to excessive left-wing politics.
When political parties that claim to defend working people embrace policies that for the most part operate in the interests of corporations at the expense of workers, demoralization and resentment of politicians spread far and wide in the working class. Workers either become politically disengaged or begin to seek out more radical alternatives.
In this context Corbyn’s principled left-wing politics have served to galvanize, not just the left, but a broad swath of working people. Hundreds of thousands have joined the Labour Party since his 2015 election to the Party leadership, propelling it into the largest political party in Europe. Corbyn has served as a lightning rod, giving the working class that has suffered from austerity an alternative set of politics that for once defend and promote their interests.
Corbyn’s policies are not just different from those of the right-wing elite who have controlled the Labour Party for decades. They represent different class politics. If implemented, they would entail a significant redistribution of wealth from the rich to working people. Corbyn fights for the working class, while the right wing have made their peace with the corporations and embraced class collaboration by sacrificing working class interests in order to defend corporate profits. For them, supporting corporations means being “realistic” and “practical.” Accordingly, on the day that Corbyn first won the leadership position of the Labour Party in 2015, the right wing began plotting his removal.
However, they did not dare attack Corbyn’s policies directly, since these policies have proved to be unusually popular. Instead, they hid behind a torrent of personal abuse, painting Corbyn as incompetent and unelectable in a national election. They clamored for his resignation. It was a well-orchestrated campaign where criticisms were timed sequentially so that leading Labour Party members appeared to come to the same negative conclusion about Corbyn independently of each other.
When the country voted for Brexit, the right wing blamed Corbyn for the outcome, claiming that his campaign for remaining in the European Union was lackluster and unenthusiastic, and they now screamed for his resignation. Tony Blair himself initiated this attack, although it was hardly persuasive since most of Labour’s members voted to remain in the EU.
Then, when Corbyn refused to resign because of the overwhelming support he received from the Labour Party’s rank and file, the right wing shifted gears and formally challenged him by scheduling a second leadership election. They got behind Owen Smith, a former lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company whose politics hovered within the center-left spectrum and hence were palatable to the right wing.
But Corbyn’s opponents were clearly in a bind. Corbyn’s anti-austerity and anti-war politics were fueling his popularity with Labour members and inspiring even more to join, so opposing these policies would have been political suicide. Accordingly, Owen Smith claimed unconvincingly to have the same politics as Corbyn but with the added virtue of him being competent and electable.
When Corbyn’s rallies drew huge crowds while Smith’s attracted small numbers, the right wing became increasingly worried. In a state of panic they began disenfranchising their own Labour Party members. They ruled that members who joined during the last six months would be required to pay an additional £25 in order to vote. In response to the frustrated outbursts of the rank and file, the right wing proceeded to ban from voting anyone who called them “scabs,” “scum,” “traitors,” or “Blairites,” even though no evidence was provided that these descriptions were inaccurate.
The right wing also banned Labour Party local constituency party meetings because the overwhelming support for Corbyn served only to intimidate and demoralize his opponents. In brief, the right wing did everything it could to suppress a pro-Corbyn vote, short of purging anyone who remotely indicated support for Corbyn.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media were doing everything they could to discredit Corbyn. The “liberal” Guardian ran repeated reports of ugly criticisms being raised by Corbyn’s opponents, without bothering to provide evidence for their truth or Corbyn’s responses. Researchers at the London School of Economics conducted a study that concluded 75 percent of press coverage “misrepresents” Corbyn. The media coverage was so bad that 51 percent of the British public believed that it was biased against Corbyn. In other words, the quantitative increase in negative reporting took a dialectical reversal. Instead of the media increasingly discrediting Corbyn, they ended up discrediting themselves.
Yet despite the avalanche of attacks from multiple directions, Corbyn won an even more resounding victory in this second leadership election, gaining 62 percent of the vote. The right wing was smashed.
Needless to say, the war is not over because in the background the relation of forces between classes is at stake. If Corbyn actually begins to look as if he has a chance to become prime minister in a national election, much of the capitalist class will rise up to oppose him. And if he should win, they will initiate economic sabotage with the hope of destabilizing his government.
While capitalists enjoy power because of their vast money, working people can only exercise power because of their numbers. After all, they represent the vast majority. But this power only exists when workers are organized and mobilized so they can act collectively, not when they remain atomized individuals. In order to establish collective action, Labour Party members must not only see the Labour Party as representing their interests, they themselves must have a direct role in defining its policies.
In fact, while the right wing of the Party views the membership as at best an annoyance that must be manipulated into silence or passive acclamation, Corbyn has been advocating increased rank and file role in the Party decision-making. He has proposed that members have the opportunity to vote on key Party positions as well as allowing them to elect which members of the Party become cabinet ministers. In this way the members can control its direction, and they become more invested for this reason.
Already Labour Party meetings are being transformed from staged performances where members have little-to-no input – much like many union meetings in the U.S. – to lively debates where members are eager to attend.
This democratic dimension has differentiated the Corbyn phenomenon from Bernie Sanders where Sanders ran a top-down organization and dictated policy positions to his supporters. For this reason, he never succeeded in creating a real movement, and what little existed has now evaporated.
But in addition to democracy, in order to win a national election, the Labour Party must inject itself directly into the British class struggle. When teachers or health care workers have gone out on strike, Corbyn has walked the picket line with them. Now Labour Party members will need to get out in force and join these picket lines in order to convince the working class in general that the Party is fighting for them. In this way Labour can become deeply rooted in the class that it purports to represent and at the same time draw more support from the workers. Fortunately, the organization Momentum, which was created outside the Labour Party in order to promote Corbyn and his politics, is filled with political activists who could take the first steps in getting Labour Party members involved in these struggles.
In a recent speech at a Labour Party conference John McDonnell, one of Corbyn’s closest allies and current Shadow Chancellor in Corbyn’s cabinet, concluded his speech by saying:
“Imagine the society that we can create. It’s a society that’s radically transformed, radically fairer, more equal and more democratic. Yes, based upon a prosperous economy but an economy that’s economically and environmentally sustainable and where that prosperity is shared by all. That’s our vision to rebuild and transform Britain.
“In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it’s called Socialism.”
This vision is shaking British politics to its foundation.