We May Have Lost But Corbynism’s Legacy Is Astonishing

(Leon Neal / Getty Images)

The coronavirus crisis has dealt untold damage to the world economy, hitting the West’s key players – the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union – with marked ferocity and negligence of social impact. Alongside the destructive nature of the crisis, many political illusions have been exposed that until exceptionally recently seemed very vivid and very solid. The illusion of economic stability, the illusion of relative social cohesion, the illusion of supposed ‘fiscal responsibility’, deference and political disunity. All are part of the great political tapestry worn throughout the last decade or so that have come to define contemporary political discourse and in many ways contemporary political behaviour. One illusion above all has been demonstrated to be at best thinly veiled and at worst false. It is that of economic and social provision. This can, in many ways, be incorporated into the others listed but it must be given the status of its own designation simply due to the significance it holds in the events of both the last decade and of the now.

It marks, for the Conservative party, a drastic change in economic policy. Throughout the last ten years, policy under Cameron and Osbourne and then May and Hammond, with regards to welfare provision, public services and investment had in essence been: don’t spend, let the private sector make up for government shortcomings and live within the government’s means. This argument was built out of the rubble of the 2008 financial crisis in which the Conservatives claimed it was Labour’s supposedly reckless spending which was the cause. This argument negates the fact that it was a global economic crisis principally based upon the incongruent speculative bubble that the world’s banking sector had been creating for the preceding twenty years or so. Alas, though the argument of living within one’s means and not saddling future generations with debt was persuasive enough to win three consecutive elections (albeit with two hung parliaments and one slender majority) it wasn’t correct. It subsequently, and some may claim inevitably, created major damage to not just the economic infrastructure of Britain but its social fabric too.

There was a sense, lacking prevalence yet quietly considered, that the result of this degrading social fabric would likely exacerbate pre-existing anger, frustration and division. In turn, such subtle yet widespread strength in emotion inevitably led to political meltdown. This presented itself primarily in the form of Brexit; with its many facets and complications, it performed the role of wrecking ball. It crashed into the political status quo – that of a small government, economic austerity, social liberal nature. The cogs of government ground to a stand still, some may even prefer the term paralysis, whilst the political party machine disintegrated with similarly bogus symptoms. The national political infrastructure became largely ineffectual in the face of the crisis with little movement or action.

Corbynism – the political project – was primarily a response to the shifting of the Labour Party rightwards in the 1990s/2000s, two election losses both in the wake of New Labour’s legacy, and austerity enabled by the 2008 financial crash. It was a project centred around traditional socialist and social democratic leaning economic policy: big government and state intervention. In many ways it tapped into Labour members’ nostalgic yearning for the successes of the 1940s and 1960s driven by Keynesian economic thinking. Corbynsim combined the socially liberal stance of the early Blair years with a far more leftist economic agenda more at home in the post-war social democratic settlement than in the post-Thatcher era. The project only became possible through unlikely success in the 2015 leadership election and subsequent victory in the 2016 attempted coup by the Parliamentary Labour Party. For a long time, certainly since the dawn of New Labour in 1994, the left of the party had been sidelined as their perceived radicalism was judged to be unelectable. This perception was born out of the successive election losses in the 1980s and early 1990s aptly dubbed ‘The Wilderness Years’. Yet, despite the odds, the far-left won the 2015 leadership election with a mandate to shift party policy onto an anti-austerity platform.

The grassroots organisation Momentum was founded by Cobyn campaign leader Jon Lansman to support the new leadership in its attempt to transform the party. Leftist members, often backed by Momentum, won major positions in the party including the NEC, the Shadow Cabinet and the position of General Secretary eventually became occupied by Corbyn supporter Jennie Formby. Near total control was exercised between 2016 and 2019 by the Corbynistas over the Labour Party as they began to institutionalise and normalise traditional leftist policy. This process of control and institutionalisation was much helped by the shock performance in the 2017 general election which Labour didn’t win but did considerably better than expected. The political dynamic for much of the Corbyn years was introverted. Much of the politics focused on internal battles and procedures with less focus on the parliamentary and electoral battles. In a lot of ways this very introverted behaviour from those Corbyn loyalists was problematic; the lack of communication with the country, and too much focus on internal party dynamics is almost certainly a component of what led to a Labour loss in 2019. At this point it must be said that both the Corbynista and Blairite factions are mutually and equally culpable for such infighting and both must share blame for the divisive nature of the party’s politics over the last five years. 

In spite of this, the introversion of the political gameplay did have its advantages – namely it was successful in its aim of institutionalising and normalising anti-austerity, traditional leftist policy within the party.

This is the important bit.

When discussing the Corbyn years, it is easy and correct to say that when put to the wider electorate Corbyn was less than successful. He never won a general election and in many other electoral contests including by-elections and council elections the party often under-performed. Yet, this isn’t surprising if there is much investigation into the beginning of the Corbyn years. Right up until 2017 Corbynism was referred to by many commentators and supporters as the ‘Corbyn Project’. Until 2017, The Project was questioned consistently on its desire to win a general election. In short, winning, until 2017, was never the number one priority. The terms of the debate within both party and country had previously hinged on the idea that austerity was a necessity and not a political choice. The Corbyn Project was primarily an attempt to bulldoze that narrative. This makes sense. The pre-existing economic and political settlement entrenched anti-progressive economic policy making the task harder for progressive politicians come election time. The idea of removing this culture from the party first, and only then the country is not just an ideological act but one which levels the playing field for a progressive form of politics. Funnily enough, it’s attempt to transform the political culture and discourse of the party and culture, for the most part, succeeded.

Thanks in part to the party’s surprise election performance in 2017 and the resignations of George Osbourne and David Cameron – two politicians who did the most to sell the political concept of austerity – the terms of debate and general discourse have changed. In 2010 the question was, what can be cut? By 2017 it was, should the government cut? Contemporary arguments are where should we spend? Even Theresa May prior to resigning was beginning to discuss the end of austerity. Even if this claim is judged to be rhetorical in its entirety the fact remains that the Conservatives certainly feel a need to claim the end of austerity and neoliberal dogma in order to win elections. The strange phenomena of the neoliberal settlement continuing long after the 2008 financial crisis led many to question when the status quo would change. This change, in the latter part of the decade, almost ten years after the crisis of 2008. This is a remarkable transformation of the political landscape and though this may well be a bold statement, it’s not too far fetched to say that, based upon its initial aims, The Corbyn Project (dubbed Corbynism post-2017) is, after euroscepticism, the most successful political project since Blair’s second landslide in 2001. 

The 2019 election, for all the misery contained in being a Labour supporter, is in a crucial and strange way more optimistic in outlook for progressives than first understood. The Conservatives, for all their talk of Brexit and limits to immigration, were forced to discuss traditional left or centre-left policy (similar to Labour). Crucially, they have been forced to talk about policy earlier advocated by Labour even after the election with such rhetoric now being extended to massive state investment during the coronavirus crisis. Conservative flagship policies include a £10.50 minimum wage, major infrastructure investment, more police, more nurses, more hospitals, NHS funding, and funding for education. In the recent budget the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, pledged £175 million more in spending than originally pledged in the election whilst committing to abolishing the so-called tampon tax. 

Though there have been successes for The Corbyn Project, it is underlined by failure in the wider party’s mission: to be elected to government. This a fundamentally key part of the party’s mission and one which was beyond Corbyn’s leadership. The party lacked the strategy and the professionalism of New Labour. The next step for the Labour party is to harness the transformation of the political battleground like the Conservatives have done and create a narrative incorporating that which resonates with voters – particularly socially conservative and non-ideological voters in traditional, skilled, predominantly working class towns.

Corbynism most certainly had its failures but it surpassed its supporters’ and even its critics’ own initial expectations. There was never an expectation that he was going to win an election, never mind transform the political status quo of the country. It has been the successful first part, in a two part transformation of the party’s policy and electoral culture and it’s certainly the first step to a transformative Labour government for the many, not the few.

Daniel is a political activist and Senior Associate Editor of Liberal Base. His interests are in populism, democratic crisis, western party politics and automation. He tweets @danny_hod and blogs at dannyhodson.com