Jeremy Corbyn is back on the backbenches, a familiar place for an MP who has spent all but 5 of his 37 years in parliament there. I can’t help but wonder if he’s a little bit relieved to be in his natural habitat. A young disciple of Tony Benn, Corbyn entered the House of Commons in 1983 just when the movement that supported his hero was in retreat. Corbyn and his dwindling band of allies resisted every attempt by successive Labour leaders to move away from the left wing programme that brought humiliation at the polls. When New Labour ruled he rebelled on a regular basis and the eventual defeat of that centrist experiment gave his party an ineffective leader in Ed Miliband. Joining the Leadership election in 2015 was seen as a token effort to make up the numbers. According to his close comrade John McDonnell, Jeremy didn’t want to do it but it was his turn to fly the banner of Labour’s socialist left.
Then came Corbynmania.
This resulted in a victory few predicted and Labour had arguably the most left wing leader in its history. Key union bosses supported him and so did thousands of new followers, who swiftly joined up as full members. The majority of the MPs were not so keen and he was undermined by many almost from the start. An internal challenge was organised in 2016 and there was even an attempt to keep him off the ballot paper. A snap General Election in 2017 saw a surprise surge in support for Labour in the final days, another week and they might have won. Instead the Conservative Party hung on as a minority government propped up by the DUP. Two years later and another General Election brought a terrible defeat and Corbynism was in crisis. Divisions over policy notably Brexit and an amateurish campaign reduced Labour to their lowest Commons total since the 1930s. Attempts at continuity were dashed with the defeat of left candidates in the subsequent leadership election and a different course was on the agenda. As the months have passed it has become clearer that Sir Keir Starmer is determined to present himself as moderate to the electorate in preparation for 2024. So what is the legacy of Corbynism and what role will the left play now their man is no longer leader?
Despite serving as Leader of the Opposition for almost five years, Corbyn never had control of the party. He does however leave behind a left that is considerably larger than when he assumed office. In 2015, they were a tiny minority, no major unions had backed Diane Abbott in her leadership bid in 2010 and the Socialist Campaign Group was so small it could have met in a phone box. Left wing controlled Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) were rare. But the picture now is very different.
Unite – the party’s largest affiliate – remains firmly under the control of the left, this is offset by the likes of Unison and GMB although both have elections pending for their respective General Secretaries. The Campaign Group now has 35 MPs, no small number in a parliamentary party of barely 200, demonstrating the success that Momentum had in getting some supporters selected in 2019. Momentum themselves have split into factions and, given Starmer’s victory, is considered a minority amongst the membership albeit a vocal one. This is Corbyn’s legacy: a Labour left that presents a challenge for the new leader. The key question for the future is will Keir Starmer be able to repackage his party like Kinnock did in the 1980s or can the left make a comeback?
Whatever happens, the outcome of Labour’s internal power struggles will have a profound effect on the future of UK politics.
David is a member of Horsham Liberal Democrats.