The Corbyn Revolution

A historical perspective is the key to democratic politics” - Tony Benn (1)

On 12 September 2015 Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party winning 422,664 votes or 60% of first preference votes and trouncing the New Labour candidates Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. This was the start of a radical shift in the Labour Party. One year later Corbyn was re-elected leader with 62% share of the vote. Over 150,000 new members were prevented from taking part suggesting his victory could have been even larger.

 

Since Corbyn stood to become party leader, Labour has gained more than 300,000 new members. He declared “we have made Labour the biggest left of centre party in Europe, and gained the support from people we lost decades ago” (2). It was now conceded by the pundits that Corbyn was popular among rank and file Labour Party members. However his ‘extreme’ views would be rejected by the wider electorate.

 

At the start of the 2017 general election, the Tories had a massive lead in the polls. Corbyn was under siege from the Tory press, his own backbench MPs, the BBC and the Tory election machine. A crushing defeat was widely predicted. Yet despite all this, no-hope Corbyn triumphed again. By Election Day on June 8th he had led a very effective campaign against Teresa May’s leadership.

 

Labour’s anti-austerity message proved to be very popular. Labour took 41% of all votes cast and defeated May’s campaign for her “strong and stable” leadership. Although the Tories won most seats, Labour won the battle for hearts and minds. She lost her Commons majority. The Tories ended up in a hung parliament and in coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party.

 

A close run election was decided in Scotland. If the SNP vote had held up, Jeremy Corbyn would have become prime minister in a social democratic alliance between Labour and the SNP. A Unionist offensive in Scotland led by Ruth Davidson’s Tories took back SNP seats and thus kept Corbyn out of Downing Street.

 

Spirit of Forty Five

 

Back in 2013 Ken Loach questioned some young people in making his film “Spirit of ‘45”. When they read the 1945 Labour Party manifesto and the constitution of the Labour Party, they said “we’d vote for that, we’d vote for common ownership and democratic control, we’d vote for the projects the ‘45 manifesto outlined.” (3)

 

The central message of Labour’s 2017 programme was ending austerity, scrapping student tuition fees, nationalising the railways, providing an extra 30 billion for the NHS, increasing workers rights, building more houses etc. It still appeals to working class people living under the harsh austerity of the Tories. It still connects with the ideals of socialism and trade unionism and all the supporters of a British road to socialism.

 

The rise and rise of Jeremy Corbyn reflects the rebirth of support for ‘socialism’ as Thatcher called it, first in the Labour Party, and then among the wider electorate in England and to a lesser extent in Scotland and Wales. This is still attractive to ‘baby boomers’, born and brought up during and after World War II.

 

Now the ‘spirit of 45’ seemed to inspire a new generation of young people desperate to find an alternative. The election transformed young people’s perception of politics. A massive 62% of young voters backed him. Two thirds of eighteen to twenty four years olds voted for Corbyn’s Labour. More than half of the twenty five to thirty four years old did the same. (4).

 

Jeremy Corbyn ended the 2017 election looking more like the next Prime Minister in waiting. The excitement and enthusiasm, which followed him all the way to Glastonbury, was a ‘revolution’ in hope. This is not to be disparaged. But we should not get carried away by the sight of JC walking on water or feeding ten thousand with a few fishes. Nevertheless there has been a sea change in politics.

 

Corbyn’s Revolution

 

In neo-liberal Tory Britain the rebirth of support for ‘socialism’, as a popular movement enthusiastically supported by young people and led by a fringe politician in his late 60’s, is so unlikely as to be ‘revolutionary’. There is, of course, a ‘Corbyn Revolution’ facebook page and a T-shirt with the same slogan. Is there more to it than that? Some commentators think so, and have begun to analyse it.

 

“The Corbyn revolution: what it means and where it is going” is the theme taken up by Marxist writer Alan Woods. He locates the present situation in the world crisis of capitalism. Politics has been shaken up in Greece, Spain and the United States with Bernie Sanders. “What we are witnessing in Britain is the beginning of a political revolution.” The pendulum has swung sharply to the left. “That is the real explanation of what has become known as the Corbyn revolution”. (5)

 

The Socialist Party, said its leader Peter Taffe, backed the Corbyn revolution “energetically”. Corbyn had defied Labour’s right wing and added 3.5 million votes in this election, the best results for Labour since 1945. Now following “Britain’s earthquake election” it was time for “consolidating the Corbyn revolution” by democratising the party. Corbyn should “open up Labour to the new socialist forces which include the Socialist Party”. (6).

 

Left Unity backed the ‘Corbyn Revolution’ which had “unleashed expectations which can’t be met within the existing structures of the Labour Party”. (7). Neil Faulkner saw the “Corbyn Revolution” as “the British franchise of a worldwide phenomenon that has included Syreza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Bernie Sanders campaign in the states, and Jean Luc Melenchon in France”. (8)

 

Martyn Eden, writing from a Christian perspective, says “Corbyn’s revolution is about a mass movement committed to radical change”. His critics have “failed to see that his movement isn’t interested in institutional politics – it’s about popular revolution”. It should be compared with the “Jesus revolution” which refused to play by the rules of the political and religious elites in Roman occupied Jerusalem. (9).

 

Likewise Corbyn’s opponents were presenting him in revolutionary colours. New Labour’s Damien McBride says that “Corbyn is securing his revolution from within” (10) learning from revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. He and his allies are working with “relentless and at times brutal efficiency” to secure control over the Labour Party. “Corbyn hard left to purge moderates in Bolshevik style revolution” is how the Daily Express warned its readers of the red menace. (11).

 

Democratic revolution

 

By contrast Corbyn did not describe the movement growing up around his leadership as a ‘revolution’. He did not present it as the beginning of a Bolshevik uprising, the second coming of Jesus Christ, or the start of a Stalinist red purge of New Labour. Instead he made a case that the UK needs a democratic revolution.

“Labour leader calls for democratic revolution” was the headline in the Morning Star. Corbyn argued for a “democratic revolution” to “rebalance power in the country, communities, the economy and his own party”. He vowed to replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber and introduce mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees. (12).

 

Socialist Resistance conducted a series of interviews with Corbyn’s young supporters. Hannah Webb, a twenty three year old student, pointed to his most significant appeal. It was “his emphasis on democracy” and “the need for grassroots and actively participatory democracy both within the Labour Party, and in wider society.” She said that his plans “for a democratic revolution in our politics, communities and workplaces would be exciting and transformative” (13)

 

Corbyn outlined his plans for a democratic revolution in a speech to the South West conference of the Labour Party in Bristol. He explained “The first pillar of the new politics is the ‘democratisation of public life from the ground up.....giving people a real say in their communities and workplaces... breaking open the closed circle of Westminster and Whitehall and yes, to boardrooms too”. (14)

 

“That is why” the Labour leader explained “ we want to see a mushrooming of online democracy and citizens assemblies and why we’re backing a constitutional convention to bring power closer to the people, in every nation, and region of or country, in every community, town and city.” (15. Consequently “There would be citizens’ assemblies to discuss where power should be held, who should hold them, and how should they be accountable – of the voting system, House of Lords reform and the voting age”. (16)

 

“We want to see this democratic revolution extend into our party” Corbyn declared, “opening up decision-making to the hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters.” As Hannah Webb observed, democracy is not just another policy. It is the means by which people make change themselves, strengthening “popular pressure against austerity, holding any future Labour governments to account”. (17)

 

Constitutional Convention

 

In February 2017 the Guardian gave some clues as to Labour’s policy on the constitution. Sources in Scotland said they were confident that Corbyn would set up a constitutional convention which would be supported by Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, Gordon Brown and Lord Falconer. Dugdale called for reforms to create a new federal structure for the Kingdom with the Lords replaced by a Senate. These reforms were backed by Scottish Labour’s conference. (18)

 

Dugdale’s proposals related to the 1707 Act of Union which unified the Scottish and English parliaments at Westminster. The ongoing crisis in relations between England and Scotland visible in the 2014 referendum had seen a collapse in Labour’s support in Scotland. Dugdale wanted a new Act of Union to preserve the old constitution and help restore their influence in Scotland, whilst admitting that Corbyn was “not mad keen” on her proposals. (19)

 

Labour unveiled its 2017 election Manifesto on 16 May. It identified a “democratic deficit” in the United Kingdom. This was one of the major themes in the EU referendum. Leaving the EU has major implications for UK laws. The Manifesto says “as we change our constitutional relationship with Europe, we must also adjust our own arrangements. Just as many felt that power was too centralised and unaccountable in Brussels, so many feel that about Westminster”.

 

Labour offered two kinds of answers. First was the call for a constitutional convention. Corbyn told a meeting of activists in Glasgow that a “people’s constitutional convention” was needed to “put the public back into our economy and break the grip of vested interests”. (20) The next Labour government will establish the convention to look “at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally”.

 

Labour promised to put its own proposals to the convention. “Our fundamental belief is that the Second Chamber should be democratically elected. In the interim period, we will seek to end the hereditary principle and reduce the size of the current House of Lords as part of a wider package of constitutional reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain”.

 

Labour made proposals for the diffent nations. England would be given a Minister of the Crown as an answer to the democratic deficit in England. Scotland and Wales would be offered more federalism. The government “will extend the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services. We will reduce the voting age to 16. We will safeguard our democracy by repealing the Lobbying Act, which has gagged charities, and introduce a tougher statutory register of lobbyists”.

 

Thatcher and Corbyn

 

The so-called ‘Corbyn Revolution’ can be compared with the ‘Thatcher Revolution’. They form a neat historical symmetry. After her election in 1979 Thatcher began to undermine and overthrow the 1945 social contract. She led the country from a mixed economy, demand management and social democracy to free market capitalism and control of the money supply. In 2017 Corbyn’s election campaign threatened to reverse the ‘Thatcher revolution’.

 

The symmetry of a liberal economic revolution and a social democratic counter-revolution has to be qualified by the obvious fact that Corbyn did not win political power and carry out Labour’s programme. The impact of the 1984 miners strike has not been reversed. We are comparing the triumph of neo-liberalism with the possibility of reversing it. The would-be ‘Corbyn Revolution’ still stands in opposition to the actual ‘Thatcher Revolution’.

 

These two ‘revolutions’ have one thing in common. They are not political or constitutional revolutions. Thatcher was a strong defender of the British constitution. The ‘Corbyn revolution’ has no plan to end the British constitution or even the constitution of the Labour Party. Both the Tories and Labour stand on the constitutional foundations of the Crown-In-Parliament which long since secured the dominant position of the City of London within the British economy.

 

The neat symmetry of these two ‘revolutions’ does not tell the full story. Of course it is obvious that the world has moved on since 1945 and 1979 and that history will not simply repeat itself. The success of Thatcher and New Labour in replacing the post war social contract with authoritarian-liberalism requires a different kind of revolution. At the heart of the ‘Corbyn revolution’ is a contradiction between restoring the social monarchy and making a democratic revolution, between 1649 and 1688, between Levellers and Whigs, between restoring the social monarchy and making the social republic.

 

The Corbyn movement straddles that contradiction by giving hope to a popular movement which gathered around his banner all those alienated from or hostile to authoritarian liberalism. This still reflects the politics of the past not yet the programme of the future. It amounts to skirmishing in the foothills of democratic revolution which appeals to young people radicalised by the neo-liberal disaster. It is as if young people try to find their way out of our constitutional prison by first trying to open all the doors.

 

21 November 2019

 

NOTES

 

  • (1) The Cap Times John Nichols 14 March 2014)
  • (2) Financial Times 24 September 2016).
  • (3) Salman Shaheen: Ken Loach Discusses His Hopes for Left Unity 20/11/2013 (Updated 25 January 2014)
  • (4) Harriet Angerholm Independent 10 June 2017).
  • (5) Alan Woods, Socialist Appeal, International Marxist Tendency 4 December 2015).
  • (6) Socialism Today 26 June 2017).
  • (7) Resolution passed at LU 2017 conference)
  • (8) Neil Faulkner Left Unity website accessed 23 August 2017)
  • (9) Martyn Eden Premier Christian Radio - Premier.org.uk).
  • (10) Guardian 19 November 2015)
  • (11) Daily Express 21 June 2017).
  • (12) Luke James Morning Star 23 August 2016).
  • (13) Socialist Resistance, Corbyn: a new visions of democracy 31 August 2016)
  • (14) Labour List 21 November 2015)
  • (15) Labour List 21 November 2015).
  • (16) Labour List 21 November 2015)
  • (17) Socialist Resistance, Corbyn: a new vision of democracy 31 August 2016)
  • (18) Guardian 24 February 2017)
  • (19) Guardian 24 February 2017)
  • (20) Guardian 24 February 2017).

 

 

Copyright © Republican Socialists 2017

Designed by Patrick Sweeney 2017