Even as we sat, struck dumb and winded by the exit poll, it was impossible not to notice the thin glee of the pundit class on election night. There were none of the commiserating platitudes granted to soft-left candidates like Neil Kinnock or Ed Miliband. As they transitioned from their panic in 2017 to smugness in 2019, the media ghouls were clearly determined to kick Jeremy Corbyn while he was down. As he finished his last Prime Minister’s Questions today, a question faces all those who were inspired by Corbynism in recent years, can we build our own project in the absence of the man from whom it took its name?
Whether Corbynism goes down as a blip or as the rebirth of a movement will depend now on how we are able to cohere in his absence. Corbyn has talked of his dislike of the idea of ‘tolerance,’ saying that we should instead practice ‘respect.’ This will be vital in holding together the coalition formed under him. The Corbyn membership surge brought the social movement Left into the party, and establishing of a network of intellectual exchange between these activists, the academic Left and the trade union movement may yet be his legacy.
While the “cult of Corbyn” was always a caricature, plenty of us would confess to feeling a deep affection for the man. But for all the ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ chants and lionising of the MP for Islington North in the 2017 election campaign as “the absolute boy”, it was his positions on the issues that led the Left to regard him with the tenderness typically reserved for a cherished grandparent. That, and the almost superhuman strength of character he has shown in defending these positions in the face of relentless attacks. He may not be a street fighter, or able to appeal to blue-collar workers interviewed by grifting journalists due to the supposed lack of “fire in ‘is belly,” but Corbyn has a moral courage that surpassed his predecessors.
For a man routinely mocked by the liberal media as lacking in charisma, Corbyn had an extraordinarily galvanising effect on the British Left. This wasn’t because he possesses some latent magnetism, it was because his beliefs resonated with those of thousands of other progressives from disparate traditions and with wildly varying political origin stories. Labour activists who joined up and joined in under Corbyn range from the highly politicised to relative agnostic. Before Jeremy Corbyn, Labour membership was at risk of falling below 100,000. After him, the party can genuinely claim to have a mass membership once again.
Corbyn making the ballot in 2015 was a shot in the arm for a non-parliamentary Left which had been long scattered into sects. Some older revolutionary leftists returned to a party they had left or been expelled from, but they were far from the dominant demographic. A fissure sometimes threatened to appear in the movement during disagreements between some veterans of these traditions and much younger recruits who have come from movementist backgrounds in Stop the War or the 2010 student movement. Both of these were, of course, supported vigorously by Corbyn and John McDonnell. Yet where collaboration has taken place, the young have often been grateful for the nous and discipline of their older comrades, who in turn have been impressed by the dynamism and imagination visible in, for example, the Deliveroo and Wetherspoons strikes.
British politics might have become more polarised by age – but the Labour Party is a place where conversations flourished across generations. Far from being the hoary old socialist dinosaur depicted in media scepticism, Corbyn facilitated an atmosphere of newness, and in this atmosphere it was possible to create and renew solidarities. This probably had the effect of launching the Left beyond what its infrastructure and level of political education could sustain. Corbynism at times resembled a prodigious footballer on loan in League 1, having lumps kicked out of them by players with less quality but considerably more savvy.
Nonetheless the culture of the Labour Party has shifted under Corbyn due to the influx of new, young members and activists. Some of the pre-2015 anti-intellectualism has been swept away. Pre-Corbyn, the idea of something like The World Transformed running alongside the Labour Party conference would have been risible. People from social movement politics who in the past voted Labour while holding their noses – or didn’t vote at all – became seasoned Labour activists. Some of them are standing or contemplating standing as Labour councillors whenever the elections are rescheduled.
It is partly down to the influence of these people that Labour’s policy on addressing the climate emergency went from an afterthought in 2015 to a detailed programme for a Green New Deal in 2019. Even given our failure, this has changed the debate – it’s hard to imagine Channel 4 televising a climate-specific hustings had Liz Kendall been Labour leader. The 2017 manifesto, thought at the time to be a another lengthy “suicide note” like that of 1983, ended up being so popular that fiscal conservatives peering through the Overton Window now find themselves blinking in disbelief as the government plans widespread nationalisations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, it is highly unlikely many of Sunak’s recent measures – from wage guarantees to investment pledges – would have been enacted had Jeremy Corbyn not changed the economic conversation.
This is worth remembering when we assess the relative merits of the candidates to replace Corbyn. As a deep recession begins to bite, and with the Tories embracing a ‘national-popular- agenda, does Labour really want to turn its back on the bold economic policies Corbynism championed? Every Labour leadership candidate has said they’ll generally adhere to the raft of policies proposed by Corbyn. But if the Corbyn years taught us anything, it’s that candidates should be judged based on whether they are willing to stick by a commitment to socialism and anti-imperialism in tough times – not when they are playing to the choir of a left-leaning membership.
December’s defeat was a painful one, and Labour needs a plan to rebuild its coalition. But it can’t forget that under Corbyn in 2017 the party secured its strongest result since the 1997 landslide. Little attention has been paid to Corbyn’s role in the assemblage of a voting bloc including liberal internationalists who might previously have been Lib Dems, hippyish humanist types who might previously have been Greens, first time younger voters and the kind of anti-establishment voters who might have voted UKIP in 2015 and Tory in 2019 but were briefly onside in 2017. In order to build out from that coalition, we’ll have to take on some of Corbyn’s strengths.
This means agitating, organising and showing solidarity even when it’s hard. A year ago this month, Jeremy Corbyn was physically assaulted in a mosque. If it had been any other Labour leader, this incident would be burned into our brains – but because it was the demonised Corbyn, it has been allowed to slip. It’s public knowledge that at least one attempt on Corbyn’s life was planned. Standing up for working people and the marginalised here and around the world came with significant costs. Yet he never let it stop him campaigning or making himself available to members of the public. Corbyn’s extraordinary patience and energy should inspire not just activists but Left MPs and councillors.
Looking ahead, we must accept no defeat as final in our efforts to democratise the Labour Party. No Left leader would survive the kind of disgusting character assassination and abuse from the Parliamentary Labour Party that Corbyn so often endured. The representatives who spearheaded it cannot be allowed to benefit from their actions. We must also build our own media, so that the next avatar for socialism in our lifetime doesn’t have to spread their message through the conduit of a rabidly anti-socialist press and a debased public service broadcaster.
During the tightly coordinated resignation dominoes in 2016, an anonymous Labour MP was briefing journalists that the intention was “to break him as a man.” Yet Corbyn, for all the accusations of weakness and frailty, was not broken. Soon he will return to opposition’s backbenches, and as he said today: “my voice will not be stilled, I’ll be around, I’ll be campaigning, I’ll be arguing, and I’ll be demanding justice for the people of this country.”
Attempting to reconcile what seem like irreconcilable differences between Labour’s contrasting factions and traditions will be somebody else’s job. Corbynism might have been a dog’s dinner of social democrats, trade unionists, LGBTQ+ activists, “Watermelon” Greens, pacifists, anti-imperialists, anti-racists, Trots, tankies and liberals. But any coalition that aims to represent the working-class will necessarily be broad. Ours looked far more like the world outside Westminster than the suited army of PPE professional politicos that preceded it in the Labour Party.
I met Corbyn once, briefly, at the Labour Party conference in 2018. As he stood chatting amiably and posing for photos with delegates, I approached him and was overcome by a sentimental urge to garble my gratitude to him for putting up with the revolting abuse he was incessantly subjected to. “Oh,” he replied, smiling at me slightly quizzically as he rested a hand gently on my shoulder, “you mustn’t feel you need to thank me.” But I did. I do. I need to thank him by helping to finish what he started. We all do.