What I Learned from Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn didn't win, but he fought for socialist politics even when it was difficult – if we are to have any hope of achieving radical change in our lifetimes, we must do the same.

This week, we’re launching A World to Win – a new podcast from Tribune. In our first ever episode, Jeremy Corbyn and I discuss the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, the rise and fall of Corbynism, and the future of socialism in the Labour Party. 

I came away from our conversation feeling optimistic – not because the challenges our movement faces aren’t daunting – but because, as Jeremy reminded me, so many socialists throughout history have faced even greater obstacles. Whether the Chartists fighting for workers’ rights, feminists struggling for women’s emancipation, or pacifists campaigning against deadly wars, those fighting better world have always found themselves facing the combined force of an establishment intent on maintaining the status quo.

Yet, as Jeremy pointed out, what do we remember about these struggles? ‘Do we remember the home secretaries who imprisoned the Chartists, or do we remember the Chartists for what they stood for – albeit unsuccessful in the immediate time?’ Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, was ‘vilified by the Daily Mail his entire life.’ (Jeremy added that he ‘knows the feeling.’)

The last five years have been a relentless struggle for socialists in the Labour Party. Thanks to the leaked report on the 2017 election, we now know quite how hard the party’s anti-socialists were working to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister. 

But it is important that we do not look back on the struggle of the last half decade as entirely unique, or divorced from the much longer history of British socialism. Socialists have been fighting to transform the Labour Party since its inception. As Ralph Miliband so eloquently points out in Parliamentary Socialism, the party was founded based on an alliance between socialists and progressive liberals – and liberals have always been the dominant faction. 

The liberal instinct – manifested in the current Labour leadership – is towards conciliation with the powerful. The timidity of Starmerism is, in many ways, a reversion to an historical norm – it just seems much feebler in comparison with the principled stances taken by the leadership over the last five years, and in the context of the worst economic meltdown in at least a century. 

If socialists in the Labour Party are facing a challenge that is not historically unusual, then we can – as Corbyn says – ‘take inspiration from those who went before.’ When asked about what lessons he has drawn from his early career that could be passed on to young socialists today, Corbyn told me a story about having tea with Joan Maynard, former MP for Sheffield Brightside, and Harry Cohen, former MP for Leyton, shortly after the two were elected.  

Joan sat the two of them down and said:

If both front benches are agreed, it’s probably bad news for the workers. And if a minister ever gets up and says ‘we’re going to have to take some tough choices and some tough decisions,’ it’s a disaster for the working class. Just bear that in mind and you’ll not go far wrong.

As the pandemic deepens, the Tory government that has so drastically mishandled this crisis will undoubtedly inform the public it is going to have to make some tough choices on their behalf. Rather than resisting the government’s attempt to impose the costs of the pandemic on working people, the Leader of the Opposition is likely to meekly follow the government line, as he has for the majority of this crisis. 

But that does not mean that socialists should give up. We still have many tools available to us that can be used to pressure not only the Labour Party, but also the government itself, into changing course. The resolve shown by working-class students up and down the country in the face of a government that would have been happy to see opportunities for which they had worked so hard dashed by a faceless bureaucracy is just one example of the power of collective action. 

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, mounting inequality and looming climate breakdown, socialists must learn the right lessons from the victories of the past – and from more recent defeats. One lesson from the last five years is that the public overwhelmingly supports radical policies to decarbonise our economy, revitalise our public services and change our relationship with the rest of the world. 

The other is that there are elements within the Labour Party that would rather see the Tories in power than the election of a Labour government willing to nationalise the railways. This is a contradiction that socialists have been fighting to resolve for decades – and that fight must continue.  

When asked about the one request he would like to make of Keir Starmer, Jeremy responded ‘to always be proud of the fact that Labour is a socialist party.’ On the face of it, this assertion is open to challenge. The Parliamentary Labour Party contains just as many ardent anti-socialists as socialists. But it is more of a call to action than a statement of fact. 

In 2017, the socialist movement in Britain came so close to power – perhaps closer than at any other point in history. We may be disappointed, discouraged and disillusioned after the election defeat and Starmer’s ascent. But figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn spent their entire lives fighting for socialism – inside and outside the Labour Party. Now is not the time to give up.