Corbyn’s Labour: Socialism Through Parliament or Parliamentary Socialism?

Four years into Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, the Labour Party is at a crossroads.

Watching the polls in the UK at the beginning of this year, you might have seen something truly remarkable: that Jeremy Corbyn, a self-described socialist, someone towards whom those same polls — or really, pollsters — had been exceedingly cool, would, in the event of a general election, be elected the country’s next prime minister. Flash forward a short time later, and no matter how they figure it, today’s forecasters seem sure of a Labour rout. Huge swathes of the vote are set to flee the party: some, to the Brexit Party, non-existent before January, whose titular association with Britain’s clumsy detachment from Europe should not be taken as a sign of dissent; the rest, to the hysterically pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, until then all but electorally extinct after their disastrous collaboration with (and capitulation to) the Tories in 2010.

For Corbyn, this reversal is especially wounding. The majority of his time as Labour leader has been spent combating the press’s vicious antipathy towards him while at the same time fending off open sorties from within his own party. As late as April, it seemed, if only for a moment, that his efforts hadn’t been in vain, and that the reward for his perseverance would be the party’s first government in a decade, a first left one in more than four. To suffer a setback of this magnitude, and at this speed, has been a huge blow not just to Corbyn, then, but to the revived British left at the head of which he stands. And if the present crisis is one among many let loose when the Tories lifted the lid on Brexit, it is still a Labour Party led from the left for the first time within living memory for much of its base that has failed to capitalize on a situation which, to judge by the fecklessness and incompetence of its opponents, should have been a bird in the hand.

This seems especially thorny for Corbyn and his supporters: after all, they were brought to power by a wave of new and returning Labour voters who resoundingly rejected the cold managerialism that had kept the party numb to Britain’s woes since the days of Tony Blair. Momentum, the group which grew out of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, was supposed to be a democratizing movement: not only to retain the 400,000 new members who had swelled the party rolls to nearly 550,000 since 2015, but to push Corbyn’s new left platform beyond Labour’s borders through aggressive local and digital campaigning. It seems instead that in Brexit the party has found itself bumping up against its historical limits: limits on the extent to which it can adapt to the demands of its constituents, and perhaps on the parliamentary road to socialism itself.

The irony is that things hardly seem different now than when Ralph Miliband first spelled out those limits in his 1961 classic Parliamentary Socialism. Labour voters, like Miliband, are stuck asking themselves if Labour really is a vehicle for a socialist transformation of Britain, or if it is simply a pressure valve for working and middle class discontent. Miliband’s Labour, like Corbyn’s, was reeling from an unexpected reversal of its fortunes: after the Atlee government’s historic win in 1945, on the heels of which came the modern British welfare state, Labour found itself six short years later exiled from power for close to a decade and a half. There was plenty of soul-searching over this in- and outside the party; most people blamed a complacent electorate, which was happy to take the prosperity of the ‘50s, however unequally distributed it remained, over further struggle against British capitalism. Miliband had a different, and more radical explanation: Labour, he said, didn’t want to win. In fact, it didn’t want socialism at all. 

Labour stood for Labourism, a system in which a cadre of politicians and trade union leaders played the role not of workers’ advocates, but of an arbiter of their demands on capital. “Tentative, doctrineliness socialism” was their motto; and their moderation bought them the acceptance, though not love, of their opponents. Once the party leaders made peace with the institutions of the state, however, Labour became an institution itself, and the trappings of power quickly wore away at its radical fringes. “‘I had to shake myself occasionally as I found myself moving about talking with men whose names were household words,’” said a former firebrand MP brought into parliament by Labour’s great electoral sweep of 1922. “‘More strange was it to find them all so simple and unaffected and friendly.’” Far from representing the working class’s interests in parliament, then, the Labour Party very early on became the representative of parliament’s interests among the working class.

Things came to a head in 1945, when Attlee, with 60% of parliament in his hands, found himself faced with the demand that he use it. And for its first three years in government, Labour seemed up to the task. Reforms were swift and sweeping: one after the other, Labour pushed through the National Health Service, the nationalization of the railways, telecommunications, and steel, expanding collective bargaining rights and securing old-age pensions for all, to name only a few. These acts were immediately popular with the electorate, and those that have survived remain so today: witness the loyalty of the British public to the NHS, despite decades of Tory and New Labour attrition. And yet, in the span of a single year, Labour was forced into a full retreat. First came the general election of 1950, when Labour’s nearly two-hundred seat lead over the Conservatives fell to just six. Then came the ill-judged snap election of 1951, in which Attlee, attempting to shore up his lead after budget cuts at the NHS and a retreat from the nationalization of steel, half-heartedly tried to regain momentum, only to be soundly defeated by a returning Churchill (in whose cabinet he had served during the war). The Tories had figured out that they could reverse the rest of Labour’s nationalization program if they paid lip service to its social welfare reforms, which polled well across party lines. This turn to patrician capitalism proved to be a winning formula for them for the rest of the decade: Labour would not return to government until 1964.

As late as 1950, no one, not even among the vocal leftist minority, which had remained critical of the government’s retreat after 1948, believed that the party could be so easily defeated. Their mistake, according to Miliband, was to misunderstand the nature of their conflict with the party’s leadership. The activists had assumed “that the differences between [themselves] and most of the leaders were differences of degree when they were in fact differences in kind. For the activists saw the Welfare State and the nationalization measures of 1945-8 as the beginning of the social revolution … while [their] leaders took these achievements to be [that] revolution.”

Out of the Wilderness – But Where To? 

After stagflation and industrial unrest, this tug-of-war, between activists and leaders, swung decisively in the latter’s favor. First came the disastrous Thatcher years; then, worse, Blair. For Blair the ‘80s had presented the party a unique opportunity: to shed the working class. Labour could finally free itself of any burdensome loyalty to socialism; it could be “a democratic socialist party” committed to “to the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition,” as Clause IV of the party’s new 1995 constitution declared. This alliance with capital worked to the extent that the economy did, which remained true throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then the banking system collapsed. Blair resigned; his successor, Gordon Brown, was crushed by the Conservatives in 2010. Next in line was Ed Miliband, Ralph Miliband fils, similarly dispatched five years later. Miliband, defying widespread outrage among Labour’s membership at Tory-led austerity, had led a cringeworthy effort to outflank his opponents on the right. Hence one now infamous slogan, seen on a mug made for the 2015 general election: “Controls on immigration: I’m voting Labour.” Or Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, addressing a four-fold increase in food bank usage under Tory rule: “Labour is not the party of people on benefits.”

In the wake of Miliband’s defeat, party leaders scrambled to find a pliant enough replacement. Andy Burnham, a former trade unionist (motto “aspirational socialism”) and Blair and Brown appointee labeled the left option by the press, came out in the lead. Holding the center was Yvette Cooper, who began her political career working on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. To round it off, there was even a dyed-in-the-wool Blairite: Liz Kendall, praised by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun (best known for its rabid reactionary headlines and third-page nudes) for being “the only prayer [Labour] has” — probably because in 2015 she believed the party should be “as passionate about wealth creation as [it was] about wealth redistribution.”

Burnham was the spoiler; he had ventured some lukewarm criticism of austerity, and had to be reeled in. Aware that it in a time of deep privation, it could not dodge the issue, the Labour Right chose deception as the better part of valor. It would round out the leadership contest by nominating a candidate from the parliamentary left — the “Old Labour” wing, long since put out to pasture. A leftist straw man would, it was hoped, steal enough votes from Burnham to sabotage his candidacy. At the same time, it would signal the party’s historical role as a transducer of egalitarian impulses into safe, status quo governance. As it turned out, this view of politics — as a game of signifiers, of translating the popular will into a safe subset of the vocabulary of power — only worked when politics was separated from material reality. In the UK of 2015, a country witnessing the longest sustained drop in living standards in its post-war history, that moment had passed.

The leftist who stood up was a backbencher from Islington, a corduroy-jacket-wearing, bicycle-riding vegetarian named Jeremy Corbyn. He had been encouraged to stand by a small coterie of Old Labourites, among them a man named Jon Lansman, not an MP himself, but a former employee of Labour’s last truly left-wing leader, Tony Benn. Lansman, who had tried to get an anti-austerity commitment from the party in 2014 only to be unanimously voted down, was acutely aware of the disconnect between what Labour voters wanted and what their leadership was prepared to give them. In the gap, he saw a natural opening for a left-wing candidate. Corbyn, a man with no enemies in the party, someone who had remained consistently and unashamedly on the outside, seemed an uncontroversial (and unthreatening) choice. 

Party membership, 405,000 in 1997, was less than half that by the beginning of 2015. As with turnout in the general elections (down from 73% in 1997 to just over 61% in 2005), Blair’s most pernicious legacy had been to push huge numbers of people out of politics. In 2010, 127,000 members had cast their votes, around 72% of those eligible; in 2015, the number was 245,520. From June of that year onwards, membership had risen consistently and considerably, reaching 299,755 by August, 50% higher than it had been at the election’s outset. By the end of the year, the party had regained nearly all the ground it had lost during Blair’s rule.

The result? Burnham, 19%; Kendall, 17%; and Cooper, The Guardian’s (and Blair’s) favorite, limping into last on just 4.5%. 422,871 votes, 59.5% of the total, went to Corbyn. He seemed as shocked as anyone. From the start, he had known that his candidacy would be symbolic. “[I] recognise that colleagues who nominated me may not necessarily agree with me but they felt there needs to be a full debate on policy within the party. I hope that at the end of it the Labour Party is stronger for it,” he told The Telegraph in June, echoing Miliband. Compare that Corbyn to this one just a few months later, speaking to cheering crowds at his victory celebration: “The fight-back gathers speed and gathers pace.”

The Unlikely Rise of Jeremy Corbyn 

Since Labour’s founding, leaders had been by and large chosen by party politicians and trade union bosses, with a few activists and affiliates thrown in for show. Blair, enemy of the unions, hated this system. What he wanted instead was a U.S.-style primary; apart from the spectacle, of which he was never shy, he believed a democratized selection process would favor conservative candidates. The left, Blair argued, was an institutional, not a popular force. What voters wanted was greater empowerment as consumers, not collectivist mandarins like trade unions and state bureaucrats managing their lives.

Once the right had power, it changed the leadership voting rules in an attempt to disadvantage the left. The culmination of this was 2014’s Collins Review, a radical leveling of the playing field. In the new system, every voter would have equal weight; union members would be required to formally affiliate themselves to Labour in order to participate in elections; and a new category of “registered supporters” would be given the right to vote in exchange for a token fee of £3. Ironically, the Review turned out to be the linchpin of the Corbyn surge. The group of amateurs and Old Labourites leading his leadership campaign saw how well both new voters and former members responded to a credible anti-austerity candidate. This was a no-brainer for the left: all it needed was to make this constituency feel as if it were no longer ignored and the part leaders’ gross indifference (along with the new voting rules) would guarantee the rest.

But if the leadership was indifferent to its voters, voters were equally indifferent to it; and it seemed to be hard at work that summer highlighting how far the two had drifted apart. Harriet Harman, former deputy party leader under Brown, whipped parliamentary MPs behind a Tory welfare bill that lowered benefits caps and cut tax credits for the working poor. Corbyn and 48 MPs revolted. Humiliated, Harman was forced to call for abstention on a second vote. A principled move on Corbyn’s part, it was also an extremely well-timed one. Afterwards, the distinction between what Labour had been and what it could be was clear. Seeing in the election an opportunity to steer the party towards the latter, people flooded in.

The right wing, humiliated by its defeat, reacted by staging a coup. With Cameron demanding air strikes in Syria in November 2015, and Labour MPs ready to side with him, the stridently anti-war Corbyn refused to whip the party to back the government. His shadow cabinet, comprised mostly of political insiders, threatened to walk. Then, in June 2016, the country narrowly voted to leave the European Union. What had begun as a steady flow of backbiting from the press and from within Corbyn’s own cabinet became a deluge. Never mind that Labour’s Remain campaign had been led by Alan Johnson, Minister for Higher Education under Blair and Home Secretary under Brown, accused of being “‘more interested in selling copies of his book’” than in doing his job. Brexit was Corbyn’s fault. He had to go.

On June 25th, most of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet resigned. Two days later, 172 MPs voted no confidence in his leadership. Corbyn, under no obligation to step down, obligingly formed a new government. Then, with 20% of MPs and their counterparts in the European Parliament backing a leadership challenge, a formal coup was launched. Owen Smith, Corbyn’s challenger, attempted to appeal to the left by aping Corbyn’s rhetoric. The press, for their part, played along. Speaking at Orgreave, where Thatcher’s police shot striking miners, The Guardian claimed that Corbyn’s side had been “sunk by the sheer weight of policy in [Smith’s platform].” Smith, like Kendall, was labeled Labour’s only hope for electoral relevance by left- and right-wing papers alike. Small hope it turned out to be. Just like Kendall, Smith was crushed, losing to Corbyn by 20 points.

Birth Pangs 

It was clear that the movement around Corbyn needed to be organized if he were to survive his on leadership; People’s Momentum, a party within the party, was the result. Lansman, the only one of its founders with prior political experience, has always been blunt about the group’s intentions: “We have to build hegemony for the ideas and the approach of Corbynism,” he told an interviewer at the end of last year. “I don’t think we should be embarrassed by the Gramscian reference.” The circumstances of Corbyn’s election and the power grab that followed no doubt powers this sort of thinking.

While Momentum represents itself as a democratic movement, and while it has put special effort into mobilizing Labour’s vastly expanded membership through its local groups, its internal structures are notably top-down. The group’s constitution, adopted in 2017, gives a monopoly on decision-making to a single National Coordinating Group (NCG). This NCG replaced a loose joining of several other committees, all of varying sizes but all more directly democratic. The constitution allows members to propose amendments to the constitution and authorizes the creation of a digital platform where members can vote on these amendments. But real power is firmly in the hands of the NCG, the composition of which — 12 members elected by regional bodies, 6 by unions, 4 from among Labour politicians such as MPs and MEPs, and 5 more from affiliated organizations — turns out to be very similar to the Labour Party’s own executive committee, the NEC. In fact, one of the biggest changes introduced by 2017’s constitution was its enforced syncretism with Labour. All Momentum members must now be Labour Party members, too.

The new structures, as well as the membership requirement, created huge tension between who else but activists and the leadership. The conflict continues down to the present. Lansman himself has come under intense criticism inside of Momentum for having forced centralization onto its members. The constitution was not approved by ballot; it was announced in an email, with the absence of a reply taken as assent. Overnight, all of the uncertainty, and not to mention much of the promise, around what Momentum would become was wiped away. It would no longer try to form a party of its own, burdened on the one hand as outsiders in an outstandingly clubbish political system, but freed from Labour’s toxic legacy — and in particular the right-wingers (including Watson, still deputy leader) who refused to rescind their claim to the throne. Lansman’s constitution made it clear that Momentum would be a movement for Corbyn inside the Labour Party — that Momentum would be taking the parliamentary road to socialism.

Corbynism Ascendant

But history was moving quickly; there was little time for debate. Too smart to be left holding the bag on Brexit, Cameron resigned as leader of the Tories in June 2016. His successor, former Home Secretary Theresa May, pro-Remain during the referendum, publicly committed herself to Leave and to putting any future deal to parliament. It was a misstep that would cost her dearly. At the time, faced with large parts of her party dissenting, she wanted a guarantee of support for what she brought back from Brussels. That was why, echoing Attlee, she decided to call a snap election in April 2017. 

The Tories were widely expected to consolidate their majority. Instead, in a historic rebound larger even than the swing of 1945, 10% of the popular vote went Labour. May lost her majority, forcing her into a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Partly this was her own fault. No one knew how bad of a campaign she would run; her policy platform read like a suicide note. Among its offerings was the infamous “Dementia Tax,” a promise to require those receiving in-home care from the state to forfeit their homes as repayment upon their death.

By contrast, Labour’s manifesto was a straightforward refusal to erode the welfare state, for which it was roundly derided. With popular outcry over the Dementia Tax reaching high dudgeon, The Guardian was still able to write: “Ms. May is where the majority of voters are: to the left on the economy and to the right on social issues.” Labour, supported by 40,000 Momentum activists, ran a traditional campaign, carpooling to marginal constituencies and phone banking on a massive scale. On the day of the election itself, its campaigners managed to knock on a million doors. The scale of the operation and its strategic acumen gave Labour its upset victory, which it managed not only by the efficiency with which branch efforts were directed but the seamless way with which those same branches blended with Constituency, or local, Labour Parties (CLPs), so maximizing the party’s reach.

The result was a vindication for Lansman, which soothed internal dissension. Momentum activists who had resisted the constitutional changes gave up any attempt to split from group, deciding instead to stay and press for democratized decision-making structures from the inside. Meanwhile, within Labour itself, Lansman and the Labour Left quickly moved to capitalize on their victory by marginalizing the right within the party’s power structures. Owen Jones’s coup attempt had been thwarted by residual left-wing sympathies on Labour’s NEC, but only just. It had still voted first to exclude all members who had joined after January 2016, then, having relented, managed anyway to throw a £25 fee in their way. The left pressed for and won four new NEC seats, one for USDAW, one of Britain’s largest unions and a former opponent of Corbyn’s leadership, and three for the CLPs. It also recommended changing succession rules on the executive committee so that seats opened by resigning members would be decided by by-elections rather than through automatic succession. This last change was a major coup for Momentum’s leaders. Because of it, Lansman was elected to the NEC at the beginning of 2018.

The left was now in control of the party, and Corbyn finally had the breathing room to be a national politician. Labour did fairly well in local elections that year, tying up their share of the vote and taking 79 additional councillors to a Tory loss of 35. But in September 2018, the grassroots and the (new left) leadership clashed openly when the NEC voted down a proposal for mandatory reselection of members of parliament despite overwhelming support for it at Labour’s annual conference, then ongoing. Reselection would have required sitting MPs to be nominated by their CLPs in order to stand in elections; the system in place, called ‘trigger balloting,’ gave them the right to appear by default. Labour’s parliamentary wing had long been seen by the left as especially susceptible to right wing influence or even seizure — Ralph Miliband himself had singled it out as such. There was a symbolic element at play as well: reselection had been won in the ‘80s only to be rolled back by Blair. It turned out afterwards that it was the union vote which had defeated reselection, and that even though a majority of the rank-and-file had earlier voted in favor of it. Len McCluskey, head of Britain’s largest union, Unite, claimed afterwards that he had been asked to oppose the measure to maintain party unity. There were rumors that the changes that were adopted instead happened to be to the benefit of the unions themselves.

Brexit Chaos

But the fracas at the convention was a teapot tempest compared to what was coming next with Brexit. Corbyn and Momentum had long stayed neutral on Brexit. This was largely tactical. As long as Theresa May was stymied by pass-the-buckism in her party, Corbyn was the only alternative European Union negotiators had. And since Corbyn’s movement was meant to be led for and by the working class, it was bound to respect its feelings on Brexit, which were largely favorable — as were those of a large number Momentum’s own members. Any deal would have been imperfect, but with the Tories lurching from humiliation to humiliation, there was plenty of leeway to give the working class the exit it voted for and the middle class the free movement and labour market access it coveted. That was the belief, anyway.

But Corbyn as savior would have been the final nail in the Blairites’ coffins. It could not be allowed. First, Corbyn was pushed by his shadow cabinet to publicly declare his support for a second referendum in the event of a majority vote at Labour’s 2017 convention. That vote, of course, never materialized. Then, with a no-deal deadline fast approaching, and with May on the ropes, the right redoubled its efforts. A small faction of centrist MPs publicly broke with the party in February 2019; at the same time, the middle class media leapt into action, painting Corbyn’s tactical neutrality as support for far-right xenophobia. When both the Conservatives and Labour lost an equal share of the popular vote in the local elections in May, and Labour lost half of its members of European Parliament (MEPs) at the European elections three weeks later, the media was licking its lips. “Trouble Brews at the court of king Corbyn,” one Guardian headline read. Polls briefly showed the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s new grift, pulling into first place in the next general election. Corbyn was told to back a second referendum or resign.

The split between the grassroots and the leadership over Brexit is now enormous. In the wake of the local elections, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor (and one of his closest allies) John McDonnell came out in favor of a second referendum. Lansman is reported to be there, too. The surprise win by a Momentum-backed Labour Left candidate in Peterborough’s June by-election staved off the issue, but only temporarily. Remainers claim that a general election, which depends on Conservative assent, will never happen. They demand urgent action on Brexit at any cost. The question now is whether Corbyn can hold out against their demands like he did their attacks. Some kind of extra-party pressure would have to be applied in order to accomplish this; and yet the silence of Momentum’s leaders as the crisis has unfolded has been noteworthy. 

Meanwhile, the grassroots continues to drift. Witness a Momentum local-backed candidate defeating the leadership’s choice in Scarborough and Whitney earlier this year. Staying focused on Corbyn and supporting his leadership seems to have worn thin for activists. The question is whether they can, given the limitations imposed on them by the constitution, form an effective-enough vehicle to discipline the leadership at a time when it is tending more and more towards political expediency — or whether Momentum can even stay together.

The fear now is that sentiment on the ground can no longer make it to the top. And if it doesn’t, and if Labour backs a second referendum, the polls tell us that working class voters will desert the party en masse. Given the Lib Dems’ sudden return, the gains Labour might make among middle class in exchange for that betrayal are hardly certain; and even if they were, they would almost certainly not be enough to take parliament. It is enough to ask whether the cost to Labour’s historic identity as the party of the working class would be worth it; whether the past is indeed prologue, and whether Miliband will once again, and at great cost, be proven right.

Momentum and the American Left: Diverging Paths? 

On this side of the Atlantic, we can in some ways only envy the Labour Party. Our problem is our distance from power, not our proximity to it. But there are a number of natural sympathies and similarities between the American and British left: our left is also driven by a coalition of younger voters and older (often Democratic) activists who were marginalized when politics turned sharply rightwards around 1980. And then there is Bernie Sanders: the comparison between him and Corbyn is often made, and for good reason. Both are longtime social democrats, both on the fringes of national politics until quite recently, and both carried into leadership campaigns by an unexpected surge from the grassroots. And, most importantly of all, both men are loathed by their respective political and media establishments.

DSA is a much closer analogue to Momentum, but it too differs significantly in its relationship to party institutions. Unlike Momentum, DSA, while endorsing party candidates who agree with its principles, has stayed independent of the Democratic Party. Many DSA members fear that absorption into one of the two major parties will lead inevitably to a dilution of the movement’s principles. In some respects, Momentum is better able to allay those fears. Labour, for all of its flaws, has a stronger leftist pedigree than the Democratic Party, which has always been much more at ease with playing the role of pacifier of working class discontent. As recently as 1983, with Tony Benn playing an important role, Labour called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, abolition of the House of Lords, and an ambitious program of nationalization. It’s easier, then, for Momentum activists to argue that New Labour was just an aberration.

But the case has not been made yet that Momentum and the Corbyn phenomenon are been a significant departure from the party Ralph Miliband described nearly 55 years ago. This latest march through the institutions has had some remarkable results, to be sure. The right wing of the Labour Party, even with the full backing of the British press, has been marginalized to a degree unimaginable when Corbyn was elected. This is because the left has expressly gone after power; and when it got it, it used it, often in ways meant to be expressly symbolic of its break with the past. Witness the recent expulsion of Blair’s right-hand man Alastair Campbell, ostensibly as punishment for admitting that he had voted for the Lib Dems in the European elections. But Momentum remains a top-down structure, and its efforts to tame the party, if successful, have left it committed to an institutional arrangement which sits on top of a fractured social landscape.

With Lansman on the NEC, it seems likely that that commitment will only grow stronger. We might then wonder if Momentum, which was meant to be an organized critique of Labour’s search for state power, was serving its rhetorical purpose anymore; and whether, like Ramsay Macdonald, head of Labour’s first government in 1926, today’s leadership is asking itself “how far it is possible, without in any way abandoning any of our party positions, without in any way surrendering any of our party principles, to consider ourselves more as a Council of State and less as arrayed regiments facing each other in battle?” We may know the answer sooner than we think.