Following Labour’s first party conference since Corbyn’s election performance in June, Conor McFall looks at Corbynism and the difficulties it may face in the coming period.
A week on from the Labour Party Conference and the Momentum-affiliated The World Transformed (TWT) festival in Brighton, Corbynism is on a clear upswing. And as we head into the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, it is clear who is now setting the political agenda in Britain. For the first time in a long time, as Richard Seymour surmised last week, “the British left is hot.” Following an election result that was far beyond what most had anticipated and a summer of disarray for the government, one can easily understand the optimism and buoyancy that exudes from Labour activists and media figures. But, while there is lots of talk of new hegemony and the death of neoliberalism, it is worth considering what have been the weak points of the Corbyn project so far. If the left wants to build a new hegemony in British politics, we need to identify the fault lines in Corbynism and work to resolve these contradictions.
This has been a somewhat thorny issue for Corbyn ever since the referendum campaign kicked off in 2016. Indeed, it has been the main area of attack for centrists and liberals within and outside of the Labour Party, with Chuka Umunna, Tim Farron, Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon hitting out at Labour for accepting the result of the referendum. It is true that there has been some triangulation on Brexit, with Labour initially supporting an end to Britain’s membership of the single market and to free movement before more recently switching to favouring an extended transition period in which Britain retains its place in such arrangements following the Brexit deal. While it is important that a future Corbyn government reaches a coherent position for what it seeks to achieve from Brexit, it is clear in the short term that his tactical manoeuvring has paid off in that his position seems not to have alienated Labour voters on either side of the referendum debate. Meanwhile, the government is clearly deeply divided on whether a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit should be pursued and polling (as well as the continued irrelevance of the Lib Dems) suggests that there is a minimal constituency for the remain-at-all-costs position.
An issue connected to Brexit via arguments over freedom of movement, there have been some worrying triangulations from the Corbyn leadership with concerning immigration. The 2017 election manifesto conceded that freedom of movement will end with Brexit while an interview in June saw Corbyn claim that workers’ rights in Britain had been destroyed by “wholesale” importation of foreign workers. This rather UKIP-y language exemplifies a continuing cowardice in Labour to tackle head-on the anti-immigration rhetoric and policies that has blighted British politics for generations. Anti-immigrant sentiment was one of the primary animating forces behind the Brexit vote and the rise of UKIP and, although immigration was not a priority issue in the election due to Corbyn’s centring of economic matters, such prejudice does not disappear overnight just because the left is doing well in the polls. Within Labour there are also deeply reactionary positions being staked out on immigration. Stephen Kinnock has sought to couch anti-immigration in social democratic language in calling for control of “labour markets”, having previously stated that Labour “must move away from multiculturalism and towards assimilations. We must stand for one group: the British people.” With such rank nationalist chauvinism within his own party, it is vital that there is no triangulation on this from the leadership. Rather than cede ground to a reactionary consensus on immigration, have the courage to break from it.
Security and policing understandably featured a great deal in a general election campaign that was riven by two terror attacks. Corbyn must be commended for the speech he made upon the resumption of campaigning following the Manchester bombing in which he asserted that British foreign policy had made its people less safe. However, his emphasis on increasing police numbers in the following days was not a necessarily welcome sign. This may have paid off in election terms by appealing to a particular political common sense but it is important that the wider left retains its critical faculties with regards to policing. Critiques of the police cannot be abandoned for electoral expedience and their role must be placed into context as part of the coercive apparatus of the state. One only needs to look at the amount of deaths in police custody that have gone without prosecution, the racialisation of policing in the UK and globally, the often brutal enforcing of European and state boarders and even the recent police violence against voters in Catalonia at the behest of the Spanish state to recognise that the police are not a benign or neutral force. In a world of increasingly militarised policing, the left should not be ceding ground to the logic of the security apparatus.
Corbyn and his team have been strong in articulating what Labour in power would mean for people in Britain. However, Labour has been in power in local councils across the country and led the Welsh assembly for over a decade. Labour councils in London have been just as complicit in enabling gentrification and speculation as their Conservative counterparts. Grassroots campaign groups such as Focus E15 had to battle against Labour controlled Newham council to prevent eviction from their estate. Labour councils across the UK have sold off council property to developers, Southwark council demolished 1200 social homes in the Heygate estate and replaced them with just 82, as foreign investors snapped up the rest of the property. Similarly, Harringey council, described as “zombie Blairites” by Aditya Chakrabortty, seeks to privatise an entire housing estate as part of plans for a £2 billion gentrification project. The abysmal record of Labour in local government is something the left needs to take serious note of and begin mobilising on; within the party for councillor candidate selections and outside of it in solidarity with local housing campaigns.
It is pleasing to note that work is underway in the most serious sections of the left to rectify some of the week points of the current project; the New Socialist’s focus on ‘Corbynism from Below’ recognises the importance of a strong activist base and seeks to provide the theoretical and strategic basis for grassroots leftist projects within and beyond the party. Indeed, the leadership itself seems to recognise what some of these issues are. Corbyn’s conference speech addressed the housing crisis in the UK and his pledge to offer democratic votes to residents regarding new development projects was widely read as a challenge to Labour councils who have refused to facilitate this. His insistence that it is not immigration but employers that push down wages was also a useful first step towards staking out a pro-migrant position, something that Labour has for too long triangulated on to the point of being outright reactionary. It is clear that the left is in the strongest position they have been in for decades. However, it is just as certain that there is a long way to go to take, and more importantly, exercise state power in a transformative way. It is a privilege to be able to iron out political problems from a point of strength. It is also an opportunity that this too vital to miss.