Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs
The First Test of Corbynism
Corbyn’s first nationwide electoral test was always going to be an anticlimax. Judging from the spate of news articles, psephological analyses and briefings from Labour sources in the run up to the local elections, the party was supposed to be on course to lose around 200 council seats, and score the worst result for a Labour opposition in thirty-four years. As in Oldham West, the media and punditry worked themselves up into a wholly unjustified lather. It was unlikely, given Labour’s incremental improvement in the polls nationally, that it would go into meltdown (outside of Scotland). This is not for want of strenuous effort from certain quarters.
John Prescott noted some time before the recent antisemitism witch-hunt in the Labour Party, there has been a concerted effort from within the Labour Party to sabotage its electoral prospects. He was alluding to obscure insiders and former New Labour advisors, but in reality it is no secret. Blairite columnist Dan Hodges reported some months ago that Labour MPs were quietly briefing that they wanted Sadiq Khan to lose in London, lest his win benefit Corbyn. Lately, there has been a more or less open attempt to throw the election, with a series of demented kamikaze attacks on the leadership.
Given this context, Labour’s results don’t look too bad. It is clear that Sadiq Khan, despite running a bland campaign, has defeated Zac Goldsmith by a margin approximating ten percent on first preferences – a fitting rebuttal of the Conservative efforts to generate an Islamophobic ‘national security’ panic, something they will certainly be trying out in 2020. Wales held more or less firm, despite the Blairite Leighton Andrews losing the Rhondda seat to Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. The loss of twenty-five council seats in England is a scratch compared to the anticipated amputation of 200 seats. And even these losses obscure a moderate increase in Labour’s share of the local election vote since last year. An impressionistic reading of the results suggests that, as with recent bye-elections, there is a pattern whereby Labour’s vote is consolidated in core areas, but collapses in Tory-dominated areas. Corbyn is, in other words, re-polarising the vote – as he should.
Only in Scotland, heartland of the Labour Right, was the result devastating. There, the hapless leader Kezia Dugdale engaged in an astonishingly opportunistic attempt to preemptively blame the results on the (largely contrived) antisemitism scandal. But Scottish Labour, beaten into third place behind the Tories, was merely given the final burial that had been awaiting it since its catastrophic role in the Unionist campaign of 2014. No matter what Corbyn promised, most Scottish voters saw no difference between Labour and the Tories. In its own way, this could represent a problem for SNP voters who have backed the party on an anti-austerity basis. If the main competition the Nats now face is with the Tories, then the pressure to position themselves as a centre-left alternative to Labour will dissipate. Labour could in principle reposition itself as a left opposition to the SNP and dig in to slowly rebuild, but to do so it would have to flush out the right-wing old guard who – for some reason – have remained in charge of Scottish Labour. It is now not even clear if, having done so, they would have the ability to attract the sort of membership capable of pushing it in a new direction.
If anything, Corbyn’s parliamentary critics are (yet again) seizing on the opportunity to undermine him. Today, two MPs from the right of the party have added their voices to the chorus of execration, complaining that the leader has led them down the blind alley of debating unilateral nuclear disarmament, the Falkland Islands, the monarchy and all the rest’. Notably, they carefully avoid discussing most of Corbyn’s trademark policies, above all the defining emphasis on opposing austerity. This is disingenuous. Both MPs were among the backbench rebels on the vote to bomb Syria – but not, notably, on the infamous abstention on the Welfare Bill. Beyond the loudmouths, however, some on the Labour Right have a much more subtle strategy. Tom Watson has, reports the BBC – in implicit recognition of Watson’s significance for any such manoeuvres – ‘made it clear he wasn’t sanctioning any coup attempt with Mr Corbyn’. Why indeed move against Corbyn while his standing among the membership is rock solid? Why not let it be known that Corbyn is being given ‘every chance’ to succeed? The intelligent patience of a Watson is far more lethal than the braggodocio of a Woodcock.
However, while the standards of Corbyn’s critics are hypocritical, these results need to be seen in a wider context that is far from cheerful for the left. The fact is that Labour did lose seats in England, in a way that is not usual for an opposition party facing an unpopular government. What is more, Labour has lost six percent of the vote compared to the last time it contested these seats in 2012. After months in which Corbyn has repeatedly forced the government onto the back foot merely by opposing it on principle, and following Osborne’s least popular budget yet, the results are a reminder that Conservative weakness does not necessarily translate into Labour strength. Indeed, the major beneficiary from the fragmentation of the Tory base has been Ukip, which gained twenty council seats in all, the biggest gain for any party, while also taking six seats in the Welsh Assembly. If the patterns from the 2015 general election hold, Ukip has scooped up the right-wing voters shed by the Tories as the latter annexe former Liberal votes in southern England, while replacing the Tories as the main right-wing opposition in Labour-held areas.
More importantly, the disintegration in Scotland should not be too hastily segmented off from the analysis of Labour’s wider difficulties. The same underlying processes, of declining party identity and falling voter participation, have been at work in Labour’s base across the UK for decades. New Labour, once seen as a solution to the problem, accelerated these symptoms. And whereas in England this resulted in usually short-lived localised breakthroughs for various fragile left-of-Labour formations, in Scotland the national issue and the existence of a viable alternative reformism enabled a large-scale decampment of Labour voters to the SNP.
Corbynism represents an attempt to resolve Labour’s problems from the left. And while that has many aspects to it, including the reconstruction of the party’s grassroots and the creation of a space for the left in its institutions and structures, it remains a traditional electoralist project. This may or may not be Corbyn’s preference, but it goes with the territory when leading the Labour Party – an electoralist and constitutionalist party to its marrow. Whatever space Corbyn is able to make for the left within the Labour Party, it will be on these terms. This means that his future as leader depends overwhelmingly on the votes Labour is able to accumulate under his leadership.
Corbyn’s first challenge in this respect is to mobilise the urban left that already agrees with him, some 25 per cent of the electorate. Even that is difficult, since this comprises some of the groups most likely to abstain – young and working class voters. On top of that, he has to win support from wider constituencies for a governing agenda that hasn’t had significant mainstream support for decades. This was always going to be difficult, and it is more so since the majority of Labour’s membership is inactive. Corbyn’s win may have galvanised a left-wing core, and pro-Corbyn groups like Momentum may have signed up 100,000 ‘supporters’, but the majority of new members have not become activists.
To his credit, Corbyn has emphasised the need to ‘build a social movement’ capable of activating the political energies of people who ordinarily would not take part in the parliamentary system. This has meant that, unlike any previous Labour leader, he has continued to be visible on demonstrations and picket lines. It makes a difference that, unlike previous leaderships, Corbyn actually wants this sort of struggle. But there is a limit to what parliamentary radicalism can contribute to movement-building. Union-density and strike levels remain at an all-time low, while the majority of social activism is localised and issue-driven. Since the student movement and the ensuing strikes, there has been little sense of a generalised offensive against the government. And in the coming months, the political horizon will be monopolised by another ‘national’ issue that does not favour Labour – the European Union referendum. And on that issue, Corbyn will be able to make no political capital out of Tories’ divisions, since he is committed to aligning with Cameron and the pro-EU centre.
In short, while Corbyn has demonstrated that he can exploit Tory weaknesses and enthuse core Labour voters, there is little sense that as yet he has persuaded enough people of his wider anti-austerity project as to be able to win an election. And if he can’t win an election, that will be taken in Labour’s culture as a straightforward defeat for a socialist agenda and proof that the party has veered once more into madcap unelectability. The Labour Right would no longer need to talk about a coup, provided it had a semi-reasonable candidate. It is still early days, as most of Corbyn’s supporters would insist, and a great deal can happen between now and 2020. Corbyn is nothing if not patient and, seemingly, unflappable. But supposing an improbable electoral breakthrough does not occur, the question is: what happens to Corbynism after Corbyn?