Will ye no come back?

Amidst rumours of Jeremy Corbyn being set to launch a new party, Derek James asks why so many on the left are still in thrall to Corbynism

We can gauge the current state of the Labour left by the reaction, over the last few weeks, to rumours that Jeremy Corbyn was about to launch a new party. The response on social media was overwhelmingly positive, with many activists warmly welcoming the supposed initiative. One writer in the Morning Star spoke for many when she bemoaned the loss of energy, creativity and hope amongst the Labour left that followed Corbyn’s defeat and the election of Keir Starmer. Supporting the idea of a new party, Chelly Ryan argued that the possibility of any fight within Labour was now over:

The prospect of building slowly from within the Labour Party is now entirely defunct. We don’t have time for slow movement-building. And we don’t have the heart for it either. We are all spent from five years of internal warfare, defending one of, if not the, best leader the Labour Party ever had, from sabotage by the PLP and party staff.

… Starmer is sitting there, rubbing his hands in arrogant glee, knowing all he has to do is not cock up too badly and his time will come. And when it does, he will claim it was his purge of Corbyn and the “hard” left that won it. Then it will be business as usual. Fuscia Labour will tweak the status quo but they won’t change it dramatically This revolving door of not much changing can only be challenged by a new party and that new party has to be headed by Jeremy Corbyn. [1]

For these comrades Corbyn still remains the prince over the water, the rightful leader who, they hope, will one day return to claim his own and lead his followers to victory. He is, they say, the most unifying and inspiring figure we have had for generations, with the political weight and credibility to “light that spark” the left so urgently needs to revive.[2] Similar hopes are entertained elsewhere. Former left Labour MP Chris Williamson’s organisation – Resist: movement for a people’s party – welcomed the possible move, as did those who have always seen Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project as the nucleus of a new party-in-waiting.[3] However, before everyone gets too excited, it seems that the rumours were just that – rumours. It appears that the source of the stories were a number of articles in the right-wing media and briefings from sources close to the Labour leadership.[4] Whether these speculations were part of a deep-laid  Machiavellian plot to force the Labour left’s hand into formally breaking with the party, a simple misreading of yet another fairly innocuous Peace and Justice Project initiative, or a distorted echo of  the party bureaucracy’s plans to select a new parliamentary candidate for Islington North, remains to be seen.[5] However, it is the left’s rather excited response to the  reports that is the important issue here.

The reaction to this ‘news’ by comrades like Chelly Ryan shows that many are still clutching at straws and hoping that the Starmerite tide can be turned. This is illusory for two reasons. Firstly, such hopes fail to really account for the political  failure of the ‘Corbyn project’ and the treacherous role that the Corbyn leadership played in appeasing the pro-capitalist Labour right during the anti-Semitism smear campaign against the left. Remember that the purges and witch-hunt began under Corbyn, who not only stood idly by when genuine socialists were expelled, but, along with John McDonnell, was quite willing to throw long-standing comrades and close allies under the bus in what proved to be an ultimately fruitless attempt to preserve their position. Not only was it a cowardly response to the attacks from the Labour right and the capitalist media, but it actually proved to be worse than useless as it only further demoralised and weakened the Labour left. Let’s have no more illusions – this particular prince and his politics should remain firmly over the water. Corbyn’s rotten strategy of appeasement does not deserve a second outing, and his warmed-over Keynesianism and limited tinkering do not at all constitute a real socialist alternative to capitalism.

The second fallacy is that the rank and file of the Corbyn movement can be easily recalled to the colours and that the clock can be turned back to 2017 or 2018. Many comrades on the Labour left talk as if the 150,000 or so who have quit since Starmer took over are just waiting behind the lines in reserve, ready to be called back into the battle. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. This left has scattered to the winds: some have joined single issue protest campaigns or now focus their attention on trade union militancy, others have joined one of the confessional sects, but the vast majority have simply dropped out of politics altogether, disillusioned with the abject failure of the Corbyn project.

Yet many on the left cling to the idea that some kind of revival of these politics of the past is not only possible but is actually desirable. Some examples of this misplaced optimism were on display at what was, in effect, the foundation meeting of the Socialist Labour Network (LAW and LIEN) on January 14. Regular readers will remember that this group has emerged following the liquidation of Labour Against the Witchhunt through its merger with the Labour in Exile Network. The main impetus behind the new group appears to be an attempt to rally the confused and disoriented forces  and begin some kind of fightback. But despite the righteous indignation and the opposition to what has happened in the Labour Party since the election of Starmer, the initial meeting of this new grouping shows that it lacks coherence and a unifying strategy. The basic division within the SLN is between those comrades who still orientate towards the Labour Party and those who believe that it is now both possible and necessary to build some new project primarily outside of Labour. While the new group has yet to agree its aims (that will be the first task of the newly elected steering group), both the composition of that committee and the discussion on January 14 shows that this is a fundamental, if as yet implicit, faultline.

How exactly these divisions will play out remains to be seen. For example, what will be the response of those members who are in effect Labour left loyalists to election candidates who stand against Labour? On past experience, some of the leading members will want to support the next electoral outings of, say, George Galloway or his ilk, or advocate that trade unions disaffiliate from Labour, while others still hope that Labour can be saved by the revival of Corbynism. Perhaps such minor ‘tactical’ problems and political differences can be temporarily papered over, but the real issue of the direction of this type of project cannot be ignored by the principled and serious left.

A significant and leading minority of the leadership of the SLN claim to be Marxist. Yet, rather than advocating a Marxist programme that seeks to replace capitalism by building a Communist Party and a conscious movement for the self-emancipation of the working class, these comrades play at being left reformists, proposing instead the ‘transitional’ economistic politics of the half-way house. Arguing that such timid, essentially reformist politics can build a bridge to the masses, they see the new network as a way to gradually win the Labour left to Marxism. However, when push comes to shove on significant matters of programme, this approach badly falls down and our bold ‘Marxists’ stick to the commonplace reformist banalities of the Labour election manifesto or the Fabian certainties of the    old Clause Four.

These concessions to Labourism and compromises with reformism may ensure that the SLN limps on for a few months or so, but both its internal dynamics and the state of the wider left do not augur well for its long-term future. Instead of pretending that the Corbyn movement was the zenith of real left politics, the authentic, militant left needs to settle accounts with the past and completely break from what is now  clearly a project whose time has passed. Corbynism is dead, but the struggle for principled Marxist politics and a revolutionary programme continues l

[1]. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/why-im-hoping-corbyn-launches-new-party.

[2]. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/why-im-hoping-corbyn-launches-new-party.

[3]. creatingsocialism.org/resist-welcomes-rumoured-new-corbyn-party.

[4]. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10386125/Jeremy-Corbyn-launch-new-Peace-Justice-Party-losing-Labour-whip.html; www.newstatesman.com/politics/labour/2022/01/why-a-new-left-party-led-by-jeremy-corbyn-is-a-bad-idea.

[5]. www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/01/09/jeremy-corbyn-could-establish-party-hopes-fade-reinstated-labour; leftfootforward.org/2022/01/tory-press-stirs-speculation-that-jeremy-corbyn-is-considering-launching-new-party; www.facebook.com/TheCorbynProject; www.islingtongazette.co.uk/news/local-council/jeremy-corbyn-islington-mp-could-face-labour-challenge-8616308.