Then, we had ‘the summer that changed everything’. Now I’m a paid-up member of Momentum and I’ve never been so happy I was wrong. How did I learn to stop worrying and love the new politics?
One by one, my concerns about the Corbyn project were proved to be misplaced. I despaired from the beginning about the competence of Corbyn and the people around him. Leaky reshuffles, lack of organisation for crucial NEC and conference votes, missing newspaper deadlines with press releases, interview gaffes – these characterised the first year of his leadership. The denial that many Corbyn supporters were in about this incompetence was as scary to me as the mistakes themselves. But what can’t be denied now is that, with the leader and his team settled into their roles, a less rebellious Shadow Cabinet, some more friendly party staff and a dose of confidence, Labour’s operation is as slick as it has ever been. The transformation of the party’s social media output deserves special mention, as well as Corbyn’s much improved television performances.
Incompetence was one reason I feared for Corbyn’s chances in a General Election. The other was that – mainly through aspects of his politics and biography I have no qualms about – he seemed to be an open goal for the Tory smear machine. I’d seen Ed Miliband, an Oxford PPE graduate who suggested a mild form of social democracy, called a traitor, a communist, economically illiterate and not ‘prime ministerial’. And it worked. How easy it would be, I thought, for the same trick to be pulled, ten times more ferociously, against someone who wears shabby clothes, refuses to deny he is a Marxist, met the IRA and believes in unilateral nuclear disarmament? For some reason, though, in the recent General Election campaign, this message didn’t work. Partly, perhaps, this was due to its being worn out on Miliband; probably it was also because the Tory right-wing is now so easily caricatured as equally extreme. But it also seems likely that the way Corbyn handled these attacks was effective. Whilst Miliband would squirm and promise voters he really wasn’t as red as all that, Corbyn trumpeted his radicalism and outsider status, turning fire on the Tories as defenders of the establishment. One thing that has not been up for debate since June: Jeremy Corbyn is not unelectable. 40% of British voters are perfectly happy with him being Prime Minister, and it is likely this number will rise next time around.
As well as my worries about Corbyn, I was (once upon a time) deeply suspicious of his supporters in the membership – although many were friends of mine – especially newer members. I never disagreed with their ideological inclination, and never bought into the ‘red scare’ stories attached to Momentum, mainly for organising just as Progress and their allies have done for years. But I worried about their analysis and their priorities. At times Momentum seemed to me like a personality cult for Corbyn, at times like a group more interested in settling internal scores than changing society. Some newer members seemed naïve about how easy electing a Corbyn government would be, and some more interested in making long speeches about themselves than taking power. Many seemed like they were looking forward to an all-out war with the party’s right, even as the cost of a chaotic schism.
But these prejudices were largely revealed to be just that. Momentum has grown far beyond a Corbyn fan club, running an impressively well-organised slate in recent NEC elections and growing rapidly, particularly amongst young people. Jon Lansman’s leadership has been pragmatic whenever it has had to be, and new members have brought discipline to the party as well as enthusiasm. Far from being unconcerned with the logistics of electoral politics, new activists were crucial to Labour’s success in the General Election. Far from being a faction supporting only ideologically pure candidates, Momentum worked hard everywhere, to the extent that Wes Streeting can thank them for his seat.
Most remarkably, there is a constructive sort of détente with the party’s right. When I supported Andy Burnham and Owen Smith, it wasn’t because I was more sympathetic to the heirs of Blair and Brown than Corbynistas were, but rather that I was more scared of them. I worried about how a leader from the left would ever be permitted to do their job without constantly being undermined (as happened to the only-mildly-left Miliband!). I worried, too, about their splitting from the party, not because I have any love for them but because the consequences could have been disastrous. But now both worries seem far-fetched. The right in the PLP blew its chance, and they have neither the numbers nor the organisation in the wider membership to do anything but learn to live with Momentum. And the risk of leaving a Labour Party polling upwards of 40% to go it alone looks much greater than that of leaving one you thought was headed for electoral annihilation.
Corbyn’s Labour now consists of a competent, socialist leader who has every chance of becoming Prime Minister, and a growing, enthusiastic, disciplined movement around him. Intellectual heft and ideas which now comprise the leading edge of socialist thinking are provided by a group of relatively young activists connected with Jacobin, New Socialist and Novara Media. Corbyn’s Labour has a social base: a generation of young people who are having the dreams they were promised in the Blair years shattered by debt, rent, and insecure work; public sector workers fed up with picking up the pieces from austerity; ethnic minorities disgusted by the imperial pretensions of Tory Brexiteers. And, incredibly, politics under Corbyn is fun, and almost cool – from grime to memes to podcasts, the young Labour left is becoming a trendy subculture rather than a collection of geeks. The question for leftists like me, who were previously sceptical of the Corbyn project, is this: what’s not to like?
True to form, I’ve not stopped worrying completely. Now a Corbyn government is a real possibility, we must start thinking about what it will face, and what it will look like. A large amount depends on when it happens, relative to the Brexit process. A Labour government elected before March 2019, and to some extent one elected during the ‘transition’ period, may find that unless it simply concedes all EU demands (which may be the best option for Britain in any case) the legal and political strains of Brexit will occupy all of its time and energy, stalling any radical domestic programme. We must also reckon with the fact that a Corbyn premiership is likely to rest on a tiny majority, or perhaps some agreement with the SNP – and even a healthy Labour majority is not, given the make-up of the PLP, a guaranteed majority for Corbyn’s more controversial policies. And the usual pressures put upon left-wing governments in capitalist economies will be there however large our mandate. Corbyn will be undermined by the state establishment, attacked by the press, and may have to take on a capital strike. How will his programme be delivered then?
And what exactly is the programme? Labour’s policies at the moment are what the Fabians called ‘supercharged Milibandism’: more tax on the wealthy, more spending on public services, more state intervention in utility markets and infrastructure, more protection for workers. This is all welcome. But it does not constitute a transformation of society. The hope of many on the left is that Corbyn is being coy: when we take hold of the levers of the state, banks will be expropriated, workplaces will be democratised, borders will be opened, universities will be freed, racism and misogyny will be ended. But it’s not clear how we will get there. What is clear is that the day after Corbyn walks into 10 Downing Street, and possibly for years after, there will still be unemployment, there will still be immigration enforcement, there will still be homelessness and there will still be inequality. For us to succeed as a movement, we must stick together through this period: but will we be able to once the compromises, prioritising and battles of government become apparent? There is currently a real explosion of thought in the movement, including about these strategic questions: but more work needs to be done to ensure a Corbyn government lives up to its billing.
At London Young Labour’s AGM this year, John McDonnell channeled Gramsci, telling us we must have ‘pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will’. We should be prepared for a hard fight to come, but we should not lose faith that we will win it. To me, after the tumult of the last three years, this seems right.