Back Corbyn (but rely on ourselves, not Labour)

Ian Allinson comments on the news that socialist Jeremy Corbyn has secured enough nominations to enter the Labour leadership contest.

Labour leadership contenders

The news that socialist Jeremy Corbyn has secured enough nominations from MPs to be a candidate in the Labour leadership has unleashed a surge of activists signing up to join the Labour Party or register as affiliated supporters through their union. No doubt this is part of the reason why MPs nominated him – it certainly wasn’t because there are 35 socialists in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In fact, his nominations largely come from MPs with no association with the left.

The General Election result tipped many on the left into despair, not helped by those who explained the result by blaming a “right wing” population. The flurry of big demonstrations and meetings after the election lifted the mood somewhat. Now Corbyn’s candidacy has given hope to many. His Facebook page has far more likes than any other candidate.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of Corbyn getting on the ballot. When was the last time a socialist was in a Labour leadership contest? Michael Foot led Labour from 1980 to 1983. Back in 1981 Tony Benn ran unsuccessfully for deputy. Every Labour leader since has moved Labour further to the right and away from representing working class people.

In the General Election debates, the SNP, Green and Plaid Cymru leaders gave us a glimpse of the impact left politics being aired in the mainstream can have. Now Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist, will have a major media and campaigning platform until the ballot closes on 10 September. Corbyn has a great track record of backing strikes and campaigns – his candidacy will give the whole movement a boost.

Every socialist, whether in the Labour Party or not, should campaign for Corbyn. The campaign is an opportunity to challenge the dominant ideas in the labour movement and to argue socialist politics on a mass scale. Within the unions, the debate about who to back opens all kinds of questions. The more people involved in this process the better.

The odds are stacked against Corbyn. Labour Party members are not generally that left wing. That’s why the parliamentary candidates they select are overwhelmingly awful. The Labour machine will be working against him, as will the media.

Even if Corbyn did win, he would face the opposition of the entire establishment while surrounded by overwhelmingly hostile MPs. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Labour-type parties could deliver reforms during the post-war boom without confronting the establishment. This is no longer possible in the neoliberal era. Socialists in parliament can play an important role, but any degree of success depends on a mass movement prepared to confront the establishment.

Exactly what people can do to campaign for Corbyn will become clearer as his campaign takes shape. Whether Labour supporters or not, people can take action such as:

  • Campaigning for people who have votes to put Corbyn first
  • Campaigning for Labour supporters in unions to register as affiliated supporters to vote for Corbyn
  • Campaigning for unions to encourage members to back Corbyn
  • Building and take part in campaign meetings

We should all campaign for Corbyn and use that campaign to build resistance in workplaces and communities. That resistance will be the key even if Corbyn wins. If he loses, we should argue for as large a section of the campaign and the unions to break with Labour rather than propping up any of the New Labour clones standing against him.

Working class people have nobody to rely on but ourselves. We certainly can’t rely on Labour MPs to bring about social change, or even to defend us from the ravages of the corporate agenda.


  1. Given the voting system brought in for this election, just about anyone who wants a vote has one.

    To register to vote costs non-members £3, £1 for unwaged/students and is free for members of affiliated unions. Surely the logic of calling for ‘people who have votes to put Corbyn first’ is to also call on people who don’t yet have votes to register to get them before 12 August.

  2. I’m generally encouraging people who support Jeremy Corbyn to register to vote.

    However, to sign up as an affiliated supporter you need to agree “I want to sign up as an affiliated supporter. I support the aims and values of the Labour party and am not a member of any organisation opposed to it”. I don’t think Labour is the way forward. Of course I could still sign up, then leave after the election. But I think having a reputation for integrity is really important in the movement – various bits of the left have done a lot of damage by taking short cuts with democracy. Anti-Labour lefties signing up for this election could hand a weapon to the right. I don’t want to. It’s easy to lose people’s trust and hard to regain it.

    I also worry that signing up as a supporter hides the scale of the collapse of support for Labour amongst working class people. As Labour acts as a brake on struggle, I want our unions and movements to be independent of it. I see building the strength and success of those movements as more important than my vote in this election.

    I know others on the left take different views.

  3. An excellent article, but the answer to ‘When was the last time a socialist was in a Labour leadership contest?’ is 2010, when Diane Abbott stood against Ed Miliband, and got just over 7% of the vote. Abbott was one of the first MPs to nominate Corbyn, has an unrivalled record of campaigning against racism and for reproductive rights, and has in recent years become more involved in campaigning locally – I’ve seen her speak at three campaigning meetings in my area over the last two years, which you can’t say about too many other Labour MPs. Her election leaflet boasted about voting against the Gulf War and against student fees, and talked explicitly about campaigning against Islamophobia.

    Yes, she sent her child to a public school, and yes, she’s far too chummy with Michael Portillo. There are Labour MPs with better and more consistent records – but very, very few. Ian’s quite right that there aren’t 35 socialists in the parliamentary Labour Party – but however many there are, she’s one of them.

  4. I think it’s great Corbyn got on the ballot. It is really important a left voice is heard, and his is a very creditable one. However I think the fact he got the required nominations is not really a reflection of the strength of the Labour Left, but rather it’s weakness. Rather like Abbott he has received nominations from MP’s who have no intention of voting for him, but think it looks better on paper that he’s on the ballot. If they thought the Labour Left had any real chance, or indeed any real influence I very much doubt they would have done it. I agree with the thrust of Ian’s article and his conclusions, anyone who thinks it’s irrelevant that he’s on is I think very mistaken. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter how well he does fails, in my opinion to understand the impact the loss of a left reformist voice has affected the left as a whole, including the revolutionary left. However I’m not sure Ian doesn’t over estimates the significance of how Corbyn got on the ballot, or rather misreads the significance.

  5. Voting Jeremy Corbyn? Should we do it? Should we sign up to be members? Is some form of Labour entryism justified? For revolutionaries I think the answer has to be possibly yes. However I do not think it would be principled to full-on join the Labour Party – we would be being dishonest politically if we signed up to Labour’s ‘values’ as currently expressed in their right-wing neo-liberal form. As some people have said there are millions of Iraqi, Palestinian and Afghan lives between us to contemplate that. BUT given the nature of the trade union link to Labour being transformed for this leadership election as one where ‘affiliated supporters’ (a status akin to ‘registered Democrat or Republican’ voters in the US) are entitled to vote, I believe this status is near enough the same as the Pre-Collins review union political fund payer or affiliated union levy payer. Most of us in trade unions are in that category of affiliated levy-paying supporter because we recognise it is better for a union to take a political stance than not to take one. We only argue for disaffiliation from Labour where there is an active and viable alternative (as there temporarily was in Scotland in the noughties).

    Another possibility this new status gives us is to connect the affiliated supporters in a new social movement to elect Corbyn which, even if/when it fails, could have the effect of linking trade union affiliates from below with each other. Socialists have long complained how the labour-union link is operated from above by the bureaucracy rather through the grassroots members. This leadership election format gives us the opportunities to make that grassroots link more concrete. Put it this way, unless the revolutionary left is in there arguing its case it will certainly lead to a revitalisation of the tried and tested Labour left reformist approach left uncontested during this vital debate by a radical left alternative at the leadership hustings meetings.

    It must be remembered that 60,000 new members have joined Labour since the election defeat. I bet that the vast majority of them do not believe Labour was ‘too left-wing’ or ‘not Blairite enough’ to win the general election. Right now on facebook and elsewhere tens of thousands are joining as Labour supporters or members just to vote for Jeremy. The likelihood of as quick a mass exodus if/when he loses is strong. However if one of the right-wingers wins and uses this as an excuse to purge the Labour left, that exit door will be jammed open and the possibilities for an alternative mass working class party emerge,

    Even if you have only voted Labour for tactical or lesser evil reasons this time; or as a class position based on your Marxist analysis of the institutional link between the working class movement and the Party, the idea you are supporting is that the working class should have a political party to express its class interests. This is therefore an unprecedented opportunity for us all to help restore the political independence of the Labour movement – such that it is – in order to reinvigorate a wider sense of class solidarity and political identity.

    We cannot abstain on this one, when a mass political phenomenon is about to take hold in the public consciousness and the s-word of socialism will be openly spoken during this campaign – it is a chance for the far left to help the Labour left polarise the debate within the party and the wider working class on anti-austerity, class, capitalism and social justice lines. We would be sectarian and ultra-left not to see the opportunity to influence mass political debate in wider society and to take part in the local hustings debates (as paid up supporters) where we can openly argue for our politics in a non-sectarian fashion (no irrelevant calls for general strikes for insurrections please!). Having been a Marxist in the Labour Party from 1991 to 2002 in Corbyn’s constituency I know that it is more than feasible to argue your case as a revolutionary openly and without compromising basic principles. I therefore have persuaded myself that it is best for revolutionaries to consider registering as affiliated supporters – rather than as party members – in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

  6. Pat Stack says: “I’m not sure Ian doesn’t over estimates the significance of how Corbyn got on the ballot, or rather misreads the significance.”

    I’m not sure what in the article you’re referring to? The first paragraph makes the same point you do:
    “the reason why MPs nominated him – it certainly wasn’t because there are 35 socialists in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In fact, his nominations largely come from MPs with no association with the left.”

    I think there’s a difference between what Corbyn’s nomination tells us about the significance of the Labour left (where I agree with Pat that it’s a sign of weakness) and the significance of the consequences (where I think they are big).

  7. Labour in many ways was tearing itself apart (with a brief respite at the finish line) in the lead up to the election over claims that Miliband was too left wing. Many on the left argued that they felt some parts of the Labour party would willfully lose rather than see Ed as PM and enact certain policies. What scale of internecine warfare would there be if Corbyn was leader? If that is what is desirable for some pushing the Corbyn vote on the left, then be honest about that.

    However, if that’s not the case then I’d have to ask, do you see Labour as being able to deliver structural and progressive change to British society? Should the answer be yes, then I don’t see how one could argue against general entryism but for, signing up to vote for Corbyn (assuming one didn’t have a vote through an affiliate union). For me, Labour as a progressive force is spent. One of our key stumbling blocks on the radical left is challenging the dominance of the Labour party over peoples mind’s and over their choice on the ballot paper. This to me seems to compound that rather than challenge it.

    As a final aside, I also think that when it comes to it, Corbyn will get battered in the vote. His place on the ballot paper was secured by Labour MPs who’d never vote for him and who even explicitly assured they did not support him. For me, this is about the Labour right catergorically defeating its left and purging itself for 2020. Leading people up to the top of the hill and then if Corbyn loses saying “well, we don’t really support the Labour party anyway” seems far more damaging than the supposed sectarianism of saying that we should stand apart from the Labour leadership election.

  8. To answer Nathan’s points here – a) is the Labour party a force for progressive change? As Kinglsey Abrams said in his interview with me in March after resigning his 30-year membership – ‘not under its current leadership’ or in its current format. Clearly Corbyn having even the slightest of prospects of being leader puts forward the possibility of changing the format and direction of the party. It should be noted that the Centre Left Grassroots alliance has consistently over the last 20 years won over 40% of the constituency members votes in the Labour NEC elections guaranteeing the left several places and consistently beating the two right wing Blairite slates led by Progress and Fabian societies. It’s top placing candidate was Ken Livingstone with 31,682 votes in 2012 and 39,548 votes in 2014 – easily beating the highest placed right winger on 20,146 in 2012 and 24,325 in 2014 this was according to this vote represented “A slight shift to the Left”..”in the dynamics of the NEC with Peter Wheeler (backed by Labour First and Progress) replaced by Kate Osamor [now MP for Edmonton..ed GC] – backed by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy).” Although the left slate yet again won the NEC election the turnout at “33.1% – higher than in 2012, but still low considering how easy it was to vote online, and how long the voting period was”. Nonetheless, Corbyn can therefore expect to get at least 40,000-50,000 left votes from the Constituency LPs (or at least 30% of the vote) and given the likely trade union affiliate support he’ll get, I fully expect him to take second place in the election. Given the nature of the contest with first and second preferences – Corbyn’s entry makes it very likely Andy Burnham will win the leadership because Corbyn’s second preferences will almost certainly go to him. Also Burnham supporters second preferences will go to Corbyn in order to stop Cooper and Kendall. Burnham will have won based on the union and left votes – particularly the new membership. b) The left’s ability to challenge Labour reformism in England will surely depend on coming through a political test within the Labour membership and affiliate supporters. That is a test of credibility for our political projects in England and Wales – We need to be building a serious anti-austerity alternative outside the Labour in order to influence the debate inside it. We can do that by encouraging the affiliate or supporting trade union membership to form local independent political committees independent of the Labour party but composed of those who have just signed up online. We can more easily argue for this if we are amongst them, so Yes I am arguing for an ‘entryism’ of sorts amongst the non-member affiliates – although not in the Labour party itself. These affiliate supporters will be fighting to impress upon Labour’s leaders that they want an end to austerity as THE political condition for their electoral support. Only one of these leadership candidates will listen to them and agree with their answers. Of course we know that Burnham is no better than Cooper or Kendall but this is will have to be exposed to millions of Labour supporters and nearly 200,000 members/affiliates during the contest and afterwards in the context of a growing fight against Tory austerity measures. As Corbyn was the only candidate on the 200,000 anti austerity demo on Saturday we can further expect that anti-austerity movement to increasingly express itself in the leadership contest.


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