Understanding the Corbyn campaign: an interview with Max Shanly

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader is in full swing. Max Shanly is a member of Young Labour’s National Committee. We interviewed him about his hopes and expectations for the campaign. Max spoke to us in a personal capacity and is not an official representative of the campaign.

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

Can you start off by explaining what role you’ve had in Corbyn’s campaign so far, both in winning the nomination and the campaign since? What do you hope to achieve with it? Is it part of a longer term strategy?

I’m a trade unionist active in Unite and I sit on the National Committee of Young Labour. My role has been confined to that of an unofficial agitator – specifically aimed at young people – for Corbyn’s candidacy and the policies and strategy he espouses. I hope we can build a large enough coalition of forces both inside and outside the Labour party, within the wider labour movement and beyond to catapult Corbyn to victory.

For me this is a key part of the struggle to revive the left in Britain, and not just the Labour left, but the left as a whole; to reinvigorate it, to build a strong left capable of winning, and representing those we claim to represent – those with needs that are not met. Jeremy’s campaign is the first time in a generation where the left’s ideas will be presented to the public as a comprehensive alternative on a mainstream basis. That provides an important opportunity.

There have been inevitable comparisons with Tony Benn’s campaigns in the 1980s. Do you see similarities between the two campaigns?

There are comparisons, but to make those comparisons you first have to know the history. The rise of Tony Benn in the late 1970s and early 1980s was driven by a movement both inside and outside of the Labour Party that rejected the post-war consensus far more than the neoliberals of Thatcher’s Tory Party ever did. As Benn himself said in a deputy leadership hustings in 1981 “We tried to make Capitalism work with good and humane Labour governments but we haven’t succeeded because it can’t work; it rests on injustice, lives off inequality, and if you try to modify it it turns on you and cuts back your gains and throws you back to where you started.” He was of course talking about the post-1976 collapse of the Keynesian consensus, but the full effects of what he was talking about have only really come to the fore in recent years.

Jeremy Corbyn was a key player in the Benn campaign of 1981 and had previously served along with Tony Banks as an unofficial adviser to Benn whilst he was at the Department of Industry trying to counteract the wrecking strategy of the civil service that greeted Benn’s attempts to get Labour’s proposed Industry Act and the National Enterprise Board established. It would not be wrong to describe Jeremy as the Bennite continuity candidate, but with the advantage that the ideas Benn espoused and others worked for have finally seen their time come. I don’t mean particular policy ideas here, but raising as a strategic priority the need to democratise both mass working-class parties and the state. When Benn was making that argument, the left was divided starkly between reformists and revolutionaries, where now that division is more blurred; we’ve seen social-democratic reformism collapse, which has pushed some on the more radical end of the reformist spectrum to move out beyond past welfare-state assumptions to pose these more transformative questions about democratising bourgeois institutions, and at the same time some on the revolutionary left are engaging seriously with these new more radical reforming parties. That’s been the dynamic in Spain and Greece in the last few years.

This is not to say we can generalise easily across Europe. There are big differences between parties and countries – Podemos is more post-Marxist where Syriza is neo-Marxist, and Die Linke, for instance, doesn’t really fall into this new, radically democratic category at all though it’s sometimes tempting to add it because it’s another left party that does well electorally. In Britain, the roots of socialism are different from the rest of Europe, historically based more in non-conformist Christianity than Marxism. So a strong British left will be distinct because it won’t be born out of the official Communist tradition as in most of Europe.

The biggest difference between Tony Benn’s campaigns and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign now is that the Labour left is much weaker now. By the time Benn stood for deputy in 1981 the Labour left had won victory after victory at the party conference and had for many years held the majority of seats on the party’s National Executive Committee. There was also a sizeable proportion of the PLP that wanted Benn not just as deputy leader but as leader of the whole party, with the hope that he would eventually lead a radical reforming Labour government. The circumstances are very different but in terms of what drives both men and the politics they hold, they are very similar indeed. That in itself should provide hope to those outside of the party, in the movements and the wider left. People can be confident not only that Jeremy means what he says and will do what he says he will do if the opportunity arises – which is rare enough among reformist leaders – but also that his strategy is more interesting than traditional labels, like “left social-democratic”, suggest.

How do you see his campaign fitting into the broader movement against austerity?

This is the main thrust of the campaign. The rise of the anti-austerity movement in recent years and the way in which it intersects with the plethora of campaigns that have sprung up over the last decade or so (and even further back than that) is really what has given life to Jeremy’s candidacy. There is a significant mood in Britain that we need a radical break from the past, and that the present isn’t very promising either. People are crying out to be allowed to shape their own destinies, both as individuals and as a community at large. That’s most worryingly manifested in votes for UKIP, where the left’s failure to diagnose and articulate the root causes of people’s dissatisfaction does a very serious disservice to those people, who then find solutions in scapegoating.

The obvious truth is that we can’t turn that situation around without challenging the might of capital, something the Labour Party has never done. Historically, the party has even preferred to split. The Blair years have led to a rejection of the Labour Party as a vehicle of social change by many on the left far more even than the Wilson and Callaghan governments did. That is clearly true of activists in the organised left, but it’s beginning to filter through more broadly as well; working-class people with basically left-wing ideas are alienated from Labour. So we shall have to overcome the Blairite brand of politics if we are to achieve anything in the immediate future. I think the vitality of this campaign will legitimise opposition to austerity in the minds of Labour parliamentarians unfamiliar with extra-parliamentary struggle, so a well-supported campaign will help to put pressure on Labour by making a lot of the hard work of anti-cuts campaigners more visible to them than it was before.

What do you think will happen if he wins?

I think Jeremy will face problems not just inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, which I think is likely to split if he wins with the Blairites buggering off to form a new SDP, but also from the Labour Party bureaucracy. New Labourism is still a hegemonic force at Brewers Green (Labour Party HQ) and despite having resigned as leader eight years ago, Blair is still the piper who plays the tune many party staff listen to.

The Labour left will have to act swiftly and I am afraid brutally in many cases. The PLP will have to be brought into line, some members of party staff will need to be pointed towards the exit, and the entire party structures would, in my opinion, need to undergo a comprehensive and thorough review. On the latter point, essentially we need the sweeping away of the current party form, not just to overcome the neoliberalisation of the party internally, but also to construct the type of party that can build people’s capacities, engage effectively with social movements, and eventually enter the state on a transformative programme. We have to become far more of an extra-parliamentary party, a campaigning organisation led by the grassroots and not by parliamentarians. Labour party democracy has long been on the agenda of the Labour left, but it should mean not just changing some of Labour’s internal processes but making it a bottom-up party structured more like a social movement than a hierarchical tool of the leader.

The Labour Party is almost completely bereft of an intellectual base at the moment. It is over reliant on socially liberal think tanks rather than the home grown intellectuals and academics that characterise many of the parties of the European Left. We will need to draw in the socialist movement’s best and brightest in order to transform Labour’s internal regime and build a party able to enter the state and transform it. That requires repudiating much of our past and restarting the Labour Party afresh – to build a real party of labour. I hope much of the left will consider taking an active part in that. It will be a very tough battle, perhaps an impossible one, because most of Labour’s powerful figures will be against us and a large part of the ordinary membership simply won’t understand what we’re trying to do. There is no real political education inside the Labour party; it’s an electoral machine rather than a political party, and that breeds a passive membership, at worst a fan club for parliamentarians. All of this makes things harder.

What about if he loses? What do you think will happen, and what do you think his supporters should do?

If Jeremy loses I can see one of two things happening. The first option, especially if Jeremy does well in the election, is that the Labour left could regain some confidence in its abilities and could start to rebuild. The second option is that the left of the Labour Party could either end up leaving the party in droves or being crushed even further by a triumphant Labour right. Sadly I think the latter is more likely should Corbyn fail to be victorious.

I think that will lead to a re-evaluation of political strategy in many trade unions. I’ve never favoured the foundation of a new workers’ party founded by the trade union bureaucracy, only because I would not be surprised if the same type of corporatist relationships that have blighted Labour since its foundation reoccurred in such a new party. Ralph Miliband’s argued, rightly, in Parliamentary Socialism that the Labour party is averse to listening to the voices of its mass membership and prefers to do deals in secret, not least with the trade union bureaucracy. That lack of real democratic empowerment is one of the reasons the party has historically made more concessions to capital than to labour. Miliband’s point applies no less to Britain’s trade unions, so a party dominated by their leaders wouldn’t offer much hope.

Personally, I would want any new party of the left to look more like a federation of social movements with the labour movement in the lead, led by a broad coalition of leftists. Ideally, however, this is the type of party I would like to see Labour become. The labour movement has worked too hard to simply abandon the party that bears its name, even if that party has never truly represented its interests.

How can socialists who aren’t Labour supporters help Corbyn’s campaign?

Lend Corbyn your vote, register as a supporter. Far too often socialists like ourselves fail to engage effectively with the institutions of bourgeois democracy. That is a real strategic error. In the dominant media presentation, politics takes place in parliament, so even if we want to fight that view we shoot ourselves in the foot if we start by being invisible, by wilfully excluding ourselves from most people’s encounters with politics.

I fully understand why some on the left feel unable to sign up as Labour supporters, though I can’t deny being disappointed about that. To those people: make sure you participate in the plethora of campaigns and movements that have sprung up over the past few years. It is there that our strength lies and it is from there that the militant movement we need to catapult us to power will come. This is the most important sense in which Jeremy Corbyn follows Tony Benn; though he’s an MP he doesn’t believe parliament is the main vehicle of change.

Whatever happens, I look forward to working with you all.


  1. […] Labour’s staff at the time had all been hired under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. They were all from the Blairite, moderate wing of the party. Until this day they believed themselves to represent the massive majority of Labour voters, indeed the majority of voters in the entire UK. These were people who hadn’t felt the need to talk earnestly about Socialism — with a capital “S” — since Michael Foot stepped down as Labour leader in 1983. “New Labourism is still a hegemonic force at Brewer’s Green and despite having resigned as leader eight years ago, Blair is still the piper who plays the tune many party staff listen to,” one Corbyn activist said of the place. […]

  2. “Thanks for the warning.”

    Those in positions of responsibility in Labour can’t expect to get away with sabotaging Labour if Corbyn becomes leader. Leading Blairites have already threatened not to co-operate with Corbyn so it’s completely understandable that they might be asked to relinquish those positions. There will be plenty of anti-austerity and pro-Corbyn members available to fill them.

  3. Watching the apoplexy of the Blairites spluttering their bile in the Guardian as they feel themselves growing ever more irrelevant to the campaign and increasingly more disliked is particularly welcome. Even the Guardian editor is bleating about impartiality after an orchestrated hatchet job on Corbyn has blown up in his face. Whether Corbyn wins or not, and I hope he does, the panic at the heart of the Blairite establishment is a fear of the chickens coming home to roost. Particularly after Corbyn stated that Blair should be tried for war crimes! Corbyn must relish such a wonderful platform to condemn the right regardless of the leadership outcome.

    Corbyn’s campaign demonstrates that the left needs to take a lead and make a stand against austerity and the EU (hopefully Corbyn will change position on that) and not wait until some mythical new social movement outside the left creates a ready made campaign for us to join. The separation between the left and social movements is a bogus concept anyway that’s a favourite of reformists like Paul Mason and the followers of Hardt and Negri who would like to dismiss the agency of the working class.

    Sometimes, as in Corbyn’s case, taking a lead can inspire people and build a momentum that would never have been predicted or occurred without doing so. There are many successful historical examples of this phenomenon. Even if such a strategy doesn’t work immediately, for various reasons, the one certainty is that abstaining will invariably lead to the opposite of what you want. And it does need to spring from a correct analysis of the prevailing conditions, about which I think Corbyn has been particularly astute, or from a spontaneous response to oppression such as at Stonewall rather than simply based on an abstract principle.

  4. These comments strike to the core of the problem. Labour is now mostly populated by supposedly well educated people from two core areas. On the left we have the socialists who peddle a form of neo-left economics, with some fine policies such as nationalisation of transport and utilities which work well in other European countries, and some other policies which work against jobs and the economy. On the right of the party there are the social democrats who claim pragmatism, but who end up being compromised by their voting record.
    Ironically, considering the education some received there is a reluctance to recognise the problems both sides have. The left lack vision, while the right end up failing to do much more than be slightly left of the Tory party while doing little of significance to fix the long term problems of the UK.
    Add to this the ability of the right wing press to persuade the electorate that labour is incompetent even when it wasn’t, and we have fragmentation.
    The UK is not a modern republic and is controlled by the oligarchic elites within as it always has been and only labour can address this, and actually only Corbyn as a Republican understands this.
    The only way we might get a written constitution, a reformed second chamber, stop the tax havens for the rich, decentralise power, renegotiate the Union etc is for labour to wake up to its role as the party of change and stop pretending that everything is fine – that is the Tory party’s line.
    He is doing fine, he has vision, and will have his work cut out for him to educate the party as leader, but he should be given a chance and they need him as they need a vision of where labour is going.

  5. Out of 232 Labour MP’s only 48 voted against massive Tory welfare cuts. The rest of the no votes in the main second reading division were 55 SNP, eight Liberal Democrat, six DUP, three SDLP, three Plaid Cymru and one each from Green and UUP. If all Labour MP’s had voted no then that would have added up to 309 votes against 308 yes votes. This betrayal has to be up there with Labour’s vote for the Iraq war in 2003.

    Diane Abbott sumed it up, “Just voted against Tory Welfare Bill. Sorry for colleagues who knew it was wrong but abstained. We weren’t sent to Parliament to abstain.”

    Hannah Bardell of the SNP pointed out that, “This disgraceful stance will haunt Labour through next year’s Scottish Parliament election and far beyond.”

    The result of this vote will be more suicides, further grinding poverty and a ramping up of attacks on workers – fully endorsed by Labour pragmatists who abstained and spend their time attacking Corbyn instead of defending poor and vulnerable people. The left needs an alternative and this vote shows that Labour is definite not it.

  6. Labour’s acting leader, Harman, supported the Tories welfare bill and Burnham abstained. Only 20% of Labour voted against it. This is the reality of Labour despite Corbyn’s reformist position on the left. Anyone who supported the bill or abstained lost any credibility they might have had by pandering to the Tories scapegoating of those on welfare including the millions of people who work but need support because they can’t survive on low wages. Rather than Labour supporters posting attacks on Corbyn why are they not condemning the contemptible behaviour of the current leadership?

    • What Ralph Miliband ( Ed’s dad) wrote back in 1966 is even more true today:
      “What the present Labour leaders are basically about is not at all complicated, or mysterious, or very new: they are about the more efficient and, in a limited sense, the more humane functioning of British capitalism. What distinguishes them from their Tory and Liberal political colleagues and competitors is not their will to create a socialist society on the basis of the social ownership and control of economic power – they have no such will – but a greater propensity to invoke state intervention in economic and social life than these competitors are willing to accept…”
      In the past 50 years, so many have tried to evade and avoid this essential understanding…and instead made a political career of trying —and failing — to turn the LP into a mass socialist party. Corbyn will be the latest.

  7. Being critical of the Blairite strategy of those who oppose Corbyn is not the same as calling someone a Tory. If you want Labour to continue austerity policies imposed by the Tories then have the courage of your convictions and don’t claim to support a socialist strategy. The two have nothing in common.

    While I’m critical of the reformism of Max & Corbyn it seems that those criticising them are doing so from the Labour right and in that case count me as in solidarity with the reformists rather than the Blairites.

    • Max: Is this an unfair — or irrelevant — question from three days ago?
      You have argued that progressives, activists and socialists not now in the LP should join/support the LP to back Corbyn as its leader. Could you please also tell us what we should do after Sept. should a) Corbyn win, b) any of the three other candidates win?

  8. Oh look, another Oxford educated leader of the proletariat talking about democracy and free, open debate in one breath while advocating a purge of anyone in the party who dissents or disagrees on the other. I despise the Tories, am a committed socialist and would never vote for Liz Kendall, but I’m alarmed by the bullying, intimidating tactics of many Corbyn supporters and the way they shut down debate by just screaming “Tory” at anyone who has the audacity to suggest we might need to consider communication, image and electability as well as just policy.

  9. As a member of Young Labour in the South East, I guess Max is a representative of sorts of mine – and like him, I’m a socialist (though I squirm at his use of Marxist terminology – the phrase “bourgeois democracy” slightly inexplicably sends shivers down my spine). However, the sort of coup implied is one of the things that deters me from Corbyn – a split in the party and a brutal purge of Blairite ‘dissidents’ sounds like a recipe for turning Labour into a tiny, inward looking fragment, hunting down any ‘thought criminal’ who dares to challenge the party line. The obvious consequence of this would be an electoral wipeout and a collapse of the party.
    I don’t really take everything Max says as an accurate representation of what would happen if Corbyn was the leader, but more generally I don’t see Jeremy as the politician who will preside over a rebirth of Labour.
    I feel like if anyone takes notice of this comment, they’ll attack me for saying this and also claiming I’m a socialist, but that if anything proves my point.

  10. Boredom rather than hate. Hate is a response to something new and threatening whereas boredom is a reaction to tired, old clichés. Possibly you’re comfortably off after decades of Tory and Labour neoliberal policies and don’t need to visit food banks in Liverpool, pay the bedroom tax or sit on a housing waiting list for decades. How did austerity work out for you Blairites in the election? Total wipe out in Scotland by an anti-austerity agenda very similar to the one Corbyn is campaigning for now and pipped at the post in the rest of the UK by the Tories who do austerity so much better than Miliband. We need imagination and inspiration not another bunch of identikit bureaucrats parroting the language of big business. That’s why Corbyn’s support is growing inside and outside Labour and why, out of desperation, you’re flailing around on a socialist blog desperately hoping to convince someone.

  11. Tony Benn was a fucking idiot. He and his ilk nearly destroyed the Labour party and their extremism allowed Thatcher to win 2 landslides and lay waste to the so-called ‘enemy within’. That 18 long years of Tory government nearly finished off my home city, Liverpool. It only started to recover when Labour came to power again. To repeat for the hard of reading: the 1997 Labour government made my home city better after 18 years of getting done over by the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn as leader would be a disaster for the Labour party and also for the people the Labour party was formed to help. The enemy – that is the Tories, by the way – can only be defeated by a sensible, moderate Labour party. I know you’ll hate reading this but Labour can’t win unless the voters of Milton Keynes or Northampton or Reading or Lincoln or Warrington South start sending Labour MPs to Westminster again. If you honestly believe that they are crying out for warmed-up Bennism – via Jeremy Corbyn – then you are seriously misguided at best.

  12. Max: You have argued that progressives, activists and socialists not now in the LP should join/support the LP to back Corbyn as its leader. Could you please also tell us what we should do after Sept. should a) Corbyn win, b) any of the three other candidates win?

  13. “The Labour left will have to act swiftly and I am afraid brutally in many cases. The PLP will have to be brought into line, some members of party staff will need to be pointed towards the exit, and the entire party structures would, in my opinion, need to undergo a comprehensive and thorough review.”

    Do you realise how this comes across?

  14. My apologies, it wasn’t directed at your article which focuses specifically on Corbyn’s campaign. I meant there hasn’t been an analysis yet of what’s happened in Greece on the RS21 blog so far which I assumed would take priority as it has implications for the left inside and outside Labour.

  15. While it’s important for the left to support Corbyn that should not include signing up to a reformist strategy, especially joining Labour. The get out clause for reformists now days seems to be to deny their strategy is about reforming the capitalist state and call themselves “post-marxist” or “neo-marxist”. Anything organised to the left of that is dismissed as “Leninism” associated with all its Cold War canards. As Jhub points out, it’s particularly sad to read this analysis of Corbyn’s campaign after Syriza has just had its throat cut by the Troika. Why no analysis of what’s just happened in Greece taking priority? It sounds terribly avant garde to wax lyrical about so-called “new” forms of left politics but when they end up emulating so much of the old, discredited ones revolutionaries need to point that out.

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