The importance of Jeremy Corbyn’s success can’t be overestimated, writes Pat Stack. It means we can argue for socialist politics in a way that’s not been possible for decades.
A few weeks ago the political landscape looked pretty bleak. The Tories had a little earlier defied the polls and won an overall majority, and began embarking on a series of vicious attacks on welfare recipients and the trade unions.
In Greece a fantastic referendum result was frittered away in a few short days, as the Syriza Government proved unwilling or unable to stand up to the neoliberal European powers.
The election of a new Labour leader promised to be depressing in the extreme as the various parts of the Labour right took their revenge on that “mad leftie” Miliband.
Yet here we are, a few months down the line from that election defeat, seeing an out and out anti austerity candidate in Jeremy Corbyn posing a serious threat to the grip of the right wing on the Labour Party.
The importance of Corbyn’s success cannot be overstated. It represents the first serious attempt – outside of Scotland, at least – to put anti austerity arguments into the main stream of British politics. It represents the reinstatement of left reformist arguments that the Blairites thought they had got rid of for ever.
In other words, it has the potential to put arguments about socialism to a much wider audience than has been the case for some time.
Many years ago I wrote a pamphlet titled Can Socialism Come through Parliament? I re-read it a couple of years ago and it felt like a relic of a bygone age. Almost nobody was asking that question, because almost nobody inside parliament, aside from a handful of honourable people, were even mentioning socialism – let alone calling for any measures that might resemble some basic socialist reforms.
One of the joys of the Corbyn campaign is that it has the potential for us to begin talking about such questions again. My answer to the question in the pamphlet would be the same today as it was then, but just to have that argument again would make so much difference to the political landscape.
Here again it is important to be careful with historical precedents. For many watching the Corbyn campaign there is a great temptation to look back to the rise of Bennism in the late seventies and early eighties. Whilst formally there are some similarities, I believe the trajectory of the two movements is very different.
Bennism rallied many who had come to politics in the wake of CND, wide scale student unrest, anti-Vietnam War protests, Paris 68, the Portuguese Revolution, the two great miners strikes of 1972 and 1974 and many other industrial victories.
Much of this generation had rejected Labour, and parliament as a means of change – but now, as the struggles subsided and the victories stopped coming, began to lose faith in their own ability to change the world, and looked to more traditional methods to bring about that change. In a sense the success of Bennism reflected the failure of the extra-parliamentary forces to live up to the optimistic possibilities for change of a few years earlier.
Corbyn, it seems to me, is coming from the opposite trajectory. He represents the possibility to break through the pro-austerity, pro-market, pro-big business consensus that has dominated political life in Britain for so long.
He is giving voice and shape to the many who have hated what the past governments – Tory, Coalition and Labour – have done. The many who despite this hatred have felt there is no alternative. Although the media and the Blairites would have us believe that the support for Corbyn is coming from dark satanic forces of the far left manipulating the electoral process, the reality is very different.
The sheer level of support for Corbyn, the huge rallies, the waves of enthusiasm are catching up many different forces. That he has a young following is certainly true. Many of them will undoubtedly be activists for change who have participated in local and national campaigns around a wide range of issues. Up to now, many of those will have felt that no national figure gives voice to anything that even vaguely reflects their views, and will have kept parliamentary politics in all its forms at arms length.
There will also be many young people who have rejected politics altogether, and seen fight for change as hopeless, but are being inspired by Corbyn to take their first steps on the road to being part of a struggle for that change.
However, it is not just young people. Corbyn has clearly caught the mood of many older Labour Party members who barely recognise the party they had joined, and were surely wondering what in the world the Labour Party was for. Corbyn speaks a language they recognise, a language that inspired them to join Labour in the first place.
Finally, union activists have had to live with a political world where their organisations have been treated with contempt by the Tories and disdain by New Labour – at last someone seems to speaking up in their defence.
Little wonder these people have no time for Burnham, Cooper or Kendall. After all, the only argument these three can coherently put forward is that Corbyn couldn’t win a general election.
Leaving aside whether that’s true for now, there surely comes a point when people draw the conclusion that supporting a political party is not like supporting a football team. You carry on supporting your team whether they win or lose, whether their style of play is attractive or boring, whether you like or hate the manager.
However if at a certain point your political party is going to make no serious change, is not going to undo any of the awful measures of their predecessors, is not even going to say – much less do – anything radical because focus groups have told them not to, then what exactly does “winning” mean?
It appears many have reached that point, and would rather go head to head over austerity than vote for a slightly less nasty version of what’s already there.
All of this means that where Bennism represented a stepping-off point for many who had looked to the revolutionary left, Corbyn’s campaign can actually act as a spring board towards voices for real change.
Of course should Corbyn win, then the arguments I made in that pamphlet will become more and more central. He will have a parliamentary party that is saying it will not play ball. Even more importantly, should he ever become prime minister he will face the same hugely powerful vested interests that destroyed Syriza’s attempts at resistance. He will face state bodies (including parliament) that exist to defend the interests of capital and profit, and forces who, at the end of the day, would take whatever measures are necessary to defend their wealth, power and privilege.
At that point, the power and strength of our class, our allies outside parliament, will become crucial, which is why it’s of crucial importance to start putting together now a movement that supports Corbyn in the campaigns and struggles outside the Labour Party.
Corbyn’s campaign is offering us all hope, and an opportunity to make socialist ideas seem relevant and real, and can pave the way to the more complex debate of how we actually achieve these aims – and though there are also other reasons, for that alone he deserves all our support.