The general election was not just a crushing defeat for Corbynism. It was a resounding verdict on the entire history of “Labourism”.
Labourism is the name of a specific political ideology – a habit of political thought and action – that is almost unique to the British left. According to this belief, there is only one true vehicle for progressive politics, the Labour party. Trade unions have their place – to represent their members at an “industrial” level, in workplaces and on shop floors – but actual political campaigning must be delegated to the party, and the primary focus of the party must be winning elections. No other party can ever represent the working class, and any political movement that is not subservient to either unions or party is to be treated with the greatest suspicion.
The naive belief in the unique political virtue of the Labour party consistently prevents it from developing creative political strategies. Decade after decade, Labour has pursued no other course than that of doggedly trying to win electoral majorities, under circumstances that are obviously unfavourable to that objective.
Just consider this. Labour has never come from opposition to win a convincing parliamentary majority and then gone on to implement a radical programme. In 1945, when it won its first majority, Labour had the advantage of having been part of the wartime national government, in which capacity it was able to commission and publicise the Beveridge report, which formed the basis for its 1945 manifesto. In 1997, the only time a Labour opposition won a large majority, it did so on the basis of a manifesto that had the full approval of Rupert Murdoch and the City of London. It’s little wonder that the implementation of that programme saw the beginning of Labour’s long decline in the northern heartlands.
Under these circumstances, any sane person might conclude that the obvious thing to do would be for Labour to form alliances with other parties against their common enemies: the Conservative party, their media allies and an electoral system that is always biased in favour of swing voters in “middle England” – giving far more weight to the views of ageing provincial homeowners than any other social group. How many times must we see a Conservative party with an extreme rightwing programme win immense legislative power, even though more than half of voters chose parties with a completely different agenda?
All of the European social democracies that Labour members have long dreamed of emulating use proportional representations to elect their parliaments. Almost all of the progressive policies that those countries have pursued have been enacted by parliamentary coalitions, often including smaller liberal parties like our own Liberal Democrats.
And yet, most Labour MPs and all Labour leaders have been so resistant to this realisation that even the great radical Jeremy Corbyn threw away the chance to form a government in 2017. At that time, commentators and sympathisers like Paul Mason (and myself) pleaded with the Labour leadership to do some kind of deal with the Greens and Lib Dems, standing down for each other in a few seats where each party had small but significant vote shares, in order to secure a Labour-led radical government. Had they done so, they could have formed a government, with the Greens, SNP and Lib Dems all very much junior partners in a broad coalition of the left and centre. I have it on good authority that the idea was discussed among senior party figures. But it was rejected out of hand. Once that opportunity was lost, Labour found itself caught in the cleft stick of Brexit, forced to campaign either for leave or a second-referendum, alienating a large section of its base either way. By 2019, the Corbyn project was doomed.
Another criticism of Labourism has always been that it is inherently uncomfortable with the dynamics of social movements – the type of political movement that flourished over the decade, from Occupy to Extinction Rebellion. The Labourist ideal is for party members and supporters to campaign enthusiastically, but obediently, as directed by the party at appropriate points in the electoral cycle. Any form of mobilisation beyond this always risks bringing into being cohorts of political actors who are difficult to discipline, risking the emergence of a movement that is outside the control of the party machine.
Corbynism, for all of its “social movement” rhetoric, never went beyond the limits of this Labourist ideology, although Corbyn and John McDonnell would have liked it to. Despite welcome innovations such as the creation of the community organising unit, what Corbyn’s Labour never developed was the capacity to campaign, year round, in communities and on the streets, with a clear sense of what it was campaigning for (other than just a Labour government), and who it was campaigning against (other than just the Conservative party). So outside of election campaigns, in communities up and down the country, the lies and propaganda of the rightwing press went unanswered.
This failure was partly a symptom of sheer weakness. It was always going to be a tall order for the revived left to take over the Labour party, defend Corbyn from repeated attacks, fight elections and become a year-round counter-propaganda machine – all within the space of four years. But it also came about because too many of those at the top of the party had no desire for any such bottom-up movement really to come into existence. They preferred to retain direct control over policy, messaging and candidate selection, rather than allowing a truly democratic culture to emerge.
Now, the only hope for Labour as a vehicle of radical politics is finally to break with Labourism completely. Whoever takes over as leader, they must enable the party and its members to lead a mass movement against the rightwing extremism of Boris Johnson’s government; in favour of a green and social-democratic alternative. The basis for this movement must be an understanding that everyone in Britain – from the Surrey GP to the Blyth Valley warehouse operative – needs workplace rights, a robust public sector, a healthy democracy and access to forms of culture not entirely driven by the pursuit of profit.
Even on the radical left, the fantasy of another 1945 (somehow to be magically achieved without the inconvenience of a world war and a national coalition government) has paralysed our politics for too long. The new Labour leader must be able to inspire and mobilise the membership as Corbyn was able to, replicating the success of the 2017 election. But they must also be prepared to make the imaginative leap that Corbyn could not, in order to finally win a progressive majority and implement the voting reform we have desperately needed for so long.
• Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London