Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader represents a monumental victory for progressive forces in the UK. The sheer number of people mobilised by his campaign’s message of ending austerity and democratising the Labour party has taken almost everyone by surprise, demonstrating the mass appeal and electoral potential of progressive alternatives to both the Tories and New Labour.
Yet, clearly, the biggest challenges are yet to come. The outpouring of anti-Corbyn rhetoric from liberal and centre-left circles has shown that Corbyn’s brand of populist democratic politics and anti-austerity economics is opposed even by those within the British left. Now we are about to witness an unrelenting, coordinated onslaught from the traditional right-wing and the political establishment against Corbyn’s leadership. How, in this context, can Corbyn remain Labour leader and win at the next election?
Responding to this challenge, we see the task of next five years as the creation of a new social movement and political culture capable of challenging the British elite and winning democratic power. This is a vision of a diverse popular bloc, interlinked with formal political institutions and local activism, seeking to challenge austerity at a national level and confront the vested interests and economic privileges of the UK’s financial sector.
Here is an outline of how we think progressive forces – both within and outside of the structures of the Labour party – can respond to the coming anti-Corbyn onslaught, and how we can build the institutions, networks and ideas capable of creating real political change in the UK.
The task at hand.
The idea of national politics as a contest for the ‘centre ground’ – comprised of voters committed to low-taxation, rising housing prices and moderate forms of social justice – no longer holds: unprecedented cuts to public services, and rising levels of inequality and absolute poverty have polarised opinion, destroying the consensus New Labour argued was immovable. Rather than being too left-wing, the polling data on the last election suggests Labour lost because Ed Miliband was perceived as a weak, incompetent leader. Tory cuts are unpopular, but in the absence of a credible alternative the party will be voted in at the next election.
The data on the popularity of Corbyn’s positions on the economy, spending cuts, nationalisation, immigration and foreign policy suggest voters can be swung either way – there’s neither mass support for Conservative policies, nor generalised opposition to them. The evidence clearly shows public opinion is up for grabs. In this scenario, the point is to build a populist politics capable of seizing the moment. Corbyn’s election provides the opportunity to do just that.
The first major barrier to this project comes from a combination of forces in the mainstream media and the parliamentary Labour party (PLP). Clearly, a hostile media will constantly question Corbyn’s credibility on the economy and foreign policy throughout the next five years, but the fundamental issues are how far such hostility weakens him as leader, and how far negative press results in a dilution of his anti-austerity programme. The key here will be opinion polls, and local election and by-election results.
There are two possible scenarios if Corbyn becomes perceived as ‘unelectable’. First, once the ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ narrative takes hold, the Labour right quickly try to remove him as leader – as they attempted with Ed Miliband. Second, negative poll ratings will be used by the Labour right to force Corbyn to compromise on key economic and social policy issues. This means that for Corbyn to remain leader, with minimal dilution of his anti-austerity platform, the left must work tirelessly to show that Corbyn can win over the hearts and minds of the electorate.
Challenge and bypass the mainstream media.
“If they want to go back to the 1980s, let them,” was George Osborne’s response to Corbyn’s election. This sums up the rhetoric the Tories, the mainstream media and the Labour right will employ – consistently – against Corbyn for the next five years: Corbyn = socialism, socialism = the past, so the formula goes.
The best counter to this strategy is not simply to reassert the values of the left – equality, justice, democracy – but rather to seize the mantle of modernisation: to portray an end to austerity and a return to investment and economic growth as the future, and neoliberalism as the past. Political communication needs to reinforce the message that we need not choose between ‘fairness’ and ‘efficiency’: investment in key industries (particularly renewable energy), reduction in unemployment, and redistribution of wealth will bring clear social and economic benefits. The prospect of a return to stable and sustainable growth will help people realise it is the neoliberal model – in which the corollary of booming capitalist profits is the burdening of austerity on the shoulders of workers – that represents the past, rather than Jeremy Corbyn.
Institutionally, this project needs to circumvent the old channels of national media and build its own networks of communication, following the example of Podemos in Spain whose weekly La Tuerka TV show has reached thousands of people whose political identifications were not traditionally left. This will require widespread reading, writing and dissemination of alternative media, in addition to smart social media campaigns that help to expose the smear of the mainstream press.
Campaign and mobilise.
A key strategy for creating space for the Corbyn project will be to transfer energy from the leadership contest into local and national level campaigns. A broad mobilisation will help local groups to strengthen their political networks and bring energy to already existing campaigns on issues such as migration and refugee solidarity, housing, cuts to domestic violence services and other forms of welfare provision, the NHS, workers’ rights and trade unions, and campaigns against police violence.
Those who want to see Corbyn elected have to appreciate that grassroots political mobilisation and local-level solidarity are the antidotes to the establishment politics and right-wing media that stand in Corbyn’s way. Many activists are already working tirelessly on these issues: massifying these campaigns can validate Corbyn’s claim that far from representing an irrelevant fringe of British public opinion, his policies are grounded in positions that are widely held by the electorate. If the left can match mass turnout at regular demonstrations with a grassroots political mobilisation – rooted both in the traditional institutions of the labour movement, and newer groupings such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity – it will leave the Blairite wing of the PLP isolated, lacking any obvious constituency for its agenda.
As well as improving the scope for solidarity between disparate struggles, this will help the Labour left to bypass hostile media in the run up to elections. MPs on the left of the party will be able to work with these networks, holding public meetings, rallies and building a pool of activists willing to canvas on their behalf. As seen in the Scottish independence referendum, these face-to-face networks can mobilise effectively even when faced with the scare campaigns of the mainstream media.
Strong campaigning networks would allow the left to mobilise quickly to offer support at moments of strategic importance. If, for example, it appears that the PLP are planning a coup pending a poor performance for Labour in the 2016 local elections, an organised left could stage an intervention, calling on their networks to turn out at polling stations, or organising demonstrations at short notice.
Finally, a key area pro-Corbyn activists need to be working on is voter-registration. With the recent Electoral Registration and Administration Act, the Conservatives have ended household registration and tied voter registration to tax and benefit records. Around 10m people will drop off the electoral register – mainly those in working class areas, those who are not white and those who live in multi-occupational housing, such as students. Hackney will lose 23% of its voters, Birmingham 7.7%, and Glasgow 67,225 voters. Given the race and class bias of the reforms, it’s vital to now build a voter registration campaign.
After sweeping to election victory in 1997, membership of the Labour party slumped dramatically, falling to an all time lows in the late 2000s. This corresponded with a weakening of party democracy, with members neither convinced by the vision of the Blairite leadership, nor seeing any real prospect for challenging the direction of the party through its internal structures.
The hollowing out of the party membership represents an opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters who have been energised by the leadership campaign. If a significant proportion of these individuals join the party as full members and attend local constituency meetings, it will be possible to democratise the party, exerting pressure ‘from below’ to propel the party in the right direction.
In constituencies held by Blairite MPs, active participation – in attending and speaking at regular constituency meetings – would make it possible to pass motions demonstrating local support for Corbyn, and challenging instances of hostility from prominent figures on the right of the PLP. Ignoring the will of constituency meetings could prove embarrassing for Labour by exposing a disregard for party democracy. In extreme cases, members unhappy with the performance of their MPs could vote against their reselection ahead of the next general election via Labour’s trigger ballot mechanism.
The wave of popular mobilisation unleashed by the Corbyn campaign is virtually without precedent in the last thirty years of British politics. It demonstrates beyond question the bankruptcy of the existing political consensus around austerity. This is an opportunity to reclaim British politics, and to build an inclusive and democratic movement for social change. It is an opportunity we must grasp with both hands.
Novara Media will soon be trying to raise £10k in just 30 days. To keep in the loop, go to support.novaramedia.com.