Jeremy Corbyn is my local Member of Parliament. He is one on the most admirable figures on the left in Britain.
Year in, year out, he has used his position as Labour MP for Islington North to support all sorts of campaigns and causes. Corbyn is particularly noteworthy for his internationalism. This has been expressed over the years notably in his commitment to different Latin America solidarity campaigns.
He is also a stalwart of the anti-war movement. I well remember his speech—alongside Arundhati Roy among others—at the magical, massive night-time opening ceremony of the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. Now he plays an important role as chair of the Stop the War Coalition.
So Corbyn is an excellent standard-bearer for the left in the Labour Party leadership election. His success in getting onto the leadership election ballot was met with widespread enthusiasm at the great People’s Assembly End Austerity Now demonstration last month.
Corbyn’s candidacy has galvanised the Labour left into activity. For the first time in many years Labour Party campaigners can be seen fanning out on demonstrations to get support for his candidacy.
He has also turned the leadership campaign into a real political debate. The three dreary mainstream candidates have been competing to see which can kowtow most profoundly to the media and big business. They now find themselves confronted with a challenge by a socialist who opposes austerity and champions peace and social justice.
I think we can see Corbyn’s candidacy as one of those elements that, in a fairly grim situation, are freshening up politics. Other examples are the political earthquake in Scotland and the impact of the women leaders of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens during the general election debates.
So anti-capitalists and socialists, whether or not they are members of Labour Party, should hope Corbyn wins as many votes as possible.
The odds are stacked against him, but the more votes he gets, the more he can help encourage resistance on the ground to austerity.
But—yes, I’m afraid there is a but—backing Corbyn’s candidacy isn’t the same as endorsing the political project he represents. As a left wing Labour MP since 1983, he stands for turning Labour into a genuine socialist party.
This idea is expressed rather vaguely in the statement declaring his candidacy, “Our party must become a social movement again.” He argues that this can be achieved by “building on our party’s unique base: our trade union link to millions of working people, our quarter of a million members, and our growing band of registered supporters”.
But anyone familiar with the history of the Labour Party knows that its leaders have tended rather to hold back or oppose real social movements—strikes, protests, and the like. We could go back to Ramsay MacDonald and the 1926 General Strike or Neil Kinnock and the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
But take a more recent event, the student revolt in 2010. I remember Corbyn and another left MP, John McDonnell, with the students in Whitehall during one particularly tense situation. But Ed Miliband and the rest of the party leadership were nowhere to be found.
The gap between Labour and genuine social struggles isn’t the fault of bad leaders. It reflects Labour’s character as an electoral party whose objective is to win a parliamentary majority and manage capitalism. It is governed by the rhythms of electoral politics and not those of social struggles.
The connections with social movements have grown weaker in the past couple of decades, particularly thanks to Tony Blair’s imperialist warmongering. Miliband succeeded in restricting the role of the trade unions with the party.
Members of affiliated unions can still sign up as supporters and vote in the leadership election but, according to the latest figures, only 3,788 people have.
The left would benefit if the Corbyn campaign succeeded in reviving Labour’s grassroots. But our aim should be to build movements that are strong and confident enough not to be subordinated to the priorities of electoral politics.