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Debate: Corbyn, Labour and the future of politics

This article is over 3 years, 5 months old
Author and Labour Party member Mark Perryman debates leading Socialist Workers Party member Mark L Thomas on whether socialists should be in Labour—and how to win the change that Corbyn heralds
Issue 2616
A rally for Jeremy Corbyn in Reading during the general election campaign last year
A rally for Jeremy Corbyn in Reading during the general election campaign last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Mark Perryman

I don’t regard this debate as a clash of ideas. I regard this as a mixing of minds and different emphases.

It would be foolish not to recognise the role of the independent left outside the Labour Party. That will remain true.

Jeremy Corbyn has never been a revolutionary socialist. So if you’re going to judge him on the criteria of revolutionary socialism, he’s going to fall short.

But Jeremy is surely different to Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson.

That was summed up for me in the 2015 opposition leaders’ debate. Three leaders—from the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party—were laying into Miliband for being too far on the right.

Miliband said, “Oh come on, I’m not the same as the Tories.” And Nicola Sturgeon said, “No you’re not the same, but you’re not different enough.”

No debater would ever be able to say that about Jeremy Corbyn. He is significantly different. He may not be different enough for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), but he’s different enough for British politics.

My contention is that the next general election will be a general election of historic proportions which will put aside 1945 and 1979.

In 1945 Labour prime minister Clement Atlee established the post-war consensus. It meant something, it changed the face of British politics. But the election of 1979 ushered in Thatcherism, or a neoliberal consensus.

The governments of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May have left that intact.

At the very least Jeremy Corbyn will break that consensus. As Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber put it, “These are urgent times, these are times for action”. That’s correct.

More than two thirds don’t want Trident nuclear weapons renewal in the next manifesto. There is a battle around that.

With Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street I don’t think we’ll be launching Trident missiles at anybody. But we have the threat of climate change. And 119 Labour MPs voted for a third runway at Heathrow airport.

There is going to be a huge battle over sustainable economics and where that features in the next manifesto.

This is a turning point. What we’re debating now is, is the emphasis on Labour on the doorstep or planet placard?

I would say we need both. Sometimes the emphasis will be more on Labour on the doorstep, sometimes the emphasis will be more on demonstrations.


The SWP has been involved in electoral politics in Respect, the Socialist Alliance, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). So you understand that sometimes you change your emphases and priorities.

Many members of the Labour Party went down to the university strikes picket lines earlier this year. These two worlds are not hermetically sealed.

I guess what you want to do is push a few of us off the doorstep. What I want to do is push a few more of you off the demos and come and join us on the doorstep.

People in the Labour Party don’t believe a victory is in the bag, but they do believe victory is possible.

The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci had a famous maxim—“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. In the build-up to June I was more pessimistic than optimistic.

I thought, Labour is clearly going to lose heavily. Corbyn will be forced to resign. There will be a third summer of a Labour ­leadership election.

On 8 June I spent the day getting the vote out in Moulescombe on the edge of Brighton. It seemed to be going pretty well. About 2am, the result came in from Kemptown, where I was fighting.

Labour got a 10,000 majority. What would this mix of minds look like? I’d start with Rock Against Racism (RAR). RAR would have been impossible without the SWP. But it created a culture much bigger than the SWP.

Marxism and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party
Marxism and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party
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As I understand it, the SWP didn’t grow particularly out of RAR or Stop The War.

But the contribution the SWP made to those two movements will go down in history.

The other example is Pride. In 1986 Pride was led by miners. The Pride film isn’t fiction, it’s a piece of Labour history. The kind of solidarity which the SWP played a role in was extraordinary.

We have to look at ways of building resistance—we’re all in favour of building resistance.

I make no apology that my book, The Corbyn Effect, ends with electoralism.

I list the 66 seats which Labour needs to win in order to form a majority government.

My question to you is, isn’t that a prize worth making happen? My question to you is, in the month before the next general election, will you give four weeks to ensure we win those marginals?

If we do, whatever your organisation or no organisation, we together will be making history.

Mark L Thomas 

The old political order is cracking. Polarisation is accelerating and the racist right is not just growing but radicalising.

Across Europe social democratic parties are almost electorally disappearing or are plummeting to some of the worst results in their history.

In that context you cannot fail to welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s dramatic and unexpected rise to the leadership of the Labour Party.

The narrow, pro-market consensus at the top of society excluded all the anger that we knew was there but had no visible expression. That anger suddenly burst through.

But how can that desire for a challenge to austerity, war and racism be realised?

Mark Perryman in many ways represents the dominant answer to that question. Mark was not a member of Labour, and has now decided to join. His book The Corbyn Effect says that to effect the change that Corbyn represented, there was nowhere else to go.

I want to differ.

Turning Corbynism into real advances depends on translating that into advances outside Labour in the struggles of working class people. That will require going beyond the prioritisation and focus on electoral activity.

Labour’s huge advance is double edged. It’s given the left more confidence and shifted ideological debates. But it’s also created a feeling that Labour is a government in waiting—and this creates a feeling of waiting for Labour.

There is no guarantee that Labour will simply win the next election. There is a link between class struggle and Labour’s vote.

If we saw a much higher level of struggle, not only would that increase the prospect of winning gains now. It would also create a greater sense of class feeling and combativity. That means the core of the Corbynite movement could influence more people around it and increase Labour’s vote.

The more that people are left passive, the more influence ruling class ideas and the divisions they promote have on people. This increases the problems for Labour.

We need more activity such as the university pension strikes and the Wigan health strikes. And we have to have an organisation that tries to increase the level of

struggle as part of the pooled experience of socialist organisation.

The rise of Corbyn doesn’t preclude simultaneously the resurgence of the far right. You have to directly challenge fascists and racist ideas if you want to defeat them.

Thirdly there are pressures on Corbyn to moderate—strengthened by the idea that Downing Street is almost within grasp.

It is a retreat of Labour’s position on free movement to say when we leave the European Union (EU), free movement will end. Why can’t Labour say, when it gets into office it will reinstate free movement for EU nationals?


It’s a problem that Labour accepts the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons.

I think it’s a problem that John McDonnell also says we should appeal to business. It’s an attempt to say, “We’re not a threat”.

In the last few months Labour has been too cautious. That has allowed the right to begin to regroup. On the question of ridiculous claims that Labour is rife with antisemitism, there is a degree of paralysis inside the Labour Party.

As the establishment strikes back, there’s a danger that Labour doesn’t know how to respond. This will intensify.

Karl Marx, workers and revolution
Karl Marx, workers and revolution
  Read More

At heart of Labour is the idea that the key to changing society is in 10 Downing Street. This raises a fundamental question about where power lies.

It’s almost three years since the radical left Greek government Syriza was confronted by the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF), capitulated and drove through austerity.

It’s not good enough to coast over that in an embarrassed silence or to say Britain is not Greece.

We are living in a crisis-wracked era of capitalism and big business will fight to put the burden on our shoulders. They will seek to limit, curb and undermine. They will go on investment strikes, capital flight.

To win reforms will require much more than a vote. It will require massive class confrontation.

We have to start the fight and organise now. The fate of a Corbyn government will not be decided in Labour or parliament but by a clash of extra-parliamentary forces between our class and their class.

To increase the possibility of winning socialists have to organise independently of the right, but simultaneously seek maximum unity with people who want to fight.

We want to encourage, increase and expand our collective power and organisation. Not just to win gains in the here and now, but because in those struggles people change—much more than in elections.

The road to socialism will not come through even hundreds of the best MPs. Ultimately it will come from the struggles from below of ordinary working people. We need to move beyond electoralism and promote the maximum amount of working class self-activity.

This article is based on a debate at the SWP’s Marxism 2018 festival. Watch the video at

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