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Why Corbyn couldn’t beat capital

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As Jeremy Corbyn ends his time as Labour leader Nick Clark looks at the impact he has had and why any attempts by Labour to change the system will be limited
Issue 2698
Corbyns leadership was a symbol of hope for many
Corbyn’s leadership was a symbol of hope for many (Pic: duncan c/flickr)

Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader is over. 

It’s a story of someone who channelled widespread desire for a radically different type of mainstream politics, but was restrained and broken by his own party.

When Labour lost the 2015 general election with Ed Miliband, the right thought it was because he wasn’t similar enough to the Tories.

But after the election there was a reaction against them that showed huge numbers of people wanted something much different.

In the immediate aftermath tens of thousands of people joined impromptu marches often organised by school and college students. 

They were followed by a national demonstration in central London organised by the People’s Assembly, which claimed 250,000 people marched.

Anger at years of austerity, revulsion at racist scapegoating and bitterness at disastrous wars had been there the whole time. 

It had just never been represented in mainstream politics. When Corbyn stood for Labour leader he became a focus for that, channelling it into a Labour Party that until then had looked finished.

Corbyn’s leadership campaign meetings grew into ever bigger rallies. By the end of the campaign, thousands of people would queue down the street to get in. Such scenes were completely unheard of in British politics.

In the end Corbyn won with more than twice the number of votes that his nearest rival, Andy Burnham, received.

From the outset, Labour MPs were determined to oust him. 

What comes next for the left after Corbyn?
What comes next for the left after Corbyn?
  Read More

They were convinced that Corbyn would mean electoral disaster, and horrified at his opposition to war and nuclear weapons.

They saw him as a threat to the interests of the British state—or to “security” and “the national interest” as they put it.

As people who hoped one day to manage the state, they were far more loyal to it than they were to their own membership.

Two of the first big defeats MPs inflicted on Corbyn were over war and nuclear weapons.

In 2015 Tory prime minister David Cameron hoped to join in bombing Syria.

Labour MPs threatened to rebel against Corbyn unless he allowed them to vote in favour of bombing—which he did.

At that year’s Labour Party conference, the right—with the help of trade union leaders—blocked a debate on ending support for Trident nuclear missiles.

In parliament, Corbyn was isolated from the mass support of Labour’s membership and held hostage by his own MPs.

Yet the pressure to maintain the “unity” of the Labour Party in parliament stopped him fighting back.

After the Brexit referendum of 2016, Labour MPs staged a “coup” against Corbyn. He was saved by Labour’s mass membership.

After facing a no confidence vote, he went straight from a meeting of Labour MPs to a mass rally in his support outside parliament. Instead of resigning, Corbyn faced a new leadership election.

The right resigned themselves to Corbyn’s leadership. Instead of trying to get rid of him, they focussed on slowly undermining him and pushing him to the right—in particular over Brexit. Again, in parliament Corbyn was at their mercy.

Over time they pushed him into accepting various demands championed by the right over Brexit, who wanted Labour to stay as close to the status quo.

These included access to the bosses’ single market, but dropping freedom of movement for migrants.

After the Brexit referendum of 2016, Labour MPs staged a “coup” against Corbyn. He was saved by Labour’s mass membership.

Corbyn was caught between right wing MPs, a membership who saw Remain as a left wing alternative to the Tories’ right wing Brexit, and voters who wanted to Leave.

Many Labour MPs secretly hoped that the snap general election of 2017 would mean the end for Corbyn. 

They were badly wrong Corbyn went for broke with a campaign that defied convention and what the right thought it should be.

Labour’s manifesto was full of unashamedly left wing policies that until then had been anathema to mainstream politicians. 

At its heart was a simple message—an end to turgid mainstream politics that promised unrelenting austerity, and a future to be excited about.

Once again the campaign was characterised by mass rallies, this time drawing tens of thousands of ordinary people. 

They gave the campaign a sense of insurgency and a whiff of struggle and fighting back.

Instead of a humiliating defeat, Labour denied the Tories their majority. 

It felt like a win for the left—and stunned right wing MPs and sneering media commentators into a brief moment of humility.


But it wasn’t long before the right wing offensive resumed. Accusations of antisemitism against the left reached their crescendo in 2018.The right claimed Corbyn’s support for Palestinian resistance encouraged antisemites to join the Labour Party, where they were tolerated.

The central aim was to fundamentally discredit the left and its ideas. One of Corbyn’s biggest mistakes was backing down in the face of this.

In March 2018 the right forced Labour to adopt a definition of antisemitism that categorised certain criticisms of Israel—including calling it a racist state—as antisemitic.

Every concession and apology gave credibility to the idea that the left is inherently antisemitic.

At the same time, over several months the right gradually edged Labour closer towards backing a right wing, pro-EU policy.

They first demanded Labour backs a second referendum instead of an early election, then having won that in 2018, demanded that Labour backs Remain.

Corbyn also faced another problem completely built into his position of leader and his goal of leading a government.

After the 2017 election, Corbyn looked closer than ever to becoming prime minister and managing the state. 

That came with a pressure to appear more respectable, more prime ministerial, and more appealing to the right.

He stopped appearing at mass rallies and demonstrations over issues such as racism, the NHS or solidarity with Palestine.

Meanwhile shadow chancellor John McDonnell tried to win over top bankers and business leaders with promises of certainty and cooperation. “There’s nothing up my sleeve,” he claims to have told City fat cats.

Corbyn was also less able to advocate the anti-war rhetoric he was known for. Arguments about war and terrorism were now couched in the language of “security” and the national interest. 

There were promises of support for the army, and more funding for the cops

Labour leadership don’t inspire hope
Labour leadership don’t inspire hope
  Read More

Labour also shifted to the right over migration, with promises to introduce restrictions on migrant workers in the form of a divisive “skills-based” system.

In the 2019 general election Corbyn attempted a more professional; campaign. There were no rallies or the sense of a mass movement that had been so crucial to his success.

And the Labour Party’s move last year to support a second referendum  on membership of the European Union was a major shift from their policy in 2017 

Corbyn was unable to stand strong in the face of pressure to keep the line that Labour held two years previously. 

This resulted in many Labour-supporting Leave voters feeling that the party and Corbyn had ignored their vote.

Labour’s general election campaign failed. The argument that working class people would never vote for Labour while it had a left wing leader came back with a vengeance.

Corbyn was unable to stand strong in the face of pressure to keep the line that Laboyt had held two years previously 

Corbyn announced his coming resignation. 

With the pressure to appear respectable and responsible lifted, he suddenly started reappearing at rallies and left wing meetings.

At a protest against the threat of war with Iran, veteran activist Tariq Ali told him, “Welcome home.” “We need you here,” Ali told Corbyn. He should never have left in the first place.

Corbyn was always at his strongest when connected to activity outside parliament. But he was constantly pulled away from that by a fatal flaw at the heart of the Labour Party.

Labour doesn’t want to destroy capitalism—only to manage it and try to reform it through parliament.

A whole raft of problems come with that. Getting elected means a constant pull to the right to attract right wing votes. Relying on parliament means striving for unity with right wing MPs at all costs.

The most fundamental problem is that Labour is committed to keeping the system going. 

That means proving to bosses a Labour government wouldn’t pose a threat to their profits—and ultimately defending them.

As the coronavirus outbreak hit Britain in earnest, Corbyn made one last significant act as Labour leader. 

This was to back Boris Johnson’s call for more repressive powers for the police and the state that ultimately will only protect the needs of capital. 

It’s a sorry end to a leadership that began with a promise to shake the system up. 

But it’s one that Corbyn couldn’t avoid without confronting the capitalist system itself. 

And that’s something Labour will never do.

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