This post is partly inspired by a conversation I had with some friends about what’s going on in the Labour Party. It was just before the election was announced, and the general feeling was that the drift to the left in Labour had run its course. The Labour left had failed to consolidate its position, it was divided by brexit, and looked like it was cracking under enormous pressure.
To some extent the failure of the left was pre-ordained; I went to hear an old ex-Militant member speak at the university, and all the tedious arguments were rolled out. We’ve seen this before, ‘left-wing social democracy’ is a fantasy, the only way forwards is through a revolutionary process. And while I understand the problem, it doesn’t fully explain the continued existence of this supposedly impossible project. The 2019 Labour manifesto is arguably full of non-reformist reforms, and if Labour wins they really are poised to push through a programme of structural changes. Doubts over the integrity or viability of the project don’t necessarily invalidate that great potential for social advance.
Before the election was announced it’s fair to say the situation was gloomy, Labour was defensive, reacting to events in parliament and waiting out attacks in the media. Yet, in the election period the party geared into action, and that’s when ‘Corbynism’ comes to life. I’ve come around to thinking that Corbynism is a project in movement. It comes into its own as a grassroots mobilising force on the campaign trail.
There’s also a theory surrounding the election in 2017, that it happened to fall at a high point of labour unrest, and the Tories seriously misjudged the popular feeling. Here’s what the atmosphere was like in 2017:
- A series of railway strikes on Southern Rail, Northern Rail, and Merseyrail franchises. Railways were also hit by strikes by train maintainance staff.
- Argos warehouses were shut down.
- Cleaners went on strike at London hospitals. This was the next most significant incidence of industrial action in the NHS following the big junior doctors strike in 2016, which was largely responsible for reversing the declining trend in working days lost to strike action.
- Taxi drivers protested deregulation.
- British Airways cabin crew went on strike over the holiday period.
- Refuse collection workers in Birmingham went on strike from late June to August, and even after it stopped the dispute remained under the surface, threatening to re-emerge and rumble on into winter.
- Construction workers at Hinckley Point voted to strike for a wage increase, but called off action after winning in negotations. Cement lorry drivers also voted to strike over pay and similarly won in neogtiations.
There were other smaller strikes, such as those at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, cleaners at the LSE, Picturehouse cinema staff, security guards at Senate House in Bloomsbury, and a long-running dispute over pensions at AWE. Lastly, a short spontaneous tube strike during which staff at London Bridge station held ticket barriers open and refused to check tickets.
If you read the Morning Star, every strike gets reported, it’s easy to get the impression that strikes are happening all over. That’s probably statistically true, but there was definitely energy in the air, just look at the way people responded to the Grenfell tower inferno.
This is the context in which Corbynism flourishes; the re-centering of the Labour Party as the political wing of the labour movement, with ‘one foot in the workplace and one foot in parliament.’ In 2017 I wasn’t in Britain for election day, although I was around in the opening days of the campaign. There was a wave of strikes at car plants, and I remember seeing Labour Party activists stopping to join the pickets at the BMW factory after door-knocking in Cowley. You could very clearly see the unions and the party moving together, both campaigns supporting each other.
This last week I’ve been on strike with my colleagues in UCU. The newly-selected Labour candidate for Leicester East came along to address the strikers. Moving from the doorstep to the picket line and back again, just like that.
Just like in 2017, the polls are moving, and they’ll go higher. There’s that feeling in the air again. When Corbyn turns up at an event, he’s usually met by cheering crowds, meanwhile Johnson gets a mix of general indifference and outright hostility. Even if Labour probably won’t win an electoral victory, the Tories have misjudged the popular mood again.