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Corbyn’s Suspension Shows the Limits of Reformism

As soon as Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party, the bureaucracy waged war against him. But the term “war” suggests that there are two sides engaged in the fighting. Here there was no fightback.

Eddie Doveton

November 5, 2020
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The suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the British Labour Party two weeks ago represents the latest action in a five-year war to first remove him as the elected leader and then to crush his legacy. This war was waged to remove the threat that he represented to the pro-capitalist social-liberals who control the Labour Party.

Corbyn’s ascendancy in 2015 reflected both the emergence of pent-up social forces and a historical accident. The “accident” came in the form of hubris by the gatekeepers of power within the Labour Party. These were the liberal-capitalists within Labour’s parliamentary group (the PLP). The rules of the Labour Party give the PLP a veto over who could be allowed onto the leadership ballot. They thought letting Corbyn onto the ballot was an easy way to ridicule and expose this elderly tribune of left politics, as well as an opportunity to humiliate the Left within the party when Corbyn would inevitably receive a derisory vote share. Such was their belief in focus-groups and marketing gurus; they viewed the party membership only as pawns as they “ruled” from their parliamentary seats. And, to be fair, the original betting odds of Corbyn winning the leadership were 100 to 1. The tables were, however, turned in a startling campaign, bringing many new members into the Labour Party and carrying Jeremy Corbyn to victory with a crushing majority of votes.

Corbyn’s victory was a peculiarly British form of an anti-capitalist movement that expressed resentment against austerity as well as alienation towards a political system that continually failed to represent the working class. It was reflected in the hundreds of thousands, particularly young people, who joined the party to vote for him. A party of a little over 120,000 soared within a few months to one with a membership in excess of 450,000, eventually topping 500,000, to becoming the largest political party in Europe. The campaign to get Corbyn elected as leader of the Labour Party exploded, drawing on a reservoir of resentment against the system. The “Corbyn Movement,” as it was called, can be seen as a mirror reflection of the neoreformist forces that also created the ascendancy of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. The form this took in the UK was shaped by the fact that Britain does not have a proportional representation voting system, making the rise of alternative electoral parties more difficult.

Along with other social democratic and labour parties, the British Labour Party had evolved since the 1980s: It had once been a party of social reform with socialist trappings, but then became a pro-capitalist party. It positioned itself, similarly to the SPD in Germany, and PSOE in Spain, as a capitalist party of social-liberalism. The previous working-class base of the party, which was connected to workplaces through grass-roots trade unionism, was replaced by business trade unionism at the top. The party’s membership was both declining and aging.

Always an electoral, rather than a class-struggle organization, the Labour Party’s activities were dominated by those seeking political office at the local and national level. The most dramatic changes had occurred during the 13-year rule of Blair, who centralized power in the hands of the party leader and the party bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, along with candidates for parliamentary and local elections, had been staffed with acolytes supporting an image of “New Labour” as a modern liberal party. Corbyn’s election, and the influx of a new and vibrant membership, presented an existential threat to this arrangement. Little wonder that an unholy alliance was formed between the party bureaucracy, the parliamentary party (PLP), the capitalist and state media, and British-based Zionist organizations who supported the policies of the Israeli state. All had the same goal: remove, or at least discredit, Jeremy Corbyn.

Ethical Reformism

Corbyn, a figure genuinely committed to social justice and a more equitable society, fitted comfortably within the older British Labour Party tradition of ethical reformist socialism. He advocated a return to a publicly funded healthcare system and free higher education, alongside an “ethical” foreign policy. These were not particularly radical demands. In the UK, the National Health Service, despite increasing attempts at privatization, has long been public, and fees for university were first introduced under the neoliberal Labour government of Tony Blair. Yet Corbyn’s mild reform policies were seen as a direct threat to the establishment, and to the operation of the casino-style capitalism that holds a significant influence over the British state. This included their willing representatives in the Parliamentary Labour Party, who wasted no time to go on a wartime footing to “destroy” this impertinent upstart.

Corbyn’s ethics meant that he was a life-long anti-racist: a supporter of the Palestinian cause and an opponent of the policies of the Israeli colonial-settler regime. This, alongside his support for nuclear disarmament, made him international enemies, which welcomed the work of the PLP to remove him from the position of leader. They too joined in the sabotage endeavors. At the same time, wealthy right-wing donors from the United States looked to destabilize the political support of Labour under Corbyn.

Nevertheless, Corbyn’s most vocal and bitter enemies came from within his party. In a mistaken attempt to unify the party’s two wings, Corbyn gave many of his critic’s prominent positions in his shadow cabinet. This was to prove catastrophic, as they were not interested in unity, but hell-bent on destroying Corbyn and regaining full control. In a carefully orchestrated campaign (dubbed “the chicken coup”), one right-wing shadow minister after another resigned every hour, just in time for the news cycle. This culminated in 172 of these Labour MPs calling for Corbyn’s resignation and launching a leadership challenge. Unable to keep Corbyn off the ballot, they were disappointed to find that once again he won a substantial majority amongst the grass-roots members.

With the PLP unable to unseat Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party, the media swung into vilification overdrive. Corbyn was presented as a scorned figure, unfit for public office, with a un-Prime-Ministerial appearance (he wore a “scruffy” raincoat) and lifestyle (how could a vegetarian gardener ever represent the UK?).

But these fairy tales were not sufficient to dampen the enthusiastic support for Corbyn, so the narrative moved on: accusations were promoted in the media that associated him with terrorism. The Times ran an article alleging that Corbyn was an agent, asset, or informer for the Czech intelligence agency, who had been recruited by the Soviets in the Cold War. The state broadcaster, the BBC, on their flagship evening news program, Newsnight, constructed a pictorial backdrop, superimposing Corbyn against an image of the Kremlin, suitably washed in a “sinister” red color. As if proof of these outrageous accusations, he was described as riding around London on a Communist “Chairman Mao” bicycle!

Fake Accusations of Antisemitism

All of these stretches and distortions could have possibly become the dominating narrative used against him had they been perceived to have gained traction. But then his enemies found a more lucrative accusation: antisemitism. The beauty of this accusation was that Corbyn himself didn’t need to be guilty of the charge: It was sufficient that those who had joined the Labour Party under him could be found guilty. Corbyn himself aided in the construction of this narrative by his passive response when the accusations were first raised. Soon he was allowing his own supporters to be attacked. When one of his prominent supporters was singled out, the former mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Corbyn did not come to his defense, giving a green light to his enemies that the claim of “antisemitism” was the perfect vehicle to carry the war to Corbyn.

The pattern of compromise and surrender that followed is a historical lesson in the abiding feature of reformism. If the analogy of “war” has been used to describe the attacks on Corbyn, the reality was more like a five-year retreat, slowed only by the inconvenient, but pacified fortresses of the large party membership. The term “war” suggests that there are two sides engaged in the fighting. Here there was no fightback.

Under the weaponized antisemitism campaign, there was a continual probing for weaknesses, involving picking off left-wing activists, one by one, using arbitrary sanctions, exclusions, and show trials by the bureaucracy. Finally, Labour’s election defeat in December 2019 was used to finish Corbyn as a “viable” leader of the party. Corbyn’s post-election toppling was achieved by repeating the constructed narrative of a similar historical event, that of Labour’s 1983 election defeat, which was also used to usher in a right-wing backlash against an ascendant Left. The 2019 election defeat was talked up as the failure of both Corbyn and his program; similar election defeats by right-wing Labour leaders had always been written off as either minor campaigning errors or blamed on external factors.

But the removal of Corbyn as a leader was not in itself sufficient to eradicate the existential threat his leadership posed to the social-liberal bureaucracy. It remained necessary to destroy both what Corbynism was seen to represent and the lingering potential of the membership to assert itself. Suspending, and possibly even expelling, the once leader of the party is an important symbolic act of decapitation of the Left.

Left Neutralized

At the moment, the neutralization of the Left within the party has been aided by the Covid-19 pandemic, which imposed a greater degree of atomization on the membership. Constituency meetings (even held remotely) have been stopped or restricted in what they can discuss, and the annual conference was reduced to an online rally. The Right’s attack plan consists of a continued cull of Labour Party activists on spurious charges.

It is also necessary to remove any potential emerging leadership. Corbyn’s suspension is meant to act as a warning to other left-wing MPs. In unison with the suspension, the right-wing leadership has also stepped up the bullying of the left-reformist Labour MPs. These are a small group of fewer than 30 MPs aligned to what is called the Socialist Campaign Group. Were they to rise up and challenge the grounds on which Corbyn has been suspended, and in solidarity have an “I am Spartacus” moment, they would re-ignite the grass-roots movement. However, like Corbyn himself, they have adopted a position of passivity and surrender. These MPs are remaining compliant and repeat the required mantra that indeed the Labour Party has been infected with antisemitism and stamping it out needs to be a top political priority.

Thus, instead of going on the offensive, they are reinforcing the constructed weaponization of antisemitism. This, in turn, enables the Labour Party bureaucracy to continue and step up its cull of dissidents and weaken the rank and file of the party. It will also help the right-wing leadership to silence the future leadership of any potential revolt. This attitude of groveling apologies and mea culpas has been dutifully undertaken in various public statements by senior left MPs. In Zoom meetings, the call for Corbyn to be reinstated is coupled with an exhortation to “calm down” and wait for an amicable solution, not a civil war. But it is a civil war that is being waged within the Labour Party — but only one side is fighting!

As events roll forward, the Right will calculate whether they prefer to have Corbyn expelled from the Labour Party, or if they instead reinstate him, defamed and belittled. Yet the specific outcome matters less than the overall surrender by reformism to neoliberal leaders of the party. 

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