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Whither Corbynism?

The recent UK election represented a massive set-back for the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. What this defeat proves is that socialism will not be achieved through electoralism and we need true, radical solutions to the pressing issues of our day. No politician, no election, and no one fight defines the struggle for socialism. It is an international project and one that cannot be accomplished or defeated in a single moment.

Sybil Davis

December 20, 2019
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The general elections in the UK last week resulted in a victory for the Conservative party and a devastating blow to the Labour Party. In the days leading up to the elections, Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party seemed primed for a defeat. Johnson, after all, has been a highly controversial politician with a very low popularity rating, is a reactionary figure, and ran a campaign riddled with broken promises. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has in recent years managed to renew interest in the Labour Party, invigorating large sections of the youth with his promise to restore the party to a pre-Blairist era.

The results, however, were devastating for Corbyn and his campaign, as Labour registered its worst defeat since 1935. The Conservatives won 365 seats in the House of Commons, representing a 45 seat majority, while the Labour party won just 203. In an important shift, Labour lost dozens of working-class constituencies it had held for generations, as large parts of northern England, including mining towns like Rother Valley that had voted with Labour since 1918, flipped to the Conservative Party.

In another important turn of events, separatist parties across the UK performed exceedingly well across the board. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party swept the board, winning 48 seats on the promise to leave the UK if Brexit happens. In Northern Ireland, the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, registered a historic victory.


A key question in discussions about the election is why Labour fared so much better in 2017. One consensus answer to why this election turned out differently for Labour is the impact of Brexit. While Brexit was an issue in 2017, it was a less pressing one, and developments since 2017 have further polarized national opinion. As the results showed, Johnson’s positioning as the Brexit candidate proved decisive for voters in England, where growing sections of the population have grown agitated and dissatisfied with the lack of resolution over leaving the EU. Johnson did struggle significantly in other areas of the UK, most notably Scotland, where the Conservatives won only six seats.

The Brexit process has been long and drawn-out with a near-total deadlock within Parliament about what to do. Extension has followed extension, with every deal that is reached between negotiators failing to find enough support. Boris Johnson used the delays to his advantage, running under the slogan that he would “get Brexit done.”

Those who opposed Brexit have also taken up calls for a second referendum on the European Union, arguing that the public should get to vote on the specific details of how the UK will leave the EU. Though he originally opposed it, Corbyn began to call for a second referendum in May of 2019. This decision to back a new referendum was a controversial one that is now being cited by some as a reason why Labour lost. This is supported by the indisputable truth that Labour was decimated in the parts of the country that voted to leave the European Union. However, the seeds of Corbyn and Labour’s failures regarding Brexit were sowed long before the choice to back a second referendum.

The very nature of the first Brexit referendum created a false binary with no right answer for the working class. The European Union is certainly no friend to workers and functions as a weapon of capital to force austerity on member nations. The EU’s norms limiting budget deficits have served as a powerful pressure to defund NHS, a process that is still ongoing and that hurts working-class people the most.

However, as recent developments have made clear, it is the working class and the working class alone who will pay the price of Brexit—both literally and figuratively. In just one example of how the working class will pay for Brexit, when the UK leaves the EU, all worker protections offered by the EU will cease to be in effect. The idea that leaving the European Union represents a defeat for the capitalists or sends a message to the capitalists is fantastical. Indeed, the idea that there could be a Left Brexit under capitalism is just as laughable as the idea that there could be a Left European Union under capitalism.

The most recent election shows that the ruling class of Britain has clearly fallen in line behind Brexit, with Johnson serving as a method of achieving that. The value of the pound rose after Johnson was re-elected, as did the stock market of the UK. Between a reformist program of improvements to social programs and Brexit, the ruling class chose Brexit. Donald Trump, too, congratulated Johnson on his victory. Trump did this not only because they share racist, xenophobic and nationalist policies, but also because Johnson represents a key political ally for Trump in the ongoing dispute that exists between the U.S. and the European Union.

Socialists should reject the forced binary of the capitalists and use Brexit as a chance to highlight the global nature of capital and the resulting need for international solidarity with the working class. Corbyn didn’t do this. Instead he failed to defend migrants in the UK who make up the most oppressed sectors of the working class. During the election, Corbyn stopped calling for freedom of movement and began to offer the Trumpian obfuscation that there would be a “great deal of movement.”

The analysis that a lack of clarity from Labour on Brexit led to their election defeat is an analysis that holds water, but to cite the change of policy on a second referendum as the root cause of that is to diagnose the symptoms as the illness itself. By being unwilling to actually challenge the underlying issues of Brexit—the global nature of capital, the existence of nation states, and austerity for the working class—Corbyn allowed himself to be backed into a political corner. No matter what he answered, he had already betrayed the working class.

A Coordinated Media Campaign Against Labour

In addition to Labour’s own lack of clarity in program, there were also factors that were largely outside their control. While Labour attempted to fight the campaign solely on program, the Conservative party and the capitalist class mounted a smear campaign against Corbyn and the left wing of the party. Ever since his rise to the party’s leadership, Corbyn, a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, has dodged accusations of anti-semitism. During this election season, campaign ads and tweets by lobbying groups and opposition continued to highlight this falsehood. Even up until election day, pro-Israel lobbying groups mounted a targeted campaign of disinformation against Corbyn. Earlier in the year, a Jewish News poll showed that over half of British adults thought that Labour had a serious anti-semitism problem and that Corbyn’s inability to address it made him unfit to be Prime Minister.

The Limits Of Electoralism as a Strategy

While this election represents, in many ways, a failure of the Corbyn project, it is also important to note what may be the greatest positive impact of this campaign: the increased political activity among young people. Labour was very popular with the youth, and if only people under 49 had voted, Labour would have won a sizeable majority. Outside of voting, many young people threw themselves into the campaign, attending online training sessions and traveling the country to go door-to-door. Many of these young activists, furthermore, worked with Momentum, a left activist group within the Labour Party. Dishearteningly, these newly politicized people have become a punching bag for the loss of Labour. Young activists are not why Labour lost. Rather, it is in this critical engagement among the youth that we can most clearly see the failures of leadership of the Labour Party.

Polling shows that the economic demands that Labour made in their manifesto had mass public support. This means that, in this election, Labour had both an extremely motivated activist base who were willing to put their lives on hold to campaign and a platform that was widely popular with the British public. The problem is with the leadership who failed to offer a coherent political strategy to win the reforms being demanded. Corbyn presented himself and the Labour Party as the sole method to put an end to austerity.

The problem with this calculus is that it conflates long-term strategy with a single election. We can see that this is true in how people are reacting in the wake of this election. A prominent member of the DSA tweeted, in the wake of Corbyn’s loss, “It’s all on Bernie and us now. There’s no other way.” This tweet shows that the end result of the theory of neo-reformism is placing all hope for the socialist project into the hands of individual political figures who are subject to the whims of individual elections. The working class functions only to support politicians in their quest to bring about socialism at the ballot box and, when they lose an election, the struggle itself is lost.

Electoral politics can be a valuable tool to build a base of support among the working class, dialogue with different sectors, and push forward radical demands into the national discourse. However, elections are not how reforms are won, and they certainly will not be how socialism is won. When politicians get into office in a capitalist system, they become “state managers” of the capitalist state. The state depends on capitalist growth to collect revenue and perform its social functions, and the ability of elected officials to stay in office depends, to a great extent, on a ‘healthy’ economic growth: low unemployment among workers, business and professional opportunities for the middle classes, and overall economic prosperity. This means that, once in office, no matter how left a candidate might sound, if they are not willing to challenge the very basis of the capitalist system, they will be constrained to bow to capital, foster a “good business environment,” roll back workers rights, cut down taxes, and so on. It is only in the face of social unrest that generates enough disruption of the economy, or a credible threat to the government legitimacy or to the capitalist system itself, that state managers feel compelled to pass reforms that might hurt the capitalist class in the short term, but secure the continuity of the capitalist system in the long run.

Elections can be a tactic as part of an overall socialist strategy to overthrow the state, but they cannot overthrow the state in and of themselves. By tying the socialist project to a single election, Corbyn has—like many before him—engaged in electoralism: the strategy of winning elections at any cost in the name of socialism. Electoralism never leads to socialism, and it typically leads to socialists compromising themselves and their principles in order to seem more appealing to the general public.

Take, as a counter example, the recent election in Argentina. Nicolás Del Caño was a socialist candidate for president from the PTS who lost his race. However, because the socialist left didn’t stake all of their strategy on an election, they were able to continue the struggle without much despir, throwing a massive rally in a soccer stadium to support the uprising in Chile. If socialists put all of their chips in the electoral arena—a field that is stacked against the working class—an electoral defeat will throw the movement into despair. Electoral politics can serve the socialist project, but they can never replace it. No one election and certainly no one candidate defines the socialist movement. There will never be a last stand for socialism in an election.

The fact that so many of the young people brought into politics by the Corbyn phenomenon are now feeling despondent and hopeless is proof that these young activists, full of fire and fury against the injustices of capitalism, deserve leadership that understands that electoralism, in and of itself, is not a strategy for winning socialism. In the hours after the election, #byeNHS began to trend on Twitter, with many talking about how many will die now that Johnson is in power. This implies a static understanding of the political situation. Will the NHS and other social services face severe attacks under Johnson? Yes, of course, but if recent uprisings from Puerto Rico to Chile have taught us nothing else, they have shown us that the working class doesn’t need to take cut-backs laying down; they can go on the offensive. Just because Johnson now has a larger majority in Parliament doesn’t mean that the NHS is no more. The fight may have gotten harder, but it is far from over.

Where to now for the British Left?

After years of degeneration following the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party experienced an unprecedented rise under Corbyn. From 201,293 members on May 6, 2015, the party skyrocketed to 388,407 members by January, 2016. Fueled by the “Corbyn effect,” large sections of the youth and the left joined the ranks of the party in response to what they saw as a viable leader. But, as the latest elections and the backlash faced by the left-wing of the party within the party demonstrate, the victories in the party and the electoral framework are few and far in between. For many, Corbyn concretely represented the possibility of restoring the Labour party to its “lost” roots, one that was eroded by decades of Blairism and the continuation of Tony Blair’s neoliberal politics. That hope was dashed for supporters after the election results came in.

Corbyn’s campaign represented a new frontier in the Labour party’s leadership—one that appeared to truly affect change. But, from renewing support of the Trident—the British nuclear missile program—to the proposed increase in military and police budgets, Corbyn’s own rightward shift between the 2017 and 2019 elections should provide an indicator of the limits of his “anti-imperialist” program.

For the revolutionary British left, the fight is far from over. Johnson may have won the election, but he is far from consensus—especially given that a third of eligible voters didn’t vote in the election. Johnson has a long way to go before he is able to achieve his policies. Even in the week since his election, demonstrations have been held opposing him. The Brexit situation is far from resolved, and the left needs to remain organized and active in the on-going global instability that Brexit creates.

What Can the American Left Learn from this?

We must be clear-headed about what Corbyn’s defeat tells us about electoralism. Namely, that it doesn’t work. Attempting to work within a devolved workers party (in the most charitable analysis) changed Corbyn more than it changed the Labour Party. For example, the political pressures of leading the Labour Party led Corbyn, a dedicated and life-long nuclear disarmament activist, to change his position on Trident—the British nuclear missile program.

As the U.S. left, we should look at this as proof positive that the Democratic Party—a party that is far more right-wing and entrenched in the bourgeois state than Labour—is not the answer. We must not—and we cannot—fall into the trap of trying to reform the Democratic Party, push it to the left, or in any way try to make it serve the interests of the working class. The British left had advantages in their project that we do not—a key one being that Labour is a membership party that can be impacted to some extent by the membership—and still were not able to shift the party as a whole. The Democratic Party is not a workers party and no matter how hard or often we try, we will not shift it into becoming one.

Winning socialism through elections is a strategy that has failed in every occasion where it has been tried. These include Corbyn’s case, where the capitalists conspired in the media to prevent the left candidate from winning; the case of Syriza in Greece, where they got elected on a nominally socialist platform and then implemented mass austerity; in the case of the Frente Amplio in Chile, where they are currently collaborating with the right-wing government to get demonstrators off the streets; and Podemos in Spain, which just joined a government with a party it was founded in part to oppose. In every situation, the conclusion is the same: electoralism isn’t the answer. We should engage in elections, but only as one tactic of a larger strategy to build worker power to wage a revolution against the state.

For those in the US left, parallels between Corbyn and Bernie Sanders abound. Supporters of the Sanders presidency have taken Corbyn’s loss as an alarm bell, signalling the need to campaign doubly harder for him. If Corbyn’s defeat is indicative of anything, it is of the hard limits put forward by bourgeois politics. The rightward shift of Corbyn over the years in Labour’s leadership and still eventual defeat exemplifies the limited possibilities within electoralism. Sanders, who falls to the right of Corbyn in a party that is far more wedded to an imperialist power than the Labour party, faces a far harder future, even if Sanders were to get elected.

There are those who claim that the lesson of Labour is that, in moving to the left, political parties will lose their base. So, the logic goes, we should be moderate during the primaries and support more centrist candidates. This narrative doesn’t engage with the defeat of Labour under Ed Milliband or the fact that Corbyn did better in 2017. The issue isn’t that Corbyn was too far to the left; the issue is that he was using an incoherent strategy.

For the revolutionary left, the time is now to shed illusions in the potential of electoralism. Instead of hedging bets on the possibility of a Sanders or Corbyn win and then hedging bets again on the probability of them enacting their program, it is time to build a power that will fight in the streets—and win—irrespective of who occupies high political offices. We have the power to carry the torch of Chile, Bolivia, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, and all of the other instances of class struggle this year and onward. No politician, no election, and no one fight defines the struggle for socialism. It is an international project and one that cannot be accomplished or defeated in a single moment.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.


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