Many Marxists on the British left, variously derided as lunatics, Stalinists, lexiters, cranks, warned that Labour’s liberal drift on Brexit would be disastrous, both electorally and in terms of trying to build an insurgent, socialist movement. Such warnings were ignored, and unfortunately, we all know how the election played out. Labour’s original position of respecting the result of the 2017 referendum was patently right. The pivot to a second referendum, informed by polling data (propagated by opportunistic political scientists) which claimed that Labour voters in leave voting Labour heartlands actually voted remain, was a disaster. Labour leave voters deserted the party en masse across their traditional heartlands, Labour lost all the key marginals. People wanted to get Brexit done. You cannot win over working class people, no matter how good your social programme, by prefacing it by telling them you are going to overturn their democratic wishes.
The fact that this glaring, painfully obvious fact was not grasped, and continues not to be, illuminates one of the key problems with Corbynism: rather than building on the 2017 bounce and becoming a mass, working class movement rooted in trade unions, parallel working class institutions and working class communities; it allowed itself to become a top down movement, led by celebrity leftists who, although very well meaning and useful in many ways, have no clue about working class communities and no clue about class politics. This celebrity cadre and groups like Another Europe provided left wing cover for the party’s gradual pivot to remain- a campaign funded and driven by the likes of Peter Mandelson- because they ultimately don’t come from the communities that voted leave and simply don’t know what it’s like to be patronised and taken for granted.
Since 2016, the left’s prevailing culture of solipsism prevented people from performing the simple, vital human task of putting themselves in the shoes of others, of people who voted leave, and to reflect on how they would feel if their vote was overturned.
This is not about gloating, there is no time for that. The fact that that those of us who argued the principled, socialist case for respecting the referendum result and leaving the EU were so marginalised and helpless during the campaign, that we could do nothing to prevent the disastrous pivot to remain, also reflects poorly on us. There is no pride in being a minor tendency that people can routinely ignore, no comfort in being right when our communities stand to be decimated.
I personally feel desperately ashamed that I have not done more, have not been persuasive enough: I know that Marxist analysis rooted in the working class provides both map and compass to help us navigate these dangerous times, but this is no good if people won’t listen. On reflection I have almost certainly been too snarky with people, too hostile – more concerned perhaps with being ironic and building cultural capital on the echo chamber of Twitter, rather than persuading people in a comradely way. This is something I will reflect on over the coming days and months.
The LeFT Campaign has already set out an analysis of why we lost, and what we need to do next to make sure we can win the critical fights ahead. This provides a starting point for how we orientate ourselves going forward. The key immediate short-term task (i.e., over the next 6 months) for Labour will be to defend the gains of Corbynism, prevent the party from tacking right and becoming once again controlled by neoliberals, or by the deeply worrying, chauvinistic identity politics of Blue Labour. The left need to finally win control of the Labour party once and for all. This will require providing intensive political education to the new cadres of activists who have recently entered the labour movement and have been inspired by Corbynism.
The British Labour movement have never understood how power works, and this naivety has repeatedly proved extremely damaging. One of the key pillars of this political education therefore needs to be illustrating the nature of state power and the huge structural forces arraigned against the left. If we take any positives from this defeat it should be that in the campaign against Corbyn, the state establishment – the Labour right, the civil service, the security apparatus, the media, etc – was repeatedly unmasked as a tool of capital. The attacks on Corbyn need to be analysed and understood as an example of how the state is not a neutral tool that the left can simply take over and wield, but has a class character of its own. Hopefully, many of the young people drawn into the Labour movement by Corbynism saw this with their own eyes and will be less naïve about the scale of the challenges we face than their forebears.
After this, the long term task is to begin the unglamorous task of rebuilding the working class apparatuses which once sustained working class power. Corbynism tried to take power without undertaking this necessary work, and its failure proves that this is non-negotiable: there are no shortcuts to taking power.
The first part of this strategy will be to develop a mass trade union movement. This will require the movement to become more flexible in its recruitment practices and modern and radical in its aims, focusing on mass increases in union membership in the huge swathes of workers who remain un-unionised in the gig economy and service sectors. For starters, there needs to be an unemployed workers’ union, a renters’ union, a union for third sector workers. The second part of building up counter-hegemony (or ‘dual power’) will involve building community centres, libraries, adult education, sports clubs, political education provision, and finally, belatedly, becoming involved in non-parliamentary forms of politics.
Realising that politics doesn’t just mean voting and canvassing every 4 years is a powerful lesson to take from all this. One of the most potent ways that this could (and indeed urgently needs) to be achieved is allying the mass Labour movement to an insurgent, extra parliamentary environmental movement, most obviously represented by (but not limited to) the group Extinction Rebellion. This will prevent the labour movement from reneging on its crucial environmental promises, and will stop the environmental movement being co-opted by capital and let down by some of the problematic people involved in XR.
Liberals, including some (by no means all) of the leaders of Momentum and the Labour party, routinely shit the bed. They are bottlers. They are weak. They panic and wobble when things aren’t looking good, they clamour to try and appeal to everyone, to please The Guardian, to placate the media (who will hate us whatever we do) and the middle classes.
In the event, Corbyn’s biggest flaw was that he was not resolute enough as a leader. He didn’t stand up to people like John McDonnell and Owen Jones who pressured him into pivoting to remain. He didn’t go through with deselections when he needed to be ruthless and clear out all the Blairites from the PLP by any means necessary. He capitulated and accepted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and apologised when he had nothing to apologise for. He capitulated and got rid of Chris Williamson even when Tony Blair was allowed to remain in the party. He didn’t win the battle for the soul of the Labour party, and ultimately paid the price for this.
I want to emphasise that while I am critical of Corbyn (and many on the Labour left) for this, Jeremy Corbyn is a hero of the Labour movement. A kind, compassionate man who gave hope to millions of people and dented the prevailing consensus of capitalist realism. I am proud to have campaigned for him and socialists around the world should all be extremely grateful to him. But while Corbyn’s personal qualities and contribution are laudable, as a movement we need to be far more resolute in the face of our enemies.
Despite being utterly repellent, Boris Johnson and many of his public-school ilk are ruthless, hard, motivated individuals (perhaps as a function of the brutalising trauma of boarding school). When he came into power, Johnson cleaned house. Our new Tory leaders are determined to get what they want and don’t care what people think.
It is possible to be unwavering whilst retaining love and compassion that marks us out from Tory sociopathy. Socialists have to be tough when the chips are down, we have to take strength from the fact that we believe in what we are doing is right, and above all, we draw strength from being part of a mass movement rooted in our communities. Without being part of a collective we will always falter, and the harsh reality is that when it mattered, we were not there in sufficient numbers as an extra parliamentary movement to support Jeremy Corbyn when he should’ve stood against his right wing and taken the tough decisions outlined above. He was exposed and isolated when he needed a mass movement to lean on.
We must always remember that we the working class are alone the motor of history and when we are organized we are the most powerful force in the world.
Dan Evans is Welsh sociologist, founding signatory of the LeFT Campaign and co-host of the Desolation Radio podcast.