Corbyn: the rebirth of British social democracy?

Corbyn meeting in Coventry, 2nd August by Ciaran Norris.

British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, could be the catalyst for the creation of a movement which places the interests of the working class and social democratic politics to the fore. Francis Donohoe and Dara McHugh report.

“My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong”. The words of Labour party founder Keir Hardie were repeated by Jeremy Corbyn at the close of his leader’s speech at the Labour Party Conference in late September – the first by a representative of the left of that party since the early 1980s.

Corbyn’s political ascent has been stunning. When nominated in the party’s leadership election, he began as a 100/1 outsider, having secured the support of the requisite 35 Labour MPs just minutes before nominations closed. The bannercarrier for the old left social democratic wing of the party, which for so long was led by the late Tony Benn, went on to win the contest with over three times the votes of Andy Burnham, his nearest challenger. However, this may have been the easy part for the MP for North Islington and his push to move British politics to the left.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), a longstanding critic of the British Labour Party’s drift to the right, has given its backing to the new party leader. RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash declared that “The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is hugely significant for RMT members and the wider trade union movement and means that the issues that are impacting on workplaces and communities the length and breadth of the country will now be pushed right to the top of the political agenda.”

“The RMT AGM voted to back Jeremy and his election is a massive shot in the arm for everyone fighting austerity, anti-union laws and for a return of our privatised services to public ownership.”

Ben Chako, editor of the Morning Star, the British socialist daily newspaper, agrees but points to the powerful opposition Corbyn will face. He said: “Jeremy Corbyn represents something radically different to the traditional Labour leadership style and a radical alternative to the establishment. That will mean that the establishment will fight him harder than it would a more right-wing Labour leader.”

Following his nomination and victory, most of the British press, across the conservative to liberal spectrum, launched a withering attack on Corbyn for his supposedly dangerous views. These include support for nuclear disarmament, nationalisation of key industries and several other former central tenets of mainstream British social democracy.

Labour needs to reach out of the box and build a mass extraparliamentary movement

Former Blairite functionaries have been to the fore in the attack. John McTernan, former Director of Operations for Tony Blair, accused the Labour Party of being “away with the fairies” following the election of Corbyn.

Despite Corbyn’s strong electoral mandate, he faces significant opposition from within the Labour Party, reflected in a conciliatory selection for his Shadow Cabinet, which includes only three of his supporters, has a majority of women and several MPs who are members of factions on the right of the British Labour Party. He has also allowed key areas of principle for him, such as the need to end the Trident nuclear submarine programme, to become longer term objectives. However, Ben Chako believes that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet indicates his commitment to the progressive agenda he was elected on.

“He’s given ground on areas like foreign affairs, but by appointing John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, he’s shown that he’s not going to budge on the core economic aspects he was elected on.”

The fear the mild-mannered 66-year-old Corbyn has induced in the British establishment is evident in the confused approach of the Conservative Government to him; the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, flipflopping between deriding Corbyn as an inconsequential figure of fun to denouncing him as a threat to national security. There have even been attempts to dress up his call for a memorial to Countess Markievicz, as the first woman elected to the House of Commons, as an attempt to glorify terrorism.

Corbyn received the support of major sections of the British trade union movement that is currently led by principled left-wingers such as Unite General Secretary, Len McCluskey, and Public and Commercial Services Union General Secretary, Mark Serwotka. The decision of the UK’s two largest trade unions, Unite and Unison, to back Corbyn’s candidacy was a crucial factor in its success.

However, Chako suggests that another key factor was the new generation he was able to mobilise. “Trade union support provided volunteers, office space, etc.

However, when you open up the election process to anyone who is interested, then you need a politician with clear beliefs and an ability to articulate them. The reason the other candidates tanked was the people were sick of what Labour had been doing for so many years and Corbyn was the alternative to that.”

Corbyn’s election campaign of mass meetings in halls in main centres of traditional working class Labour support, resulted in him becoming the figurehead for a uniquely British wave of social media-fuelled antiausterity sentiment. In Greece, with Syriza, in Spain, with Podemos, and in Scotland, with the Yes to Independence campaign, this embracing of politics by a new constituency of the young and disenfranchised has expressed itself in largely new political movements.

In Corbyn’s leadership election, this energy has found an outlet through a 115-year-old institution. Rather than being a magnetic figure who conjured up a wave of support, Corbyn is a steady and successful figurehead for the emergence of a new political alliance in British politics.

The challenge now will be ensuring that the new generation can remain engaged over a longer period. Chako hopes that a recruitment drive among trade unions could provide a solid platform for longer-term political engagement.

“There’s lots and lots of young people for whom it’s not automatic to join a trade union. Young people are some of the most exploited people in the workforce so it would have an immediate practical benefit, but also it would help to ground these people and give them an organisational base that would keep them involved on the left.”

The momentum of this new movement has been maintained, at least into the first months of Corbyn’s leadership. Over 8,000 people crowded into and outside of Manchester Cathedral in early October to hear him address an anti-austerity rally held in the shadow of that city’s hosting of the Tory Party conference. He is the first British politician in a generation, perhaps several, who has been able to bring thousands on to the streets to hear him speak.

Corbyn has stated he aims to create a 500,000 member mass Labour Party out of the marriage of this anti-austerity movement with Labour’s existing structures. He will likely need such an organisation in the coming months, for what is shaping up to be the biggest extra-parliamentary political clash since the 1980s Miners’ Strike, when the British trade union movement confronts a Conservative Government seeking to force through an extraordinary draconian set of laws that threaten the very ability of unions to organise.

Chako suggests that with the establishment united against him, it will take a social movement to bring Corbyn, and progressive politics, into power in Britain. “Jeremy Corbyn can’t win in the traditional way. Labour needs to reach out of the box and build a mass extraparliamentary movement,” he concludes.