As the year draws to a close, Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing British Labour Party leader, might give a short sigh of relief. After one of the stormiest year in British politics for generations, he is one of the few who will enter 2017 in a stronger position.
This is a remarkable achievement for Corbyn, who had to endure relentless attacks and a coup attempt supported by 80% of Labour MPs and much of the British establishment. He defied the attempt, won another election for the party leadership with a larger margin than he won in September last year and formed a more stable shadow cabinet.
In short, Corbyn now has a more confident position as he readies to put his vision of “21st-century socialism” into electoral test — a test that might very well arrive next year.
It is hard to exaggerate how uniquely unprecedented Corbyn’s victory is. British Labour has always had a myriad of factions and tendencies, but Corbyn represents the tradition of recently deceased Tony Benn, a radical socialist MP.
Labour’s Bennite wing has never occupied more than a handful of parliamentary seats. That it would rise to win the leadership at a time when it seemed to have fallen its least influence is a sign of how explosive conditions in Britain really are. These conditions were apparent throughout the year, but were most clearly displayed during the June referendum when a majority of British electorate voted to exit the European Union. The narrow Brexit win sent the whole political scene into a turmoil.
Conservative prime minister David Cameron resigned and was eventually replaced by Theresa May, who had backed the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. May’s rise came after some leading proponents of the Leave campaign refused to stand for the Tory leadership, earning the mockery of many by showing their clear lack of plans for Brexit.
May was known for a harsh anti-immigrant resume as Home Secretary and now placed herself as a clearly anti-Corbyn candidate — trying to play to xenophobic prejudices and demagogically introducing herself as a leader for working people.
The anti-Corbyn elements in the Labour Party took advantage of the turmoil to organise a coup against Corbyn for his alleged lackluster performance during the referendum campaign. Mass resignations from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet was followed by a vote of no-confidence in him by the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Fresh leadership elections were called. The anti-Corbyn elements — included not only the Blaire right-wing but almost the entire spectrum of the so-called “soft left” including previous leader Ed Miliband — united behind the ex-minister Owen Smith. So dishonest was Smith’s campaign that the former corporate lobbyist adopted much of Corbyn’s agenda and tried to use a left-wing language. But the anti-Corbyn elements had never readied themselves for an election, instead hoping that an isolated Corbyn would be forced to resign as even Cameron asked him to do, “for heaven’s sake”.
Corbyn showed a steel resilience and went on to win the leadership election with an increased share of 61.8%.This was despite the fact that the party’s central apparatus, still under the partial control of anti-Corbynistas, disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of members who had joined after Corbyn’s victory. They disqualified thousands of others for alleged association with far-left groups or “inappropriate” posts on social media.
Corbyn’s victory on September 24 was followed by a triumphant party convention held in Liverpool, a symbolic city that was run by a Marxist faction of the Labour Party in 1980s that was later expelled by the party leadership. It is a city of British socialist icons such as legendary Liverpool FC coach Bill Shankly and The Beatles’ John Lennon.
The Liverpool conference showed a Corbyn that was much more confident and coherent. In a thundering final conference speech, he summed up his vision of expanding “democratic public ownership”, raising taxes on big business, borrowing to invest in housing, health and education and a foreign policy based on “peace and justice” as “21st century socialism”.
As important as the Labour conference, however, was an event that was held 15 minutes away. Organised by Momentum, a grassroots group founded by Corbynistas, The World Transformed (TWT) was a leftist festival of ideas and culture, similar to many such events. But this one featured a crucial difference: Corbyn and members of his shadow cabinet frequently travelled between the opulent halls that hosted the Labour conference and the jam-packed artist-run center that was home to TWT.
The TWT included representatives of left from around the world (from US’s Jacobin magazine, Spain’s Podemos, Portugal’s Left Bloc, Germany’s Left Party, Poland’s Razem) and it hotly debated perspectives on the road ahead.
Corbyn and his team took an active part in these debates, with the most active participant being Labour’s Shadow Chancellor and key Corbyn ally,John McDonnell. Speaking at TWT, McDonnell cited the late Marxist Ralph Miliband as the Corbyn leadership’s main intellectual influence.
The same McDonnell gave a barnstorming speech to Labour’s conference, outlining the party’s economic proposals and declared that the party’s vision now had a name: “You longer have to whisper it’s name — it’s called socialism.”
The high spirits from Liverpool will last for a while, but Corbyn’s challenges are starker than ever. Much of the Party establishment remains resolutely opposed to him, even after their crushing defeat. The anti-Corbyn “Labour First” has recently hired an organizer to mount a new challenge.
The differences in the party are not easily bridgeable, as evidenced by vastly different reactions to the passing of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Corbyn heaped praise on Fidel and dispatched his loyal shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, to the funeral. On the other hand, right-wingers such as Luke Akehurst and John Mann attacked the late leader in the harshest of terms.
Corbyn has said that the party’s assumption is that general elections will be called next year and Labour is readying for this. Labour is currently polling poorly and Corbyn’s challenge will be to solidify his position and win electoral support for his socialist vision.
Mobilising the hundreds of thousands who, excited by the promise of Corbyn’s left-wing agenda, have joined the Labour Party, will be a key task for the coming year.
[Arash Azizi is a writer and a member of the British Labour Party and Momentum.]