When veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn was elected British Labour Party leader in September, many commentators in the corporate media and inside the Labour Party establishment warned his anti-austerity and anti-war positions would be a “disaster” for the party — rendering it “unelectable”.
Assumed to have no chance at the start of the campaign, his staunch opposition to austerity measures impoverishing millions helped generate a tidal wave of enthusiasm.
However, Corbyn has also faced unrelenting attacks from the media and even key sections of the Labour Party machine — including many right-wing MPs. Most decisively, Corbyn's refusal to bend on his principled opposition to backing Britain joining a Western bombing campaign lead to 66 “rebel” Labour MPs voting with the conservative government for more war.
However, Labour membership has nearly doubled since Corbyn was elected and, while a long way from a serious electoral test, Labour has won several council by-elections with increased majorities.
In response to establishment attacks, Corbyn calls for a “new” approach to politics, mobilising people from the grassroots to democratise the political system. Below is an extract from an interview Leo Panitch and Hilary Wainright did with Corbyn at Red Pepper about the challenges his project faces.
Your remarkable campaign for the leadership not only doubled the party membership, but galvanised about 400,000 people overall to associate with the Labour Party. This is frankly unheard of anywhere in terms of party mobilisation on the left in recent decades. What do you think this reflects about the possibilities for a new politics, not only in Britain but more broadly — especially in Europe?
I think our campaign excited people who were very depressed by the [May 2015 general] election result [in which the Conservative Party was re-elected with an outright majority]. They were very depressed by the analysis that was being offered at the end of it, which was essentially that Labour wasn't managerial enough and we had to be better managers in order to do better in the future. I only really got on the ballot paper because of a combination of people — from those who just absolutely wanted an alternative to be put, to those who thought that there ought to be a democratic debate in the party. This kicked off the social media campaign that encouraged others to get involved.
Then at the party leadership debates, the point of view I put got quite a good reception. And as we started organising fringe meetings around them, the campaign suddenly took off.
Is it your sense that the same type of thing is happening elsewhere?
Yes. Because this wasn't anything to do with me. This was to do with people wanting a different way of doing politics — particularly the young people who came in and were very enthusiastic.
Our campaign was a combination of the young and the old, very little in between, the middle-aged weren't there. They were either under 30 or over 60, most of the people that came in to work on the campaign.
Most of our funding was raised by crowd-funding, small donations, the average donation was £25, and we got union money in. So about half of it was union-funded and the other half was fundraised.
What was it exactly that you were tapping in public consciousness?
The basis of the campaign was anti-austerity — that was the whole basis of it.
And the appeal for the “new politics”, the new way of organising politics — how do you see the connections between these two themes?
They're two sides of the same coin. Austerity is essentially making the social systems of all of Europe pay for the banking crisis, and with this comes a popular sense of either resignation or anger. So the idea that there is an alternative, that we can do things differently, is very important.
That is why we have had the most unremitting attacks on me from day one of the campaign. Some of it is so bizarre it's funny.
Before you were elected in 1983, you were already associated with the attempt to change the Labour Party's old statist and parliamentarist politics. [Late socialist Labour MP] Tony Benn had articulated very well in the 1970s the notion that the real problem is not about more state or less state, it's about a different kind of state and, above all, a much more democratic British state that would be capable of introducing a cooperative, egalitarian and democratic economy.
The first time I met Tony was in the 1969-70 period, when he was reflecting on his experiences as a cabinet minister in the 60s. What was interesting about him then was that, whereas most of the cabinet ministers reflecting on the experience talked about the ministerial car, the mendacity of the opposition and how they were going to win again, Tony had quite different and more interesting personal reflections on what he had done or not done.
I remember those discussions with him, and then I worked very closely with him in the mid-70s on [campaigns and plans for] industrial democracy.
What I am worried about now is that the party needs to reach out and involve a wider range of people. That's my main message.
I've just been speaking in Birmingham, to a very big Unite shop stewards' conference. I said actually every one of you in this room is an expert, every one of you has an opinion, every one of you has optimism, every one of you has hopes. I want a party structure and a union structure that allows your intelligence to come forward and be part of our policy-making.
So we don't go through to 2020 where I, as the leader, go away and write a manifesto. We go through to 2020 where its patently obvious to everyone in the country what our manifesto is going to be — on housing, on health, on jobs, all those things — because everybody's had a part in it. So the need is to reach, to widen our organisation to make us a community-based party.
To raise the stakes even higher, what about democratising European institutions?
I want us to approach the European referendum [set to be held by the end of next year on whether Britain should remain in the European Union] on the basis of demands for a social Europe, demands for workers' rights across Europe, demands for environmental protection across Europe, and turn it into a debate about: do you want a free market Europe that controls people or do you want a Europe where the people control the market? Essentially advancing that kind of alternative.
Now I'm not sure how far we've got with that debate, there's a long way to go. I'm having a lot of discussion with a lot of union people on this at the moment.
How are you going to open up the party — both the party apparatus and the Parliamentary Labour Party — to democratic inputs and participation in policy-making?
There's no perfect model. My constituency party is not perfect but we have a very large membership. One in six of the Labour voters are members of the party.
We have thought a lot about how we conduct meetings. Our normal monthly meeting has a guest speaker, a discussion, a report from me and then after an hour and three quarters, we do the business in 20 minutes.
Are there red lines you won't cross?
Yeah, I mean, my views on [opposing] nuclear weapons are very well known. My views on social justice are very well known. My problem is all my views are extremely well known on everything. To be fair, you get a lot of noise from a small number of members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But there's a much larger group that are actually very interested who has joined the party.
How do you envisage changing the present political culture? How do we change the mentality of this neoliberal sort of narrative?
It's exactly where we started. Is socialism just about state power, state control, state ownership and so on, or is socialism about a state of mind of people?
I think the response across Europe to the humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees is very interesting. The Hungarian government are not very nice people, and very nasty towards asylum seekers and refugees. But when those poor Syrians were trying to walk through Hungary to get to Austria, ordinary people came out and gave them clothes and water.
They could've been throwing rubbish at them. They could've been attacking them. They weren't. There is a basic humanity towards other people.
Of course, you have to unlock this when young people are brought up to understand their history and their culture largely in terms of consumerism, competition and self-advancement.
So my absolute passion is that, starting with pre-school facilities, the emphasis should be on schools as places of social interaction, where people learn to play together and where they are asked, is the advance of a community the ability of somebody to get very rich at the expense of others; or is the advance of the community when there is nobody homeless, nobody unemployed, nobody sleeping rough? We have to insist it is only about “getting ahead” if we all get ahead.
Somebody said to me “You don't speak for aspiration”. So I said, “Oh, yeah I do, I've got a real aspiration.” And he said: “Okay, so what's that?” And I said: “Everybody to have a house.”
What about how to appeal to UKIP [far right UK Independence Party] voters. Does it require redefining patriotism?
No, it just requires reaching out and saying, well actually, the housing shortage is created by not enough houses, the doctors shortage is created by not enough doctors, the limits on school places by not enough schools. Stop blaming people. Look to ourselves how we solve it.