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In his recent announcement that he was standing down as leader of Momentum, Jon Lansman claimed that "hundreds of thousands of socialists" have "transformed Labour into a people-powered mass movement", and that "the party was brought back to its roots".
In a recently published special issue of Socialism Today on the Corbyn experience, Hannah Sell points out that "unfortunately none of these things are true."
Serious socialists will want a more sober analysis of the Corbyn period than Lansman's!
In this collection of articles drawn from each stage of the Corbyn experience, the necessary tasks for socialists are set out, and likely future developments mapped out. The warnings turn out to be timely and all too accurate. Had they been acted on, things would have turned out very differently.
The analysis is essential reading for socialists seeking to find a way forward now.
The positive impact of Corbyn's election is fully recorded: changing the terms of debate, reintroducing discussion of nationalisation, and the 'S' word - socialism - brought back into the mainstream.
The authors set these developments in an international context, as the financial crash reverberated around the world, from the so-called 'Arab spring', to the growth of left movements, including Bernie Sanders in the US and Syriza in Greece.
From the start, Socialism Today warned that the right would fight to maintain control of the Labour machine and to regain their ascendency.
Margaret Thatcher claimed Tony Blair and the creation of New Labour as her "greatest achievement". Policy and structural changes, such as the weakening of the collective voice of the unions, and a series of constitutional changes undermining party democracy, served to entrench New Labour.
In 1995, Tony Blair was able to remove Clause 4, part 4, of the party constitution which encapsulated aspirations for socialist change. The "common ownership of the means of production" was out, replaced by praise of the dynamic "enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition".
The Corbyn insurgency threat-ened a major achievement of the ruling class; the stakes were high. To consolidate the position of the left, the Corbyn leadership would need to clearly recognise it was fighting to overturn a major gain for capitalism.
The left Guardian writer, Owen Hatherley, recently argued that Labour has been damaged by its role in local government. He pointed to the extremely limited impact of a Corbynista council such as Haringey in London.
Socialism Today reprints an article written by Clive Heemskerk in 2016, warning that the early tacit support from the new leadership for Labour councils implementing cuts would damage Labour.
The failure to take an anti-austerity stand in local government did not win any friends on the right, but undermined the verbal anti-austerity message being presented nationally.
Warnings of a plot to depose Corbyn were publicly dismissed by the leadership when it should have been preparing members. In June 2016, Labour MPs organised a vote of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, securing a 172 to 40 majority.
The ensuing campaign led to Corbyn taking an anti-austerity message to a wide audience. His initial election was not the result of internal debates in Labour, but was the product of the fact that new layers could easily join up and have a direct vote for that message.
Again, the campaign got a big response and Corbyn was actually reelected with an increased majority.
Socialism Today pointed out the need to use that position of strength to push through democratic reforms and reinstate socialists expelled from the party. Instead, right wingers who had betrayed Corbyn and the aspirations of members were brought back into the shadow cabinet!
In the week following the 2017 general election, the Socialist pointed out that "the right's control of the Labour Party machine led to outright sabotage of the election campaign", a judgement fully vindicated in the recently leaked dossier on The Work of the Labour Party's Governance and Legal Unit. Despite this, Labour made electoral progress in that election.
As Hannah Sell writes in her introduction to the special issue of Socialism Today, "the lives of billions have been turned upside down by the coronavirus crisis." Just as the financial crash had an impact on working-class politics, so will this crisis.
Already we have seen a move into the unions. But it is no surprise that we have not seen a parallel move into Labour.
Yet, as Hannah explains, "While the working class lacks vital tools for the new era, the experiences of the last decade - not least the lessons of the Corbyn experiment - mean it enters this crisis better prepared than it was when facing the post-2008 'great recession'."
This special issue of Socialism Today will be an invaluable part of the preparation for building tools that are so desperately needed, including a new mass workers' party.
Socialism Today June 2020, issue no. 239
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Article dated 3 June 2020
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