Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour, Verso, £12.99, 9781784785314
Corbyn: Against All Odds by Richard Seymour, Verso, free e-book, 9781786632357
Given the current unrest in the Labour party, any book that offers Jeremy Corbyn as its subject will be battling against the news cycle in its efforts to stay relevant. It is to Richard Seymour’s credit that Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso) remains so.
This relevance owes itself less to the Seymour’s follow-up essay and free e-book Corbyn: Against All Odds (though this update is welcome) than it does to Seymour’s approach. Corbyn is not, as the title suggests, a biographical re-telling of one man’s rise to the Labour leadership. Rather, it is a robust account of how Labour’s internal organisation combined with a broader political crisis in such a way as to make Corbyn’s rise – or, at least, the rise of someone like him – inevitable.
Like Lewis Minkin, Seymour makes much of how ‘the locus of governance in the party shifted from the union leadership to the Parliamentary Labour Party and the electoral-professional caste that works alongside the leadership.’ Depending on perspective, this was either a modernisation or betrayal of core Labour values. Seymour’s perspective is firmly the latter and his reasoning is frequently persuasive.
Out of the 1918 party constitution there emerged, he argues, ‘an organisation that depended upon the mobilisation of socialists to achieve political power, but which ensured their sidelining in effective decision-making, the better to enable a potential governing elite to emerge.’ Blair and his allies consolidated this power until Labour became ‘a party in which the power is overwhelmingly concentrated at the top.’ How, then, to explain Corbyn? The answer, according to Seymour, is, at least in part, the Collins Review.
Initially intended, Seymour maintains, to anchor the party ‘firmly in the political centre’ the reforms prior to the 2015 leadership election meant it was the first in which a true ‘One Member One Vote’ system was used. The result, contrary to the intention of the ‘governing elites,’ was an overwhelming victory for the MP for Islington North. This imposition of a leader from the radical left upon a more centrist PLP was, Seymour contends, ‘an immense frustration to the party’s traditional management.’ The current leadership contest and bitter infighting suggest that he is correct.
Though only rarely dealing directly with Corbyn, Seymour’s chapter on the broader political situation in Britain, ‘The Crisis of British Politics,’ is one of the standout sections of the book and Seymour’s argument that Labour’s shortcomings are symptomatic of a broader malaise of democratic decline is convincing. Citing voter apathy, the decline in popular engagement, low electoral turnouts (‘in both 2001 and 2005, non-voters constituted a larger share of the electorate than the vote for the winning party’), Seymour sees reason for concern. British electoral participation is, he argues, in poor health, though ‘(p)recisely what level of participation counts as healthy,’ he concedes, ‘is a value judgement.’ Of the following, however, he is convinced: ‘where there is a significant decline in voting turnout and party membership, there is a prima facie reason to begin asking questions.’ This section is an effective starting point for anyone interested in answering them.
The final chapter of the book looks to Corbyn’s future, a future which, for Seymour, will be measured by four benchmarks: the first is organisational – Corbyn must rebuild the membership, revitalise the constituency branches and address the ‘top-heavy distribution of power within the party; the second is ideological – Corbyn will be judged by his success in attacking the neo-liberal legacy of ‘new’ Labour; the third is electoral – Corbyn’s success will be decided at the ballot box; the fourth is policy – Corbyn must develop a plausible programme for office.
Seymour, despite writing the book ‘in sympathy’ with Corbyn, is not entirely sanguine about the Labour leader’s chances. ‘This is a long game,’ he says, ‘ideological territories are shaped over generations, not in time for electoral cycles.’ He is right in this. Electoral cycles do, however, shape Labour leaderships and, regardless of Corbyn’s ideological legacy, it is in this timeframe that he will first be judged.
Robin Jones lives in Paris where he works as an English teacher. His fiction, articles and reviews have appeared in the Edinburgh Review, Gutter, Jacobin, the Dark Mountain Project and Huffington Post.