Martyn Cook and Tommy Kane provide an anatomy of Corbyn’s challenge
When it was announced Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become
Labour leader was successful, their hardened campaigners and elected representatives overcome with emotion. They had given literally decades of their life to winning Labour to a socialist agenda, suffering defeats and insults from others (both inside and outside Labour) and being made to believe that what they were doing was pointless. So it was no surprise that many were crying with happiness, and not a little sense of vindication.
Corbyn becoming leader isn’t enough in itself, of course. One leadership election is not enough to change society, nor even Labour, but it does present a significant break with recent tradition and opens up numerous opportunities for socialists to make gains. To put the scale of the victory in to some sort of context, the last time the right was as concerned about a leadership election was Tony Benn running in 1981. Even then, it has to be remembered that this was only for the deputy leadership, and that Benn had served in the Cabinet, unlike Corbyn who has resolutely remained on the backbenches and has broken the whip more than any other Labour MP (but always on the basis of principle and always with thoughtful explanation about why he made the decision that he did).
As a result we now have a leader (and shadow chancellor) who are openly anti-austerity and pro-public ownership and who are articulating a vision of a rebalanced economy that invests in our people to create jobs paid for in part through more progressive taxation and tackling the scandal of tax avoidance and evasion. This is the new brand of Labour politics, the paradigm shift if you like, that will occur as a consequence of Jeremy’s election as Labour leader. It is worth examining how we got here, and why this campaign was so successful.
We should start by thanking Eric Joyce. His drunken head-butt in Westminster’s Stranger’s Bar started the chain of events that caused a selection procedure in Falkirk, which led to (unjustified) accusations of illegal interference from Unite and which eventually resulted in the Collins Review and a move from the electoral college system to ‘One Member One Vote’ (OMOV) and the registered supporters scheme.
It is not an irony lost on either wing of the party that changes brought in at the behest of the right, designed to dilute the power of the unions, and broadly opposed by the left may have ultimately led to the success of the Corbyn campaign. Under these new rules, the first hurdle for the fledgling campaign was simply getting Corbyn on to the ballot paper. Despite the promotion of OMOV as enhancing democracy, there is little doubt that it was meant to be a democratic process that was controlled by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in so far as it was be the gatekeeper which decided who got on the ballot paper. In other words, it was supposed to prevent someone like Jeremy ever getting on the ballot.
The rules compel 15% of the PLP (in this instance, 35 MPs), to nominate a candidate to secure a place on the ballot. As noted, given the PLP’s gatekeeping role, this was always going to be difficult. Let’s remember John McDonnell’s leadership attempts saw him fail to secure sufficient nominations. That was compounded by Corbyn being comparatively late to announce his bid, which meant many MPs had already declared for their preferred candidate, leaving limited scope for gaining the required support. Behind the scenes, ordinary members, who wanted a genuine left-wing candidate, began to mobilise via social media. Contact details for MPs still to declare were drawn up, and members within their local areas were encouraged to email, phone, tweet and message them with arguments for nominating Corbyn. Several MPs subsequently stated that they were bombarded with messages and gave their nominations as a result of this effective social media campaign.
From here, the serious groundwork began. A central campaign team began lobbying unions for support, and set up a network of regional organisers. In Scotland, we already had significant levels of experience; the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism group had been central in helping build the Neil Findlay and Katy Clark Scottish leadership campaigns at the end of 2014. Although unsuccessful in those races, it built the foundations for Jeremy’s campaign just a few months later. Not least by giving many new, young volunteers experience and a network of contacts across the country that would help quickly mobilise an effective campaign.
Street stalls to sign up new members and register supporters were held across the country, as were phone banks to speak to thousands of individuals who had a vote. The unions backing Corbyn encouraged their members to opt-in to the leadership election and use their democratic right to help select the new leader.
This groundswell of grassroots activity was complimented by an inspirational message for change from Corbyn himself. Instead of engaging in negative or personal attacks, the campaign spoke explicitly about socialist ideas in an open, positive and persuasive way, catching the eye of many younger people who were hearing these ideas for the first time as well as making many, who had become jaded with Labour’s rightward shift, to look again at Labour and either join or become registered supporters.
A key point in the campaign was the Welfare Reform Bill vote on 20 July. The other candidates abstained, and subsequently dug themselves a deeper hole in trying to justify their absurd position; Corbyn took a clear and principled position. After this point, many voting in the contest, and in the wider public, began to realise that Corbyn was presenting a genuine alternative, and one that so many have been looking for, for so long.
In August, a series of public rallies were announced across Scotland, and were sold out within hours of being advertised. Venues had to be upgraded to meet demand, which in itself was a sign of just how much Corbyn’s ideas had caught the imagination. It was remarkable that so many people, both party members and non-members, were turning out to hear a politician speak as part of an internal Labour election.
This culminated in packed rally at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow. By this point comparisons were being made to the ‘yes’ campaign in the referendum – in that people were becoming inspired by a positive campaign of hope that they saw had the potential to be a vehicle for change.
There was definitely commonality, but there were also fundamental differences. An indicator of this was the fact that our rallies didn’t end with renditions of Caledonia or Flower of Scotland, but with the Red Flag and the Internationale. In contrast to narrow discussions on the constitution, or attempts to smuggle in left-wing ideas to the essentially nationalist programme of the ‘yes’ campaign, Jeremy’s campaign was inspired by class politics, which was openly and explicitly at the heart of all that was being done.
On 12 September the results were announced. With almost 60% of first preference votes (and not taking in to account all the second preference votes that Corbyn would have received) there was no doubt that there was still socialist life in Labour. For so long suppressed due to a combination of wider societal events and the disproportionately influential MPs of the PLP, there was a now a genuine sense of grassroots members regaining control of their party.
Before the night was out there were discussions taking place (over numerous celebratory drinks) about how best to harness the energy that had been unleashed. In the months since the result, discussions have been taking place with left groups in Labour, such as the Campaign for Socialism, to build a broad coalition. We all know that one leader, as significant as Corbyn’s win was, is not enough.
Now we have to organise both inside Labour to bring about genuine democratic structures that will reflect the views of members and affiliated supporters, and also reach out to groups and social justice campaigns outside Labour. The ultimate aim it to build a genuine mass movement that can challenge the orthodoxy of the past 30 odd years and present an alternative vision with socialism as its essential terms of reference.
The recently announced organisation, Momentum, is beginning to form these structures and links. Although in its formative stages, it emerged from Corbyn’s campaign (though remains separate to him) and will continue beyond his term of office. Anyone seeking to support this initiative, and join in what is one of the most exciting prospects for the left in a generation, should sign up at http://peoplesmomentum.com and follow on Twitter (@peoplesmomentum) and Facebook (facebook.com/peoplesmomentum).
Martyn Cook is parliamentary assistant to Elaine Smith MSP, Secretary of the Campaign for Socialism, Scottish Representative on the UK Labour National Policy Forum and Scottish Organiser for the Corbyn leadership campaign. Tommy Kane is a parliamentary researcher to Neil Findlay MSP, co-editor of ‘Class, Nation and Socialism: the Red Paper on Scotland 2014’, and a member of the Scottish Left Review editorial board.