That was then ... but it could have been different

No time to waste

How to react to the upcoming election of the most rightwing Labour government ever? Recreating Corbynism is no solution, argues Max Shanly. We need something more

Asked recently if he thought “he would win Labour the general election on the third time of trying if he were in Starmer’s position - coming off the back of 14 years of Conservative government that included three prime ministers in two years”, Jeremy Corbyn replied, “Absolutely.”

Is this yet another example of the Labour left’s chronic naivety, or a potential reality of a road not taken? Both are likely true - you can walk and chew gum at the same time. The Tory collapse was, after all, an inevitability. History does indeed repeat itself and, based on the fracturing of the Conservative Party’s internal coalition in the past few years, it was going to happen at some point - it was just a matter of when. Hypothetically, though, what would the prospects of a Labour government under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn be if it were to have been gifted the size of a parliamentary majority that Starmer and his acolytes are presently destined to achieve? And, more to the point, what would some of the obstacles be to its success?


Consider this: on Friday July 5 2024 Labour has secured an overall supermajority in the House of Commons and King Charles III reluctantly calls upon Jeremy Corbyn to form a government. On the face of it, and from the Labour left’s own (incredibly weak) strategic point of view, the carrying out of the party’s manifesto - now the programme of government - should go fairly smoothly. How could it not with such a great majority in the Commons? So the thinking goes …

I could spend the rest of this article spelling out the kind of external opposition such a Labour government would face from the unholy alliance of international capital, the British state, the House of Lords, the capitalist press and so on, but I am sure readers of the Weekly Worker can work that out for themselves. The greatest threat to such a government, however, always has come from within rather than without. This article is aimed at those who either believed otherwise, or - as my personal experiences tend to suggest - were simply unwilling to accept it.

The Labour left’s complete failure to transform the Labour Party from a tepid electoral project into a gigantic and dynamic lever for popular political mobilisation, backing all sectors of the exploited and oppressed, and providing a socialist perspective for real change - ie, a socialist party - has created a conundrum. Firstly, despite manoeuvres on high to change the overall makeup of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the commitment to unity with the party’s right at all costs has meant there remains a substantial number of MPs from the conservative wing of the party completely hostile to the government’s programme - including a majority of cabinet ministers. They will spend the rest of the next five years doing their best to make sure it is not carried out.

The rest, hand-picked by the leader’s office and Momentum, are supporters of the leadership and its policies, but ideologically weak and lacking the strategic nous required to navigate the coming storm from both within and without. With the entire Socialist Campaign Group now on the government front benches, there is a complete absence of backbench organisation. The PLP majority is rudderless.

Secondly, the failure to develop a comprehensive programme of political education amongst the party’s newly found mass membership in favour of unconditional loyalty to the leadership has left them incapable of independent action beyond that instructed from on high. When - as is inevitable, based on the balance of forces - the Corbyn government is forced to compromise, how would the Corbyn-supporting MPs and extra-parliamentary party respond? What would Momentum do? Would it fight in defence of the original policy, or simply accept the leadership’s excuses for the retreat and actively defend it? Based on the experiences of the years 2015-19, the latter seems likely.

Thirdly, the Labour left’s abject failure to transform constituency parties from electoral machines into vehicles for socialist change has meant the party’s roots amongst the working class are superficial, to say the least. The rank and file can (at best!) be mobilised for one purpose and one purpose alone - to vote for Labour candidates in local and general elections. This is a government for the working class, rather than of the working class.

Fourthly, the trade union bureaucracy remains, for a time, generally supportive of the Labour government. The bureaucratic nature of Labour’s links to the unions, and the Labour left’s lack of attempt to (as a bare minimum) build a democratic parallel to this, means there can be no mass, coordinated mobilisation of the rank and file without the support of trade union officialdom. In fact, the Corbyn government may very well find itself in a situation where they are mobilised against them - maybe for reactionary reasons, maybe for progressive ones, we will never know - and elements of the government’s programme, especially around action on climate change, make the unions feel queasy. The question is, however, how would the party members respond?

Trade unions

They have, after all, been taught that certain trade union bureaucrats are worth their undying and uncritical loyalty in return for their support of Corbyn’s leadership, so what to do now that they have turned on it? It is not as if the Labour left can rely on the direct support and organisation of the union rank and file themselves: it has not even bothered to build a relationship with them (that is not part of its modus operandi). As I have said, this is a government for the working class, rather than of the working class.

I could go on, but I do not want to bore the reader to death. These are but a few questions, issues and potential pitfalls that the Labour left would have had to answer and deal with, had Corbyn chosen not to step down on election night in 2019, and (by some miracle) found himself and his parliamentary allies on the cusp of forming a government.

It is my view, based on years of active participation in the Labour left, that they would have been incapable of doing so. You only need to look at their response (or rather lack of it) to Starmer’s counterrevolution to see they do not have the capacity to be effective agents of socialist change or resistance. Bereft of a theoretical underpinning (and in fact an active hostility towards it) and effective organisation, their strategy amounted (and still amounts) to a weak form of social democratic and parliamentary Blanquism, with Corbyn (or some other poor sod) as a reluctant and no doubt incapable Blanqui.

The Labour left’s complete failure to make socialists of the 400,000 or so people that joined in support of Corbyn’s leadership is what has led to its current situation. Its inability to conceive of a party beyond the confines of Labourism is what ultimately led it to defeat, and would have driven any government led by the Labour left into the sea. Its historic role has played out - it is time to throw them head-first into the dustbin of history!

What about the movement behind Corbyn’s leadership though? The great mass of people that have left Labour in response to the right’s triumphant return to office are, on the whole, completely and utterly without direction, as seen by the creation (and then recreation) of various ‘new left parties’ over the past few years. All of these have been attempts to do Corbynism (really left-Labourism) better, and all are, for the same reasons Corbynism did, bound to fail.

Left ideas

That is not to say, in this contributors’ opinion at least, that there is no room for hope. It is clear from the result in 2017 that there are millions of people in Britain open to leftwing ideas. This is at present limited to ideas of a social democratic variety, but with the inability of even the best of Britain’s social democrats (the Labour left, if we are to be so kind) to build the necessary organisation of the working class capable of bringing them about, creates fertile ground for something to the left of social democracy (ie, Marxism) to step in, take the lead, and advocate a socialist perspective of real change.

The rudderless nature of the post-Corbynite left, its overall lack of political development, but general openness to socialist ideas - that too creates fertile ground for principled Marxist leadership of what is at present a wandering tribe of leftwing proto-social democrats marching through the political desert, and the transformation thereof into an effective and mass socialist fighting force free of the shackles of Labourism and its paternalistic concerns, capable of aiding and abetting the working class in its historic task: the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into something quite different - socialism.

It is my hope that readers of the Weekly Worker and supporters of organisations like the CPGB will play a role in achieving that. With the incoming election of the most rightwing Labour government in history and the attacks on the working class that will no doubt follow, we have no time to waste.