Was Corbyn “too far left”? The real lessons of Britain’s election for the US Left

By Tom Crean, Socialist Alternative (Our sister organisation in the United States) 

For socialists who want to see the right and its agenda defeated, the victory of the reactionary Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party in last week’s general election in Britain is obviously a serious setback.

The corporate media and the leadership of the Democratic Party have honed in on the idea that the defeat of Labour in the British general election is to a significant degree due to Jeremy Corbyn’s “far left socialist” platform. As Joe Biden said, “Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left.” The not so subtle message is: if the Democrats choose Sanders, Trump will win a second term.

Red Scare Hysteria

The real lessons for the left in the U.S. and especially for Sanders’ pro-working class campaign which Socialist Alternative has endorsed are much different. First of all, while this would be in no way clear from the coverage here, the corporate media in Britain, including both the “respectable” BBC and the shameless tabloid papers waged a vicious Red-scare style campaign against Corbyn. They accused him of being an anti-Semite, a supporter of the Irish Republican Army, and a “danger to national security.” They threw as much mud as they could in the hope that some of it would stick.

The endlessly repeated allegation of rife anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is based on very little and most of that little is based on conflating criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. Donald Trump, whose presidency has emboldened white nationalists and outright neo-Nazis, also denounces any criticism of his reactionary ally Benjamin Netanyahu as “anti-Semitic.” The real racist in the election in Britain was Boris Johnson who once called black people “pickanninies” in an article he wrote as a journalist.

But while the respectable corporate media likes to present itself as anti-racist, their real priority is protecting the profits and interests of big business. They will not hesitate to retail the vilest lies and to cover for racists in the interest of keeping the left out.

The British election is an indication of how savagely the media and the Democratic corporate establishment will come at Bernie Sanders should he get anywhere near winning the Democratic nomination. In 2016, during the New York primary which was an absolute must-win for Hillary Clinton, the liberal New York tabloid, the Daily News, ran headlines linking Sanders to the Sandy Hook massacre. Their literal headline was “Bernie’s Sandy Hook Shame: Callously defends gunmakers against Newtown kin lawsuit.”

Deeper Causes

While the vicious ruling-class attacks on Corbyn played a real role, it was not inevitable that these would be enough to defeat Labour. Corbyn’s real problem was his loss of credibility after four years as Labour leader where he failed to take on the neo-liberal right in the Labour Party or seek to seriously build a mass movement for change outside of parliament.

Under Tony Blair and his “New Labour” successors, Labour removed Clause 4 which nominally committed the party to bringing key sectors of the economy into democratic public ownership, purged the left, reduced the influence of the trade unions, oversaw massive cuts in social services at national and local level and eagerly participated in George Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. Margaret Thatcher, the Tory prime minister for 11 years, who waged an unrelenting campaign against the interests of the working class, declared that her biggest accomplishment was “New Labour and Tony Blair”.

Ironically, Corbyn won the leadership of the party because the Blairites, in a move of pure hubris, made it easier for people to join the party and vote for the party leader as a further measure to undercut trade union influence. But from the moment that Corbyn was democratically elected by the membership, the right wing majority of the Labour MPs sought to undermine and remove him with the full complicity of the media.

In effect what existed was “two parties in one”: Corbyn’s based on pro-working class policies, the other firmly wedded to austerity and the neo-liberal agenda. The Blairites explicitly modeled themselves on the corporate Democrats here in the U.S. Our co-thinkers in Britain argued consistently from the time Corbyn was elected party leader that he needed to take the fight to the Blairites. For example, the party leadership could have re-introduced mandatory re-selection whereby the party members in a given constituency would choose their candidate for the next election. This would have allowed the membership which largely supported Corbyn to begin removing the worst Blairites and put them firmly on the defensive.

The party leadership could have also made it clear that it was no longer acceptable to be a Labour local councillor and vote for cuts to social services. Those who refused to accept this basic demand could have been removed as Labour candidates.

This needed to be linked to an ongoing campaigning approach, mobilizing the membership and organizing mass demonstrations along with the unions against anti-working class attacks like those against the NHS. Unfortunately, Corbyn and his allies in the party, like John McDonnell and the Momentum group sought again and again to compromise with the Blairites. The exception was the 2017 election when Corbyn put forward a bold platform and held mass rallies around the country to mobilize support. This electrified young people in particular. But this was not followed up in the last two years by ongoing mobilization.

“Muddled Message”

A clear example of how Corbyn failed to draw a sufficiently clear distinction to the Blairites was on Brexit. The issue of Brexit dominated the British general election. Johnson had a simple message: “Get Brexit done.” This obviously appealed to many people who are absolutely sick of the increasingly toxic debate that has consumed British society since the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, and are deeply frustrated by establishment attempts to reverse rather than implement the result .

In the liberal media and among a lot of the left, Brexit is portrayed as a racist, anti-immigrant vote which anticipated Trump’s election here. The working class supporters of Brexit, especially in the ex-industrial towns of the North of England, are seen as the same allegedly irredeemable, backward layer who supported Trump that Hillary Clinton famously called the “basket of deplorables.” But occasionally the media tells the truth about something important and in an article on global trade last Sunday, the New York Times made the following comment: “In Britain, struggling communities used the June 2016 referendum…as a protest vote against the bankers in London who had engineered a catastrophic financial crisis, and who then forced regular people to absorb the costs through wrenching fiscal austerity.”

Corbyn’s historic position, going back to the 1970s, was to oppose Britain entering the European Union, not for nationalist reasons, but because it was a “bosses’ club.” This characterization, in our opinion, was and remains correct. The EU is a highly undemocratic set of structures which has at every stage sought to oppose workers’ interests. In the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, the European Commission, along with the European Central Bank and the IMF (the “troika”) imposed savage austerity on the Greek people and others by forcing them to repay loans to French and German banks.

Unfortunately, during the Brexit referendum and since, Corbyn did not articulate a clear position of opposition to the EU. He could have done this while calling for a real unity of working people across Europe based on class solidarity that would point to a democratic socialist federation. While the Brexit vote can’t be reduced to racism or anti-immigrant sentiment, the failure of the Labour Party to take the lead in fighting for an internationalist “socialist Brexit” opened the door to the right to frame the issue on a nationalist basis.

In truth on the basis of capitalism neither leaving nor remaining in the EU will solve any of the fundamental problems facing working people in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. As the Brexit debate in Britain became focused within very narrow parameters it became increasingly demoralizing to wide sections of society.

We fully recognize that many in Britain voted for Remain and against Brexit in 2016 for very understandable reasons including a desire to maintain the free movement of people across Europe. It is also true that Labour’s base was divided between more pro-Brexit working class districts in the North of the country and a more pro-Remain base in the cities. But while Corbyn slowly drifted towards a more pro-Remain position he wound up satisfying nobody. As our co-thinkers in Socialist Alternative in England and Wales explained in their recent statement:

“To win this election, Corbyn needed to unite voters who supported both Leave and Remain on the basis of an independent, working-class approach to this question –  as well as to all others. The failure to do so has opened the door to right-wing populism to fill the vacuum.”

Trying to Shift the Conversation

Corbyn sought to focus the discussion in the general election away from Brexit and towards reversing the massive attacks on working people over the past twenty years. He pointed to the ongoing Tory attacks on the National Health Service and revealed Johnson’s discussions with the Trump administration about opening up the NHS to further creeping privatization as part of a future post-Brexit trade deal. Corbyn called for bringing utilities and the railroads back into public ownership as well as public broadband.

There is no evidence that his platform was “too radical” for most working class or young people. In fact it was gaining support in the waning days of the campaign. In 2017 Corbyn took essentially the same approach and won 40% of the popular vote, the biggest ever increase in Labour’s vote. And even in this election, while Labour’s share of the vote dropped to 32%, this was still better his neo-liberal predecessors Ed Miliband in 2015 or Gordon Brown in 2010.

Again the real problem wasn’t Corbyn’s platform but the failure to really fight for it consistently over the past four years which would have meant building a mass movement between elections and taking a much firmer line against the Labour right including those councillors who were voting for cuts and the MPs who sought in the most outrageous ways to undermine Corbyn at every turn.

Taking the necessary steps against the Blairites saboteurs could have perhaps temporarily weakened the Labour Party in parliamentary terms if the Blairites had resigned en masse but it would have put the party on a far firmer political basis showing that it was prepared to fight down the line for the interests of working people.

Building a Strong Left in the U.S.

The key lessons we need to draw from Corbyn’s defeat is about how we build a political force to defeat the agenda of the right and win decisive change for working people. The dominant trend on the American left over the past few years has been to engage with the Democratic Party to push it to the left or, as Sanders says, turn it into a “party of working people.” It is understandable that many people have seen this as the more straightforward path to building the left than creating a new party and this view is reinforced by victories like those of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

But it is also very clear that at every turn the new left is meeting ferocious resistance from the party’s corporate establishment. Look at the attacks on the “Squad,” the four progressive freshmen women of color in the House of Representatives earlier this year. The Democratic leadership, echoing Trump, went after Ilhan Omar in particular for “anti-Semitism.” To their credit, Omar, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley pushed back against both Trump and Pelosi. Omar, AOC and Tlaib went on to endorse Sanders which is certainly not good for your resume in the Democratic House Caucus.

To take a different example, there is no doubt that participating in the Democratic primaries gave Bernie Sanders a very large audience in 2016 but it also means he agreed to accept the outcome of a rigged and highly undemocratic process. He then accepted defeat and endorsed Hillary instead of continuing to run until November. If Sanders had stayed in the race he could have used it to lay the basis for a new political force which could have fought alongside workers, immigrants and young people over the past three years against Trump and the agenda of the right. Even more progressive and socialist candidates could have been elected locally and nationally and on a clearer basis.

What would it actually take for the Democrats to become the party we need? As we have consistently argued they would have to stop taking corporate money period, adopt a pro-working class platform and require that their representatives support it, and create real democratic structures whereby the base of the party could control its leadership.

Pelosi, Schumer and all their counterparts at state and local level will split rather than accept this, much like the Blairites threaten to do in Britain. The difference is that while Corbyn and the left in the Labour Party have mechanisms which could be used to push the issues to a conclusion, such means are largely absent in the Democratic Party.

Defeating the Right in 2020

We now we face the critical challenge of the 2020 race. How do we overcome what will be utterly relentless attacks if Sanders comes anywhere near winning the nomination?

We need to mobilize the widest possible forces to go all out for a Sanders victory. He has called for a million volunteers which is entirely possible. But we need to take this a step further. Transforming his campaign into a mass membership organization with basic democratic structures would electrify his base and give them confidence that this campaign was truly the beginning of a “political revolution”. This could begin with mass organizing meetings across the country to discuss how to win Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and universal rent control.

What happens if Sanders overcomes all the anti-democratic obstacles and wins the nomination? What happens if Sanders becomes president? The ferocious attacks on Corbyn would pale in comparison to the resistance that the ruling class of this country and the corporate politicians of both parties would put up to Sanders if he tried to implement his program. Sanders has stated that as president he will be the “organizer in chief,” that he will mobilize working people in all areas where recalcitrant politicians refuse to do what is in the interests of their constituents. This is absolutely correct but to build this force that can keep the politicians under pressure also means having a credible threat to replace them, in other words a new party.

Some Sanders supporters have sought to minimize the comparison between here and Britain in response to the corporate establishment narrative about Corbyn’s defeat. Undoubtedly, there is no direct equivalent to Brexit as an issue. However, what the outcome of the British election helps us do is to size up the obstacles ahead so as to neither underestimate or overestimate them.

Nor should we conclude that all is lost for the British left. Johnson waged a populist campaign but with a shallow base. He has promised to end austerity. This is a lie. Mass resistance can develop quickly as it did in here in 2017. Corbyn should not step down but finish the fight against the right in his own party, link up with workers, like the nurses in Northern Ireland who have gone on strike to defend the NHS and young people who are fighting climate change. With a bold and determined approach this reactionary regime can be rapidly put on the defensive. This can help inspire the kind of struggle we need here in the U.S.