A few more thoughts on the Corbyn phenomenon (and apologies for how many times I’ve returned to the subject now, but it’s only because everyone else seems to keep on banging on about it as well):
Firstly, an admission. Like a lot of people, my initial reaction was mistaken, at least in so far as it consisted of something along the lines of “lol, he’s got no chance”. Clearly, I’d underestimated the market that still exists for left-Labourism. At this stage, I don’t feel confident enough to make any predictions, either about whether he could win the leadership contest or about how he might hypothetically perform in a future general election. What I do feel confident in saying is that, either as leader of the opposition or even as a potential Prime Minister, he would be subjected to a sustained battering from all the forces that capital has deployed over the last few decades to make social democracy impossible, from Mitterand and Pasok in the early 1980s to the “waterboarding” unleashed against Syriza today.
So, in short, we can expect that, for the foreseeable future, the offices of leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister will both be filled by either someone with an ideological commitment to austerity, or by someone who’s being put under an enormous amount of pressure by a ferocious and extremely well-organised campaign intended to bludgeon them into dropping any attempt at resistance to austerity. Either way, there’s very little chance of any real positive change unless it comes from a determined and courageous movement from below that threatens to destabilise things to the point where offering concessions seems like the safest option.
At this point, it’s worth touching quickly on the distinction between having sympathy for someone and thinking they have a workable strategy. It’s certainly understandable why people have a lot of time for Corbyn, if only on the grounds that he’s made all the right enemies; but if my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend, there’s even less guarantee that he knows what he’s doing. To put it another way, it’s worth bearing in mind the experience of Syriza, who also said a lot of the right things and made enemies of a lot of the right people: but in the end, their good intentions were a lot less decisive than the forces of international capital. The anti-austerity majority in Greece might have been able to elect Syriza and win the referendum, but they lacked any means of affecting how “their” government behaved with the power they’d given it. Likewise, Corbyn’s supporters might well be able to get him elected, but that’s not the same thing as having any influence over how he behaves once in office.
In recent days, I’ve seen people making a lot of the size of some of the meetings Corbyn has addressed. But I’m old enough that I can remember quite a lot of big lefty gatherings that have been and gone without leaving any lasting results in terms of building power. To that end, I’d like to ask a question I’ve not seen addressed anywhere: what steps are the Corbynites taking to build lasting organisation? Certainly, the number of people who’ve been attending his meetings, let alone those who are talking about intending to vote for him, is large enough that if even a reasonable proportion of them took the decision to act together, they could form the basis for an anti-austerity organisation that would easily dwarf the likes of the People’s Assembly or Left Unity. I’m sure I’d have my disagreements with any such organisation, but at the same time the current UK political landscape is in such a poor shape that that the emergence of any kind of mass anti-austerity campaign, even one with questionable politics, would have to be a step in the right direction.
But it’s a step that will never be taken unless those involved take the decision to organise it for themselves. So, for those who’ve decided to go along with the Corbyn campaign, some unsolicited and probably unwelcome advice: don’t wake up the morning after the results are declared with nothing more than a hangover to show for it. Start making plans. When there’s a big campaign meeting in your town, don’t let it be a big meeting of hundreds of individuals who leave with no connection at the end of it: share contact details. Appoint a decent, non-flaky individual or group of individuals to take care of communications. Decide on a practical project. You could decide to collect contact details for people who’re prepared to block evictions and make sure that people who’re at risk of eviction know how to get in touch with you; or you could do a similar project for UKBA raids; or set up a foodbank; or take a leaf out of Haringey Solidarity Group’s book and launch a determined campaign against a local workfare exploiter; or research big warehouse and distribution centres in your area and make sure the workers there are aware of other struggles and developments happening in their sector; or set out to make practical links with other anti-austerity groups doing useful work in Ireland or Germany or Greece or wherever; or if there’s a collective already doing good things in your area you could dissolve yourselves into them instead of needlessly duplicating efforts… the potentials are endless.
The important thing is that whatever you decide to do, it should be something practical you can do together to advance the issues you think are important, and it shouldn’t be determined entirely by the priorities and timescales of national political organisations you have little or no control over. Your chance to have a say about who leads the Labour Party will end quite soon. Your chance to shape the political landscape that politicians have to operate in is much more open-ended.
Postscript: I am aware of, and open to, the possibility that what I’m doing here is essentially just a slightly more sophisticated version of the reflex of the Trot hack who looks at any big vaguely lefty gathering and sees a crowd of potential paper buyers and party recruits. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s what I’m doing here: I’m not particularly arguing for anyone to abandon their existing organisations and projects and get involved in ones that I prefer, so the line I’m arguing here is more just that people should take their own projects seriously and self-organise to take on practical tasks. That doesn’t seem like a particularly dictatorial line to try and impose on anyone. Also, I’d like to express my gratitude to Aaron Bastani and James Butler for their pieces “7 Things I Learned from Chatting to Jeremy Corbyn” and “Curb your Corbynthusiasm”, which helped me clarify some of my own thinking on this subject, even if I can’t understand how the latter decided to go for a pun as laboured [no pun intended] as “Corbynthusiasm” when the much better “Corb your Enthusiasm” was just there for the taking.