Lessons From The Corbyn Campaign

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Above Photo: By Carl Court

Note: Below is an excellent analysis of what the Corbyn campaign means and how it showed the Blairites were wrong. Corbyn could win the leadership of the UK in the future and did better than the Blairites. Jonathan Cook, a British political commentator writes in “The Facts Proving Corbyn’s Election Triumph” that Corbyn received 41 per cent of the vote, against May’s 44 per cent, which was a big improvement on Labour’s share of seats in the last election under Ed Miliband that resulted in a hung Parliament and minority for the Conservatives. Cook points out Corbyn won more votes than “Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown and Neil Kinnock, who were among those that, sometimes noisily, opposed his leadership of the party.” Even Tony Blair does not look all that good compared to Corbyn, Cook recounts:

“Here are the figures for Blair’s three wins. He got a 36 per cent share of the vote in 2005 – much less than Corbyn. He received a 41 per cent of the vote – about the same as Corbyn – in 2001. And Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 was secured on 43 per cent of the vote, just two percentage points ahead of Corbyn last night.

“In short, Corbyn has proved himself the most popular Labour leader with the electorate in more than 40 years, apart from Blair’s landslide victory in 1997.”

The Blairites were taught a lesson by Corbyn. What can we learn regarding US politics? The US  election system is very different from the UK and we do not have a Jeremy Corbyn in US politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders is not Corbyn especially on foreign policy but even on domestic issues, he is cautious compared to Corbyn. Corbyn showed how important it is to have the correct analysis on foreign policy because the response to terrorism is that it is blowback from US militarism, regime change and war — indeed it is blowback that should be expected. The Democrats are still controlled by Clinton-Obama neo-liberals as we have seen in the recent DNC chair election where a Clinton protege was elected. We are not as optimistic that the US can apply this model.

But, there are some positive lessons. Corbyn stood for progressive values — those same values are shared by super majorities of the US public. On issue after issue the public is with us but their views are not represented by either party. The duopoly of Wall Street, war and empire will not allow voices that represent “the many not the few” to participate in US elections. They shut them out, even a mild form like Sanders was mistreated and stopped from winning as a Democrat. The bi-partisans make third party runs nearly impossible with bizarre and unfair ballot access laws, voter registration, secret vote counting on unverifiable election machines, exclusion from the debates and exclusion by the corporate media, who are in cahoots with the bi-partisans.

The article below ends with the line “Also, Bernie Sanders would have won.” It is a prediction we doubt. We do not know what would have happened in US politics. The closest example was probably McGovern’s 1972 campaign against Nixon which he lost in a landslide. In that campaign the Democrats deserted their candidate, even the AFL-CIO and big unions did not support McGovern and Nixon demonized him in the media. McGovern was not even a socialist. The population of the UK is 65 million, compared to the US population of 321 million. Retail politics can work in the UK, indeed Corbyn did especially well in places where he held large rallies. In the US media drives the campaign, which means money drives the campaigns. Corruption reigns more deeply in the US because of campaign financing. What would work in the US? That is a quandary for us. HIstorically, transformations have occurred because of mass social movements demanding change with elections where third parties have showng mass electoral support even without winning. This has forced one of the two parties to capitulate to the movement. That still seems like the likely path to us. KZ and MF

I don’t care if he didn’t actually win — he won. Jeremy Corbyn has given us a blueprint to follow for years to come.

The Tories may still be in power at the end of the night, but Jeremy Corbyn won today.

Yes, I know this is shameless spin, but hear me out: the last few weeks have vindicated the approach of the Labour left and its international cothinkers under Corbyn.

This is the first election Labour has won seats in since 1997, and the party got its largest share of the vote since 2005 — all while closing a twenty-four point deficit. Since Corbyn assumed leadership in late 2015, he has survived attack after attack from his own party, culminating in a failed coup attempt against him. As Labour leader he was unable to rely on his parliamentary colleagues or his party staff. The small team around him was bombarded with hostile internal leaks and misinformation, and an unprecedented media smear campaign.

Every elite interest in the United Kingdom tried to knock down Jeremy Corbyn, but still he stands. He casts a longer shadow over his party’s centrists tonight than at any time since he was elected Labour leader.

Okay, Corbyn may not be prime minister tomorrow. He was a “flawed candidate,” he wasn’t the strongest speaker, he had his share of gaffes, he ate cold beans. All this is true. But besides for outside hostility and the opposition of his own parliamentary group, it’s worth remembering that Corbyn became Labour leader at the most perilous moment since the party’s birth.

Labour was discredited by the Blair-Brown administrations — from their catastrophic military adventures in Iraq to their privatization agenda at home and their overseeing of the financial crisis. The Blairites got their wish: Labour was looking more and more like a social liberal party than a social-democratic one, embracing the financial sector and prepared to “modernize” the welfare state by gutting it. But there was no serious challenge from its left, and there were professional-class voters to chase.

The party’s mass membership base deteriorated, as did its links with a weakened labor movement. Scotland was lost. The only anti-establishment voice in formerly Labour-dominated communities angry at years of neoliberal economic policies was the right-wing UK Independence Party.

This was the situation that Corbyn inherited. Yet against all odds, his team brought Labour back to life.

They rebuilt the party’s mass base, turning Labour into Europe’s largest party, with more than a half million members. Momentum, the grassroots formation created to support the effort, organized tens of thousands in communities across Britain. Battles with the Labour center and right helped in a certain way, too, distancing the leadership from a discredited establishment. Many party members came to embrace the ire of the billionaire press.

Labour developed a robust left character and platform for the first time in decades. Even as it dipped behind in the polls, it was forming the nucleus of a real opposition, a real alternative.

But even if we didn’t care about program and just wanted the Tories out, it’s hard to imagine that a rightward-tacking Labour leader would have done any better than Corbyn. Would Owen Smith have inspired the surge in youth turnout that pushed what should have been a Conservative landslide into a hung parliament? Would Angela Eagle or any “soft-left” challengers have kept Wales in Labour hands? Could any force but the Labour left begin to win back Scotland from the siren-call of the Scottish National Party?

Corbyn salvaged this election by bucking Labour’s conservative slide over the past several decades and sticking to his left-wing guns. His success provides a blueprint for what democratic socialists need to do in the years to come.

Labour’s surge confirms what the Left has long argued: people like an honest defense of public goods. Labour’s manifesto was sweeping — its most socialist in decades. It was a straightforward document, calling for nationalization of key utilities, access to education, housing, and health services for all, and measures to redistribute income from corporations and the rich to ordinary people.

£6.3 billion into primary schools, the protection of pensions, free tuition, public housing construction — it was clear what Labour would do for British workers. The plan was attacked in the press for its old-fashioned simplicity — “for the many, not the few” — but it resonated with popular desires, with a view of fairness that seemed elementary to millions.

The Labour left remembered that you don’t win by tacking to an imaginary center — you win by letting people know you feel their anger and giving them a constructive end to channel it towards. “We demand the full fruits of our labor,” the party’s election video said it all.

If the immediate economic program of Labour was inspiring, the leadership also revived a vision of social-democratic politics that looks beyond capitalism. The most striking thing about Corbynism isn’t that it’s run-of-the-mill welfare capitalism in an era where neoliberalism rules supreme, but that its protagonists see the inherent limits of reforms under capitalism and discuss ideas that aim to expand the scope of democracy and challenge capital’s ownership and control, not just its wealth. What other post-Golden Age, center-left party has drafted plans to expand the cooperative sector, create community-owned enterprises, and restore the state’s control of key sectors of the economy?

The plans were far from exhaustive, but they would put Britain on a course for deeper socialist transformations in the future. That’s a lofty dream, one that will take decades to come to fruition, but it goes far beyond traditional Labourism.

The Labour left isn’t a “mere social-democratic” current. Whereas what social democracy had morphed into by the postwar period often tried to tamp down class conflict in favor of tripartite arrangements with business, labor, and the state, the new social democracy of Corbyn was built on class antagonism and actively encourages movements from below.

But Labour couldn’t just put forward a pie-in-the-sky program. It had to deal with issues that socialists have typically not had to confront. And it succeeded by appealing to the commonsense of “the many” they sought to represent.

When the issue of terror and security was raised during the campaign, Corbyn showed not only that the Left was not weak on these issues — in many ways, we’re more credible than our opponents. For years, it’s been taken for granted that when it comes to terrorism, the choices confronting the Left were either sticking to our hallowed principles and suffering for it electorally, or mimicking the bellicose rhetoric of the Right.

Corbyn found another way through the madness. In the wake of the horrific Manchester and London attacks, the Labour leader was unafraid to connect British imperialism overseas and the proliferation of Islamist terror. Corbyn expanded his criticism into other aspects of British foreign policy: a deep-rooted set of alliances with Gulf States at the center of Middle East reaction.

Corbyn has taken some flak from the far left for his call for a proportional police response to terror. But he outlined a broad alternative, one that spoke of the social causes behind the path to terrorism, and used it to attack the violent xenophobia and scaremongering pushed by the Tories. In doing so, he changed the debate about terrorism in fundamental ways. There will always be alienated, angry people engaging in anti-social activity, but Corbyn offered a way to view such acts as security matters to be dealt with at their roots, rather than a clash of civilizations.

Let’s not underestimate voters. After years of endless wars and violence, most of them are ready for peace. Corbyn offered them what they wanted, and he wasn’t punished for it.

Even with a diminished Conservative majority, things won’t be rosy tomorrow. Momentarily humbled, the Tories still rule. Their allies in the business and media elite will regroup. They will come up with new plans to attack working people and the public good.

But Corbyn’s party is better positioned than any recent Labour regime to be a credible opposition rooted in an unapologetic left vision — to offer hopes and dreams to people, not just fear and diminished expectations. Also, Bernie would have won.

  • DHFabian

    I, personally, only understand UK politics as filtered through US media. I don’t know if their “left” is actually leftist, or if it’s more a marketing term for an agenda that actually promotes corporate ideology via promoting middle/working class elitism.

    Leftist ideology is not about protecting the status quo of the better off, within a viciously competitive capitalist system. It focuses on the consequences of rigid capitalism — poverty. Leftist ideology emphasizes fundamental human rights (food, shelter, etc.) above the priorities of the capitalist structure, while shunning class elitism. This is contrary to US ideology. I don’t know if that’s true in the UK.

    If Corbyn merely promotes the elitism of the better off — those selected to be of current use to corporate/financial powers — then he is not on the left. If he supports democratic socialism, for example, then he is. (Note: Democratic socialism includes a legitimate system of poverty relief for the jobless, as well as those who can’t work due to health or circumstances.)

  • richardbelldc

    Like many other left commentators, Zeese and Flowers want people in the U.S. to draw lessons from Corbyn’s campaign. But they leave out Sanders’ contributions to Corbyn. And Zeese and Flowers end up entangled in confusion because of their failure to understand the relationship between movements and political parties.

    To start, let’s turn the Corbyn lesson argument upside down by asking which came first in terms of showing the latent potential for a campaign based on the policies that Zeese and Flowers support. Sanders was there first. It was Sanders’ campaign that showed Corbyn what might be possible if Corbyn could generate the kind of enthusiasm among the young that Sanders was able to generate. So Corbyn’s success was a follow-on to Sanders’; what Corbyn showed us is that Sanders was already on the right track.

    As a veteran of 5 years at the DSCC and 4 years at the DNC, I know what the belly of the beast looks like from the inside. I agree with Zeese and Sanders that the Democratic Party is and has been under the control of a neoliberal corporate elite. I share their revulsion at the policies that this elite has supported in the name of the Democratic Party.

    But Z&F treat the DP as if it were a monolithic, immutable organization, which if it were true, would indeed be a cause of despair, a belief that they share with other analysts like Chris Hedges.

    I would like to suggest a different way of looking at political parties in the U.S. In my view, political parties are nothing more than hollow legal shells. What is inside those shells, just names. What a party represents, is determined not by some fixed ideology which all adherents are required to adopt, but by whatever ideas those who happen to be in control of the party at the time bring to the table. And the identify of those in control of the party is determined by political struggle, by whatever group or groups are able to mobilize the forces necessary to take over control of the party.

    And could there be a better example of how empty the name of a political party is than the current version of the Republican Party? Today’s RP holds any number of positions that are violent reversals of the policies that what we called the two-term Republican Party held under President Eisenhower. We use the same name, yet the beast is completely altered.

    And how did that happen? It happened because a group of wealthy right-wingers in the wake of Goldwater’s massive defeat in 1964 adopted a long-term strategy to change the Repubican Party—from the inside. They didn’t go out and try to start another party. They used their money to build the infrastructure (think tanks, direct mail mavens, etc.) which eventually brought Reagan to power in 1980, thanks in part to the negotiation of a strategic alliance with Falwelian fundamentalists.

    So what about today’s Democratic Party? Here again we should look at what the Sanders campaign accomplished. The rightwing take over of the Republican Party took 16 years. But in barely a single year, Sanders—unknown nationally, with no personal wealth, opposed by the party establishment, ridiculed by the national media when they were not ignoring him—came close to taking over the Democratic Party.

    Losing a political campaign is always painful. But if you want to be effective, you have to do what you always hear about professional athletes; you have to learn how to play through pain. There was plenty of pain to go around in Sanders defeat. But too many Sanders supporters reacted not by playing through their pain, but by wallowing in it, wallowing that continues to this day.

    Take the Jacobin article by Bhaskar Sunkara that K&F cite. They quote Sunkara concluding, “Also, Bernie Sanders would have won.” On this point, K&F are dubious and rightly so. Sunkara, and everyone else making this “could of” argument reveal a surprising ignorance about the fundamental nature of politics: that all politics is contingent on the forces at play in the moment.

    I saw enough quotes from the opposition research on Sanders’ early days in politics to know that the Republicans had plenty of material to work with if they had needed to start smearing him. Here again, there’s no way of knowing how the electorate would have reacted, but it’s just simple-minded to assume that such attacks might not have dimmed Sanders’ rising star.

    But back to the present moment. I see Sanders’ campaign as a hopeful indication that converting the Democratic Party to a force for progressive change is immensely more doable than conventional wisdom held before Sanders jumped in.

    I do not underestimate the importance of movements, as K&F argue. But Corbyn was able to do what he did because he took over the Labour Party; he didn’t start another party. And he took over the party by having enough strength within the party to lower the barriers to becoming party members, which brought in several hundred thousand new members, who then voted to pick Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party.

    Sanders showed that there were far more people out there who wanted the Democratic Party to adopt radically different policies. The question is whether there are political leaders out there, already within the party and in the various political movements that would support such new policies, to finish the job that Sanders started.

    Finally, I am puzzled by two other claims in this article. K&F write:

    “Historically, transformations have occurred because of mass social movements demanding change and participating in elections through independent parties that have grown out of a movement with candidates from the movement.”

    I can’t think of any good examples since WWII where candidates from an independent party caused anything remotely transformational in the U.S. What are the examples of this process at work?

    In a similar vein, K&F claim,

    “A broad and diverse social movement whose demands are articulated by an independent party platform has forced one of the two parties to capitulate to the movement or disappear.”

    Here again, I can’t think of any post-WWII examples where a social movement led to an independent party platform that forced major changes or the disappearance of one of the two parties. The early history of the United States is littered with the remains of various political parties that soared and then crashed (the Know-nothings, the Whigs, etc.). But the Democratic/Republican duopoly has been in place since the election of 1860. What are the examples of this process at work?

    I am not arguing here that progressives should focus exclusively on taking over the Democratic Party. That takeover will never happen unless there are aggressive, vigorous movements calling for the kinds of policies that we want Democratic Party politicians to adopt. But to me, Corbyn’s campaign only makes it that much easier to finish the take-over that Sanders so bravely started, while leaving plenty of energy in the field for all of the movement work that also needs to be done.