Corbyn. Could it happen here?

Jeff McCracken-Hewson reflects on his own experience of the democratic reform process in the UK Labour Party and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. This is in part a response to Mark Butler's address on the need for 'Democratisation of the ALP' at our event in January, in which Mark drew comparisons with UK Labour. Jeff joined the executive of Victorian Fabians earlier this year. He is a member of the UK Labour Party and has a longstanding connection with the Australian Labor movement. He currently divides his time between Australia and the UK.

 

At an event hosted by the Australian Fabians on 22 January, ALP National President Mark Butler told us the ALP could learn a lesson from UK Labour, where members and registered supporters have a direct vote for the leader. This had led to a huge surge in Labour Party membership in the UK and a similar thing could happen here. But Butler reassured us that we need not fear an Australian Jeremy Corbyn as a result.

As a UK Labour Party member, who has a longstanding connection with the Australian Labor movement, I disagree with Mark. I think the ALP could do with a Corbyn. Rule changes of themselves will not revitalise it.

To assess whether it could happen here, it helps to have a feel for what really happened there.  I spend a large part of each year in England and I have been living through the Corbyn phenomenon from the start. This is my personal experience of it.

 

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Labour Party General Election Launch, 9th May 2017. Wikimedia.

When Jeremy Corbyn was unexpectedly nominated for the Labour leadership in 2015, I knew nothing about him.  So I did a web search. I found a 2013 clip of him addressing the Oxford Union on the motion “This house believes that socialism DOES work”.  I was electrified. In a few sentences Corbyn had expressed the essence of my own political beliefs in a way I had never heard before. I immediately told all my friends: “You must support this man”.

Corbyn’s argument was that Socialism in essence meant caring for each other and that socialist institutions were those designed to do this, in contrast to the dog-eat-dog creed of the "free" market. So the National Health Service was an example of socialism: from each according to his means; to each according to his need.  And it had proven to be one of the most effective, and cost-effective, health systems there had ever been. Far more than, say, the American system of private provision. So socialism was not some vague, utopian ideal.  Instead, it meant building on things which had been proven to work and ditching things, such as privatisation of public monopolies, that had been proven not to work. It meant ditching the creed that “greed is good” and allowing people's instincts for caring and compassion.  As Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell later said, UK austerity was not a consequence of some iron law of political economy and human nature. It was a political choice: a cruel and misguided choice.  

In this same debate, Corbyn expressed his regret that the Labour Party had abandoned its famous Clause IV on public ownership. But I have never heard Corbyn advocate public ownership beyond essential public services, plus a strong role for government in banking and finance. There would still be a private sector, which would be supported, regulated and taxed [!] to ensure that it contributed to the good of society as a whole.

This would mean following the example of some of the most successful countries in the world, such as the Nordics. In fact it seems to me to be a model that current and former communist regimes, as in China and Russia, are also converging towards.

I felt that I would crawl over broken glass to follow that vision and to follow the man who had articulated it with such goodness, clarity and sincerity. I believed that millions of others would support him too. And they have.

The 2015 Labour leadership contest was the first under new rules which ended the Electoral College and the Trade Union block vote. Instead, opted in members of affiliated unions got a vote, as did all Labour members and parliamentarians. One person, one vote. There was also a new category of registered supporters who could sign up to vote for £3. 

The contest had been triggered by the resignation of Labour leader Ed Milliband following the unexpected Conservative victory in the 2015 UK election. Despite five years of austerity, the Tories won the election in their own right and were able to dispense with their former coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats. None of the major parties who fought this election had been prepared to advocate a decisive break with Tory austerity.

Some Labour MPs thought it would broaden the debate if one of Labour’s left was nominated for a hopeless crack at the leadership. At a meeting around someone’s kitchen table, Corbyn reluctantly agreed to be drafted. The bookies gave him a 1/100 chance of winning.

In the event, Corbyn won the leadership on a landslide 60% of the vote, winning in all sections of the electorate – union members, Labour members and Labour supporters. Over 100,000 supporters voted - overwhelmingly for Corbyn. Only one group of members did not support him – the MPs.

However, the public at large were not to be allowed to understand Corbyn or his compelling message.  Instead, the media launched an unimaginable campaign of character assassination. 

Corbyn was depicted as a throwback to the failed utopianism of former Labour leaders such as Tony Benn and Michael Foot whose 1983 Labour manifesto was famously described as “the longest suicide note in history”. His Labour Party opponents were described as “moderates” and “modernisers” – the opposite, it seems to me, of what they really were. Corbyn was supposedly an anti-Semite, an IRA sympathiser, an enemy of Britain. He was unelectable.  The Labour membership were deluded idealists, who had learnt nothing from the past half century. 

The anti-Corbyn message was broadcast in almost every section of the media, including the supposedly progressive Guardian newspaper and New Statesman and the supposedly even handed BBC. The latter was shamefully biased and proven to be so . Luckily the internet now enables anyone to go back to the source data and find something resembling the truth. Current hand wringing about fake news has come at the time when the mainstream media have lost their monopoly on distortion and, in many cases, outright lies.

Nevertheless, it was a challenge to hold one’s nerve against all this. And to be fair, it took Corbyn a while to adjust to his new role.  He continued to potter around his allotment, to dress like a retired geography teacher and, it seemed to me, to prioritise championing minority causes over the central issues facing the country. His handling of the media was abysmal or nonexistent. To the despair of his parliamentary colleagues, Jeremy’s priority was not to play the games of the “Westminster bubble”, but to get out into the country and to build a movement – with huge success.

I rejoined the Labour Party straight after Jeremy’s election. The membership of the party surged from 190,000 in May 2015 to 552,000 in June 2017. I also joined Momentum, an organisation formed to maintain the “momentum” of Jeremy’s victory. It currently has about 37,000 members, only a couple of thousand behind the entire membership of the UK’s Green Party. It is gaining over 1,500 members every month.

Momentum has often been accused of being an organisation of “hard left entryists” aiming to hijack the Labour party. Inevitably, Momentum attracted many “hard left” activists, but in my experience they were always a tiny minority. Later, when the rule was brought in that only Labour members could be in Momentum, the “hard left” had either to leave or to reform.

Momentum has been organising an event called “The World Transformed” alongside Labour conferences, to develop and celebrate socialist ideas. Last year’s event ran for four days with events spread over 9 venues. It attracted over 4,000 participants. There were contributions from leading socialist thinkers from around the world.  Far from being a throwback to the past, our socialism is leading edge.

Jeremy’s parliamentary colleagues waged an unceasingly vicious campaign against him. When Britain voted for Brexit, they blamed Corbyn for the result and launched a leadership challenge. In my view Corbyn was the only party leader who ran an honest and principled campaign on the Brexit issue and continues to do so. 

The “moderates” and “modernisers” backed Owen Smith for this contest. An ex-lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, he claimed to be just as socialist as Jeremy, but to be electable when Jeremy was not. Smith ran a vicious campaign of personal abuse which Jeremy refused ever to respond to.

My favourite moment of the campaign was a TV hustings hosted by the clearly anti-Corbyn Victoria Derbyshire of BBC5 Live. The audience was 1/3 pro Corbyn, 1/3 Smith and 1/3 undecided. At the end of the debate Derbyshire asked the undecideds either to stay put or join one of the other camps. Overwhelmingly, they trooped over to join the Corbyn supporters. The BBC reporter could not get near Corbyn for a comment and had to content himself with interviewing the friendless Smith.

Labour‘s National Executive set about combing the list of recently-joined Labour members and supporters to see who could be declared ineligible. It also increased the fee for Registered Supporters from £3 to £30 – a lot of money for the unemployed and other victims of Tory austerity. To Corbyn supporters this seemed like a shameful attempt to rig the result, by disenfranchising new members and supporters who might be pro-Corbyn.

This made us only the more determined. I used to go in to phone bank for Jeremy at the Unite Union. I phoned people who barely had enough money to eat but said that £30 to support Jeremy was more important. It was incredible.

Jeremy won by an even bigger 62%  landslide and that settled the leadership question at last. But shortly afterwards Theresa May, having taken over the leadership of the Conservative party from David Cameron without a contest, decided to cash in her huge opinion poll lead by calling an early general election.

Corbyn supporters like me welcomed this. We believed that the general election would force the BBC and, to some extent, the other media to allow the general public, for the first time, to find out what Jeremy was really about and who he was. We believed we could win this election, if only there was enough time for this huge shift of opinion to occur. And if not, we believed we would come damn close.

This was the most amazing election campaign I have ever been involved in. Labour issued exactly the manifesto that the country, and the party, needed - costed to the last penny. Its real labour policies, such as renationalising the railways and utilities, scrapping tuition fees and putting a cap on executive pay were very popular with voters. Manifesto policies were to be paid for by an attack on tax avoidance and by big increases in taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. There was also to be a national investment bank to redress many of the structural problems in the British economy. 

People, especially young people, flocked to the Labour Party to work in the campaign – and to get onto the electoral roll. For many, it was their first experience of electoral politics. I worked in a number of different London electorates. We were often told by local parties: don’t mention Corbyn on the doorstep, he is toxic.  At the start, there was some truth in this. I encountered anti-Corbyn hysteria from traditional Labour voters who had swallowed everything the media had told them. Though I never found one who was willing or able to discuss this in a calm and rational way.

But as the campaign went on, and people had their first chance to see the real Corbyn, on the doorstep you could feel the ground shifting almost by the minute. Everywhere Jeremy went, massive crowds turned out to support him and there was the chant of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” from packed stadiums and venues.

The media and the pollsters were wilfully blind to this. On the eve of the election the Daily Express ran the headline: “Labour set for nuclear winter as party to lose seats EVERYWHERE but London”. In the event, we did not win, but we denied the Conservatives a majority. Jeremy increased Labour's vote share more than any Labour leader since 1945. Another couple of weeks, and I reckon we could have done it.

So could it happen here? Do we want it to happen here?

I feel that the “centrist” consensus is far more intact in Australia than Britain. Things are not nearly so bad here. We have not had austerity.

But we have the same problems as Britain. Unaffordable housing, young people unable to get jobs, wages depressed, work relentlessly demeaned. A tiny elite taking all from the economy. And the causes of the problems are similar in Australia as the world over. Public assets turned over to private profit, tax avoidance by the wealthy and corporations, an onslaught on the trade unions and on working conditions, a finance sector devoted to generating wealth for the few rather than supporting the real economy. And, I believe, we have very similar labour values amongst a broad swath of the population.

On individual issues the ALP often takes a good line, though I think its attitude to privatisation of public assets is woeful. It has not totally caved in to the Tory agenda as Labour did in Britain. We also have the Greens and some good independents. But the left is fractured. The UK Labour Party is a sort of amalgam of the ALP, The Greens and GetUp.

In the 2013 ALP leadership contest, Bill Shorten promised to introduce reforms making it easier for supporters to join the Labor Party and influence policy decisions. But nothing came of this. Shorten won that election despite Albanese out-polling him decisively in the membership vote. Will people who owe their positions to the current system grasp the nettle and change it? When it started to look like Jeremy Corbyn might win the first leadership contest, former Labour Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told the BBC she had been a “moron” for nominating him. I hope she has changed her mind now.

What the labour movement needs in Australia, it seems to me, is a leader with a compelling socialist vision that electrifies the people and the whole progressive movement. I sense there is a huge surge waiting to happen if someone lights the fuse: someone with extraordinary integrity, clarity and determination.

I hope the ALP will follow the example of UK Labour, because it seems to me that under Corbyn it has set out the sort of course that Britain and the world will have to follow in years to come, if we are not to descend into poverty and chaos. If we do decide to buckle up for this journey, we need to understand that it could be a very rough ride. But do we want to carry on as now? Is that an option?

Jeff McCracken-Hewson
March 2018

 

The Fabian society was founded in 1884 by Edward Pease, Frank Podmore, and Hubert Bland, joined later by Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb. In Australia, the first Fabian group was formed in 1891; the now Australian Fabian society is a national organisation.

The Fabian tradition is one of achieving social progress through research, education and debate. The Society has no policy beyond that implied in a general commitment to social democracy, and issues its publications as the opinions of their authors not of the organisation. The publishing program is designed to promote informed discussion on issues to further the goals of social democracy.

 

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