Left wing author and Labour Party activist Mark Perryman spoke to Socialist Review about his new book Corbynism From Below, a collection of articles by writers in and around the Labour Party.
The best thing about your book is that it is based on an optimism that Corbynism can bring about change. But you acknowledge that the last couple of years have not really lived up to the feeling we got in 2017. How optimistic are you at the moment?
The previous book, The Corbyn Effect, really took the story up until 2017 and it was published amid the euphoria following the general election. But during the last two years, we’ve just been trapped by this Brexit impasse. While there’s good things going on under the surface, they’re just not breaking through. At the same time, antisemitism has created a crisis around the Labour Party. And thirdly, there’s been a growing sense of dissatisfaction with an organisational culture which is so conservative, so cautious, so slow moving.
How do you see that being challenged? It is something that people discuss in your book in terms of the culture. It’s almost like you’re not allowed to talk politics in your branch!
Yeah I’ve done countless CLP meetings and discussion meetings around the previous book, and people come up and say “oh it’s so nice that we can talk about politics for a change”. The overwhelming majority of party members are extremely political, but they find political discussions take place broadly outside of the Labour Party. There are very good reasons for that: you’re in a party where conference resolutions matter; in large parts of the country you’ve got a member of parliament, you’ve got councillors, you may control the council. And so it’s not surprising that these things do take up an inordinate amount of time, but there’s also a sort of bureaucratisation which is just totally ill-fitting to the 21st century.
I describe the Labour Party’s culture as quite well suited to a 19th century correspondents’ society and it’s almost like it’s missed out the 20th century. So it’s frustrating. That’s not to say there’s not advances being made, but they’re very slow and piecemeal, and we’re absolutely trapped in the headlamps of Brexit.
And it puts all kinds of pressures on Corbyn, even from people on the left of the party who see remain as needing to be the thing you unite around, like Paul Mason talking about a popular front against Brexit. How do you feel about what Corbyn has been doing about the Brexit issue?
There’s two sides to this argument, and you’re either one thing or the other. What frustrates me about people on both sides is that neither will admit that there are no easy answers, no quick-fix solution, so whichever you go for there will be losses in terms of votes and probably seats. The other thing, which Jeremy has really tried to bring about but which has been fairly piecemeal and riven with contradictions, is this line I quote in the book from Gary Younge that we need to get away from “them and us” and instead create a “we”. It’s all about creating a popular, progressive majority. And that’s what the Remainers’ response to Brexit has failed to do.
When I see those Liberal Democrat stickers, “Bollocks to Brexit”, I say to the people giving them out “OK, go to a strong leave-voting constituency and go on the doorstep with those stickers, see how you get on.” They are an absolute insult to progressive politics.
I live in Lewes in East Sussex, where we’ve got threatened academisation of our schools, so many high street shops are closing we’ve not got enough charity shops to take their place, when I catch the train to London it’s the most expensive and worst train service in Europe, and none of this is to do with Brexit, it’s to do with austerity. People seem to say, oh that means you’re not talking about the real issue. Well no actually, you can talk about both at one and the same time, and that’s why Gary’s quote is so good, it’s about not them and us but “we”.
You say in the book that you can’t just repeat the 2017 election campaign and manifesto. Obviously you can’t repeat a campaign but surely the strength of Corbynism is his message, Leave or Remain we’ve got to deal with austerity and racism?
Jeremy talked in his conference speech about not being the party of Brexit’s 52 percent or Remain’s 48 percent but a party of the 99 percent. That can cut through, but others reduce everything to Brexit. The latest is the likelihood that there will be a general election before Christmas. There is an almost anti-politics mood, just wanting to get Brexit over and done with, and that means it’s quite difficult to cut through with Labour’s policies on the economy and the environment. There’s a large portion of the public that are really fed up, whether Labour can reach out , connect, inspire and convince to vote is going to be key
The 20 September climate strike was huge, and this is a movement that has come from outside of the traditional left. So what for you is the relationship between that kind of activity, what you’re doing inside of Labour and what’s happening in parliament?
The absolute strength of Corbynism from 2015 to 2017 was that it was very heavily shaped by social movement activism. But we haven’t seen the party change and be shaped by those social movements in the way that it should have been. Now we see a whole new wave of activism. The Labour Party is embracing the Green New Deal, and the most radical version was passed at conference, despite opposition from some unions. But this is a party whose MPs voted for the expansion of Heathrow, whose council leaders are in favour of HS2, whose affiliated unions organise to defend the nuclear power industry and fracking.
So what we need, to go back to Gary’s quote, is to create another them and us. You can exit Europe but you can’t exit a dying planet. It’s very easy for the Labour Party to pass the Green New Deal, but it has to be the beginning of a process. John McDonnell’s and Rebecca Long Bailey’s work around the Green Industrial revolution has a huge amount of potential. But I remember the Lucas Aerospace plan and socially useful production, and it seems to have fallen off the agenda in large parts of the trade union movement.
What makes it difficult in the Labour Party — on Brexit and on many parts of the GND agenda — is the people you are arguing against, on many other subjects they will be on your side.
I agree with you about the contradictory pressures inside the Labour Party. But how do you overcome them? The newer organisations around Europe such as Syriza and Podemos and so on — they all came from grassroots social movements, doing things differently to Labour, but they still ended up getting squashed by the powers that be. I wonder how you see that coming out differently?
There is one simple reason why such parties haven’t developed here: the electoral system, we don’t have proportional representation. If we did then the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell would have broken with the LP in the Blair years and there would be a small but significant parliamentary left party. So what we’ve got uniquely here is kind of alternative left organising within the party of social democracy. That hasn’t happened across all those other countries in Europe.
Where will that lead? Well, I don’t think Jeremy can afford to lose a second general election, put it that way. But we’ve also got clearly established, really impressive, new parliamentary leaders such as Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Laura Pidcock, and they are really going to be a significant force in the Labour Party for a long time to come. And in the membership the left is still in the majority.
The biggest problem is that the party has got half a million members, of which probably two-thirds are pro-Corbyn. Yet their involvement in the LP is a fraction of that. That was the impetus of the book. There’s parts of the LP organisational culture that I, and many like me, just don’t want to be a part of. I describe it in the book as not so much watching paint dry but listening to it dry.
It’s so completely different to a revolutionary party. There’s an activist class in the Labour Party of both the right and the left and it’s in their interest not to involve the mass of the party, so it becomes organisationally a party of the few not the many! It’s a culture in decline and Corbyn hasn’t yet found a way to reverse that.
When there was the coup [when Johnson prorogued parliament] I thought back to the debate I took part in at Marxism 2019 and the question of why Labour doesn’t organise protests. So I did. We didn’t go up to London, we organised a protest in Lewes. We brought together the greens and the Lib Dems and more importantly we had 400 people and we blocked the centre of the town. That’s not the kind of thing that the LP does nearly enough.
It’s difficult, however, because in Sussex we’ve got three target seats which means every weekend we want to be out canvassing; and then sometimes the criticism from the far-left is that we’re not doing politics, all you do is on the doorstep. But on the doorstep you do get yourself heard; you have the most amazing political conversations. The LP’s traditional culture is you knock on the door, “Are you going to be voting Labour?” “Thank you very much” and you’re onto the next door. But that’s been changed, particularly by the influence of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Now we’ll take longer on the doorstep and have a conversation. It’s incredible. So for me we need both: social movement politics and a community-driven electoralism.
Boris Johnson’s proroguing has been declared unlawful and parliament recalled. How do you think that will work out?
Well despite misgivings about the courts settling what only politics should sort out, in this instance I’ll take that as a victory and a huge defeat for Johnson and Cummings. But defending democracy doesn’t mean we should give up on extending democracy. Yes, Johnson lied to the queen, but why on earth was it the queen who could close down parliament in the first place?
Corbyn’s victory on the Brexit plan at Labour Party conference was a defeat for the right. Given the likelihood of a general election very soon, what are your thoughts on the policy?
Labour is now entirely committed to a second referendum, with remain on the ballot paper. Some might call this a reverse, or not enough, but it is a huge shift. The Remain position was for Labour to become simply a Remain party. Clear-cut certainly, that’s its appeal to many. But then what is the point of a second referendum? The first priority is to stop No Deal. The second to ensure any deal is subject to a second referendum. And the reality is Labour in any second referendum will campaign for Remain. To be honest, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.
Meanwhile, we have the Lib Dems against a second referendum, just abolish the first one’s result. That’s where a Remainiac politics at the expense of everything ends up and Labour should go nowhere near.
What do you hope to achieve with the book?
It’s very much based on people’s experience of the Labour Party, either in the party or around the party, and it shows that Labour does have the potential to be something so much better than it currently is, with more than a few ideas, I hope, to fulfill that promise.
Of course it’s not all bad at the moment, so advances made are described too, but more importantly it deals with how to maintain the “momentum”!
The book has come out at an extraordinary time, and none of us, me or the contributors, know what is going to happen next. But we do know that should Jeremy win the next general election it will be a break that’s as fundamental as 1945 and 1979. Now, to revolutionaries that might not seem fundamental enough, but it will be a huge shift, and it creates such incredible opportunity. It shouldn’t be underestimated for a moment.