Understanding Corbynmania

Olivia Bailey

The labour party has much in common with the phoenix, the mythical, long-lived bird that is cyclically reborn. When the bird is in its youth, it is defined by beauty and power. As time passes, its feathers grow dull and it becomes tired. And then, as it dies, it bursts into flames.

From the ashes of this leadership contest, a new party will be born. The nature of that party is not yet clear. But what precipitated the violent shock of Jeremy Corbyn’s election was a failure of tired ideas and tired politics. Labour must take this opportunity to rediscover its purpose. But before it can do that it needs to understand what has happened, and why.

Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise has very little to do with the personal qualities of the man himself. Instead, his victory was a visceral reaction to four political and organisational challenges that the Labour party could, and should, have faced up to before now.

The first centres on an appetite for an end to ‘politics as usual’. In a world of suits and sound bites, Jeremy Corbyn cut through because he sounded and looked different. Just as Nigel Farage’s pronouncements awoke a populist right, Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘straight talking, honest politics’ grabbed the attention of the left. As one Fabian member and Labour councillor supporting Corbyn told me in an interview for this piece, Corbyn got his vote because he is “honest, forthright and sincere” and “an example to everyone”.

Analysis of Corbyn voters by YouGov reinforces this view. As a group they are much more likely to want to see ‘change’ and believe the world is run by a ‘secretive elite’. They are also almost twice as likely as supporters of the other candidates to have voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, the commonly accepted outlet for the ‘protest vote’ at that time.

Dissatisfaction with the political status quo has been building for years, with the effects of the expenses scandal still firmly embedded in the public psyche. You can almost feel people’s dislike of politicians when you knock on their doors, demonstrated most powerfully in Scotland as the SNP surged to power. Labour’s failure to react to the public mood for a new type of politics is part of the reason that Jeremy Corbyn captured such enthusiasm. He became the bearded and bedraggled face of a new political zeitgeist. A desire for politicians who say what they think and do what they say.

The second cause of ‘Corbynmania’ was the failure of the mainstream candidates, and the party at the last election, to articulate a new purpose for Labour in a vastly changed political and economic context. When I asked Corbyn supporters why they thought Labour lost in May, they overwhelmingly replied that it was because Labour ‘didn’t stand for anything’.

Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism is ideologically pure. It is easily understood, like New Labour was easily intelligible in the 1990s. But Ed Miliband’s Labour party was never really able to communicate what it stood for, despite a policy offer that was actually quite distinct from those of its rivals. The mainstream leadership candidates did little to demonstrate that they’d have done a better job.

Even Tony Blair has accepted that Labour must now change and apply its values to today’s context, and Jeremy Corbyn’s election surely underlines the conclusion of the 1994–2010 New Labour project. But if the party is to now reposition itself as a credible party of government then it must once again do what Tony Blair did. The Labour party was founded in the spirit of the workplace solidarity of the industrial revolution, but when it applied its values to a modern context, after the second world war, in the 1960s, and in the 1990s, it was able to change the country for the better. It must now find a way to apply those values to a post-crash, hi-tech, less hierarchical economy, while also facing up to an electorate less bound by traditional class or political party loyalty. Corbyn’s ‘old’ Labour is a denial of these challenges, rather than a solution.

The third reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s success centres on the frustration of powerlessness. When facing the reality of a further five years of Tory rule, voters in this leadership election prioritised ‘strong opposition’ over the compromise and discipline that comes with forging a government in waiting. The shock of election defeat in May has made many feel that Labour’s chances of returning to government are hopeless. When asked whether Jeremy Corbyn could win in 2020, one Fabian Labour councillor spoke for many when he said “I don’t really care”, “we need an opposition now.”

Throughout Labour’s history, the party’s left wing has tended to grow stronger in the years after the party leaves office. This makes sense. As regressive policies hit home, and as activists see people suffer, they embrace more radical ideas. It is a mistake to expect rational electoral strategy to triumph when people are reacting with anger and passion to what the Tories are doing and feeling powerless to stop it. One Corbyn supporter said “I’m voting for hope”. In this leadership election, the mainstream candidates failed to provide that.

Finally, there is an organisational point to make. The moderates were unaware of the threat of the left, and they were out-organised by them. One result of the Blair years was the hollowing out of Labour’s internal democracy. In the wake of Militant and heated rows on a national stage, it was deemed best to try and starve the malcontents of oxygen. While this helped with the presentation of a ‘new’ Labour party, it also meant the Labour leadership fell out of step with the membership. The hard left were controlled on a national stage, so their impact was underestimated elsewhere. That is perhaps part of the reason party leadership was prepared to facilitate left victories in some parliamentary selections, as part of wider deals with unions who were, themselves, struggling with an increasingly radical activist base.

Out of the view of head office, the organised left has been building at the grassroots. The strength of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is the best example of this. They have  access to thousands of members through meticulous mailing lists, and the candidates they back regularly top the poll in the party’s internal National Executive Committee elections. In Young Labour elections, a new generation of left wingers challenge for national positions.

While the left of the party have been building, Labour’s mainstream has lazily relied on the strength of the party machine and the profile of the leader. It is not a coincidence that this summer the moderate candidates were swamped on social media by so called Corbynistas. They don’t have a gang to fight for them. Facing ‘movement politics’, they had only the strength of their argument. In politics, that is never enough.

Jeremy Corbyn didn’t win this election thanks to miscreant entryists, he won a majority among members and among legitimate Labour supporters. He didn’t win it because he’s personally charismatic. He didn’t even win it because Labour members suddenly surged to the left. He won because people were fed up with a tired status quo, and because Labour’s mainstream failed to organise and renew.

This leadership contest was the New Labour phoenix going up in flames. Labour must now be reborn from the ashes. Jeremy Corbyn knows what party he wants to build. The question is: does everybody else?


  1. JB

    Couldn’t agree more John. Looking to conference, debates then policies ought to be decided at conference by members. Simple. E-vote. Now bring on the Trident vote. One sure way of weeding out MP’s not representing members AND standing for something credible in a world of complex and interdependent relationships. My MP? Barry Sheerman.

    • John Laybourn

      No problem George.

      There’s far too much blanket anti-Corbyn analysis being published at present – from all sides, unfortunately.

  2. John Laybourn

    Sorry, but your arguments in this piece are so feeble as to be truly worthy of the failed candidates you rightly criticise. For example, you say:-
    ‘It (Labour) must now find a way to apply those values to a post-crash, hi-tech, less hierarchical economy, while also facing up to an electorate less bound by traditional class or political party loyalty. Corbyn’s ‘old’ Labour is a denial of these challenges, rather than a solution.’
    Corbyn supporters aggrieved by the obscene increase in inequality today do not see the *less hierarchical economy* you point to and this resurgent movement, inspired by Corbyn, does not deserve to be written off casually as ‘old’ Labour. I think Richard Murphy would be horrified to hear his sparkling new economic analysis (adopted by the Corbyn camp) being written off in this way. You disrespect everyone concerned with the disgraceful slight I quote above.
    Good leaders win elections. Good leaders can capture the imagination of tens of thousands of people and inspire them to vote for them. What part of this blindingly obvious fact escapes you? You damn with faint praise the best and only hope Labour had among the four candidates; the only person who could conceivably be described as a good leader. I supported Ed and I would have loyally supported any of the candidates who won on September 12th. I felt the ABC candidates were not remotely ‘good leader’ material. A few others agreed, if you hadn’t noticed.
    We have a leader with a democratic mandate unprecedented in modern UK politics. In his shoes, if the PLP do not offer wholehearted support, I would resign, provoke a new election and stand again in order to prove a point. Next time with probably a 90% share of the vote and a party electorate of probably a million by then, perhaps the penny might drop. This guy is the person the membership overwhelmingly wants. Anyone who can’t see that is just wasting people’s time.
    Tom Watson famously said the party did not elect Corbyn as KING. Corbyn doesn’t want to be King. He wants the party to get together and come to its senses in a democratic fashion, creating new policy. In his book Arguments for Democracy Tony Benn gave broad guidelines on how policy can be arrived at fairly and democratically; not rocket science. This is not the business of anyone except the membership of this party. An honest PLP would get on with that.
    Whatever is then democratically decided by the membership should be supported by our MPs. Dissenters, who do not respect that democratic process, should do the honourable thing. They should give their own constituents an opportunity to reconsider whether they still want their services. If they are then still supported in their constituencies they can consider they have a mandate. Until then dissenters would have none, in my opinion.

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