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Books Corbynism from Below, edited by Mark Perryman

Stimulating perspectives on where grassroots 'Corbynism' goes next in challenging times

“CORBYNISM” — the protean political phenomenon that has become the vessel into which so many hopes and fears have been poured — most likely faces its greatest test in the near future: a general election which could propel the man it is named after into 10 Downing Street with a mandate for sweeping social change.

So it is a propitious moment to take stock. It is just four years since Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party to the astonishment of almost everyone.  Scarcely less remarkable is that he is still leader four years on, despite intransigent and unabated opposition from the Establishment and its powerful supporters within Labour itself.

That Corbynism has endured and, indeed, taken Labour to 40 per cent of the poll in its only general election test to date is surely due to a confluence of factors — the post-2008 crisis of neoliberalism which, inter alia, swept away the political and economic assumptions of New Labour; the development of left-led mass movements against war and austerity which sought a more comprehensive political expression and the deep-rooted and long-frustrated desire of millions of people for that alternative which Thatcher and Blair insisted didn’t exist.  

More prosaically, it also depended on democratic changes to Labour’s rulebook, reducing the influence of MPs over the choice of party leader.

This well-curated, if inevitably uneven, collection of essays broadly looks at what is needed to entrench the changes Corbynism has already wrought and carry them forward in a challenging political situation.  It could hardly be more timely and constitutes the latest contribution to the culture and thinking of the left from Mark Perryman, one of the most imaginative and entrepreneurial activists of the last 30 years or so.

There is no shortage of advice. Lindsey German rightly urges attention to the development of extraparliamentary mass movements, without which a radical Labour government can scarcely hope to succeed and to which, as she argues, too little attention has so far been paid.  

Adam Klug and Emma Rees emphasise the new organising and campaigning methods that have been grafted on to Labour’s historic structures, both by the party itself and by Momentum, to great effect in the 2017 election.

Empowering Labour’s new mass membership, enriching the party’s internal culture and developing both the new left mass media and the opportunities of social media are all featured.  

Heather Wakefield, until recently a senior official at Unison, contributes an interesting essay on the need for trade unions to change if they are to reflect the new energy of Corbynism while Satnam Virdee, in one of the most challenging pieces, addresses the “racialisation of class” in Britain today and the difficulties Labour has in speaking to a working class becoming more multiethnic by the year.

In a book that dwells unsurprisingly on Labour’s individual membership and constituency life, Jess Garland rightly reminds us that “Labour has drawn its authority, its participatory and representational linkage, not just from party members, from its affiliated trade unions’ members. Labour was a party of mass affiliation before it was a party of individual membership.”

Less helpfully, an overlong contribution on “acid Corbynism” by Jeremy Peters aims to synthesise socialism with the 1960s counterculture dream of personal liberation through self-expression.  The enemies of this project are, apparently, Corbyn’s “Leninist advisers” and Unite the union.  Every deep and profound social movement throws up its eccentricities and diversions and the notion that Timothy Leary can replace organised labour as a basis for political action is one such.

How to win the forthcoming election does not perhaps get as much space as it deserves, given its signal importance for the future of Corbynism. But the book does help contextualise some of the present difficulties, which have mainly manifested themselves in relation to Brexit, and how to speak to a country suddenly overlain by redefined political divisions and with old loyalties apparently eroding.

The book’s focus is, as its title suggests, on the grassroots elements that have powered and sustained the “Corbyn project” to date. The three landmark achievements of Corbynism of these four years  – the 2015 victory, the defeat of the 2016 PLP coup and the great electoral advance of 2017 – were all powered by initiative and energy from below, giving Corbynism the character of a movement as much as it is a set of popular policies.

However, the question as to how to synthesise the requirements of leadership in office, based on a parliamentary system teetering on the edge of public obloquy, with sustaining and renewing that grassroots mobilisation, is one that perhaps that can only be answered in practice — crossing the river one stone at a time, as the Chinese say.  

This useful volume at least gives a guide as to where those stones might be found when they are needed.

Corbynism from Below is published by Lawrence & Wishart, £15.

 

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