Jeremy Corbyn in central London, England on June 29, 2016. Steve Eason / Flickr
By Ronan Burtenshaw with Paul Mason
Jul 13, 2016
One year ago, Paul Mason was in Greece, giving daily briefings on the confrontation between Syriza and the troika to a global audience on Channel 4 News. His documentary This Is a Coup chronicled the drama in full detail.
Since then he has spent much of the next year touring the world arguing the case for a postcapitalist future outlined in his most recent book. But in summer 2016 the radical journalist from Leigh in England’s North West finds himself on home soil and in the middle of another political crisis.
In June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, prompting mass panic and a pretext for right-wing Labour Party parliamentarians to call for the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn. After Corbyn refused to step down, an election for leadership of the party was officially called yesterday. Labour’s right wing, counting on his low level of support among fellow members of Parliament (MPs) but fearful of his popularity among the membership, hoped to kick him off the ballot altogether.
Their gamble failed; the National Executive Committee decided moments ago that Jeremy Corbyn will appear on the leadership ballot. The narrow path to democratizing and shifting the Labour Party to the left remains open.
In between appearing at rallies in defense of Jeremy Corbyn, Mason, the former BBC Newsnight economics editor talked to Jacobin contributing editor Ronan Burtenshaw about what the fight in Labour represents and how the left-wing leader can win it.
What is your perspective on the moment we’re living through now in the life of the British Labour Party?
I think it centers around this: the elite of Britain has one summer left to try to maintain control, any control, over the Labour Party.
We’re getting a leadership election now because, if we get to the Labour conference in September with Corbyn as leader, there will then be what we did not see last year: serious structural and policy changes.
The party will be democratized, turned into a grassroots campaigning organization and moved to the left on key questions. There will also be a pro-Corbyn National Executive Committee (NEC) which will reflect the politics of the membership and be able to stop the bureaucratic sabotage carried out by hostile elements of the party.
The only thing they can really do to prevent this is to cause a civil war in the party. That is why there was serious discussion about keeping Corbyn off the ballot. If they don’t win at this juncture Labour will become a radical social-democratic party. It will be fundamentally different to what it has been for most of living memory.
Do you think Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy of the last nine months — a key part of which involved bringing a broad coalition of Labour’s right and left into his shadow cabinet — can be said to have failed?
I think, in terms of strategy, there is a deeper problem for Labour. The tribal alliance on which it has built itself in the last twenty years is falling apart.
One part of Labour’s base is an emergent salariat which has become more and more progressive, and rebellious, since the 2008 crisis because it is substantially constituted by young people facing a deteriorating future.
Then you’ve got what people often refer to as the “white working class,” but more accurately it’s the multi-ethnic working-class of small towns. Their lives are not getting better and the traditional organizations that held them together are falling apart under neoliberalism.
The Labour thinker Maurice Glasman refers to this dual base as “a working-class dad and a middle-class mum.” They have different outlooks in life and Labour’s strategic problem is how to unite them around the same project.
I think Corbyn understood what a solution to that could be: radical economics. The offer of pro-LGBT, antiracist, and antiwar politics is there for the city salariat with the Labour Party, but the offer to working-class people had to be that the party could change their lives substantially through economic policy. That is why so much effort was expended in the first nine months of Corbyn’s leadership changing Labour’s economic policy.
This did have an effect. They brought forward a new fiscal charter and a proposal for state investment, there was a successful opposition to the government’s welfare reforms, they forced the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith over disability benefit cuts. None of this would have happened if there had been a different kind of leader.
And they did this despite significant difficulties. Corbyn put together a shadow cabinet comprised of people with varying levels of ability from across the party, and had to do so without the people of high ability from the right of the party who were boycotting.
This shadow cabinet didn’t act as fast as they could have and I don’t think policy was developed as well as it could have been in many places. It didn’t work with Angela Eagle, for instance, who was shadow secretary of state for business and no-one really knows what she has done.
Fundamentally Corbyn was trying to do two things at once. He was trying to win in the party, because headquarters (HQ) and MPs were in rebellion against him, and he was also trying to run an effective opposition.
In my view his biggest mistake, as we will see in the leadership election, was not taking the party HQ. In the future he will need to replace a lot of the staff with people who are willing to do the job needed of them.
Faced with the coup against his leadership, and an internal opposition prepared to sabotage him at every turn, do you think Corbyn can win hegemony over the party?
A lot in terms of the party’s structures and balances of power can be changed at the upcoming conference, but clearly there is a need to deal with the issue of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
The mainstream of the PLP, of the 172 who voted no confidence in Corbyn, are decent social democrats. They are winnable. To do this he needs a clear and effective political strategy. Thus far he has been trying to move forward by triangulating strategy against people who are outright sabotaging him, and that can’t work.
One part of an effective strategy will have to be building a progressive political coalition. This will include Labour, the left-wing nationalists, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats if they decide to side with progressive politics.
Conversations between these parties need to happen to resist the politics of a right-wing Brexit. This will mean, for Labour, overcoming some of the sectarianism with which the party in Scotland approaches the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the broader independence movement. But I think, now that Brexit has happened and Scottish independence looks more likely, these messages are beginning to sink in with Scottish Labour.
If Corbyn can find a way to put this coalition together he can certainly win an election, and that prospect is likely to be enough for many of the social democrats in the center of the Labour Party to accept his leadership.
But I also think the PLP will have to be renewed. I would expect some tens of MPs from the right wing of the party to go come what may, because they have made their positions untenable. The letters they sent to Corbyn, and the campaign they have run against him, has been so vicious that it will make them unacceptable to the members in their areas, and they won’t forget it.
Many of them will have known this, they have checked out of the Labour Party hotel and are now simply intent on doing as much damage as possible. This is something the party needs to get a grip on.
Isn’t this progressive coalition challenged by the potential emergence of a centrist political force including breakaways from Labour and the Tories as well as the Liberal Democrats? Would such a party be viable in 2016?
I think it could be viable if it had one aim: to reverse Brexit. If all the forces in Britain that wanted to reverse Brexit formed into a single party that would be quite significant. Europeanism could, potentially, override all of their other differences.
They would also have a significant base in the almost hysterical upper middle class who are convinced that Brexit was all because of racism and, as they might say, chavvy, uneducated, working-class people. They are looking for a home at the moment.
In its own way, that is an honorable position. It would be far more honorable for many of Labour’s Blairites, whose politics is much closer to this kind of centrism anyway, to form such a grouping. The problem could be the Liberal Democrats who, despite other failings, have been consistently antiwar — are they going to align themselves with pro-war people such as Hilary Benn and Oliver Letwin?
Bernie Sanders attempted to unite quite a similar coalition to the one you’ve outlined in his recent presidential campaign — the younger, metropolitan, culturally left wing and the older, more traditionally working class outside the big cities. Is there much basis for comparing Sanders and Corbyn?
I think there are quite significant differences, but one thing that is the same in the United States and Britain is the World Bank’s famous elephant graph, which shows that the losers of globalization are the working class and lower middle class of the developed world.
To some extent Bernie was competing with Trump among this category of “losers of globalization.” One key difference in the political terrain in Britain is that our Conservative Party has not yet morphed into a Tea Party. It remains a liberal-conservative party.
The other difference is the strength of the labor tradition in working-class towns like Newport, Bury, and Grimsby, where the Right is trying to gain ground.
What you’ve got in these places is a socialist, overtly left-wing tradition that is tied up in their history and working-class life. So when we talk about anti-establishment politics that is part of the mix. This doesn’t exist in nearly the same way in the United States.
In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have to triangulate against this base of left-wing sentiment among the working class, which they are finding it hard to do.
In most cases their votes in these areas come from working-class Tories, who had always stood against that current. It is only in rare cases that they are taking sections of working-class Labour voters, often because they dislike the cultural values of the city salariat that the party focused on in recent years.
Corbyn’s big offer has been that we will abandon austerity, spend money, and build in your community. I think post-Brexit we understand even more that this is where the focus has to be. When we discuss where fiscal stimulus should be spent we have to be looking at children’s centers in small towns rather than the next big railway.
But I can see one area of clear comparison: Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders, is a socialist from the 1970s. He is a symptom of the wider recapture of Labour by networked individuals and grassroots campaigners, but he doesn’t come from that tradition.
I think he could have been stronger in building Labour as a network and a movement, learning from the benefits this milieu can bring.
Can you put into context the significance of this moment: you were in Greece a year ago reporting on the confrontation between Syriza and the troika. Is it more significant for the Left to win control of a pillar of global capitalism like the British Labour Party than a relatively small state like Greece?
No, I don’t think so. To me the Left winning a negotiated control, because this is all it can be, of a major social-democratic party is not as significant as a radical government in Greece.
This is because the crisis is so urgent. We need a clear break from neoliberalism soon. We need parties in power that can embrace the network society, devolve power, end austerity, and challenge the global banking industry. And to do all of this we need them to be able to mobilize their societies and fight.
Corbyn’s Labour has not achieved this yet. It has been a capture of a vehicle. Now is the time to transform the vehicle. I hope he succeeds but for me, whether Corbyn wins or loses, this is a transition in British politics towards formats in which the oppressed and exploited can fight back.