Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader is in full swing. Max Shanly is a member of Young Labour’s National Committee. We interviewed him about his hopes and expectations for the campaign. Max spoke to us in a personal capacity and is not an official representative of the campaign.
Can you start off by explaining what role you’ve had in Corbyn’s campaign so far, both in winning the nomination and the campaign since? What do you hope to achieve with it? Is it part of a longer term strategy?
I’m a trade unionist active in Unite and I sit on the National Committee of Young Labour. My role has been confined to that of an unofficial agitator – specifically aimed at young people – for Corbyn’s candidacy and the policies and strategy he espouses. I hope we can build a large enough coalition of forces both inside and outside the Labour party, within the wider labour movement and beyond to catapult Corbyn to victory.
For me this is a key part of the struggle to revive the left in Britain, and not just the Labour left, but the left as a whole; to reinvigorate it, to build a strong left capable of winning, and representing those we claim to represent – those with needs that are not met. Jeremy’s campaign is the first time in a generation where the left’s ideas will be presented to the public as a comprehensive alternative on a mainstream basis. That provides an important opportunity.
There have been inevitable comparisons with Tony Benn’s campaigns in the 1980s. Do you see similarities between the two campaigns?
There are comparisons, but to make those comparisons you first have to know the history. The rise of Tony Benn in the late 1970s and early 1980s was driven by a movement both inside and outside of the Labour Party that rejected the post-war consensus far more than the neoliberals of Thatcher’s Tory Party ever did. As Benn himself said in a deputy leadership hustings in 1981 “We tried to make Capitalism work with good and humane Labour governments but we haven’t succeeded because it can’t work; it rests on injustice, lives off inequality, and if you try to modify it it turns on you and cuts back your gains and throws you back to where you started.” He was of course talking about the post-1976 collapse of the Keynesian consensus, but the full effects of what he was talking about have only really come to the fore in recent years.
Jeremy Corbyn was a key player in the Benn campaign of 1981 and had previously served along with Tony Banks as an unofficial adviser to Benn whilst he was at the Department of Industry trying to counteract the wrecking strategy of the civil service that greeted Benn’s attempts to get Labour’s proposed Industry Act and the National Enterprise Board established. It would not be wrong to describe Jeremy as the Bennite continuity candidate, but with the advantage that the ideas Benn espoused and others worked for have finally seen their time come. I don’t mean particular policy ideas here, but raising as a strategic priority the need to democratise both mass working-class parties and the state. When Benn was making that argument, the left was divided starkly between reformists and revolutionaries, where now that division is more blurred; we’ve seen social-democratic reformism collapse, which has pushed some on the more radical end of the reformist spectrum to move out beyond past welfare-state assumptions to pose these more transformative questions about democratising bourgeois institutions, and at the same time some on the revolutionary left are engaging seriously with these new more radical reforming parties. That’s been the dynamic in Spain and Greece in the last few years.
This is not to say we can generalise easily across Europe. There are big differences between parties and countries – Podemos is more post-Marxist where Syriza is neo-Marxist, and Die Linke, for instance, doesn’t really fall into this new, radically democratic category at all though it’s sometimes tempting to add it because it’s another left party that does well electorally. In Britain, the roots of socialism are different from the rest of Europe, historically based more in non-conformist Christianity than Marxism. So a strong British left will be distinct because it won’t be born out of the official Communist tradition as in most of Europe.
The biggest difference between Tony Benn’s campaigns and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign now is that the Labour left is much weaker now. By the time Benn stood for deputy in 1981 the Labour left had won victory after victory at the party conference and had for many years held the majority of seats on the party’s National Executive Committee. There was also a sizeable proportion of the PLP that wanted Benn not just as deputy leader but as leader of the whole party, with the hope that he would eventually lead a radical reforming Labour government. The circumstances are very different but in terms of what drives both men and the politics they hold, they are very similar indeed. That in itself should provide hope to those outside of the party, in the movements and the wider left. People can be confident not only that Jeremy means what he says and will do what he says he will do if the opportunity arises – which is rare enough among reformist leaders – but also that his strategy is more interesting than traditional labels, like “left social-democratic”, suggest.
How do you see his campaign fitting into the broader movement against austerity?
This is the main thrust of the campaign. The rise of the anti-austerity movement in recent years and the way in which it intersects with the plethora of campaigns that have sprung up over the last decade or so (and even further back than that) is really what has given life to Jeremy’s candidacy. There is a significant mood in Britain that we need a radical break from the past, and that the present isn’t very promising either. People are crying out to be allowed to shape their own destinies, both as individuals and as a community at large. That’s most worryingly manifested in votes for UKIP, where the left’s failure to diagnose and articulate the root causes of people’s dissatisfaction does a very serious disservice to those people, who then find solutions in scapegoating.
The obvious truth is that we can’t turn that situation around without challenging the might of capital, something the Labour Party has never done. Historically, the party has even preferred to split. The Blair years have led to a rejection of the Labour Party as a vehicle of social change by many on the left far more even than the Wilson and Callaghan governments did. That is clearly true of activists in the organised left, but it’s beginning to filter through more broadly as well; working-class people with basically left-wing ideas are alienated from Labour. So we shall have to overcome the Blairite brand of politics if we are to achieve anything in the immediate future. I think the vitality of this campaign will legitimise opposition to austerity in the minds of Labour parliamentarians unfamiliar with extra-parliamentary struggle, so a well-supported campaign will help to put pressure on Labour by making a lot of the hard work of anti-cuts campaigners more visible to them than it was before.
What do you think will happen if he wins?
I think Jeremy will face problems not just inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, which I think is likely to split if he wins with the Blairites buggering off to form a new SDP, but also from the Labour Party bureaucracy. New Labourism is still a hegemonic force at Brewers Green (Labour Party HQ) and despite having resigned as leader eight years ago, Blair is still the piper who plays the tune many party staff listen to.
The Labour left will have to act swiftly and I am afraid brutally in many cases. The PLP will have to be brought into line, some members of party staff will need to be pointed towards the exit, and the entire party structures would, in my opinion, need to undergo a comprehensive and thorough review. On the latter point, essentially we need the sweeping away of the current party form, not just to overcome the neoliberalisation of the party internally, but also to construct the type of party that can build people’s capacities, engage effectively with social movements, and eventually enter the state on a transformative programme. We have to become far more of an extra-parliamentary party, a campaigning organisation led by the grassroots and not by parliamentarians. Labour party democracy has long been on the agenda of the Labour left, but it should mean not just changing some of Labour’s internal processes but making it a bottom-up party structured more like a social movement than a hierarchical tool of the leader.
The Labour Party is almost completely bereft of an intellectual base at the moment. It is over reliant on socially liberal think tanks rather than the home grown intellectuals and academics that characterise many of the parties of the European Left. We will need to draw in the socialist movement’s best and brightest in order to transform Labour’s internal regime and build a party able to enter the state and transform it. That requires repudiating much of our past and restarting the Labour Party afresh – to build a real party of labour. I hope much of the left will consider taking an active part in that. It will be a very tough battle, perhaps an impossible one, because most of Labour’s powerful figures will be against us and a large part of the ordinary membership simply won’t understand what we’re trying to do. There is no real political education inside the Labour party; it’s an electoral machine rather than a political party, and that breeds a passive membership, at worst a fan club for parliamentarians. All of this makes things harder.
What about if he loses? What do you think will happen, and what do you think his supporters should do?
If Jeremy loses I can see one of two things happening. The first option, especially if Jeremy does well in the election, is that the Labour left could regain some confidence in its abilities and could start to rebuild. The second option is that the left of the Labour Party could either end up leaving the party in droves or being crushed even further by a triumphant Labour right. Sadly I think the latter is more likely should Corbyn fail to be victorious.
I think that will lead to a re-evaluation of political strategy in many trade unions. I’ve never favoured the foundation of a new workers’ party founded by the trade union bureaucracy, only because I would not be surprised if the same type of corporatist relationships that have blighted Labour since its foundation reoccurred in such a new party. Ralph Miliband’s argued, rightly, in Parliamentary Socialism that the Labour party is averse to listening to the voices of its mass membership and prefers to do deals in secret, not least with the trade union bureaucracy. That lack of real democratic empowerment is one of the reasons the party has historically made more concessions to capital than to labour. Miliband’s point applies no less to Britain’s trade unions, so a party dominated by their leaders wouldn’t offer much hope.
Personally, I would want any new party of the left to look more like a federation of social movements with the labour movement in the lead, led by a broad coalition of leftists. Ideally, however, this is the type of party I would like to see Labour become. The labour movement has worked too hard to simply abandon the party that bears its name, even if that party has never truly represented its interests.
How can socialists who aren’t Labour supporters help Corbyn’s campaign?
Lend Corbyn your vote, register as a supporter. Far too often socialists like ourselves fail to engage effectively with the institutions of bourgeois democracy. That is a real strategic error. In the dominant media presentation, politics takes place in parliament, so even if we want to fight that view we shoot ourselves in the foot if we start by being invisible, by wilfully excluding ourselves from most people’s encounters with politics.
I fully understand why some on the left feel unable to sign up as Labour supporters, though I can’t deny being disappointed about that. To those people: make sure you participate in the plethora of campaigns and movements that have sprung up over the past few years. It is there that our strength lies and it is from there that the militant movement we need to catapult us to power will come. This is the most important sense in which Jeremy Corbyn follows Tony Benn; though he’s an MP he doesn’t believe parliament is the main vehicle of change.
Whatever happens, I look forward to working with you all.