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Is Corbynism really dead?

As the likelihood of the party winning the next election becomes surer than ever, we speak to young Labour members, voters and critics to find out whether it can ever be a home for progressive politics

As far as most people are concerned, it’s been a great fortnight for the Labour Party. Thanks to Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng tanking the economy, Labour is soaring in the polls, sitting over 30 points ahead of the Tories. The atmosphere at its conference in Liverpool was reported as confident, swaggering and reminiscent of 1997 (the year of Tony Blair’s first landslide victory). Even some people on the left have praised the raft of progressive policies that were announced, which included raising tax rates for the wealthy, renationalising the railways, a commitment to build more council housing and the creation of a publicly owned energy company. Whether Starmer can be trusted to follow through is a different question, but you’d have to be a dedicated hater to deny that Labour is doing well.

But if Labour is partying like its 1997, someone has just spilled red wine over its mum’s good sofa. Last week also saw the release of The Labour Files, an Al Jazeera-produced documentary which has shed new light on Labour’s conduct in the years since Corbyn became leader, raising disturbing allegations of rampant corruption, institutional racism, the use of antisemitism as a 'factional weapon', and a sustained campaign to undermine the left. If you’re a progressive who would like to see another Corbyn-style movement in the future, the documentary raises two questions: could this ever take place within the Labour party again? And would we even want it to?

The Labour Files alleges that the party’s bureaucracy consistently resorted to underhand tactics to marginalise the left: from suspending local branches and over-turning the results of internal elections, to smearing members who supported Corbyn. As corroborated by the independent Forde Report, published earlier this year, there has been a pervasive culture of racism and Islamophobia within the Party. While the documentary makes clear that antisemitism was a problem, it shows that it was often conflated with criticism of Israel's human rights abuses and failure to abide by international law (Jewish members were considerably more likely to be investigated for antisemitism than non-Jews.) Taken altogether, it’s a damning indictment of the party.

“The leaked report had already told us a lot about the campaign of dirty tricks and bureaucratic sabotage against Corbyn and the movement he represented,” James Kleinfeld, a journalist who worked on the documentary, tells Dazed. "With The Labour Files we were able to corroborate these claims and provide much more evidence of the campaign against Corbyn. What truly surprised me was all the secret dossiers that were sent into the party, in which people would make the most defamatory statements against their political opponents, with a view to getting them suspended or expelled from the party, or torpedoing a candidacy for an elected position.”

The documentary also makes clear that the media were more than willing to facilitate this corruption, often failing to do the most basic fact-checking to figure out whether smear stories were accurate. The documentary shows that a BBC Panorama documuntary about the antisemitism crisis in Labour contained one outright lie, alongside a number of misrepresentations. “It quickly became apparent that the mainstream media in this country was, in many cases, just as guilty when it came to reporting uncritically when innocent people were being smeared,” says Kleinfeld.

Labour as it currently stands is not a welcoming home to progressive causes. Since Starmer was elected leader in 2020, he has been accused of failing to tackle racism and transphobia within the party. For some former members, this has proven to be a red line. “From a personal standpoint, I could no longer remain in the Labour party because their stance on transgender equality changed from broad acceptance to pitying condescension,” says Patricia Johnston, a former Scottish Labour and Momentum activist and candidate for chair of Scottish Young Labour.

As Johnston sees it, the issue is not just that Labour has shifted to the right, but that the leadership is entirely lacking in integrity and consistent principles. “I think what irritates me is that they clearly don’t believe what they’re saying about issues like transgender equality or Palestine –  they’re making a show for our frothing right-wing press,” she says. “There’s a toxic incentive for the Labour party to denounce, punish and alienate its own membership – it creates positive media coverage, which can have a sizeable impact.” But despite the criticisms she has about Starmer’s leadership, she is unsure whether a ‘new Corbynism’ could emerge entirely unconnected to the Labour party, partly because of its historic ties with trade unions. “No other progressive formation has a big enough social base,” she says.

As The Labour Files reveals in methodical detail, the party bureaucracy has been institutionally racist towards its members of colour: it surveilled Muslim members to the point of noting where their cars were parked and where their children went to school, and senior party officials exchanged racist messages in a secret WhatsApp group. “The only reason Palestinians, and other minority groups in general, became involved in Labour is because we believed that under Corbyn it would embody some basic anti-racist and anti-colonial values,” Akram Salhab, a Palestinian activist and academic tells Dazed.

“Corbyn’s concern for freedom causes – from Palestine to Kurdistan, Latin America to West Papua – demonstrated the breadth of his humanity,” he said. “But this was derided at the time as a myopic support for ‘niche causes’, as though the destruction of virgin rainforests in West Papua, or British-sponsored death and destruction in Yemen were merely a distraction.” For Salhab, Labour in its current form is unsuited to play any progressive role, not just morally but practically. “How can a green economy be built or the march of fascism be arrested if you want to eschew internationalism and make friends with the most degraded dictatorships and colonial regimes in the world?”"

In contrast, some Labour members are relatively optimistic about the left’s prospects, including Joe, 28, an activist who has been involved with the party for years. By his own admission, he spent most of the Corbyn years in a “bit of a wet soft left position”, but acknowledges that a passionate dislike of the left is a driving force on the Labour right. “The stated goal of many around Starmer is to marginalise the left,” he says, “there are people who want Blair and nothing else will do.”

Whether we could see another Corbyn-style movement within Labour depends on the time frame, Joe suggests. “I think it’s clear that there is not a short-term route to it, due to the current success of Labour in the polls,” he says. “There would probably have to be some kind of stop-gap soft left candidate who opened the doors for it, and that would probably have to follow a defeat in an election or some kind of event in government that forced Starmer out. There are people – such as Zarah Sultana or Nadia Whittome – who could fulfil the role, it’s just that the conditions internally aren’t particularly favourable,” he says. 

“The most exciting space for political mobilisation on the left in this country is not to be found in parliamentary politics but in grassroots campaigning” – James Kleinfield

Joe is also optimistic about the positive legacies of Corbynism. “Despite the left’s marginalisation within the party, you can see a shift of Labour politicians on policy since 2015,” he says. “It is important not to overstate it: it is soft-Corbynism at best, it doesn’t go as far as I would like and often the small print is a little aggravating. But I think the centre of gravity in the party has moved and that the left has had more policy victories within the Labour Party than it gives itself credit for – even if they’re partial. It should take those wins and demand more.”

Kleinfeld, however, is more dubious. “What has recently become apparent is how the most exciting space for political mobilisation on the left in this country is not to be found in parliamentary politics but in grassroots campaigning, around the cost of living crisis and the rising trade union strike movement,” he says. “With The Labour Files we have rewritten history and shone a light on Starmer’s ongoing campaign against the left, but I think people on the left have for a long time already factored in this hostility against them and recalibrated their ambitions accordingly.”

If you want a more progressive, left-wing UK, there’s a tricky balancing act between acknowledging the unpromising circumstances we are in without giving into nihilism. There is no shortcut to the left gaining power but there could be ways of exerting pressure on a Starmer government, should he get elected. We have a few reasons to be optimistic. Trade union membership has risen steadily since 2017. The material conditions which gave rise to Corbynism – stagnant wages, precarious housing, and unemployment – haven’t changed at all. If anything, they are getting worse. While 2019 is spoken of as a humiliating failure, it’s also true that a significant majority of young people voted for Labour. Moreover, many of Corbyn's policies – such as nationalisation and increased spending on public services – were and remain popular: when it comes to economic policies and social issues, the British public is often more progressive than is typically credited.

If something like a new Corbynism is to emerge, it might look completely different to what has gone before. In his new book Our Bloc, Momentum co-founder James Schneider suggests that what we need is “a formal, explicit alliance” of socialists in parliaments, trade unions and social movements like BLM, Extinction Rebellion and Sisters Uncut. The answer to our problems clearly doesn't lie in swearing fealty to a party which wants to depart asylum seekers at a faster rate than the Tories - as Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves announced yesterday - but left-wing MPs within Labour could play a role in whatever comes next. We should be sceptical of accelerationism: sometimes when things get worse, they just continue to get worse. But the state the country is in now seems unsustainable. At some point, surely, something is going to shift.