The Tragedy of Corbynism

One time pro-Corbyn economist and leading tax reform campaigner Richard Murphy agreed. His post-Brexit broadside against the leadership suggested that migrants should only be allowed into the hallowed heartland of whiteness if their home country had taken on the entirety of the expense of training them for the purpose: “Learning English, offering a skill and being willing to work where work is needed can be and should be the conditions of seeking to live in this country. Migration would be a contract, not a right,” he insisted, adding that “Norway has done this; so should we.” This was the logic of apartheid influx control – “ministering to the needs of the white man” – writ global. Like Mason’s position, this was and is no different from the policy of the Tory right.

Mason and Murphy’s blows clearly landed. When the Immigration Bill – which cranked up the ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants by effectively turning landlords, banks and universities into extensions of border patrol – had passed through parliament the month before the Brexit referendum, Corbyn had led the parliamentary opposition, with 245 MPs ultimately voting against it. Whilst not enough to prevent the bill becoming law, this was still major progress compared to the 6 Labour MPs (including Corbyn himself) who had voted against its 2014 predecessor which had formally ushered in the ‘hostile environment’. Yet this principled position would not last. Whilst Mason was correct that MacDonnell’s initial red lines, formulated in the days after the referendum, had not included immigration controls, a week later, on 1st July 2016, MacDonnell clarified his position: “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue. When Britain leaves the European Union, free movement of labour and people will then come to an end.” In March 2017, Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer formalised this as an official condition that would have to be met for Labour to support any Brexit deal in parliament (‘Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?”), effectively a sixth ‘red line’. Later that year, Corbyn himself appeared to have been won over to the benefits of blaming migrants for wage cuts and working conditions, arguing on the Andrew Marr show against the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions in the construction industry”. Commented Zak Cope: “By feeding the grossly one-sided view that globalisation has been disastrous for British workers, by blaming high immigration levels for stagnant wages, and by studiously ignoring Britain’s role as a parasitic drain on the countries of the Third World, Corbyn’s social democratic nationalism has inadvertently (?) legitimised and promoted a self-pitying, white nationalism that has seen a rise in racist hate crime in the UK. In purporting to oppose this upsurge in popular xenophobia and racism, however, the British left (and its European and US counterparts) is indulging in rank hypocrisy.” The Conservatives, meanwhile, had learnt their lessons from the 2017 election very well. The first was that austerity was not a votewinner. The public sector pay cap – Labour’s opposition to which, according to Ashcroft’s research, had been “one of [their] biggest attractions, which our respondents raised spontaneously throughout the campaign” in 2017 (Ashcroft, p.26) – had been ended by the Conservatives a few months before the election (only to be reimposed again less than a year after), removing one of the major grievances against them of the previous election. And in sharp contrast to Theresa May’s unremittingly grim spending propositions in 2017, Boris Johnson went to the electorate with a promise of more nurses, more police and more hospitals.

The second lesson was that, in 2017, the electorate had not been quite ready to buy Theresa May’s claim that parliament, and Labour in particular, was obstructing Brexit. But two years of Brexit quagmire in a hung parliament now meant the argument had far more traction (that Johnson himself had led the opposition to getting May’s Brexit deal passed was apparently a nuance with which the electorate were not concerned). But the more important question for socialists is could Corbyn – or anyone with the politics he represents – have won in any circumstances?

Ultimately, the fate of Corbynism was defined by a series of tragic realities, three of which were beyond the project’s control, and the last of which resulted from a stubborn unwillingness to recognise the first three.

2020-12-27 | CounterPunch+, Feature Articles | English |