How Labour under Corbyn rejected Fabianism and lost elections

Andrew Harrop

Labour has fewer MPs than at any time since the Second World War. In one sentence, that sums up Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy as Labour leader, and a stocktake of the Corbyn era must therefore find more that was wrong than right. But for a moment, let’s hold back on the failures and consider some positives from the last four-and-half years.

First, the increase in the party’s membership has been hugely beneficial, particularly as it was accompanied by a newfound energy and vibrancy in grassroots activity. During the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns, when members worked together rather than fought with each other, Labour mustered a great army of local activists. In terms of volume and energy, British politics had seen nothing like it since the extraordinary campaign of 1997. A small slice of these new members are loyal to Corbyn, not Labour, but the vast majority are ready to place their trust in the next leader and will power the party forward for years to come.

Second, the party found a welcome new boldness when it came to policy. When Ed Miliband was leader, Labour articulated the scale of the problems facing the country but the solutions it offered rarely fitted the bill. Under Corbyn, the shackles were off and the party stopped being scared of its own shadow. Labour proposed policy answers commensurate with the challenges it identified. Not all of them were the right policies (I strongly disliked elements of the 2019 manifesto) and the way they were presented was disastrous. But the party cannot return to an agenda that is timid and tepid. On policy, Corbyn’s critics know they need to up their game.

Third, the party made strides in the use of technology, working alongside organisations like Momentum. There was innovation at pace, as well as a good deal of wit and style in the party’s digital communications. Sadly, it was nothing compared to what the Conservatives were able to achieve with their under-the-radar data-led campaign. But in recent years Labour has learnt a lot about modern campaigning, though it has also lost institutional capacity and memory that will need to be rebuilt.

For non-Corbynite Labour members, there was another upside. The shock of the far left’s internal victories and then the devastating general electoral defeat tamed the narcissism of small differences that so impoverished Labour politics before Corbyn. There is new perspective on the modest distinctions within the pre-Corbyn party, between Blairites and Brownites, soft left and old right, trade unionists, co-operators, municipalists and Fabians. Protagonists on all sides have realised how destructive and pointless the old feuds were.

This has been exemplified by the decision of factions that sought to undermine Ed Miliband to endorse candidates this year from his soft left wing of the party. Both Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy have been able to secure very wide support from across the traditional strands of Labour opinion. That bodes well for party unity under a new leader.

But much more was bad than good about the Corbyn era. The scale of the 2019 defeat is of course the place to start. As I wrote the weekend after the election, not only does Labour need to gain 123 MPs to secure a majority of one, it now requires a far larger electoral swing than at any time since the 2010 defeat, and it needs to reach out for support in many different directions. The party must again become a broad church in order to retain support in socially liberal urban seats while also appealing to more culturally conservative suburbs and ex-industrial towns and rebuilding in Scotland.

Election results tell the story in numbers. But in terms of values, nothing illustrates Labour’s failure under Corbyn as much as the rise of anti-Jewish racism within the party. The leadership’s perceived tolerance of left antisemitism was vile and it flowed out of – and shone a light on – three of the most destructive traits of the Corbyn era.

First, weak leadership. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s allies were exasperated by his failure to get a grip and show firm leadership, on antisemitism and much else besides. Brexit would have been a nightmare for any Labour leader but it was made much worse by how it was handled. Corbyn will be remembered as an indifferent public performer but his weakness as a decision-maker and party manager played a greater part in his downfall.

Second, factionalism. The antisemitism crisis was caused by people who weren’t antisemitic protecting people who were, because they were on the same side in the party’s factional contests. The ‘with us or against us’ mindset allowed people with unacceptable views to prosper in the party. It also meant that the leadership’s efforts to engage outside their own closed circle (including with their own frontbenchers) always felt half-hearted and cosmetic.

Third, the far-left worldview. The antisemitism of the Corbyn era was an offshoot of an unsavoury left populism that embraced conspiracy theories and personalised the structural failings of Western economics and foreign policy as the work of evil elites. There was never a clear line between valid Corbynite opposition to militarism, imperialism and neoliberalism and a wholesale rejection of the western liberal order, European social democracy and British identity. From the start, people felt that Corbyn’s instincts and worldview were out of step with those of the vast majority in Britain, and this played a big part in Labour’s electoral collapse. Huge numbers who liked Labour’s domestic reform agenda worried that Corbyn’s values were not their own.

The Labour leadership under Corbyn turned its back on the party’s Fabian traditions on several fronts. It deliberately sought to switch the focus from electoral politics to building a movement of grassroots campaigning and social action. But deep change can only be achieved by winning elections and wielding power through parliamentary democracy and municipal leadership.

Labour politics came to feel too much like an exercise in self-affirmation, where likeminded people came together to agree; when the party needed to reach outwards to those with different points of view. The honourable tradition of elected politicians representing and mediating the perspectives of diverse communities came to be seen as less democratic and authentic than reproducing the views of the right-thinking minority who had chosen to join the Labour Party.

Labour also abandoned those boring Fabian traits of rigour, evidence and practicality, and the 2019 manifesto imploded as a result. When it came to domestic policy, there was nothing wrong with the analysis or ambition. But across too many areas, the solutions had only been tested and discussed with small groups of loyal insiders. They were easy for critics to shoot down. And as has now been said many times, the volume of reform on offer would have been totally impossible to deliver in a single term of office.

Labour under Corbyn rejected Fabianism in one final way, by prioritising statism over egalitarianism. This stood in contrast to the choice made by each generation of Labour leaders since the 1950s, when Fabian revisionists shifted the party’s ideological lodestar from collectivism to equality. The proposals for nationalisations and middle-class universalism contained many ideas that were fine in their own right. But as a package, they totally overshadowed the more modest egalitarian and redistributive measures within Labour’s platform. Just in the last fortnight, by raising the basic rate of Universal Credit, Rishi Sunak has done more for the incomes of the poorest in Britain than John McDonnell promised over four years of a Labour government.

Now as a new leader prepares to take the reins, Labour needs a reset on policy and a reset on culture. On policy, there is time. All the new leader needs to do immediately is to wipe the slate clean and make it clear that the 2019 manifesto is not the starting point for Labour’s next offer. The alternative can take shape slowly, with evidence-based reviews and respectful conversations that embrace each strand of Labour opinion and reach out to voters of every sort.

On culture, however, fast action is needed to show that the party has zero-tolerance for racism or hatred and shares Britain’s values. We may be in the midst of an extraordinary national crisis, but the new leader will be defined within weeks by how he or she tackles the most toxic elements of the Corbyn legacy. Yes, there have been some positives over the last four years, but now big change is rightly coming.

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