Like hundreds of thousands of people, I joined the Labour Party in 2015 to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader. His bold and unapologetic belief that rampant inequality and climate chaos weren’t actually inevitable, that another world really was possible, inspired and politicised me.
Ultimately, we didn’t win power and Jeremy’s leadership is ending. But the movement he led has changed Labour and changed politics for good. The Labour Party he took over abstained on the Tory welfare bill, embraced austerity, and rejected public ownership. Now it is united behind substantial public investment and extensive democratic ownership of the economy. The demonstrable popularity of this programme, evinced in 2017, even forced the Tories into abandoning austerity ideology and made public ownership the mainstream position.
We can tell a similar story on climate. In 2015, Labour promised to continue exporting fossil fuels to the Global South and carry on fracking. By 2019, Labour had one of the most ambitious and radical climate programmes across the world – and had, with the wider climate movement, forced the Conservatives to drop their support for fracking and, to a lesser extent, for airport expansion and international fossil fuel subsidies.
It wasn’t just in terms of policy that Jeremy’s leadership proved transformative. As the early slogan went, it was people-powered politics. Not me, us. I attended the march for refugees on the day Jeremy’s victory was announced – it represented, then, a moment of real hope: that the party would stand up for social justice, not kowtow to the right-wing press; that Labour would harness the power of the social movements that rose up in the wake of austerity, not disown them; that a movement of now half a million members could win power as a force for change.
This was one of the most powerful achievements of the Corbyn era: its ability to create an ambitious ecology of new left-wing institutions. These institutions will long outlive his departure, from The World Transformed bringing together social movements, unions and Labour groups, to the Common Wealth think tank designing democratic ownership models for the 21st century. New, grassroots Labour campaigns arose to push forward bold ideas, from free movement to abolishing private schools.
Amongst them was the campaign I co-founded, Labour for a Green New Deal. In the wake of 2017, when it looked like a left-wing Labour Party really might win, Labour’s membership gained confidence. With a party leadership that would actually listen to its members, a group of young climate activists could start a new campaign, organise in CLPs, and pass a radical vision for a fundamentally transformed economy, with groundbreaking decarbonisation targets at party conference.
In doing so, we helped to push Labour on from a 2017 manifesto that, while inspiring in many ways, was relatively weak on climate. In contrast, not only did the 2019 manifesto contain ambitious and necessary commitments to retrofit the entire UK housing stock, create a million green jobs and nationalise the energy grid, but this vision for a new economy of stewardship, justice and equality framed the entire manifesto, even if not Labour’s campaign communications.
It envisioned a new age of public luxury, with ten new national parks, energy and heating as human rights and free broadband to connect the nation. It is a powerful vision that Labour leadership candidates, to varying extents, embraced.
Of course, it was not a winning programme. This wasn’t a judgement on Labour’s individually popular policies, let alone the Green New Deal. A Brexit war that tore apart our electoral coalition, relentless smears and media attacks, and a poor campaign all played their part. More existentially, the rise of policy-based campaigns like ours masked our failure to arrest the continued decline of the trade union movement and community ‘red bases’ of class power, institutions with the potential to defeat the formidable forces ranged against us. We relied on power in the Labour Party without power in the country.
Nonetheless, Corbynism is an unfinished project. Given the popularity of a socialist economic programme and a Green New Deal across the country, including in former ‘Red Wall’ seats, it is a formula that could yet win an election and transform the country. Moreover, Labour can’t afford to weaken its ambitions – as the time left to limit climate catastrophe diminishes, radicalism is non-negotiable.
What’s more, the coronavirus pandemic has affirmed our economic analysis – the dangers of an exploitative and insecure model of work, and the need for public ownership and universal services to secure people’s welfare from massive disruption. The political space for such a project has opened up yet further. A socialist economy of care and health, for people and planet, is more vital than ever.
Labour’s future is as uncertain as that of the UK. We could see a return to a placid centrism more focused on PMQs than building power for any kind of transformative project. Amidst escalating crises of health, climate and work, and with a formidable right-wing nationalist opponent unafraid to intervene in the economy, such a strategy would be destined to fail.
Alternatively, we could see a convergence of Corbynite, social and trade union movements for working-class emancipation and social and climate justice. When the pandemic abates, we can have a society in which ‘key workers’ are truly valued, regardless of migration status, in which broadband, transport and utilities are run under public ownership as universal services, in which the homeless housed in the current crisis aren’t turfed back onto the streets.
The seeds of such a new world are already here, but we’re going to have to fight to make them a reality. We know Jeremy Corbyn will be right there on the picket lines, in the streets, on the Zoom calls, with us.