Michael Chessum was an activist and organiser in the student movement in the noughties, an activist in and member of Momentum’s Steering Committee, and a founder member of the Another Europe is Possible Campaign. He is therefore perfectly placed to document and analyse the events that took place before and during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
I am sure I was not the only long-time left activist who was taken aback by the massive influx into the Labour Party of thousands of primarily young people with the express purpose of ensuring the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Party leader. I certainly wondered where all these activists had come from. The first three chapters of Chessum’s book provide the answer – the student movement and mass social movements that emerged in the first decade of the century, which were now seeking an organised political project. The aim, therefore, was not just to ensure that Corbyn became leader but to use this to transform the Labour Party into a mass movement for radical social change. The remainder of the book is devoted to the Corbyn project and why, ultimately, it failed.
Many media commentators and the centre and right wings of the Labour Party, and even some on the left, like to identify the failure of the Corbyn project as being down to the personality and personal politics of Jeremy Corbyn, which they say made him toxic to many erstwhile Labour voters. Chessum rightly identifies the fundamental cause of the failure as a split between those who recognised the success of the project was dependent on the Labour Party turning outwards through supporting and helping build extra-parliamentary campaigns, and those who saw the focus as being on capturing the Labour Party machine. There was a parallel split in Momentum, despite its activist base having its origins in the student and social movements.
In Chessum’s words:
Corbynism was an electoral project of the radical left, whose aim was to enter government, implement a radical programme, and, at the very least, leave behind a legacy that would leave the left and the labour movement in a strong position to try again. From all of these perspectives – in terms of expanding the electorate, convincing voters of radical policies, holding the Labour leadership to its principles and promises and creating an atmosphere of hope and rebellion – it was essential that an independent force existed which could push the electoral project from below.
What actually happened was that a top-down approach won the day. Chessum identifies the prime movers of this approach as Jon Lansman and the left trade union bureaucracy, particularly in the form of Len McClusky. Momentum’s internal democratic structures were destroyed because Lansman was determined to make sure that he and his allies on the Steering Committee ran the group. The effective takeover of the leader’s office by UNITE meant that McCluskey was able to stamp his bureaucratic control over the grassroots of Labour’s constituency parties.
The mandatory reselection of all Labour Parliamentary candidates was the one key reform of the Labour Party that constituency members should have implemented. This would have enabled the membership to rid the Labour Party of the large numbers in the Parliamentary Party who were hostile and bitterly opposed to the Corbyn project and who, in conjunction with many Party staffers and the media, acted to undermine both Jeremy Corbyn personally and the Corbyn project in general. McCluskey’s determination to keep himself and the trade union bureaucracy in charge of this process was a big reason why the right was able to keep control of the Parliamentary Party. Chessum rightly concludes that an essential task of any project to build a new radical socialist movement must include campaigns within trade unions for their full and genuine democratisation.
Chessum also argues that if there was any one issue that lost Labour the 2019 election, then it was the debacle of Labour’s position on Brexit. He argues that if Labour had developed a clear policy in the immediate years after the 2016 referendum, be it a soft Brexit that involved leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market or campaigning for a second referendum, it could have implemented a vigorous campaign to convince working-class voters that Brexit was no answer to their problems but a reactionary diversion rooted in racism, xenophobia, and false illusions in national sovereignty. Instead, Labour’s triangulations made it hard for voters to understand what Labour’s policy was, which frustrated and disappointed many Corbyn supporters, including me. Chessum thinks that by 2019, the next election was already lost.
The central conclusion that Chessum draws from all that happened is that the essential task of building a new radical left should not include working in the Labour Party as it is currently constituted. He argues that the Labour Party is two parties in one, and the left should split and build a new movement. He identifies the first-past-the-post electoral system as a major obstacle to this, and therefore the left should regard its replacement with an electoral system based on PR as essential rather than a fringe issue. In his words:
We must find a way of organizing that cuts across the old divides that separates the extra-parliamentary left from electoral politics and the revolutionaries from the reformists. The new left that resurfaced in the 2010s is as diverse as the struggles that built it. It is time now for it to wake up and realize its strength.
Although the book is packed full of detailed information, it is written in a pacy style that, unusually for a political book, makes it something of a page turner. I read it in two sessions. In my view, Michael Chessum’s book is essential reading for anyone on the left who wants to understand why the Corbyn project failed and the lessons to be drawn so that the vital and urgently needed new movement does not repeat the errors made during the Corbyn years.
This is Only the Beginning: The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn by michael chessum and published by bloomsbury.
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