Could Jeremy Corbyn win as an independent? Or will he just serve as a distraction to the fight against the Tories?
The Daily Telegraph reports that Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour MP for Islington North, is contemplating starting a new far-left political party using the resources of the ‘Peace and Justice Project’ which celebrates its second birthday this month.
Notwithstanding one’s doubts about the provenance of the story itself (the Daily Telegraph is no friend of Labour) nor the paucity of hard evidence, the idea that Corbyn might stand against Labour at the next election is entirely plausible.
For a start, Corbyn is not someone who doubts his own abilities. His leadership of the Labour Party was built firmly and deliberately around a personality ‘brand’, with endless designs of tee-shirts, dolls, and other merchandise, multiple images of his face, and a special incantation for his supporters. The ‘Peace and Justice Project’ has the address www.thecorbynproject.org.uk because it is about projecting Corbyn.
Corbyn’s failures in the 2017 and 2019 elections, the European elections, the local elections, the referendum, and the damning indictment of the EHRC, are all dismissed as the work of saboteurs and traitors. The ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth provides exculpatory evidence for everything from the expensive fiasco of Labour Live to the loss of Bolsover to the Tories.
There are hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, who would welcome his candidature. Many made their support known after the Telegraph story, especially amongst the former Corbynite social media ‘outriders’, lately starved of exposure and estranged from their sources of income. So-called socialist groups outside the Labour Party would offer their support and resources: the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), Socialist Appeal (also formerly Militant) and the rest.
Corbyn’s campaign in Islington North would be a jaunty affair, with lots of young people from the ranks of Momentum on the streets, and celebrity endorsements from the usual suspects. It would attract the lost legions of the expelled and disaffected, like a political Dawn of the Dead. And the mainstream media would love it – not least because it would be a stone’s throw from their offices.
And of course, Corbyn might win. The model of success is provided by his old mucker Ken Livingstone who stood against the Frank Dobson, the Labour candidate for London Mayor, in 2000. Livingstone, having failed to secure the Labour nomination, stood anyway and beat both Labour and Conservative candidates. Labour came third with 13%.
Livingstone’s campaign enjoyed the multiple advantages of skilled organisers from the school of London Marxist-Leninism, support from celebrities such as Ken Loach and Jo Brand, high name recognition, a sense of victimhood at the hands of the nasty Labour machine, and the electric charge of insurgency. These factors would apply in remarkably similar ways to Corbyn in Islington North.
At this point, though, political history ceases to be kind to Corbyn’s deliberations. Where other self-appointed tribunes of the left have split from Labour, they have tended to see their hopes dashed. Chris Williamson, for example, launched the Resistance Movement in 2019, and stood in his former seat Derby North at the general election. He came sixth with 635 votes, or 1.9%, and lost his deposit. Thelma Walker of the Northern Independence Party (founded by a man in Brighton) stood in the Hartlepool by-election and secured 250 votes, came eighth, and lost her deposit.
George Galloway broke from Labour and won the Bradford West by-election in 2012 on a Respect ticket, (Corbyn publicly congratulated his old friend) but lost in 2015. At the 2019 election Galloway stood for the Workers Party in West Bromwich East, won 489 votes and came sixth. Arthur Scargill left Labour to form the Socialist Labour Party in 1996; at the 2001 general election he stood against Peter Mandelson and won 2.4% of the vote in Hartlepool. When Militant broke for cover in 1991 and stood a ‘Real Labour’ candidate in the Liverpool Walton by-election they secured 6.5% of the vote.
In 1980, Tony Benn asked the House of Commons Library to compile a list of Labour MPs who defected to other parties or launched their own, and what happened to them. It’s a long list and includes a spectrum of political views from Oswald Mosley to Reg Prentice. But their fate is the same: a moment of notoriety, a blaze of fame, perhaps even fleeting electoral success, like SO Davies in Merthyr in 1970, then nothing. ‘They have’ Benn noted ‘after enjoying a short outburst of media acclaim, sunk without trace. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has soldiered on.’
You can see the obvious pattern. When offered ‘true’ or ‘real’ versions of undiluted socialism at the ballot, without the Labour brand, the voters overwhelmingly reject it. Just ask the humiliated candidates who have stood for TUSC or Left Unity or any of the other anti-Labour factions, splinters, and breakaways. Just ask the household names who believed their talents and fame would carry them over the line.
The truth is that in the UK the Leninist formulation of politics requires a host, because it has shrinkingly negligible support amongst the masses. They ‘enter’ the Labour Party because it does have popular support and an anchor in the trade unions, with a view to changing its politics and marshalling its resources to their own ends. Out on their own, they shrivel and die, because they have neither moral force nor voter appeal.
Corbynism may have its moment in the sun if its leader has the guts to stand. It will allow those who view the Labour Party as a ‘vehicle’ for their own politics to make a leap to something more up their alley. Such fun! Imagine the fireworks! Imagine the gloating on Twitter! Imagine Jeremy Corbyn back in Parliament voting against the Labour whip night after night (okay, you don’t have to imagine that). But it will signify nothing more than a noisy distraction to our task of beating the Tories and changing our country. It would be a sideshow, and those, like tee-shirts, rallies and Twitter, don’t win elections.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, soldiers on.