Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn attends the Durham Miners Gala 2022 (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

A flawed blueprint for the Left

How far can the Left’s project succeed without its totemic leader?


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Our Bloc: How We Win, James Schneider (Verso, £8.99)

Why did Jeremy Corbyn lose? The answer is obvious — a divisive leader with zero managerial skill and an incoherent manifesto was outgunned by Boris Johnson in 2019 because he could not decide his policy on Brexit, by far the biggest issue of the day.

But why did Jeremy Corbyn win? That may be the bigger question. The rise of Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour party was an event without parallel in British political history, an act of defiance by the party grassroots against its elites, who regarded the idea of Corbyn becoming leader as first laughable, then horrifying.

Our Bloc by James Schneider is not primarily an account of the Corbyn era, though the author — who quit his job to volunteer on the leadership campaign, helped found the pressure group Momentum and then worked in Corbyn’s office for more than three years — would be more than qualified to write one. Instead, it is a manifesto for organisers, laying out a path forward for “the Left” (whatever that means) to extend its power over the course of this decade.

Almost incidentally, the author ends up providing a pithy explanation for how Corbyn not only took over Labour, but also came dizzyingly close to reaching 10 Downing Street at the 2017 election, even if only at the head of an unwieldy multi-party coalition. 

Despite their 12 years in power and the support of the bulk of the print media, he points out, the Conservatives have never managed to propagate a “right-wing common sense” that would cement their cultural dominance alongside their political hegemony. In fact, he argues, “on a range of issues, there’s a basic social-democratic common sense, which in some cases is to the left of anything that Labour argued for under Corbyn”.

The Left was dismally poor at opposing Boris Johnson

Polling evidence bears this out. The government’s most popular move this year has been the decision to freeze energy bills, a straightforward act of redistribution stolen wholesale from the opposition parties. The public overwhelmingly supports a windfall tax on businesses that are making excess profits during the current crisis, and surveys routinely show widespread support for a reversal of almost all the Thatcher-era privatisations.

Unlike the Labour leaders who preceded and followed him, Corbyn never danced around this. As British politics realigned around age (only one in ten under-40s now support the Tories, according to recent polls), a splurge of radical policies left him well-placed to surf a wave of youthful euphoria which briefly made politics seem actually cool.

Throughout Schneider’s book there is evidence of his skill as an analyst of politics. He points out, rightly, that the Left was dismally poor at opposing Boris Johnson — though Our Bloc went to press before the final fall of the last PM, it was already clear that Johnson was being brought down by his former supporters rather than by any initiative from Labour.

“Much of the Left has been fighting the last war,” Schneider writes, “wanting to fit Johnson into a hard-right, pro-austerity Conservative mould that fails to acknowledge his novelty as a “Brexity Hezza”. Many on the Left would disdain to learn lessons from Johnson, let alone Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, but Schneider praises all three for their communication skills and urges his comrades to follow the right’s example of setting up totemic images to represent their politics: “What’s our Churchill statue and our Channel patrol?”

But this sharp analysis of how things are is second to the author’s main intention: to lay out an image of how things could be. Schneider takes aim at the “defeatism” of the Left, his ideological allies who delight in whipping up mindless Twitter anger towards Starmer because they have despaired of getting anywhere near power.

The usual question for would-be Leftist disrupters is whether to use the Labour party as their vehicle. But first, Schneider claims, the priority is forming a “bloc” of broadly aligned groups which can bring together Leftists outside the structures of party politics. Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and Sisters Uncut have all propelled their causes to the front pages, whilst the trade unions are enjoying a resurgence at a time of squeezed real wages. 

Schneider’s idea is to set up a joint secretariat allowing these organisations to pool resources and coordinate action, culminating in grand gestures such as occupying the offices of polluting companies.

Schneider misses a crucial step: getting the public to agree with you

Ditching party politics can be the key to a policy breakthrough. The Leave campaign would not have won the 2016 referendum without being willing to work across party lines and forge new alliances whilst happily exploiting divisions within the main parties. But can this approach work when widened beyond a few specific issues? The Princess of Wales may have attended Sisters Uncut’s vigil for murdered Sarah Everard, but she would surely not endorse their radical feminism. BLM’s brand is far more popular than its far-left leadership. 

Even as the public backs union leaders such as Mick Lynch of the RMT for their actions in standing up for their workers, there is little appetite for their left-wing brand of Brexiting or scepticism towards NATO’s support for Ukraine.

In fact, Schneider appears to be missing out on a crucial step in any political project: the bit where you get the public to agree with you. Using a good old Marxist analogy, he simply assumes that “the many” will flock to his own political vision once they are able to assess their own class interest — with no back-up plan just in case, maybe, they don’t.

There is no such thing as Corbynism, says Corbyn, and James Schneider agrees. He is not blind to the faults of his own boss, including on Labour’s antisemitism crisis, but he fails to answer the question of how far the Left’s project can succeed without its totemic leader. Perhaps time may show that Corbyn was both a necessary force for the Left’s rise, and the cause of its fall, rendering impossible any return to the heady days of 2016–19.

“Hegemony” is one of the many buzzwords running through this book, making it less than perfectly readable. Corbyn and his followers claim to be the antidote to the Conservative, neoliberal, narrow-minded consensus which they say has dominated Britain for too long. But perhaps they have embodied it, too. 

Coming to prominence at the end of the austerity era, Corbyn and his right-hand man John McDonnell were always at pains to prove that every spending promise was balanced by an equivalent tax rise — just as Johnson, despite his free-spending inclinations, always swore to stick to his fiscal rules.

Will the true agent of change come from within the ever-chameleon-like Conservative party? Schneider is a former president of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats. So is Liz Truss. It is the latter who, for the first time since George Osborne arrived at the Treasury, has ripped up the accounting books and embraced a wholly new economic doctrine, that Britain should borrow its way to growth. Radicalism comes in many forms — and the best leaders, over time, create their own “common sense”.

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