The Corbyn insurgency: why it’s really not the Trots

The walls of the old institutions won't stand forever

The old institutions depend on walls that now look shaky

Curious things keep happening in UK and US politics. The pundits are puzzled: why do Trump, Sanders, Corbyn exist? Why Brexit? A collective madness has settled over the populations of these countries, is the impression you might get from reading seasoned commentators. Ordinary people keep deciding things that make no sense to those who rule them. We are entering dark times, they say, yet few can explain why.

A recent openDemocracy article explained the Brexit vote as, in part, the rejection of existing institutions of government. Neo-liberalism has become too unsubtle, the promotion of the interests of the rich too obvious. People see rotten institutions led by rotten people, and they’ve had enough. It’s not just Brexit that can be explained as an uprising against the institutions: it is visible too in Corbynism. I say this as one who has not joined the Labour Party myself, but has watched many friends joining it over the last few months. I keep seeing banners in my social media feeds saying “I’ve joined the Labour Party” and I know that none of those people want the Labour Party as it currently exists. And for sure none of them are the Trotskyists that Tom Watson and every second newspaper columnist is so excited about.

I’ve spoken to a few friends who have started going to Labour Party meetings in different areas of London. There are a few old-fashioned Trotskyists around, they say, but there aren’t many of them and they don’t exert a lot of influence. This makes sense to me: the total number of people in Trotskyist organisations in the UK at the moment can’t be more than a few thousand. Most of them won’t be joining the Labour Party because they are in parties already, or don’t have the time or inclination. Meanwhile those joining Labour number in the hundreds of thousands. Even if there are a few Alliance for Workers Liberty members desperately trying to advance their organisation through the Labour Party, it’s difficult to see how such a small organisation (hundreds, most people suspect, rather than thousands) could have much of a decisive influence in such a large movement.

Another accusation flying around among columnists of late is that Corbyn is a populist leader. A cult has developed around him, claim some, and it’s true it’s possible to spot some starry-eyed fans on social media. But in my experience the much more dominant idea among recent joiners is that Corbyn is an opportunity to take back an institution lost to the left. Those on the left have not had a party to represent them in England for decades now. I realised this some years ago and wondered when the situation would blow up. Despite the best efforts of Thatcher and Blair, there are millions of left-inclined people in the UK, and it is not sustainable for them to have no voice. The young in particular will not pretend that a party led by management consultants and, ahem, PR men, represents their interests, nor do many of them even want to be represented. They are libertarian-left inclined, with expectations that good institutions should be radically democratic.

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