The hope that radical left governments in Europe could take parliamentary power and deliver change has proven hollow, writes Caitlin Doyle
Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding defeat in the UK general election last year was a blow to many people’s hopes for radical change. Predictably, Labour is now moving rapidly to the right, and is set to replace him with a more centrist leader.
The right of the party, who have spent the last three years attacking Corbyn’s socialist leadership at every turn, claim to have been vindicated and are pushing to abandon many of his left-wing policies.
But despite his defeat, Corbyn’s manifesto and his policies were, and still are, popular.
His election as Labour leader in 2016 saw around 300,000 new people, many of them young, join the party. And the 2017 elections saw the party achieve its greatest increase in support in a single election since 1945.
Rather than being “too left-wing”, it was Corbyn’s concessions to the Labour right and his failure to encourage demonstrations and struggle that saw people turn away from Labour.
Corbyn repeatedly compromised with the right of the party.
In particular, Corbyn’s support for a second referendum over Brexit—disregarding the votes of some 17.4 million people to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016—meant the party lost support amongst huge swathes of its working class base.
Corbyn’s retreat on Brexit also left them without any confidence that his radical promises such as re-nationalising rail could be relied on, either.
In the areas that voted most strongly for Leave, especially in the old industrial heartlands, Labour’s vote fell by an average of around 10 per cent. Some former Labour votes swung to the Tories, who promised to “Get Brexit Done”. Many simply abstained.
While anti-immigration racism clearly drove part of the Leave vote, many ordinary people rightly associate the EU with falling living standards and austerity policies.
Before assuming the Labour leadership, Corbyn had been a critic of the EU. And at first he promised to respect the referendum result, vowing to push for a progressive Brexit.
But over time he first gave into pressure from the Tories abandoning even his call to maintain freedom of movement for EU citizens, then shifted to making concessions to elements within Labour who supported remaining in the EU.
When the Labour right attacked him over his support for Palestine and accused him of anti-semitism, rather than defend his position, he accepted a definition of anti-semitism that included criticism of Israel.
He also abandoned his longstanding call for nuclear disarmament and accepted a plan to renew Britain’s Trident nuclear missile program.
Now, even the left’s candidate for leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey, has accepted the idea that Corbyn was too radical, and has agreed to further restrictions on members’ ability to support Palestine.
Since the large rallies during Corbyn’s 2017 election campaign, there were few strikes and mass protests. His commitment to an electoral strategy meant that Corbyn did little to build the level of struggle outside parliament.
Labour failed to organise serious protests against the Tories’ cuts and racist policies.
The trade union leaders also hitched all of their hopes to a Labour election victory instead of calling for strikes or protests.
While Corbyn supported and often appeared at rallies and strikes, at best he saw these as supplementary to parliamentary manoeuvring, rather than as the key to building the kind of social power needed to force through socialist policies.
Given the Conservative government’s deep unpopularity and the political crises that have plagued them since 2016—from leadership changes to the Grenfell Tower tragedy—a mass campaign of strikes and protests could have seriously shifted the mood in society.
The parliamentary road to socialism?
For many years Corbyn stuck to principled left-wing positions within a party that was sliding ever further to the right.
Yet, his focus on parliament and his concessions to the right are best understood as a direct result of commitment to reformist politics.
Corbyn saw winning parliamentary power as the way to bring about a socialist society, or at least a society with less poverty, war and grinding oppression.
And he saw the Labour Party winning office as the way to do this. That meant maintaining unity with the right-wing of his party was crucial—and led to concession after concession to keep the party together.
British Labour, like the Labor Party in Australia, seeks to represent the working class as a whole.
In order to win elections it seeks the votes of workers who are more conservative as well as the votes of left-wing workers and militant trade unionists.
This means Labour often concedes to more right-wing ideas or attempts to find a compromise and find the “middle ground”.
Over Brexit, attempting a compromise only exposed Labour’s vacillations.
Labour’s commitment to gaining parliamentary power means trying to manage the capitalist system in a more progressive or humane way, rather than overthrowing it.
This means that in government, the party must ensure capitalist profitability, which often means implementing wage, job and service cuts that hurt its working class base.
The brutal austerity overseen by previous Labour governments lives on in the memories of many ordinary people who Corbyn attempted to win over in the election. Current Labour councils are still inflicting cuts at a local level.
Laura Pidcock, a left Labour MP who lost her seat to a Tory wrote that people in her electorate were, “bitterly angry… at the political establishment… angry at being left behind, angry that their life was not as good now as it was… The current Labour Party were blamed for much of the problems in our communities.”
Corbyn’s retreats also eroded any confidence that he stood for something different to the Labour leaders of the past.
Left reformism in Europe
Corbyn’s defeat is not an isolated exception. In recent years a number of new left parties have broken through across Europe, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. All have since suffered setbacks, some terminal.
Both Syriza and Podemos emerged out of mass movements against austerity following the global economic crisis of 2008, which saw unemployment and suicide rates skyrocket in both countries.
In 2015, after a series of general strikes and anti-racist campaigns pulled Greek society to the left, Syriza came to power promising to scrap the humiliating austerity measures imposed on Greece by the EU as part of a debt bailout.
But within months it had capitulated to the EU, and agreed to implement ever worse cuts and austerity measures than those it had promised to oppose.
It also began clamping down on refugees and migrants to placate its right-wing coalition partners.
Syriza paid for its betrayals in the 2019 election, losing decisively to the right-wing New Democracy Party.
In Spain, Podemos gave electoral expression to the Indignados movement of city square occupations after its retreat.
The party, led by Pablo Iglesias, called for the cancellation of Spain’s debt, an end austerity and housing evictions, and for a Catalan independence referendum, and won 21 per cent of the vote in the 2015 election.
But, like Syriza, Podemos abandoned many of its more radical policies over time, including the call to cancel the debt outright, in the hope of capturing more votes and appearing respectable to Spanish business. And rather than rebuild the movement on the streets that it was born out of, it has relied solely on a parliamentary strategy, while the attacks on living standards and on migrants have continued.
In December Podemos entered into an unstable coalition government with the Labour-type Socialist Party, committing to a “balanced budgetary” policy that could rule out the reversal of austerity cuts, and effectively withdrawing support for the Catalan independence movement.
The failure of these left reformist projects does not mean the radical left is unable to win mass support or that ordinary people have shifted decisively to the right.
There is still mass anger at the political establishment and an enormous appetite for change amongst ordinary people who have faced decades of neo-liberalism and racism.
Rather, it is the focus on parliament and working through the institutions of the state and the EU that ultimately led these parties to a dead end.
The capitalist system, in Europe, Australia and elsewhere, will continue to produce political and economic crises—and then try to force the cost onto working class people and the poor.
But these crises will also present opportunities to build struggle and resistance. Thousands of workers in France, Chile, Hong Kong and elsewhere have shown this in recent months.
But the system cannot be changed from within the halls of parliament, as Syriza, Podemos and Corbyn have all attempted.
In order to fight racism, austerity and environmental catastrophe, we need to build struggles where we have the most collective power—in our workplaces and on the streets.
Socialists and activists everywhere should commit themselves to building the kind of movements and campaigns we need to beat back the ruling class’s attacks.
But we also need to build a party of struggle, that draws together the most committed activists and revolutionaries to take the struggle forward, and ultimately overthrow the capitalist system that breeds such misery.