Corbyn has gone, but Keir Starmer's Labour still depends on the grassroots left

Jack Shenker
Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

On a bright autumn evening during last year’s Labour party conference, Concorde 2 – a well-known Brighton music venue – hosted a “Radical Variety Show” that brought party bigwigs together with younger activists, many of whom, until quite recently, had never been card-carrying Labour members. Under strobe lighting and plastic palm fronds, hundreds gathered to watch Diane Abbott make mojitos, a mock Blind Date contest (“Will you take my heart into private ownership,” asked one of the hopefuls), and John McDonnell spinning a wheel of fortune to find out what Labour would nationalise when it got the chance (options included BAE Systems, Greggs and Jeremy Corbyn’s cat).

Over six months and a general election later, the scene feels almost impossibly quaint: a relic from an age when the boundaries between Labour’s highest echelons and a looser, leftist ecosystem were blurred, and many believed the end of Tory rule was nigh. Corbyn and McDonnell stepped down last weekend, and it is hard to imagine the latter’s replacement, Keir Starmer, spending much time on sticky floors rubbing shoulders with the likes of alternative media outlet Novara Media or political education initiative The World Transformed, the two organisations that co-staged the show. So what does the future now hold for the many different grassroots institutions that were semi-affiliated to the Corbyn project?

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There is certainly no shortage of commentators eager to pronounce the imminent death of the Labour left, and with it the array of movements, media platforms, factions and thinktanks that had entered its orbit since Corbyn’s ascendancy to the leadership in 2015 – some at the very heart of party operations, others several steps removed. It’s true that many of the formal changes Labour has undergone during the Corbyn era are unlikely to endure: a battle for open selections was lost and the trigger ballot mechanism that replaced it is weak; meanwhile local councils and regional offices, traditional bastions of the old right tendency within the party that is most ideologically hostile to Corbyn’s politics, remain largely unreformed.

Yet what came to be known as “Corbynism” – a generally unhelpful term, given how much of its vitality was drawn from far-flung people and spaces with few connections to the man himself – always encompassed more than a single leader or even party tendency. A fresh generation of leftist magazines, media personalities and organising forums has emerged in recent years – from websites such as New Socialist to research units like Common Wealth and new cultural programmes pioneered by socialist campaigners in Manchester, Bristol and other cities. Misunderstood by a great many pundits who found it easier to blame a sinister “cult of personality” around Corbyn than to think through the specific economic circumstances and social antagonisms that have been remaking our political landscape for over a decade, they have collectively helped shift the centre of British political gravity leftwards and drawn new groups of people into politics, following decades of professionalisation.

These developments are not derivatives of the Corbyn leadership; they are a product – as was the Corbyn leadership itself – of a new material reality in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, one in which widespread precariousness has been normalised and the nostrums of market-friendly managerialism no longer resonated with the lived experiences of millions. Corbyn may be exiting frontline politics, but that material reality persists.

Momentum, the organisation most closely associated with the Corbyn era and also the one that has tried hardest to straddle both institutional, Westminster-oriented politics and the more nebulous realm of leftist social movements, is undergoing its own period of reflection and renewal, with potentially critical elections for its national coordinating group due later this spring, and a new campaign for internal democratisation launching this week. Sources suggest that despite the battle cries issued by eminent Blairites, an official crackdown on the group under Starmer’s leadership victory is unlikely. Instead, many inside Momentum envisage its future role as being both inside and outside the party hierarchy, putting pressure on Starmer to stick to his more radical pledges – without which, they point out, he would never have secured the backing of the wider party membership – while steering clear of the kind of internecine warfare that organisations such as Progress and Labour First on the other side of the party’s political spectrum waged against Corbyn throughout his tenure.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the dynamics of the left’s wider ecosystem will remain unchanged. “There might be a certain amount of movement away from the Labour party, in the immediate term, into things that are slightly more adjacent to the party,” one senior Momentum figure told me. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But just because our generation lost the election – and it is a generational loss – it’s not like everyone is simply going to give up and go away.”

As the Corbyn period draws to a close, it’s vital to acknowledge the radical left’s limitations. For all the commendable talk of grounding Labour in communities up and down the country, and building a popular support base for genuinely transformative government policies that would not only propel the party into government but also insulate the wider socialist movement from changes in personnel at the top, few of those hopes have so far been realised. Machine politics and Labourism often won out at the expense of more pluralistic grassroots organising, leaving the top of the party adrift from its potential voters. As Ronan Burtenshaw, the editor of Tribune, puts it: “When the tide came back in, this left had been beached for a long time. Its contact with mass politics was minimal. It had to learn fast. It didn’t learn fast enough.”

But it’s equally important to recognise the lasting gains made, too, many of which have been achieved independently of the party leadership. New movements representing those made most vulnerable by disaster capitalism – from trade unions representing precarious workers to renters’ collectives fighting landlord power in the streets – are growing by the day. Not only did every viable candidate to succeed Corbyn feel the need to pitch themselves considerably to the left of his predecessor, Ed Miliband, but even the Conservatives have been forced to adopt great swathes of Corbyn and McDonnell’s policies, once dismissed as “fantasy economics” by the same analysts now celebrating their downfall.

While the official Labour party has been virtually invisible amid the coronavirus turmoil, and the new leadership has limited itself to a cautious and “constructive” engagement with the government, other parts of the “Corbynite” base have been playing a leading role in organising mutual aid efforts, instigating new resources for the movement, and holding the government to account. Starmer may not end up spinning wheels of fortune on the Brighton seafront, but both intellectually and organisationally, he will be dependent on the radical left.

• Jack Shenker is a writer based in London and Cairo