Corbynism: what’s on and what’s off the table?


If straight talking, honest politics is what Jeremy Corbyn brings to the leadership of the Labour Party, then what he and those he’s promoted into senior positions have said matters.

What makes moderates like me uneasy, however, and why many moderates have left the party in large numbers, is that what Corbyn and those around him have said—and what they have and have not supported—is often way outside mainstream political thinking. Support for the IRA. Opposition to intervention in Kosovo. Casual comments about what was good about Maoism. Championing of Cuba and Venezuela. This isn’t normal social democratic stuff. Yes, I get it, those who voted for Corbyn are tired of the status quo. Yet 100 days into the Corbyn leadership, it’s unclear what kind of alternative is on offer, other than it’s different than what Labour has stood for over the last thirty years.

Corbyn has said from the beginning that he wants open and spirited debate in Labour, which is necessary, as real unity and common purpose will not come until there’s been a thrashing out of ideas. But the reason we’ve seen very little healthy and robust policy debate in the party is that it’s unclear what is and what is not on the table. The parameters on the left of the party have become blurred, making it difficult to distinguish the ideology of the Labour left from the revolutionary socialism advocated by those in hard left groupings like the SWP and Left Unity. As the boundaries of the party have blurred, so have the edges of what counts as acceptable discourse, which causes conversation within the Labour movement to feel uncontained.

Over and over I hear from Corbyn supporting friends and colleagues that they like how he represents a real economic alternative to the Tory-lite stuff of the Blairites. Never mind that Blair dragged the Tories so far to the left that had Thatcher been in Manchester, and heard Cameron’s leader’s speech, she’d wouldn’t have recognised the party in front of her. Still, as many economists point out, the Chancellor’s austerity programme isn’t pragmatic, it’s ideological. And like John McDonnell, I believe the Tories, despite their rhetoric, “have actually been a government for the 1%”. But what will inform Corbyn and McDonnell’s development of a coherent social and economic alternative?

Corbyn and McDonnell are active supporters of Chavismo, the guiding ideology of the Venezuelan Revolution, named after its charismatic leader, the now deceased Hugo Chavez. McDonnell is the former President of Hands Off Venezuela Britain, a group set up after an attempted coup of the democratically elected Chavez government. The goal of the campaign is to protect the Bolivarian revolution from American imperialist interference. According to McDonnell, “What the US is terrified of is the prospect that socialism will catch light all across the Americas, so of course it has to go on the attack.”

In 2006, McDonnell told a Hands Off Venezuela conference about the importance of the Venezuelan Revolution in building socialism in Britain and worldwide. He’s also talked about how the Venezuelan revolution provides a contrast between socialism in action and capitalism in crisis, and that Chavez lit a spark in the Americas that has permeated discussion amongst socialists in Europe. Corbyn, writing on his website, has said, “In a sense history is being played out to its fullest extent in Venezuela, where the Bolivarian revolution is in full swing and is providing inspiration across a whole continent,” praising the Chavez government as an “example of what social justice can achieve.”

While the Chavez government temporarily lifted many out of poverty, by investing profits from the country’s rich oil reserves into innovative health and social programmes, the country is gripped by spiralling debt, galloping inflation, and food shortages. In retrospect, Chavismo has been a complete economic and social failure. This month, fed up Venezuelan voters, sick of high unemployment, economic incompetence, government repression and rampant crime, said enough, and overwhelmingly supported the centrist Democratic Unity alliance, who stood on a programme of political and economic reform. Likewise, Argentina just voted out the Chavez-supporting government of Kirchner.

At times, the Shadow Chancellor talks a sensible game, and has created an economic advisory committee that includes world-famous economists, including Thomas Picketty. In the leadership election over the summer, McDonnell spoke of the need to clear the deficit, but not on the backs of the poor. This fits in with mainstream economic thinking. As the Nobel-Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, writes, “The austerian ideology that dominated elite discourse five years ago has collapsed, to the point where hardly anyone still believes it”. But as Labour develops its economic alternative to Tory austerity, where will it draw its inspiration, and where will it draw its lines?

It’s hard to start the conversation about the future direction of Labour social and economic thought when the previous boundaries of acceptable discourse have collapsed. Do moderates now have to invest time and energy into arguing the case against Chavismo? No one really knows where the Labour leadership draws its lines, in terms of what is and what is not acceptable in social and economic thought. This is why gestures such as throwing Mao’s little red book at the Chancellor from the despatch box don’t go down as funny. They raise alarms. Because no one knows when Corbyn and his team are joking. So while I believe an alternative to Osborne’s austerity programme is desperately needed, currently, I’m not sure what’s on Labour’s table, and if ideologies like Chavismo are even off it.