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.


  • Ernekid

    Barton you’re not ‘moderate’ you’re on the right wing end of Labour if anything you’re an extremist totally out of step with the majority of the party membership. You’d probably be comfortable in the Lib Dems. You seem to only see the version of Jeremy Corbyn presented in the Tory Press like the Daily Telegraph which doesn’t have much basis in reality. I’m not sure why you have an irrelevant rambling tangent about Venuzela when discussing Corbyn especially when a much better analogy would be Spain’s Podemos who were massively successful yesterday.

  • Cushy Glen

    Give the guy a chance he’s in the job 3 months!
    What you’ve seen is a period of major adjustment for the whole labour Party. Corbyn has spent his time since getting elected consolidating his position within Labour. Now his position is as unassailable as any can be in politics.
    I think what you will see in early 2016 is a reshuffle where a lot of the old Blairite deadwood will go. He’s given them a chance to adjust to the new dispensation & some have chosen not to go with the flow.

    You will see a clear move to a much more democratic party where the members will have a greater say in policy & there will be much less decided behind closed doors in No 10. Both Corbyn & McDonnell have said they are building a social movement. To a lot of the old guard in Westminster this is heresy & they will fight it. But the numbers aren’t on their side & they will become increasingly marginalised. Some will defect.

    Incidentally this talk of “moderates” that you make great use of is offensive. You even claim this title for yourself & make unsubstantiated claims that ‘many moderates’ have left the party. Does that mean that those who have joined the party since Corbyn’s election (200,000+) are ‘not moderates’ ie ‘extremists’ & therefore dangerous?
    Who sets down these definitions of political opinion? Who is the arbiter of what is ‘moderate’ & what is not ie what is nice & what is not? Slugger O’Toole or some lower authority?
    It implies that there are views that are acceptable (nice/ agreeable) and opinions that are shall we say extreme, flakey, unsound, barking, not nice. What’s the word you would use in your definition of political tastes?
    But acceptable to who? Who is the guardian of the oracle?
    A dangerous move towards Orwellian thought control.

  • leoinlisbon

    Corbyn’s support for the Chavez government in Venezuela is not ‘an irrelevant rambling tangent.’
    It is part of the baggage he brings to being party leader; like Cameron’s Bullingdon Club membership.

  • Stephen Baker


    As a self-appointed moderate, answer me this: what distinguishes the thinking of Labour moderates these days? Corbyn and McDonnell have assembled an impressive array of advisors – Mariana Mazzucato, Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Anastasia Nesvetailova, Danny Blanchflower, Bruce V, Rauner, Ann Pettiffor, Simon Wren-Lewis. Has the right of the Labour Party anything equivalent to this? I remember in the days of Tony Blair’s ascendancy. New Labour was fizzing with ideas. What now?

    Frankly the right of the party looks intellectual moribund. The right lead the party to two general elections defeats and lost the leadership contest, spectacularly, but rather than engage in a period of introspection, it appears grief-stricken at the loss of the leadership it assumes it was entitled to by right.

    Maybe instead of putting all its energies into sniping at Corbyn, the right would be better engaging in the debate it said it wanted after the last general election.

  • Ernekid

    It’s important to note that the Labour right hasn’t changed in 15 years. They’re stuck in a late 90s/early 00s mindset. They’ve no real ideas on core issues such as how the economy should look in a post recessionary world, the structure of devolution in the UK. The changing international climate. The limits of Blairite neoliberal thought are clear as they come across as a weaker version of Toryism. You can’t out-bastard the Tories as it comes naturally to them so trying to imitate them is a road to nowhere

  • Jenny Muir

    ‘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’.

    I don’t actually know what this means, Barton, unless what you are trying to say is that there is a genuine conversation going on within the Labour Party about where it’s going, and a genuine attempt to construct a workable alternative to neoliberalism. Sorry to disappoint you, but such an alternative would not involve an extra-Parliamentary revolution led by a far left vanguard. Of course I don’t know whether that is what’s actually happening because I’m not there, I’m here, where I can’t vote for them, which I gather you support.

    And fyi the Chavez regime was unsustainable because he was a charismatic leader and it was entirely preductable that the gains would not continue after his death. Corbyn is not buying into the idea of a leadership cult (as do much of the far left, to say nothing of a certain T Blair) but seems to me to want to build a broad movement of support across GB (not the UK), which will take more than 100 days.

  • Roy White

    Corbyn has a clear mandate to be Labour Leader, but there isn’t much evidence that the electorate has warmed or will warm to the idea of him becoming PM. The Labour Right (which is where I would be) should certainly engage in debate, and put forward their ideas, of what sort of country Britain should be, and how to get there. However, I think its perfectly valid of Barton to query what the Labour Leadership would like economic and social policies to be, and if they are going to draw more from the likes of Chavez than Blair,Brown&Milliband.

  • Hi Jenny! Thanks for the comment. Re the above…. Help me work it out. I’m groping for ground to stand on as I feel lost in the current political climate. The first thing, is that I don’t believe there is a genuine attempt to construct an alternative to neoliberalism in Labour at the moment. It feels like a collapse into fundamentalism. Social democracy for the last few decades has sought to reinterpret socialist values for the modern world. But the Blair years failed to address abuses in the financial sector—clearly more regulation was needed. This isn’t my area of expertise, so I defer to you and others. But for me, Labour isn’t engaging in a conversation about a workable alternative to the status quo. It’s mistaken socialist values for the ideologies and policies of the past. For me it’s a bit like the way liberal Christians understand the Bible has authority, but not because it’s the literal work of God. The text needs to be interpreted based on the spirit of the meaning, not the literal meaning. Back to socialism, a contained conversation would accept that on the one side, we want to address inequality, and build a more just and fair society and economy. And on the other, that we reject the failed, often brutal communist/socialist projects from the last hundred years, from USSR to Cuba to Venezuela to China.

    But the wall on the left of Labour has collapsed. The clear boundaries between social democracy and revolutionary socialism have been eroded. The conversation can’t begin in Labour until moderates are assured that the “alternative” to neoliberalism isn’t Maoism, Chavismo, or Cuban socialism. That might sound hyperbolic, but how can we talk about details when the fundamentals aren’t shared? On my shelf I have the Spirit Level, Stieglitz’s book (a bit dense for me, but sure, I’d like to give it a crack!). But we’re not talking the nuance of mitigating inequality anymore. I don’t really know what the intellectual project is anymore. This is as much a failure of the soft left and centre of the party as it is the Corbyn wing. So tell me what to read!

  • Hey Stephen! Come on now, I don’t see myself on the right of the party at all. I voted for Cooper. I think you’re right, there is dead intellectual energy on the right—but there is the same problem on all wings of the party. I’m really excited about McDonnell’s economic advisory panel! I hope it bears fruit, but so long as the Corbyn project is associated with revolutionary authoritarian movements, it’s not going to gain much traction. I wish we were discussing Picketty and Stieglitz and not Chavez and Hamas! But the reason moderates (and I think moderate-ism is a proud tradition, that involves weighing the evidence and operating not from a fundamentalist ideology, but a values-based methodology) haven’t engaged, is that they fear a take over by hard left ideologues. Like, I would LOVE it if McDonnell gave a four hour response to the Chancellor following the budget review. But he didn’t. I don’t know what the Corbyn project is—if he holds Chavismo up in high esteem, and calls Hamas his friends… Well, for people interested in policy changes that will result in mitigating the effects of poverty and decreasing inequality—but not upending Western society—that sounds dangerous. I don’t want a revolution. I want robust policy. I look forward to the real conversation!

  • Thanks Roy, I’m obviously floundering trying to find my feet in a British political context since the move, but also in a Labour movement in flux. I’ve tried to explore a few of the themes in more depth above in response to Jenny and Stephen. I think the main thing is that so long as one wing of the party is saying revolutionary authoritarian socialism such as Venezuela is appealing, then we can’t really have a functional conversation about the nuance of policy. Lots of things can be an alternative to “neoliberalism” (an ill-defined term!), I just want to make sure Maoism, Chavismo, Cuban socialism aren’t on the table. The reason that moderates are so fearful of hard left entryism is that we’ll be forced to waste energy debating the merits of Castro–while the country floats away from Labour. Anyway, once I figure out how to write about all this better, I hope I can help instigate healthy conversations that will contribute to Labour thinking. Right now, though, like a lot of moderates, I’m kind of floating around in the dark.

  • Jenny Muir

    Oooh, what to read! I have spent the last few years reading too many journal articles and not enough books. Also I think it’s good to read and discuss with others – perhaps you could start a local politics reading group? A reading group within your CLP would be a good way to get that conversation going. For a reading group I would suggest David Harvey’s ‘Brief History of Neoliberalism’ and also his ‘The Enigma of Capital’; also the Communist Manifesto; Galbraith’s ‘The Affluent Society’ (aka where did it all go wrong); and Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth’. I also think it’s important to look at the Global Financial Crisis and ask why it didn’t kill neoliberalism: ‘The Spectre at the Feast’ by Andrew Gamble is very good if a bit old now (2009). And Naolmi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. Plus from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks: The Intellectuals, and State and Civil Society.

  • I need to quit my job and read more! Lots of good stuff! Thanks, will get reading! Hope you’re well, by the way!

  • Hi Glen! Thanks for the comment! I’ll think about this. Moderate to me doesn’t mean a particular set of policies or a guiding ideology. It means an approach to politics—one based on evidence, sealer sets of values, and a willingness to self reflect and compromise.

  • Jenny Muir

    It’s an eclectic mix because I’m not a politics lecturer. And from next week I’m not a lecturer at all. I am in fact quitting my job (with a redundancy payment) to read more! So very well, thanks for asking 🙂

  • northstar

    Barton’s points are not without merit. But there is one big problem in all the issues “Moderates” (and the extreme Tory media) raise about Corbyn – from the IRA to Chavez.
    The exact same questions in reverse can be made, but never are about the Tory party.
    When McDonnell was making silly IRA remarks Tory ministers in Belfast consistently spoke to, and refused Point Blank to ban the UDA whilst they were involved in Murder. Now widely known to have often been at the behest of the State’s agencies.
    As for economic ambition, many Tories wish for an extreme USA version of a Market Forces culture which will devastate many people. They also envisage a vast Unionless resource of people willing to work for nuts.
    Is there anything more questionable than a Health Minister with business interests in the Health industry. There are few easy answers anywhere in life. Those of us who want a Society (many Tories still deny the existence of Society, now that is extreme Dogma) must strife for that Society to be the most caring and fairest Society we can create. The present system in GB makes that impossible as the “Moderate” Labour people look over their shoulders for a Bogeyman created by the Tory Party’s PR Machine. That machine involves nearly 100% of the MSM. So Corbyn wears tweed even when not shooting grouse. How dreadfully awful.
    Before Barton and those others frightened by the MSM and anecdotes from the 1980s take a Huge Microscope to Corbyn and Labour – take it to the Tories because their “extremes” are in the Cabinet. Anyway Cameron’s poor judgement will start ructions in his party over Europe so the next GE is wide open. Give Corbyn a chance. His main strength is his total believe in a Fair Society and not in optics, and in not accepting a Bildenberg agenda -now they are an extreme group secret group with non-Democratic power over all Establishments. These are the Secret groups we should all fear because of the access they have to the people WE elect.
    Whats a few years more Barton? It could be a peaceful Utopia.

  • Clanky

    The problem with many of the moderates is that they are not moderates at all, those talking about organising leadership challenges and using parliamentary votes to undermine the leadership of the democratically elected leader of the party are not moderate.

    Cornyn’s policies only appear to be far left in light of a political landscape which has been dragged further and further to the right by a succession of Labour moving to the middle ground and the Tories moving to the far right until the new middle ground is somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan.

    The Labour party was in dire danger of losing it’s core support, if not to another party then to total and complete political apathy, Corbyn is starting to make people believe that the party represents them after years of Blaiirism which was seen by many as just watered down Thatcherism.

  • Stephen Baker


    If you wish that we were discussing Picketty and Stiglitz, instead of Chavez and Castro, then why don’t you talk about Picketty and Stiglitz instead of Chavez and Castro? No-one seems more fascinated with Chavez, Mao and Hamas than the Right of the Labour party and Tory press, at the moment people. On the Left are engaging with Picketty and Stiglitz as well as the work of Harvey, Gamble and Klein, as Jenny Muir, highlights, among others.

  • Stephen Baker

    From the Daily Mail: “Labour moderate Simon Danczuk savages his party’s new hard-left elite.”

    Wow! According to the Daily Mail Simon Danczuk is a moderate. I’m just trying to work out the implications of that…

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Spot on, Barton. My thoughts entirely. I’m one of those who left Labour and like Polly Toynbee find myself in the unaccustomed position of being really in utter despair. Not purely because we have two amateurs like Corbyn and McDonnell running things, or that their hard left instincts lead them frequently into error, though both those are true. It’s the membership, the party itself. The party has shifted so far to the left now that even if Corbyn went, the members would be looking for someone else like him.

    I’m not given to apocalyptic predictions but this looks like being a long, long haul back now. Say he stays till the 2020 election – Labour resoundingly beaten, one would expect – perhaps then there’s an opportunity for a moderate to make a new start with party members recognising their fun flirtation with the hard left failed and they need to get real. Hard to see it before that, they have so much self-belief right now. So we’re in 2020, we have a new Labour leader having to not just overhaul the Conservative majority, which could be really quite large, but do it while somehow rebuilding Labour’s credibility with voters after the Corbyn years. And that will be a mountain to climb. Just imagine what baggage is going to have to carry for years after all this is over. Even with someone better in charge, the Tories will just have to refer to back to the recent Corbyn / McDonnell past to paint Labour as unsafe and not to be trusted. What if that wing were to take over again? Etc, etc.

    Every month Labour persists with this self-defeating experiment now, it accumulates more and more baggage and lengthens the likely required recovery period in the eyes of swing voters. So it’s a double whammy. This really is a tragedy. I think not only is the election in 2020 out but if we carry on too much longer with Corbyn, 2025 with be out too. We’ll be looking at Tories in charge until 2030. 2030!!

    A reminder, it’s now still only 2015. A lot of damage has been done already but it’s not too late to limit this damage. But the party needs to come to its senses early in this parliament. Sadly, looking at it, I don’t think it will.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree the Tories are way more extreme than is often made out. Osborne is a “small state” ideologue, portrayed as normal by phoney consensus of media and wealthy right-leaning business elite.

    But sorry, Corbyn is a nut job. Comparison with Tory and Labour failure to outlaw UDA for too long – which was indeed a failure – doesn’t hold though. Neither Tories nor Labour in 70s and 80s agreed with UDA; indeed state forces undermined and destroyed much of UDA from within using agents and informers, with very good success rate of getting convictions and spreading confusion. As Da Silva found, it was a very effective intelligence operation overall, despite the well-flagged instances of abuse and failure – and they had much better success against Loyalists than against Republicans. Corbyn did precisely zip to stop the IRA and indeed acted as cheerleader and apologist for their campaign. There is really no comparison. Corbyn f***ed himself (and now by extension Labour) with an utterly partisan, morally vacuous approach to Northern Ireland. To give succour to an organisation like the Republican Movement engaged in appalling ethnically motivated violence over such an extended period is unforgivable.

  • northstar

    I think you forgot the Kitson thing! UDA was created by him from the WDA (Woodvale Defence Assoc). UDA suited UK like so many other groups in other lands did. I recommend his Book – Low Intensity Operations. There is where you will find the blueprint for the Troubles. The newly emerged IRAs took the bait stupidly enough and their Dogma became a stick to beat us all with. Violence really did become a Merry Go Round. On my streets we were happy to fight the occupier, for the BA acted that part well and so it went on and on. The IRA did not start the violence, nor did my community. If you disagree have a look at the Scarman Report.Their were more objectors to the Peace Process in Unionism and Security services than there were in IRA and Nationalism. In early days I took part in some meetings across the divide. Very enlightening. More needed now – a desire for Victory is a desire for hate and further conflict. Unionism’s mantra of not an inch is part of the problem, always has been. Believing their own Propaganda is Unionism greatest weakness, though it might serve well in the short term it will be an anchor in the end. When circled Wagon are perceived as your only protection the loss of one wagon looks like a disaster. Unionism has been in that mode since the 17th Century unfortunately – that is the key to everything here. But more people now describe themselves as Irish or Northern Irish(2011 Census) than any other. The capital N will easily turn to a small n. That is the future, and between us we will develop a creative way to live on this island – a way which belittles no group. Partition as it exists belittles very many across the island, demonstrated by SF being the biggest Party on the island.
    Corbyn is no more a nut than Cameron and less a nut than Blair. Politicians with Ego are dangerous – Corbyn has a dream not an ego. Sometimes dreams come true. I want a fair world. It will not come under the present Bilderberg controlled system. Profit before People is the world’s greatest Evil toda.y

  • Cushy Glen

    Whose evidence? Other ‘moderates’? Evidence is entirely subjective in politics. It’s not a science.
    Many people labelled ‘moderate’ do not compromise eg Tony Blair on Iraq. Cameron on austerity, Obama on Syria etc etc.
    ‘Moderates’ talk a lot about compromise. I’ll give you that.
    ‘Moderate’ is a flag of convenience. Nothing more.