The making of a movement: who’s shaping Corbynism?

Image: Chatham House / Suzanne Plunkett licensed under CC BY 2.0

The making of a movement: who’s shaping Corbynism?

No leader, no ideology can come to power — and stay in power — alone. Who are the key thinkers, organisers and behind-the-scenes players shaping Corbynism, what does its future hold, and what does this mean for civil society?

Whatever you think about Corbyn, it’s hard to deny that something big is happening in British politics. The dominant consensus about how the economy and society should be organised – a consensus that has endured for forty years and that seemed to have survived the global financial crisis – is falling apart. As Nick Pearce puts it, again in the FT: “Conservatives rally to the tattered banner of the free market, but precious little life is left in their political project.” Such a comment would have been almost unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Meanwhile, a Labour manifesto built on ideas that had become political taboos – like bringing energy and transport back into public ownership – proved wildly popular with the public. Far from the longest suicide note in history, it may yet turn out to have been the death warrant of British neoliberalism.

So what are the contours of this “intellectual revolution”, and what does it mean for UK civil society? What is the infrastructure surrounding and informing it? And what would it take to transform this political moment into a real and lasting shift in the ‘common sense’ of UK politics, of the kind last seen in the 1970s when Thatcherism replaced Keynesianism as the dominant paradigm? These are the questions I’ve been investigating for the past few months, and which I plan to delve into further as part of my doctoral research.

Looking back at the 1970s is a good place to start. For if we are witnessing an intellectual revolution, it’s one that has managed to bloom in extremely poor soil. The Thatcherite revolution was the culmination of decades of groundwork deliberately laid by conservative intellectuals and influencers – from the first summit of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 to the creation of a well-funded network of think tanks like the Atlas Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs. As Milton Friedman famously said, the “basic function” of this infrastructure was “to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

By contrast, precious few institutions on the left have been playing this long game during the prolonged hegemony of neoliberalism. Corbynism has mushroomed, seemingly almost overnight, precisely out of the frustrations of many on the left who have not seen a post-neoliberal project being put forward anywhere else. Indeed, this is part of the reason why young people – who have been told their entire political lifetimes that ‘there is no alternative’ – are flocking to Corbynism like an oasis in a desert.

Those who point out that Corbynism’s policy platform is patchy and thin beneath the bold headline commitments, or that it has so far failed to comprehensively reinvent social democracy for the 21st century, are therefore right but are somewhat missing the point. Indeed, it would be astonishing if it were otherwise. Corbynism has no ready-made intellectual infrastructure to draw on. (By ‘intellectual infrastructure’ I mean a strong network of organisations and individuals that are developing new ideas within a common framework and connecting them to policy makers.) It has had to try and build one as it goes along – and its chaotic genesis, dogged by Labour’s internecine warfare, has hardly been an auspicious environment in which to do so.

The real question, then, is how these critical gaps are being plugged at the moment – and what would be needed to turn these stopgaps into a powerful enough intellectual infrastructure to underpin lasting transformation. To explore this, I’ve been reading Labour policy documents and tracing the genesis of the key ideas. I’ve also drawn on conversations with people inside and outside the Corbyn camp.

It’s clear from this that the Corbyn project lacks sister organisations or support structures that are vital for its continued success. This leads to a number of interconnected problems: a lack of resource to draw on for policy development; a heavy reliance on a relatively small number of staff who are often quite new to this world; a dearth of heavyweight supporters to defend policies from attacks in the media or from political opponents. Three areas in particular are ripe for new thinking and new structures: the intellectual (think tanks and academics), the movement-based (campaigners and grassroots organisers) and the internal (policy staff themselves). Let’s take them each in turn.

1. Intellectual infrastructure: New networks of think tanks and academics

It’s striking that only one of the Corbyn leadership’s key staffers came from a think tank – James Meadway, formerly Chief Economist at the New Economics Foundation. (Full disclosure: I worked with James at NEF over the same period.) The others are mostly drawn from the union movement, the organised far left, or academia – people like Andrew Fisher, widely credited with the success of Labour’s 2017 manifesto, or Mary Robertson, Corbyn’s head of economic policy. References to think tanks in Labour’s policy documents are sporadic: the only ones directly referenced appear to be IPPR and the Fabian Society, although NEF’s influence is also apparent in some policy commitments, such as the idea of breaking up RBS into a network of local banks.

In some areas, the leadership seems to be taking its cues directly from academics – see for example the clear influence of heterodox economists such as Mariana Mazzucato and Ha Joon Chang on the party’s industrial strategy. This perhaps explains the lack of detail in some policy areas: the think-tank infrastructure simply isn’t there to translate this cutting-edge academic work into practical policy proposals (though see the recent report of SPERI’s Industrial Strategy Commission for an attempt to address this).

John McDonnell’s Council of Economic Advisors, set up during the first days of the leadership, was a valiant effort to give the party’s economic policy some heavyweight academic backing. But many of its members were not natural Corbyn supporters, and ran alarmed from the public ridicule heaped on the leadership in the early days – resulting in the Council being largely disbanded. Academic input now seems to be ad hoc rather than systematised.

In other areas, thought leadership is being drawn from within Labour’s own extended networks – see for example the increasingly high-profile ‘Preston Model’ championed by Labour councillor Matthew Brown, which focusses on using public procurement by ‘anchor institutions’ to strengthen local economies and boost co-operative ownership. Indeed, the ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ report – co-authored by Brown and other members of the Labour Co-op movement, along with supportive academics – is one of the most interesting and innovative things to come out of the Corbyn leadership so far. (The fact that the Preston Model was originally inspired by a US-based think tank, The Democracy Collaborative, is another indicator of the dearth of innovative thinking coming from within the UK.) Again, this helps to explain why policy development is so uneven, skewed as it is to those areas where Labour’s networks are strong.

It seems likely that new institutions will be needed to turn these currents of thinking into a vibrant intellectual ecosystem. Some existing think tanks are entering the fray: the union-sponsored CLASS, well connected with the Corbyn leadership and led by rising star Faiza Shaheen, will certainly be one to watch. NEF, the only UK think tank that has consistently championed radical economic thinking, has recently distanced itself from policy development at precisely the time its ideas were finally gaining currency; whether this will change under new CEO Miatta Fahnbulleh remains to be seen. IPPR has been moving into the same territory with its Commission on Economic Justice, but its previous political baggage may limit its influence. Ultimately, the establishment of one or more new think tanks to meet the needs of these new times seems unavoidable – and is widely regarded as essential within the Corbyn movement.

2. Movement infrastructure: New ways of connecting the grassroots to policy

A second key plank of the policy making ecosystem is the role of NGOs and campaign groups. Here, it is possible that Corbynism could result in a more radical reconfiguration of the landscape. Opposition parties – particularly on the left – always rely to an extent on the expertise of trusted civil society organisations to flesh out their policy positions and to scrutinise government policy effectively. But what this looks like in practice for Corbyn is likely to be very different from the norms of the past.

The groups whose influence on the 2017 manifesto is recognisable are, to put it mildly, not the usual suspects. The Robin Hood Tax campaign’s proposal for stamp duty reform was directly adopted as a headline policy. Platform’s work on energy democracy has also been extremely influential in shaping Labour’s energy policy. These groups tend to be those who had strong relationships and strong alignment with Corbyn and McDonnell before the leadership election, and have been smart at leveraging them since. Unions, too, have perhaps more ability to set the agenda than at any time in the last few decades. They were responsible for many of the more fine-grained commitments in the manifesto, such as the pledge to toughen the law against assault for staff enforcing age restrictions – the result of USDAW’s Freedom from Fear campaign.

Big NGOs, on the other hand, have been largely absent – or even actively hostile. This situation is partly of their own making. Most NGOs’ campaign strategies are focussed on short-term battles that can be won within the current neoliberal framework, rather than on changing that framework. Like the rest of civil society, most simply do not have the kind of policy Corbyn wants in their back pockets. Swayed by the establishment consensus that Corbyn was an unelectable joke, many also expected his leadership to be short-lived or saw its support as more of a liability than an asset. As a result, some deliberately sat on their hands rather than investing in relationships with the shadow teams. They may well now be regretting that decision.

On the other hand, even civil society organisations who do want to engage with Labour haven’t always found it easy to do so. The constant reshuffles caused by party in-fighting have at times been difficult to keep up with, especially with ever more inexperienced policy staff having to constantly master new briefs and build up new networks of contacts. The circle of trusted outsiders is quite small, and suspicions often run high.  There are some welcome signs that this may be changing now that the leadership is more secure: having the confidence to reach out beyond the fortress walls is a sign of strength, and it’s to be hoped that this continues.

Still, exactly who will be invited in remains an open question. At this year’s conference a staffer at a large environmental organisation complained that the Labour frontbench regard the organisation as ‘sell-outs’ and are reluctant to take on policy positions they see as incremental rather than transformational. Is there any way back for a civil society establishment which consciously distanced itself from Corbyn in the early days? If so, that path must surely involve a shift in gear towards a bolder and more visionary approach to policy. Having said that, the task of scrutinising existing government policy is distinct from that of putting forward a transformative new agenda – and it does require a different, more forensic, more pragmatic approach. The Shadow Cabinet faces an unenviable juggling act in trying to do both at once, and it needs all the expert help it can get.

The bigger question, though, is whether Corbyn’s now more stable leadership team can develop a new way of doing civil society engagement – one less reliant on the expertise of paid staff at big NGOs, and more organically connected to grassroots social movements. What’s needed here are structures to systematise their input and link it directly to senior policymakers. Making this process less haphazard would help to ensure that the full diversity of grassroots voices are heard – particularly, for example, those working on issues of race and migration – rather than simply those who are well connected and well resourced.

It’s no accident that The World Transformed – the parallel to party conference run by a Momentum spin-off – has been described approvingly by commentators across the spectrum as the beating heart of Corbynism. The energy at this year’s conference was palpable: as one friend with whom I shared a panel commented, “I never expected to pack a room by talking about industrial strategy and democratic ownership. Left-wing economics is the new cool.” If there is anywhere it really feels like a new agenda for a Labour government is being built, it’s here. Extending these spaces – and the democratic, hopeful, intellectually curious spirit they embody – could be a key strategy for building the depth and vibrancy of the Corbyn project, as well as keeping it accountable to members and social movements.

Meanwhile, some of the most exciting civil society initiatives are those being run by capacity building outfits like the New Economy Organisers’ Network and Campaign Bootcamp – giving a generation of grassroots activists and campaigners the skills to build effective organisations capable of consistently setting the agenda. As this cohort starts to come up through the ranks, it could further transform the landscape.

3. Internal infrastructure: Bridging the skills gap

Finally, there’s a very prosaic practical issue arising from the fact that the UK left has been confined to the sidelines for a generation. The lack of institutions dedicated to challenging economic orthodoxy hasn’t just left a policy vacuum, but also a skills vacuum. Radical left thinkers in the UK have simply not been learning how to run things: they’ve had very few places to cut their teeth. Conversely, talented people looking for a good career move that also allows them to get real things done have tended not to be drawn to the left.

There’s no doubt that Corbyn has some incredibly smart people around him – but smarts do not always go with the skills needed to run a tight ship, still less to reach out and collaborate. And the pool from which such people can be drawn is not deep. The team is also having to shift gears rapidly from a lifetime of highly oppositional politics to a situation where government is within reach, and developing implementable policy – fast – is suddenly the order of the day. This demands a completely new, and for many on the left an unfamiliar, skill set. Direct experience of government is a still rarer commodity.

Claims of internal sabotage are not just paranoia, either: I have heard stories of new Shadow Ministers having to start from scratch on complex bills after their predecessors erased files rather than pass them on. This shifting ground and fragile grip on the party’s machinery and resources has severely hampered both the leadership’s capacity to do policy and the ability of new staff and Shadow Ministers to learn to do policy.

By all accounts, the leadership is well aware of this problem and is already holding internal workshops to begin addressing it – but it’s a big project which will not be done and dusted overnight. Some trade unions have also begun organising training for staff and MPs to build their skills and knowledge for government. Such programmes will need to be rapidly scaled up if the Labour party is serious about the formidable task ahead.

The Corbyn leadership has needed to do more with less than any political leadership in living memory. It is effectively trying to bridge a generational deficit in new progressive thinking, with neither time nor the party machine on its side. But in the wake of this year’s shock election results, and with the ship seemingly steadied, its task now is to build an effective policy infrastructure to match the scale of its ambition. Meanwhile, the energetic, optimistic young movement surrounding it will surely begin generating its own ecosystem from the grassroots up. For the first time in my political lifetime, there’s a sense of confidence on the left. The challenge now is to build this into a solid platform for government.

5th December 2017


  1. Paul Hutchens says:

    MxV helped – some of the policy proposals put on MxV by Momentum members (such as abolishing NHS hospital car parking charges) gained traction on MxV before being included in Labour’s manifesto, did they not?

  2. David Lightfoot says:

    When I think back to the 1960’s and 1970’s it seems to me that almost all publicly available political analysis was based on established left-wing principles.
    While these may be in need of dusting off, of adaptation to the times and translation into digestible language, much of the arguments in favour of a leftist agenda are as relevant now as they were then. I therefore am not wildly excited at the prospect of the ecretion onto Labour of a large swathe of disparate think-tanks like barnacles on a ship.
    Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiastic support comes because he avowse and embodies key values that chime with the groundswell supporters. His integrity, his honesty, his willingness to listen and his adherence to easily understandable and decent principles. If any of these things are obscured or ignored by Labour this support could melt away as dramatically as it has appeared. In short, Corbyn’s leadership is dependent on maintaining the relationship with his base.
    Indeed this new base and new forms of interaction with Labour’s membership should also provide the main route for the development of the party’s future policies, rather than through the old-fashioned, somewhat stilted and broadly uninspiring mechanisms.

  3. Guy Falkenau says:

    It is important that Labour has clear policy objectives.Providing Corbyn’s ministerial team are clear about what they want they can probably rely on the civil service to flesh out a lot of the details of policy implementation.The greatest risk comes from ideas which have been insufficiently fleshed out and where the brush employed to fashion them has been too broad.In education , a field in which I worked as a senior local authority officer, I find it difficult to intrepret what is meant by ‘ national education service’ .At one level it represents a guarantee of a given minimum.form of provision irrespective of which part of the country an individual resides in, – a guarantee of the universality of providiomn.But what is unclear is how this national service is to be administered.Will Labour persist in the use of regional commissioners as set up by the current government or will it be a national framework administered locally with restored forms of local democracy ? Labour may not be able to hand responsibility back to local authorities, but it needs to have clear ideas about how local communities regain a say over the way in which that provision is delivered.

  4. Ruth says:

    I have to disagree with the statements ‘almost everyone expected him to lose catastrophically’ and ‘when Labour seemed mired in civil war and the Conservatives confidently set the political agenda’. Firstly, I know Corbyn supporters make up only a small proportion of the electorate but we didn’t expect him to lose catastrophically – I knew it would be unexpected if he won but I at least hoped for the hung parliament as I was a member of a lot of pro-Corbyn groups on Facebook and many spoke of people in their families and former Tories and Greens who had said they would vote for Labour and I could see how he was appealing to young people. I had done a lot of canvassing so knew it was a mixed reception (with more older people being taken in by the MSM bias that had gone on for two years since he first stood to be leader of the Labour Party) but in my heart I hoped the youth vote would make a big difference and it did. Secondly the Tories have not been setting the political agenda – their agenda was set by UKIP and they have been merely been stumbling from one crisis to another whilst repeating lies about Labour and sound bites in the hope that people won’t realise how lacking in ideas and vision they are. Cameron was just a continuation of Tony Blair and May is a very pale imitation of Thatcher with very few ideas or convictions. The Tories don’t appear to be trying to conserve anything apart from the neoliberal status quo,their bank balances and growing inequality.

  5. Colin Wilkes says:

    Interesting question; “…who’s shaping Corbynism?.” There is a very simple answer . The rank and file activists of the Trade Union Movement and Labour Party Members is a factual and brief answer.
    John McDonnell organised a series of Policy creating events throughout the country. Those who attended did so on a purely voluntary basis out of their desire to shape policy they considered appropriate to win an election at national level and to form a Labour Government devoid of any sort of policy related to Austerity and / or Neoliberalism.
    The event I attended at Salford Rugby League ground had approximately 300 attendees. These 300 split up into discussion and policy formulating groups of which there were about twelve.
    I chose to participate in the group that formulated a return to Collective Bargaining Rights at a national level as its primary objective. Other issues were part and parcel of this groups submission and included Workers Education Programs at all levels from basic to post graduate courses including Sandwich Courses. Great emphasis on the poor quality of present Apprentice Training was discussed and formulations and recommendations made on how this extremely important element of not just an individuals learning and development but the benefits high quality education brings to any society

  6. I’d also like to draw attention to the work of The Equality Trust, which was instrumental, along with Just Fair, in securing a commitment to bringing into force the Socio-Economic Duty (section 1 The Equality Act) along with other issues. We are the national charity campaigning to reduce inequality in this country, and you may have noted the plentiful references to inequality and our stats in many of the speeches at the Labour Party Conference.

  7. Koldo Casla says:

    Thanks for this overview. It reminded me of a report I read recently, which might be of interest (I assume you don’t know about because I believe you don’t mention it): (“Moving beyond neoliberalism: An assessment of the economic systems change movement in the UK”, by Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Michael Jacobs). Good luck with your PhD.

  8. Brian Gee says:

    It’s now been a year since Prime Minister Corbyn introduced what became his flagship policy of abolishing cash. It is without doubt his surprise adoption of this policy, after a sustained campaign by the Sun newspaper, which persuaded older voters that Labour could finally be trusted with the economy. The younger tech savvy voters were always behind him and, in truth, were bemused by all the fuss as most of them had no use for cash in their daily lives.

    For many years all parties had talked about addressing tax evasion but this was the first positive step in that direction. Many had thought this policy too radical, but with every inch of the UK covered by a 4G/5G signal in 2020 the final piece of the jigsaw was in place. Even the banks got behind the idea when they realised their profits would rise and have been able to lower their charges as a result. It took them less than two years to implement the changes that were required to personal banking.

    HMRC has announced that the increase in tax take, and NI contributions, this year will be £30 billion, and would approach £50 billion next year. This was primarily from Income Tax, but also VAT and even Stamp Duty. This is far more than they predicted and even better than Jeremy Corbyn was claiming a year ago. It is more than enough to end austerity and the crises in the NHS and social care. Tuition Fees will also now be abolished as promised in a previous election campaign and grants will finally replace student loans.

    But the reduction in tax evasion is nothing compared to the reduction in crime this policy has achieved. Burglary, theft and muggings are down over 90%. The war on drugs is effectively over, as a consequence much more money will be needed for drug rehabilitation programmes. People trafficking seems to be at an end. Police forces across the country are currently re-deploying staff but will soon need to reduce numbers. Many Courts are preparing for closure as the system is rationalised. Next year four prisons will close, the Home Office has already stopped it’s plan to recruit more prison officers.

    Local councils, in addition to getting more government funding have experienced a drastic fall in benefit fraud as all monies become visible through the banks. This has enabled them to boost their spending on social care. By next year the perennial problems of care for the elderly, mental health etc will all be fully funded for the first time ever. Another benefit is that Councils no longer face the scourge of rogue landlords and there is far greater adherence to housing regulations; as a result there is now a much improved private rental market under this Labour Government.

    Tourism has seen a tremendous boost as the UK is seen as the safest country in the world. Brexit got an unexpected boost as countries across the world are keen to do business with a nation viewed as the world’s most financially progressive. Sweden will not abolish cash until next year. India continues to abolish notes of a high denomination as its payment technology advances apace. Even Greece now realises that it is the use of cash, and the corruption that goes with it, that is undermining its ability to escape its horrendous debt burden.

    An unforeseen effect of the new policy is upon immigration. There has only been one report of illegal immigration in the past year. This was a case of three Afghans discovered on a lorry at Dover, they thought the lorry was bound for Germany. Like many other illegal immigrants, who cannot survive here without cash, they were happy to accept the government offer of free repatriation. Many other legal immigrants, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, are choosing to return home as they find it very difficult to adjust to a cashless society. The overall effect upon the housing crisis has been so dramatic that the government will end it’s house building program later this year.

    Prime Minister Corbyn is particularly pleased that this policy has finally brought some genuine fairness to British society, after years of empty Tory rhetoric. Now it is not just those on PAYE who pay their fair share of the tax burden, but everyone is treated equally. There is now far more fairness in the job market as cheap unregulated labour is confined to history. Whether an individual or a small business everyone is now on the same level playing field with no unfair, illegal, competition for a job or sale.

    Even the Opposition Leader Boris Johnson admitted that the policy had been a considerable success and that it would be difficult to dislodge Prime Minister Corbyn at the next election. He quipped that his only hope is for Mr Corbyn to pursue his suicidal policy to re-nationalise the railways!

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