Corbynism, the single market, and political traditions

​Colm Murphy

​15 September 2017

Although the Labour Party has witnessed ferocious internal battles in the last few years, open conflict has recently abated. The 2017 election result, coupled with enduring support of the membership, has buttressed the hitherto disputed leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, divisions have resurfaced: most notably, over Labour’s position on whether retaining single market membership should be a priority in the Brexit negotiations.

Over the summer, statements from Corbyn and Shadow Minister Barry Gardiner sparked controversy. Both suggested that the European referendum result mandated an exit from the single market and potentially the customs union. Importantly, though many Labour MPs agree, these positions seem to contradict the majority opinion of the Party membership, based on sample polling. Given that the 2014 Collins Review has endowed members with considerable internal power, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Corbyn’s ally Diane Abbott later demurred, suggesting that retaining Single Market membership was still ‘on the table’. More recently, Keir Starmer reaffirmed Abbott’s position, while also committing Labour to keeping customs union and single market access during a transitional period. Nonetheless, while many have highlighted this as a significant step, it still does not rule out Labour supporting or executing a dramatic ultimate exit from established European structures.

The ambiguity of Corbyn and his team’s approach resembles the tortured triangulation of the Miliband years, except that this time it may be reaping rewards. Aside from scattered dissent from the left and right, there is no indication thus far that Corbyn has lost any of the ardent support that secured his two comprehensive landslides in leadership elections. The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush and Anoosh Chakelian have both floated the possibility that Corbyn’s ‘fireproof’ position means that he could, if it came to it, push through a ‘harder’ Brexit and migration policy while retaining high levels of Party support, in a way that, for example, Yvette Cooper could not.

This reminds us of the importance of the ‘myths we live by’, in the words of Jon Lawrence, for influencing political outcomes. Corbyn, rooted in the Bennite tradition, is a Eurosceptic of some vintage, having  consistently voted against integration. Yet he has drawn support inside and outside the Party from groups who tend to support the EU, such as young city-dwellers. They have aligned themselves with Corbyn despite these European incongruities, because they connect with a wider narrative or symbol associated with Corbyn’s Labour.


Still, Corbyn’s secure position may seem particularly remarkable against a background of Labour’s long and distinguished tradition of denouncing leaders as ‘traitors’ to the ‘movement’.

Unsurprisingly given its rhetorical appeal, condemning treachery is a recurring theme in the modern history of British politics. Robert Peel was marked as a traitor to Conservatism by Disraelite Tories because he repealed the Corn Laws; similarly, in his later years William Gladstone was increasingly disowned by Liberal Unionists because of his approach to the Irish question. Moving closer to the present, Adrian Williamson has dryly noted that in accounts of postwar Conservatism, depending on the narrator, the tradition of ‘Conservatism’ was either betrayed by Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath before being rescued by Margaret Thatcher, or vice versa.

In Labour, there has been an especially vigorous tradition of decrying past and present leaders as traitors to the cause of socialism and/or the labour movement.  This partly derives from theoretical socialist critiques of the efficacy of parliamentary socialism itself, such as Ralph Miliband’s thesis, but also from Labour’s own folk history. Whether during the Bevanite revolt of the 1950s, or the backlash against the deflationary and immigration policies of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan’s governments, grassroots activists have frequently berated the Party’s leaders for ‘betrayal’. One of the most enduring cautionary tales concerns Ramsay MacDonald, forever branded a heretic in the eyes of many for forming a ‘National’ government in Great Depression Britain and consigning the Party to electoral catastrophe. These institutional historical memories persisted and became rhetorical weapons. In 1995, the leader of the Liverpool city council during the rates boycott, Tony Mulhearn, described the Party’s expulsion of Trotskyist entryists Militant Tendency during the fallout as the ‘biggest betrayal since MacDonald’ – deliberately evoking the cultural resource ‘leadership treachery’ to frame a contemporary debate.

Of course, those who denounce are not themselves exempt from the accusations of ever-vigilant Labour activists. During the 1980 Labour conference, a delegate and officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties savaged the recent Labour government live on television for their record. Her name was Patricia Hewitt. After the 1983 election, she became Neil Kinnock’s press secretary, and therefore a member of the Labour establishment. In early 1987, she penned a memo that purported to explain why Labour had lost a by-election in Greenwich, in which she blamed Ken Livingstone’s radical Greater London Council for shedding votes in London by inculcating fears of ‘higher taxes/rates’ and the ‘gays and lesbians issue’.

Unfortunately for her, this was leaked to the Sun. Kinnock’s papers at Churchill College, Cambridge, contain an entire file of subsequent incensed letters from activists and affiliated societies, anonymous and named – many accused Hewitt, and by extension the leadership, not just of a poor choice of words, but of ‘capitulating to the Thatcherite agenda’. One correspondent specifically referenced Hewitt’s more radical past: ‘What is the matter with you woman? You once had some very decent politics … Why don’t you get yourself out of Mr. Kinnock’s office from time to time. Meet some of your old friends.’

The fall (and rise) of mistrust

Nevertheless, Hewitt’s career illustrates the malleability of historical meaning in political mythologies. Resonant of broader trends in Labour during the 1980s and 1990s, she left the Party’s outspoken left wing and became one of its self-proclaimed ‘modernisers’, later serving in Tony Blair’s government. In that decade, a distinct faction emerged, known as the ‘soft left’, who broke off from the Bennite alliance that had rebelliously agitated for greater activist power in the early 1980s, and moved into the more established structures of the Party. The trajectories of Harriet Harman, Tom Sawyer, David Blunkett, and former editors of this journal also neatly illustrate this pivot.

Folk-historical tropes, just like cults of personality, can thus slide in and out of popularity. Though it was clearly resonant among large swathes of the Party in the early- to mid- 1980s (and indeed more recently), the political appeal of accusations that the Party’s leadership were ‘betraying’ the ‘movement’ diminished as the decade progressed.

An indication of growing dissatisfaction appeared in November 1987, when the historically left-wing Tribune published a review of a new book by activist and writer Hilary Wainwright that criticised her ‘Manichean’ view of the Party as consisting of ‘the Good’ (activists, trade union members, and liberation campaigners) and ‘the Evil’ (the leadership, the parliamentary party, and trade union leaders). Broadly, the membership increasingly accepted the ideological revisions in political economy and defence policy that were pushed through from the top in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the 1988 leadership contest and a sample survey of c.1990 demonstrate. Key contexts, including the enduring success of Thatcher’s twist on ‘popular individualism’, had clearly impinged on the potency of this particular mythology. As the Party archives in Manchester show, there were those who continued to write letters denouncing the pivotal ‘Policy Review’ at the end of the 1980s, but they were representative of the grassroots no longer. At least until the 2000s and 2010s.

Reputation management

Similarly, Labour history reminds us that the reputations of specific politicians are also hostages to changing contexts and their use by contemporary actors – in other words, their reception. As the Prime Minister of Labour’s transformative 1945-51 government, Clement Attlee is often remembered fondly both within and without the Party. But in the ‘Blue Labour’ version of the Party’s history, Attlee spurned the mutualist, community-oriented and libertarian side of British socialism for bureaucratic paternalism and nationalised industries; others have long highlighted the patriarchal nature of the postwar welfare state. The position of Attlee’s government in a political tradition thus depends on what aspects of his thought, policies and legacies are emphasised.

Other examples could include Barbara Castle, who has been lambasted by trade unionists for her role in the controversial 1969 white paper In Place of Strife, while also celebrated as a pioneering female politician who engineered the 1970 Equal Pay Act – or even valorised as a Eurosceptic icon by Lexiteers during the referendum debate. The transformation of Tony Benn’s public image from hard left demon to cuddly pipe-smoker in his later years again demonstrates that reputation often rests on what is highlighted and emphasised.

In this light, it is much easier to see how Corbyn’s historic Euroscepticism, grounded in a Bennite celebration of popular democracy and desire for a very interventionist political economy, can today be downplayed by his supporters. Their acts of remembrance and amnesia form part of their ongoing attempt to construct the tradition of ‘Corbynism’. In this endeavour, they are acting similarly to innovators of other political traditions – indeed, it’s directly comparable to the memorialisation of both the New Labour period by Polly Toynbee and Progress and the 1980s soft left faction by Open Labour. By understating the European question and refraining (for now) from denouncing leadership ‘treachery’, Corbyn’s Labour may succeed in shifting political debate onto preferred topics, such as gaping disparities in wealth and capital and gender and race inequalities, and nudge the spotlight away from issues that cut across their electoral alliance, especially free movement of labour. Still, it remains to be seen how effective this attempt to create Corbynism the tradition will be in the longer term.

Colm Murphy is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, researching conceptions of ‘modernity’ among the British left in the late twentieth century. He tweets at @colm_m.

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