Callum Cant is an editor of Notes from Below and ex-Labour Party member. He was Momentum’s Head of Communications in 2020-21.

Black Swans

In 2007, just as the subprime mortgage crisis was beginning to bear fruit in the United States, Nassim Nicholas Taleb published a book on black swans.1 The core of the book was a simple story: prior to the arrival of Europeans in Australia, they thought all swans were white. They had generation after generation of experience with the animals, all of which pointed in one direction. But, in fact, there are black swans too. Taleb’s book focused on how lessons learned from observation and experience can be prone to being completely confounded by outliers that deviate from the existing trend. It was published on April 17th, and within a few months the early tremors of what would become the global financial crisis could be felt. The book was top of the bestseller lists for most of the next year.
The popularity of Taleb’s fortuitously-timed theory can be read as both as evidence of a desperate ruling class grasping for an excuse (“of course we couldn’t have avoided this crisis, it was a black swan”) and a affirmation of a widely recognised truth: that sometimes in complex systems a series of factors can interact to produce outcomes that are very hard to predict in advance, in a process complexity theorists call ‘emergence’.

This article is not about black swans, but about an equally unexpected being: a left wing Labour Party leader. This emergent outcome, which confounded everyone from the Party establishment to the most hard-bitten radicals, was the defining characteristic of four years of political struggle in Britain. If we want to understand where we go next, we have to account for where we have been.

The Unlikely Election of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party came from nowhere. It was enabled by two key factors that interacted in a way that nobody predicted. The first was a change in the rules governing Labour leadership elections. The second was the coincidence of the anti-austerity movement with a steep decline in the electoral popularity of centrism.

The process of Labour leadership elections has been subject to intense contention since the 1980s. By the 2010 leadership election, the system in place was an electoral college that weighted the votes of three sections equally: Labour MPs and MEPs; individual party members; and individual members of affiliated organisations (primarily trade unions.) The contest was an unusual one, in that it pitted two brothers against one another: Ed and David Miliband were the two favourites, with David being the true inheritor of the New Labour throne and Ed supporting an extremely mild social democratic deviation from Blairite orthodoxy. David rapidly became the front runner, picking up 32% of local party nominations to his younger brother’s 25%. Yougov polling in July suggested he would win the contest in the final round with 54%. However, his lead was narrowing. The last poll before the ballot in September saw his lead shrink to just 2%.

The final result went the other way. Ed won in the fourth round of the contest. He lost to David amongst MPs and MEPs (46.6% vs 53.4%) and amongst ordinary members (45.6% vs 54.4%) but pulled it round with a big advantage amongst affiliate members, which included the trade union (59.8% versus 40.2%.) The Labour right took a simple lesson from this election: ordinary members were to the right of trade unionists, so future electoral systems should be changed to shift the balance of power in their favour. In 2014 the electoral college was replaced with a ‘one member, one vote’ system that disenfranchised Labour-affiliated trade unionists and created a new low-cost supporter system. The result, however, was not what anyone expected.

Ever since the election of a Tory-Liberal coalition in 2010, British society had been subjected to a programme of austerity. State expenditure was radically constrained, and the process of cutting budgets was used to conduct a further round of neoliberal consolidation. The social wage was slashed, and ordinary people felt the effects almost immediately. Public services went into steep decline.

The movement against austerity began when thousands of young people - ranging from school kids to university students - stormed the Tory party’s Millbank HQ during a demonstration against the tripling of university tuition fees. Over the course of the next four years the movement ebbed and flowed, with one day public sector strikes and large demonstrations in the centre of London combining with some more interesting local initiatives. However, the advanced political elements within the movement (mostly focused in and around the student movement) remained tactically and politically isolated. This was the bubble where I gained my initial political education, and its common sense was formed by a contradictory mixture of Anarchist direct actionism, anti-authoritarian Communism, and the leftovers of British Trotskyism. Our tactical repertoire focused on contentious street demonstrations, building occupations, and occasional strike support. In the mainstream of the movement, however, the political common sense remained a nostalgia for the post-war settlement and the spirit of ‘45, tactically mediated by giant and ineffectual coalitions like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Despite a marked increase in the volume of protest events, strike numbers remained at historic lows, and apart from a few notable examples (electricians leading wildcat strikes in London, workers occupying a wind farm factory in the Isle of Wight, and so on) the movement never seriously deployed with the structural leverage of the working class. The result was that the early 2010s created a significant base of hundreds of thousands of movement participants with vaguely leftist political sentiments, and within that base a more concentrated advanced nexus of tens of thousands of radicals.

The British state’s turn to austerity was not an isolated trend. Cuts to public spending were a pillar of the transnational post-crisis orthodoxy. Across Europe, the social democratic parties that implemented austerity measures saw their vote shares nosedive, and challenger parties emerge to their left. Particularly paradigmatic was the collapse of PASOK, the Greek social democratic party, which saw Syriza (‘the coalition of the radical left’) become the largest force in parliament in early 2015 after taking advantage of Proportional Representation to circumnavigate the existing parties. This gave the name to ‘Pasokification’, meaning the decline of formerly social democratic centrist parties following their collaboration in austerity. In the British context, Labour seemed to be undergoing a version of this crisis with the rise of a left nationalist Scottish National Party in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum decimating their support across Scotland. Pasokification seemed to have become the defining tendency in European politics.

However, Ed Milliband’s general election defeat in 2015 convinced the party’s right that anti-austerity sentiment remained a minority current in the UK electorate. Harriet Harman stepped up to be interim leader after his resignation. Her reign is remarkable for one decision: in the middle of the next leadership election campaign, just a month before voting began, she decided that Labour would not oppose the Tory’s welfare cuts. The decision provoked fury amongst the anti-austerity movement. Polling released shortly after by YouGov showed the last-minute left wing addition to the ballot, Jeremy Corbyn, had surged into a winning position with 53% of the vote in the final round. He was polling dead-level with Andy Burnham amongst members, but affiliates and supporters were backing him by a majority of 69% to 31% and dragging him over the line. The electorate continued to change fast, with Labour membership jumping by almost 100,000 and similar numbers joining as registered supporters. A panicking Labour establishment rejected 56,000 applications for membership and supporter status, but even that was not enough. In the end, Corbyn smashed the election in the first round, winning a whopping 59.5% of the vote. The preferred candidate of the right, Liz Kendall, came last with 4.5%. Britain’s First Past The Post electoral system strongly discouraged the formation of new parties, and when combined with the elimination of the electoral college the result had been to provoke a new kind of internal Pasokification that had radically changed the balance of forces within the party. The right’s reforms had backfired spectacularly.

For the section of the left shaped by the broken windows and baton charges that followed 2010, Corbyn’s election was a challenge. The common sense on the radical fringe of the anti-austerity movement had been strongly influenced by ideological currents that opposed all electoralism. The Labour Party figured as an antagonist: it was the party of Iraq, of tuition fees, of the asylum seeker panic. The emergence of alternative left wing parties like Syriza and Podemos across Europe had been met with giddy excitement. The centre could not hold: Labour was destined for the scrapheap of history. And yet this frame didn’t account for what happened in the Summer of 2015. Now, Labour seemed to have pivoted to the left. Corbyn celebrated his election as leader by heading straight to a refugee solidarity demonstration in central London. Something profound had happened, and the analytical perspectives of the radical nucleus were ill suited to making sense of it. The result was an increasingly widespread willingness within this bubble to reassess our strategic assumptions. What if there was a novel chance to use Labour, one of the fundamental pillars of British capitalism, as a weapon against that same system?

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Party

The various factions of the Labour Left defy easy simplification. The party has always been home to a kaleidoscope of sects, informal groupings and tendencies, each scrapping over minute patches of territory. Many of these groups are secret, seeking to use the security of the shadows and the methods of political ‘fixers’ to manoeuvre their way into positions of influence. As such, the relationships between all of these forces and the Corbyn project is almost impossible to summarise. However, we can understand the internal shape of what party insiders call the ‘hard left’ by simplifying everything into three layers, striated by their access to power. First, the leadership: primarily, Corbyn, his staff in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (LOTO), and the core of Socialist Campaign Group MPs. Key figures in this layer included Special Political Advisor, Andrew Murray, Labour Party General Secretary, Jennie Formby, Communications Director Seaumas Milne, and supportive union General Secretaries like Len McCluskey and Dave Ward. Second, the movement elite, combining the leadership and staff of key institutions, such as Momentum Chairman John Landsman, with lower level elected representatives and key media figures. And third, the membership, structured around the hardcore 20-30,000 Momentum members and wider layers of sympathisers who followed the Momentum line without joining. Every faction combined elements of each layer, and there were often strong internal striations within them. But this was the basic shape of the terrain.

Early on, the leadership attempted to compromise with the right of the party. After being embedded within Labour for decades, their strategic horizon was limited to waging a standard electoral campaign which would be distinguished primarily through the use of mass rallies and the adoption of more left wing policy. The movement elite tended to take a more combative line early on, and began to build institutions which could give the membership some coherence and provide support to the leadership where necessary. They were interested in forcing the pace of institutional change and developing more routes for democratic power, but had their ambitions constrained by the leadership above them and the wider institutional context. The membership had no clear early approach. Anti-austerity activists and radicals alike had piled into the party and they were busy experimenting to determine the opportunities and threats in this environment. They often formed the backbone of the new local Momentum groups.

Three broad strategic approaches emerged: first, conventional Left Labourism, which sought to employ standard electoral tactics; second, class war social democracy, which wanted to pursue populism along the lines of Syriza and Podemos by merging the party with a wider movement and mobilising new voters to break apart the old political centre ground; and third, counter attack socialism, which wanted to turn the party into a mechanism that could accelerate the development of popular social and economic struggles by provoking conflicts in which working class forces could cohere and undergo a rapid process of political development. Initially, it was somewhat possible to fudge between the last two approaches, with the pursuit of one not always being hugely distinct from the pursuit of the other in practice. For many activists, the logic ran: ‘if we fail in the more ambitious goals of counter attack socialism, at least the fall back position is class struggle social democracy.’

In 1891, Engels wrote about how the progress of popular suffrage in Germany would push the bourgeoise into action against the social democrats:

“The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the conditions created by themselves… They can cope with the Social-Democratic overthrow, which is just now doing so well by keeping the law, only by an overthrow on the part of the parties of Order, an overthrow which cannot live without breaking the law.”2

Bourgeois forces could, he argued, be challenged under the conditions of bourgeois legality, and if a broad coalition featuring the working class made sufficient progress it could force them into the role of an illegitimate minority. Rather than envisaging the transition to socialism as a Bernstein-eque smooth road of reform, the counter attack socialist current implicitly followed Engel’s century-old vision in imagining the party as a machine for opening up new confrontations, and then accelerating through these confrontations to a more fundamental class-against-class confrontations. A programme of reforms was to be used to open up this terrain of conflict.

Both the class struggle social democrats and the counter attackers had as a key point of reference Andre Gorz’s 1968 essay ‘Reform and Revolution.’3 In it, he articulated the ‘principle problem of socialist strategy’ as being the need ‘to create the objective and subjective conditions which will make mass revolutionary action and engagement in a successful trial of strength with the bourgeoisie possible.’ The essay argued that advanced capitalist economies did not produce the kind of circumstances necessary for this revolutionary action to emerge spontaneously from the working classes’ experience of everyday life, and so an alternative method had to be found. This alternative would be the specific utilisation of electoral politics. By advocating a program of non-reformist reforms and using their pursuit to create autonomous forms of working class power, Gorz believed it would be possible to progressively educate and unite the social forces necessary for a more decisive struggle down the line. Autonomous social forces acting outside the party could act as partners of the left within it to alter the dimensions of the political terrain. He didn’t believe that such a program would be accepted meekly by the ruling class: instead, the force of ruling class resistance would be provoked and would act as a political accelerant that helped the autonomous popular forces to understand the necessity of transformation. The difference between the class struggle social democrat and the counter attack socialist readings of this essay clustered around two questions. First, would the popular forces envisaged by Gorz be primarily working class in character, or emerge as a kind of popular front of multiple classes? And second, what was the end goal of the process of transformation? That word, ‘transform’ and its derivations ‘transformative’ and ‘transformed’ were always undefined in the experience of Corbynism. Wherever you saw that word - most notably in the title of the festival The World Transformed - you knew there was an open question yet to be answered about where the project wanted to end up.

The counter attack socialists believed that a radically different kind of Labour party could decisively shift the dynamic of class struggle and initiate a series of confrontations in which working class forces could be mobilised to support the programme of an elected leftist government. The idea was never that Labour would be allowed to govern unopposed by capital and the repressive apparatuses of the state – a coup was always on the horizon of this political imagination – but that the struggle to implement the programme could open up new and more revolutionary dynamics. First, we would elect a social democrat with popular legitimacy, then our enemies lose their shit, then we would beat them and go further. And so a core of hundreds of radicals, now inside a party we so recently opposed, started to go about the business of working out how such a strategy could be implemented. Almost immediately, we ran into problems.

Reverse Jenga and Corbynism from Below

From the start, it was obvious that Corbynism had been achieved through a decentralised regroupment of thousands of people around a new political centre that had genuine mass appeal. But this breadth couldn’t be mistaken for depth. The popular coalition that Corbynism rested upon was dangerously unorganised and inexperienced. The fluke nature of the 2015 leadership election meant that we were faced by an unusual strategic challenge: an advanced party of the left was isolated at the top of a major electoral party, surrounded by working class quiescence in the rest of society. And rather than a leftist opposition providing a catalyst for extra parliamentary opposition, the situation only seemed to be getting worse. Strike numbers continued to decline, and the anti-austerity movement vanished into the wind. With their demands increasingly being integrated into the program of a party that seemed like it could be in government before long, activists switched their mobilising energies from the streets to constituency Labour parties. Rather than the party catalysing autonomous class forces, it seemed to swallow them.

For a while, however, it seemed that communicating new ideas alone was enough to break the centre ground into little pieces. Corbyn’s control of the party increased following an even bigger leadership election win in 2016, then in 2017 Labour came from a massive polling deficit to deprive the Tories of a parliamentary majority. The project had faced two existential crises in two years, and it had not just survived them; improbably, it had emerged from them even stronger. There was now a palpable sense that the next election could see Labour in government. This catalysed a series of discussions amongst the struggle-orientated part of the new Labour left. Our slogan became ‘Corbynism from Below,’ and we attempted to build a base that could support our counter attacking ambitions.4 This took the form of a kind of absurd reverse Jenga: we had a left wing leader of the Labour party, now we need to reinvigorate the rank and file of the trade union movement; to organise tenants; to build fundamental community infrastructure.5

This was an uphill task for multiple reasons: not only did we have to undo years of decay in the working class movement, but we had to do it whilst fundamentally unsupported by the dominant factions within our own project. Post-2017, the left Labourites and the class struggle social democrats in the leadership and the movement elite increasingly began to reach a strategic agreement about how the membership should be mobilised. They would be asked to join a union, vote for the left slate in internal elections, support left candidates locally, and work for a Labour election victory, but not to democratically shape the direction of travel or build antagonistic working class forces beyond the party. The factional conflict between these groups was never communicated clearly to the membership, and its exact contours were often hard to perceive even for participants within the movement elite. It first broke into the open with the suppression of democracy within Momentum and the effective destruction of local groups via a new imposed constitution in 2017. The slow grind of conflict continued thereafter, with an increasingly sharp divide emerging between those who believed (often on the basis of the 2017 campaign) that the movement needed strong central institutions capable of directing a mass movement through the tribulations of a primarily electoral struggle, and those who believed that the process of deepening the class power underlying the project demanded a radical democratisation and embrace of extra-parliamentary methods. As time wore on, it became increasingly clear that the former was winning. The ideas of the counterattack socialists had sustained popular appeal amongst movement participants. But without institutional support or explicit coordination, it was difficult to spread these ideas widely. The left Labourites were rapidly swallowing up the class struggle social democrats, and consolidating their political stranglehold on all the key institutional architecture.

Socialism or Barbarism: GE2019

When Boris Johnson called a snap General Election in 2019, Momentum’s activist-facing slogan was ‘Socialism or Barbarism.’ This was understood to be a vital point in the struggle. It didn’t go well. There are a million postmortems of that result that illuminate different aspects of how it went down, but on the train home on the night of December 12th, I thought about one basic fact: Corbynism had never, in all its four years, produced the kind of autonomous class power that would have been necessary to implement a transformative program. The whole movement had, for all of our more transgressive desires, remained strictly within the limits of bourgeois politics.

Corbynism from Below was never more than a minoritarian slogan. The movement was weak, and if the party fluked its way into government it would probably have been smashed to pieces within the year. At the end of the Corbyn era, the British working class was largely just as disorganised and weak as it was before. What gains there were remained squarely on the level of ideas – austerity realism had started to be dismantled, and millions had heard the fundamental arguments in favour of social democratic policies. That is, however, a very limited form of victory. In retrospect, the likelihood of counter attack socialism ever bearing fruit was extremely low.

But there were powerful incentives to believe in it anyway. For much of the radical membership, Corbynism could be seen as a kind of double-wager: there was a potential for the project to provoke confrontations which could turn into something more interesting very rapidly, and if that failed it might still offer meaningful reform. Given the temporality of the climate crisis, it offered a way out that sustained hopes of Red Plenty, of a socialism of abundance for the global majority.

But in the end the ruling class united to outplay the gang of political amateurs opposing them. The strategy – and the associated hope – died at 10pm on a cold winter’s night in December 2019 following a disastrous general election. It was buried during the farcical 2020 Labour leadership contest, and began to rot when Starmer’s systematic purge slowly eliminated leftists from positions of influence within the Labour party. It is now a shiny white skeleton, fit only for a museum. “Counter-attack Socialism (b.2015, d.2019). A nice idea while it lasted.”

I’ve had Enough (is Enough)

Corbynism after Corbyn’s leadership ended up attempting to reformulate itself in a series of increasingly unsuitable formats. The coalition that had been held together by a proximity to power in the period of a left leadership was replaced by an increasingly disunited left that was both full of recrimination and unclear of its own internal dividing lines. Activists fell away en masse into nihilism, an effect which was only reinforced by the social isolation of the pandemic. The Starmer purge led to the exclusion of Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party, rule changes aimed at preventing a leftist ever leading the party again, and a policy reverse that dumped all of the pledges he had used to win the leadership in favour of pandering to the reactionary impulses of sections of the electorate and the desires of international capital.

A layer of the membership reacted to the lack of any viable succession plan to the 2019 defeat by asserting their own interests in a democratisation of the movement via the Forward Momentum initiative. This resulted in an ambitious grassroots organiser takeover of Momentum at the next National Coordinating Group election. But this was rather like a mutiny on a sinking ship. The crew took control just in time to realise what could have been done when the ship was still seaworthy, before being forced to scramble for the lifeboats by the rising water.

The leadership and institutions created by the Corbyn period have failed to cohere anything resembling a working class political response to a series of profound crises. Strikes have been catalysed by falling real wages, but they have not been complimented by the emergence of new strategic paradigms. The only glimmers of light in the social movement arena - from BLM and feminist mobilisations to Kill the Bill, XR and Don’t Pay – have been singularly disconnected from the old institutions. The anomic disarray induced by the end of Corbynism is perhaps best summed up by Enough is Enough – which gathered 400,000 email addresses and mobilised thousands to attend mass meetings where they listened to speeches from the great and the good, then just… stopped.

The old strategy is dead. To be honest, it was never that great to begin with. Now we need something to replace it.

No More Social Democracy

When a black swan appears, it challenges the theory we use to recognise a swan. In some ways, it is fundamentally not the same as a white swan. In others, it is still a swan. Its identity is initially undecided.

Corbyn’s leadership was unusual insofar as a leftist took control of the executive of one of the two major Bourgeois parties. In a party that concentrates so much power in its leadership (in part to minimise the risk of democratic influence from below) this was a certain kind of opportunity. The anti-austerity radicals were right to recognise it as an opportunity for regroupment and try to pursue it. But despite the novelty, Corbyn’s leadership was still a swan, insofar as it entailed a series of bad coalitions and misguided compromises that have plagued attempts to use the Labour party for radical ends for over a century now. Corbyn’s Labour was still Labour – and the novelty of the specific circumstances that led to a mass radical engagement with the project probably, on balance, did not outweigh those factors that had convinced us otherwise just a few years earlier.

In the wake of the hard lessons of 2019, we need a new strategy. It will need to be developed on the basis of a new diagnosis of the balance of class forces facing us in 2023. There are many bad answers to this novel strategic question. In their recent book Hegemony Now, Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams advocate for reform ‘with a socialist dimension’, whilst asserting that ‘the full substitution of absolutely non-capitalist forms of social relations for the existing ones [remains] a distant prospect.’6 To achieve this, these two leading intellectuals of the Corbyn period propose forming an alliance with the elements of tech capital against carbon-intensive industries and neoliberal finance. Their strategic goal is to produce a new cross-class ‘progressive bloc’ that splits the capitalist class in two, with progressive tech capital mobilised as an ally. They refrain from identifying which specific elements of Silicon Valley they intend to instruct the working class to ally with, but given the consolidation of tech globally into high capitalisation monopolies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Meta, any such meaningful coalition would have to include the big players – none of whom have shown any inclination to partnership with labour so far. It’s unclear what kind of ‘hard wedge’ could be driven between capital and capital.

To gain an idea of what this strategy means in practice, it’s worth turning to Gilbert’s recent writing on the Labour Party.7 He writes that even after the Starmerite repression of the left, there remains a (vaguely defined) ‘democratic socialist’ majority amongst the labour membership. In practical terms, he argues that these members should remain within the party, voting for left wing candidates in internal elections and providing ‘symbolic support’ to left wing MPs. He does not identify how the soft left can ‘reclaim the party’ given the concentration of ideological and political control in the hands of a leadership mentored by noted war criminal Tony Blair; nor how this element of the party could act sufficiently rapidly to achieve significant change on the timeline set by the objective crisis of ecological collapse. He doesn’t reflect on how major macro trends (ranging from the end of cheap nature to the disciplining role of bond markets and the stalling of productivity growth) will objectively constrain the future potential for a social democratic settlement. This approach is less like a strategy, and more like an abdication of political agency. It poses as hyperrealist, only to adopt a practical position that relies on the most starry eyed optimism.

One of our editors recently attended a meeting of the Labour Left. At the end of the day a speaker took to the floor to articulate their strategic vision to the 100 people gathered there: “It won’t be the next election, it might not be the election after that, but eventually we will take back our party. We just have to bide our time.”

Well, forgive us, but we’re done with waiting. 2019 was the final chance for a progressive government to implement its programme in a climate that had warmed less than 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial norm. Time has run out. Moreover, the specific class composition emerging in Britain today means our future will be characterised by an intensification of class struggle and a reduction in the state’s capacity to mediate that conflict. This direction of travel, which makes itself felt in phenomena ranging from stagnant productivity and GDP growth to rising production costs and the radical interruptions of extreme weather, leaves no room for social democratic strategies. Now, we need to reaffirm our political confidence in a horizon of revolution, and develop plans that help us to approach that question as a serious, practical one.

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  1. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2016. 

  2. Engels, Frederick. ‘Introduction to The Class Struggles in France’., 1891.  

  3. Gorz, Andre. ‘Reform and Revolution’. Socialist Register 5 (17 March 1968). 

  4. Tom Blackburn, ‘Corbynism from Below?’, New Socialist, 2017 , ; Deborah Hermanns, ‘Labour’s Reinvention Needs to Come from the Bottom up’, The Guardian, 7 March 2017,

  5. This debate emerged at a very similar time as the discussion on “base building” emerged in the US, see ‘It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend’, The Left Wind, 2018, 

  6. Gilbert, Jeremy, and Alex Williams. Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (and How We Win It Back). London: Verso, 2022. 

  7. Gilbert, Jeremy. ‘What Is Happening to Labour?’, 17 July 2023


Callum Cant (@CallumCant1)

Callum Cant is the author of Working for Deliveroo and a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focuses on Artificial Intelligence in the workplace, and how technological change interacts with worker self-organisation.