Monday, 7 November 2016

Can Labour pull together?

The UK Labour Party's current trials and tribulations have at their heart - indeed, perhaps may always have had at their core - a tension between 'utopian' and 'authoritarian' politics - between the world that might ideally be, and the messy process of forcing our way there. These do seem to now lie at the heart of the new Labour project. For those two elements in Jeremy Corbyn's appeal as Labour leader (above) have up until now been yoked together in a potent mix. There are signs that the abatement – for the present – of loud internal dissent will allow them to come into the open.

Corbynism undoubtedly appeals to newer Labour members and supporters, many of them older returnees who had become disillusioned during the Blair and Brown years which they perceived to be full of fatal compromises with a conservative (and Conservative) ‘establishment’. Its public agenda is at least a clear one, and has many points of contact with Soft Left Milibandism or even the social democracy of Labour’s centre. No foreign wars in co-operation with American power, or at least not without explicit United Nations agreement and a wide basis of international support; the reversal of public sector austerity; a stronger government, with higher tax rates on business, executing more active industrial and budgetary strategies that also rely on higher borrowing – and a reshaping of the economy, rather than just fighting the ‘symptoms’ of poverty tackled by tax credits and higher welfare spending.

This strategy - let's term it relatively 'utopian' - has two huge advantages over the apparently uncertain and exhausted centrist strategy pursued during the New Labour years between 1994 and 2010. The first is that it incorporates the outburst of Left populism so obvious elsewhere across Europe within the Labour Party, rather than leading to a rival party setting up on Labour’s left – the role the Green Party seemed to be playing in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. The evidence from local by-elections this year is clear: where there are Green votes in urban areas to pick up, Labour is now well-situated to draw on them as a new reservoir of support. The second point is that the strategy has led to a much, much larger party, now numbering around 600,000 members – about triple the number it was able to mobilise before the 2015 General Election. There seems little doubt that such resources of human ambition and hope might prove a formidable weapon in any political attacks on the sitting government. Labour has, indeed, already tried out such campaigning methods – holding a ‘national day of action’ in September against Theresa May’s grammar school proposals.

Yet at the same time many of the other elements in the Corbyn project militate against the more kaleidoscopic, community-orientated and populist elements in this programme. Here is where the ‘authoritarian’ elements of the analysis come in. Most of Corbyn’s popularity comes from the sense that he backs the new and pluralist Left that has emerged across the country to protest against austerity. But the politics of the 1970s, from which Mr Corbyn finds it hard to escape, are much more centralising and controlling than at first appears.

The leader’s office apparently shows little interest in a united ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP – a matter of faith among many of Corbyn’s younger and more idealistic followers. A number of his own supporters wrote an open letter to the Labour leader protesting against his recent appearance on a Stand Up to Racism platform with members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, a far-left grouping with a troubled history that has made it anathema across most of the British Left. The campaigning group Momentum, so vital when installing and defending Mr Corbyn's leadership over the last two years, looks to be struggling to solve the contradictions between members stressing either its representative or its participatory nature. Just as seriously, Corbyn’s personal defects as a leader – and especially his controversial past, as well as his own style and image – are clearly giving elements of his hard core support pause for thought. Paul Mason, the campaigning journalist, was taped accepting just this case in a recording leaked to The Sun newspaper.

The contrast between words and deeds can again be seen in Corbyn’s attempts to bend Labour’s National Executive Committee and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to his own demands. Given the struggle for power within Labour, such an effort is perhaps understandable, even unavoidable; but he risks replacing representative democracy, across the NEC and PLP, with a type of plebiscitary democracy based on his ‘mandate’ from members that such structures are deliberately designed to mitigate and dilute. It is no accident in this respect that the first serious signs of dissent about his leadership are being seen in the trade union movement, deeply worried about its own voting rights and voice within the wider Labour family. This is one reason why renewing Trident looks set to remain party policy, even while Mr Corbyn’s erstwhile supporters in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament complain as loudly as they can about this u-turn.

For now, at least, these tensions can be managed. But they are unlikely to go away. All the evidence we have from local elections, by-elections and polling points to the fact that Labour face a terrible defeat at the next General Election. When real wages are likely to decline following sterling’s steep depreciation, and the Government is likely to tie itself in knots over Brexit, this is a missed opportunity of enormous proportions. At the same time, boundary reforms are likely to throw up a small but significant number of chances for local activists to prevent the re-election of Labour MPs who have vocally opposed their leader. The bitterness these local fights will evoke might be difficult to contain, and some Labour MPs may decide they have nothing to lose by sitting as independents or fighting by-elections in the last two years of this Parliament. A formal split seems highly unlikely, given the MPs’ cultural loyalty to Labour as well as the electoral catastrophe that would probably befall both halves of the party after any split. But a prolonged cold war between MPs and leadership, which in the end leads to splintering and incoherence rather than split, is quite likely, and perhaps even probable.

In this situation, the non-Corbynite parts of the Labour Party must deeply rethink their strategy. They have a huge opportunity to reach out to their own party’s Left as it becomes increasingly disillusioned with Corbyn over the next year or two. They have hitherto developed the tactic of speaking out when they want, on the subjects they want – all the better to at least affect public policy in some ways while the leadership team fumbles. Now they might draw these threads together, to show what a new agenda would look like if it was to appeal to the whole non-Corbynite party, from Soft Left to Old Right and through to the social democrats of the ex-Blairite centre.

Their list of priorities might include, though not be limited to: massive, cascading devolution throughout England, as well as to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; the development of new sectors of the economy through regional and local co-operatives and ‘New Deals’ fostered by rolling programmes of inclusive devolution; and productivity-raising projects in both physical and human capital that long-term borrowing by cities and the UK’s devolved administrations might unlock.

Now the labels ‘Blairite’ and ‘Brownite’ are obsolete, Labour’s non-Corbynite MPs – and members – have a duty at least to try to make such an agenda work. It might be that Labour is now too far gone for all this: that globalisation, the changing economy and the political strains of large-scale immigration have smashed for the foreseeable future the alliance of metropolitan liberals and blue-collar workers that any social democratic party must assume. But political parties can come back from the wilderness very quickly, as the majority seized by the Canadian Liberals last year demonstrates. The years immediately ahead look very bleak for Labour right now, but if the more pluralist strands among its new support can somehow make common cause with its long-standing activist base, there might at least be hope of mitigating the long-term damage.

Note: a previous version of this blog first appeared as part of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Group's website on 3 November. 

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