From the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Labour leadership election between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is a battle for the heart and soul of the Party; we examine what is really at stake.
A few years ago the idea that Jeremy Corbyn might be leader of the Labour Party would have been as likely as Lord Lucan appearing in Kensington High Street riding Shergar. But such is the disillusionment with much of what the Blair and Brown governments stood for – including the Iraq War – that the Labour Party seems to be a rather different place these days.
There are, of course, positives to this. Large numbers of Labour members and affiliated supporters are questioning the received wisdom of Labour’s role as one of being a more effective management team for UK PLC than the Conservatives – an effectiveness, it was argued, that would enable Labour governments to be more caring and generous to the poor. After 13 years of Labour government people rightly began questioning why this transparently didn’t happen, with inequality in Britain being at least as bad now on most measures than it was when the Blair landslide happened in 1997. Then there was the Iraq War and attempts at a potentially similar intervention in Syria, which left people disgusted with evidently spurious justifications of warmongering.
That people are questioning these things (and have been now for some time) is undoubtedly good. That many have now rallied around a hitherto highly marginal, left-wing Labour politician as the antidote to what has gone on before is rather more questionable, and herein lies much of Labour’s current woe.
Since its formation in 1906 out of the trade-union inspired Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Party has had one, clear overarching aim. This is to secure political office – by contesting elections for parliament and local councils – so that it can enact reform measures that are in the interest of wage and salary earners (‘labour’ in the broadest sense). As such it has largely been the political arm of the trade union movement and the trade unions have been historically its main financial backers, as well as providing a proportion of its elected MPs. In terms of its entire ethos and ideology (reflected in its internal constitution) Labour as a political party has no other purpose than this.
The main charge against Corbyn and his supporters from those challenging his leadership is precisely that this purpose is being disregarded. Corbyn has spent his entire political life as a serial rebel against successive Labour leaderships, mainly with a penchant for supporting single issue protest groups (CND, anti-apartheid, environmentalism, etc). The charge is that he is turning the Labour Party from being a potential government that can enact reforms to being a cheerleader for grassroots single-issue campaigns, drawing large numbers of members into the Party from these types of single-issue interest groups.
Corbyn denies this and claims – however unlikely it may sound – that his goal is to be the next Prime Minister. But if he really believes this, what we can say is that the evidence is not on his side.
Weathercocks and signposts
Corbyn’s political mentor, Tony Benn, always claimed that the main choice in politics is over whether you are a weathercock blowing with the political wind, or a signpost pointing towards a new direction. Genuine socialists, being interested in securing a fundamental change in the way society is organised, are obviously in the signpost category. The equally obvious problem is that this is a signpost most people cannot see and when on occasion they do see it, it points down a path they are not usually inclined to explore that far. This has been the dilemma at the heart of the broader labour movement in the UK and elsewhere for well over a century – what became known originally as the disagreement between the ‘possibilists’ and ‘impossibilists’. The possibilists argued that you can only put forward ideas and policies that are likely to be broadly acceptable to the working class given their current ideology, while the so-called impossibilists have advocated the maximum programme of ‘socialism and nothing but’ as a way to change people’s minds towards the need for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism.
The Labour Party is the ultimate possibilist political organisation and what Corbyn and his supporters are certainly not doing is advocating a turn instead to what the Labour Party has always derided as impossibilism (of the sort, for instance, advocated by us). They just want to advocate a form of possibilism through reform-campaigning that seems historically less likely to attract support and hence political power than the more conventional form advocated by more mainstream Labour – if you like, a form of utopian possibilism, a phrase which sounds like it should be a contradiction in terms.
The pro-Corbyn activist organisation set up a month or so after his initial leadership victory in 2015 seems to grasp little of this. Momentum appears to be an amalgam of supporters of a variety of single-issue causes and is largely full of people who have joined Labour in only recent times – swelling the Party membership to over half a million. This is a significant increase on recent years but well below the peak of over a million Labour members achieved in 1952-3 and which was followed by two heavy successive election defeats (which just goes to illustrate that activist political membership and the wider popular vote are very different things).
Persistent rumours of Trotskyist infiltration notwithstanding, at Momentum’s core are a number of people (such as its main driving force, Jon Lansman) who have long been known on the hard-left Bennite wing of the Party. Some of them like Lansman himself had been part of the left-wing core of activists who set up the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and other groups in the 1980s supportive of Benn and his key positions – such as a massive programme of nationalisation of industry, radical Keynesian economics, import controls, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and opposition to membership of the then EEC. They had a significant influence on Labour policy under Michael Foot, culminating in the Alternative Economic Strategy that was at the heart of the Labour manifesto for the 1983 General Election (dubbed by then Shadow Cabinet member Gerald Kaufman as the ‘longest suicide note in political history’). This led to a 1983 Labour vote share of 28 percent, still the worst Labour performance in the post-war period, even worse than those since achieved by Brown and Miliband.
The electoral lessons learnt from this disastrous defeat in 1983 led over a period of years from Neil Kinnock and John Smith through to Tony Blair. This drift to the political centre was also in broad alignment with the significant economic changes that occurred over these decades that rendered the 1983 manifesto obsolete, including the free movement of capital across borders, the internationalisation of industry (which rendered direct state ownership of business difficult if not impossible), the collapse of Soviet Russia’s empire and the end of the Cold War, and so on.
What Corbyn and Momentum now want to do is effectively turn the tide back to the inglorious days of 1983 in the hope that the ‘anti-establishment’ feeling among sections of the electorate at present can give them the type of radical surge that failed to happen in the 80s. But there is little if any evidence that this is likely to happen.
Examining the record
To some, Corbyn has done better than expected in his electoral tests so far. This is actually true, though only because most people’s expectations have been so low to start with. In the local government elections this May the Labour lead over the Conservatives was 1 percent, the same as it was in 2011 one year into Miliband’s leadership, with the Labour share of the vote only slightly up on the 2015 General Election. In the parliamentary by-elections that have occurred under Corbyn’s leadership, where more volatile swings occur with often low turnouts, the average swings have tended to be around 8 percent to Labour, almost identical to those achieved by Miliband. This perhaps suggests that the ‘Corbyn effect’ is actually less than either his supporters or detractors maintain.
Either way, it is not indicative of a radical upsurge and there is no indication that the increase in Labour Party membership is mirrored by an increase in popular support for their ideas more generally. Labour is trailing badly in the opinion polls again too, despite recent turmoil in the governing Tory Party. And as Cowley and Kavanagh have recently pointed out in The British General Election of 2015 ‘Almost all psephological analysis of Labour’s support between 2010 and 2015, as well as what we know of non-voters, the UKIP vote or indeed the nature of support for the SNP, would indicate that the Corbyn strategy is a route to an electoral brick wall’ (p.384). It is for these reasons that the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – arguably more in touch with the wider electorate and their views than they are with the Party’s activist base – have said ‘enough is enough’ and are supporting Owen Smith in his leadership campaign.
If Owen Smith doesn’t defeat Corbyn (or at least come close enough to justify another push next time) there is a real possibility of the Labour Party splitting. This is partly because the attitude to reforming capitalism from the PLP and much of the more long-standing membership is a rather different one to that of Corbyn and Momentum. It is also because – and this is partly the attraction of Corbyn to Momentum supporters – he is not a traditional political leader in either his utterances or demeanour (almost what marketing geeks would call a self-consciously ‘non-brand’ brand). To extend the analogy with 1983, the same could have been said of Michael Foot.
The Labour Party has split before of course, in 1981 when elements of the right-wing in the Party decamped under pressure from the left-wing activists then in the ascendancy, and founded the Social Democratic Party. This is what partly led to Labour achieving its lowest post-war vote in 1983, though today the portents are worse. The Labour vote in 1979 was 37 percent and then fell to 28 per cent. In 2015 it was under 32 percent and so is already at a lower base. And this time in terms of splitters it is unlikely to be as few as the 29 MPs who eventually threw in their lot with the SDP. On that occasion, the vast majority of the right and centre of the Party stayed (including heavyweights like Healey and Kaufman) whereas this time the vast bulk of the PLP is in rebellion, not a small minority of it.
If a split of this type occurs, it is difficult to see how the Labour Party in its current form can survive or what its purpose would be even if it did. People can join all sorts of single-issue groups and advocate particular reforms, but unless there is an electable political vehicle to put these reforms into action, it becomes a sterile and narrow form of campaigning around individual hobby-horses. And people can do this (and have done for decades) irrespective of whether they are in the Labour Party or not.
This current confusion and division in the Labour Party – as well as a general political climate that seems more sceptical about political leaders – should be an opportunity for socialists. While there are concerned, decent and genuine people in all sections of the Labour Party (and other parties too for that matter) Labour as an organisation has repeatedly failed to defend the interests of wage and salary earners – hence the reason it repeatedly disappoints and gets kicked out of office. In truth, the ‘possibilism’ that has long characterised the Labour approach is really not so possibilist or realist at all in the sense that capitalism has never been fundamentally changed by reformist Labour governments elected into office (if anything, it has been changes within capitalism over decades that has helped change Labour instead).
Labour in government has sent troops in to break strikes, backed all of the major wars engaged in by the UK this last century (and has initiated a few of them), and has repeatedly attacked working class living standards to ensure the profitability of British industry. There is nothing to suggest that either Corbyn or Smith, despite their radical phrases, would behave any differently in office – all national governments are there to administer their particular section of world capitalism, and as Syriza in Greece found out soon enough, have very little control over the market economy as events unfold.
Momentum activists will no doubt argue that Corbyn is a decent man with a track record of opposing war. But this misses the point about how capitalism entraps those who seek to administer it. And while Corbyn may have opposed the senseless butchery of the Iraq War, he is a man (along with John McDonnell) who has sought to apologise repeatedly for the nationalism and terrorism of organisations like the Provisional IRA and Hamas. Men like these who commemorated IRA terrorists and who refused to condemn some of the most anti-working class atrocities in UK history (such as the Birmingham pub bombings and Enniskillen) are men whose peaceful and socialist credentials deserve to be viewed with quite some scepticism.
What is of importance now is that people who may identify with wanting to create a genuinely socialist society of common ownership, democratic control and free access to wealth, don’t get suckered in by a radical-sounding, ‘populist’ reform movement that has yet to prove its popularity anywhere beyond the already like-minded. The attempt to reform capitalism by so-called benevolent governments has always been a disaster and there’s nothing to suggest it would be any different next time under either Corbyn or Smith. Socialists have always been content to leave the Labour Party to the reformists – and the more we think about it, the more they are welcome to it.