It was put to me a few days ago by a mate in the SWP that the “left v right divide in the UK isn’t between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party but right down the middle of the Labour Party.”
This rang very true to me after my experiences in the Labour Party over the last 9 months and perhaps explains a lot about why we are where we are.
These days the left v right divide is quite complicated as almost everyone has now, publicly at least, accepted the leftist vision of equality regardless of religion, race, class or sexuality… even UKIP. Racism, homophobia, sexism, these are now unacceptable anywhere. To that extent the ‘liberal’ left has triumphed. Indeed, equality of opportunity and a meritocracy of the talented is central to the modern neoliberal version of Conservatism. But today the left v right divide is still as strong as ever, and as ever, it is based on the economy and comes down to public v private.
The left have a vision of a cooperative, democratic society, with individuals tied to each other by inter-dependence and thus mutual responsibility for each other, and with substantial shared social and economic assets. The neoliberal right has a vision of a world of ‘free’ individuals, led by ‘high achievers’, and that individuals competing with each other in ‘free’ markets and with little or no mutual responsibility and only those shared assets that are crucial to the running of the system, (i.e protecting private property -courts, law and order, defence), is the most ‘efficient’ and ‘pragmatic’ way to share and distribute limited resources.
To someone like me it seems clear that ‘New’ Labour had accepted the basic tenants of the neoliberal rightist vision, or at least that New Labour had concluded that the electorate had accepted those tenants. i.e. Even if Labour politicians still believed in a leftist vision they no longer thought UK voters would vote for it and thus stopped arguing for it.
So by the time we got to the 2010 election all three mainstream parties in the UK were committed in varying degrees to a neoliberal position. The Tories were committed to allowing free markets to work their brutal magic without restraint or amelioration, whereas New Labour and The LibDems were committed to free market neoliberalism but proposed to ameliorate its most brutal excesses by a much reduced and ‘modernised’ welfare state. In fact New Labour had moved so far to the neoliberal right by 2010 that the LidDems were further to the left than Labour. In 2010 the LidDems seemed to be more committed to a mildly leftist vision of shared assets and mutual responsibility, so much so that in 2009 Billy Bragg nearly got lynched at Tolpuddle for suggesting people should vote LibDem in the following years election.
Through the 80’s and the ’90’s the Labour Party shifted purposefully to the right and a slightly more humane form of neoliberal capitalism became the basis of Party policy. New Labour embraced ‘business’, deregulated the city and set about dramatically reducing the welfare state under the guise of ‘modernisation’.
To moderate, ‘old’ Labour leftists like me, this looked like a form of Tory-lite; indeed, it still does and that’s because… it is! To accept that it is ‘business’ rather than ‘workers’ who create wealth and that ‘business leaders’ are thus entitled to take all this created wealth and are uniquely qualified to rule over the rest of us, IS to accept the tenants of neoliberal capitalism. [My own view is that ‘businesses’ are merely abstract legal entities and don’t ‘do’ anything. It is people who do things. It is people collaborating and cooperating together who create wealth, and everyone in any business is mutually inter-dependent upon everyone else from the CEO to the office cleaner.]
This shift to the right of the Labour Party left a political vacuum in the UK because significant numbers of the population still held to the leftist vision outlined above, but there was no mass party through which to express this vision. Corbyn’s election raised the possibility that the Labour Party could be reclaimed by supporters of this moderate, reformist, ‘Old’ Labour, social democratic vision.
The reason the Labour Party is split isn’t to do with personalities or presentation or pragmatism v idealism; the Party is split ideologically. The Blairite right of the Party accept the basic tenants of neoliberal capitalism (although it appears some of them are so politically and economically illiterate they don’t even know that); while the Corbynista Left want to see a Labour Party promoting a moderate, social democratic leftist vision.
Many on the right of the Labour Party have more in common politically with those to the right of them in the LibDems or even the Tory Party, than they do with the left of the Labour Party. And it is equally true that us Corbynistas have more politically in common with comrades to the left of us in The Greens, the People’s Assembly etc than we do with those on the right of the Labour Party.
The Tory Party contains individuals with different perspectives of a common political philosophy, even the row in the Tory Party over the EU referendum is about how best to pursue neoliberal capitalism. Unfortunately this cannot be said of the Labour Party because the left and the right of the party are promoting radically different political philosophies, the left and the right of the Labour Party are on opposite sides of the political divide.
If this analysis is correct then the implications are pretty scary for those of us in the Labour Party because it means we are in an either/or situation, i.e. one side or the other has to win. It is difficult to imagine how a leader, any leader, could reconcile these two different wings of the Party? Let alone who!
Blair didn’t ‘unite’ the Labour Party, he silenced the left, many of whom resigned from the Party as a result. The question is whether Corbyn can silence the right within the Party and if so will they then leave the Party and form another centre-centre party that, like the SDP did in the ’80’, will split the anti-Tory majority in the UK and thus bring about 15-20 more years of Tory rule?
OR will the PLP succeed in ousting Corbyn against the wishes of the PLP and then reassert the corporate, professional, managerialism of the Blair years, which will in turn lead to mass resignations of the Party membership and possibly the formation of a new Party of the left… will also split the anti-Tory majority in the UK and thus bring about 15-20 more years of Tory rule?