A very angry little man recently asked me if I “wanted Labour to win an election?” This was in the context of the Corbyn Crisis and he was implying that because I had joined the Labour Party in September to support Jeremy Corbyn as Party leader, that I was an ‘entryist’ to the Labour Party determined to purposefully stop it winning elections.
My reply to this man was, as it always is to this question, “it depends what the policies of the Labour Party are at the time of the election.”
I do not want the Labour Party to win whatever its policies are! I am a democratic socialist and if, just as an example, the Labour Party became an anti-trade union, pro-business, warmongering party, that was committed to the values of free-market capitalism, committed to deregulating finance, committed to increasing inequality, committed to dismantling the Welfare State and committed to privatising our schools and NHS, then no, I would not want the Labour Party to win an election.
I have pointed out elsewhere that supporting a political party is NOT the same as supporting a football team. I want Coventry City to do well because I was born in Coventry and supported that team since I was a child, this is NOT the same as me wanting Labour to win an election. As a thinking, politically committed, democratic citizen, my support for Labour, or any other party for that matter, MUST be contingent on the policies that party adopts. How could it be otherwise? Was this man seriously suggesting that I should abandon my ability to think along with my political principles, and simply back Labour whatever policies the Party adopts?
The Labour Party is currently in a parlous state and it is not difficult to imagine circumstances under which it could split or even disintegrate. In fact at this exact moment it is more difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Party could survive intact. But the Labour Party is not just split down the left versus right axis, it is also split along the lay versus professional axis. There are significant numbers of Party members who do not support Corbyn or the left of the Party, but who can see that it is entirely dysfunctional to have the PLP acting as if it were an entirely distinct, autonomous, organisation from the rest of the Labour Party, that need take no heed whatsoever of decisions made by the members, Conference or the NEC.
And this is really what this Corbyn Crisis is about – who rules the Labour Party?
Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair purposefully and openly (to be fair) set about corporatising and professionalising the Labour Party and putting power into the hands of a professional party machine. They called it ‘modernisation’. To do this they first had to break the power of the trade unions within the Party, and then the power of the membership. To do this policymaking had to be taken away from Conference and given to agents of the professional party machine, represented by the Partners In Power initiative and the National Policy Review.
“The reality is that… the party leadership will write the manifesto. Of course they will listen and consult, but ultimately they will write it. And that is a good thing. They, more than anyone else, will have to explain it and hopefully implement it. So the role for the party shouldn’t be maintaining the pretence that they actually write the manifesto.”
Peter Watt former General Secretary of the Labour Party.
This power struggle between the PLP, the Trade Unions and the membership has of course been part of Labour Party history from the very beginning; in the 1930’s party leader Ramsey McDonald, became so alienated from the Party membership and the Unions that he split with them formed a government with the Tories and was expelled from the Labour Party.
But it is the rise of ‘modern’ corporate style ‘professional politicians’ that has really led to this current crisis. Most of our politicians today chose a ‘career’ in politics. To them being an MP is a ‘job’. Being appointed a minister is gaining ‘promotion’ and so on. They are no longer representatives of either their electorate or the members of the party they nominally stand for, they are equivalent to risk-averse, corporate middle-managers who do their best to remain decent but who are ultimately guided by ‘the art of the possible’ and pleasing their masters further up the hierarchy.
To most corporate middle managers it is inconceivable, even laughable, to suggest that staff below management level should be allowed to influence the companies policies and actions. Similarly to these men and women in the PLP, it is inconceivable that control of party policy and presentation of that policy to the public (including the choice of Party leader), should be determined by anyone other than themselves. After all they are the professionals and after all it is their jobs that are at stake if they do not get re-elected.
So the Labour Party has effectively become a bureaucratic, professional, electioneering machine to keep professional politicians and Party administrators in work. Policies are only useful to the extent that they achieve that aim.
This is sometimes framed as an argument that says, “we can only do good for ‘the people’ if we get into power; therefore we must only adopt policies that we perceive will help us get into power.” But this is a circular, self-defeating, argument because it is the policies that you adopt once in power that will determine whether you actually do any good for the people, the country or anyone else. Seeking power simply for its own sake is devoid of moral or political meaning and almost always ends in tragedy.
So it is not good enough to simply assert that Labour are the ‘good guys’ and the Tories the bad guys, and therefore we must always support the ‘good guys’, even if they do bad things, because after all they are the ‘good guys’. The Labour Party are not the ‘good guys’ by virtue of their name or the colour of their flag, or even their history; they are only the ‘good guys’ if they do ‘good’ things, and in this context ‘good things’ means adopting policies that are anti-austerity, pro trade union, pro Welfare State, pro NHS and that represent a genuine alternative to the Tories.
But for ‘careerist’ politicians such policies carry risks, primarily the risk they will not get re-elected, so instead of speaking plainly and honestly to the public based on their own political principles, they try to be as vague as possible so as not to offend anyone and to constantly ‘measure’ what is politically popular with the public and then simply reflect that back to them. This may be a morally acceptable paradigm in commercial advertising but in politics it is morally and intellectually and pragmatically bankrupt.
This non-committal, pragmatic, corporate professionalism is equally true of the Conservative and LibDem parties by the way. It is a political infection we have caught from the USA where the PR professionalisation of both the Republican and Democratic parties has led to the emergence of numerous ‘anti-establishment’ forces including the Tea Party and Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.
We can see this corporate professionalism exemplified in this clip of Alistair Campbell. The setting, the clothes, the corporate logo’s; this could be a commercial corporate conference… which of course it actually is as Portland Communications is Alistair Campbell’s PR firm. [FYI: it was an employee of this company who was in fact the ‘heckler’ who criticised Corbyn at the London Pride rally the day after the Referendum.] But the point here is Campbell’s description of himself and the men and women like him in the Labour Party, as ‘the grown ups who get elected.’ Campbell is absolutely not a socialist; he’s not even a democrat! Campbell has internalised the logic of the ruling class and is part of that ruling class. He is NEVER going to be in a party that implements a programme of socialist policies I would approve of because he and I are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum and have a completely different vision of what ‘politics’ is, could or should be.
One of the things that amazes me about this struggle is that not one of the PLP rebels has ever acknowledged that the vote for Corbyn might indicate that the PLP and the party machine had taken a wrong turn and that the PLP needed to shift leftwards in order to unite the PLP with the unions and the membership. Not one of them has ever acknowledged that policies like renationalising the railways are actually very popular amongst the electorate and if presented well could get popular support. Not one of them has acknowledged that the concerns of the membership about the direction the Party took under Blair may be legitimate. No one of them.
What this indicates to me is that the problem the PLP rebels have with Corbyn is not just (or even) because of his supposed failings as a leader, but that they fundamentally disagree with his policy direction. Even if they admit this they often claim this is for purely pragmatic reasons, because a Labour Party with a ‘left wing’ policy programme could never win an election, but in reality they oppose even the possibility of such a programme emerging because they would be ideologically opposed to it. Tony Blair himself has stated explicitly that he wouldn’t want a left-wing Labour party to win an election – because he’s not left wing. This is true of most of the PLP.
Now, I am willing to accept that according to the criteria of men and women like the PLP rebels, Corbyn is not ‘leadership material’. He’s too old, he doesn’t wear a suit well, he says what he thinks, he doesn’t look or sound like a corporate CEO. But that is exactly his strength. I don’t support Jeremy Corbyn because he a fantastic orator, or a ‘born leader’, or an expert manipulator of the media, or a super-effective Machiavellian backroom, cardsharp. I support him because he is a lifelong defender of the socialist tradition in the Labour Party, and because I believe he will not betray that great heritage that has so positively transformed life for so many working people in our country.
And conversely the PLP don’t oppose him because of his supposed failings as a leader, they oppose him because they are ideologically opposed to his political philosophy, including the idea that the Party membership should have a significant say in devising party policy or choosing the leader.
So in answer to that angry little man, I would say this; IF the only way for the Labour Party to emerge from this mess created by the PLP, is for the PLP to retake control of the Party and to reassert the corporate values of Blairism on to a membership that has clearly rejected those values, then no, I would not support such a version of the Labour Party in an election, just as I did NOT support the Labour Party under Blair.
And unfortunately that is the only choice the PLP are currently offering members of the Labour Party. They are in effect saying to the 450,000 Party members – submit to our authority or we will destroy the Party. They wrap this up in the rhetoric of ‘party unity’ and that it is Corbyn who has caused the split by having the audacity to get elected, but in reality they would rather see the Party split than for it to adopt even a moderately more left wing policy direction.