I suggest that the ‘Lansman Constitutional Coup’ of Momentum, isn’t really about Lansman at all – its about Corbyn and McDonnell.
A grassroots movement was useful to them at the beginning but now in order to put up a credible fight in the next election they are going to have to come to an accommodation with the centre of the Labour Party. Not the Blairite, ultra-right of the party, they will never support Corbyn. But the soft-left, Guardian-reading, pragmatic, party loyalists who would like to see more left-wing policies if they could be convinced the voters do too (Owen Jones et al).
So in order to appease the soft-left of the party, Corbyn/McDonnell will have to compromise on some of the policy shibboleths of the left. Could be Trident or Palestine/Israel or a pullback on the rhetoric around Blair as a war criminal, or whatever. In order to pursue this strategy of ‘appeasement’ Corbyn/McDonnell could not countenance a grassroots Momentum that was further to the left than they are and unwilling to compromise on these policy shibboleths.Therefore Momentum had to bought under central control so that it would continue to support Corbyn/McDonnell as they shift to the right. Otherwise they could be caught in a pincer movement as the Blairite right (and their pals in the media) continue to attack Corbyn as an incompetent, lefty idealist, and a left-wing Momentum attacks him for ‘selling out’. Therefore autonomous local and regional groups and grassroots OMOV power had to be constrained and controlled to give Corbyn/McDonnell free reign to engage in their policy of ‘appeasement.’ The new constitution does exactly that.
And to be fair this is an entirely rational approach to the political situation in which Corbyn/McDonnell find themselves. Indeed, some (Lansman presumably?) will argue it is the ONLY credible approach open to them; that in the world of ‘real politik’, maintaining power in the Labour Party has to be the primary objective for Corbyn/McDonnell because their failure now could put the left agenda within the Labour Party back 20 years.
My problem with this is three-fold:
(i) I think the policy of ‘appeasement’ with the centre and the soft-left is doomed to failure. Partly because the Blairite right (and their pals in the media) will sabotage it at every turn and partly because Corbyn/McDonnell are not clever enough ‘politicians’ to pull it off under such unrelenting pressure.
How they could stay true to their hard-left supporters and simultaneously compromise with the Labour Party centre/soft-left, was always going to be the fulcrum point on which the back of the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership would be broken.
And it illustrates clearly the ‘problem’ with the Labour Party; i.e. that it is, and always has been, at least two distinct parties – a social democratic party of the political centre and a socialist party of the left. The class division in UK politics runs not between the Tories and Labour, but right down the middle of the Labour Party. And the Labour Party does not prosper when the two sides of the party try to compromise and accommodate each other, it prospers when one side or the other triumphs.
Immediately after WW2 the Keynsian, socialist left of the party was in ascendancy and the party achieved great things. In the Blairite era the social democrats were in ascendancy and the party was in government for 13 years.
What needed to happen on Corbyn’s election to the leadership is that the socialist left of the party asserted itself over the centre and the right. The left needed/needs to ‘win’ – to assert control over the party machine and the PLP, and thus be able to present a coherent, confident, socialist alternative to austerity at the next election. A Corbyn who is trying to accommodate the centre and soft-left of the party will be so compromised that his programme will be neither confident nor coherent.
(ii) The politics of Momentum is now NOT the ‘new politics’ that was so eagerly promoted in the early days of Corbyn/McDonnell leadership. On the contrary this is very much the ‘old politics’ of left v right, Labour Party in-fighting. This is a world in which professional politicians and trade union bureaucrats attempt to control and manipulate outcomes through back-room deals and stitched-up compromises. It is arguable that in a Labour Party so divided by ideology, that this type of technocratic, back-room, ‘Labourism’ is the ONLY way to successfully operate within the party. Indeed, I suspect this may be true. But unfortunately the revelation of this ‘reality’ IS going to alienate and disillusion many of the half-a-million Corbyn supporters who became politically engaged by the promise of a ‘new politics’.
Unfortunately, transparency, tolerance, fairness and democracy are NOT the ways of the Labour Party, and never have been. This has become all too apparent to those of us who joined the party on the back of Corbyn’s victory. The order of the day has been extreme factionalism leading to personal vilification, character assassination, suspension and expulsion. The Momentum constitutional coup only promises more of the same.
(iii) Brexit is going to tear the Labour Party apart any way.
In my view Corbyn could have done little else than he has done on the Brexit issue but he is unfortunately stuck between a rock and a hard place. Suggestions from some metropolitan, middle-class, Europhiles, that he should be passionately opposing Brexit are frankly politically naive and profoundly anti-democratic.
Class plays an important part in the Brexit debate with broadly speaking the middle-classes being Remainers and the working class being Brexiteers. I accept it is a lot more nuanced than that but there is enough truth in the description to put the party of ‘labour’ in a terrific bind. Indeed, this returns us to the central problem of the Labour Party – that it is no longer, if it ever was, the party of ‘labour’.
It was the stated aim of Blair’s ‘New’ Labour to become a new party of the centre of UK politics. To do so the party purposefully abandoned its working-class and socialist history (Clause 4 etc) and remade itself as a party that would appeal to the ‘new middle class’; to the Tuscanny-loving, European cosmopolitans and their identity politics liberalism. (Which, by the way, is why so many of us hate Blair so passionately. Iraq was appalling but it is his treacherous appropriation of the Party of Kier Hardy, Tony Benn and Nye Bevan as a vehicle for his middle-class, metropolitan, social democracy that makes us soooooo bitter.)
In my youth to be ‘middle class’ was to be conservative (with a small ‘c’) – to be suburban and risk-averse, to play-by-the-rules, to privilege law and order over liberty and to believe in the legitimacy of hierarchy. But to many children of the Sixties and Seventies to be middle-class meant to be liberal and forward-looking, to be anti-authoritarian, to be metropolitan and to be, above all, cosmopolitan. Thus you hear so many of the Sixties and Seventies generation claiming to be ‘classless’ as they sup on their skinny, peppermint, Mochas and munch on their sun-dried tomato and rocket Paninis. What these yuppies, yuccies and hipsters actually mean when they say they are ‘classless’ is that they are not middle-class in the way their parents were. They are creative, liberal, risk-taking, cosmopolitans. And it is these people who Blair’s New Labour most accurately reflected and represented.
It is true that I live in the heart of middle, middle-England, but the Labour Party and Momentum meetings I have attended, both in the Shire counties and in Birmingham, have been overwhelmingly dominated by the Panini munchers; the ‘working class’ have been almost entirely absent. The Chair of my CLP for the last 10 years has been a University Professor specialising in EU law. A passionate Europhile he has stepped down to campaign to have the Referendum result over-turned. Meanwhile, the local ‘labour’ the Labour Party historically represented, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.
I fear that Brexit is going to have a far more profound effect on the Labour Party than Corbyn/McDonnell. I fear that during the next two years the Panini munchers will abandon the Labour Party in their droves. We could even see a resurgence of the LibDems as the Europhile middle-classes cling to any life-raft that will keep them connected to their ‘civilised’ Europe of weekend city breaks and luxury villa holidays. [I notice little is said by the ‘civilised’ Europhiles about the ‘fascist Europe’ of Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and the Greek Colonels?]
A Labour Party that campaigned actively to overturn the referendum result would be finished in the North and the Midlands… it may be anyway to be frank. We have seen the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland and historically the Liberal Party so dominant in the early years of the 20th Century almost disappeared.
So we could be looking at a major a realignment of UK politics as the ‘New Labour’, metropolitan, middle-classes join their true party, the Liberal Democrats, and the working class xenophobe’s move to UKIP.
And of course without proportional representation this would be a disaster for UK politics and could lead to a perpetual, minority, Tory government. But either way there is very little Corbyn/McDonnell could do to stop it. Indeed, a Blairite leader committed to over-turning the referendum result (Blair himself even, God help us), would probably finish off the Labour Party quicker than Corbyn/McDonnell.