My on going experience in the Labour Party is that while Corbyn’s critics in the party have been (temporarily?) been subdued by his success in Teresa May’s disastrous election, the underlying tensions are still very real.
But the party isn’t just split between those who support Corbyn and those who don’t and those who supported ‘New’ Labour as a centrist, essentially ‘liberal’ party and those committed to the LP as a participatory vehicle for achieving democratic socialism.
It is also split on the basic issue of what the LP is for and how it should operate.
Each side of these divides attributes the worst of Machiavellian motives to the other side and accuses the others of bullying, misrepresentation and abuse of process, and yet everyone simultaneously takes the moral high ground. Both sides seem to think the other side is not only wrong but evil.
For some the LP is simply, and only, a corporate electioneering machine with only one objective which is to get Labour candidates elected in local, regional and national elections. In this vision of politics political objectives can and should only be pursued in local Councils and in Parliament by changes to legislation. In this vision of democracy voters are political ‘consumers’ and can be won over using the techniques of the modern advertising and PR industries and thus to be successful such a party has to be centrally controlled and managed in order to manage the interaction with the media and control brand messaging. In this vision at a local level voter ‘consumers’ are motivated by a transactional relationship between the elected representative and themselves i.e. what did Councillor/MP X do for me? Therefore at a local level electioneering should be based on local issues. In such a LP it goes without saying that professional politicians and PR advisors must set party policy based on expert advice and the pragmatic realities of getting elected. In this vision of the LP the function of ‘members’ is to serve the party machine and election candidates by fund raising for campaigning and acting as foot soldiers during local and national election campaigns.
For others the LP is a vehicle for pursuing democratic socialism. In this vision of the LP the principles of socialist democracy have priority over getting elected, i.e. the LP should promote democratic socialist policies even during periods when the electorate do not find such policies attractive. In this vision of the LP getting candidates elected to enact legislation is only one of the ways that political objectives can be pursued. Indeed, under this conception the inevitable compromises that Parliament necessitates, means that the ‘Parliamentary road to socialism’ has many pitfalls and must be regarded with scepticism. Under this vision the LP is part of a broader Labour Movement that includes trade unions, pressure groups, NGO’s and even members of other political parties. In this vision of the LP, participatory debate, rallies, demonstrations and a vibrant counter-culture are crucial to building political consciousness and bringing about social change. In this vision ‘local’ issues are part of a wider national debate about political and moral values. In this vision of the LP the members are the party and candidates and the party bureaucracy must serve the democratically expressed will of the members. Policy and questions of leadership should be set democratically by the members through a process of open debate and candidates must be expected to promote the policies of the party.
I see this split every time our local party meets. For some the CLP should be focused exclusively on fund raising for campaigns and on strategising for electioneering. For them everything else is a complete waste of time. They seem literally baffled as to why the Exec would want to do anything else, especially as to why the CLP or the branches need to meet regularly! Indeed, I imagine they think that organising such meetings is a distraction from the ‘real’ business of the CLP which is getting local councillors elected.
For myself and some others though there is as much focus on trying to build the LP itself and reconnect it with the broader Labour Movement. We are as interested in putting effort into building the LP as a democratic, member-led organisation committed to democratic socialism. Thus for us who our candidates are and what they stand for is as important as having candidates. For us encouraging an active, informed membership to participate in policy debates is not a distraction, it is what a local party is for! (I would also argue pragmatically that building an active, engaged membership who have a sense of ownership of their local LP will have the side-effect of actually boosting fund raising and volunteering at election time.)
I acknowledge that for the purpose of debate I’ve characterised these dichotomies and contradictions in a Manichean, ‘either/or’ fashion and that people’s views are often much more nuanced than I have outlined, but nonetheless such differences in some form or another are real and still affecting the Labour Party at local and national level . The question is whether we can reconcile these competing visions of the party?
Can the ‘New’ Labour vision of a corporate, centrist, liberal, centrally managed, electioneering machine be reconciled with a participatory democratic socialist Labour Party? If so how?