Labourism; Is the Labour Party part of the solution or part of the problem?

Many years ago a friend of mine in the SWP told me that with regard to social and economic justice the Labour Party is not part of the solution but part of the problem. Another friend in the SWP said that after New Labour the left v right divide in UK politics no longer ran between Labour and The Tories but ran straight down the middle of the LP.

My own experience of the Labour Party in the last three years has convinced me that my two ‘Trot’ friends were/are unfortunately correct. It is undoubtedly true that the left v right divide in UK politics now runs straight down the middle of the LP and I’ve addressed that issue in more detail here.

But my experience also shows me that the corporate culture of the Labour Party is now so corrupt as to be a severe handicap to the cause of progressive politics. The Labour Party has developed a corporate culture that is sometimes called “Labourism”.

In The Guardian, Comment Is For Free, in December 2019, Jeremy Gilbert defined “Labourism” as:

“a specific political ideology – a habit of political thought and action – that is almost unique to the British left. According to this belief, there is only one true vehicle for progressive politics, the Labour party. Trade unions have their place – to represent their members at an “industrial” level, in workplaces and on shop floors – but actual political campaigning must be delegated to the party, and the primary focus of the party must be winning elections. No other party can ever represent the working class, and any political movement that is not subservient to either unions or party is to be treated with the greatest suspicion.”

In this article Gilbert is making an argument for the LP to embrace the idea of an anti-Tory alliance with other left of centre of parties, in light of the December 2019 election defeat.  I would certainly support that because I do believe that there is a significant anti-Tory majority in the UK but that our electoral system disguises it.

However, what I have also witnessed in the LP over the last three years is  an internal, corporate, “habit of political thought and action” that is alienating the public, alienating its own members and destroying the LP from within.

I had been in the LP briefly in the early 80’s but left in ’85 after the Miners Strike. I despised New Labour but was inspired by the possibility for rebuilding the LP as a left social democratic(1) alternative to neoliberalism under Corbyn and rejoined the Party on September the 9th 2015, the day he was first elected as leader.

3.5 years later I left the Party again on 8th May 2019. Those intervening years had been undoubtedly the worst political experience of my life… and I’ve been involved in trade unions for 25 years so that really is saying something!!

My distress was caused almost entirely by the cynical, dishonest manoeuvrings of the right of the Party who seemed to discard all and any moral boundaries in order to ‘win’ back the Party for their form of principle-free centrist liberalism. They openly boasted that they had no political principles only ‘values’ but it soon became obvious they had no moral principles either.

I’ve addressed the ins and outs of how this played out in my local CLP elsewhere on this blog but the recently leaked LP report on the anti-Semitism saga, which can be read here, tells you everything you need to know about the corrupt corporate culture of the LP that I and 300,000 new members found ourselves facing in the Autumn of 2015.

My argument here though is that this isn’t a problem specifically of the Labour right but that it is endemic to the entire Labour Party, left and right and it arises from “a habit of political thought and action” that can be described and defined and is unique to the LP.

So what is this internal “Labourism” that I am talking about? I would argue that it is defined by a number of key ideas:

  1. First and foremost it is a “habit of political thought and action” that operates on the moral principle that the “ends justify the means”; that a desired result is so good or important that any method, even a morally bad one, may be used to achieve it.
  2. That the ONLY role of the LP is to win elections and because of 1./ above political principle is only relevant to the extent it helps achieve the winning of elections. Any and all political and moral principles can and should be abandoned if they stand in the way of winning of elections.
  3. That the Party can only operate successfully when it is controlled by a small cadre of highly talented, professional individuals operating secretly under the two principles above. This ‘leadership’ has to have carte-blanche to do whatever it feels necessary to achieve the ONLY objective, which is the winning of elections.
  4. Related to 3./ is the idea that the professional party leadership “know best” and ‘the membership’ are a problem to be overcome because they cannot be relied upon to abandon political and moral principle to ensure electoral victory.
  5. As a result of 1.-5. above secrecy and manipulation are at the core of successful party management. Like Estate Agents the party corporate elite simply cannot conceive of how to operate in an honest, transparent and democratic manner. And like Estate Agents, for the party elite it is public perception rather than reality that is the indicator of success.

These core values are not dissimilar to much of 21st Century corporate management and will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a large commercial company or a large public institution such as a trade union, town/city council, university or the NHS. But many of us joined Corbyn’s LP because it seemed to represent an alternative set of values to the cynical, corporate values we experience everyday in the workplace.

In my experience lots of the new party members who joined Momentum were attracted to the notion of a “new politics”, a politics of unity and mutual respect and found it difficult to conceive of the moral depths that the party right were willing to steep. I was very nervous of this political naivety at the time but even I had no idea how corrupted the LP corporate culture had become.

Reading the leaked report it is obvious to see these cynical, corporate values are at play amongst the relatively young professional staff of the party. But the problem goes much deeper than that. Labourism is endemic to all in the Labour elites including Corbyn, McDonnell, Burgon etc.

Historically the LP leadership in the post-war period had to negotiate between a powerful membership, a powerful trade union lobby and a powerful PLP. Thus “beer and sandwiches’ backroom deals became the modus operandi of the party. Secrecy was as important to this process as it is to top-down corporatism and you put the two together and you get a new 21st Century form of corporate “Labourism” that combines the worst of both eras.

Corbyn philosophically didn’t like the Presidential, New Labour constitution so paradoxically and ultimately disastrously, he tried to turn the clock back by disempowering himself and trying to enter into “beer and sandwiches’ backroom deals with the Labour right, who had no intention of honouring such deals as Corbyn’s destruction was their aim and under their “ends justify the means” philosophy they were willing to betray any and all moral principles to achieve that end.

So Corbyn’s reversion to 70’s style backroom dealing was doomed to failure but this was combined with a New Labour suspicion of the membership and a desire to try to manipulate and control.

Thus we can get a situation where John McDonnell and Jon Lansman can concoct the  Coup of Momentum in January 2017 because they were afraid that the membership of Momentum would end up to the left of Corbyn. All Corbyn ever had was the support of the membership but Lansman and McDonnell are so embedded in Labourist corporate culture they couldn’t help but see the membership as a threat to be controlled and manipulated rather than empowered.

Similarly the leaked report reveals that Corbyn himself actively and purposefully participated in the expulsion of Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson which were based on spurious and vexatious accusations of anti-Semitism. Corbyn is seen in the report yet again attempting to do a backroom deal with the Zionists attacking him. This surely illustrates that even Corbyn himself is so imbued with Labourist corporate values that he could only perceive a way out of his situation that involved secret back-room deals and an abandoning of his most committed supporters. But Corbyn himself is a professional Labour politician and has been for 40 years so it should come as no surprise that he is imbued with Labourist corporate values as well.

So if I am right and a self-destructive corporate “labourism” infects the party at every level, what next? Well, sadly my own perception is that it is so embedded in the corporate culture that it is not going to be possible to overcome it. My own view of the Labour Party is a bit like my view of the EU; I can see how it could at least theoretically, be a force for progressive change but it would need to be significantly reformed for that to be possible and I don’t see any route for that reform to take place.

So personally I think the Labour Party is a lost cause and I can only hope that some of the trade unions will come to the same conclusion… because trade union money and political muscle is crucial to any credible and sustainable parliamentary party of the social democratic or democratic socialist left.

I can conceive of such a party and I believe it could achieve substantial electoral success but major trade union involvement is a prerequisite for it to get off the ground and proportional representation is probably a prerequisite for it to succeed.

To get to proportional representation a new left social democratic party would need to enter into an electoral pact with all the anti-Tory forces, including the LibDems and be willing to enter into formal coalitions if and when they became able to form a government.

(1) I use the term ‘left social democrat’ above to describe my political and economic point of view although elsewhere I have used the term ‘democratic socialist’. I definitely identified with the ‘socialist’ wing of the LP and of course Clause 4 of the LP Rule Book states unequivocally that “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” However, upon reflection and after some research I think the phrase ‘left social democrat’ more accurately describes my political and economic POV. Basically I am “Old Labour” believing in a mixed economy with some key sectors (power, water, transport, post, education, health) being publicly owned alongside a capitalist market economy, a strong trade union movement and a well-funded welfare state. This really is a left version of a traditional liberal democratic model in which the state, capital and the people act as checks and balances against each other. I am definitely wary of the tyrannical consequences of socialist statism but I am equally wary of the tyrannical capacity of democratically unaccountable capital. Thus I believe in a democracy that protects the people from both oppressive state power and oppressive private wealth; a government of the people, by the people for the people, if you will. In the West in the 30 years after WW2 this left social democratic model led to the longest period of sustained economic growth and improving living standards in world history. In my view the form of free-market, neoliberal, turbo capitalism that replaced it has been a disaster for almost all of us and has led to liberal democracy being subverted into a form of global plutocracy that combines the worst of coercive state power with the undue influence of unaccountable capital.

About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders.
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2 Responses to Labourism; Is the Labour Party part of the solution or part of the problem?

  1. Sean Will says:

    I am just interested, who would you vote for if there was a general election tomorrow?

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