The Two Souls of Labour

Corbyn supporters' vision for the Labour Party is fundamentally at odds with that of its entrenched elite.

The Labour Party is facing the greatest crisis in its history. Nine months after the historic election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership, a disastrously botched coup attempt saw 75 percent of the Parliamentary Labour Party united in a failed attempt to dislodge him, by passing a vote of no confidence in his leadership. Such a vote has no constitutional authority in the party, whose leader can only be removed by a successful challenge.

Several weeks on, a leadership election is underway, and despite blatant attempts by right-wing party officials to gerrymander the electorate, all that the coup attempt seems to have achieved is a massive further influx of members and supporters to the party, largely (though not exclusively) motivated by the desire to support Corbyn.

Evidently, the Labour members of parliament (MPs) who staged the coup attempt genuinely believed that Corbyn would see his position as untenable and that the membership would accept this. This misunderstanding of the situation proceeds directly from the more general inability of the British political class to grasp what was at stake in Corbyn’s election as Labour leader or in the wider political crisis of which it was only one symptom.

The analysis of the situation popularized by center-left commentators such as Helen Lewis and Jonathan Freedland last year maintained that Corbynism was a purely psychological phenomenon, an expression of its adherents’ desire for ideological purity in an age of endless compromise, with Corbyn merely the screen onto which they could project their phantasmatic self-image as true-born radicals. Versions of the same account, asserting that Corbynism is a personality cult, its adherents blinded by faith, are still trotted out almost daily by the mainstream commentariat.

In line with this assessment, it was widely assumed by such mainstream commentators last year that within a year the membership would come to its senses, realizing the mistake they had made as the reality of electoral disaster dawned on them (Labour was supposed to perform much worse in by-elections and local government elections than it did in the intervening period, according to this theory).

A key feature of the paradigm shared by all such commentary is its myopic focus on the politics of the Westminster village, informed by an understanding of representative democracy as involving nothing more than the occasional selection of a political elite by a largely supine party membership and electorate.

What Kind of Democracy?

In fact what has become apparent is that Corbynism is one manifestation of a phenomenon which can be registered in many different parts of the world and which takes different forms across the political spectrum: the angry rejection of the professional political class and its agendas by populations who are no longer willing to defer to them, as they seem unable or unwilling to address the causes of widespread inequality and insecurity.

It is very clear that this rejection is central to the motivations of a large number of those who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It is clear that much of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) support draws on it. It is very clear that the huge numbers of people who joined Labour over the past year to support Corbyn did not do so out of any sense of reverence for those traditions of parliamentary sovereignty to which the Labour Party has deferred for most of its history.

In fact the crisis of authority occurring within the Labour Party now should be seen at heart as a conflict between several different models of democratic politics. The classic parliamentary model regards the elected legislature as the nation’s sovereign decision-making body, and places a high value on the independent capacity of MPs to use their expertise, experience, and judgement to make appropriate decisions on behalf of their constituents and in the name of their party.

According to such a model, it was always reasonable to expect that the Parliamentary Labour Party would enjoy at the very least an effective veto over the party’s choice of leader. Much anti-Corbyn commentary has appealed to this traditional conception of parliamentary politics in order to argue that Corbyn’s refusal to resign in the face of the no-confidence vote was effectively illegitimate.

The problem with making any serious appeal to this model of legitimacy is the widespread sense — among party members and the wider public — that the PLP effectively already broke with it during the epoch of New Labour. Such a model of representative politics implicitly assumes that legislators will do their best to represent the views and interests of their constituents, insofar as it is practically possible and as far as it does not violate moral imperatives.

The widely shared feeling is that New Labour did not do this, but instead enacted a technocratic legislative agenda which, against the wishes of the vast majority of its voters, extended privatization into the public sector, boosted even further the status and power of finance capital, and did very little to tackle economic inequality.

New Labour itself effectively relied upon a quite different notion of the role of MPs to that implied by the classical model. For New Labour, the key role of the MP was simply to secure formal consent from their constituents for the government’s legislative program by winning elections, by appearing publicly and in the media to be as generically inoffensive as possible to a broad cross section of the public, and above all by appearing unthreatening to key media outlets.

This model is now being challenged in turn by one which the radical rank-and-file of the Labour Party have dreamed of implementing for decades, according to which both MPs and party leader are all accountable directly to party members.

As old an idea as this may be, it is striking to note how in tune it now appears to be with the spirit of a global wave of democratic demands and movements, including the emergence of Podemos in Spain, the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland, and even the remarkable movement called into existence in the United States by Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Perhaps more importantly, it resonates strongly with a culture in which any form of deference to the professional political class seems simply to run counter to basic common sense; because today nobody trusts the political class at all.

Within the Labour Party, the membership have made clear their desire for the party to put forward a progressive program. However, it is abundantly clear that the vast majority of the current parliamentary party are just not personally, socially, or intellectually suited to the task of representing even a moderately left-wing party or its key constituencies in the early twenty-first century.

Almost all of them were selected as candidates and trained as politicians by the machinery established by Peter Mandelson in the 1990s, the key objective of which was to select and train parliamentary representatives who would never behave in any way likely to offend powerful financial interests or their agents.

This was a key element of the project to rebrand the Labour Party as New Labour, a novel type of political formation in which most of the traditional apparatus of party democracy would be bypassed, the authority of the leadership being guaranteed by its control of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP ) and its exclusive access to key media channels.

The British Party System

Where this will end is very hard to say. Predictions of a full split in the party seem well-founded, given that the political, social, and psychological gulf between the majority of the PLP and the majority of the membership now seems unbridgeable. From this point of view, it is probably most useful to reflect that what is happening in Labour is only one element of a much more significant national phenomenon: the breakup of the British party system.

As such, the rise of UKIP to a position whereby it can reliably command around 15 percent of electoral support, the SNP’s complete dominance of the Scottish parliamentary bloc, and the apparently irreconcilable politics of different sections of the Labour Party can all be seen as symptoms of the same general phenomenon: the transformation of Britain from a two-party into a multi-party polity.

Arguably, in fact, this process has been underway for decades. The general complexification of contemporary societies and their fragmentation into multiple cultural groupings was always likely to threaten the stability of the two-party system, which anyway had only taken the form of a classic contest between Labour and the Conservatives since the 1920s.

From this perspective, the emergence of a strong third force in the form of the Liberal Democrats had already broken this system by the end of the 1980s. In fact it is possible to see New Labour as a strategic response to this situation.

Faced with the fragmentation of the electorate, Labour could have accepted a permanent reduction in its overall vote and the need for permanent coalition with other parties, conceding the center ground to the Liberal Democrats, while retaining its clear political identity as a democratic socialist party based in the unions and the public sector.

Instead it opted for a form of centrism which positioned it to the right of the liberal democrats on many issues, on the assumption that almost all of its traditional voters had nobody else to vote for, and so this route would lead to permanent electoral dominance.

Strategies for Labour

The rise of UKIP as a force in working-class politics, and the loss of millions of working-class votes during the years of New Labour government, has finally rendered this assumption redundant, and has posed once again the question of exactly what kind of party Labour wants to be, who it wants to represent, and how.

In response to this problem, the most articulate of the Corbynites see Corbyn’s key role not as being the leader of a parliamentary bloc, but as a figurehead who can inspire people to join the party in their hundreds of thousands, to the point where there is a realistic chance of Labour’s memberships approaching one million within the next year or so.

What exactly they plan to do with a million members if they get them remains unclear — but the general proposition that achieving such a figure would create an opportunity to transform British political culture through member-led community activism seems reasonable.

It frankly seems more reasonable than the alternative proposition being put by Corbyn’s opponent for the leadership, Owen Smith. Essentially, what Smith proposes is a replay of the failed electoral strategy pursued by Neil Kinnock in 1987 and 1992, by Ed Miliband in 2015, and arguably by Gordon Brown in 2010: an attempt to make a weakly social democratic platform acceptable to a broad public in the hope that appearing respectable and non-threatening will convince powerful economic interests not to use their influence over the press to undermine any chance of electoral success for that program.

There is simply not one shred of evidence that this can work. Observed dispassionately, it is quite clear that since the great defeats visited on the organized left in the mid-1980s, the balance of forces in British society has been such that the Right can and will destroy any chance of electoral success for any political program which threatens to undertake any meaningful form of economic redistribution.

It is able to do this largely because a small but electorally crucial section of the electorate (ageing swing voters in marginal parliamentary constituencies) continues to rely heavily on the tabloid press for news and opinion. Blair understood this and so proposed not to undertake any significant redistribution — and consequently was permitted to win elections.

The “soft left” mainstream of the PLP and the Guardian-centered commentariat either do not understand it or would prefer to remain in a perpetual state of respectable opposition than risk any major transformation of the political universe within which they have a secure, if basically impotent position.

By contrast, the Corbynite attempt to build a large enough political army to be able to counter right-wing propaganda on the ground may not work — but it is a least a strategy which recognizes the reality of that situation, and proposes a new answer to the question of what the Labour Party should be; by insisting that it must be a social movement before it is anything.

This project may fail. But whatever the eventual answer to the question of Labour’s identity and strategy, it seems increasingly implausible that it can involve simply offering the same response as would have been given in the 1990s, or the 1960s or the 1930s.

Faced with a new epoch and a new political terrain, Labour will have to reinvent itself, as it has before. The question is whether its MPs and its key supporters in the press, all of their assumption shaped by a historical moment which has now passed, are capable of grasping that fact. At present, it seems that few of them are.

This article is adapted from Labour Pains, an ongoing collaboration between the People’s History Museum in Manchester and the Department of History at the University of Sheffield which uses material from Labour’s official archives, original scholarship, and commentary to discuss the development of the party.