What’s going on in the Labour Party, and what does it mean?
The Labour Party is in open civil war. There’s rolling news every day, and a lot of very principled people (along with a lot of very unprincipled people) are trying to work out what the best thing to do is. Much digital ink as been spilled, often in each other’s faces. It might be hard in all that to understand what on earth is going on, and why it’s got so bloody (or inky). For what it’s worth, here’s how I see it:
A social movement erupted at the last Labour leadership election. Like all social movements, at its beginning it was messy, passionate, unorganised and diverse. Its general cause was massive frustration with the current Westminster political system, and its general aim was to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as leader of the Labour Party. By doing this, people in the movement felt like they could make Labour relevant to their interests again — that a Corbyn-led Labour was a Labour worth having, and that that Labour could take power in Westminster.
The people behind Corbyn were in three main groups: The smallest, most organised but least significant is the organised far-left, groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) (who are, amusingly, mortal enemies), who for decades have advocated trying to take over the Labour Party for the far left. There are not actually many of these people left, but they do have a lot of experience and infrastructure. The next social group, much bigger but a bit less organised, is former or disgruntled Labour Party members, who left or got disillusioned under Blair, and want to “take their party back” in a left-wing direction. They tend to be working-class, middle-aged or older, and are often trade unionists. And the last group, also very big but much less organised, are social movement types — people who were involved in Climate Camp, or UK Uncut, or Occupy, who have never been in a Party or who have switched between Greens, Lib Dems and Labour. They tend to be middle-class, young or early middle-aged, and interested in participatory and horizontal organisations. (I’m one of these people.) These three big groups formed a fairly friendly casual alliance, despite their differences, to get Corbyn elected.
All this was a big departure from the ideas that Labour (and Westminster) were organised on. Since Blair, the Labour Party had joined in the the “neoliberal consensus”, ageeing with the Tories on a few basic ideas: that globalised free trade was a good thing, that low tax and regulation on corporations was a good thing, and that the problems of poor people were best fixed by growing the economy through free trade and unregulated business rather than through redistributing wealth. Under Blair and Brown, this approach reduced the number of people in absolute poverty, but also increased income inequality, which is the gap between rich and poor. This meant that while there were fewer desperately poor people, working class people in general were relatively worse off. Inequality causes many social ills beyond what poverty causes.
Under Cameron, not only did income inequality get worse, but poverty got worse too, and institutions like the NHS and social security were cut back, making life even worse for working class people. Rising house prices, rising student fees and high job insecurity also meant that young middle-class people were getting really terrible economic deal too. All this laid the ground for a lot of people demanding a really big change.
The social movement behind Corbyn won that round. Corbyn became leader and began to pull Labour left. The movement also started to organise: it got a formal orgaisation, Momentum, it strengthened its position in trade unions, and many of its members joined the Labour Party fully and started getting involved in its structures. But the reaction to Corbyn also got more organised: a group of MPs on the right of the party (those who still believed in the neoliberal consensus) started organising plots to get rid of Corbyn, regularly briefed both the right-wing media (Telegraph, Sun, Mail) and the left-wing media (Guardian, Independent) against Corbyn, with the help of an army of commentators and columnists. Both sides strengthened their position and tensions slowly rose.
This broke into open conflict right after the Brexit vote. The right-wing MPs resigned Party positions in a big group, and attacked Corbyn in the media, while anti-Corbyn commentators ratcheted up the pressure for him to resign. This group also managed to take with it a large group of those MPs and Party members who had previously not taken a side: left-wing and “soft left” people, who might have supported Corbyn before or not, but who were now sceptical of his ability to win an election. This last group might agree with Corbyn’s politics, but was persuaded that it wasn’t pragmatic to have Corbyn in power: either because he was a “bad leader” personally, or because the opposition from the right-wing media and Labour right was too strong for him to win an election.
Then Corbyn surprised this attempted coup by refusing to resign, and the coup surprised everyone by having no more good cards to play. The Corbyn team rightly recognised that their position was much stronger than the anti-Corbyn team had thought, because the Corbyn team was still supported by the majority of Labour Party members and trade unions, who had a deep investment in him hanging on. And while the anti-Corbyn side was able to continue to use the media very strongly against Corbyn, the pro-Corbyn side was now much better organised. The pro-Corbyn side signed up many thousands of supporters as Labour Party members, managed to seize power in a large number of Constituncy Labour Parties (CLP, the local branches) by passing pro-Corbyn motions and taking positions of authority, and held many mass demonstrations of support.
Now the anti-Corbyn side has started to get its act together, has recognised the nature of this threat, and is using Party structures against the social movement. It knows that it cannot win the leadership contest in a straight fight, so it needs to swing it. It let Corbyn on the leadership ballot because the alternative would have been too destructive, but started passing rules to strengthen the anti-Corbyn position. It has prevented new Party members from voting in the leadership election, neutralising the pro-Corbyn recruitment drive. It has supended all CLP meetings, preventing the social movement making further advances into Party structures. And it has now taken the very dramatic action of suspending the large and strongly pro-Corbyn Brighton and Hove CLP, showing that it’s willing to act harshly to maintain control.
So, on the one side, you have: old-school organised far-left types, trade unionists, re-engaged long-term Labour members, and young activist-types. They want a left-wing Labour Party, and they also want the power in the Labour Party to reside mostly with the members (partly from a belief in grassroots democracy, and partly so that they can win). They believe that if they lose Corbyn then Labour will continue to make their lives worse wheher or not it wins an election, and so that it’s worth continuing this damaging fight to keep Corbyn.
On the other side, you have: neoliberal politicians, liberal columnists and commentators, and long-term Party officials and members who are trying to “keep the Party together” or “get Labour back in power” and believe Corbyn is a major obstacle to that. Some of them want a right-wing Labour Party, some want a left-wing Labour Party, but all of them want power in the Labour Party to reside mostly with MPs and party officials (party from a belief in hierarchical representative democracy, and partly so that they can win). They believe that it’s a social good to have Labour in power, and many of their careers rely on it, and that this can never happen with Corbyn in power, so they think it’s worth continuing this damaging fight to oust Corbyn.
There are some people in the middle trying to find a third way, but they’re disorganised, they don’t have a plan or a convincing story to sell, and both sides are getting too entrenched. Both sides also have political arguments as to why there is no possible third way.
What does all this mean? It’s partly the continued breakdown of the neoliberal consensus: the people who this economic and social policy has failed are building their fightback and demanding something different, while those who profit from this consensus are trying very hard to hold on. The gradual reformists caught between the two sides are mostly siding with the neoliberals, and don’t yet have a promising “third way” story or ideology of their own. This pattern can be seen across Europe and America, with a rise in street protest and a rise in left-wing political parties or party takeovers (Syriza, Sanders, Podemos, Five Star, &c).
The interesting thing about that pattern is that it’s a big shift for activist-types and social movements. Since the 90s, the focus of European and American activism has been on grassroots, horizontalist social movements. Think of the start of this being No Logo and anti-G8 protests, and the climax of this being Occupy. But now these people, with a big background in protest and activist forms of organisation, are getting interested in Party politics again. They’re starting to see Parties as possible vehicles of social and ideological change, and they’re bringing old left types back ino the Parties with them. That’s partly because they’ve seen the limits of extra-parliamentary movements in pursuing social change, and partly because of a generational shift. It remains to be seen whether this “electoral turn” will be more effective, and that will partly depend on a coming tussle between the old left and the new left in these social movements: about whether we just do 1980s-style politics again and lose again, or do something new and, maybe, win.
The fight in Labour is just one front in this war. The anti-Corbyn side has been in retreat since it launched the coup, and is now beginning its real institutional fightback. The pro-Corbyn side has mostly been on the offensive since the coup, but it may struggle to wield the power of the members and trade unions to fight back against the Party structures now being so effectively used. Until the National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting which barred new members from the election, I thought that the anti-Corbyn side was going to fold, I thought it had run out of cards and was going to retreat and regroup. Now they’ve taken the civil war to a new stage, and I think it’s going to get nastier.
You might have read all this and think I’m a conspiracy theorist. I’m not. I don’t think that most of what’s happened has been organised by secret cabals or puppet masters. Instead, I’m trying to describe the movements of various social forces: people aren’t for the most part following orders, they’re acting individually in the same direction, because they share interests and aims. Most people in this are rational independent people trying to do what they think is best. There are some manipulators, some thugs, and some would-be puppet-masters, but mostly it’s just people. I think your analysis and action is stronger if you remember you’re working with and against other humans who are mostly about as smart and about as stupid and just as flawed as you.
I’m pro-Corbyn. In brute power political terms, here’s what I think the pro-Corbyn side should do:
(1) Go to Momentum meetings. They’ve taken away our CLP meetings, which means we have to organise another way, and if we don’t organise we will definitely lose: individual voices aren’t enough.
(2) Join trade unions. This might not get you a leadership vote, but it is an important vehicle of organisaton for the broader Labour movement, and the NEC can’t suspend those meetings. The unions are mostly with Corbyn, but their support is a little more shaky and equivocal: we need to hold onto them, or we’ll lose.
(3)Be alternative media. We will have very few voices in the mainstream press, and there will be a lot of disinformation spreading about. That means we have to use independent media, whether it’s social media like this or growing institutions like Novara, to spread encouragement, comment and accurate information.
(4) Stay classy. There are some utter arseholes in our ranks and they’re costing us. No matter what we do, we’re going to get accused of being bullies and thugs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t root out the bullies and thugs. We’re not strong enough for bullying tactics to work, even if you think they’re morally OK (I don’t), and the neoliberals’ bullying tactics will be much more effective on us. We have to persuade more of the people in the middle to come along with us, and we have to counter the media narratives of leftist violence with displays of classiness. Convince, don’t denounce.
(5) Plan for if we lose. We might not win this one. And, actually, it’s kind of weird and icky that we’re putting so much energy into getting a moderately-left-wing person elected leader of a centrist political party. Losing this battle doesn’t mean we’ll lose the war. There are other, maybe more important things to fight. Make sure you have connections in other movements and organisations. If we need to, we’ll retreat, regroup and take the fight elsewhere.
(6) Plan for if we win. Keeping Corbyn at the top of Labour is not the end point: it’s the starting point. If we keep his position secure, he’ll still be confronting relentless media opposition and opposition from within his own party. Keeping Labour on a strong left-wing course isn’t just about staying involved with the Party (though it does mean that, if that’s what you enjoy), but continuing to build grassroots social strength. Protest movements, street movements, organisations to defend migrants and benefit claimants and women and LGBT people and people facing eviction — the stronger and more active these organisations are, the harder a time the Tory party will have, and the stronger a left-led Labour Party’s hand will be. Make yourselves ungovernable.
Good luck out there. Stay together, stay classy, keep thinking, keep talking, and look after yourselves, because this is a very long haul and a burnt-out you is no use to anybody. Take care xxx