Over the past year I’ve written several times on political context and implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party. I have been very gratified by how well they’ve ben received – by the people who have actually understood them…
The links are below but first here are some prefatory thoughts:
This has been a time of unprecedented turmoil in the party. Pro and anti Corbyn positions have been taken up by a number of public figures and commentators.
In a nutshell my own position is that I am a supporter of Corbyn but, as Neal Lawson puts it, one ‘without illusions’ as to Corbyn’s shortcomings as a political leader. He is not a very good leader in any conventional sense. But all of the currently available alternatives are much worse. He also has shown a singular ability to get people to join the party, which is frankly very impressive, whatever you think of his debating style.
One of the key problems here, which very few people on either side of the debate want to admit, is that the existing Parliamentary Labour Party is made up mostly of people who are just not suited in any way to the task of representing even a mildly left-wing political party in the early 21st century. This means that however bad a leader Corbyn may be, he will at least not be as obstructive to the renewal of the party and the labour movement as almost any of his colleagues would be, even if some of them would perform better in TV interviews.
I am more passionately a supporter and active member of Momentum (in fact I am currently a member of the Momentum national committee), the democratic activist organisation which has so terrified the Labour Right over the past year by, you know, actually mobilising Labour members in support of an actual political programme (the fact that it happened to be Corbyn’s programme was largely secondary to the fact that the Labour Right mostly don’t think party members should really get involved in politics at all). In particular the prejudice demonstrated against this organisation by members of the wealthy London media elite (including people who don’t think of themselves as members of that elite, because they didn’t go to private school, but who clearly now are) has been extraordinary. I think it really shows what contempt they have for anything like real democracy. They think the country should be run by people like them – and they simply cannot abide the thought that anyone sane might disagree with that.
I come to my position having been a member of the party since the 1980s, having lived for several years in my teens on one of the roughest council estates in the UK (I make this point to refute the claim that all Corbynites are just pampered metropolitan elitists who don’t understand the real working class), and having always been sympathetic to arguments in favour of political pragmatism.
As I try to explain quite carefully in a number of these articles, I think that any sober and informed assessment of the situation must conclude that the strategies proposed and followed by both the ‘soft left’ and the Blairite tendencies in the party in recent decades have all ended in such dismal failure that almost anything else is worth a try. And if that ‘anything else’ should not involve the building of Labour into a democratic member-led mass party for the first time in its history, as some on the Labour right seem to believe, then I have yet to hear any suggestion from them as to what it should actually imvolve.
While both the pro-Corbyn and the anti-Corbyn camps have problems in their arguments and their perspectives, I really do think that they are of a different order. The pro-Corbyn camp does include people who think that Jeremy is actually a brilliant leader, and who think that the fact that Labour did not get annihilated in local elections and by-elections over the past year demonstrates that he can win a general election. This is a problem because he isn’t and it doesn’t. The Corbynite Left has yet to fully face up to the fact that there IS, as our critics keep reminding us, an enormous cultural gap between the metropolitan Left in which we have our base, and the working class voters of the post-industrial ‘heartlands’, at least some of whom we must win over if we are to make any real progress. But that is a problem that could be addressed.
The anti-Corbynites, by contrast, simply demonstrate no grasp whatsoever of what the hell is actually going on. They do not understand where the support for Corbyn has come from, or what kind of organisation Momentum is, or that British parliamentary democracy has been in deep crisis for many years. They respond with caricatures, clichés, and furious trolling, but never ever ever with anything like a reasoned argument. The PLP’s totallybotched coup attempt against Corbyn’s leadership has demonstrated how redundant their whole conception of politics is. Their supporters are mostly people who learned how to do politics in the 1990s and seem to be furious at the fact that the world is changing in such a way that their way of doing it no longer works. They are also generally in total denial about what a disaster New Labour turned out to be. I have noticed in particular that they do not tend to include many people who had any real contact with the public sector during the New Labour years, and so do not have any apparent grasp of the huge ideological price which the sector was forced to pay, in terms of the imposition of neoliberal norms and practices, for the admittedly high levels of investment which the New Labour government oversaw.( If these are words you’re not familiar with then I’m sorry – I suggest you have a look for my little essay on what ‘neoliberalism’ means elsewhere on this blog.)
Anyway that’s enough of that. Here are the links in the order that I would suggest anyone interested reads the pieces:
(Most of these were published on open Democracy UK – if you find them useful and can afford it, please do consider making a donation)
Labour Pains: Labour’s Crisis and the End of the Two-Party System
This is 2000 words and probably the best summary of where I think things are at to date.
(It appears on the Labour Pains website, for which it was specially commissioned. This is part of a unique ongoing collaboration between the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester and the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. It is intended as a new type of political and educational resource, incorporating an expanding online catalogue of material drawn from the Labour Party’s Official Archives; original scholarship, commentary and discussion, as well as interactive timeline plotting the key developments in Labour Party history from its foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.)
A Response to Paul Mason’s ‘Labour: the Way Ahead’
Paul Mason cited ‘Labour Pains’ in an article a few days after it was posted. This was my response.
Corbynism and its Futures
This is the big one – 7000 words – but if you want a good introduction to the general political context for people who might now know much about UK politics then this is it. This was written for Near Futures Online, a web-magazine produced by Zone Books, whose first edition was a fascinating collection on European politics.
Corbyn – What’s a Leader Really For?
This is a short piece on the competing conceptions of leadership which the debate over Corbyn has implicitly put into contention with each other.
A Hijack or a Mutiny? Labour, the leadership and the left
This is a response to the constant claims being made by the Labour Right that the left is somehow acting in a way which contravenes the traditions of the party or its aims as sated in its constitution. In particular it is notable that all of this commentary directly misquotes or misattributes a particular position to Clause One of the party constitution. In this piece I actually cite in full that clause so we can see what it actually says. It is not what Tristram Hunt, Chukka Umunna, the Progress people or Helen Lewis have claimed it says.
Is Momentum a Mob? No – This is What Democracy Looks Like
Another short piece – defending Momentum from the reactionaries.
Facing the facts: a progressive strategy for 2020
This was my latest contribution to the ‘Progressive Alliance’ debate – which has finally taken off after being advocated by a handful of people for many years (including me, ever since my motion to Labour Student conference supporting the idea in 1991 was defeated by the massed ranks of the Scottish Labour Students, who were all convinced that we should have Proportional Representation, but that Labour would definitely one day soon achieve over 50% of the national popular vote, so would never need to be part of a progressive alliance. How’s that working out for you, Scottish Labour?). As I admitted in the comments, it should have been called ‘an electoral tactic for 2020’ really. It’s not a full-blown strategy – that will have to involve mobilising a mass party to challenge the influence of the right-wing press especially in working class communities. But a full blown strategy will also have to involve electoral deals and alliances of the kind that I describe here. Yes, it will. Even with a million members and a full blown national community-activism assault, Labour will not be able to reach the point of actually getting a parliamentary majority, especially once the coming changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries (expected to lose us around 40 seats) have been implemented.
This will be especially important if the majority of the PLP split from Labour, forming a new party which will become the official opposition and will have billionaire money behind it and the BBC and Guardian effectively backing it. In fact if that happens (which it probably will, and probably quite soon), then we (Labour, who will be left with about 80 MPs, almost a million members, and the backing of the trade unions) will probably end up having to do a deal with their new party as well as all the others, if we are to avoid them forming a permanently-hegemonic bloc with the liberal tories. But that’s all to come. And maybe it won’t happen… Yeah right…
An Interview with Jeremy Gilbert
Pancho Lewis was kind enough to interview me for the Open Labour website about Labour strategies. Most of what I said here I would stick by. But I think was a bit too dismissive of the particular strand of ‘Blue Labour’ thinking which thinks that Labour must have something to say to the ‘settlers'(if you don’t know what that means, read the interview and / or google Jon Cruddas’ report into why Labour the 2015 General Election)…I still think that the Blue Labour answer to that problem is wrong, and I stand by everything Mark Fisher and I wrote in our pamphlet ‘Reclaim Modernity‘, a few years ago, but I do think that in the interview I may have given the impression that we can do without large numbers of working class voters who may well feel mainly like ‘settlers’. The Brexit vote (which I wrote about briefly HERE ) made clear that that we do need to find ways to connect with them (I will write about how I think that could happen at some later dates). I think that people like Jon Cruddas have been right to point out the rise of a kind of latent English nationalism and to argue that Labour must engage with it. I regret not listening to Jon when he suggested some years ago that I, as a Cultural Studies scholars, ought to be able to make some contribution to that effort.
‘We’re Better off Without Each Other’ – an open letter to Blairite MPs
This was intended as a light-hearted, if not particularly friendly comment on the politics of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was reacted to furiously by Blairite commentators as a call for a purge. It was basically a joke- because I would never be arrogant enough to think that any Blairite MP would actually give a damn what I have to say about anything. But it also makes a serious point, which frankly I think has been thoroughly borne out by subsequent events. I honestly do think that the best thing that most of the current PLP could do for themselves, the party the movement and the country is just to quietly slip off into some other career. They are not going to get the Labour Party back. Many of them will now face deselection, even if they wouldn’t have done before they tried to unseat Corbyn. They will probably split and form a new party which will end up being a massive obstacle to any kind of real political progress while actually, on its own terms, achieving nothing. Come on guys – you could all be earning more money in the City anyway. Why not just do us all a favour?
What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’
This was written in July 2015 and was my first big piece on the subject. It’s 5000 words long and much of it was incorporated into the Near Futures Online essay. But there is more in here about the internal politics of Labour and the actual leadership election that Corbyn eventually won. I think now this is an interesting historical document because it was probably one of the first instances of somebody (me) historically associated with the ‘soft left’ coming out – with reservations – for Corbyn. It was actually initially written in response to my student Jack Manton asking me if I thought Corbyn was worth supporting.
Corbyn’s leadership and the democratic surge in the Labour Party
This was a short piece written for the Global Justice Now magazine