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A hijack or a mutiny? Labour, leadership and the left

Labour is an increasingly uneasy alliance between a parliamentary party and its membership base. Who can claim to represent the 'real' Labour party? Is Corbynism a hijack of the party or a mutiny of its members?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a policy announcement. Photo: Picture by: Jane Barlow / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rig Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a policy announcement. Photo: Picture by: Jane Barlow / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.What is Labour for?

Labour is facing the greatest crisis in its history. So it is understandable that very little of the commentary coming from the Labour Right makes any effort to understand what is going on or what the motivations of Corbyn’s supporters might be. Most of that commentary simply pathologises those supporters, trying to attribute psychological rather than rational political motives for their behaviour.

Labour is facing the greatest crisis in its history

Of the commentary that has tried to understand what is happening, one of the most thoughtful and reasonable objections to the politics of Corbynism has taken one particular form. The (occasionally hostile) objection runs as follows: Why doesn’t Momentum just form its own party? Why try to ‘take over’ an existing one; which, as anti-Corbynites tend to assure me has never been anything but a centrist, pro-capitalist party, ‘moderate’ party? There are different aspects of this argument and they warrant different responses.  Let’s deal with one of the most popular first.

Helen Lewis recently offered one of the most detailed and thoughtful attempts to engage with Corbynism from a hostile position. She attempts not to simply dismiss or pathologise, but to genuinely understand the Corbynite approach. In this effort, she addresses the idea of Labour under Corbyn becoming a social movement. It’s worth quoting her rather perceptive analysis directly here. She writes:

“There is a widely expressed sentiment about the need for Labour to become a “social movement”. As I said above, I think this springs from the same sense of despair that leads centrist MPs to think the party needs to compromise with the electorate on welfare and immigration. Same facts; different takeaway. My question is always: why should that social movement be born from the Labour party? The Labour party was established to win power through parliament and in the country; that's Clause One. If that’s not your aim, why is the Labour party the means? (If anyone would like to answer this, do drop me a line. My suggested response is, “because it’s easier to hijack something that already exists than build something new from scratch,” but perhaps I’m being too cynical.)” 

The key comment I want to focus on here first is this precise claim: “The Labour party was established to win power through parliament and in the country; that's Clause One.” Judging from some of the comments I’ve received from anti-Corbynites in recent weeks, the belief that Clause One of the Labour party constitution contains some explicit commitment to ‘winning power through parliament’ seems to have become a widespread touchstone  of their world-view. So it might be useful to look at what Clause One of the Labour party Constitution actually says. Here it is in full.

Clause I.
Name and objects

  1. This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour party’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the party’). 
  2. Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour party. 
  3. The party shall bring together members and supporters who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support, and promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process. 
  4. The party shall give effect, as far as may be practicable, to the principles from time to time approved by party conference.

Now, there are many possible interpretations of that clause and its sub-clauses. But the claim that it explicitly prioritises parliamentary politics over all other forms, and that it priorities electoral victory over the propagation of democratic socialist values, seems pretty difficult to sustain. Let us note in particular that sub-clause 2 does not  say ‘Its purpose is to win parliamentary majorities’ or even to ‘form governments’. What it says is that its purpose is to ‘organise and maintain a political Labour party.’. That might mean winning elections. It might mean just maintaining a rump party of 20 MPs. What it does not do is to define the formation of parliamentary majorities as the exclusive priority of the party.

None of this provides an argument against those who believe that the only real purpose of the Labour Party is to  service the needs of the PLP and to win parliamentary majorities. That is a perfectly reasonable opinion to hold about how the Labour Party should interpret its function.  But it is clearly not the only one. The argument of Lewis and those who her share her view becomes even harder to sustain if we read sub-clause 3 of clause 1. Let’s look at that quote again:

“The party shall bring together members and supporters who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support, and promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process.”

That sounds to me like a description of an organisation that is supposed to function as both a social movement and an election-winning machine. It seems pretty clear that it’s supposed to be both and that the document assumes that the two goals are interdependent rather than being in any way mutually exclusive or prioritised. So there is one answer to Lewis question. The reason the Labour party is the appropriate vehicle for this social movement is that it says, right, there, in clause 1 of its constitution, that a vehicle for such a social movement is exactly what the Labour party is supposed to be.  It is not the only thing it is supposed to be. But it is supposed to be that.  It is quite plain that in recent years it hasn’t been. And maybe Lewis et al are right in thinking that it shouldn’t try to be. But appealing to clause one of the Labour party constitution in support of their argument has no validity whatsoever.

Parties and movements

Eventually I will discuss Lewis’ more serious charge, and the other one that I’ve heard a lot recently  - the charge that the Corbynite left is ‘hijacking’ the party. But first it’s worth reflecting a little more on the business of the relationships between political parties and social movements. This is a complex issue and to deal with it properly requires some sort of definition of terms. As Richard Seymour  and Paul Thompson have both  recently commented, there is a lot of loose talk on the Corbynite left about Labour becoming a ‘social movement’, as if everyone already knew exactly what that meant. There is actually vast scholarly literature on social movements, much of it rather preoccupied with the question of how to recognise one when you see one and what exactly it is that they do, but unsurprisingly there isn’t much consensus on those issues within that literature, and I’m not going to attempt a definition here. 

a social movement and a political party are just two different types of thing

What I can  say is that the vast majority of social movement scholars use the term in such a way that it would be assumed that there is a definite limit to how far the statement ‘The Labour party is a social movement’ could ever be said actually to make sense. This is because a social movement and a political party are just two different types of thing. They may often be very closely related to each other.  A movement may found a party, a party may rely on a movement for the mobilisation of activists, a party may seek to make itself as much as possible into a movement, movements may have much closer or more distant relationships with formal political parties. But at the end of the day they are not exactly the same kind of thing.

The specific job of a party - or at least of the kind of party that Labour is - is to win elections and to create viable groupings of legislative representatives at various levels of local and national government, many of whom will perforce be professional full-time politicians. The job of a ‘movement’, however defined is both more diffuse and broader in scope - it is in some sense to change public opinion and to intervene in the broad balance of social forces. Again, let’s be clear - these roles will almost inevitably bleed into each other, but they are also not exactly the same. So there is clearly something to this objection from the anti-Corbynites; it is naive to assert in any simplistic way that Labour can or should simply ‘become’ a social movement.

But acknowledging that issue is one thing. It’s quite another to assert that this movement has no business trying to use the Labour party to achieve its ends at all and that Labour shouldn’t try to be part of, even a host for, such a movement. As we’ve already seen, the much-cited party constitution makes pretty clear that Labour is technically supposed to encourage, facilitate and be informed by a kind of social movement politics.

The Mandelsonian view

The complex relationships between movement politics and professional electoral politics have been matters of widespread discussion before now. In the 1980s there was considerable talk in British left-intellectual circles of the decline of both class politics specifically and mass politics generally. One of the strands of thinking on this issue which fed directly into New Labour is particularly worth recalling here. This trend, a strong influence on New Labour thinkers like Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Giddens, held that the days of the mass party were over, that large-scale political constituencies were fragmenting into niche identity categories, and that political parties were becoming increasingly just institutions for the reproduction of professional political elites.  

political parties were becoming increasingly just institutions for the reproduction of professional political elites

Some of this was undoubtedly true, and was the outcome of irreversible processes of technological and cultural change to which I think the Left is still struggling to adapt. Some of it was true, but was not inevitable, being the outcome of political processes resulting from, among other things, the deliberate destruction of working class political institutions by their enemies in the 1980s. However, the interpretation of the situation which became most influential on New Labour was one which regarded these changes as inevitable, irreversible and desirable, and which urged Labour to embrace the professionalisation of politics by creating new cadre of highly professionalised politicians while, as far as possible, marginalising those old-fashioned party ‘activists’ who still believed in tedious old ideas like, for example, party conference actually having a say over party policy. This was Peter Mandelson’s project and it had, in its way, a sound intellectual basis.

But the important point for our purposes here is that even if you agree with them on all of these points, the idea that Labour has ‘always’ been defined by that assumption just clearly doesn’t hold water. The idea that winning elections is all that matters is actually a relatively recent one in the history of the Labour party, and it is an idea which New Labour may be regarded as having fully tested. Now, if you regard New Labour as basically a successful experiment then fine - you can argue that it proved its case. But what you still cannot argue with any legitimacy is that it some kind of betrayal of 100 years of Labour party history to take a different view.

The Labour party has never been just one thing

Because in fact Labour has always, from the moment of its foundation, been characterised by internal disagreements about these matters and many others. Labour was founded by a disparate group of organisations, which included revolutionary Marxists as well as Fabians and moderate reformers, for the purpose of getting parliamentary representation for the organised working class. In fact its original founders did not primarily see winning parliamentary majorities as being their primary goal because at the time it would have seemed to most of them to be a distant pipe-dream that Labour would actually fully displace the Liberal party as the main voice of progressive politics.

Labour was founded by a disparate group of organisations 

Consider the history of the Independent Labour party -  an organisation always committed to both socialism and radical democracy, of which Keir Hardie was a member, which initially joined the Labour Representation Committee, then left the party in the 1930s, then re-joined as Independent Labour Publications in the 1970s. Consider the fate of Nye Bevan: briefly expelled from the party in 1939 (along with Stafford Cripps) for agitating for an alliance of all left-wing parties, before going on to become the founder of the NHS, which only took the form that we still know because Bevan’s background and ongoing political base in the South Wales coalfields had given him an intransigent commitment to the principle of fully mutualised and egalitarian health care. And don’t  forget that the Labour Right opposed the formation of the NHS as being far too socialistic a measure for this country, as did the Tories.

Importantly, all of these groups or individuals on the Labour Left regarded parliamentary democracy as an imperfect means to the end of  greater social justice and more equitable representation of the people; none of them would ever have accepted that we must simply accept that parliamentary democracy in its current form is the best kind of democracy we can ever hope for. The fact that Corbyn takes a similar view does not situate him outside or at odds with the party and its traditions, as critics have recently claimed. It simply situates him in a different tradition to the one which was dominant in the party from 1995 to 2015.

But why can’t we keep the movement and the party separate?

The question which the most thoughtful of the anti-Corbynites tend to ask at this stage is why we can’t just have the social movement without messing up the shiny, efficient, professionalised Labour party in the process. Why not either found our own new party to the left of Labour or develop Momentum as an autonomous organisation which tries to shift public opinion, allowing Labour naturally to move to the Left once public opinion makes that a popular thing to do?

There are two key issues to consider here. The first is that, although it is easily forgotten now, Labour party members were constantly being promised by New Labour advocates around 1996-7 was that a couple of terms of responsible, moderately social democratic government, would shift public opinion firmly back in favour of old-fashioned tax-and-spend, creating the necessary conditions for a real revival of the social democratic project. I remember John Lloyd asserting at a seminar in 1996 that if a Blair government had failed to establish such a shift in public opinion within one or two parliamentary terms, then it would have failed.

the Blair project did not succeed

On those terms, the Blair project did not succeed. Instead we ended up with a prime minister who by 2005 was lecturing us to the effect that the old social democratic virtues had to be abandoned forever, as we all prepared ourselves for the endless ruthless competition which was the global labour market in the 21st century, while by the 2010s, British Social Attitude surveys showed that the public had become less socially democratic during the Blair years. Despite that rightward drift in public opinion, poll after poll showed that the public didn’t want more piecemeal privatisation of public services. Nonetheless, that was exactly what we got.

If you are one of those people who thinks that all that was basically fine and that Blair was right to force the country to adapt to the inevitable circumstances of 21st century capitalism- then that’s great and you are entitled to your view. But don’t be surprised if people who disagree with you now think that leaving the party politics to the professionals didn’t work out very well for us. And don’t accuse us of ‘hijacking’ a party that many of us were members of long before the Blairite cadres took over the leadership and the policy-making machinery.

Labour and the left

The second issue to consider is perhaps even more fundamental. This is the fact that any cool assessment of the past century of UK political history must conclude that there is very little scope in British politics for advancing progressive political causes without getting the support of at least some factions within the Labour party and the movement. This is a result of several factors. Outside Scotland we still have a highly centralised state apparatus and a highly conservative media. I’m sorry but we just do - if you think we don’t then you just don’t know much about conditions in other comparable countries. This means that frankly unless you are the leader of the Labour party or Russell Brand, your chances of getting any serious sustained national media attention for a radical cause are effectively zero.  If you want to go the way of Occupy - try to start something completely different. If you actually want to change things - you join the Labour party. On top of this, the First Past the Post system makes it almost impossible to found a new political party with any hope of even moderate success.

If we had proportional representation and, as many other countries do, state funding for political parties, then all this would be different. To their credit, many Blairites over the years have advocated for such reforms, as have many others. But the fact is that we don’t have them. And without them, what political scientists call the ‘opportunity structures’ afforded by our system to political innovators (especially on the Left)  are extremely limited.

 the First Past the Post system makes it almost impossible to found a new political party

Under these circumstances, Lewis’ cynical remark has some truth to it: it is easier to take over Labour than to create something new. My only disagreement with Lewis here is a matter of degree. Her comment implied that the difference between doing radical transformative politics  inside and outside Labour is simply a matter of ease vs difficulty.  I would say that this isn’t about easy vs. difficult. It’s about possible vs impossible. It isn’t just easier to win control of the Labour leadership than to do anything else that might prove remotely as effective: it’s basically impossible to get a hearing for any kind of radical project in British politics if you are not at least in serious contention for the Labour leadership.

Another way to look at this is is this: like it or not, the Labour party is the place where most of the English and Welsh left has its arguments. It just is. If you’re not having the argument in the party, then you’re just deliberately keeping yourself outside the main arena of debate for the British Left. (I say this with all due respect to the people in the Green Party and Plaid who make such a valuable contribution to progressive politics in those areas where they have a foothold). So saying that it’s the wrong place to have those arguments, especially, when your side has just lost one, which is what lots of people on the Labour Right seem to be saying -  is at best historically naive: at worst it’s just outright hypocrisy.

A hijack or a mutiny?

None of this is likely to make those people who have stuck with Labour for years feel any better about an apparent influx of outsiders changing the nature of the party. This is the understandable situation of those who still feel that they have been ‘hijacked’ by the Corbyn movement. So here is the most obvious and simple response that I can make to those people: In 2015, Corbyn won the Labour leadership election even among members who had joined in previous years. He didn’t get a stonking majority of their votes but he got considerably more than any of his rivals. It is unclear right now whether Smith will get more votes than Corbyn amongst that constituency, but even if he does, at some point old members have got to start accepting that new ones have a voice, and if they didn’t want a radical change in the composition of the party, then they shouldn’t have supported Corbyn in the first place. The fact is that a larger group of existing Labour members were already sufficiently fed up with the direction of the party in 2015 to elect Corbyn without any outside help than were willing to endorse any other candidate. This wasn’t a hijack - it was a mutiny. As such, it clearly belongs to the insurgent tradition of Keir Hardie. Whether the same could be said of Blair, Mandelson and their followers is another question.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert.


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