New Labour orthodoxies, dominant in the Labour Party for at least two decades, are crumbling writes Alex Snowdon
Political figures from the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - those former prime ministers themselves and Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and Alastair Campbell - have shrieked their disapproval of Jeremy Corbyn. Alongside numerous centre-left commentators and columnists, these political grandees have warned that his victory in the Labour leadership contest would be a disaster, a lurch to the unelectable left and a throwback to the 1980s.
But all the evidence is that their pleas are going unanswered, as Labour Party members and registered supporters look set to elect an uncompromisingly left wing candidate as leader. The panic and fear of the New Labour establishment have been matched by remarkable popular enthusiasm for Corbyn.
There have been huge rallies nationwide. The surge in numbers of members and supporters for Labour has been primarily driven by enthusiasm for Corbyn. It looks likely that even the exclusion of some members and supporters will not prevent him being declared the victor on 12 September.
The success of Corbyn’s campaign has taken everyone by surprise, including the man himself and those around him. The idea was to put across left wing policies and shift the debate to the left, but as momentum has developed Corbyn has become the clear frontrunner.
The Tories are divided over how to respond, but the shrewder Tories recognise that Corbyn can pull the whole of British politics to the left. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, by her own reckoning, was Tony Blair and New Labour. Getting the main opposition party to adopt the same neoliberal doctrines was the mark of ideological victory. That centre left is now in apparent meltdown, being increasingly challenged by a growing and assertive left wing.
The decay of the old orthodoxy is most obvious in the popularity of Corbyn’s rejection of cuts and privatisation. Policies like restoring free university education, renationalising rail and energy industries, a public investment bank, increasing taxes on the rich, a major programme of house building and rent controls are outside the accepted terms of official political debate.
Many of the most virulent responses, though, have focused on foreign policy issues like withdrawing from the US-led Nato alliance, scrapping Trident replacement , solidarity with Palestine, and refusing participation in further military assaults on the Middle East. The adoption of a foreign policy firmly tied to the US has for a long time been a core part of the Westminster consensus. That is now under threat.
Predictions and reality
Most people agreed on a number of predictions prior to May’s general election, should there be a Tory government. One prediction was that there would be widespread demoralisation and passivity among opponents of austerity. This has turned out to be broadly wrong.
The shock and upset at the election outcome swiftly gave way to anger and a determination to stop the Tories. The greatest expression of this was the People’s Assembly national demonstration on 20 June, and there have been scores of local protests expressing the same mood.
Another prediction was that Labour would shift to the right, with a Blairite takeover on the back of the dominant interpretation being that Labour had – under Ed Miliband – steered too far to the left. This was indeed the initial response, with Blairite politicians and commentators responsible for a deluge of calls for Labour to become ‘more credible’, to promote ‘economic competence’, and to obsess over the supposed ‘centre ground’. Yet that initial dominant response has swiftly been overtaken by more left-wing interpretations and proposals.
Finally, it was assumed that – with another five years until another general election – the focus would naturally shift, for the left, from electoral politics to the movements and trade unions. This has proved partially true. The People’s Assembly demonstration and numerous local protests testify to a shift towards extra-parliamentary action. Nobody is simply hanging on for 2020, aware that it is a distant horizon and conscious of how much damage the Tories can do well before then.
Unexpectedly, though, the anti-austerity and anti-Westminster mood has found an expression in UK-wide electoral politics. This goes much further than the ‘Green Surge’ which saw a mushrooming Green Party membership in the months prior to the general election.
It accompanies the social movements, rather than supplanting them. Indeed the fact that a general election is so distant means there is thankfully little pressure to simply channel everything into parliamentary politics. Here is what Corbyn himself has written:
'We need a Labour government in 2020, but we cannot wait until then. Labour has to be a strong and constructive opposition in the next five years. If we can win the argument in the country, then perhaps we can force this government to change course.
Our opposition cannot be limited to the parliamentary chambers and TV studios of Westminster. Labour is best when it is a movement, and that movement has swelled to an enthusiastic 600,000 who will decide this leadership election. Once that is over, we face a bigger task: to force this government to abandon its free-market dogma'.
The left is back
The left has long been written out of official politics. The march to the right began after the infamous election defeat of 1983, widely and largely inaccurately interpreted as a result of Labour being too left wing. Blair’s ascendancy to the leadership in 1994 marked an acceleration of the process. The Labour Right loves to accuse the left of being stuck in the 1980s, yet it appears trapped in an everlasting mid-1990s moment.
The rightwards shift was given impetus by the 1983 defeat and by the rise of the SDP, the breakaway from Labour that subsequently merged with the Liberals to form the centrist Liberal Democrats in 1988. But it was also shaped by two other historic developments of great consequence.
One was the series of defeats for the organised working class, with the Tory government and employers defeating the unions in a series of battles. This was symbolised by the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985 and the outcome has been a prolonged period, since the early 1990s, of strike levels being at historically low levels.
The second historic change was the end of the Cold War, with the eastern European revolutions of 1989 followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was typically interpreted as at the very least an ideological blow for anyone advocating socialism; more grandly, it was dubbed ‘The End of History’, the end of any significant ideological conflicts and the triumph of neoliberalism internationally.
The current renewal of the left was completely unexpected from the perspective of those in Westminster bubble and the legion of Guardian, Observer and New Statesman commentators so dismayed by Corbynmania. For many of us on the left, the particular manifestation – i.e. the mushrooming support for a left wing Labour leadership candidate – is not something we predicted, but in a deeper sense it’s not such a great shock.
The crisis of New Labour
Labour’s right wing no longer has any answers. Disillusionment with New Labour grew during its time in government. Those who trumpet Blair’s supposed electoral magnificence forget that between 1997 and 2001 – even before the invasion of Iraq – millions of voters deserted the party. Labour Party membership fell from 400,000 in 1997 to 190,000 in 2004.
It was during the years of Blair’s premiership that support for the party was eroded. For example, it was this period that laid the basis for the later collapse of Scottish Labour. Much media commentary has focused on its role in the independence referendum, but the roots go deeper. Iraq was the biggest single source of alienation for the party’s traditional supporters throughout Britain, but a wide range of domestic issues played their part too.
Labour’s right wing is now divided, with 3 candidates for leader. Pure Blairism – in the form of Liz Kendall – is proving unpopular in this leadership election. The Blairite wing remains strong in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but ideological Blairites are a tiny proportion of ordinary members. Blairism never embedded itself the party membership – during New Labour’s years in office the hardline Blairites always relied on a broader right wing in the party falling in line behind them.
But even traditional right wing Labour has failed to rally behind a single candidate, split instead between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Both of them are damaged by association with the old order – in office before 2010 and in opposition after it – and have been made to look like comfortable Westminster insiders, and thus part of the problem, by the rise of a left wing backbencher like Corbyn. Their decision to abstain in the Commons vote on the welfare bill scuppered any chances of appealing to those on the soft left of the party.
Labour’s right wing has nothing distinctive to offer. Why opt for ‘austerity lite’ when you can have the real thing with the Tories? Labour leaders’ acceptance of the Tories’ narrative on austerity, of their framing of the whole debate, has guaranteed it is in a weak position. It has appeared incoherent and vacillating.
This was true in the general election campaign. It could be seen in acting leader Harriet Harman instructing MPs to abstain on billions of pounds of cuts. It is there in the constant flip-flopping of Burnham and Cooper, who (let’s not forget) began their campaigns with an insistent message that Labour must tack to the right.
Discontent in search of an outlet
Political discontent is a long term phenomenon, but it has struggled to find an outlet. It is an international trend. In various European countries, parties to the left of the traditional social democratic parties have had varying degrees of success: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany and so on. In the US, Bernie Sanders is standing on a broadly left-wing ticket for the Democratic presidential nomination and picking up enthusiastic popular support comparable to what we are seeing with Corbyn here.
In the UK this desire for an alternative to social democracy’s capitulation to neoliberalism has not found any outlet in a new left party. In Scotland the SNP has come to largely occupy the political space the Labour Party might have been expected to fill. The independence referendum saw an explosion of political engagement, then the defeat of the Yes camp transformed into a surge in membership for the SNP – to over 100,000 members in a country of under 6 million people. Adopting an anti-austerity, anti-Trident stance helped propel the SNP to a sweeping landslide in May’s general election, taking 56 of Scotland's 59 seats.
The Green Party witnessed a remarkable growth in membership, with many of its new recruits firmly on the left (though we will probably soon see how Green membership and support is damaged by Labour electing a left wing leader). However, the conservatism of our First Past the Post electoral system has prevented either substantial Green breakthroughs or the emergence of an unambiguously left-wing party. We may have a much more fragmented political landscape than that which had become familiar, but there still hasn’t been anything approaching a coherent left force in electoral politics.
Two other factors have limited the scope for new left challenges on the electoral field. It is when Labour is in office – and disappointing its natural supporters – that people are most likely to seek an alternative. But in conditions of Tory or Tory-led government there remains the powerful pull of sticking with Labour, whatever its weaknesses.
The other key factor is the continuing allegiance of major trade unions to Labour. This is a major part of why British politics has never had an electoral alternative to Labour on a serious scale, unlike in many other European countries.
It has been surprising to see Unite, CWU and especially Unison get behind an authentically left-wing candidate like Jeremy Corbyn, but it partly reflects how alienated the unions (and their members) have become from Labour’s dominant ideas and its direction over the last two decades. Trade unions were ripe for rebellion, having become fed up with not only many Labour policies but the obsession with disavowing any relationship with trade unions to appease the Tories and their newspapers. The unions looking to a Corbyn leadership also, it must be said, reflects weaknesses when it comes to the unions taking collective action: there is an element of looking to a political solution to the problems they face.
It is almost as if both Pasok and Syriza co-exist in the same party. Labour’s degeneration has not been nearly so acute as that of Pasok – after all, it hasn’t implemented profoundly deep cuts on the working class like its Greek equivalent has. But there has been a long-term process of it becoming a party that fails to offer any real alternative to Tory policies.
The lack of favourable conditions for the creation of a credible alternative means that the thirst for a different kind of politics has – in a way that is unique in European politics – found almost all its electoral expression through the established party of the centre left.
An unexpected phenomenon
It is worth briefly tracing the chain of events that got us here. The fact that Corbyn got on the ballot paper was unexpected because only a tiny minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party support him – a graphic illustration of how utterly the left has been marginalised in the PLP. A further batch of MP nominations was required to get on the ballot.
The nominations came (following grassroots pressure) from right-wing or centrist MPs who agreed to ‘widen the debate’ in the leadership contest. They were undoubtedly conscious of how bad it would look if the leadership contest was unremittingly right wing, with nobody offering a different viewpoint. What they didn’t expect was for Corbyn’s arguments to find any great resonance – a revealing sign of the disconnect between Labour MPs and the wider Party, never mind many people beyond its ranks.
The Collins Review has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The changes to Labour's procedures for internal elections were meant - from the point of view of the right-wing Labour machine - to do 3 things: weaken the role of trade unions, marginalise the left, and present an image of being fresh, modern and forward-looking with the participation of wider layers of people. These new supporters would presumably be 'centre ground' types (because isn't everyone?) and therefore vote the right (and indeed right-wing) way.
All in all, it would make Labour more like the US Democrats. Yet it has - for them - been a disaster.
They didn't realise just how much the PLP has operated as a conservative bulwark, so getting rid of its one-third vote share was reckless. They underestimated the mood among many people - inside and outside Labour - for something better than the austerity-lite politics of recent years. And they failed to realise their own political exhaustion and shrivelling social base.
Now they are desperately trying everything to undermine what they themselves facilitated: even if it makes their party a laughing stock, prompts widespread references to a 'purge', and undermines their own party's growth. This is all in order to stop a victory for the left – or, considering Corbyn will almost certainly win, to stall the growth of the left which will strengthen Corbyn’s position beyond 12 September.
So, the fact that Corbyn succeeded in getting on the ballot was a turning point and, subsequently, the changes heralded by Collins have proved beneficial to the left. This has enabled the prospect of victory for a left-wing candidate – something which nobody predicted back in May, especially in light of the chronic weaknesses of a marginal, fragmented and disorganised Labour left.
How will Labour’s right wing respond to a Corbyn win?
An article by Luke Akehurst, a leading light in the broadly right-wing Labour First faction, is probably the best exposition I've yet seen of how Labour's right wing will seek to undermine Corbyn and the Labour left after 12 September. It is polite and respectful in tone, elegantly masking the determined ruthlessness of the content.
The key motif is 'party unity'. This will be presented as commendable duty, generosity and sacrifice on the part of Labour's right-wingers, emphasising how they are sticking with Labour and being loyal despite hating the leader's policies.
But its real purpose will be to discipline the left, urging insistently that if the left really wants to hold the party together it will recognise that most MPs (and many members)profoundly disagree with Corbyn, so he and his supporters must inevitably compromise.
This will take a number of forms, such as right wing MPs being willing to vote against the whip on issues like NATO and Trident, should it be necessary, because collective responsibility must be balanced with individual principle (and how could Corbyn disagree when he has rebelled hundreds of times?). It will mean thoroughly contesting every proposed policy change because, after all, Corbyn wants grassroots party democracy and debate doesn't he? And so on.
All of this, of course, goes to the heart of the contradictions and problems involved in seeking to 'reclaim Labour' and use the Labour Party as a vehicle for social change. Changing the leadership won't - however radically different that leader's policies to the status quo may be - bring about a sea change in the Labour Party. There are many obstacles, especially in the PLP.
But the obstacles are ultimately rooted in the nature of the Labour Party as a broad church stretching from socialists to social neoliberals (the latter having only modest differences from the Tories). It is a party that seeks governmental office to make modifications - whether tiny or major - to the running of the capitalist system.
The conservative nature of our electoral system has continually guaranteed that it has no serious challenges either to its left or to its right, meaning that it is a very broad church indeed (as neither socialists or its most right-wing elements can succeed with creating an alternative). A split to the right may well happen in the longer term - in the event of a Corbyn victory - but the omens aren't good when we consider the fate of the centrist Liberal Democrats, reduced to a miserable rump of just 8 MPs after participation in a Tory-led coalition government.
So, what will the Labour left do? It is likely be torn between accepting 'party unity' (and all its concessions) and taking a more radical route which involves mobilising much of the grassroots against the conservatism of the PLP. The latter approach would also be strengthened by an orientation on wider social movements, recognising that what happens beyond parliament (and to a large degree beyond the Labour Party) can boost the left.
It was a little worrying when Corbyn said that he would welcome those from the Right of the Labour Party, even Blairites, into his shadow cabinet. 'Unity' is meaningless if it with those who have fundamentally different politics. How can socialists 'unite' with those who want cuts to welfare, to waste tens of billions on Trident, to make students pay extortionate fees for education, to bomb Syria, and so on?
It was also interesting to note Corbyn’s agreement to rally behind the ‘Yes’ camp in the prospective referendum on British membership of the European Union, despite his well-known reservations. This is hardly surprising in the circumstances - Corbyn has of course come under serious pressure to prove his pro-EU credentials and rule out campaigning for 'Brexit'. EU support is a vitally important priority for Labour's right wing and an issue where the Labour left is sadly rather weak and inconsistent. Nonetheless, it should serve as a reminder of the constraints on left-wing politics to be expected in the event of a Corbyn victory.
Corbyn and the wider left
There is a tendency in the media commentary to suggest that Corbynmania has come from nowhere, without any sort of precedent or groundwork. What tends to be forgotten is the wave of protests and campaigning since the election of a majority Tory government in May. The longer-term trends of mass protest, especially against austerity, also tend to be downplayed. But in many ways the Corbyn insurgency is the 20 June national demonstration carried over into official politics, amplified by going to the heart of mainstream politics and challenging the old order in Westminster.
The left and the labour movement have achieved a great deal over recent years through protests and campaigns, from the anti-war protests onwards. Since 2010 there have been the student revolts, mass TUC demonstrations, co-ordinated public sector strikes, the mass social movement around Scottish independence, and much more. Yet the field of electoral politics has remained – Scotland aside – largely immune from these trends. That is now changing, in dramatic fashion, and it is long overdue.
Normally there is nothing so divisive on the left as electoral politics. It is a strange experience, therefore, that Corbyn’s candidacy has largely united the left, not just the Labour left. One reason is the widespread recognition that any left-of-Labour alternatives are not currently going anywhere, so a Corbyn victory is widely seen as the best chance for a left-wing breakthrough. The backing of major unions like Unite and Unison has played a part too.
A big part of the explanation, though, lies in Corbyn’s status as a campaigner and movement figurehead: over three decades of serious campaigning has built him a base, of thousands of activists, that stretches well beyond the Labour left. The late Tony Benn was perhaps the only Labour politician who could be considered comparable in this regard. The campaign is bringing left-wing policies and arguments to the front pages of newspapers in a way unknown for generations. It has already shifted not only this leadership contest, but the whole of British political debate, somewhat to the left. If he wins – as looks likely – the consequences will be explosive. It will deepen the political crisis and open up space for developing a much bigger and more influential left pole in British politics.
The Labour Party, however, will retain all the limitations that come with parliamentary politics. You only have to glance over its long history of timid opposition to Tory governments and disappointing failures in office to be reminded that electing the best person to be Labour leader is insufficient. When we look at developments in Greece this year we are made starkly aware that contemporary capitalism and its institutions are hugely resistant even to reducing the scale of austerity, never mind socialism.
Socialists, mass movements and Labour
The social movements that have played a part in getting Corbyn this far will be vital for supporting him against the Right. It is going to be Corbyn vs the entire political establishment, with huge pressure on him from inside and outside the Labour Party.
Mass movements are a crucial lever of support for Corbyn’s left-wing policies, and just as importantly they provide the basis for how we can defeat austerity and achieve real social change. If we are to stop a new bombing campaign in Syria, for example, we will be stronger because we have an anti-war Labour leader, but we will still need a movement. In opposing austerity, the protests at Tory Conference in Manchester – especially the TUC national demonstration on 4 October – will be crucial.
Building powerful protest movements matters more than ever. In that context, and in a political climate being re-defined by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, we can build a bigger, more organised and coherent left. We need socialist organisation that isn’t tied to parliamentary politics, with activists focused on mass movement struggles not internal wranglings inside the Labour Party.
I will conclude with the words of Paul Foot, towards the end of his book ‘The Vote’ which documented the working class struggles that won the vote but also the disappointing record of a Labour Party that has failed to deliver. Foot wrote:
‘The main job of socialists is to relegate Parliament to the sidelines it has chosen for itself and to concentrate on politics where it matters, among and on behalf of the dispossessed. Above all, this requires, more than ever before, the coordination of socialists and revolutionaries in an organisation dedicated and resolved enough to confront the organised capitalist state with the only force capable of defeating it, the organised working class movement, and of forging the huge disparate mass of opposition into a combined revolutionary unity’
That is a tall order indeed - and certainly our existing organised forces are far too weak. But it remains the only solution to the problems we are confronted with. It remains, too, a guide to how socialists should organise and to where we should direct our energies in the here and now.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
More articles from this author
- The British State: A Warning - book review
- Election 2019: the chance for a green industrial revolution
- With friends like this: John McDonnell’s flirtation with the right is damaging and inexcusable
- Class, Party, Revolution: A Socialist Register Reader - book review
- Steer left to beat Johnson's phoney populism
- Tory crisis: does Boris Johnson have a way out?
- Power to the People