We need to dig deep for the roots of Labour’s failures, argues Dragan Plavšić
The question of why Labour keeps failing us is a difficult one, but it’s a question we can’t afford to shun or sidestep. On the contrary, we need to face it squarely and answer it clearly.
The question itself rolls two distinct but closely related issues into one. The first is: what do we mean exactly when we say Labour keeps failing us?
The second then follows: if Labour does indeed keep failing us, why does it keep failing us? Are its failures merely circumstantial errors its leaders happen from time to time to make? Or can they be traced to some deeper source, to the kind of political party Labour in fact is?
What do we mean when we say Labour keeps failing us?
The general answer to this first question can be put plainly: Labour keeps failing the working class it was set up 120 years ago to represent. But general answers are only as good as the specifics from which they’re drawn, so let’s consider some specifics.
The defeat of the Corbyn Project is Labour’s latest failure. The left raised the hopes of millions, but the right strained every sinew to dash them, and won. Understanding this defeat will help us understand Labour.
Corbyn was the most radical leader Labour’s ever had.
A socialist, an anti-imperialist, a lifelong anti-racist, he also understood that extra-parliamentary movements were crucial for political progress.
Initial popular enthusiasm for his leadership rested on his rejection of Blair’s murderous wars and neoliberal austerity.
Even by conventional standards, Corbyn’s early leadership was a success. Under Miliband, membership had been 190,000; under Corbyn, it almost trebled to 550,000, making Labour the largest party in Europe.
In the 2017 general election, Labour’s vote rose by 3 million, its largest percentage increase since 1945, turning the Party’s defeat into a pyrrhic one. Corbyn merited the Party’s unequivocal support, but never received it.
Apart from the membership, which was solidly pro-Corbyn, many of those in key posts in the Party’s institutions - from local councillors and MPs, to members of the shadow cabinet to the Party machine headed by its General Secretary – were determined to oust Corbyn, some even looking to general election defeat to achieve that end.
In the words of Peter Mandelson, they worked ‘every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of his tenure in office’.
For Labour’s right, the relative success of 2017 served merely to confirm the urgency of the need to oust Corbyn.
Over the next two years, they worked hard to weaponise the Remain and antisemitism questions against a hesitant left too transfixed by fears over Party unity to resist with conviction.
Aided and abetted at every turn by the establishment in general and the media in particular, the right claimed the victory it craved when the Party lost the 2019 general election.
It hasn’t ended there, of course. The EHRC report and Corbyn’s suspension, reinstatement but withdrawal of the whip show Starmer’s determination to now crush the left by tarring its political reputation with the ever-ready brush of antisemitism.
Despite Corbyn’s resounding election as leader (twice), a near-trebling in membership, an outpouring of popular enthusiasm for the Party unseen in decades, and the relative general election success of 2017, why is that so many in the Party hierarchy were determined to oust him and embrace general election defeat to do so? What does this tell us about Labour’s political character?
To answer this, we need first to see Corbyn’s defeat in the broader context of the Party’s history and the failures that have been so much a feature of it.
Blair and Brown
No-one now remembers Labour’s 1997 victory for ending almost 20 years of Tory government. We remember it for its murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq.
But we also remember it for a swathe of neoliberal policies that would have made any Tory blush with pride:
- the introduction of student tuition fees (ironically vetoed by Blair’s Tory predecessor, John Major)
- the marketisation of the NHS, despite promising to abolish the internal market
- the zealous expansion of the Private Finance Initiative, despite condemning it as back-door privatisation
- and under Brown, the post-crash bailout of 2008 described by one right-wing Labour peer, Lord Glasman, as ‘the biggest transfer of wealth from poor to rich since the Norman conquest’.
Wilson and Callaghan
The Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1960s and 1970s paved the way for Thatcher, if unwittingly.
In an infamous White Paper titled In Place of Strife, Wilson sought to curb the unions, canvassing proposals such as compulsory strike ballots which Thatcher later made law.
In the 1970s, Labour in opposition adopted the Alternative Economic Strategy vowing to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, only for the Callaghan government to end its days practising an embryonic form of Thatcherism under instruction from the IMF.
MacDonald’s first interwar minority Labour government of 1924 began and ended with a whimper.
The second of 1929-31 ended catastrophically, when Labour’s cabinet voted to cut by 10%, not the income of the richest, but the unemployment benefit of the poorest, in order to ‘balance the budget’ during the Great Depression.
MacDonald then jumped ship and led a National Government with the Tories and Liberals, leaving rump Labour on only 52 seats after its worst ever election defeat.
The Attlee government of 1945-51 is Labour’s only success story in government. But a balanced assessment of it means acknowledging that its successes went hand in hand with its failures.
Consider its nationalisation of the mines and other industries. Like all things in modern class society, nationalisation comes in two opposed forms - bourgeois (i.e. capitalist) or working class (i.e. socialist).
Though welcome as a partial break with the market, Labour’s nationalisations were essentially bourgeois, reproducing in state form the relations between employers and workers that characterise private industry.
The original promise of nationalisation was never therefore realised, nor could it have been; labour relations were no less conflictual with nationalised industries continuing to operate in accord with the demands of competition.
Even the NHS did not escape the shadow of failure. In 1951, the architect of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, resigned from the cabinet in protest at the introduction of prescription charges and other charges for dental treatment and spectacles.
Prescription charges remain with us, of course, while the costs of dental treatment and spectacles have skyrocketed in what are now for the most part private medical services.
However, Attlee’s greatest failure was in foreign policy. Labour was central to the formation of Nato, it secretly developed the UK’s first nuclear weapons (which Attlee hid even from members of the cabinet) and it joined the Korean War as the loyal lieutenant of the US.
Labour also oversaw the mass slaughter during the partition of India and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians prior to Israel’s establishment.
Why can’t Labour deliver?
How can we bring all this together in a meaningful answer to this question? The brief analysis Lenin provided of Labour in 1920 is invaluable here, even if it’s often dismissed, neglected or just overlooked.
Lenin had lived in London for a while, spoke English and read the British socialist and labour press. His analysis can be summarised in a phrase he took from Engels: Labour was a ‘bourgeois workers party’.
The meaning of this phrase is condensed and needs unpacking. In the first instance, it captures Labour’s essentially contradictory character, a party with a loyal working-class electorate but bourgeois leaderships.
But it also captures the fact that Labour was set up to represent workers within the limits of bourgeois society, but crucially not against those limits.
Indeed, it is precisely because Labour has been committed from its inception to working within these limits that the limits of bourgeois society constitute the limits of the Labour Party itself. They form part of its political DNA, marking the line in the sand beyond which Labour is genetically unwilling to go.
The do-or-die opposition in Labour to Corbyn did not therefore fall from the skies. It came from deep within, a visceral reaction to a potential challenge to sacred bourgeois limits.
Hence the implacable resistance of the Party’s establishment, of its key power-holding institutions, to an alien leader who had somehow slipped through the gates. It would not have been Labour had they not done so.
This is why for Labour nation has always been more important than class, parliament more important than movements or strikes outside parliament, and managing society more important than changing it.
These aren’t accidental characteristics of the Labour Party; they’re in its very bones.
Restoring the whip to Jeremy Corbyn and the reinstatement of his suspended supporters are demands everyone on the left in or out of Labour should back.
For its part, Labour’s left should not hesitate to mount a vigorous campaign to win them.
Regardless of the outcome, however, it needs to be candidly acknowledged that the Corbyn Project was an all too brief moment of light, as inspiring as it was out of character for Labour, which has been quashed for all practical purposes by the establishment of a Party always able to muster the forces it needs, within its ranks and beyond, to get its way.
It was a younger Ramsay MacDonald - of all people - who once complained of Labour that it had become ‘a mere echo of the governing class’.
Starmer is now that echo personified, intent on fashioning the Party into a compliant echo-chamber after his own heart.
By contrast, those who once dared imagine Labour very differently, as a tribune of the people, will struggle to be heard.
They may choose to find more receptive audiences in the unions, in the movements against war and austerity, and even perhaps - who knows? - in a new party of the left free at last of Labour’s bourgeois limits.
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Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).