Labour Party Leadership:  Fight for Policies Not Souls

By John Weeks

A Yawning Divide

Those following the internal conflict in the UK Labour Party repeatedly read that  it is a fight for the “soul” of the party.  This metaphysical reference to the contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith comes as part of the concerted campaign to depoliticize and divert from the basic issues at stake.  It may be that some or most of Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents within the party believe that the unfolding leadership contest involves something analogous to religious conversion.  The use of this evangelistic metaphor consciously to avoid policy debate is considerably more likely.

As I wrote is my last post, “the Corbyn Phenomenon”, the deep division in the Labour Party results from one major fissure, social democracy on the left of the crack and neoliberalism-lite on the right.  Initially narrow enough for a few politicians to straddle, over the last year the crack widened to breech and now a deep chasm for which the famous US union song “Which side are you on” applies in spades.

Almost thirty years ago Tony Blair and his supporters undertook a spectacularly successful conversion of official LP policy to neoliberalism.  Why, suddenly it seems, can a social democrat lead the party he made his own and none dare speak his name except to denounce him?

Therein lies the explanation for why the center-right of the Labour Party refuses to debate its political differences with the social democrat progressives, focusing instead on allegations of Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of leadership qualities including incompetence, lack of charisma and being “out of touch”.

A serious and frank discussion of policies would destroy Corbyn’s opponents within the party.  The social democrats at the party base that Blair disenfranchised have reasserted control of party policy.

How the Labour Party got here

Until quite recently the Labour Party (LP) functioned in a strictly hierarchical manner.  For decades LP members of Parliament selected the party leader.  A change in rules that assigned MPs, trade unions and members at the constituency level each a one-third share brought the victory in 2010 of the more progressive candidate (Ed Miliband) over the center-right candidate (his older brother David, now living in the United States).

Ed Miliband’s parliamentary party (PLP) had supported his opponent by a considerable majority and set out consciously to undermine his leadership.  He proved unable to shift the PLP toward social democratic policies.  This was obvious in the general election of May 2015 when official party policy endorsed a balanced fiscal budget.  However, he achieved one change that would undo the power of the center-right in the party.  He introduced one-person-one-vote for the party’s leaders.

The failure to block this change indicates out out-of-touch was the center-right with the grass roots.  However, the Miliband voting reform still required that a leadership candidate obtain the endorsement of at least 35 MPs.  So marginalized were the social democratic MPs that the late-day Blairites assumed that 35 would be an insurmountable obstacle to a progressive leadership challenge.

In every leadership contest for a generation the “far left” (aka committed social democrats) of the party put forward a candidate.  In May 2015 this small group of social democratic insurrectionist MPs (no more than a dozen) faced a serious constrain.  Their most prominent members had either served as the sacrificial lambs previously or were not available (one that I had the honor of knowing, Michael Meacher, would soon die of a sudden illness).

Jeremy Corbyn received one more than the minimum endorsements, making the cut literally at the last minute before the deadline.  At least two of his endorsers came from the center-right after much pleading from progressive MPs that the contest should have at least the appearance of inclusiveness.  The campaign proved remarkably policy focused.

Corbyn opposed austerity, and his three opponents endorsed it with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Corbyn opposed renewing the UK nuclear program; the other three endorsed renewal.  Corbyn advocated renationalization of the railroads and eliminating university fees.  His opponents ridiculed both policies.  Corbyn endorsed union rights without qualification, while his opponents adopted various degrees of equivocation.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.  At a meeting in September 2015 the results were announced.  Corbyn came first among four candidates with 59.9%, far ahead of his runner-up at 19.5%.  The most blatantly Blairite candidate came last with less than 5%.  Over 400,000 voted, three-quarters of the membership.

The Labour Party, social democratic at the base, elected a social democratic as leader for the first time in over thirty years with overwhelming support from unions and working class members.  The PLP remained overwhelmingly center-right.  The social democratic MPs had begrudgingly, if passively supported the party leadership under Blair and his short-lived successor Gordon Brown (even as the purge of progressives continued).  The leaders center-right quickly made it clear that Corbyn would find no loyalty or even civility from them.  The intra-party war began immediately upon Corbyn’s election.

Deposing Corbyn without an Election

Corbyn’s overwhelming victory among Labour Party members left center-right opponents with no obvious strategy for deposing him.  They did not accept his leadership, but they could not remove him through established party procedures.  By necessity they sought a combination of strategy and tactics that they hoped would force him to resign.

They could not force his resignation through debate over political issues because his policies reflected the views of the grassroots.  This left the anti-Corbyn MPs with only one tactic, to discredit Corbyn personally.  The tactic would prove an extremely difficult to implement successfully.  While Corbyn has faults as all humans do, like Bernie Sanders he suffers from none of those flaws that usually discredit a politician.

He lies modestly without a hint of corruption.  The closest his enemies have come to a case of corruption was the revelation that Corbyn supporter t-shirts were made by sweatshop labor, which he quickly denounced.  In one of those ironies no one could make up, Britain’s most right-wing newspaper burst with outrage over “poverty-stricken workers” (the support group distributing the shirts quickly changed supplier).  Try as they might, Corbyn’s opponents have found no evidence of sexual misconduct, that other variety of politician-slaying scandals (except in France).

The discrediting campaign shifted focus to allegations of “unelectability”.  This proved ineffective across the Labour grass roots, because electoral outcomes during the Corbyn months have been sufficiently ambiguous to produce no clear message.  However, the aggressiveness of the person attacks took a quantum leap after the English and Welsh electorates (but not the Scots or the Northern Irish) voted “out” in the referendum on EU membership.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who had bolted the Labour Party in the 1980s as part of a right-wing exodus, denounced Corbyn as “dismal, lifeless, spineless”.  A few days later prominent economist and editor-in-chief of the Guardian Sunday edition (The Observer) Will Hutton informed his readers that Corbyn was not a social democratic, but an ideologue committed to the overthrown of capitalism, not to its reform.

Various decisions by Labour Party’s politically split National Executive Committee make it unclear as to the number of eligible voters in the unfolding leadership contest.  None-the-less, polling suggests that Corbyn will achieve re-election with a strong majority.  Whether this is true, his opponents appear to believe it a strong possibility.  In response a major donor to the Labour Party funded a court case to have Corbyn excluded from the leadership race, a case being heard as I write (see discussion on the putatively neutral website of Labour MPs).

End of an Era?

The current leadership contest is not a re-run of 2015.  During last year’s leadership contest no one in the Labour Party realized the revolutionary impact of the Miliband voting reforms.  The surge of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn and his overwhelming victory came as surprise to opponents and supporters.

For an early campaign appearance his major strategist (John McDonnell now his shadow chancellor) urged booking a small room of less than 50 chairs to avoid embarrassment should few arrive.  Over 500 Labour Party members appeared at the provincial university venture, which required Corbyn to speak outdoors with a megaphone.

This time both sides come prepared for the conflict that will solidify in the Labour Party the new era of resurgent social democracy, or re-establish center-right leadership of the Blair period.  Should the later occur, on the surface British politics will return to a neoliberal consensus across the parties of England and Wales (but not Scotland where the social democratic Scottish National Party rules like a colossus).

On the assumption that legal challenges do not exclude Corbyn from the contest, the center-right campaign will be slanderous, venal and petty.  The fundamental source of this political degeneration is not the character failings on the anti-Corbyn forces (though these are many).  The center-right campaign will take this form because it cannot on peril of certain defeat enter into political debate, its fatal weakness.

In contrast, the Corbyn campaign will take the cliché-ridden “high ground”, stressing policies, not personalities.  Many of Corbyn’s devoted supporters have and will launch savage tweets against his opponent Owen Smith.  Corbyn himself and those in his campaign will avoid such trivialities.

Corbyn has the winning card and will play it repeatedly: that he and his shadow cabinet are social democrats.

John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and author of The Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy. Follow him Twitter: @johnweeks41.

John Perkins’ New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

By Polly Cleveland

In 1946, when I was a year old, my father hung up his Navy uniform and joined the U.S. Foreign Service. He could have returned to a well-paid position at Borden Cheese, but he wanted to continue serving his country after World War II. First we went to Bucharest Romania (’47-49), then Paris (’49-52), then Sydney Australia (’53-56), then Bangkok Thailand (’56-58), with in between stays in Washington D.C. While I was in college, my dad served as chief economic officer in Belgrade Yugoslavia (’62-65). He then worked for the State Department until his retirement in 1970; his job included speaking on college campuses to defend the war in Vietnam. If he was disillusioned, he never openly let on—though he did mutter about how anti-Communist “know-nothings” in Congress made his job harder in Yugoslavia. Years later he commented on Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada (remember that, anyone?), “They must have found a couple of Communists under a bed.”

On reading John Perkins’ New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, I kept thinking what stories my father could have told. Perkins began in 1971 as an economic consultant— “economic hit man”— with the engineering firm, MAIN, travelling to Indonesia, Panama, Colombia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. His job was to convince leaders to undertake wildly overambitious infrastructure projects that would enrich them and big U.S. engineering firms like Bechtel. In most cases, the projects would fail and leave nations beholden to U.S. banks or the World Bank.  Saudi Arabia was a special case; the flood of dollars from the new OPEC cartel would purchase both sophisticated infrastructure like desalinization plants and U.S. military protection against insurgents. Leaders who refused to cooperate with such plans would be picked off by CIA-supported “jackals”. Thus the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran (1953); the Jacobo Árbenz coup in Guatemala (1954); the Salvador Allende coup and murder in Chile (1973); the mysterious airplane explosions that killed Jaime Roldós in Ecuador and Omar Torrijos in Panama (1981); the overthrow and murder of Maurice Bishop in Grenada (1983); the bloody invasion and capture of Manuel Noriega in Panama (1989). Somehow Fidel Castro in Cuba successfully dodged dozens of assassination attempts.

The economic hit man/ jackal strategy of debt and fear was a deliberate U.S. policy to counter influence of the Soviet Union. Perkins relates a story from a 1975 dam-building project he directed in Colombia. Guerillas confronted a Colombian engineer at the dam site, firing AK-47s into the air and at his feet, and handing him a letter. The letter read: “We, who work every day just to survive, swear on the blood of our ancestors that we will never allow dams across our rivers. We are simple Indians and mestizos, but we would rather die than stand by as our land is flooded. We warn our Colombian brothers: stop working for the construction companies.” Perkins lectured the terrified engineer; did that sound like a letter a farmer would write? He slammed his fist on the desk; did farmers with AK-47s make sense? And who invented the AK-47?

In a fit of conscience, Perkins quit MAIN in 1980. But he continued as an energy entrepreneur and consultant for another twenty years, while becoming increasingly involved in projects to help embattled natives in the Amazon. In 2005 he published Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, an immediate bestseller. In the new updated version, he focuses on how the debt-and-fear strategy is now at work all over the world, in developed as well as less-developed countries. For example, many local governments in the United States have been suckered into building public-private toll roads (see here and here and here), all of which eventually failed, sticking the governments with poorly constructed roads and piles of debt.

My father died in 2008, sharp to the end. What did he know and live with? I once asked him did he know how the CIA collaborated with drug traffickers in Thailand and Central America. “Of course!”, he said, “You can’t be choosy about your friends in a dirty business.” In retirement he called the Vietnam war a terrible mistake, but did he consider resigning when the students booed his pro-war speeches? I never thought to ask him about U.S. support for right-wing ethnic nationalists in former Yugoslavia, surely a major factor in the break-up and civil wars starting 1991.  I wonder what he would think of Venezuela today. Despite the country’s vast oil reserves, the socialist government established by Hugo Chávez seems to be collapsing, surely heading for a right-wing coup. Are the food riots and blackouts just due to mismanagement and the drop in oil prices, or have the jackals arrived to look for communists under beds?