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.

Alone Now: From Hope to Brexit Despair

By John Weeks

Original cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard June 1940 after Dunkirk evacuation & surrender of France, by David Low with caption “very well, alone then”.
Original cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard June 1940 after Dunkirk evacuation & surrender of France, by David Low with caption “very well, alone then”.

A Tale of Two Summers

The summer of 2015 brought a spectacularly bright ray of progressive hope to the United Kingdom: the increasingly obvious likelihood that a socialist would soon lead the near-moribund Labour Party. After almost 20 years of Thatcher-lite neoliberal policies, the grassroots membership voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn to take leadership of the Labour Party.

The progressive victory proved short-lived. Less than year later, the far Right would achieve its greatest victory in British electoral history, winning the IN/OUT referendum on the European Union through a campaign of flagrant xenophobia and racism. Attempts to portray the referendum result as a rejection of globalization, an opening for “progressive nationalists,” or a recapturing of democracy lost to Brussels confront an extremely inconvenient fact: the most reactionary UK political party drove the OUT campaign with a message of fear of foreigners and especially of Muslims (see UKIP poster).

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a UKIP poster showing a crowd of alleged EU immigrants with an obvious implication of a Muslim horde.
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a UKIP poster showing a crowd of alleged EU immigrants with an obvious implication of a Muslim horde.

 

That the overwhelming majority in Scotland, the most social democratic region of the United Kingdom,  favors  remaining in the European Union,  further indicates the reactionary politics of so-called Brexit. As the consistently progressive and anti-racist UK journalist Gary Younge wrote,

[The Leave campaign] unleashed a range of demons it could not tame and then refused to face them honestly, preferring to wade to the finish line through a toxic swamp of postcolonial nostalgia, xenophobia and general disaffection

What OUT Did Not Mean

The post-referendum misrepresentations rival and reflect the lies peddled during the campaign. First and foremost, the suggestion that the British Isles would enjoy more “sovereignty” outside of the European Union  is nonsense. The grain of truth in that campaign assertion is that capitalists operating in Britain will enjoy less regulation, because UK consumer protection, guarantees of workers rights, and restrictions on environmental degradation are far stronger in EU law than British law.

Second, the infamous and eponymous “Brussels bureaucrats” exert almost no influence, much less control, over British economic policy. The British government refused to join into the package of fiscal rules that are the most pernicious element of the EU Treaties (Britain has a formal “opt-out”, as does Denmark). The savage policies enforced on Greece and to a lesser extent Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain would be impossible to implement in Britain, because they derive from membership in the eurozone (the British government also negotiated an “opt-out” from the requirement that if it meets specified criteria a country must join the eurozone).

Third, for better or for worse with the exception of Scotland the referendum outcome will not encourage separatism in the European Union. On the contrary, the boost of right wing parties will lead to them overwhelming the few substantial separatist movements on the continent, most obviously in Spain.

Fourth, I am very skeptical that British withdrawal will prompt “reform” of EU governance of any type (see the hopeful article by German parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen, no doubt sincere but fanciful). The German government’s power over EU decisions varies between strong and hegemonic. That power and the austerity policies it has forced upon the continent very much serve the interests of German industry and banks.

Domestic austerity keeps wages and thus export costs down; austerity for the rest of the eurozone enforces the servicing of public debt held by German banks. More likely than German led reform is German enforced consolidation of a smaller European Union around appallingly reactionary domestic policies and a mercantilist trade strategy.

What the Referendum Did Mean for the British Isles

Above all the referendum outcome means strengthening right-wing political parties and ideology on the continent and in the British Isles. This fallout from a campaign of overt xenophobia and thinly disguised racism should surprise no one.

Progressive forces in the British Isles have suffered a triple blow. First, the strong OUT vote in England (53%) and stronger IN vote for Scotland (62%) lay the basis for a second Scottish independence referendum. In 2014 the independence referendum lost 45% to 55%.

However, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the canniest politician of the British Isles, may read the Brexit result as a harbinger of success for a second referendum. Should a majority of Scottish voters choose independence it would prove virtually impossible for the parliament in London to prevent a breakup of the United Kingdom.

The consequence for progressives of a “Great Britain” made up of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be dire. The likelihood is extremely low of the Labour Party winning a majority of the parliamentary seats in England. In Wales, the Labour Party holds most of the seats, but they are few in number—only 40 of 650 (with 59 in Scotland).

For decades, the Labour Party could hope for Wales and Scotland to cover its losses in England and Northern Ireland, but Scottish independence would mean either a near-permanent Conservative majority in “Britain” or a Labour Party re-conversion to neoliberalism to court voters in the South of England.

The second blow arrived quickly: an attempt by the center-right of the Labour party to depose Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. Since the moment of Corbyn’s election as head of the party the so-called Blairites have conspired to undermine his leadership. Their objection to Corbyn is political: he fights for a re-invigoration of social democracy based on trade union support, and the Blairites seek to maintain neoliberalism in the interest of capital.

Those Labour Party MPs who led the coup have more in common with the Conservative Party than with Corbyn. They favor renewal of the country’s nuclear weapons, reduction of the fiscal deficit through expenditure cuts, and support for the financial sector. Right-of-centre Labour abhors the policies that won Corbyn the leadership: commitment to terminate nuclear weapons, end austerity, and tight regulation of  “the City”.

As I write this article, the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the process of voting overwhelmingly to pressure Corbyn to resign. Because of his grassroots support and the rules for electing Labour leaders, the vote, likely to be more than two-to-one against Corbyn, cannot in itself depose him. But at best Labour’s first social democrat leader in decades will be severely weakened.

This intra-party challenge to Corbyn follows directly from Brexit. Perhaps even more serious is that the OUT victory has unleashed a wave of overt racism. Only four days after the referendum, the soon-to-be-replaced Prime Minister David Cameron found it necessary to denounce what he called “despicable” acts against foreigners throughout England (watch speech on the BBC). Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian journalist, pointed out the irony: Cameron ran a pro-EU campaign with a promise to reduce migration and now is forced to denounce the xenophobic results of that promise.

Independence of Scotland leaving a neoliberal rump Kingdom, near-fatal weakening of a progressive leader, and a rising wave of racism—these are the fruits of victory for the pro-Brexit forces.

What the Referendum Did Mean on the Continent

If anyone hoped that Brexit would strengthen progressive forces on the continent those hopes quickly evaporated. Quite the contrary has occurred with alarming rapidity.

On the Sunday after the UK referendum Spain held its second general election in less than a year. In December 2015 Europe’s largest progressive coalition, Podemos, came close to an electoral break-through. It won 20% of the vote in its first entry onto the national scene, less than two percentage points short of replacing the Socialists as the leading opposition party. The inability of any grouping to form a government resulted in a second election, held last Sunday.

Polls suggested that the broadened coalition, Unidos Podemos, would leap past the Socialists to second place nationally, laying the basis for a new Spanish government committed to end austerity. In the event the Right gained. Seats won by Unidos Podemos came from the Socialists, a swap within the left of center. After substantial losses in December 2015, the right-wing Peoples’ Party gained fifteen seats and will continue its hold on government.

Elsewhere in Europe the Brexit vote emboldened the ultra-right. In France Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist National Front, immediately promised an OUT referendum. In the Netherlands, the virulently anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders called for a referendum on EU membership. Were this to occur, it would follow closely on the Dutch electorate’s defeat of a referendum for closer links between the European Union and Ukraine in which Wilders played a prominent role.

The Reality of the UK Far Right

A majority of working class and poor white English men and women voted to leave the European Union. To consider that vote as progressive because of its class origin represents the equivalent of taking a favorable view of Donald Trump because he harvests the votes of white working class Americans.

Gary Younge, quoted above, succinctly summarized Brexit:

Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.

It may be that this surge of the Right and weakening of progressive movements will prove a passing moment, soon to be replaced by a blossoming of Brexit-provoked grassroots democracy and social democracy throughout the British Isles and the European continent.

But don’t plan on it, because there is no indication of it.

John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.