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.

Understanding the Corbyn Phenomenon

By John Weeks

Labour Party Rebellion of 2016

Cross-country political comparisons mislead by creating an illusion of insight.  The attempt to compare Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn provides a clear example.  While both rose to prominence through a wave of popular rebellion, the political context and constraints each faces are substantially different.

Passing from the misleading to the bizarre are comparisons of Corbyn to Trump because each represents a rebellion against his party’s establishment.  Though true, this basis for comparison is substantially less valid than equating cats and cows because they both are quadrupeds.

Trump came to the Republican primaries very much the arriviste, advocating a mixed bag of policies that while consistently reactionary in sum, in their detail shift and bend with the momentary political wind.  By stark contrast, within the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn for over thirty years has consistently advocated domestic policies within the British and broader European social democratic tradition.

Corbyn the Extremist?

Could it be that Trump and Corbyn share a fatal flaw, that ultimate political sin in electoral democracies of extremism?  The answer to that question depends on what we mean by “political extremism”, which I define as 1) advocating political actions that break social consensus about acceptable discourse, and 2) supporting non-legal methods to achieve those outcomes.

Discriminating against people by racial, ethnic or religious attacks and sanctioning violence to achieve that discrimination would qualify as extremist.  Advocating unpopular positions and actions, actions supported by a small portion of the population, is not extremism.  As Thomas Carlyle famously wrote, “Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one”.

By the above two-part definition Trump is an extremist and Corbyn is not.  First, Corbyn’s domestic policies come from solid social democratic principles.  Anti-austerity stands as the center piece of this economic policies, shared with the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and the National Party of Wales (Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru), as well as Podemos Unidos in Spain.

At the program level, Corbyn favors re-nationalization of the railroads, reversing piecemeal privatization of the National Health Service, and strict regulation of the financial sector.  While radical in the British context (and in the United States), these do not qualify as extreme policies.  They are bed-rock social democratic.

On foreign policy abandoning nuclear weapons represents Corbyn’s outstanding break with the past.  Far from extreme, Britain “going non-nuclear” is completely sensible: the necessary and urgently necessary refurbishing of this military program (“Trident”) would be staggeringly expensive and make no contribution to national security (as Tony Blair states in his autobiography).  In practice the “British nuclear option” is not British, because it could not be used without prior agreement from the US government.

The Corbyn foreign policies that might most strike Americans as “extreme” are probably 1) his opposition to NATO, and 2) his strong support for Palestinian rights.  The first qualifies for Carlyle’s judgment about new opinions.  The Eisenhower government created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to block Soviet influence in Western Europe, closely linked to rejection of the Soviet proposal in 1954 for a united and neutral Germany.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union NATO is little more than an anti-Russian alliance dominated by US national interests.  The proposed EU defense force is the obvious 21st century vehicle for European security.  The continuation of NATO blocks progress for a common EU military force.

On Middle East policy Corbyn has abandoned his support for  Hamas and Hezbollah, while remaining a severe critic of the Israel government.  This combination moves him into the spectrum of mainstream opinion in Europe on the Middle East and consistent with official EU policy.

Corbyn like Bernie Sanders has focused on domestic not international policy.  To the extent that Corbyn has addressed foreign policy issues he has taken consistently progressive, event radical positions that are not extreme.

A Very Blairite [Bungled] Coup

In Britain, or more accurately in England, Jeremy Corbyn faces relentless criticism especially from Labour Party members of the House of Commons (the Parliamentary Labour Party, PLP).  Last week in an ad hoc gathering of the PLP, three-quarters of the MPs voted for Corbyn to resign (172-40).

The only thing surprising about this apparently overwhelming rejection of Corbyn is that the anti-Corbyn MPs took so long to screw up their courage to act.  A purge of left wing MPs began in the 1980s under Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and was continued with gusto by Tony Blair.  When Ed Miliband became leader in 2010 the PLP was solidly neoliberal, “Blairite”.

Miliband introduced a reform of the process to select the party leader that eliminated the power of the PLP.  Before the reform the Labour Party operated with something akin to an electoral college in which the PLP held one-third of the vote.  The Miliband reform created a strict one-person-one-vote, passing power to the party membership.  Little did the party establishment realize the consequences of the rule change.

The Labour Party suffered a devastating defeat in the 2010 general election after which Ed Miliband resigned and set in process a contest for his replacement.  To stand as candidate for leader an MP required 17 nominations from the PLP.  Corbyn made it literally in the last minute before the deadline with the minimum number of pledges.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.  The opportunity to vote for a social democrat rather than one of three exceedingly dull neoliberals set loose a massive wave of grassroots enthusiasm that led to Corbyn sweeping up almost 60% of the votes in the first round.  When in September 2015 Jeremy Corbyn assumed leadership of the party, the overwhelmingly neoliberal PLP reeled with horror.

And they immediately began a campaign, often shambolic and always devious and without principle, to overthrow the choice of the party membership.

During September 2015 through April 2016 the PLP Blairites engaged in constant undermining of the new leader and his shadow cabinet.  They would not attempt a formal challenge for the leadership because of their weakness at the grassroots.  As pointed out by the Financial Times, the Blairite establishment had for two decades consciously distanced itself from the party base.

Thus, the Blairite old guard required some deus ex machine development to facilitate a Corbyn coup.  They Blairites on the local elections in early May 2016 to do their dirty work.  Erstwhile Labour grandees warned that the party faced disaster, in imminent danger of Conservative gains across England.

In the event the electoral gods did not favor them. With over 2500 seat contested, the Labour Party lost 18 (for a total of 1326).  The Conservatives dropped 48, falling to a total of 842.  In addition, the elections brought victory to the Labour candidate for mayor of London after eight years of misrule by Tory Boris Johnson.  Try as they might neither the Blairite MPs nor their sympathizers in the media could spin the electoral outcomes as summing to a disaster.

To add to the gloom of the anti-Corbyn plotters, the Labour Party candidate to replace Khan in the House of Commons increased the winning majority, from Khan’s 2842 votes to 6357, a remarkable result for a “bye election”.  Corbyn may indeed be “unelectable” as his enemies alleged, but it has not manifested itself in the vote counts.

Neoliberalism vs. Social Democracy

Now into July the central dilemma of the PLP Blairites persists.  They desperately want to regain control of the party after losing it to the grassroots, but to achieve that goal they must have the support of the grassroots to defeat Corbyn.  While many assert that Corbyn has lost support across the party base, the Blairite plotters appear loath to take a chance on it.

Until a few days ago their preferred choice to challenge for leadership was Angela Eagle, former member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.  Her changes of success, slim a week ago, are now close to zero.  Just a few days ago a long gestating report on the conflict in Iraq delivered a devastating critique of the Blair government, and Eagle was among those Labour MPs that voted in favor of the war.

As of early July Corbyn’s PLP enemies find themselves lacking a candidate to replace him and lacking the support to elect that candidate if they find one.  At stake is not competence or electability.  The fight is over who will control the Labour Party and for what purpose.

The Blairites seek the removal of Corbyn in order to reestablish late 20th century neoliberalism as the political philosophy of the party.  Corbyn and his supporters would move the party forward to social democracy for the 21st century.

Neoliberalism versus social democracy, it really is that simple as I will elaborate in my next article.