Whither Labour?

The Labour Party is headed for an all out civil war between its social democrats on the one side and its reformist and revolutionary socialist wings on the other. This is inevitable, although at the moment both sides are trying to wait for the opportunity to say “you started it” (a bit like Ken Livingstone recently).


[Labour MPs and front-benchers vote with their feet and leave Corbyn to face Cameron almost alone?]

In the 1972 post-script to his 1961 book on the Labour party, Parliamentary Socialism, Ralph Miliband finally comes out clearly and says what he has clearly thought all the way through his history of the party:

“[The] Labour remains, in practice, what it has always been – a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted.” (1972, p376).

In today’s language, Labour has always been predominantly a social democratic rather than a socialist party.

As Miliband spells out, throughout its history Labour leaders have often adopted socialist rhetoric to placate their usually more radical ‘base’ within the labour and trade union movement, but their policy practice has been firmly social democratic.

It has always been relatively easy to blur the divisions between social democrats who are comfortable with – indeed positively believe in – a ‘mixed economy’, welfare state and limited redistribution, and reformist socialists who see complete public ownership (at least of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy), public services and redistribution as stepping stones towards a fully socialist future.

The more or less successful ‘modus vivendi’ between social democrats and reformist socialists that held Labour together for the last century effectively occupied the full spectrum of centre-left politics in Britain. There was no space for a large communist or socialist party to Labour’s left (as in much of Europe), nor for any more purely social democratic party to their right (although there were flurries around the SDP in the 80s and the LDs in 2000s).

The very much smaller revolutionary socialist element in British politics – some of which has always been within Labour but also outside it in various sects – has mostly pursued a strategy of trying to ally with the reformist socialists within Labour. The biggest of these historically – the Communist Party – always used to set up all sorts of ‘united front’ campaigns around specific issues. The numerous smaller Trotskyist groups either emulated the CPGB’s strategy and tactics or practiced so-called ‘entryism’ – joining Labour to try to effect such alliances within the party.

New Labour and ‘Blairism’ was not, as many on Labour’s socialist left now want to claim, an historical aberration in which the traditionally socialist Labour party was captured by neo-liberal infected right-wing social democrats. New Labour was merely a tilting back towards traditional social democracy, slightly revised, after the surge in reformist socialist support within Labour of the 80s (which did it so much electoral damage).

What is happening now in Labour is qualitatively different from the ‘socialist surge’ of the 80s. The socialists never captured the ‘commanding heights’ of the Labour machine, despite the best efforts of both the reformist socialists and their revolutionary socialist allies.

Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the leadership election may have changed fundamentally the historic alignment of forces with Labour. Let’s be clear, Corbyn is a reformist socialist himself but one who is very open to collaborating with more revolutionary elements. The ‘Stop the War Coalition’ to which he has devoted so much energy over the past decade is a ‘united front’ with the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party and others (some would say it is more just a front for the SWP now).

Corbyn does not even have the wholehearted support of all the minority of reformist socialists in Labour’s leadership. His closeness to the ‘Trots’ makes many of them nervous, with good reason. Others, like Ken Livingstone, Dianne Abbott and John MacDonnell are veterans of such alliances going back to the 1980s and have always been happy to work with various revolutionary socialist factions.

Amongst the Parliamentary Labour party even the reformist socialists are a small minority – social democrats predominate (although some of them would call themselves ‘socialists’, although objectively they clearly are not). There are no real revolutionary socialists.

The split in the PLP now is not mainly between socialists and social democrats, it is between social democrat ‘consilliators’ and ‘refuseniks’.

The former want above all to hold Labour together. They know Corbyn is a disaster and their strategy is to remain ‘loyal’, try and limit the damage and wait for him to fail so spectacularly he can be removed and replaced without an open civil war.

The ‘refuseniks’ clearly see Corbyn as a absolute disaster for Labour. Like the ‘consiliators’ they are engaging in ‘wait and see’, for the moment, but want to say very clearly ‘not in my name’. They are discussing, in an as yet not very advanced way, how to launch a counter-revolution.

The problem both these groups have (and they are not clearly demarcated) is that Corbyn and his allies see this as an historic opportunity to convert Labour into what it has never been – a fully fledged socialist party (with an alliance within of reformists and revolutionaries). It is not clear how much Corbyn is tolling up for civil war himself, and how much he is just turning a blind eye to the would-be ‘purgers’.

Those who hoped that in office Corbyn would build bridges to the social democrats and distance himself form the far left are rapidly being disillusioned. His actions in appointing MacDonnell as shadow chancellor, Livingstone to the defence review and his defiance over Andrew Fisher as a special adviser all point in the other direction. These are all putting up two-fingers to the social democrats in the PLP.

The illusions that maybe there is a constituency for Corbyn’s left-wing views ‘out there’, that maybe he can mobilise the great ‘unvoting’ to come out for Labour, attract back SNP and UKIP voters, and that maybe he will become more conciliatory as the realities of leadership sink in, all these are rapidly being stripped away. There has been no ‘Corbyn bounce’ in the polls, with Labour if anything dipping further.

Nor is Corbyn’s Labour mounting an effective opposition to the Tories – even where they could be united, such as on opposing the completely unnecessary and foolish mortgaging of our nuclear industry to China, they are failing to even make a case. They completely screwed up the opposition to George Osborne’s unnecessary austerity with school-boy tactical games. The amateurish and confused reaction to the Paris events this week will prevent them being taken seriously when they ask important questions about how we fight jihadis.

Reports from the constituencies suggest the Corbyn phenomena has very shallow roots. Few of the surge in ‘members’ and ‘£3 voters’ have turned into actual active members.

Labour’s social democrats are talking about “18 months to 2 years” before Corbyn’s time is up. At the current rate of ‘progress’ by that time there will be precious little of the historic social democratic Labour party left to salvage – even if it is possible. History may well judge that they missed their opportunity to seize their party back when they had the chance and by the time they did try it was too late. We may yet end up with a more ‘continental’ configuration of the left in Britain: two parties, one social democratic and the other reformist socialist with maybe a revolutionary wing.






10 thoughts on “Whither Labour?

  1. The social democrats within Labour will now cause the party to be confined to the dustbin of history, and it has been a long protracted demise that started in the 1970s and was only delayed by Blair and his realisation that only by becoming more Tory than the Tories would Labour be electable. This truth is still valid and shows that the UK is to all intents and purposes a one party state. The post Labour landscape will be only shades of blue. If the UK electorate cared about equality, fairness, and society sharing in its joint achievements then this would not be happening. The electorate much prefer the feudal system, how else would we still have an unelected head of state and second chamber? They prefer to be told what to think and who to look up to and revere. However this way will ultimately lead to revolution. The police state is the next logical step to keep the growing list of “have nots” subdued within the political vacuum of “social democracy”. This will then lead to violence and unrest and will most likely lead to a “citadel” society where the rich are holed up in their gated communities while the rest protest outside. It is inevitable.

  2. That’s a very thoughtful piece.

    I think, however, you missed one reason for hope (speaking as someone who desires a strong and practical Labour party). You did sort of point to it towards the end of your piece when you said there was little evidence that Corbyn’s election had produced a surge of Corbynista activism at local party level. Certainly there is nothing, as yet, to resemble the frighteningly effective operations of the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the late 70s. And, of course, Corbyn is no Benn, lacking both his political and oratorical skills, as well as his charisma and energy.

    In the meantime Corbyn cuts quite an isolated figure at Westminster. Yes, appointments like McDonnell, Fisher and Milne suggest a leader who is more keen on striking revolutionary (or reactionary) poses than finding the traditional pulse of a centre-left Labour party. But his shadow cabinet is hardly ‘on message’. Benn, Eagle, Faulkner sometimes appear to be the real leaders, not Corbyn. And every time the PLP meets, the leader gets bashed in.

    I’ve noticed this about Corbyn too. Faced with awkward questions about Islamic State or Putin his instinct has been to retreat into silence rather than get out the soap box. He’s started to mutter incoherently where he used to rant reflexively, and talk about ‘hypothetical’ questions he’d rather not answer than give ‘the line’ that always used to serve him so well in the past. Silence and muttering are bad enough when you’re the leader of a major political party. But they are better than supporting the jihadists or Russian aggression as Corbyn routinely did until very recently. I call this ‘hopeful’ not because it suggests the man might mature into a traditional leader of the Labour party, but because his old supporters will soon tire of such ‘caution’; perhaps they are doing already, hence that lack of activism at local level.

    My prediction is that Corbyn will very soon lose completely the militant charm that endeared him to radicals in the first place. They, of course, will conclude – a la Ralph Miliband – that parliamentary socialism is so malignant that it even eats into honest radicals like Corbyn. Back to Stop the War Coalition and the Greens they will go, leaving Corbyn, McDonnell, Fisher et al even more marooned and faced with the choice of battling on as ‘traitors’ or going back to doing what they do best – carping hopelessly from the sidelines.

    Social democrats/democratic socialists in the Labour party should not give in yet.

  3. Richard Sage said:

    “If the UK electorate cared about equality, fairness, and society sharing in its joint achievements then this would not be happening. The electorate much prefer the feudal system, how else would we still have an unelected head of state and second chamber? They prefer to be told what to think and who to look up to and revere. “

    So it’s all the voters’ fault? I have heard this before from other losers. Such arrogance and contempt of the people you need to persuade to vote for you is typical of people who KNOW they are right..Fortunately their arrogance – and stupidity- means they are unlikely ever to win elections.

    However this way will ultimately lead to revolution.

    Says you with zero logic.

  4. You say that the New Labour era amounted to a slight reversion back to orthodox Social Democracy. Between the 1940s and the 1970s industries were nationalised, welfare spending increased, trade unions were heavily incorporated into the governing process, and there was quite a significant trend toward greater equality. I am prepared to concede that the Blairites might just, by the skin of their teeth qualify as the most moderate of moderate social democrats but can see also why others focus upon their neo-liberal tendencies given their support for privatisation, the failure to repeal Thatcherite anti-Trade union legislation , their failure to address issues of economic equality and the Blairite criticisms of even Ed Miliband’s slight shift toward the Left were not helpful.

    In my view this neo-liberal/extreme moderate social democratic approach is not the way forward and that it is desirable to shift the party approach significantly to the Left and campaign on a leftist programme. It is necessary to try to persuade the electorate as to the validity of Labour principles rather than to accept current attitudes as a given and to adjust policy accordingly. This is one [the only one?] lesson we can learn from the Thatcherites: they have spent years persuading the electorate as to the validity of the neo-liberal way. Some how we have persuade voters as to the invalidity of neo-liberalism and ,to me, there is little evidence at present that the majority of Labour MPs are up for this

    By the way, I believe also that in your assessment of Ralph Miliband you rely far to much on Parliamentary Socialism. By the 1980s he had become friendly with Tony Benn and hoped that it might be possible to shift the Labour Party to a more Socialist approach. I recommend Ralph Miliband’s “Divided Societies” written in the 1980s.

  5. I don’t think we should under-estimate the impact of the first-past-the-post system on holding the Labour Party together. Proportional representation on the continent allows left and social democratic parties both to gain enough votes for decent national representation. As the SDP experience proved, a split on the left in Britain simply weakens both sides and allows a more united right to come through the middle. In my view, FPTP not only helps keep the Labour Party together but it also forces it to reach out beyond the – say – 30-35% or so that two socialist and social democratic parties under PR would focus on and whose support they would simply seek to gain without going much further in the hope that various coalitions (probably with a kingmaker Liberal Party) would take them over the majority line in parliament.

  6. Yet both sides currently proffer economic polices [austerity lite] to the right of economists – centre right is being polite frankly when that happens. The idea of this as Social Democrat or centre is thus ridiculous. Indeed what minor nationalisation proposed essentially means the state not putting stuff out to tender stuff for an oligopoly to bid on – often state owned themselves. This is not even set in stone.

    Indeed it seems more the divide is in terms of those denied patronage, labels and those [most of PLP] who ridiculously supported policies disowned as too harsh [right] by the Tory Govt yesterday -> to show how laughable it is to call Labour left. They’re an illiberal party peddling junk Overton policies most of which have no backing in academia, see Tories, and their main role is to eclipse opposition either by agreeing with Govt on Austerity or Tax Credits (they accepted budget) or making their clownery the story – only to be left on the right by Osborne Cameron during conference season and Autumn Statement. The only wrinkle is they might be more peacenik but that is not a left right issue.

    To declare I’d support a pro Capitalist party which rejects what is loosely called neo Liberalism [LibLabConKip] – outsourcing & monetizing an overly authoritarian surveillance state. Puts me on the extreme left in current Labour or just on the right in reality. Labour is not a left wing or even centre party at present whatever Corbyn and cohorts believe about themselves as their policies not really challenging the Overton Window and indeed that just shows how incompetent they have become that they can be so easily painted as nutters.

    Labour needs to disown the Brown era of corrupt PFI and soaring City crime. If it is to embrace Capitalism then do so properly. McDonnell’s economic advisory panel is actually not bad but whether he takes advice or runs his message through anyone in advance is a different matter.

    It’s surely only Labour fans who think they are Socialists and Social Democrats that ship probably sailed with John Smith. The current split appears to be based on what people call themselves.

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