Monday, 2 November 2015

The Labour Party Today - Impressions of a Rejoiner

Returning to the Labour Party after a decade away has been a fascinating experience, Naturally things have changed a lot since 'my day'. The emergence of genuine popular demand within the party for something akin to democratic socialism would have been unthinkable in 2004/2005. So how about some preliminary impressions and some analysis to keep the debate going?

The first comment is how impressed I am with the organisation and good will of our local Constituency Labour Party in Tunbridge Wells. It has seen over a doubling of membership from re-joiners and new members. Its positive response to this was to hold a reception for all party members which saw an excellent turn-out, much comradely good humour and, above all, an effective mini-education on how the local party worked for newcomers. I have heard similar anecdotal stories across the South and West but depressing countervailing stories of near-dormant and depressed CLPs in some of the Labour heartlands. It is as if some traditional Labour areas are exhausted and shell-shocked.

The surge of energy that we have seen arriving with the Corbynistas seems to be happening, paradoxically, in the very areas that Blairism claimed for its own at the end of the 1990s. What is becoming clearer is that a lot of this new support is coming from those disillusioned with New Labour and then with the Coalition (after a drift from Labour to the LibDems who have royally screwed up here). They like an honest if slightly chaotic 'new politics' that gives a voice to 'ordinary people'. They are unimpressed with the mainstream media, with big corporations, pontificating leaders and austerity.

The second comment is that the more things change, the more things seem the same. Within days of rejoining the Party, I was back with my old crew who ran the original Centre Left Grassroots Alliance debating the future of the soft Left, the possibilities for the sensible Left and how moderate democratic socialists should respond to Corbyn. I tend to the collaboration camp, others do not perhaps so easily. But, again, the debates on e-mail are comradely. There is a meeting at mid-month in London where we will thrash out our differences (if there are any) and develop a strategy geared to the possibility of a sensible democratic socialist Britain under a Labour Prime minister by contesting or collaborating with Corbynista populism to the degree that we think it is in the interests of the country and our value system.

The third comment is much more negative. The aggressive irrationality of a few Labour activists on social media is shocking but not surprising. Sentiment and emotion are ruling over realism on social media and against evidence-based policy discussion. One suspects that some of these trolls will chase off some of the people who joined the Party if they are not brought to heel in some way. They are often, and this is a taboo within the Left to say such things, amazingly stupid. Stupid people are to be found in all parties but it is time that the Labour Party stopped believing its own propaganda about intellectual equality and realised the damage stupid people do to policy debate in forums and platforms. The issue here is the collapse of political education within the Party because the Blairites preferred to give orders rather than listen to people. The lid has been taken off a boiling pot. The new Leader is going to have to find a way of encouraging and then imposing his own standards of decent behaviour on his own followers, showing respect for all members equally as persons but judging ideas by agreed standards of evidence and coherence.

The Party has changed in other more fundamental ways - it is not only more active, mostly more decent (though infected with some trolls online) and filled with more lively debate than a decade ago, it is also on the way to becoming something very different again over the next few years. We can see elements of this change happening across the West - Bernie Sanders, Podemos and Syriza all represent variants of a change that is based on a new breed of intellectual, new communications technologies and a new determination by people affected by State policies to be heard. I tried to analyse this for Party friends based on our many shared observations and came up with the following model, based on a simple difference between the old politics and the new politics rather than the traditional difference between right and left.

The starting point is to say that, though there is a hard core at the centre of Corbynism that is derived from the 1970s and 1980s Left, the Corbynista Left is definitely not to be identified with the history of their elders. Many of them were small children during the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. Others would be politicised by Iraq, Anonymous, Occupy and Fracking which all happened long after New Labour came to power . The ones who stuck with the Hard Left turned into people more like Livingstone and McDonnell … pragmatists.


The Old Politics
  • A hard core of post-Trotskyist Marxists – capable but working within a system that works against them more decisively than is possible for them to defeat alone.
  • An aging activist heartland which is loyalist but confused by the revolution, even a little depressed, and might tend to see the new members and re-joiners as potential threats to their hegemony. It is very different in different parts of the country. Based on what has come in to my circle to date, the growth in the Party seems to be skewed to the South, West, university and small towns rather than the old heartlands.
  • A middling sort of political operator who cannot really understand the new politics and thinks it will all die away and normal business will be resumed – the traditional union activist is in here as possibly is the loyal but confused MP (from Cruddas to Burnham perhaps but I may be unjust here)
  • A grumbly New Labour elite that wants to speed up the counter-revolution but has no significant base in the country and is finally getting it that Blairism is as busted a flush as Thatcherism and Wilsonian Socialism before it.
  • A tiny minority of hard line Blairite Atlanticists who plot and scheme and pretty openly would rather see defeat in 2020 than a Corbyn Government.
  • An old intellectual class that is completely at sea because its world is falling apart – mainstream journalism is losing its grip, the Guardian and NS are disconnected from the change in wider sentiment and social media creates world views that are both hyper-critical of intellectual authority and highly emotive.

The New Politics
  • An enthusiastic and unstable liberal left re-joiner and young claque for Corbyn, some of whom might as easily be in the Greens or Lib Dems and many of whom have come from those camps
  • A group of Labour voters angry about the way the country is going, drifting to the national-populist Right and being courted by UKIP - some of these hate Corbyn as allegedly anti-patriotic, others love him for backing the working population and are drifting back to Labour. These have to be accommodated but are in permanent creative tension with the Southern and university Corbynistas.
  • A split in the trades union movement between public sector unions (who are inclined to Corbyn or the soft end of the old guard according to situation) and ‘industrial’ and general unions who are being driven by sentiment to become either Labour Firsters/workerists or Leftists according to taste and position. The intellectual struggle within the Labour Movement over issues such as Europe, Trident and socialism is the unreported key to the future of the Labour Party. What all trades union are united on is their intense dislike of Cameron's union-busting and austerity as an intrument of policy.
  • A new academic-based intellectual class that is interested in the failed Syriza experiment and new forms of politics that sometimes blend into anarcho-socialism. They certainly are fundamentally critical of the neo-liberalism of New Labour (and, above all, the ‘State’).

And Then There Are The Opportunists ...

In addition, we have noisy special interest constituencies created by Blairism (after Marx got revised in the mid-1990s) and are now trying to find a way to exploit the new situation and ensure the maintenance of their various minor hegemonies – feminism, ethnic minorities, LGBT, university activists.

These have actually done quite well out of Blairism but they are also part of the back-bone of Corbynism. They also provide a lot of the trolling, often aggressively placing right thought and right behaviour before evidence-based policy and even open discussion. They want their cake and eat it: business as usual only more so against the pressures emerging from the anti-identity politics of the workerists and the new anarcho-socialists.

This is just a rough picture - a work in progress - but it gives a sense of the complexity of the Corbyn revolution, partly the revenge of the Old Hard Left, partly a genuine upsurge of the vulnerable end of the Southern educated, partly a response to the world from young academics from a generation who were the first to suffer in 2008, partly a serious self-organising worry about the effects of austerity on working people and partly a response to the rise of a populism of the Right led by an adaptable UKIP with some quasi-socialist characteristics.

Trying to come to terms with this or opposing it are the bulk of professional political class who owed their jobs to the democratic centralism of Blair, confused longstanding activists who stuck it out for a Labour Government no matter what and know in their hearts that the Corbynistas will walk away if they do not get what they want, the heavyweight anti-socialist Atlanticist beasts and a cosmopolitan and intellectually arrogant liberal intellectual class that is watching power and influence slip from its grasp as a new form of the Left emerges.

Yes, a counter-revolution is theoretically possible but I think it increasingly unlikely. The old guard hold the high ground by inheritance but they are surrounded by hordes of insurgents, some slightly potty but most very sensible and committed, who just want a better world and think it is possible. The old guard's political model looks increasingly shaky as liberals, greens, returning 'Red UKIP' and previously despairing democratic socialists give the new model some critical mass and as it becomes clear that the trades unions have more to gain than lose from the new politics after the utter failure of New Labour to guarantee their position against an incoming Tory Government.

The trades unions have got more support out of Corbyn in a few weeks than they got from Blair in thirteen years. The clever element in the Old Guard is now accommodating Corbyn but putting in the systems of control that will hold things together for the long haul - Prescott and Burnham sent a signal that the new politics and traditional Labour values were perfectly compatible and the hard boys of Labour's radical middle class Right have been left dangling. Watson is a radical but not a Leftist and it is he who will be at the heart of reform of the party organisation, not the Leftists. So long as Corbyn and Watson can work together, so long as the 'Trot' element at the top retains its pragmatic approach and so long as the trades union feel that the new Leadership structure can deliver a Labour Government eventually, this revolution will hold together despite all the swinish lies in the mainstream Press, the bleating of the political class and plots by Atlanticist dinosaurs.