Friday, 19 August 2016

Can Owen Smith Win?

Long-term readers know one of my favourite games ever is Civilization III. As you busily set about conquering the world militarily or, depending on your play style, kindness, you get to sign treaties with computer-controlled opponents. It being a title from 2001, the options are a touch limited. You can put together a peace treaty if you’re concluding a war, sign a right of passage agreement, or a mutual protection pact. Signing the latter has you declaring war on anyone who attacks your ally, so it’s not something to enter into lightly. Should you break any of the treaties your civilisation will suffer a hit to its reputation, making future diplomacy more difficult and the odds of AI opponents attacking you more likely.

I mention this in light of the comments made about NATO by Jeremy Corbyn, and more pointedly his refusal to say whether a Jez-led Britain would come to the aid of an alliance member attacked by Russia. In real life, just like Civ that would have dire repercussions for Britain's standing in the world, as well as doubts over its commitments to other international treaties. Now, it might be unfair he was asked this question. Can you recall Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband getting asked something similar? Well, tough. Politics isn’t fair. Jeremy’s equivocal answer probably didn’t matter a great deal to his firm supporters. After all, we know that as a committed anti-war activist and critic of US foreign policy, he wouldn’t be fussed about the abolition of NATO. But, as I’ve argued before, giving the impression of being blasé about defence and security (and therefore stoking insecurity) never sits well with the electorate, and it might reap Team Jeremy negative dividends when it comes to the leadership contest.

Oh really? Hasn’t Jeremy got a commanding lead among the constituency parties? Yes, he has indeed. But as the Owen Smith camp (remember him?) have pointed out, taking together all the people to have indicated a preference so far the margin is much closer than you would expect. As Stephane notes, while Jez wracked up the CLP nominations the actual votes cast in the contest isn't as one-sided as they suggest. From the start, I’ve believed his challenge, as cobbled together and opportunist it is, Owen has stood an outside chance of winning, especially in the event of some Jez gaffe. And it’s not the membership Jeremy would have to worry about as they remain likely to back him, it’s the affiliated members in the trade unions.

Readers with long memories and/or an understanding of labour movement history will know well the balance of forces in the party in the 1970s and 80s. Despite being much stronger and a touch more militant, affiliated trade unions played a conservative role in the party. Uncle John Golding in his unmissable Hammer of the Left demonstrates how bureaucratic chicanery in the party allied to having the unions onside was the path to defeating and isolating the left in the 1980s – a lesson those who would follow in his footsteps failed to grasp because, well, they don’t understand how the party works, let alone the wider labour movement.

In the current leadership battle, it appears to me neither side have paid much attention to the affiliated members in the trade unions, but this would be a mistake. Having most of the unions formally endorse Jeremy was always going to happen. Likewise, Community and USDAW backing Owen was as predictable as tomorrow’s sun rise. The eyebrow raising came when the GMB’s membership plebiscite delivered the union’s support to our Owen. Sundry Corbynites cried foul. The general secretary’s preamble was “biased”. The wording on the ballot paper was tilted against Jez. And turnout was pitifully low. Oh dear. It appears the right of the PLP aren’t the only ones who don’t understand trade unions.

Despite the leftist reputation unions have acquired over the last decade-and-a-half, on the whole, they’re not stuffed with right-on lefties. A trade union is an institution supported by a collective of dues-paying workers to represent their interests in the workplace. That is all a trade union is. They are not a gaggle of bolshevists pregnant with insurrection. It’s an organisation that fights on issues of economic relevance to its members, and as such can only ever be as strong as the width and breadth of that membership. It's also why trade unions were won to founding the Labour Party. The separation of politics and economics exit only in the scholastic imagination; securing the economic interests of working people requires political struggle, up to and including winning parliamentary representation and forming governments. As such, while unions can mobilise large numbers of working people and see them engage in militant action, it doesn't necessarily mean they're equally militant in their politics. For instance, I remember a comrade telling me about how her then boyfriend came from a family of militant dockers. Yet above the family dining table was a portrait of the Queen.

In the seldom read but much maligned What is to be Done?, old Lenners talked about trade union consciousness, how the immediate realities of wages, speed ups, work load, managerial control, lay offs, and so on tends to focus the minds of workers around these issues. Winning wage rises or more autonomy in the work place does not put capitalism into question. The job of socialist politics is to bridge that gap, of linking the experience of working collectively to win concessions at work to the wider project of remaking society. And so, because trade union consciousness spontaneously coheres around economistic issues, there is a tendency for it to be expressed in sectional ways. For instance, workers who struck to to keep colour bars in place, the replacement of "indigenous" by migrant labour, or to keep in place the exclusion of women from workplaces are all examples where the immediate, sectional interest is at odds with the interests of labour in general.

Which brings us back to the situation we find ourselves in. As readers know, Jeremy has already copped criticism from Unite and the GMB for his opposition to Trident. From a trade union perspective, it's obvious: scrapping the replacement programme means no Trident jobs, and therefore an uncertain future in the shipyards and for the communities that depend on them. It doesn't matter that Jeremy supports the redeployment of these skills and reinvestment in socially useful industries of the future. There is a tangibility to Trident whereas the alternatives, at present, are a pipe dream. From this perspective, Jeremy represents a double whammy of insecurity: in terms of their livelihoods and in terms of making the country weak in the face of foreign foes. And for those groups of workers concerned about such things, yesterday's remarks about NATO is like topic off a toxic fudge cake with radioactive sprinkles.

This then is the only real possibility Owen has of winning, by banking on the less politically conscious component of the selectorate mix in the trade unions going for him because they feel Jeremy's leftyism isn't just a problem when it comes to elections, but that it appears to be against their interests. The question is whether there are enough to outweigh pro-Corbyn affiliated trade unionists, and the bulk of the membership and registered supporters. I would say no, but this is 2016, and stranger things have happened. It also presents a future problem for Jeremy if he does win. There is now a section of the trade union members that are opposed to his continued leadership, and this could prove useful to know for any future coup plotters unless his leadership ups its game. He and his team should regard the GMB vote as a warning and act accordingly.


Anonymous said...

Hi #SavingLabour have directly tried to do this of course- sign up 'normal'people in trade unions as affiliated supporters. A lot of people have been signed up this way, to vote Owen. I'm not saying it'll probably been enough, just replying to your point that no-one's thought of the affiliated supporters.

You're right though that I don't think they've been addressed much in the hustings etc. I like to think a lot of people would vote Owen just as the anti-Corbyn. Most people are turned off by Corbyn, it's just a matter of whether the type of person that tends to be in unions now (only 1 in 4 people are in one) is representative of the general population.

Paul Ewart said...

Yep, anyone assuming that trade unions are necessarily radical is very foolish indeed: they have one job and that is to represent sectional interests. The TUC helped drive the 'new realism' that presaged the Labour Party's move to the right in the 1980s, Ernie Bevin was a notorious red-baiter and cold war warrior, Joe Gormley a 'patriotic' informant. There are no guarantees.

Igor Belanov said...

Yet apart from trade unionists in the defence industry voting for their 'sectional interests' I can't see an awful lot of trade unionists casting their votes for Smith. I suspect most of those that don't support Corbyn just won't vote at all. Plus, I suspect that there are quite a few affiliated trade union supporters who would have preferred to vote as members but will have been denied a chance. They are unlikely to support Smith.

The fact that so many unions have come out to support Corbyn again in this leadership election is the real story. Traditionally you would have expected a lot more union bureaucracies to claim pragmatism and back the party establishment. The GMB has been one of the most right-wing unions for years, and their 'defection' is disappointing but not surprising.

Metatone said...

Never mind the Labour party - I didn't realise I had a fellow Civ III fan out there.
You should blog about Civ III more!

As for Owen, I think the question is, does he have a strategy for mobilising the union vote?
If he does, it could be close, but I've seen little evidence that his campaign is really going to get enough of said voters out to the ballot...

Darrell Kavanagh said...

17% of the votes cast in the leadership election last year were from affiliated members.

If we assume the same this time (even though the number of eligible members+registered supporters has increased by 50%, so the number of affiliated members voting would need to increase by 50% to maintain this proportion), and that Jeremy's support is in line with the publicly available nomination ballot data (CLPs, Unison, GMB, Socialist Health Association, Labour Movement for Europe), Corbyn wins with 63% of the vote.

Even if Corbyn's support amongst members+supporters falls to 55% (versus 66.5% in the nomination ballots), his support amongst affiliated members would have to fall to 25% (versus 45.3% in the nomination ballots) for Owen Smith win.

And if Corbyn gets 61% support amongst members+supporters, Owen Smith wouldn't win even if 100% of affiliated members voted for him!

The numbers do not look good for Owen Smith.

asquith said...

Anonymous said...

Breakdown of #LabourLeadership selectorate.
Card Carrying Members: 350,000
Affiliated Supporters: 168,000
£25 Registered Supporters: 129,000

Affiliated supporter total interesting. The bulk of that figure probably Unite.

I think Corbyn should pick up 2/3rds of that vote as a minimum based on card carrying members that joined post September 15th 2015 who were predominantly Corbyn supporters.


BCFG said...

UNISON members voted in favour of Corbyn. There is no doubt that the GMB is a more right wing union. I had deep suspicions about the GMB when it came into my workplace and basically split the Unionised workforce into 2, as before the GMB arrived on the scene UNISON were the only union. And then during the height of the Austerity attacks by the Tories Unison members voted to strike and GMB members voted not to strike, which seriously diluted the battle and handed the Tories an easy win. Handing the Tories what they want would seem like the ideal attribute for any potential Own Smith supporter! Why they don't just vote Tory and make things crystal clear is anyone's guess?

On CIV III, its genius was in adding the resource option, so you could only build railways if you had coal!

Blissex said...

«the comments made about NATO by Jeremy Corbyn, and more pointedly his refusal to say whether a Jez-led Britain would come to the aid of an alliance member attacked by Russia»

Our good J Corbyn main weakness is that he falls easily for these tricks, he is so amazingly predictable.

The trick here was that the question was not about «an alliance member attacked», but the word used was «aggression», which can mean *anything*, and the NATO treaties contain very clear and narrow definitions, not «aggression». In the case of «aggression» the neocon question is really "would you order bombing Russia if there was a pro-russian coup in one the Baltics and the new government left NATO to join the Russian Federation?", or more likely "would you order bombing Iran if it continues its aggression against Israel?".

He should have simply replied that the party platform is to continue membership of NATO, and NATO is officially about discouraging war, and he is very much persuaded that therefore there is no hypothetical case for war.

Blissex said...

«anyone assuming that trade unions are necessarily radical is very foolish indeed»

This is a point also made in what seems to me (I have not finished it yet) a very good book on Labour semi-recent history "The end of parliamentary socialism", from 2001, by Panitch and Leys, which probably is well known to many people reading this blog.

Which also shows that there is "nothing new under the Sun", for example these quotes about an influx of idealistic social-democratic lower middle class people *in the seventies* which challenged party orthodoxy:

«In January 1971 Hayward wrote a fascinating editorial in Labour Organiser. It began by relating a conversation he had with 'Old Bill', chairman of a ward party, who had complained about a new member in his party. 'The first time I set eyes on him I knew he was up to no good,' said Old Bill... 'you can't trust him, never ought to be in the Party, he's a ruddy Left-winger... First time he came to the ward meeting, he questioned my ruling on selecting our local government candidate and he's been throwing questions at me ever since.'»

«A discernible drift towards joining the Labour Party began in the early 1970s, especially among young community activists who started to take a more pragmatic view of alliances with trade unions in anti-cuts campaigns, and to develop a more sophisticated view of the state than the term 'cooptation' allowed for. As the limits of 'direct action' or sectarian Trotskyist politics became clearer on the one hand, and as the technocratic planning and limited participation of local Labour administrations in the early 1970s quickly produced disappointments on the other, a more radical and more determined set of activists joined the Labour Party.
It is true that most of these new activists were also 'new middle class', although they tended to be teachers or social workers (or studying to be such) rather than management or public relations types. But like the two-thirds of Labour's middle-class voters who had working-class origins, so did most of the new activists. And like Lockwood's 'Black Coated Worker' radicals of the 1950s, the new radicals of the early 1970s (who, of course, preferred denim) were distinctly marginal members of the middle class, who did not internalise the norms that traditionally went with professional status. Indeed many of the young activists who joined the party in the 1970s had been educated in the 1960s by school teachers who reflected this marginal status and the iconoclastic norms that went with it.»

"Renters" as troublemakers, what an old concept :-).

Blissex said...

«more union bureaucracies to claim pragmatism and back the party establishment.»

The party establishment has declared several times that they want to get rid of the unions entirely, and OMOV was as we all know just the first step, and pushed forward by "far left" E Milliband:
«And former prime minister Tony Blair said Mr Miliband had shown "real courage" on the issue, which was "long overdue".»

BTW some "lefties" I know deliberately or delusionally underestimate how despised trade unions still are by many lower income people, after the excessive and unpopular strikes of the 1970s and 1980s. It is this memory that still largely underpins support for neoliberalism. And many non-delusional trade unions members (and many of them were coal miners) still hate the NMU and A Scargill in particular for their over-reaching and provoking a ferocious backlash against trade unions in general, both from the establishment and many voters.

My expectation and hope are that as more and more voters are born after the trade union excesses of the 1970s and 1980s support for neoliberalism dwindles. Maybe support for J Corbyn is high also because many of his supporters are young enough.

BCFG said...

"And many non-delusional trade unions members (and many of them were coal miners) still hate the NMU and A Scargill in particular for their over-reaching and provoking a ferocious backlash against trade unions in general, both from the establishment and many voters."

They hate them because they were brainwashed by the media, day in day out over many years. So nothing much has changed really!

The attacks on the miners wasn't some response to a provocation but a trend toward absolute economics, which was very much coming into vogue on the back of the monetarist economics. In a nutshell this theory said the coal industry had to shut down and coal should be imported from where kids were allowed down the mines. In other words it was part of the de-industrialization project or the movement of production to 'low cost' areas.

The NUM knew this, warned everybody that Thatcher's policy was one of destroying the domestic industry and that the strike was about saving the industry.

Even the Nottinghamshire miners came to admit they had been duped and Scargill had been proved correct.