Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Eternal Corbynism

Long to reign over us? The decision of Labour's National Executive Committee yesterday to lower the Labour leadership ballot threshold to 10% and set up a review into party democracy headed by Katy Clark is a welcome advance for Corbynism. Not only does Corbynism now stand a better chance of continuing after Jeremy, the extra seat for an affiliated trade union (USDAW) and three more for the members' section of the NEC opens the party to more pressure from and accountability to the members. While I'd like to have seen more it's a good start (who knows, conference might decide it should go further) but it shows the distance travelled in two years. Not only was the leadership question definitely settled by the general election, but the deal done on lowering the threshold and the concession of the review shows the Corbyn-sceptic and hostile forces are firmly on the retreat.

For our friends in Progress it's like the sky's come falling in (as we know, that's a real possibility as far as they're concerned). Director Richard Angell said "we are now in a permanent campaign to undermine the role of MPs, marginalise their voice and get them to acquiesce." Likewise on Newsnight, Matt Pound for Labour First bemoaned the diminution of influence for the Parliamentary Labour Party and raised the prospect of nine or more MPs standing for election in future contests.

I disagree with these arguments, but I do understand them. The sacrosanct status and power of the party's MPs is embedded in Labourism's DNA. They're the ones who work full-time in politics, whose minds range over legislation, hold the government to account, deal with constituents, formulate policies and provide leadership to the anonymous mass of subs payers in the party - as well as faces to vote for. This is a privileged position for all kinds of reasons, not least because being a Labour MP puts one close to decision making. As we've seen before, the PLP's strength resides in its relationship to public opinion. MPs feel the pressure of the polls bearing down on them because a) constituents can vote them out, and b) Westminster is bounded on all sides by a cacophony of media chatter, which is taken as synonymous with public opinion. They have a unique position in British politics shared by few and this can lead to an entitled view, that their opinions and strategies should carry greater weight than ordinary members, regardless of their commitment and political experience.

Privilege can be blinding, and this is the case here. They deal with politics, engage with constituents, get their heads wrapped around arcane Commons procedure but, ultimately, Labour MPs are largely shielded from the consequences of the legislation they pass. When a cut to social security is made, they don't feel the cut. If schools and NHS budgets are frozen, or market principles extended in public services, or the thousand and one other foolish things Labour did when it was last in power, this doesn't make an immediate difference to their lives in the way it does for people who work in or depend on these services. Yet time and again Labour MPs have voted for legislation that makes life tough because it's "what the electorate wanted". Instead of leading opinion, it's easier to capitulate to it. Hence public opinion as constructed by the media is pernicious - often framed in right wing terms, it nevertheless gains currency in MPs' everyday life because it can easily be related to the racist rant from last week's postbag, the blitz of organised kippery emails, or the constituent moaning about their dole wallah neighbours during Saturday's door knocking.

Members provide ballast to these Westminster flights. While it is true they can be odd and out of touch (Stoke Central backed David Miliband in 2010), this is much more likely when the party is adrift from the forces it is supposed to represent. This was the case when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ran the joint, and to a slightly lesser extent under Ed Miliband. Then the party was largely in the grip of unrepresentative and unaccountable cliques, Progress and Labour First among them. The Corbyn surge has changed all this. While the Labour right were in long-term decline anyway, a party of almost 600,000 members cannot be anything but representative of a vast actually-existing constituency. The wisdom of the crowd decreed that Jeremy Corbyn was the best man for the job, and a significant (and growing) proportion of the electorate agrees. It turned out, against the grain of Labourism, that the lowly members were right and the exalted Parliamentarians were wrong. And it's not difficult to see why. Members are normal people dealing with the normal pressures of life. They live with the consequences of boss friendly austerity policies MPs only saw second hand. The initial Corbyn surge may have been an inchoate mass but it is better attuned to what is going on in the real world. Furthermore, as this membership is networking and connecting, it is becoming increasingly clued up and aware not just as Labour members but as part of a wider class with a shared outlook and shared interests. Its collective intelligence and experience reaches out in all directions and is condensing a more rounded, accurate picture of politics than that available to our MPs.

That doesn't mean we should be indifferent to our honourable members, but their exalted position is unsustainable. As conservatives bewildered by the world, Progress and Labour First are clinging to Labourism past because even now, after politics has been rewritten and rewired and matters are assuming a polarising aspect, they perform a studied refusal to come to terms with the new and pine for the return of the old. It's their loss, because it makes the project of remaking the Labour Party easier. In short, Labour has to embrace the members, the class that have turned it inside out and upside down if it ever wants to continue existing, let alone winning an election. The NEC decision is definitely a step in the necessary direction.


jim mclean said...

End of the party as we know it. The worst Government in the hisory of the Tory pasty and we are still only neck and neck. If there were an election tomorrow we would lose.

Phil said...

I do wonder if you've read my posts on this very point. You comment here enough.

Phil said...

They have a unique position in British politics shared by few and this can lead to an entitled view, that their opinions and strategies should carry greater weight than ordinary members, regardless of their commitment and political experience.

And as it goes for the MPs, it goes for the councillors, and as it goes for the councillors it goes for the branch officers. They're all jolly good people doing a jolly good job, and heaven forfend that anyone should break the spell.

To be fair, I've got nothing against my MP; my councillors have got decent track records, going back to the 'loony left' 80s in some cases; and our branch secretary is a nice guy and works hard for the party. But after the way they all reacted to a challenge from the Left, earlier this week, I'd deselect the lot of them in a heartbeat. (Thinking more reflectively for a moment, one thing the whole Corbyn story tell us is that the party establishment ignores the "Because fuck you" factor at its peril. Monday night is unlikely to be the end of this particular story.)

Labour has to embrace the members, the class that have turned it inside out and upside down if it ever wants to continue existing, let alone winning an election.

Alternatively, it could carry on working the same old way, pausing occasionally to thank the new members for the energy they've brought to the party and reassure us that it's best all round if they stay in charge. One office-holder actually made this argument at the meeting - the energy and new ideas of new members are good, but isn't it best for everyone if that energy and those new ideas are channelled by somebody who knows how to work within the system... Unbelievable sense of entitlement. I put my back out on Sunday morning and heard that 'argument' on Monday night, and it's a toss-up which of them is going to annoy me for longest.

Jonathan said...

Of course at a time when there could be a GE round the corner, the best thing to do is to focus on arcane rule changes, designed to benefit one faction.

The idea that is all about Party Democracy is a load of balls

Phil said...

When Tristram Hunt was asking round for support in the days following the 2015 general election for his putative leadership bid, he was shocked to find almost everyone had already declared support for either Andy, Yvette or Liz. They had done their manoeuvring and signing up in the period up to polling day. Are you then suggesting these "moderate" heroes were not focused on the job at hand and were therefore distracted by internals goings ons?

This is a bogus argument. Just because you find thinking and walking difficult doesn't mean others have difficulty doing two things at once. Especially as we're dealing with *collectives* of people where divisions of labour are possible.

And there isn't going to be a general election.

MikeB said...

Labour MPs do - potentially, at least - have an area of expertise, which is understanding Parliamentary processes and procedures. What they decidedly do not have is an understanding of the class and the marginalised groups they are elected to represent. Not only are they not, in general, drawn from that constituency, but they are inevitably mesmerised by the question of what will enable them to remain in office. As you also point out, Phil, they are subject to a relentless barrage of London-based, hegemonic "commonsense". It remains telling that since Thatcher, the question that is generally seen as "value free" and most important for any policy question is not "Who does this benefit?", "Does this promote equity, or freedom, or justice, or ecological sustainabiliy?" but "WHERE'S THE MONEY?"

In short, their consciousness is just as much conditioned by their position and how they make a living as anyone else's. The membership needs to have sufficient power to overcome this bias, because there are more important things than enabling MPs to keep their jobs, or trimming to accommodate the commonsense of the hegemonic class.

Jonathan said...

@Phil BC, Consider why this change is being made, this is being made because momentum want to change the rules to suit the left. Which under The Irony is if we had the old electoral college system, there would be no threshold in the first place.

Phil said...

If you had the confidence in your politics you would back it too. Your statement suggests you've lost hope in ever winning millions of people to your views.

Jonathan said...

That's a non-argument if ever there was one.

Unknown said...

I think there decisions bring a split in labour closer to reality. in the same way that policies and debates at union conferences reflect the actividts not the membership this eill lead to a party led by activists reflecting their own (or more likey momentums agenda) with scant regard for mainstream potential Labour voters.

we are rearranging the deck chairs as we head for the Brexit iceberg. it's self indulgent and will lead probably to a resurgence in libdem votes and perpetual socialist Labour opposition.

hope your principles keep you warm

Phil said...

You make the assumption there is a divide between members and the electorate. The story of the election was that the members *reflect* the electorate, and there's no sign this is changing.

Anonymous said...

Ah, that fabled "LibDem resurgence".

And centrist dads like you claim Corbyn is delusional :)))