Sunday 30 December 2018

Corbynism in 2018

Going in to 2018, Corbynism was presented with a challenge it hadn't encountered before: the relative peace of continuity. The movement began with an event to mobilise around in the 2015 leadership contest, ditto with the the coup that failed in 2016, and last year we had the general election and its fall out. There was nothing scheduled on the horizon for 2018, nor was there likely to be a mobilising moment. The old establishment had nothing to commend themselves, no avenues for striking back, nor any hope of destabilising Corbyn and snatching control of the party away from the membership. And Theresa May wasn't about to call a general election what with Brexit negotiations and a Tory party more divided then any time in, well, perhaps ever. How then has Corbynism fared over the course of the year? How is it developing? What are its successes? And how is it coping with threats and challenges?

In the metrics that matter most to conventional politics, Corbyn's Labour has a good story to tell. Polling is either level pegging, a little bit behind, or a little bit in front of the Tories. "Oh", wail Corbyn's opponents, "if he was any good we'd have double-digit point leads over this shower of a government". And perhaps Labour would if it wasn't for the political circumstances we find ourselves in. As noted previously and many times since, political polarisation has persisted throughout the year. It's not just a matter of the Tories and Labour mobilising different constituencies of voters, but that Brexit plays different roles in gluing these coalitions together. For Labour voters, as a general rule Britain's relationship to the EU is important, but other concerns like housing, the NHS, jobs, a better future, etc. more or less successfully keeps the coalition together. For the Tories, Brexit is absolutely central. It keeps the former kippers on board, it helps keep the Scottish unionist vote on board, and works as an attractor for the flotsam and jetsam of voters who buy the delusions of Brexit. If Brexit was a minority pursuit, which it isn't, then the Tory coalition would be smaller. To reiterate, the reason why the Tory vote remains large is because they are the party of Brexit. They're negotiating it, they're its custodians, and millions of people - who wouldn't necessarily vote Tory under other circumstances - are backing them for as long as it takes to get it done. Whether this falls away after 29th March or persists while the government prats about with a trade deal is a question we might be able to answer this time next year.

But this post is about Corbynism, not the Tories! May's local elections weren't a thumping success, though getting the best result in London for 50 years is worth shouting about. Nevertheless it demonstrated steady-as-it-goes progress with a polarised electorate in the background. Though, without indulging official optimism, it is worth remembering that turn outs for local elections are low and tend to flush out two groups of people; the super hard core who follow local politics and, disproportionately, older people. For Labour to do well in contests whose demographics favour the party's Tory opponents isn't to be sniffed at.

With electoral consolidation, um, consolidating, how are things looking in the party? Well, in 2018 we find a similar story. Momentum's membership grew massively over the year, passing the 40K mark in the Summer and with trolling talk of it soon overtaking the real membership of the Tories. It's possible! The year also saw the left firm up its control. 2018 began well with the left making a clean sweep of the three extra seats introduced to the NEC. There was plenty of argy-bargy in the last round of selections for this year's local elections, with the right claiming the left are racist/sexist/homophobic for deselecting councillors with awful politics - the sort of absurd logic which, turned the other way, damns every one of them for supporting white boy David Miliband over Diane Abbott in the 2010 leadership contest. In March, Corbyn flexed his muscles in the sacking of Owen Smith from the front bench for continuing to peddle his own line about a second referendum as opposed to the party's position. His forced departure occasioned the usual bellyaching, with Peter Hain going so far as to describe it a "terrible Stalinist purge". Neither it nor the fall out of the Skripal affair, where Corbyn used the occasion to draw attention to Russian money propping up the Tories, made any dents on the left in the Labour Party, and following May's elections it was a fairly easy task to get left wing delegates elected to conference and returning a full slate of leftwingers to this year's NEC.

The only real setback the project suffered internally were the shenanigans around mandatory reselection. Readers will recall there was an on-paper majority for it, and sundry rightwing Labour MPs were getting sweaty. Even Westminster colossi like Mike Gapes openly pondered their resignation of the Labour whip. And, in the end, there was some sort of deal done and instead of a simple reselection process we got a reform of the present trigger ballot system. This was disappointing, but not surprising. The leadership wanted to avoid headaches from the parliamentary party, and trade unions wanted to continue to have a hand in who does and doesn't get selected. Calling it a betrayal, as some did, is a bit much but it is an own goal and one bound to bite both the leadership and trade union general secretaries on the backside in the future. Nevertheless, what it did demonstrate was a tension in the relationship between Corbynism-in-the-party and Corbynism-in-the-unions.

Throughout the year, Corbynism's opponents in the party have either resigned in despair, as per John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis (neither, of course, had anything to do with a studied refusal to face sexual assault allegations), thrown tantrums like Frank Field, or trailed the prospect of a new centre party. If these people can't marry up a coalition of recalcitrant MPs and 50 million quid of LoveFilm money, how can they hope to be decent ministers? Well, we know they can't. But as far as the old Blairism and the Labour right are concerned, they did hit upon two weapons that have caused damage to the project and will no doubt be reached for again in 2018.

The first is anti-semitism. Jeremy Corbyn isn't an anti-semite, and neither are the overwhelming majority bulk of the Labour Party. But as explained here, there is a culture of anti-semitic carelessness on the left that has come into the party, which has been amplified by ones and twos of Labour people on social media sharing anti-semitic conspiracy idiocies, far right memes, defences of Gilad Atzmon, and Rothschild obsessions - all of whom are seized upon with alacrity by the media and the Labour right. This climaxed over the summer with the row over Jeremy Corbyn's attendance at that funeral. Unfortunately, while the right should be condemned for their disgusting and dishonest behaviour on this issue - where were most of them before anti-semitism became something you could damage the Corbyn project with? - the left needs to take responsibility and stamp this shit out. Better, quicker disciplinary procedures, a programme of party-directed education, and zero tolerance of anti-semites, conspiracy fools, and "leftist" liabilities who deny there's any such problem are good starting points.

The second is Brexit or, to be more accurate, the movement for remain. Broader and more politically amorphous than the FBPE cult on Twitter, it is nevertheless a bourgeois social movement, and one used by sections of the Labour right to try and drive a wedge between Labour members and Labour voters, who the polls tell us are mostly anti-Brexit and want a second referendum, and the party leadership. There was the pre-Christmas poll from YouGov that boldly claimed the LibDems would surge to second place if Labour was seen enabling Theresa May's Brexit, and there was the Graun interview in which Corbyn restated Labour's 'all options on the table' policy, which was taken up as some great betrayal by sundry Labour MPs and their friends in the Liberal Democrats. Of course, Labour has a tricky tightrope to walk. Brexit is damaging and a load of crap, but unless you think a bit of dodgy funding and a few Facebook adverts invalidate the result (especially when remain spent more overall, including on Facebook), seeing it through is the democratic thing to do. Unless another general election comes along and rewrites the rules. As noted earlier, Brexit does play a different role in Labour's voter coalition vs the Tory vote, but different role doesn't mean no role. In my view, calling for a general election with the promise to try and negotiate a different deal with the promise of a referendum at the end to confirm it is the best approach to take. Whatever happens, the party cannot be put in a position where it "reluctantly" votes for May's deal - Scotland and the fate of the LibDems shows what happens when other parties become the Tories' meat shield.

Overall, Corbynism is more or less politically united. More activists are more regularly involved, and provided the party carefully steps its way through the Brexit mess it remains well placed to win a general election. But there is still much to be done. Corbynism conceives of labour as a party/movement, a collective active in community struggles, trade unions and wider campaigns while simultaneously being a contender for power. The two are not mutually exclusive as the cretinists of the right maintain, but central to winning an election and transforming our society. Therefore we need to be aware that Corbynism hasn't spurred wider radicalisation. At least not yet. Tied up with this is building the network of ideas, thinkers, publications and websites, broadcast media, institutions - which is central if you want to frame the battle for the country's soul in terms of hegemony and counter hegemony. This is coming together and Corbynist outriders, mainly from the left of the movement are regularly getting themselves in the media to push the new common sense. However, the problem of what John McDonnell calls 'cadre development' remains. When you have a Labour Party culture historically antithetical to, well, thinking, and a social media culture productive of conspiracy theorising, instilling a sense of history, capacities for informed social critique, and hunger for new knowledge is a big ask. Nevertheless this is happening and, fortunately for the left, the experience of tens of millions tallies with what it is saying about the world.

Corbynism then leaves 2018 in good shape, in better shape than when it entered it. 2019 isn't going to be a walk in the park, but when you look at the state of our opponents in the party and outside of it, we could be in a much worse place.


Lee Denness said...

A million thanks Phil for your very interesting posts in 2018 and for helping this elderly lady to understand more about what is happening to and within the Party. You are a sparkling diamond, always ready to tell the truth and an absolute must for me who looks forward to your regular updates and positivity. The man is great, isn't he? Still there, still pushing for what is right and good whatever is thrown at him. Like so many others, I just long for a time when the truth can be spread more widely.

Unknown said...

Agree with Lee Denness. This blog just keeps getting better and better. Happy new year to blogger, and all socialists in the Labour party (not the Blairites).

Richard Tiffin said...

I’d like to begin by echoing my thanks for your writings Phil. I give a vote of thanks that you got behind the Corbyn project as I recall taking issue with you on a number of occasions prior to your ‘conversion’. So much better that you are now a passionate advocate.

In terms of your review of the year I’d like to add a note or two of caution.

First, activism in the hugely exanded membership. In terms of absolute numbers there is clearly more activism. However, I am secretary of the Leeds Local Campaign Forum (LCF) so have a lot of personal experience of activity, through the shortlisting and selection of councillor candidates and as organiser of various events in the city.

What I can state categorically was most meetings were barely quorate in this round of selections, which, at 5%, is low compared to in the past. My personal view is those who have joined the Party have little or no experience of political activity, let alone the machinations of the Labour Party, so feel ‘job done’ by joining and writing pro Labour stuff on social media. Don’t get me wrong, this is great, I’ll take it over a Party that was hollowed out any day. However, for any transformation of council chambers, the last bastion of centrism, to take place, then we need more than that, and we need the councils on board with the project after we win a general election. This is going to be impossible unless there is a rejuvenation of branches or the rule changes from the Democracy Review in relation to local government come off of the shelf.

Secondly, Momentum. Yes, membership has grown, but it has the same problem with a lack of experience and activity as the Party has and this problem is compounded by the lack of a democratic constitution and rules, which leaves the ‘brand’ open to abuse from those with control of it. This was most notable with the election of NEC members and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPC’s). People are anointed, not democratically chosen, and the ‘brand’ is hugely influential when those not engaged in Party activity have to chose a candidate. Simply put, they have no experience upon which to base a choice, so the Momentum brand works like Hienz for many, it becomes a seal of quality and approval.

So far this may or may not have delivered up people who are of the left, in the Corbyn sense of the term, but this is the process by which Stalinism took root in the Communist Party. To illustrate my point, if I were you I’d keep an eye on Leeds Central. There is a persistent rumour that Hillary Benn is to retire if we don’t have an early general election. There is some indication that Lisa Johnson, the GMB National Director of External Relations, will be in the running for the safe Labour seat and will be assisted by Momentum. The problem is, she was a key player for Owen Smith in the second leadership election, which should give you some indication of her view of Corbyn, if not of his politics. I hope I’m wrong, but for me were this to happen it would be a clear indication of the premature degeneration of the organisation.

Other than those particular clouds on the horizon I agree with you, including the politically pragmatic view of Brexit you have. Simply put, Labour have no choice and the position the centrists are taking would lead to disaster. But the outlook is good and the Tories are in disarray.

Happy New Year and thanks once again for all of your effort.

Dialectician1 said...

Yes, I agree with Lee Denness above. Thanks Phil for some insightful blogs this year. Nice to see the application of the 'sociological imagination', as I was taught it.

Just one comment on Corbynism 2018. It is worth reading Oliver Heath's research on policy alienation and social alienation and the working class.

If Labour is going to win the next election, it needs to start using the 'language of class'. Politics was always polarised, we just kidded ourselves that it wasn't during the Kinnock/Blair years. Capturing the middle ground/middle class vote came with a high price, as Heath's research shows. Labour is the party of the working class and should be proud to say so. It also needs to have working class people as MPs, so as to properly represent that 'ontological reality'.

Happy New Year. I'm off on the hoy.

DFTM said...

Anti Semitism represents the ultimate fight to come. Will Labour become a genuinely radical departure from the status quo or will it be simply pulled to the Yvette Cooper centre left by the Yvette Cooper loving centre left?

Ant Semitism is merely code for anti Imperialism, and particularly anti Zionism. The basic thing people like you are asking from people like me is that we abandon the Palestinian cause and support their systematic oppression and dispossession. Apparently we should do this because those sorts of things have gone on through recorded history.

The right of Israel to exist is the right to ethically cleanse and systematically dispossess the Palestinians. Being pro Zionist is being anti Palestinian.

Why are there no calls from people like you for the left to tone down its hatred of Palestinians? I mean seriously, why??

I think if Corbynism is to become a genuine movement and not fall back into traditional Labour chauvinism and it being an instrument of the capitalist system then it must develop into an unequivocally anti imperialist party. Otherwise it is merely a Yvette Cooper centre left Macron snake oil salesman in sheeps clothing.

You actually represent what Corbynism has to fight against, and in some cases that is itself. I can imagine Corbyn is already thinking, as his views get watered down day by day, if this is Corbynism I am not a Cobynist!

Phil said...

It's almost as if DFTM never reads the posts on here.

I don't know why you find this proposition so difficult. It is very easy to criticise Israel, condemn it even, in the harshest terms without pulling in the racist imagery, memes and preoccupations of the far right. If you can't do that then it's time to start thinking that perhaps you're not on the left.

DFTM said...

I read exactly what you wrote and this is what I found to be the problem. The accusations of anti Semitism as they appear in the mainstream are not about one or 2 rogue voices but are about anti Zionism. This is the reality of the anti Semitism narrative in the labour party.

If you had properly put it within these terms you could have simply said we should not give any credence to the criticisms of anti Semitism, yet you want to take the statements of a very tiny minority of people of god knows what political bent and say the left need to reflect, address the issue and stamp it out. No! The left should show it for what it is, an attempt to criminalise supporters of the Palestinian cause!!

My worry is that you must know the claims of anti Semtism are directly linked to anti Zionism yet you claim it is all about conspiracy theories or bankers. I find this disturbingly disingenuous.

In this way you mirror those accusing Corbyn of anti Semitism, because by not fighting the claims themselves you just leave the door open for the Zionists and anti Corbynites to continue to criticise the left on these spurious grounds.

And I have never ever read a note on how the left should tone down its hatred of Palestinians.

You are one of those on the left who always talks up anti Semitism and always plays down Islamophobia. I have noticed this is a characteristic of the pro imperialist and pro war left. The exact types who are deep down anti Corbyn and everything he stands for.

Reading you over the last few years I would have put you firmly in this camp. That is how I have read you and despite all your apparent pro Corbyn stuff how I continue to read you.

Phil said...

Unconsciously anti-left and anti-Corbyn, there's a new one.

I think we should take people as they find them. So if you cannot and are unwilling to separate anti-semitism from anti-Zionism, which you are not prepared to do, then you're part of the problem. Sadly, it's not you or your narcissistic self that suffers because you're unwilling to wind your neck in, it's the rest of the left. Therefore if you're concerned about unconscious anti-leftism, you might want to look at your own pigheadedness and refusal to think about the collective before casting aspersions on others.