Sunday 10 March 2019

Labour's Crisis of Decomposition

The Labour Party is not facing an existential crisis. It has significant challenges, but these are the problems of success. Nevertheless, one part of the Labour Party is facing a different kind of crisis. Since the summer of 2015 what was the Labour mainstream - and particularly the Brownite and Blairite rights - have not put a single foot right. Utterly discombobulated by a leftist challenge that appeared to come from nowhere, their rearguard since has consisted of project fear warnings, sniping and undermining the leadership, threats of splits, one dud coup and miserable leader challenge, and seizing on any difficulty - above all the ongoing anti-semitism scandal and the second referendum - as a means of making factional hay. What all these shenanigans have in common is their episodic and opportunist character, an entirely negative programme of sabotage and, in some cases, outright scabbing. Of course, MPs and activists on this wing of the party have a choice: their opposition could have taken a more positive character, but they haven't. Therefore when you have a whole political wing collectively taking the low road of dishonesty and skulduggery, something else is going on. And in the case of the Labour right, they share a bit more than a common political outlook with the party opposite: a long-term process of decline, decomposition and disintegration.

Again, it's worth revisiting the argument. The problem the Labour right has is their social basis, both in the party and in wider society, is disappearing. From its inception, the party was an alliance between the labour movement and elements of the professional and middle classes. This does not map on to divisions between left and right, indeed left/right divisions cut across this alliance. Each area of the party has had its own zone of competence: the middle class provided MPs (in disproportionate numbers) and dominated Labourism's intellectual life. The trade unions' province was the organisation of the party itself. The political balance has varied over time, but up until 2015 the right enjoyed dominance in the party via the unions, the socialist societies, and as a result the apparatus and parliamentary party.

What then has happened to upset this balance? The undermining of this state of affairs came to a head with the election of Jeremy Corbyn and all that has happened since. The actual crisis itself is much deeper, and goes back decades. In the 1970s the post-war economic model was under severe strain, as per elsewhere and to simplify the argument somewhat, Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979 was a response and a promise to address the problems arising. We know what happened next. In a series of set pieces, the Tories planned and carried out assaults on key sectors of the trade union movement, smashed up Britain's manufacturing base, flogged off strategic national industries to their business backers, introduced markets into the public services and trussed up our movement in the bureaucratic restraints of the anti-trade union laws. The cultural consequences of this was a throwing back of class consciousness, of the virtual erasure of collectivist and socialist ideas from popular and media cultures. And, with time, these defeats worked their way through the party. Fewer organised workplaces meant fewer workers from the shop and office floor made their way into politics at the local and national levels. Membership fell in tandem with the number of trade unionists, and you were more likely to see tumbleweed roll through party meetings than a clutch of new recruits. The result? Unions were still able to make their presence felt bureaucratically, but less so politically. As elements of the middle class right made the case for moving away from class issues and the language of old Labour, those not prepared to go along with it out of expediency were hamstrung by diminishing support, and so the party was able to move to the right and become New Labour precisely because of the weakness of the labour movement itself.

In class terms, New Labour was not only the unparalleled dominance of the right over the party, but also its middle class wing. The parliamentary party was the pre-eminent institution whose supremacy was unchallenged, and within that the diktat of the leader's office was unchallengeable. Elections were the be-all and end-all, and the role for affiliated unions was less one of taking up members' concerns and more trying to dampen down workers' struggles so as not to inconvenience the government. Office was everything, the movement nothing. Unsurprisingly, much of the left didn't stick around as, in some important respects, New Labour was indistinguishable from the Tories. The renovation of public services and building of new hospitals came with hefty helpings of corporate welfare via the Major government's PFI schemes. A combination of targets and internal markets disorganised and bureaucratised the public sector further, conditionality and workfare was extended in social security, the hated Work Capability Assessment was introduced, and there was the small matter of a certain war. All moments, I'm sure you would agree, more shameful than the resignation of a no-mark MP for Liverpool. Of course, there was some good things but on balance New Labour reinforced prevailing class relationships by undermining the security and economic power of the very people who put them into government. Crucially, around the turn of the century trade unionists started turning away from right-labourist politics, and union after union started electing left and leftish leaderships. All of a sudden the old guard who went along with New Labour because of "pragmatism" were no longer available.

Here then we have an irony of New Labour's time in power. A symptom of and response to labour movement weakness, which used government to disorganise and weaken the labour movement further, with the consequence of eroding the right's (and therefore its own) base within the party. Indeed, with the open contempt New Labour had for trade unions and its own party organisation, it's a wonder something like The Independent Group didn't happen sooner. Forget party-within-a-party, a party-without-a-party is the culmination of the Blairist trajectory. Once New Labour left office and Labour reverted to plain old Labour under Ed Miliband, the legacy of a weakened and hollowed out party persisted. Machine politics ruled the day, the pale pink social democracy the party shuffled back to was frit of its own shadow, it was overly managerialist and wonky, and at every half step in a progressive direction the Blairites tried their best to head it off. Therefore, in an election where Labour cleaved to the deficit reduction/austerity agenda as framed by the Tories the majority of Labour's would-be support stayed home.

In its aftermath and before Corbyn entered the fray the post-Miliband tumult was the most miserable set of debates the Labour party had probably ever seen. Labour failed because the manifesto was insufficiently Tory, so went the parliamentary consensus. "Aspiration" was the watchword as identikit leadership pitches emerged, with the most egregious - endorsed by the Blairites, of course - demonstrating an astonishing level of political ignorance about the party and voter bloc Liz Kendall aspired to lead. But one shouldn't be too hard, these were all creatures of circumstances beyond their ken. As Labour withered on the vine, as the distance between it and its natural constituencies widened the generation of politicians who came of age under Blair and Brown accepted their eviscerated surrounds as the accepted and proper way of doing things. They didn't need to struggle politically to get ahead when a patron could fix it for them. This is fine when bureaucratic power has no checks, but fatal when hundreds of thousands of new members flood in to the party and demand better from its politicians.

And so it has proven. Two leadership elections, multiple internal elections, conference decisions, parliamentary selections, the apparat, all of these have moved in to the hands of the left partly because all the Labour right know are the arts of the administrative swerve and the smear. They can't fight politically and don't know how to win people over because they can't. Their collective hopelessness has the same root as their collective helplessness. Their situation is something they have brought upon themselves, and what makes it even more delicious is they revelled in the circumstances that destroyed them. It's no accident that Tom Watson, himself now out of sorts in what was his West Midlands fiefdom and nervously casting glances at the pressure cooker of scandal bubbling under the surface of Sandwell Council, has come up with a prospectus for the right revealing of their weakness. His party-within-the-parliamentary-party, ostensibly aimed at preventing more damage to Labour from defections, has more to do with salvaging the right's position. The more who resign the whip and head over to TInG or sit in welcome anonymity with Ian Austin and friends, the more demoralised and weakened the Labour right becomes. His warnings about splits in the party, the demand of a return shadow cabinet elections, a "calling off" of deselections and no-confidence votes, undoing the present method of electing a leader and wanting to see the return of the electoral college - which gave MP's votes more weight than hundreds of ordinary members - Tom is well aware that in the absence of recruiting a mass of "moderates", a task the right are singly unsuited for, the only way they can begin to come back is by reasserting the PLP's supremacy and insulating it from the rest of the party. In other words, even now as the clock strikes the hour of the weakest the Labour right has ever been since Labour's foundation, all they have is another quick fix to avoid the hard job of convincing people that their way is the best way. And it's a fix with zero chance of getting implemented for as long as the right is swamped by the left.

There then are your two Labour Party crises. The problems of recomposition, of building something new, and the crisis of decomposition, of the right in all its variants fraying, dissipating. We can look at other parts of Europe and see what has happened to social democratic and labour parties where the right remained in charge: electoral failure, destruction, disintegration. The eruption of Corbynism in the Labour Party has seen our party avoid this fate, but it's a fate - a doom - likely to return if the right ever come back. They know nothing and have learned nothing, and will destroy the party given the chance.


Boffy said...

I'm not entirely clear about the point you are trying to make here -

" From its inception, the party was an alliance between the labour movement and elements of the professional and middle classes. This does not map on to divisions between left and right, indeed left/right divisions cut across this alliance. Each area of the party has had its own zone of competence: the middle class provided MPs (in disproportionate numbers) and dominated Labourism's intellectual life."

The alliance, as Engels described it, is between the "middle-class", i.e. the day to day professional managers and administrators, and the workers in general. But, even by the 1960's, the size of that "middle class" had grown significantly, in proportion to the number of "workers", and spread across into layers of other white collar workers.

Moreover, by the 1960's/70's, it was this middle class of managers that formed the most advanced, most radical section of the labour movement, and the trades unions. I could recount my own experience as an ASTMS rep in talks with the manual pottery workers union CATU, in that regard. But, the same could be said of AUEW-TASS, and for the CPSA, the NUT and so on.

It was from these groups of middle-class trades unionists that the ideas for things like the Lucas Plan were developed, reflecting the fact it is these "middle-class" managers that have the job of prompting capital accumulation most effectively, and in the 60's and 70's it was clear that could not be done on the old basis of a capitalism governed by the short term interests of shareholders, but required greater social-democratic planning and regulation.

Anonymous said...

decent anaysis. Need to incorp the boom played w/Blair govts & the recession in Corbyn rise & s ince - the materialsit basis for him.Also the "necessity expressing itself as "accident" " in the MP's allowing of JC to even stand 4 leader - classic maxist, dialectical philosophy , proved in action.More please on likely perspective for JC govt (not looking great due to big businees £ strikes, sabotage, world recession, etc)

Anonymous said...

I am living in a poor city called Stoke on Trent. Please can you sort out your differences in your party and start to represent people better. When are we going to have a Party that can represent us? Guess this wont be heard but then who does hear or represent us here in Stoke.

Anonymous said...

Good article- shame the Labour Party can't get its act together. If they don't stop their public arguments we will be left with the Tories in power.

Anonymous said...

Watson needs to be sacked and removed as Deputy Leader. He is letting the Labour Party down, and the British people the chance of a Labour government. He's got to go.

Anonymous said...

Yes I got a email from Tom Watson MP (not personal) headed 'Please don't leave the Labour Party'. I am a long time member of the party, I am out helping to win a local election for the Labour Party, so why would I want to leave? We need a Labour Government in power. I agree with the above stop arguing in public and get on with campaigning to win the next election, we need to all work to make sure this happens. Leadership.