The Labour Party is a divided house. Discussion of the issue tends to be emotionally charged, and consist of finger-pointing, half-truths and lack of critical reflection, from all sides of the divide. Political realities mean that the Labour Party are currently the standard-bearers and the loudest political voice for the British left and the working-class. Their conflicts, their dysfunctions, will impact on all of us. In this essay we’ll attempt to form an understanding of what’s happening within Labour, and whether it’s capable of surviving.
We’ll begin by defining the terms we’ll use; discuss the records and reputations of Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn; discuss the idea of ‘dissident intellectuals’ within a party and a movement; the tactical failings over the last year; take a look at the theatrical side of politics and the use of the media; look at anti-semitism and sexism within the Labour Party; the culture of brutalism within the Labour Party; ‘post-truth politics’; ask whether Jeremy Corbyn is an extremist and look at the stubborn ideology of centrists like Blair and Balls. We’ll then answer the headline question of whether the co-writers support the ‘aims and values’ of the Labour Party (and whether we think you should) before giving our opinions on what the road ahead should be.
This essay will be a long read, and anyone with an opinion on the current state of the Labour Party will find something to object to. We don’t claim to be providing wisdom from on-high, but consider that we have a series of relevant questions to ask. Questions which will hopefully spark further discussion, and encourage co-operation across divides. As long as this essay is (over 12,000 words) we intend for it to be the starting point of a conversation, not the end. Hopefully, anyone who reads all the way to the end will feel that they have a better framework for discussing Labour’s internal conflicts – whether they agree or disagree with our conclusions.
Definitions and Classifications
Our political system encourages us to think in binaries. Rather than simplistic either/ors, it’s important to acknowledge political beliefs as a scale.
David Cameron and Boris Johnson have both criticised Donald Trump, probably with the intent of making themselves look more reasonable and broad-minded. This doesn’t make them secret left-wingers, it means that they see themselves (or want to be seen) as more left-wing than Trump.
As Green Party campaigners during the 2015 election, we ran up against Labour campaigners arguing that anyone who voted for or supported the Green Party secretly wanted the Tories to win, arguing that all Green Party members were really ‘Green Tories’. Over recent years, there’s been an increasing tendency to refer to Labour MPs, particularly those on the right of their party or who campaigned for Scotland to remain in the European Union, as ‘Red Tories’. The term has more of a factual basis than the term ‘Green Tories’ as it’s still grouping politicians of a philosophical similarity together, but it’s still incredibly unfair.
Rather than binary ideas of ‘us and them’, it’s better to think of political ideology as a scale – and to acknowledge that people can be wrong without being evil or childish. There are far more political positions than the ‘hard left’ of Jeremy Corbyn and the ruthlessness of David Cameron, with Blair, Brown, Khan and Miliband falling into one of the two camps.
Imagine a scale, beginning on the left with those who believe that human nature means that if we abolished all governments and corporations, we would naturally learn to co-operate (Hippies). Then we have those who want to abolish capitalism, and put existing corporations into the hands of local communities or national politicians (Anti-Capitalists). Next are those who think the NHS and railways should be brought into public ownership – the kind of people who don’t necessarily oppose capitalism but want less of it (Lefties). Then come the people who believe that the strengths of the socialism and capitalism can both be used to make the state work better, for instance with internal markets and outsourcing (Centrists). After this come the people who believe that the market is inherently more efficient than the state and believe, for example, that the NHS was a mistake (Righties). Then come those who believe that all regulation is bad, and it’s better to let customers regulate the market (Right-Libertarians). Finally, there are those who believe that human nature is weak, and that some kind of external pressure has to be put on people to push them to be their most efficient (Authoritarians).
It doesn’t necessarily follow that anti-capitalists are better people than lefties, just as lefties aren’t necessarily better people than centrists. They just hold different opinions on what’s best for the country, and what positions it’s possible to build support for.
It’s vital for politicians not just to stand up for what’s right but to build a cluster of support around their chosen position on the scale, big enough to achieve whatever it is that they’re trying to achieve, whether that’s to achieve power or just to hold those in power to account.
This scale is deliberately simplistic, and even the famous ‘political compass’ test (which separates out the economic and authoritarian scales as two different axes) is a simplification of political ideology. But it’s more accurate than the spiteful ‘us and them’ attitude that a lot of Labour members and supporters – on both sides – seem to have.
In contemporary Britain, lefties are most likely to be either Green Party or Corbyn supporters; Centrists are most likely to praise Tony Blair in some form; anti-capitalists will often decide whether to support Labour, the Green Party or one of the various smaller left-of-Labour parties for tactical reasons. Anti-capitalists who join Labour are not necessarily compromising their principles, and lefties and centrists who try and drag Labour one way or the other ideologically are simply doing what the first-past-the-post electoral system encourages them to do.
There are plenty of people who blur the lines between leftie and centrist. The Labour activist and food bank worker Peter Smith has used his Twitter account to criticise Tony Blair on numerous occasions. He has also been a critic of Jeremy Corbyn – the consistent argument being that Corbyn isn’t up to the challenge of leadership.
The comedian David Schneider was a notable Corbyn supporter, but has become more pragmatic over the course of the year.
Similarly, among the professional politicians there are centrists who are centrists for pragmatic reasons. And there are those like Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan who blur the line between the two and have, at times, been criticised by mainstream Labour figures for being too far left, and Corbyn supporters for being to close to the centre.
Whether they’re correct or wrong, we’re confident that Smith and Schneider are making decisions on where to throw their support for honourable reasons. Corbyn supporters aren’t sell-outs because they don’t call for the immediate abolition of capitalism, and the same applies to Owen Smith supporters, or centrists more generally. Given the vitriol that each side has thrown at the other over the last year, it’s important to remember this.
As well as using the terms leftie and centrist, we’ll be using the terms Momentum/Red Labour Tendency to refer to the specific philosophy of those currently supporting Corbyn, and Progress/Labour First to refer to those opposing him. These specific Tendencies are specific philosophies within a much larger range. For instance, the Progress/Labour First Tendency broadly believe in moving the country leftward on the minimum wage, but rightward on tuition fees. It’s possible for a different centrist philosophy to be based around the opposite beliefs.
Momentum and Red Labour are both organisations associated with Labour’s lefties; Progress and Labour First are both organisations associated with Labour’s centrists.
To underline our point one last time, we like the philosophy of the hippies. We know individuals who believe that if we abolish all corporations, state institutions and large organisations, people could learn to live together on an individual level. But firstly, we’re not convinced it would work (we believe that more domineering personalities would still bully others) and we’re certain that it would not be possible to convince a majority of modern Brits to back such an idea. As a result, a philosophy that extreme-left is, in our view, a waste of time. We see the leftie philosophy as both idealistic and workable.
Like we see the leftie philosophy as the best balance of idealism and workability, centrists and righties see their particular philosophy as the best balance of the two. We want to really hammer home at the beginning that everyone thinks they’re being the reasonable ones.
Tony Blair: His Part in Labour’s Downfall
Those are the raw facts from the general elections of the last three decades, which tend to be spun in one of two key ways. In the first interpretation, Blair and his team were geniuses, who manufactured the longest consistent period of electoral success for the Labour Party, keeping the Tories off-balance by reaching into their traditional support. In the second version Blair and his team came along just as the Tories were imploding, consistently lost support among traditional Labour voters, fuelling the rise of the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Green Party, until the Tories were able to rise to a level where they were less unpopular and less distrusted than Labour.
Obviously there is truth to both interpretations.
Particularly interesting is the fact that two of Blair’s three elections as leader received a lower number of votes than Kinnock’s second election, and the final of the three received a lower total than either of Kinnock’s two elections. But Blair’s worst performance won 356 seats from 9.552m votes; Kinnock’s best performance won 271 seats from 11.56m votes. It seems that Blair’s electoral achievement isn’t necessarily that he won more voters to the party in the long-term, but that he won different voters – the crucial Labour – Tory swing-voters.
That isn’t necessarily an insult – it’s vital for a politician to win over people who don’t instinctively agree with their philosophy. And in comparing Blair and Kinnock’s share of the popular vote against their number of seats, it’s clear that Blair managed to achieve more with less.
It’s worth remembering that, judging by his actions, Blair wasn’t a leftie but a centrist. There were some issues on which he moved the nation leftward – introducing a minimum wage to Britain for the first time; the Northern Ireland peace process; introducing SureStart centres. But there are other issues where he moved the country rightward – introducing tuition fees to Britain for the first time;expanding the outsourcing of state services; and has been accused of introducing a form of social authoritarianism which ran counter to Labour’s traditions.
It’s often argued that lefties are the people of principle, and centrists are the pragmatists – a claim even made by many centrists themselves. But this isn’t necessarily true.
In July 2015 Blair made headlines by saying that he “wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
At the time this was widely interpreted as a sign that Blair lacked loyalty to the party, but it can be seen as principled as well – Blair has his own set of beliefs, and isn’t willing to compromise them for power. Set aside whether you think his analysis is correct or incorrect, he says that he would stick to his principles rather than doing what he believes to be in his own best interest, because, “it wouldn’t be right because it wouldn’t take the country forward, it would take it backwards.”
There is a sense of honour and decency in that position. The problem is that Blair spent his time in power demanding that the party compromise it’s principles to comply with his.
To hammer home the point, centrism isn’t necessarily unprincipled. The West Wing – alongside A Very British Coup probably the work of fiction most strongly associated with political idealism – is politically a work of centrism.
In the above video Toby Ziegler, a White House staffer and often the show’s voice of idealism, meets with a backbench politician, Senator Seth Gillette. Gillette is angry at the idea of the President moving to the right on welfare, environmentalism and a precursor to Black Lives Matter. He threatens to run a third-party Presidential bid, splitting the left vote. In terms of ideology, Gillette is a Jeremy Corbyn-type figure – being awkward with the centrist party in power, but knowing that they are closer to his own ideology than the other major political party are ever going to be.
Hopefully we’ve established that it is at least possible for centrists to be honourable, a point which seems to be rejected by a majority of Blair-haters (a group we’d include ourselves among). But accepting that centrism can be honourable doesn’t mean that it’s smart. We’ll quote the Scottish Green Party’s Peter McColl:
Both Blair and Clinton were successful premiers, winning more elections than they could have expected to. So why is triangulation a problem? It’s because after a while the electorate loses any sense of what your party means. In 2000 the Democrats were unable to beat a uniquely weak presidential campaign by George W. Bush. After the Blair years Labour is in real electoral trouble. Further, they haven’t achieved much of their programme. Child poverty hasn’t been eliminated, social mobility is diminishing and a whole range of indicators show a society less equal than before.
When you compare how effective administrations that don’t triangulate have been, you can see how ineffective this strategy is. Both Thatcher and Reagan managed to fundamentally change the way the state works. Thatcher came as close to creating a parliamentary revolution as has ever happened. Neither lost an election. Their legacies are still felt today.
And there are problems not only with centrism generally, but the specific Progress/Labour First Tendency overseen by Blair. Authoritarianism and central control of the party has been one consistent area of criticism.
In 1997 Labour MEPs including Hugh Kerr were critical of changes to the internal candidate selection process, and a proposed code of practice which would limit MEPs’ right to be critical of the party leadership.
Kerr’s fellow Labour MEP Alex Smith complained at the time that Kerr and two other MEPs were being punished for ”merely participating in a discussion programme on the radio, something which is normally regarded as being part and parcel of political life”. Eventually Hugh Kerr and Ken Coates were forced out of the Labour Party for refusing to abide by these rules, although Kerr’s honesty about his disagreement with Blair also likely to be a factor. (see inset)
In 2007 Bob Wareing was removed as Labour candidate for the Liverpool West Derby seat he’d represented for 24 years, believing his awkwardness towards the “New Labour Mafia” as the motivating factor. Wareing went on to argue that “Anti-Labour policies, such as privatisation, tuition and top-up fees for students and the stock transfer of council houses (with the threat that no repairs would be carried out if they remained under council control) forced tenants to concede to New Labour’s wishes.”
Stephen Twigg, the then current chair of Progress, was chosen in his place.
These incidents are worth bearing in mind when Labour supporters of the Progress/Labour First Tendency complain about their MPs being recalled in favour of candidates of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency. Everything that they complain about has already been done, by their own allies.
By instinct, the co-writers would consider ourselves moderates – we want to encourage both sides of a conflict to see the other’s side, and learn to work together. Despite seeing ourselves as lefties, we hold some right-wing views, and understand concerns about the culture of the country changing too quickly, for example. But seeing the value in listening to those on the opposing side does not mean compromise is always a good thing. The ‘semi-controlled demolition’ theory is deliberate nonsense; the idea that outsourcing makes the state more efficient is, from our personal experience and broader analyses, equally nonsensical. But this is where centrism naturally leads, if you try to compromise between the left and right on every issue. Sometimes it’s important to stand up and say that the left-wing idea is not only more idealistic, but plainly smarter.
Labour supporters of the Progress/Labour First Tendency who lament Jeremy Corbyn’s rise should realise that he is only a symptom of a wider movement, in the same way that the rise of the SNP and the ‘Green Surge’ had been before him. By managing the party’s messaging ever more tightly from the top of the party, and forcing through tuition fees, outsourcing and the War in Iraq (which we’ve deliberately avoided mentioning in this section, as it has come to overshadow everything else in his premiership) Blair has discredited the form of politics he stood for. He, more than any other individual, is responsible for the party’s current situation.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell: Their Part in New Labour’s Success
‘Sheepdogging’ is a term used more often in relation to American than British politics, one we’ve seen particularly in relation to Bernie Sanders.
The idea is that a candidate with appeal to outsiders can round up stray voters in a way that a mainstream politician can’t. An argument has been made that Sanders was allowed to enter the Democrat presidential race in order to create a sense of loyalty to the party that would last into the general election. (Obviously events since have meant that if this was the plan, it backfired slightly.)
Over the years Corbyn and McDonnell have helped Labour keep their street cred, as an argument against the claim Labour had moved too far right. For example, back in 2013 John McDonnell had built up a cult following amongst lefties inside and outside of Labour for his part in leading rebellion against legislation making illegal Work Programme retrospectively legal, despite the Miliband-Balls opposition’s official position being to support Iain Duncan Smith’s actions. The policy was massively unpopular with potential Labour voters of a leftie inclination, but the actions of MPs like McDonnell and Corbyn have, over the years, been used to argue that those who believe the Labour leadership had moved too far to the right should trust MPs like them to hold Labour to account. In the months before the election, the pair were making this argument overtly. In a joint Corbyn-McDonnell interview, the latter said that, under an Ed Miliband government, “we won’t be voting for austerity, and when the day comes there’ll be enough Labour MP’s, with enough support out there, to stop them.”
This promise to be critical of Miliband is backed up by their record when Labour was last in power. In 2008 McDonnell accused Brown’s government of “dismantling the welfare state”, and 9 years earlier Corbyn was critical of Labour allowing Tory MP Shaun Woodward to join the party.
This doesn’t break down cleanly into loyalty or disloyalty. MPs like Corbyn, McDonnell, Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and Michael Meacher have, in our personal experience, given those who grew disillusioned with the party under Blair and Brown pause to reconsider leaving the party. Though it’s harder to judge among those who aren’t politically active, we’d imagine the same argument is true with a large number of voters.
As Green Party members who campaigned for the party during the 2015 election, we’re amazed that Labour didn’t deploy Corbyn and McDonnell as arguments against voting Green more often. The case could easily have been made by comparing the voting records of half a dozen of the more left-wing Labour MPs with Caroline Lucas’, and arguing that the First Past the Post system makes it smarter to work to change the left from inside the Labour Party. The fact that Corbyn, McDonnell and others weren’t used more effectively to sheepdog Labour-Green swing-voters is another sign of the deep incompetence of the Miliband-Balls leadership.
So when Corbyn’s critics argue that his history of voting against Blair and Brown means that he’s not entitled to any any loyalty in return, they ignore the benefits to the party of sheepdogging. By being strong enough voices to challenge the party establishment without breaking it, they kept the Labour Party’s appeal broad.
The big problem that Corbyn and McDonnell now have is that their experience is in preaching to the choir, in spreading the message that they knew their supporters were waiting for someone to make. In March this year, the TV presenter Gyles Brandreth took Jeremy Corbyn’s policies to streets of Guilford (a Tory heartland), and found that they had fairly wide appeal, even among those who found the idea of agreeing with Corbyn “really frightening”.
As part of a wide-ranging essay on Corbyn written at the end of July, Owen Jones, probably Corbyn’s most prominent supporter in the media, criticised the clarity of the party’s communication. A common criticism of the Progress/Labour First Tendency is that they view politics as sales, as a retail offer rather than a set of principles. But perhaps the opposite can be argued of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency – that they haven’t made enough unattached voters aware of what they have to gain under a potential Corbyn government.
Corbyn’s supporters generally don’t like Blair, but they have a lot to learn from him.
Dissident Intellectuals and Pragmatic Idealists
There’s a term used by Noam Chomsky – “dissident intellectuals” – which reers to those down the ages willing to speak truth to power. Chomsky uses the phrase to refer to those, as far back as classical Greece, who were willing to speak up against tyrannical rulers, and were punished or branded as traitors to their nation as a result.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have to a minor degree, performed this role over the last thirty years. Despite being accused of hating Britain or being disloyal to the Labour Party, the pair have repeatedly spoken out against injustices over the decades. (A blog post, ’15 times Jeremy Corbyn Was on the Right Side of History’ has gone semi-viral a few times over the last year.)
But, in Corbyn’s case in particular, this has been helped by the fact that he’s never had to fight an election he wasn’t expected to win.
The politician Corbyn has been most commonly compared to is Bernie Sanders, whose Presidential campaign roughly overlapped with Corbyn’s rise to Labour leader. It’s always interesting to hear intelligent criticism of the supposed idealistic politicians from the left, and we found an article by Paul Fleckenstein – a socialist in Sanders’ state Vermont – to be interesting.
Several times Fleckenstein calls out Sanders for not standing up for workers’ rights – not intervening in a Burlington bus drivers’ strike until late in the day when much of the work had been done; working with developers to concrete over communal parkland, amongst other things. Similarly, an accusation has been made that Sanders “became an imperialist to get elected in 1990.” But despite this, there is at least a grudging respect for Sanders that is evident in Fleckenstein’s tone.
In our opinion, Sanders seems to have been a pragmatic idealist – over the years he’s known when to pick his fights, and when to stay out of conflicts that might backfire, resulting in someone worse being elected in his place.
We’d argue that the Green MP Caroline Lucas is another pragmatic idealist. Lucas won seats, as MEP for South East England and MP for Brighton Pavilion, that the Green Party of England and Wales had not won before, narrowly scraping into office both times.
The year after Lucas was elected as an MP, Greens took ‘minority control’ of Brighton Council (as the biggest single party but with less than half of elected councilors). The events of the Green-controlled council are too complicated to go into here, but were messy, and included local bin-workers went on strike against the council, which obviously dented the local party’s popularity. This conflict spilled over into Lucas’ lap – she was labelled a ‘scab’ over her minor intervention.
Though we haven’t seen all her campaign materials, we’re told that Lucas more or less ran her 2015 re-election campaign as an independent – her materials focusing on her personal successes and skills to take advantage of her continued personal popularity, but with little mention of her party. This was in spite of the fact that council elections were ran on the same day, and the association with Lucas could have helped a few councilors retain their seats. Labour retook the Council, but Lucas expanded her majority.
That isn’t intended as an attack on either Sanders or Lucas, who are both politicians who we admire hugely. But we think that appreciating their streaks of pragmatism underlines how clever they’ve needed to be to get to their elevated positions, and underlines that sometimes pure idealism alone isn’t enough.
We would argue that politicians like Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan are, to a lesser extent than Sanders and Lucas, pragmatic idealists who tried to push their idealism as far as they thought possible while still winning elections that they weren’t favourite to win. (In our view both Brown and Miliband could have had greater success by pushing their campaigns further left, but their judgment isn’t what we’re discussing here.)
Dissident intellectuals and pragmatic idealists aren’t necessarily opposed to each other, and can make each other stronger, especially when pragmatic idealists are in power. In The West Wing, the relationship between Toby Ziegler and Josiah Bartlet is often a good embodiment of such a conflict, with Ziegler calling Bartlet to account when he feels the President has been too pragmatic. Neither of these positions are universally wrong, and both are important. The dissident intellectual can offer a view from the outside and prevent the pragmatic idealist from becoming too pragmatic, cocooned in a bubble of those who agree with them.
Given that Corbyn has been celebrated among his supporters for his history as a dissident, it’s frustrating to see the reaction to Owen Jones’ ‘Questions All Jeremy Corbyn Supporters Need to Answer’ blog a few months ago. Among a broad range of Corbyn-supporting friends and acquaintances – many of whom joined or rejoined the Labour Party for the first time in years when Corbyn was elected Labour leader – Jones was accused of being a sell-out, an accusation reflected on Jones’ facebook page after posting the blog.
This is despite Jones presponding to the lack of logic to this accusation. (In the blog Jones points out that “if you drew a Venn diagram of Corbyn supporters and people who read my articles, buy my books, or turn up to my talks, well, the results would be pretty obvious”, and that it would be in his own self-interest to “suppress any fears and simply uncritically defend the leadership”.)
Speaking critically of someone in power is not disloyalty, provided it’s done with the intent of making the person in power perform better, rather than working to undermine them. If we’re to build a better world, then there must be no sacred cows.
From the point of view of a pragmatic idealist, Corbyn and Ken Livingstone’s decision to invite Sinn Fein members to Parliament weeks after the Brighton bombing was a foolish move, because of the way it can be made to look. Corbyn and McDonnell’s paths have overlapped with several unsavoury groups over the years, to an extent that we have doubts over whether their actions prolonged the Troubles.
In electoral terms, perception is more important than reality – if voters like ourselves who want to believe in Corbyn have doubts, others are likely to have greater doubts. And the Tory Party will do all they can to feed the seeds of doubt.
Sanders and Lucas clearly realise that sometimes public perception has to be courted in a way that compromises idealism, just a little, so that unlikely victories can be won. Corbyn has, to the best of our knowledge, always held safe Labour seats, so can afford to follow his own model of absolute idealism, and been a dissident intellectual to the Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and May governments. But to win the 2020 general election, he’ll need to become a pragmatic idealist, and that’s a totally different skill-set. One that we’re not sure he has.
Tactical Incompetence of the Labour Centre
In a strange way, Corbyn’s victory last September could have been an opportunity for Labour’s centrists. Under Blair’s leadership the Labour Party was associated in the public mind with spin and deceit. Under Brown and Miliband Labour was generally seen as been a less successful version of the same product. But Jeremy Corbyn is generally seen – even by those who think him an idiot – as being unpolished and honourable.
If the high-profile Labour centrists threw their support behind him, gave him a fair chance and decided to try and make his ideas work, whilst being open and honest about the fact that they believed they wouldn’t, it could have been the first step towards rebuilding public trust in the party. A willingness to listen to, rather than manage, public opinion would challenge the public perception of Labour’s centrists. But many in the Progress/Labour First Tendency were vocal about their unwillingness to treat the membership’s choice with respect.
John McTernan, a key advisor to Blair and Chief of Staff during Scottish Labour’s 2015 general election thrashing described the MPs who nominated Corbyn as “morons” and that he “can’t see any case for letting [Corbyn] have two minutes in office”.
McTernan is the kind of behind-closed-doors operator who, in another age would have been manipulating events from inside a smoke-filled room. He doesn’t seem to realise the difference between an inside-voice and an outside-voice, and the importance of at least pretending to respect those inside his party who he disagrees with.
Similarly, Simon Danczuk (at the time a Labour MP) told the Telegraph that efforts to work against Corbyn would begin “as soon as the result comes out.”
It should be incredibly obvious that to win people’s votes, you need to make them think you respect them and their opinions. McTernan and Danczuk should have put a little bit of effort into hiding their contempt.
This immediate distrust of Corbyn seems widespread. There were objections in his first meeting of the Parliamentary over Corbyn’s reluctance to offer unconditional Labour support to the ‘remain’ side of an EU Referendum vote, before Cameron’s renegotiations. This is despite him making the sensible point that “Labour can’t just give Cameron a blank cheque”.
More than anything else, the biggest sign of Corbyn’s ‘weakness’ as a leader is how willing he has been to compromise with the Parliamentary Labour Party – he signed the blank cheque within days.
By turning fire on Corbyn, people like McTernan ignore their own side’s weaknesses. Dan Hodges, a centrist advisor who used to describe himself as ‘a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest’ reported an MP commenting that it would take time to build the resistance to Corbyn because “there are too many of the New Labour MPs who simply have no connection with their constituencies.” Perhaps that’s why they lost?
We can sympathise with the MPs and supporters of the Progress/Labour First Tendency who don’t have faith in Corbyn – as Green Party members we have similar thoughts about Rupert Read. Read is a prominent Green campaigner, who has been an excellent voice for Green policies on the whole, and, as a key member of the Green House think-tank has done a lot of technical thinking behind Green Party philosophy. However, his personal philosophy (particularly on immigration) is different from what we believe the Green Party’s should be.
Earlier this summer we were relieved when Read announced that he wouldn’t be standing for the leadership earlier this summer, as we felt that he would have had an outside chance of winning, and that a Read-led Green Party could be pulled into areas we don’t want the party to move into. In a theoretical world where Rupert Read was elected leader, we would have behaved respectfully towards him and his mandate, rather than trying to pick fights over even the sensible things he proposed.
Campaigners of the Progress/Labour First Tendency should have used Corbyn’s election as motivation to examine their own failings humbly, and connect more deeply with their own constituencies – if they had done so earlier, Corbyn would probably never have been elected leader. There’s still time for his opponents to do this form of self-reflection, but they’ve utterly wasted the last year.
Theatricality is an important skill in politics. As we’ve argued previously, winning political support is essentially about storytelling. Everyone prefers to choose politicians with substance over flashy performers, but that flash is an important skill to win people over to a politician’s side quickly and concisely.
As an example, let’s look at Dennis Skinner’s ‘Dodgy Dave’ performance earlier this year.
In the aftermath of the Panama Papers scandal, Skinner asked Cameron a question about his use of Parliamentary expenses to finance a house, in the process referring to Cameron as ‘Dodgy Dave’. After refusing to withdraw the insult, Skinner was kicked out of the House. His performance enabled the incident to get coverage in mainstream American political comedy, and has become a slightly iconic moment.
We heard, at the time, criticisms of Skinner, arguing that he should have withdrawn the insult so Cameron could give an answer. But if he had done so, Cameron could probably have given a half-believable explanation that a layman wouldn’t know whether to believe or not. In doing what he did, Skinner drew attention to the archaic ridiculousness of the Parliamentary process, in a way that grabbed people’s attention round the world.
Similarly, Angela Rayner’s recent performances as Shadow Education Secretary have included this strong refutation of the Tory plans to reintroduce grammar schools. Speaking in plain language, she condemns her opponent’s leaking of news to the press, and the practicalities of how grammar schools will work.
As much as everyone prefers substance to flash, this kind of theatricality is powerful in convincing non-political geeks why they should rally behind a particular cause. There’s a reason why a number of SNP MP Mhairi Black’s speeches have gone viral on social media. It’s because her performances are compelling and persuasive.
There are times when this kind of theatricality backfires – for instance Alan Duncan’s ‘low achievers’ line concisely encapsulating the flaws with a Tory Party who seem to value the creation of money as the only worthwhile skill.
We’ve specifically chosen Skinner and Rayner, as philosophical allies of Corbyn within the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency, to show that a politician doesn’t need to be a centrist to have this theatrical skill. Unfortunately, we feel that Corbyn lacks this skill, and as the most high-profile Labour politician, that means that the party often doesn’t take advantage of the spotlight in the same way that they could if Skinner, Rayner or Black were Leader of the Opposition. In the most recent session of Prime Minister’s Questions on September 14th Corbyn performed with unusual incision, making Theresa May’s avoidances and non-answers apparent.
Generally though, he hasn’t been as sharp a performer as Skinner, Rayner or Black. It’s a practical criticism that Corbyn supporters can’t afford to turn their eyes away from.
Young Labour’s Anti-Semitism Problem
Let’s have a little chat about anti-semitism! Yay!Urgh, this isn’t going to be fun. In February this year, Oxford University Labour Club voted to back an Israel Apartheid Week. Co-chair Alex Chambers claimed in a facebook post that “a large proportion of both OULC and the Student Left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews”.
From our understanding, the root of this conflict is a little deeper, and involves, (possibly among other things) club member Max Shanley making a joke, intended as a criticism of Israel, which was taken as anti-Semitic. (We genuinely have no idea what the original joke was, the medium the joke was made in, or whether it was a one-off or repeated joke.) Max Shanley and the club’s other co-chair, James Elliott, have played a strong part in Corbyn’s rise, with Elliott helping to write Corbyn’s youth manifesto for his 2015 victory.
It should be obvious that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-semitic. Some people may hate Israel for anti-semitic reasons – conscious or repressed. But, like any other state, it’s possible for a person to consider Israel’s actions wrong or immoral. Criticising France’s ‘burkini ban’ doesn’t mean that a critic has an irrational hatred of those regions which enforced it.
Despite this, former Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked claimed earlier this year that anti-Israel movements such as BDS (boycotting Israeli goods over their foreign policy actions) are inherently anti-semitic. Bernie Sanders has been accused of being “an anti-Semite” and “a viciously self-hating Jew”over his criticism of Israel. It’s possible for an individual to dislike Barack Obama because he’s black, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that any criticism of Obama’s drone strikes is racist. This comparison should be obvious.
Similarly, during his campaign for Labour Leader Owen Smith has been accused of using sexist language on a number of occasions. Attention has been drawn to a 2015 video in which Smith says that Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru, gets invited onto Question Time because of her gender, he’s spoken of an intent to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels” and tweeted that a gobstopper would be “the perfect present” for SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.
We’re confident in saying that Owen Smith doesn’t bear a generalised hatred towards all women. But there is a deep clumsiness to his language that allows his intent to be misinterpreted, and will make some women feel uncomfortable around him.
It’s hard to know for certain without knowing the specifics, but perhaps Chalmers felt uncomfortable in the Oxford University Labour Club. Smith has had the same problem as Shanley, but repeatedly, on more high-profile platforms, and at a more mature stage in his career. It seems fair to us that Shanley and, as chair of the local Labour Club Elliott, are expected to take responsibility for the clumsiness of their language. But then so must the vastly more experienced Smith. A vital part of political leadership is making people feel comfortable and respected. In this sense, Smith and Shanley both seem to have a flaw they need to work on. But both should, in our view, be forgiven as flawed but well-intentioned.
(It’s worth noting that Chalmers has been accused of manufacturing the accusations to discredit Palestine Solidarity Campaigns as being anti-semitic, so his criticisms might not have been made in good faith. But in the paragraphs above we’ve tried to deal with them under the assumption that they were.)
The next bit is where this story gets really infuriating. Later in the year James Elliott ran for Youth Representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee, and was one of the two leading candidates. His rival was Jasmin Beckett, not just philosophically of the Progress/Labour First Tendency, but backed by both organisations as their preferred candidate. In social media conversation with her campaign team Beckett called Elliott ”an anti-Semite”, gave instruction to her supporters to “get a few people tweeting saying ‘shocked my union GMB are supporting James Elliot [sic] who is anti-Semitic’” and suggested that “if you’ve got my twibbon on and you want to go hard please take the twibbon off haha”. [PDF, Figures 1; 7; 5]
Absolute truth is difficult to be certain about, and every person who pursues power needs to be scrutinised. There is a legitimate case to be made that Elliott didn’t do enough to create an atmosphere where Jewish members felt comfortable, and that Chalmers’ departure resulted from a failure of Elliott’s leadership. In our view, this would have been a perfectly legitimate criticism for Beckett to make. But there was not even the allegation that Elliott was personally anti-Semitic, until Beckett’s campaign introduced it. In the end Beckett won by 0.14% – if the smears convinced even a handful of voters to switch from Elliott to Beckett, then they will have been crucial.
We believe that the evidence compiled against Beckett allows us to say for certain there are occasions of allegations of anti-Semitism being used for tactical benefit within the Labour Party. It doesn’t prove that such behaviour is widespread amongst the Progress/Labour First Tendency, but it does show that it happens.
The most infuriating part of this, is that the cynicism will do more harm than good. There was plenty of media coverage of the scandal as it was. Imagine how much worse for everyone it would have been had the mud been thrown and Elliott narrowly won, reinforcing the idea that Labour is full of anti-Semites.
Even in Beckett’s own long-term self-interest, her actions will be self-defeating. As the representative of the youth wing of the Labour party on the National Executive Committee, it’s not unlikely that she could have had a strong career ahead of her in the party. It’s very possible that she could have been chosen as a candidate to be an MP in a winnable seat. She could have expanded her influence within the party, to put forward her ideas and arguments in the coming decades. But, if the Labour Party ever does select her as a Parliamentary candidate, rival parties are sure to bring up this incident as a sign that she doesn’t have the right character to represent the constituency. By being caught in such a blatant attempt to disparage her rival, Beckett has effectively put an iron ceiling on her own career.
Given the blatant misrepresentations in the Elliott-Shanley case, we’re sceptical of other accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. After her decades of excellent work with Liberty, we’re inclined to believe the conclusion reached by Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry – that Labour is “not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or other forms of racism”. (There have been allegations that Chakrabarti ‘whitewashed’ the inquiry in return for a peerage, but as her track record makes her more qualified than most of her fellow Lords and Baronesses it would be a deeply stupid thing for her to do.)
Of course, the need to be fair flows both ways. In the aftermath of the scandal breaking, we saw accusations of Beckett being a ‘careerist’ and a ‘Blairite’ – common accusations against the Progress/Labour First Tendency. The evidence filed in the complaint against her included Beckett claiming that “[t]hey don’t think twice about sharing something when it’s about me/us.” [PDF, Figure 3]
Given that Elliott has a wealthier background and already has links to the party leadership, there’d be more substance to a claim that he, rather than Beckett, was the careerist. But as it’s a common stereotype of anyone even remotely associated with Blair’s form of centrism, it’s a stereotype that critics of the Progress/Labour First Tendency find it easy to jump to. From our perspective there’s ample evidence that Beckett behaved deviously, but we see no reason to believe she had motives more selfish than Elliott’s.
Brutalism as a Political Tactic
One of the most iconic figures of the Progress/Labour First Tendency is a fictional creation – The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker. The main strength of that Tendency was their iron grip on the media and political messaging. Given how repeatedly and frivolously Corbyn has been attacked during his time as leader, the importance of this skill shouldn’t be understated. Tucker is an embodiment of the public perception of New Labour – ruthless, nasty, placing more importance on appearance over reality… but ultimately a true believer in the cause he was fighting for, a believer that his party was, gradually, making the country a better place.
The Progress/Labour First Tendency’s embrace of cynical realpolitik goes back to it’s earliest days in office. Months after the 1997 victory the party had it’s first major scandal – accepting a £1 million donation from Bernie Ecclestone while giving Formula One a strange exemption from the ban on tobacco advertising.
This willingness to play dirty, we argue, is a core value of the Progress/Labour First Tendency. Possibly the most disgusting example was a memo sent out by press officer Jo Moore on September 11th 2001, suggesting that “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?”
Non-political figures were not to be spared. During the run-up to the Iraq War, Downing Street spokesman Tom Kelly informed the press that Dr David Kelly, the reported source for Andrew Gilligan’s critical journalism, was a “Walter Mitty character” – in other words a fantasist. (Dr Kelly was in fact one of the world’s leading experts in chemical and biological warfare.)
This ruthlessness wasn’t just external. A biography of Ed Miliband reported that the former Labour leader, during his time on Gordon Brown’s half of the Brown-Blair divide “was known as the emissary from Planet Fuck as he was the only Brownite who didn’t tell supporters of the Prime Minister to fuck off”.
It’s still ongoing, and gained press attention at the Young Labour Conference. We’ve covered Jasmin Beckett’s use of anti-semitism accusations, but on the Momentum/Red Labour side, Unite union activists have been shown pressuring members to vote for their candidate, James Elliott. This included demanding to see a member’s ballot to confirm they’d voted for Elliott, and reportedly chasing members into the toilets to demand they vote the correct way.
Though it’s hard to be sure what’s truth and what’s a smear, we’ve heard from a Young Labour member whose judgement we trust deeply that the Conference was a deeply unpleasant experience, with intimidation coming from all sides.
In our own local areas, we know of examples of Labour-ran councils smearing the reputations of Labour councillors and party members who speak out against the council’s decisions, in an attempt to discredit them rather than deal with their criticisms. This often has the intended effect, of making voters unsure who to trust. But it also the opposite effect – there’s a large number of political activists in Labour-ran areas who instinctively oppose everything the local Labour council does, even when it’s enforced on them by national Tory cuts. There are, in our experience, a significant number of anti-Labour leftie and centrist activists who are punch-drunk, and are too angry to examine whether the local Labour Party are in the right or wrong on individual cases. This is a natural result of a culture of brutalism which has existed within the Labour Party for at least twenty years (and quite possibly a lot longer).
And it isn’t just the higher-ups who engage in this kind of brutalist political warfare. You only have to spend a few minutes on twitter to see pro- and anti- Corbyn Labour supporters kick lumps out of each other, often with misrepresentations and facts taken out of context to give the wrong impression. In December 2015, asked whether she’d ‘stab Corbyn in the back’, Labour MP Jess Phillips replied that
“If that means making Jeremy better, I’ll roll my sleeves up. If that’s not going to happen – and I’ve said [this] to him and to his staff to their faces: ‘The day that … you are hurting us more than you are helping us, I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front.’
Though we disagree with her philosophically, we can respect that position. The problem is, the article made the rounds again after Jo Cox’s murder. We saw Corbyn supporters share the article, angry that she’d used such a phrase in the aftermath of Cox’s death. In the case we saw, we’re sure it was genuine anger rather than attempts to deliberately mislead. But it was still a misrepresentation – anger and misrepresentation begets more anger and misrepresentation.
So it seems that, while Malcolm Tucker was an exaggeration (he was a sitcom character, after all) he was an exaggeration of a major and resilient aspect of the culture of the Labour Party. One which reached unpleasant extremes during the height of the Progress/Labour First Tendency’s strength, and which continues today. It’s a war with multiple fronts which carries on raging because people on all sides seem to believe that, to repeat a Jasmin Beckett quote we used earlier, “[t]hey don’t think twice about sharing something when it’s about me/us.”
Post-truth Politics in the Labour Party
A common accusation in recent years is that we’re living in an era of ‘post-truth politics’, where leaders are willing to state the most blatant of untruths, and their supporters likely to believe what they want to believe. This accusation has been more targeted at leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but it’s also an accusation regularly thrown at Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
And there is solid, easily understandable evidence that we live in a post-truth political world, one where Labour MPs twist facts to fit the story they already wanted to tell.
On July 28th Ben Bradshaw MP announced on twitter that
“Corbynites take over Totnes CLP choose ineligible candidate who runs as “Independent” & lose our only seat on South Hams council! Well done!”
This wasn’t quite true – the retiring Labour councilor David Horsburgh had twice been a local mayor, so there was no guarantee that the seat would be kept by a candidate less exceptional. After no-one else volunteered, Alex Mockridge, a Momentum member, volunteered on the final day of selections. As a new member, she’d have needed official permission to stand as a Labour candidate, which the local party decided not to ask for. So she ran as an independent, with no official funding from the local party.
In April, when Labour decided to turn down money from McDonald’s for the burger chain to have a stall at Labour conference, the MP Wes Streeting told The Sun that the decision “smacks of a snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them” and wrote in the New Statesman to condemn this “virtue signalling of the worst kind”.
The actual reason for the ban was McDonald’s have repeatedly refused to recognise the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, or even to meet with the union to discuss this. The decision wasn’t even made by Corbyn, but by the NEC’s business board, which Corbyn is not a member of.
We’d have thought that, to be involved in the Labour movement, the least that can be expected of an employer is that they recognise their employees’ union of choice. However, given his actions as head of the students’ union NUS in 2009, condemning a strike planned by university lecturers, solidarity with mistreated workers has never been one of Streeting’s strengths.
In July this year, Labour’s administrative NEC voted on whether the leader should automatically get a place on a leadership election ballot. NEC representative Johanna Baxter complained about a culture of bullying at the time, telling the Guardian that “a prominent journalist was texting members of the NEC, saying they had to vote for Jeremy”.
Baby-faced monster Owen Jones, recognising that this description was probably of him, shared the message he sent to friends on the NEC.
Jones wasn’t writing a balanced ‘on one hand, but on the other’ argument – his text had a clear point of view. But it was no more bullying than a newspaper editorial, and probably couldn’t have been more polite in tone.
Baxter made some other, seemingly legitimate claims in the same Guardian article – for instance, a critic had apparently posted her mobile phone number online, leading to her being harrassed by a thousand phone calls overnight. That sounds horrible, and anyone who sees a political ally use this kind of tactic against an opponent should get very angry with them. Despite our disagreements, every person deserves to have their privacy respected.
But, as outsiders, how do we know that Baxter isn’t exaggerating the amount or severity of calls she received, in the same way that she clearly exaggerated the nastiness of Jones’ text? On balance, we believe what she says, but there is a nagging sense of doubt in our minds. This kind of post-truth politics, particularly in the era of mass communication, is ultimately self-defeating.
The same is true of Labour members of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency. At the end of June the political website The Canary carried a now infamous series of articles in which they ‘revealed’ that a shadowy PR company named Portland Communications ‘manufactured’ the movement against Corbyn.
The argument gained traction, with Len McCluskey – a Corbyn supporter and probably the most high-profile trade unionist in the country – repeating it on Andrew Marr’s Sunday political show.
We’ve a little experience in marketing, and have worked with clients who had a good product but were useless at promoting it. This is essentially what public relations is – getting the word out, telling people about why they should be interested in your product or candidate. Storytelling.
It’s hardly surprising that centrists within the Labour Party who were looking to launch a high-profile campaign turned to skilled former colleagues for advice. Darren Johnson is a former Green Party London Assembly Member who has left politics to concentrate on public relations. We’ve liked his insights on the practicalities of political communication, and think we have a broadly similar political philosophy to him. If we were to run a high-profile campaign, we’d probably get in touch for advice. This wouldn’t mean that Johnson would be a shadowy behind-the-scenes manipulator, but an advisor. The same is probably true with Portland Communications.
The Canary started off promisingly – the editor Kerry-Anne Mendoza’s previous project Scriptonite Daily was a consistently excellent and hard-headed left-wing blog, and The Canary began in the same way. But they’ve now crossed the line with this kind of alarmist nonsense, which is only possible when the writer (in this case Steve Topple) clearly doesn’t understand what public relations is. They’ve effectively became the left-wing equivalent of The Daily Mail, telling their readers what they want to hear, reinforcing their partially true world-view rather than encouraging nuance.
By ‘commenting’ on a Labour Party where Corbyn and his supporters are divisive and incompetent, Bradshaw and Streeting are making it true. What does it matter if Momentum weren’t actually responsible for losing Totnes, so long as neutral Labour members and potential voters believe this was the case? What does it matter that Corbyn probably isn’t a bitter, irrational vegetarian who wants to lash out at the meat industry, so long as potential voters believe that he is that deranged? What does it matter if Owen Jones’ text messages were polite, so long as they can be spun as bullying? And on the other side, what does it matter if Corbyn supporters don’t understand the true nature of the people they’re fighting, so long as they have purity of belief?
Truth is nuanced. Truth isn’t always immediately apparent. Wait. Listen. Learn. Question. Think.
Is Corbyn an Extremist?
There are legitimate reasons to be unsure about Corbyn’s ability to be a good prime minister. When he released his personal tax information during the Panama Papers scandal, his office appeared to be badly organised. Members of the media have claimed that press releases are often sent out too late to grab much space.
And yet, given a straight choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, we’d back Corbyn without a second’s doubt. That’s not because of any sense of loyalty, but simply because he’s the more moderate, less radical, more evidence-based of the two.
Theresa May’s ludicrous justification for grammar schools – essentially that because she was one of the minority who benefited from them, they must be a good thing – is typical of her politics. During her time as Home Secretary, she ordered the deportation of 48,000 students based on evidence which contained “multiple frailties and shortcomings”, spread the false claim that an illegal immigrant couldn’t be deported because he owned a cat (it was actually because the Home Office didn’t follow its own guidance) in order to blacken the reputation of the Human Rights Act and, indirectly, the European Union. When asked at Prime Minister’s Questions to name a single expert who backed the idea of returning to grammar schools, the Prime Minister couldn’t. It’s a sign of the failures of the Miliband-Balls Labour leadership, and Nick Clegg’s unwillingness to stand up for what he believed in when he held power that May doesn’t have a reputation as poor as Iain Duncan Smith or Jeremy Hunt.
Add in May’s decisions to leave Hunt as Health Secretary to continue his surely deliberate campaign to run the NHS into the ground and her appointment of the woefully underqualified Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary for surely party political reasons and it’s plain to see that Corbyn is simply the safer, more evidence-based of the two.
A recent article on OpenDemocracy argues that Corbyn is, in his proposed policies, a mainstream Scandanavian social democrat, comparing his style and policies to former Norwegian Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
As the Gyles Brandreth street test shows, even in Tory heartlands there is support for the policies Corbyn proposes, when they are blind-tested separate from the stigma of the names of Corbyn and Labour. This suggests it’s possible to win over the general public on a platform similar to Corbyn’s, but also means that there must be questions asked about Corbyn’s inability to get ahead with a winning hand.
The Stubborn Ideology of the Labour Centrists
An important political term is the ‘Overton Window’. Originated by Joseph Overton, this theory proposes that there are a range of ideas that are considered reasonable and achievable in any particular time or society. For instance, in most medieval societies, everyone involved will likely have internalised the values of fascism as inevitable, dismissing the broadest understanding of modern democracy (the peasants choosing their own king!) as ridiculous idealism. Similarly, citizens of Star Trek’s Federation would be likely to reject the construction of Trident-like nuclear weapons as dangerously irresponsible. Centrist politics aren’t necessarily the best type to build consensus around in all times and places.
In December 2014 Tony Blair made headlines by sharing his opinion that Ed Miliband was too left-wing to win power. This was common wisdom for a while – that Ed Miliband was too idealistic, and his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was doing his best to steer the naïve Miliband away from calamity.
However, the Beckett Report, based on interviews with 20,000 voters, found that Miliband’s left-wing policies were actually his most popular. Lack of trust on the economy was a bigger problem. Jane Green of the British Election Study commented that
“Labour wasn’t able to shift that blame so if people saw the economy doing better they gave the Conservatives some credit. If they thought the economy was still doing worse they gave some blame to the Tories but they also gave blame to Labour, so Labour got some of the blame and none of the credit.”
We’ve previously commented on the importance of storytelling to electoral politics – essentially Labour’s failure to refute Cameron and Osborne’s economically nonsensical claim that they were cutting the economy into growth was responsible for Labour’s loss. This didn’t stop Balls from blaming Labour’s “anti-business, anti-bank” messaging for the defeat.
And yet, when asked for impediments to a Labour victory or reasons for the defeat both Blair and Balls leapt to Miliband’s extreme left-wingedness. It’s common for centrists to see themselves as those who are willing to compromise to get things done. It’s easy to think of centrists as non-ideological. But they have an ideology, just a different one to lefties.
Trotskyists, Splits, and the Judean People’s Front
A few years ago we wouldn’t have been able to give a detailed explain of who Leon Trotsky was, beyond saying that he got an icepick that made his ears burn. We’d imagine that most people in Britain are in the same position as we were back then. It’s often used as a generic insult for anyone of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency (in the same way that Blairite is towards those of the Progress/Labour First Tendency).
In technical terms, a Trotskyist would be a communist who believes in the importance of worldwide revolution, rather than in just one country. But the way it’s generally used is to refer to someone who insists on idealism over pragmatism. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm Snowball – the dissident pig who comes to oppose Napoleon’s rule – is largely based on Trotsky, with Napoleon representing Stalin. Similarly, over the years left-of-Labour parties such as the Socialist Party, Left Unity and TUSC have been described as Trotskyist.
So Trotskyist or Trot, when used as an insult, generally mean someone who’s over-idealistic, sticking to their principles when it’s impractical, even going so far as to split the left because the dominant faction doesn’t align closely enough with their preferred version.
There’s nothing we can see in the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency that’s any more internationalist than the Progress/Labour First Tendency, so when critics call Corbyn a Trotskyist or Trot, essentially they mean that he’s an overly ideological, impractical splitter.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and the bitter splits within Labour has brought new relevance to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The main characters are members of the People’s Front of Judea, a tiny political group who fight irrelevantly against the Roman occupation. In one scene the People’s Front of Judea plot to capture Pontius Pilate’s wife, only to run into a rival group, the Campaign for Free Galilee, in the sewers. The sides draw swords against each other:
Brian: “Surely we should be united against the common enemy?”
Everyone else: “The Judean People’s Front?”
Brian: “No, the Romans!”
A few weeks ago, when confronted with the probability that Corbyn would be re-elected as leader, Luke Akehurst (a losing candidate for this summer’s NEC elections and a Labour First member who regularly speaks at Progress events) responded that “winning this time not the main point of having a contest”.
The blogger Thomas G. Clark has compiled a list of possible reasons why a member of the Progress/Labour First Tendency would want the contest. These essentially boil down to suggesting that it seems to be part of a prolonged war of attrition, with the aim of kicking out the wrong kind of member, and destroying the morale of those they aren’t able to forcibly remove. Clark also drew attention to the fact that, like the Judean People’s Front, Akehurst has spent a lot more time on his twitter feed attacking Corbyn and allies than the Tory Party.
But it’s obviously not only the Progress/Labour First Tendency who are guilty of this kind of split. Red Labour’s Facebook page was created after the 2010 election defeat as a way for organising those lefties within Labour who wanted to drag the party towards them. It subsequently played a major part in building the online infrastructure for Corbyn’s 2015 leadership victory.
In 2016 a conflict between the Red Labour team resulted in one member changing the password and taking control of the page, accusing the others of bullying. So now, just as with Buck’s Fizz and UB40, there are two rival versions, both claiming to be the ‘true’ inheritor of the history of Red Labour.
You can read Red Labour 2016’s version of the story here and parts of Red Labour HQ’s version here. More than anything else, we feel that this is tragically pathetic, with two overwhelmingly similar groups working against each other rather than together.
The same is essentially true of the conflict between the centrists and the lefties as a whole. Imagine if the centrists are able to retake control of the party on some kind of technicality, against the wishes of the mass membership. What next?
The Tories were able to get a lot of mileage in the run-up to the last election out of the claim that Ed Miliband ‘betrayed’ his brother to get the leadership. This is in spite of the fact that, if a little thought is applied, the Tories were arguing that David Miliband had some kind of divine right to inherit the leadership, and that democracy is a betrayal. Imagine how strongly the Tories would attack Labour as being an anti-democratic party in 2020 if Umunna, Jarvis, Kendall or Reeves takes over from Corbyn because of alterations to the rules, while he wins a large majority of members for a third time in twenty-five months.
We’ve previously argued that electoral politics is mainly a matter of storytelling, and the ‘anti-democratic betrayal’ story would certainly be a compelling one. We think that Corbyn has multiple flaws which means that defeat under him is more likely than victory, but Akehurst and friends don’t seem to be thinking about how their actions will be presented in the next general election.
Rewatching The Life of Brian this week, the sewer scene reminded us of the current state of the Labour Party. The sewer fighting killed everyone but Brian, leaving the Romans with minimal difficulty mopping up the remnants of two potentially dangerous plots.
Electoral politics has to be a matter of compromise – there’s simply no other way to build a mass movement. But that doesn’t mean that the centrist position is always the best place to compromise. Figures like Tony Blair, Ed Balls and Luke Akehurst are effectively centrist splitters. They’re more focused on ensuring that the Labour Party is reformed into the shape that they want it to be than listening to evidence that the electorate wanted a Labour Party more left-wing than the one they were offered in 2015. The language of the left is often about principled opposition against all odds. The iconic ‘Keep the Red Flag Flying’ embodies this. But to borrow wisdom from the People’s Front of Judea, an unwillingness to work together can destroy both sides.
True Labour vs True Labour
Which version of the Labour Party is the ‘true’ Labour? Criticism of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency hinges on accusations of them as ‘infiltrators’, whereas for years criticism of Labour under the control of the Progress/Labour First Tendency has rested on the idea that the party has moved too far to the right and abandoned too many fundamental values that it should hold.
But this conflict is not a new one. Writing in 1961, the Marxist political philosopher Ralph Miliband made this argument:
We’re not knowledgeable enough about the Labour Party prior to the 1980s to know whether Miliband’s description is correct, but it seems logical that, as the Tory Party tried to pull the Overton Window to the right following the establishment of the NHS and the expansion of the welfare state, there would be two schools of thought within the Labour Party over how to respond.
This conflict has blown up dramatically several times over the years – over Michael Foot’s leadership, the SDP split and Tony Benn’s run for Deputy Leadership in the 1980s. It took years for the Progress/Labour First Tendency to re-assert control of the party, first under Kinnock and then under Blair, pushing MPs like the once influential Tony Benn to the margins of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Momentum/Red Labour Tendency bubbled away as an internal opposition to the party leadership for decades, before rising up and asserting itself in 2015.
Our concern is, if this is a conflict which is raged within the Labour Party for more than half a century, can it ever be won, by either side? Essentially, as far as we can see, the conflict within the party is so strong, so bitter, that neither side is willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt, and will always jump to the worst possible interpretation of events in any developing story.
The Momentum/Red Labour Tendency may well repeat their impressive showing in this summer’s NEC election (winning six from six contested seats). If they eventually gain overall control of the administrative body, and give local parties the power to recall MPs, it’s likely that deselected MPs from the Progress/Labour First Tendency will either stand against Labour in the 2020 election (repeating the SDP mistake of 1983) or take to the media to depict the Labour Party as being taken over by zealots. Similarly, if the Progress/Labour First Tendency take back control of the leadership and the NEC over the next couple of years, particularly if done by the kind of ‘purge’ that they’ve operated this summer and last, the Tories will leap on it as proof of the party’s contempt for democracy, and Labour will lose the 2020 election.
As far as we can see, there is only one plausible way to remove the Tories from power and for Labour to take back Downing Street in 2020, and that is a negotiated ceasefire between the two Tendencies, with the aim of introducing Proportional Representation, and splitting the Labour Party in two.
Over the years, there have developed two distinctly different interpretations of what Britain’s largest left-wing party should look like, whether a union-backed, leftie mass movement, or a big donor-backed, centrist appeal to the middle classes. (The name ‘Progress’ underlines this version’s similarity to its American leanings – essentially a vision of politics essentially similar to the Democratic Party of Obama and Clinton.) In our view, the Labour Party as it currently exists is two souls battling for the control over one body.
If the parties do split, it’s likely that the current hostility would dissipate – at least to an extent. Like ex-spouses who learn to work together to raise their children, the distance would make it easier for the Momentum Party and the Progress Party to learn to compromise with each other. It’s probable that a significant number of voters in each of these new parties would cast their second choice votes for the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats respectively, but the majority of both are likely to place the other within their top three choices.
In the meantime, it may be possible to treat the Labour Party as a coalition of two parties, with the front-bench balanced between MPs of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency and those of the Progress/Labour First Tendency. If the Shadow Cabinet is balanced equally between the two tendencies, then an effective medium-term coalition may be manageable, with the intent of introducing proportional representation legislation during the 2020-25 Parliament and negotiating a split of the Labour Party assets. The removal of Ian McNicol as Chair of the NEC would probably need to be one of the conditions of such a compromise, given his prominent role in overseeing the transparently biased purge of mainly Corbyn supporters because they’ve once sworn when discussing the Foo Fighters, or expressed some generic praise for the Green Party outside of an election period.
Labour members of the Momentum/Red Labour Tendency in particular may be opposed to such a compromise, given that they currently have the most to lose. But there are plenty of MPs who are prepared to make themselves personally look villainous or foolish (Eagle, Benn, Smith and Watson among them) in order for others of the Progress/Labour First Tendency (Jarvis, Umunna) to position themselves as being ‘above’ the fight, and eventually to sweep in as a ‘compromise’ candidate. The problem Labour has is that both halves of the party believe the other to be the problem that has lost the party elections. If the fighting drags on in any form into 2020, then a continued insistence on fighting will ensure that both are correct.
So, after all that… Do we support the aims and values of the Labour Party, and should you? The problem, as far as we see it, is that the two Tendencies have two different sets of aims and values. The Momentum/Red Labour Tendency want a Scandanavian-style socialist party, one which builds on the creation of the NHS and goes much further – including Corbyn’s suggestion of a National Education Service. The Progress/Labour First Tendency want an American-style progressive party, one which engages with corporations rather than unions, to make them see the benefits in treating their workers well. Both are legitimate interpretations of what Labour should be. But the argument has raged for half a century, and in a first-past-the-post system, Labour can’t be both. To us, a negotiated break-up is the only logical solution.
There is a culture of brutalism, which may or may not be rooted in the stubbornness of Old Labour, which the Blair and Brown governments turned into an art form. This has become, to us as outsiders, a fundamental value of the Labour Party. And we hate it. As Greens and political pluralists, we consider it much smarter to try and find common ground with those we disagree with, rather than attempting to destroy their reputation and legitimacy.
The short, boring answer to the headline question is that we support some of the aims and values of Labour, and oppose others. We hate the strain of Labour culture which says ‘I am right, and if you disagree then you are evil, stupid or both’. On the other hand, both Tendencies have a sincere desire to improve the opportunities available to ordinary people. Although we passionately disagree with both his politics and his methods, we’ve always been impressed by Alistair Campbell’s sincere desire to help people with mental illnesses.
Whether Labour members attempt a negotiated break-up or try to persuade an overwhelming majority of members over to their side of the divide, what’s needed is patience, understanding and respect. We believe that Tony Blair should be classed as a war criminal and put on trial, but to deny his skills and achievements would be foolish. Similarly, it’s foolish to deny the part Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others played in keeping Labour respectable to lefties during the Blair and Brown government. In the days before this essay was published, Liz Kendall appeared on Question Time and was admonished by an audience member for not representing what Labour should be. This argument has raged for over fifty years. If a definitive answer isn’t found, then Labour won’t last for fifty more.