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Jeremy Corbyn’s Attempt to Reinvent British Labour

The changing face of the British Left

On September 12, 2015, Britain’s Labour Party elected as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, a man branded a dangerous socialist and pacifist. He won with 250,000 votes of party members and supporters, out of a total of just over 400,000 votes cast. This was a massive repudiation of the legacy of Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” with its belligerent foreign policy and “Tory-lite” policies. In May 2015, Labour had been defeated in a national election that saw the Conservatives win a narrow majority of 12 seats with just 37% of the total vote. In Scotland the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 out of 59 seats, whereas in England an anti-EU party, UKIP (UK Independent Party) won 4 million votes but was only allotted one MP. By contrast, the Greens won 1 million votes and also elected only one MP. While the Conservatives slightly improved their position, their former allies, the Liberal Democrats, saw their vote drop by 3.8 million and were left with just eight MPs. The vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral regime are familiar, but they no longer conceal a crisis of the “Ukrainian” political regime. The SNP now leads the Scottish government and is planning a new referendum on independence. A UK-wide vote on membership of the EU must be held before the end of 2017, and to cap it all, one of the major parties has elected as its leader a man who attacks NATO, criticizes the French response to the Paris killings, and believes that the crushing of ISIS should be left to the Arab League and local forces. By contrast, Prime Minister David Cameron proposes a stepping up of the British role in a Western assault on the terrorist group. The parallel is inexact, of course, but in US terms, it is as if Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination and Californian voters had backed a separatist movement. But there is no US equivalent to Britain’s Leader of the Opposition, the post now held by Corbyn. The Leader of the Opposition has to be an MP and receives an office, a chauffeured limo, and the opportunity to question the prime minister once a week on any topic. She is made a Privy Councilor and thus entitled to receive a confidential briefing on government plans. But these trappings do not compensate for the fact that ultimately, even though the Shadow Cabinet members appointed by the Leader of the Opposition set their party’s agenda, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister control the agenda for Parliament and thus command the government apparatus, so long as their parliamentary majority holds.

The Corbyn Insurgency

Ed Miliband, Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour Leader, had some successes, such as defeating an attempt by Cameron to send the British military into Syria, but was often frustrated by his “Shadow Cabinet,” supposedly the alternative government. Although the Leader chooses this body, he can choose only from among sitting MPs and is expected to reflect the political balance in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The PLP is well to the right of Corbyn and was considerably to the right of Ed Miliband. The latter believed that Labour’s credibility had been damaged by the Iraq War and by the Labour government’s failure to curb “predatory capitalism” prior to the 2008 crash. However, the Shadow Cabinet prevented Miliband from openly repudiating the Labour record in government and promising something different. By voting for UKIP, the Greens, or the SNP, many British voters punished Labour and expressed their anger with the main parties and with Labour’s social democratic program and hostility to overseas military adventures.

Miliband’s most important legacy is likely to be the changes he secured to the rules governing Labour leadership elections. The special voting rights given to MPs and trade unions were abolished in favor of “one member, one vote.” Moreover, the party’s supporters were invited to register as such, paying a £3 fee and receiving the right to vote in the leadership election. Members of affiliated trade unions could also vote if they had paid their affiliation fee. The party reported that 250,000 new members and supporters had registered by mid-August 2015, bringing the party’s total in all categories to well over half a million.

The opening stages of the Labour leadership contest appeared very narrow with no left-wing contender (candidates needed the support of 35 MPs to qualify). Friendly commentators described all the initial contenders as “Blairite.” However, at the last moment, Corbyn announced that he had the necessary support to enter the contest. He had received the formal sponsorship of MPs who did not share his politics but believed that it would damage Labour to offer such a narrow choice. The contest was swiftly transformed as Corbyn garnered the most constituency sponsorships (161) and scored well in straw polls of potential voters. Even opponents conceded that he was likable, consistent, and thoughtful. With his voting record — he had voted against his own party 500 times over 25 years — and with the lowest expense claims of any MP, Corbyn managed to combine the best of politics and anti-politics.

As the polls began to point to an outright Corbyn win, the preapproved arrangements for the leadership contest were blamed for allowing alien “entryists” and political enemies to infiltrate the party and sway the vote. But given the extent of Corbyn’s lead — many tens of thousands of votes — claiming that tiny sectarian groups and hostile pranksters could have contrived it was ridiculous. The enrollment of more than 250,000 new supporters and members overwhelmed the computers, but because applicants had to register with a valid banking card and because voting slips were sent only to validated addresses, fraudulent registration on any scale was very unlikely. The real problem panicking the pundits was that the wrong candidate was winning and that this would destroy the Labour Party.

The central doctrine of historic Labour was to vest all authority in the parliamentary party and to see the party’s membership as deferring to the PLP, because of the latter’s perceived greater wisdom, experience, and proximity to government. The party leadership could always, or nearly always, rely on the trade union “block vote” to come to the leader’s aid whenever the constituencies declined an acquiescent role. Tom Nairn memorably compared the trade union barons, casting a few million votes each, to the land developers in Gogol’s Dead Souls who purchased the papers of serfs who had died and used these “dead souls” to claim more land prior to registering a serf’s death.

Ralph Miliband — Ed’s father and one of Britain’s leading political scientists — explained in the opening sentence of his classic study Parliamentary Socialism, “Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic — not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.” Britain’s parliamentary system is still embedded in pre-democratic institutions, notably the monarchy, Privy Council, and House of Lords, and non-democratic practices, such as first-past-the-post. MPs are loyal subjects of Her Majesty and assimilated to the notional sovereignty of the “Queen-in-Parliament.” They swear allegiance to that and not to an extra-parliamentary entity, a party with members who select leaders and policies. However, the privileges of the PLP were clipped in the 1980s when, under “Bennite” pressure, an electoral college was set up for leadership elections with separate representation, roughly one-third each, for MPs, trade unions, and constituencies.

Under Blair, the members had even less say, with the party’s conference degenerating into a simple rally. The “one member, one vote” principle challenges all that. Corbyn is intent of giving real power to the constituencies and the party conference. Whatever their failings, and there were many, the pre-”New Labour” party conferences still had life and debate. What is now needed is a veritable re-launch of the party, starting with a proper conference. Corbyn seems to realize this. He hopes to bring round recalcitrant MPs and to escape the imprisonment in his own Shadow Cabinet, which doomed Miliband.

Auspiciously, Corbyn’s surprise victory and the preceding membership surge signal the emergence of a new Labour Left. Although less experienced than past Lefts, the current party faces a disoriented and weakened Center and Right. However the strength of the Right within the PLP has constrained him, Corbyn retains a firm grip on economic policy through the appointment of his close associate John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor. McDonnell is a former financial director to the Great London Council, whose entry for “Hobbies” in Who’s Who lists, not entirely in jest, “plotting the overthrow of capitalism.” In addition, the new Shadow Chancellor is, like Corbyn himself, well left of anyone who has previously occupied this post. However, in many other Shadow Cabinet appointments, Corbyn has been obliged to pick prominent supporters of the three candidates he beat: the runner-up Andy Burnham, for example, is now Shadow Home Secretary.

The strength of former New Labourites in the PLP and Shadow Cabinet remains the new leader’s most stubborn problem. Corbyn will be determined not to allow too much sway to these defining relics of “parliamentary socialism.” They have often been well to the right of the membership, but the distance is greater than ever today. Many on the right of the PLP have made it clear that they do not accept the new leader and will work to overthrow him. But for the time being, the scale of Corbyn’s victory makes an open challenge unlikely. Indeed, Corbyn could have been bolder in his choice of Shadow Foreign Secretary and chosen someone much closer to his foreign policy stance, such as Diane Abbott, rather than Hillary Benn, Tony’s moderate son.

The Looming Agenda

The UK government’s forthcoming in/out referendum on membership of the European Union will keep Conservatives and UKIP at loggerheads, with the Conservatives leading a victorious “Yes” camp. The “extreme center” will rally to support EU membership. But a more awkward outcome cannot be entirely ruled out — UK voters are restive and unpredictable. The very fact that the governmental parties back EU membership could invite a backlash. The leaders of the EU and the eurozone have covered themselves in ignominy in their handling of the Greek crisis. The ugly spectacle of the EU bullying the Greek government while enforcing counterproductive austerity — and “odious debts” — may have cost it much support.

Although the EU often intervenes in a reactionary manner to enforce a type of free market capitalism, it declines to intervene in many ways that would be justified and necessary to address climate change, to attack inequality, or to challenge corporate power. Voters of varying political allegiance will be repulsed by the reactionary record of today’s EU — the obsession with austerity, the imposition of fiscal despotism, the bullying of weaker members, and so forth. Many of Corbyn’s supporters may be attracted to a critical stance toward the EU but will shun the official “No” campaign because UKIP and the Conservative Euro-skeptics will inject xenophobic and racist elements into it.

Cameron has always claimed that he would “reform” away the protections of the EU’s social charter and persuade the EU states to adopt further measures to promote a flexible labor market — though not free movement. In his campaign, Corbyn attacked these positions, but not the EU as such. In a sign of the “Corbyn effect,” Cameron re-arranged his priorities, and the labor protections he had criticized will not be scrapped after all. (I discuss Corbyn’s reaction below.)

Cameron will probably win on these positions, but he may find victory compromising and exhausting because it will confirm that he and his government are pillars of the EU after all. Euro-skeptic MPs will be difficult to control, which may lead Cameron to put off the vote until the last possible moment in late 2017. The ongoing refugee crisis adds yet another motive for postponement. In the meantime, there are tricky issues of devolution and “English Votes for English Laws” to address.

Disarray in the United Kingdom

If Cameron has reasons to prevaricate over the EU referendum, he has offered a further installment of devolution that is too modest for the SNP while also being considerable enough to unsettle the United Kingdom’s arcane and famously unwritten constitution. As a result, it threatens to create two classes of MPs at Westminster and thus to exclude Scottish members from votes on English legislation. The distinction here is very difficult to make because most laws have knock-on effects, for example, because they have budgetary implications. Some are advocating for a constitutional convention to address the consequences of devolution for other parts of the United Kingdom. If the breakup of Britain gathers momentum, then there will be an opportunity for the various opposition parties to advance their own programs of democratization and reform.

Politically, the UK opposition is highly fragmented. The support these fragments attract exposes the narrowness of the recovery and the declining ability of the political elite to contain the estrangement it has generated. Northern Ireland has already been consigned to an anomalous backwater where the English parties do not even run candidates. On the mainland, Conservative hegemony must reckon with what Ralph Miliband termed “de-subordination” and political alienation.

In some way, those who voted SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists), and Sinn Fein (Irish republicans) were all voting against Cameron’s Great Britain. These parties are already natural allies. In their different ways, Labour and UKIP voters also express popular disaffection, with both engaged in a struggle for party survival. So far as Labour is concerned, Corbyn’s election as leader is a sign that the party is not just the zombie bequeathed by New Labour — rather, it is again in contention. The party oligarchy had become so elitist and cut off that it did not notice until too late that its members would not stand the old charade any longer.

Serious as it is, Corbyn’s appeasement of the parliamentarians does not re-establish the status quo ante. The dramatic ascent of Corbyn was the outcome of a sea change of opinion reflecting the great crash, the Iraq deceit and defeat, the MPs’ expenses scandal, the austerity mantra and much else besides. It will be a long time before this momentous “de-subordination” evaporates. It is not a “Tsipras moment” because Corbyn is not backing austerity or membership of the eurozone, nor — yet — reneging on a promise. But it is a powerful reminder that formal structures matter, that democratization has yet to transform the party and that Ralph Miliband’s warnings still carry weight.

Corbyn has a small but coherent leadership team built around former members of the Campaign group of MPs and former members of the London municipal administration. The Campaign group had only ten members prior to the leadership election, though its numbers seem to be growing. The new leadership and the new membership together could make Labour a hegemonic force in English politics but only if Labour recognizes that the political landscape has changed and it will have to adjust to that fact.

Ed Miliband failed because he allowed the Blairites to blackmail and threaten him and because he failed to register the crisis of the UK state. One of his worst mistakes was to rule out in advance any agreement with the SNP. To give him his due, Miliband did situate current woes within a crisis of capitalism and that remains an achievement. Corbyn has a chance to do much better. His support for cancellation of Trident and his willingness to negotiate with the SNP over further democratization and to resistance to austerity mean that his election as Labour leader could represent a radical challenge to the UK state. The moderate mass of Labour MPs will complain but, with the new members breathing down their necks, are not yet in the mood to split. The trade unions that help to finance the party and individual MPs will urge loyalty to the new leader.

Corbyn’s Labour should also be prepared to seek alliances with the Greens and SNP rather than treat them as rivals or enemies. They should be prepared for a wider, democratic overhaul of the United Kingdom and support the idea of a constitutional convention to address electoral reform, further measures of devolution, and the future shape of the British Isles. Corbyn has a long history of campaigning for a diversity of progressive causes and is one of the least “tribal” of Labour politicians. The appearance of a new Labour Left should signal an era in which Labour re-learns how to fly.

In different ways, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein have carved out their own territory and will not be going away. Though remaining serious rivals, the Greens could be potential partners. Their economic program does not use the word “socialist” but has a progressive and transitional character. They also avoid the word “capitalism,” which is a mistake because they thereby fail to identify the systemic forces at work in the economy. Green parties elsewhere in Europe have a very mixed record, with the “realos” serving as stooges of the extreme center. The English Greens have these discouraging examples to learn from. They also have a good opportunity to join forces with the trade union left and with the new Labour leadership on Europe, Trident, and austerity. Under a new leader, the Liberal Democrats could also be drawn to support some progressive measures.

Corbyn’s campaign set him several key tests. He will be expected to oppose any new project of Western intervention in the Middle East and to persuade his party to reject Trident in 2016. Corbyn will have to take the lead in making the case against Trident. Though supplied by the United States, the weapon’s complex equipment is officially and implausibly claimed to be “independent.” Possession of Trident has prevented neither Putin’s encroachments, nor the advance of ISIS. The weapon appeals to the macho instincts of some British politicians, and its scrapping is long overdue. But Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, is a supporter of Trident, as are Tom Watson, the deputy leaders, and a number of the trade unions that worry about the loss of jobs that might be entailed (though Corbyn offers public contracts that would ease the problem). An encouraging sign for Corbyn was a vote to reject Trident at the Scottish Labour conference in late October. Scottish Labour is a bastion of moderation on most issues, but on this issue they respond to Scottish public opinion.

In late November, the killings orchestrated by ISIS, and the French government’s reaction raised questions of how best to tackle the terrorist threat. Cameron has urged that the parliamentary motion against British military action in Syria should be repealed. British airstrikes would begin immediately and an emergency force of 10,000 troops would be readied — though committing them to battle would require another vote. Cameron is aware that public opinion is fickle and would reject British “boots on the ground.” But his approach would ratchet up the conflict and stoke war feelings. In a careful and reasoned response on November 27, Corbyn challenged the motion and called on all Labour MPs to support him. He attacked the panicky French response and its constitutional amendments and machismo.

Cameron explained that he would put his motion only if he thought he could win. He will be hoping that support from Labour MPs will outnumber the Conservative MPs who refuse to back his increasingly belligerent stance. A win for Corbyn would be so catastrophic for Cameron that he had guarantees of the votes needed to win. But winning at Westminster will be very much easier than doing so in Syria.

The new membership will expect to have their say on such major questions as Trident and Syria and will not allow them to be buried in the “conference arrangements’ committee” or in a “Policy Forum.” The principle of “one member, one vote” has yet to be introduced for something as vital as the Party’s decisions on policy. Corbyn will be encouraged by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy — which strongly supported Corbyn’s election — to give him a lead in this area.

Corbyn will also have to show that he can rally resistance on cuts to welfare, education, and health. October also witnessed growing opposition to the government in these areas. A key measure in George Osborne’s budget was a plan to reduce sharply the tax credits paid to low-income workers, a measure Corbyn voted against when it was first presented to the Commons. His opponents either voted in favor or abstained to show how responsible they were. Subsequently, Corbyn repeatedly targeted this measure and brought it up at the Prime Minister’s Question Time. Conservative backbenchers were quoted as warning Cameron at an internal party meeting that penalizing the low paid was dangerous and made a mockery of the party’s promises to hard-working families.

On October 26, the House of Lords voted down the measure and the government admitted that its details would have to be reconsidered. This rebuff to Cameron and his Chancellor could scarcely have been on a more significant issue. There is also poetic justice in the Lords’ defeat because Cameron and Osborne have long promised reform of the upper chamber without ever delivering it. One of the most distinctive Corbyn/McDonnell proposals has been to advocate a program of “Peoples-QE” (quantitative easing) whereby the Treasury would print money to finance a public investment bank to fund badly needed infrastructure investment. This would not fund welfare spending and would be carefully calibrated to have a countercyclical impact.

The centrist candidates under pressure from Corbyn have also proposed one or two good ideas that should be considered on their merits. Andy Burnham proposed that care for the elderly should be reorganized as part of the NHS, with everybody contributing and everyone benefiting. Ambitious ideas such as this need funding. Here the SNP has made a vital contribution with its proposal to end the Trident nuclear submarine program, potentially releasing £90 billion of future funds.

When McDonnell pledges that as Chancellor he would eliminate the deficit, he is not giving way to the government, but rather urging that a pro-growth strategy would not need cuts to bring down the deficit. But he is also interested in new taxes. A useful funding source could be Ed Miliband’s pre-election promise to take away the privileged exemption from stamp duty enjoyed by hedge funds and spread-betting outfits. Tory support for this privilege is muted because these unpopular financial concerns are major donors to the Conservative party. A radicalized Labour opposition should be able to reach out to a broader common front against austerity, against the UK state’s democratic deficit at home, and against military action abroad.

One of Corbyn’s central planks was a call for the re-nationalization of the railways, an idea that is endorsed by many commuters because of the relentless price gauging of the franchise operators, coupled with a poor record of investing in infrastructure. Polls show 70% back a return to public ownership. In August, the BBC aired a TV program on the British railways by Ian Hislop, editor of the Private Eye, a satirical journal. Hislop’s account of the malaise of a national institution under commercial ownership dwelled on rail’s importance to sustaining communities and its salience in English literature and history. Corbyn had expressed a readiness to re-open rail lines that have been closed.

Although Corbyn’s critics are fixated on the supposed hostility of middle-class voters to his message, a You-gov poll (published in The Evening Standard of August 14) shows 62% of those who had voted for UKIP in 2015 thought that Corbyn would make the best leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn’s anger at social injustice is likely to achieve resonance in a society plagued by galloping inequality and stunted by class barriers to personal fulfillment. Another poll reported in The Economist on August 29 found that support for Corbyn, impressive overall, was higher among new members and supporters, and higher among those who had joined in the Miliband years than among those with longer-standing membership. Here are signs that Corbyn was widening, not narrowing, Labour’s appeal. When the votes were counted, Corbyn won 85% of the supporters’ ballots.

Repeated stand-offs between the new leader and the impatient Right stem from the latter’s refusal to accept the result of the leadership election. The Right’s repeated attempts to ambush Corbyn imply that he should either resign or carry out a re-shuffle of the Shadow Cabinet. The membership would certainly not accept Corbyn going and few have any fondness for the parliamentary champions of moderation. Life for Corbyn is not going to be easy, but if he comes up with his own initiatives and counts on the goodwill that members feel toward him, his early problems are surmountable.

Ralph Miliband used to warn against the disabling effects of an excess of realism. He did not like Vico’s slogan “Pessimism of the Intelligence, Optimism of the Will” because it gave pessimism too much importance and neglected the ability of politics to identify and “bring into existence” latent social forces. No clearer example of this could be given than the sudden emergence of the Corbyn insurgency out of the blue. The Labour Party membership should certainly avoid euphoria and attend to the real condition of the United Kingdom, but they should not aim too low or paralyze themselves with structural pessimism concerning what they can achieve as the old order crumbles before our eyes.

The potential threat to democracy does not only, or even mainly, come from the Conservatives because Britain’s whole political class feels menaced by the Corbyn insurgency, hence the panicky tone of Center-Left and -Right spokesmen and columnists. On August 31 in an article in the Financial Times entitled “The Labour Party is too big to fail — just like banks,” Paul Collier, an Oxford political scientist, explained that a Corbyn win was intolerable. Labour was a “systemically important party” that had been put at risk when the Labour MPs had failed to perform their allotted task as censors with the power to exclude dangerous candidates before the voting takes place. Given this failure, Collier argued, another check would have to be found. In his view, the solution was to open the franchise for party leader even wider: “The only realistic option is for the selection of the leaders of systemically important parties to be opened to the entire electorate.” We may suppose that the very partial mass media and vociferous interest groups will continue their tireless reporting and commentating.

In the next issue of the Financial Times, Iain Martin wrote, a Corbyn victory need not last long because

“anti-Corbynite Labour MPs (the majority of them) could try to remove him within a year or two. In extreme circumstances there are more than enough wealthy Center-Left donors who dislike the Tories, to say nothing of millions of voters in a country in which there is not a Tory majority in the popular vote, to organize a new, mainstream alternative party…Tricky times lie ahead.”

We have been warned.

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