Labour conference this week is an important staging post in the new Corbyn-led, energised mass party – not just the biggest in Britain, but bigger than all the other party memberships put together.
The Jeremy Corbyn-John McDonnell leadership has been three years at the helm, and are the new establishment running and defining the party. They are now in near-total control of the party, its institutions and in tune with the expanded grassroots. This is their party now and shows no sign of changing anytime soon.
Those who are now the new outsiders are the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP): three-quarters of which tried to remove Corbyn as leader two years ago in a vote of confidence. They worry about their fate under mandatory reselection (for now postponed), long a left totem which came about in the 1980s, and saw few MPs deselected. Now many anti-Corbyn MPs worry of their future fate in a party they no longer feel comfortable in.
There are two groups of uber-outsiders. One are the few ‘out’ Blairites associated with the Progress faction who are counter-productive and toxic to most causes they advocate. Beyond the pale to most party members (and indeed a large part of public opinion) are Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell; their public support of a Brexit People’s Vote harms the campaign in the party and with many voters. The other group are those who have become associated with a potential centrist party breakaway – apart from Blair, Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna are seen as sympathetic to this for all their very public denials.
The centre of gravity in Labour has shifted in a way it never has in its history. Former rebels now talk about loyalty. Previous loyalists talk about the right to rebel. For some there is too much talk about fidelity to Corbyn and the leadership, while Corbynistas see this as declaring faith in the ongoing revolution.
This shifting sensibility has echoes in the changing state of Britain. Nothing is as it once seemed. Conventional assumptions of the economy and society, taxation, public spending and government, aided by Brexit and Tory division and weaknesses, no longer hold. All of this points to the prospect that this could be a Labour and radical left moment with fertile ground to build on – if one looks around at the UK and the condition of developed capitalist economies, the failure of the free market revolution, Thatcherism and Blairism, and unfettered capitalism; all of whose promises have turned out to be illusionary.
Radicalism should be the order of the day, questioning the old cautious assumptions about what is possible and not possible. Thus, when John McDonnell talks about what only a few years ago was unsayable for a Shadow Chancellor, proposing workers sit on company boards, and that a percentage of profits is put back into a socialised fund, it matters less that the CBI challenge this and say companies will leave the UK. Companies are already disinvesting and leaving Tory Britain now due to Brexit uncertainties.
This is a challenge to the Corbyn leadership and project. The leadership are products of the 1980s and being left out in the cold in what for them were the wilderness years of New Labour. This has created a wariness, conservatism and defensiveness – shaped by continual opposition to New Labour, being ignored and experiencing continual defeat in the party until recently.
Yet around the leadership a new left is being born, found in Momentum, but also in the flowering of all sorts of initiatives. They have grown up under the shadow of New Labour, its arrogance, overreach and association with corrosive politics, and they saw Ed Miliband’s mild mannered, hesitant distancing from this wreckage, as nowhere bold or sure enough. There are major tensions between these two groups – with the former a product of an older left tradition and the latter looking for different ways of doing things.
Labour’s prospectus in 2017 was a moderate, popular, social democratic offer. The same won’t do again next time. The party needs to offer a vibrant and striking set of proposals which reach out beyond the Labour and left tribe and speak to the concerns and hopes of voters. Obviously, the party needs a coherent, understandable Brexit position and a stance on a People’s Vote or second referendum which it sticks to. The party’s constructive ambiguity on Brexit will not do forever, aided the Brexit vote, and is costing the party now. Labour has to stand for something positive and daring on Brexit, otherwise it will lose traction on other areas. And Corbyn, McDonnell and their advisers will have to live with this, given their known Eurosceptism.
Beyond this the party has to shift from the old fashioned top-down state socialism of the past – which some still hanker after – and emphasis a decentralist, flexible, bottom-up socialism. There are numerous signals they could give that they understand this.
One would be showing that they get the changing world of work, and of opportunity, reward and exploitation. Work is not all about trade unions, lifetime jobs, and even necessarily working all of the time in one sector, public or private. Instead, it needs to understand the need many feel for more personal autonomy and choice, while offering support which makes real solidarity and security in an age if constant change and coming technology.
Too much of the party leadership’s pronouncements comes over as if believing the clock can be reversed on the last forty years and that somehow it would be desirable to take a spaceship back to 1970s Britain. This is the impression sometimes given by talking about nationalisation of the railways and public utilities. Privatisation is unpopular and a failed project, but it does not make sense to turn natural monopolies from private monopolies to public ones. Instead, a new left socialism would look at new forms of ownership, accountability and mutualism.
A decentralist left-wing agenda has long been neglected in the UK, when much of its argument is waiting to be made. The UK is the most regionally unequal country of any in the developed world and has grown much more unequal in the last decade. Taking power out of the Treasury and London hothouse, breaking up London institutions which pretend to be ‘national’, and understanding that the City of London and finance capitalism increasingly has little relationship to real business and indeed ‘crowds out’ proper investment, all show the outline of nascent agenda which challenges the stark injustices of a broken economic and social order.
However, to do this Labour has to understand that its traditional take on the British state – seeing it as an institution it captures and then pulls levers to dispense goodies and redistribute – is no longer adequate. It isn’t just the limits of old fashioned labourist social democracy and Fabianism here, which are now out of time, but the views of the traditional Labour left-wing and Bennism. All of these have had their blindsides on the British state which has become an advocate for inequality, privilege and the new global classes within Britain and who globally come here.
Labour have to know that the British state as it is currently constituted cannot be put to social-democratic ends. It needs to be broken up, if it is ever to be put back together in a way which aids it doing good. This would be a very different state from today’s morally bankrupt, discredited entity. It would be one smaller, which gave power away, was democratised, and limited by a codified constitution.
If any of this is possible the Corbyn leadership somehow have to truly appreciate Scotland and the fact it is a different country politically. Labour’s language does not help here with Ian Lavery, Labour chair, saying this week that ‘We need to kill off the nationalists in Scotland and regain that great country.’ There is no chance of that happening anytime soon, and somehow in the way Gladstonian liberalism once understood the importance of Celtic radicalism, Corbyn’s Labour have to grasp that Scottish self-government isn’t their enemy.
Finally, the party has to have something distinctive to say on England. If that isn’t an English Parliament or regional assemblies, then the ambition and scale of decentralism proposed has to be of a scale to begin awakening the English democratic imagination. As Brexit showed, if Labour does not speak with an English voice, then populists and reactionaries will – with damaging consequences for all of us.
Defining the future
The Corbyn revolution has changed Labour in ways no one thought possible a couple of years back. But now we can see it as part of a bigger picture, where the compromises and collusions of the mainstream centre-left got lost in its subservience at the feet of finance capitalism – the viability of that approach having ended a decade ago with the banking crash.
Today the political tide has turned across the developed world against turbo-charged capitalism. Even 57% of Americans view socialism in positive terms. But despite all the ferment of ideas and debate in Labour, doubts remain about what is clearly still a work in progress: about Corbyn as leader, on anti-semitism, tolerance of other opinions, and pluralism. Tellingly Labour cannot build up a sustained lead against one of the most divided governments in living memory.
Something profound is shifting in the affairs of politics, society and capitalism. The Corbyn leadership believes that that they can capture and define this. But the big question is, can Labour become a party of the future and in so doing make a different vision of the future? It has dumbfounded the critics and mainstream media, but to change the political weather permanently, it needs to avoid sitting in its own comfort zones believing its own hype. If progressive change is coming, the revolution has only barely begun.
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic and co-author of the forthcoming The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Partypublished by Biteback Publishing in January 2019.