Conflict or co-existence: Corbyn must decide

by Kevin Meagher

For those of us left fighting for Labour to remain a broad church, these are demoralising times. Never before has the state of the party offered such wildly different and mutually contradictory interpretations.

On the one hand, Labour is well-positioned in the opinion polls, with the stench of decay emanating from Theresa May’s Downing Street. A general election looms into view. What once seemed impossible – Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn – now seems a plausible outcome following last year’s general election result.

Yet these are also the worst of times.

The leadership remains disconnected from the parliamentary party, which, in turn, is at odds with most of the new grassroots. Now in its eighth year of opposition after losing power at the 2010 general election, Labour finds itself struggling to hold together its disparate and increasingly fractious traditions.

An ugly and unseemly row about anti-Semitism lingers. Chatter about MPs defecting to a new party grows more febrile. The party is balkanised and the mood is sour. Longstanding councillors and activists complain of being outmanoeuvred by a new breed of left-wing member. They, in turn, complain about the lack of radicalism they find.

On one side are the party’s ‘moderates’ – a confederation of Blairites, Brownites, Fabian gradualists, social liberals and old right wing trade union types. They have now lost control of the leadership, the grassroots and the party’s machinery and in doing so, the very direction of the party they once assumed was their birthright.

Opposing them, the ‘Corbynistas’ – an assortment of socialist puritans, young idealists and aged Trotskyites who have, against all expectations (perhaps most of all theirs), found themselves in the ascendant under the unlikely leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

This odd, contradictory bunch cohabits in the wreckage of a party soaked in kerosene, trying not to make matters worse by accidently triggering a spark that sets off a fireball.

A jaundiced interpretation, many would say. Surely, Labour’s ranks have been swelled by 300,000 new members since 2015, many of whom are young and enthusiastic and drawn to the type of conviction politics that Jeremy Corbyn offers.

Labour is now the biggest political party in Europe following the election result in June 2017 which, against all predictions, saw Labour gain 30 extra seats and deprive Theresa May of her parliamentary majority. Surely this is a cause for celebration, showing that a more left-wing offering can attract electoral huge electoral support?

Another explanation is that social media simply makes it much easier for the like-minded to congregate and agitate. Are there really more people committed to a red-bloodied form of socialism than there were in the 1980s, or is it just easier for roughly the same numbers to connect together with each other in an online form of ‘confirmation bias?’

And amid the overwhelming relief that everyone across the party felt at last year’s election result – so unexpected given predictions of electoral Armageddon – it is important to remember that Labour accrued just four extra seats than it managed in 2010, (remaining 55 seats behind Theresa May), while studies show no more young people actually voted than in previous elections.

The fact that Labour politics now generates such contradictory interpretations underscores how fundamentally divided the party now is.

What is surely beyond dispute is that Labour has been pulled out of its familiar orbit. A social democratic party that believed in a mixed economy, political moderation and an electoral appeal that successfully fused together working-class interests with middle-class aspiration is now being taken in a markedly different direction.

The moderate socialism of previous leaders – what political philosopher Bernard Crick once framed as small ‘m,’ capital ‘S’, is being replaced by a ‘public good, private bad’ dogma, casual spending commitments and rampant identity politics.

The ideological crash diet of the New Labour years has given way to binge-feeding on the old-style religion. For Blairite ministers, the mantra was ‘what matters is what works’ in a ‘one nation’ appeal. For Corbynistas, ‘replacing capitalism’ is the aim, supported by a ‘rainbow coalition’ of sectional interests.

Can Labour survive and synthesize its competing traditions? Whether or not it can or does is now a matter for Jeremy Corbyn. He holds all the cards. His two emphatic leadership victories in 2015 and 2016 have given him a powerful mandate to reshape the party in his image.

As a counter-intuitive point, it is only fair to say that, if anything, he has so far tiptoed around the sensibilities of moderates, sometimes to the chagrin of his hard left supporters. There has been no deselection of MPs or flashpoint policy disputes.

A row over unilateral nuclear disarmament has been avoided (so far) and many moderates found themselves pleasantly relieved with the contents of last year’s manifesto.

Now a democracy review looms. Any changes that make it easier to scalp sitting MPs will lead see a walk-out. This is not just ideological – its simple human psychology. Give people few options and they will act rashly.

‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose,’ sang Bob Dylan. After all, we’ve been here before. Many of the Labour MPs who defected to the SDP did so after they were deselected by their local parties. It’s in no-one’s interest for this to happen again.

That said, Jeremy Corbyn – like his predecessors – is entitled to tilt the table to his advantage to secure seats for his lieutenants. The party must make room. Moderates need to move along the bench.

The most important thing is that Labour must endure. As the most successful vehicle for social and economic change in British history, the party has to absorb all the contradictions and hypocrisies that a first-past-the-post electoral system demands, agglomerating opinion on the centre-left.

Labour must remain a coalition of moderates and radicals; socialists and social democrats. Working-class Brexit voters and middle-class Remainers. Hipster millennials and retired manual workers.

Coalescing around some shared assumptions, even when that means disagreeing on individual issues quite fundamentally. Ideological purity is an indulgence that a political party cannot afford.

The choice, then, is binary and it’s not just about moderates versus Corbynistas. It’s about whether a shared future is possible. Conflict, or co-existence. The ultras at either side must concede to those who want to save this party, or they will destroy it.

It’s time for Jeremy Corbyn to decide which side of this divide he is on.

Kevin Meagher is the associate editor of Uncut

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8 Responses to “Conflict or co-existence: Corbyn must decide”

  1. John P reid says:

    A fairly good article, that doesn’t really highlight why non Corbynistas are staying,

    there’s those who will be labour to they die or are MPs Councillors in seats where they would only win, with the labour tag ( many areas of marginal councillors can stand as independents/ or for different parties and win)

    The bob Dylan quote has one ring of truth with those who Run CLPs that know they may never get councillors in their areas and certainly not MPs and travel to other areas to canvass

    But if take dispute with your description of Factions There’s 3 more the old left Peter Shore wing of Euro skepticism who weren’t intrested in Women’s or Gay rights who didn’t twig the winter if discontent put off the electorate

    The middle class Libdem Guardian readers who want labour to be a protest group as winning a election is unimportant to them, and convince themselves that they want labour to be more democratic yet have as hoc meeting to pass illegal motions , and think Corbyn wants to stop brexit

    Then there’s the blue labour wing who had no one to vote in the leadership of 2016 so held their nose backed Corbyn and apart from Ann black have no one to vote for in the NEC , the fact blairites and the guardian reading wing of momentum think the working class are racist means they both dislike blue labour equally, apart from Jon Cruddas and frank field where there are very few blue Labour wing MPs and the working class councillors who identify with them aren’t in labour strong holds but rural working class areas where if a corbynite or blairite stood as councillor they’d lose

    What those staying on the party need to ask themselves is unless Corbyn gets a grip of the problems in the party can the leverage. Of labour worrying we’ll lose working class council seats outside of London and Liverpool scare the party into acting

    I mean fake gestures of English labour network stem from Blair pretending he liked football and If ‘neo liberal moderates’ were dejected in many areas for now , a corbynite replacement would win the seat.

    Also why did Corbyn win 2 times?, theres ‘s a mixture of those being told by their parents that Labour lost in 1983 as it wasn’t left wing enough the public were just about to be won around and Kinnock betrayed the miners by not backing Scargills illegal strike

    They’re too young to remember the 1987 and 1992 elections when we thought we’d never win again

    also there’s Collective madness, and after Ed Miliband spending 5 years denouncing new labour, then lost, it was a case of if the public are too stupid to vote labour, so they could have had a more left wing government, then they’ll realise what’s good for them and vote for a really left wing labour next time under Jeremy, Ok the candidates were no good ,especially Smith who was just offering a similar version to Corbyn but in a nicer package, and the Corbynites just totally refuse to accept to believe that labour lost votes in seats like Denis Skinners

    Had labour been massacred last year ,there would have been more of a rally cry that we’ve got to get back the rural working class vote, but those running CLP’s are the ones who live in safe metropolitan labour areas ,so they don’t twig how toxic labour has become over the last 15 years to those in the suburbs

    And lastly there’s those who re write Corbyn to be what they want him to be, with Europe being an example of they feel he’s a remainer, and as mentioned the social media side where they only here one side of an argument, as with their own side so don’t know that the whole Labour movement was against Aparthied and section 28, the difference was Corbyn did nothing except sit on the back benches in his safe seat ,not even on a select committee for 32 years, where the rest of us were getting hostility on the door step fighting marginal areas out side of labours safe zones,

    Labour is still banging on about renationalising the trains, and the NHS as if we can win a election on those 2 issues, well it didn’t work in 1992 or 2015

    Yes there’s has been a bit of a sea change in the last 4 years where the public have swung too the left on denouncing globalisation, and Theresa may is as far away form Thatcher as Corbyn is form Blair ,had labour a sensible leader we may win next time, If we quickly sort out this Trotskyite problem, but to have wasted what’s potentially a chance to bury neo liberalism by thinking identity politics can win an election, well, we’ve moved beyond the assumption that working class gay people are all pro remain or that young people are snowflakes, we tried identity politics in the 80;s to assume there was enough people interested in special interest politics to deliver us power ,it didn’t work then ,it won’t now, but this burying our heads in the sand attitude is squandering this legacy

  2. paul barker says:

    Anti Simitism aside, The Left have played a more intelligent game than many expected. They dont want Centrist MPs to break away because they can see the potential of aNew Party in Alliance with The Libdems. The strategy is to wear their opponents down till they retire or drop out of Politics; they dont need to rush.
    That is the best possible argument to break with Labour now, while you still have something to take with you.

  3. millsy says:

    The Blairites supported privatisation and austerity. They supported handing over schools to private corporations, cutting benefits and toll roads.

    That is as far away from Labour principles as we can get.

  4. millsy says:

    Do you support privatisation Reid?

  5. Ian says:

    “The most important thing is that Labour must endure”

    No, there are a considerable many things more important than that.

  6. @millsy
    While in government, New Labour significantly increased benefits.
    Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto involved cutting them by a further £7bn/yr.

    For those on benefits, whose record would be more accurately described as pro-austerity?

  7. John PReid says:

    Millsy, no ,unless you include the state employing private context it’s to build housing for councils , although if the Church of England could be segrragated from the state..

  8. millsy says:

    “While in government, New Labour significantly increased benefits.”

    They increased tax credits. Not welfare benefits. Blair and his cohorts swallow hook, line and sinker the narrative that single mothers on benefits are a drain on society and they need their benefits cut and forced into low paid service jobs.

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