Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Labour Moses and his promised land

The Labour Moses and his promised land

Jeremy Corbyn’s endorsement in the recent elections as leader of the Labour party has been claimed as a victory for democracy. It is certainly a victory for a particular movement within the Labour party, the party within the party that is called “Momentum”.

Both parallels and differences have been drawn between Momentum and the infiltration in the 1980s of the party by the “Militant Tendency”. The main difference is one of ideology: Militant was a covert group with a Trotskiest ideology, which bound its members together. Moment is not an external ideology but a grouping of the far left activists within the Labour party.

But it is still a forceful and cohesive group within the party. While to date the group has been run by four interim staff, Momentum now wants to hire eight permanent employees including a national coordinator, press officer and social media manger. Salaries are forecast to total £243,000 a year.

Labour has, of course, always been a coalition movement; all major political parties are. The difference in the current situation is that the membership no longer represents a broad range of views as much as it did ten years ago; it has shifted markedly to the left, who have been organised under the Momentum umbrella in a way that the right of the party has not.

This is why we see the right in such disarray. Their base is being cut away from under them, as the appeal of the party to the left grows, and membership is, after all, cheap. Instead of constituencies which have grown organically over the decades, this is a new phenomenon, and one they are ill-equipped to deal with.

The last time the left had such great dominance over the labour party was in the 1980s, and it is instructive to see that while the democratic card is played to effect, so is the resurgence of the threat in that decade of deselection for MPs who do not tow the activists line.

The case of Reg Prentice is instructive in that regard, in that in 1976, he was deselected by his Constituency Labour Party. Despite support of the labour old guard members against new activists, Reg Prentice made the decision, on deselection, to join the Conservatives, betraying the very members who had supported him and even fought in the Courts.

“The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour” by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys explains how the change came about in his constituency:

“The Newham North East constituency party epitomised the type of moribund party that had been brought to life in the early 1970s by new activists with higher education who were part of the growing non-manual population in the area”

These education middle class activists made inroads against the old labour membership and took control of the General Management Committee of the local party. The old guard were used to keeping matters ticking over, and most of the membership in the locality was not active, providing ripe pickings for the activists. 

There were over 1,000 members of the Labour party in that constituency, but (as is common with most societies) only a small number took an active role in the committee meetings. As Paul McCormick showed in "Enemies of Democracy", that situation meant that the activist has an advantage in steering the party their way.

“None of the twenty-nine delegates to the GMC (General Management Committee) that voted to deselect Prentice even belonged to CLPD at the time, and only four (none of them in a leading position) were Young Socialists who were supporters of Militant. Of the nineteen GMC delegates who supported Prentice, on the other hand, all but four were retired manual trade unionists, who were increasingly atypical within the community.”

As Geoff Horn noted: “Meetings were presided over by long-standing ward officers and were a relatively gentle affair, conducted in a rather apolitical atmosphere. The main focus was in maintaining party cohesion and comradery through an extensive diary of social and fund-raising events. “

All this was to change, and instead of maintaining links with the wider community, the activists moved the focus of the party to the left, and looked to pull the strings of MPs to make them effectively puppets of their views; described in religious terms, they might be described as moving the party from a broad church to an intellectually rigid fundamentalism.

The landscape of the 1980s saw a reaction against the Wilson and Callaghan governments by the activists, who were wanted a far more left wing agenda, and saw the previous Prime Ministers as having sold out for political power.

The result was the election of Michael Foot as Party Leader, very popular within the party and with the unions, just as Jeremy Corbyn had been, but not as popular within Labour MPs. Nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament and a raft of other issues not unlike those espoused by Jeremy Corbyn were popular with the activists within the party, but not with the electorate as a whole.

Instead of the reassuring genial tones of Harold Wilson, or the avuncular Jim Callaghan, a majority of the electorate saw a party increasing moving away from the issues that concerned them, and away from the political centre, and a much less reassuring image emerged.

What Wilson realised so clearly was that the Labour party needed to appeal to that political centre, that the party faithful would vote for you anyway, but there had to be sufficient appeal to non-party members. Under Foot, the activists pressed on with pressure on the more recalcitrant MPs, and some stayed within the Party, some left to form the Social Democrats.

Neil Kinnock took steps to tame the wilder excesses of the activists, and produced a filmic party political broadcast in an attempt to shift the party back more towards a centre appeal. He failed, but he laid the groundwork for Tony Blair’s rebranding of Labour as “New Labour” and a move towards the centre, at a time when the Conservatives were facing divisions between left and right within their own party over Europe. By 1997, the Conservatives had run out of steam under the tired managerial style of John Major, and the result was a landslide for the more centrist vision of New Labour.

But the left remained within the party, most notably with John Prescott, as Blair also realised the left needed to be part of the new government. Blair retained centre stage through two successive election victories after that.

But reaction was setting in. On the one hand, David Cameron reclaimed more of the centre than Gordon Brown, while Labour began to shift leftwards under Ed Milliband. Under Jeremy Corbyn the move has been even more marked, and while there can be little doubt that Corbyn is popular among the party faithful, and particular the Momentum group which coheres about his particular political ideology, it remains to be seen how electable that position is.

Like the Labour Party under Michael Foot, they are ashamed of the previous Prime Ministers and regard them as compromising their ideals for the sake of political power. And yet it was Blair who won power after the party had decades in the political wilderness. It was not Michael Foot, whose agenda most resembles that of Corbyn.

Labour needs 104 seats in England and Wales and 40% of the vote in order to win. Because of the first past the post system, most seats are fairly fixed in allegiances so it is the marginals which make the difference. In the marginals, four out every five of the extra votes must come from those who voted Conservative last time.

Will they support Corbyn and his particular brand of Labour? Will they support re-nationalization of the railways and energy companies, confiscatory taxation, price and rent controls, maximum wage, unilateral disarmament, and a massive shift of power away from individuals and the private sector and back to central state control?

The past of history of the Labour party in the 1980s makes such a sea change seem unlikely. As Daniel Allington wrote:

“Today, as Labour leader, Corbyn is himself the biggest obstacle to a Labour government: a man who actually doesn’t care what proportion of the public votes for the Labour Party as long as his faction is in control of it.”

The modern activists are youngsters who never lived through the wilderness of the Foot and Kinnock years, who never saw the disasters that that fervent left wing agenda caused to the Labour parties chances of electoral success. I lived through that turmoil and damage to the electability of Labour, and I was disappointed that there really was little choice for the British public, no opposition strong enough to take upon Margaret Thatcher and win.

But Theresa May is no Thatcher, and the Conservative Party is still in internal turmoil from the results of the referendum. It would be a tragedy if Jeremy Corbyn, in search of the promised land flowing with milk and honey, and only seeking to appeal to his own activists, led the Labour party off to spend forty years in the electoral wilderness.

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