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How can Corbyn lead a party when he’s in a small minority where it matters most?

What happens when you are elected leader of the Labour Party with a massive mandate but a small minority where it most matters? Jeremy Corbyn is not the first Labour leader to find himself in this position and so we should consider what he can learn from the last one who faced a similar, perhaps even worse predicament. Tony Blair.

Martin Kettle in an article for the Guardian on 28 September 1996 entitled Blair’s Shadow Army (in the archive, £) explained the problem, and he was and remains someone not unsympathetic to “the project“. He quoted one Labour MP who claimed that “perhaps a dozen” of her colleagues could truly be classified as Blairites which he thought in reality, “deep down“, was “about right“:

At the top, they all claim to be Blairites now. But that’s because the election is around the corner and because Blair will deal out the jobs if Labour wins.

He added that MPs’ researchers, speech-writers and the party backroom staff were more commonly Blairite although “that’s as often for opportunistic reasons as from conviction“, but queried how enthusiastic members who had joined the party in the two years since his election really were:

How often do you actually come across people who say they are really inspired by Blairism? In my experience, very rarely. And even less often outside the political class. I would feel much more confidence on Blair’s behalf if I knew or bumped into lots of Blairites, or if the spontaneous reaction to the mention of the Labour leader’s name among people I met was enthusiasm rather than disappointment.”

And that was seven years before the Iraq war when polls were putting Labour 27% ahead of the Tories. Since Blair had become leader, 116,000 people had joined the party though Kettle notes it was “impossible to discover how many people have left, rather than joined, since 1994“.

This certainly matches my observations during the Blair years when most members were, of course, pleased to be in government, but in general never really supported any aspect of Blair’s “modernisation” such as privatisation, academy schools, Foundation hospitals, internal markets, or being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich“. They hated the Iraq war and most (even if they voted for the ‘wrong’ Miliband) agreed with the man rightly credited with initiating”the project“, Neil Kinnock, when he saidwe’ve got our party back“. And I think we got the final proof in last summer’s result. 4.5%.

In comparison with Blair, Corbyn enjoys more support and enthusiasm for what he believes in from the membership. He has attracted them into the party in much greater numbers than Blair, and his mandate was greater. Even in the parliamentary party, he doesn’t start out with fewer real supporters than Blair if Martin Kettle is to be believed. There are, however, two factors which make his task substantially more difficult:

  1. He did not inherit a twenty point lead over the Tories in the opinion polls like Tony Blair did in 1994 (more than double the margin by which he actually won in 1997) so the power of patronage as a means of controlling the parliamentary party is not available to him.
  2. He believes in democracy not command and control. He may be firmly set in his principles but he would never say as Blair did to Philip Gould (The Unfinished Revolution, p216): “I will never compromise. I would rather be beaten and leave politics than bend to the party. I am going to take the party on.”

The lesson from that first disadvantage is to keep a cool head and understand why the electorate rejected Labour in the last two elections and in fact takes a pretty dim view of politics and politicians in general. Let’s not hear any bullshit from anyone about why, in the interests of winning in 2020, we have to do whatever they wanted us to do in the first place. And you don’t have to take it from a Corynista:

I want a no-holds barred, no bullshit, straight-talking debate, in which no-one claims to have all of the answers and everyone accepts the shortcomings of *everything* that has come before.

So said Mark Ferguson before he (unwisely as it turned out) left the editorship of LabourList to be spin doctor to the wrong straight-talking leadership candidate. I mean that in the sense only that Jeremy got 13 times more votes because Mark presumably backed Liz Kendall because, as well as being the Blairite candidate, she must have satisfied the criterion he set in that piece for his support – that they be “one that understands the sheer scale of the long road back from where the party stands now“.

And so to democracy. It is a much harder road than dictatorship. There is much still to do to empower the members of the Labour Party and it will be resisted by all those whose power is threatened. It involves risks, and if you lose the vote you have to accept it or, like Gaitskell, “fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty“.

It does require taming MPs. That is nothing new, every Labour leader does it somehow. It’s what the whips are there for but we all understand why Jeremy’s experience means that is not his way. Jeremy must do it not with the carrots and sticks he offers but by ensuring accountability to the members. That will require rule changes which will be opposed by those who want him to fail but not by anyone who believes in democracy. It is not about deselecting MPs because all party members, on left and right, respect MPs who respect them, who think for themselves but are also prepared to justify the decisions they take, and who work hard alongside their local activists.

There may be a few casualties just as there are every year when members select their council candidates, but they wil be the exception not the rule. No-one suggests that is a problem with councillors because it is accepted that party members have a right to choose their candidates.

It will require further reforms to party conference, to the composition of the national executive and to the workings of the national policy forum. For too long, in spite of years of criticising the left for being introspective and obsessed with rule changes and bureaucracy, it is the right that has created within the party a bureaucracy of Kafkaesque proportions. To give the appearance of a policy process and to use the language of “listening” and “engagement”  whilst quietly taking all power to the centre. So grim has this process been that in the Labour Party, you have to be over 50 or not to have been a member of it for at least 25 years to even have any expectation of real involvement in any meaningful process of decision-making.

The time for a return to democracy is now. For Jeremy and for every Labour activist who wants him to succeed.

4 Comments

  1. Andy Newman says:

    exactly

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    Interestingly you quote Gaitskill. What he was fighting against was the 1960 party conference decision to adopt multi lateral nuclear disarmament which he successfully overturned the following year.

    1. peter willsman says:

      CLPD are preparing draft rule changes.These will be circulated to all CLPs in a month or so and will be posted on Leftfutures.

  3. John P Reid says:

    But according to ken livingstone ,kinnocks quote we’ve got our party back ,was wrong as Ken now reckons that Ed milibnd was A blairite and new labour, and the right of the party ,lost in May ,so we have to swing away from Blairite Ed miliband, to win

    It’s also worth noting you feel that kinnock started the New labour project,so in the 6 elections of new Labour, 1987,1992,1997,2001,2005 and 2010 ‘ labour has increased its vote from 8.4million, to 8.65million in 2010, so even the screams you list 5 million votes, doesn’t take into account,that the 8.65million who voted labour in 2010 was an increase in Ols labours go in 1983

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