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Eternal Corbynism

Long to reign over us? The decision of Labour’s National Executive Committee this week to lower the Labour leadership ballot threshold to 10% and set up a review into party democracy headed by Katy Clark is a welcome advance for Corbynism. Not only does Corbynism now stand a better chance of continuing after Jeremy, the extra seat for an affiliated trade union (USDAW) and three more for the members’ section of the NEC opens the party to more pressure from and accountability to the members. While I’d like to have seen more it’s a good start (who knows, conference might decide it should go further) but it shows the distance travelled in two years. Not only was the leadership question definitely settled by the general election, but the deal done on lowering the threshold and the concession of the review shows the Corbyn-sceptic and hostile forces are firmly on the retreat.

For our friends in Progress it’s like the sky’s come falling in (as we know, that’s a real possibility as far as they’re concerned). Director Richard Angell said “we are now in a permanent campaign to undermine the role of MPs, marginalise their voice and get them to acquiesce.” Likewise on Newsnight, Matt Pound for Labour First bemoaned the diminution of influence for the Parliamentary Labour Party and raised the prospect of nine or more MPs standing for election in future contests.

I disagree with these arguments, but I do understand them. The sacrosanct status and power of the party’s MPs is embedded in Labourism’s DNA. They’re the ones who work full-time in politics, whose minds range over legislation, hold the government to account, deal with constituents, formulate policies and provide leadership to the anonymous mass of subs payers in the party – as well as faces to vote for. This is a privileged position for all kinds of reasons, not least because being a Labour MP puts one close to decision making. As we’ve seen before, the PLP’s strength resides in its relationship to public opinion. MPs feel the pressure of the polls bearing down on them because a) constituents can vote them out, and b) Westminster is bounded on all sides by a cacophony of media chatter, which is taken as synonymous with public opinion. They have a unique position in British politics shared by few and this can lead to an entitled view, that their opinions and strategies should carry greater weight than ordinary members, regardless of their commitment and political experience.

Privilege can be blinding, and this is the case here. They deal with politics, engage with constituents, get their heads wrapped around arcane Commons procedure but, ultimately, Labour MPs are largely shielded from the consequences of the legislation they pass. When a cut to social security is made, they don’t feel the cut. If schools and NHS budgets are frozen, or market principles extended in public services, or the thousand and one other foolish things Labour did when it was last in power, this doesn’t make an immediate difference to their lives in the way it does for people who work in or depend on these services. Yet time and again Labour MPs have voted for legislation that makes life tough because it’s “what the electorate wanted”. Instead of leading opinion, it’s easier to capitulate to it. Hence public opinion as constructed by the media is pernicious – often framed in right wing terms, it nevertheless gains currency in MPs’ everyday life because it can easily be related to the racist rant from last week’s postbag, the blitz of organised kippery emails, or the constituent moaning about their dole wallah neighbours during Saturday’s door knocking.

Members provide ballast to these Westminster flights. While it is true they can be odd and out of touch (Stoke Central backed David Miliband in 2010), this is much more likely when the party is adrift from the forces it is supposed to represent. This was the case when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ran the joint, and to a slightly lesser extent under Ed Miliband. Then the party was largely in the grip of unrepresentative and unaccountable cliques, Progress and Labour First among them. The Corbyn surge has changed all this. While the Labour right were in long-term decline anyway, a party of almost 600,000 members cannot be anything but representative of a vast actually-existing constituency. The wisdom of the crowd decreed that Jeremy Corbyn was the best man for the job, and a significant (and growing) proportion of the electorate agrees. It turned out, against the grain of Labourism, that the lowly members were right and the exalted Parliamentarians were wrong. And it’s not difficult to see why. Members are normal people dealing with the normal pressures of life. They live with the consequences of boss friendly austerity policies MPs only saw second hand. The initial Corbyn surge may have been an inchoate mass but it is better attuned to what is going on in the real world. Furthermore, as this membership is networking and connecting, it is becoming increasingly clued up and aware not just as Labour members but as part of a wider class with a shared outlook and shared interests. Its collective intelligence and experience reaches out in all directions and is condensing a more rounded, accurate picture of politics than that available to our MPs.

That doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to our honourable members, but their exalted position is unsustainable. As conservatives bewildered by the world, Progress and Labour First are clinging to Labourism past because even now, after politics has been rewritten and rewired and matters are assuming a polarising aspect, they perform a studied refusal to come to terms with the new and pine for the return of the old. It’s their loss, because it makes the project of remaking the Labour Party easier. In short, Labour has to embrace the members, the class that have turned it inside out and upside down if it ever wants to continue existing, let alone winning an election. The NEC decision is definitely a step in the necessary direction.

This post previously appeared at All that is Solid

4 Comments

  1. kurt andersen says:

    Lots of silly names for returning to democracy. This is not some ism, some weird doctrine without roots, nothing particularly original.
    The Labour Party does not belong within the cult of personality and it is an insult to push it into that fascistic mould. The cult of personality is a betrayal of socialism and of democracy

  2. Bazza says:

    But many have rallied to JC because he stands for what WE belive in – in effect JC agees with us!
    Funny comment from Right Wing Luke the Nuke – against left wing democratic socialist. DEMOCRATIC changes in Labour, he says we will fight and fight again for the party we love but perhaps what he really means is.
    No Labour members we are children, we must listen to Right Wing Labour MPs – they are the adults and they know better than us – we should fight and fight again for our Masters and Mistresses (The ‘Great Men and Women of History’ – without an original idea in their heads!)
    But perhaps we should draw from the fantastic life experiences of our diverse grassroots members and build a left wing, grassroots, bottom up, participatory, socialism WITH perhaps what socialism was always meant to be!
    Solidarity!

  3. Rod says:

    Dreadful article. Phil needs to put his thinking cap on and pull his socks up.

    The 10% compromise is a defeat – the McDonnell Amendment proposed a 5% threshold. Given that PPC selection procedure is still opaque – with many PPCs selected in the Blairite era – there is a very good chance of more anti-Corbyn, Blairite MPs getting elected at the next general election. This means the 10% will be hard to achieve and is why it has been welcomed by Blairites in Labour First. And if Corbyn becomes PM, the Blairites will, as they have done previously, back the Tories rather than a ‘people first’ alternative. Corbyn will be neutralised.

    And democratic reform has been kicked so far down the road that it’s not going to happen until after the next general election. This means that the 100,000s who have joined the LP in support of the policies associated with Corbyn are going to remain a silenced majority within the LP.

    1. Danny Nicol says:

      Yes, although one cannot be sure, the Left has probably gifted the post of next Party leader back to the Right.

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