The Labour Party s crisis is a problem for us all

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1 The Labour Party s crisis is a problem for us all Victor Anderson British politics is moving fast. Not so long ago just before the EU referendum the top priority seemed to be the idea of a progressive alliance, or at least some limited electoral pact, whereby Labour and other left/centre parties would co-operate to provide an alternative to the Tories at the next general election. I contributed to a recent Green House pamphlet arguing the case for that. i Others have argued for it too, including at a Compass public meeting in London which attracted around 1,000 people. However the referendum result has changed all this - along with many other things it has changed. The progressive alliance argument was based on the view that the Labour Party cannot by itself provide a sufficient basis for an alternative government, partly because it currently lacks sufficient support to be within striking distance of achieving that, and partly because it doesn t take enough account of some key policy areas, which others are raising instead most notably, the Green Party on climate change. What has happened to the Labour Party since the June 23 referendum represents a further stage in its decline, beyond the already existing weaknesses which led to the argument for a progressive pact or alliance. That argument depended on the Labour Party still being there as the biggest component part of such a pact. It was assumed, or relied on, as being able to supply a solid central block around which other parties could gather in a co-operative effort, partially co-operative anyway. Labour now is facing a much more serious prospect than simply not being able to provide a convincing alternative government on its own. It is not in good shape even to play the role which advocates of an anti-tory pact (including me before June 23) have envisaged for it. Labour has now entered a leadership election in which Jeremy Corbyn is likely to be re-elected by Labour Party members and paid-up supporters, leaving Labour MPs to decide their response, which might well be to elect a different leader of their own. Because parliamentary rules are about Members of Parliament rather than about political parties outside, it is likely that if they then chose their own Shadow Cabinet, the Speaker would have to recognise that, rather than Corbyn s shadow cabinet, as the official Opposition frontbench. At the next election, voters would want to know from their local constituency Labour candidate which leader, which Shadow Cabinet, perhaps which Labour Party, that candidate is supporting. There might even be competing Labour Labour Party and Parliamentary Labour Party - candidates in the same constituency. Facing this prospect, the priority now for advocates of a progressive alliance must surely be to support the continuation of the alliance we previously took for granted, between the different wings of the Labour Party. Without that, there is no real prospect of a successful progressive alliance gaining a parliamentary majority at the next election. An exception might be if Labour lost just a small minority of Blairites from its right wing. But if the split goes across the party as far as, for example, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, then it is divided in a way it will take at least a decade to recover from. How should Greens and other radicals outside the Labour Party respond? Members of the Green Party are better known for campaigning to save the whale than to save the Labour Party. It may seem strange to want to rescue a political adversary who we have many criticisms of and policy

2 disagreements with. Yet that is what I think we should now be joining in trying to achieve. This is for two reasons above all (1) The Green Party is nowhere near being able to achieve a political majority on its own. One MP in Brighton Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and one successful electoral pact supporting the Plaid Cymru candidate in Ceredigion (Cynog Dafis), though great victories bringing two excellent representatives into Parliament, are not enough to indicate that the Green Party will be able to get things done without co-operation with members of other parties. Of course the Green Party can campaign for its own points of view and work to highlight particular issues. But for the purposes of winning elections and actually achieving reforms, it has to co-operate with others particularly whilst there are still First Past The Post elections - and if the Labour Party is not there, it has a big problem (partly because of the decline of the LibDems too) finding enough people to co-operate with. (2) A split in the Labour Party would be punished mercilessly by the current non-proportional electoral system. Splitting the Labour vote as the Social Democratic Party did in the 1983 election would let Tory candidates win in numerous constituencies where they have less than 40%, or perhaps even less than 30%, of the total vote. The centre/left would be even more divided than it is today, the potential progressive alliance more fragmented. Even without competing candidates, the acrimony and hostility between the two sides of Labour would ensure that neither would do well, because they would each face the onslaught of the opposing wing of the Labour Party in addition to the usual opposition from the Tories and the right-wing press. With proportional representation, the outlook would be different. It would unlock the prospects for the Green Party, and it would enable both wings of the Labour Party to campaign without disastrously splitting their vote. But first PR needs to be achieved, and the only realistic possibility of achieving that is through it becoming a key principle of a progressive non-tory pact. However, in the short run, whilst we still have FPTP, no-one outside of the Green Party believes it is poised for an amazing breakthrough. And no-one outside of Momentum believes that a narroweddown or split Labour Party can win the next election. Despite all my agreement with Green principles and most of Green Party policy, and some partial sympathy too with much of what Corbyn has been saying, I have to accept that we cannot afford to let wishful thinking get in the way of political judgement. An alternative approach to the one I am arguing for here would be to create a narrower version of the progressive alliance. It could be an alliance with just one wing of the Labour Party and not the other. The Corbynistas could come to the view that they had more in common with Greens, LibDems, and the SNP than with other members of the Labour Party. However it is very unlikely that the Liberal Democrats would share that view, and so that component of the alliance or pact would be lost. If the Green Party aligned with the Corbynistas, it would be at enormous risk to itself, because it would position the party not simply to the left of the Tories, which it can fairly safely be, but to the left of the vast majority of Labour MPs, which starts to put it in a position where its distinctive role as a party could easily be lost. It would come to be seen as simply a Left Party rather than as an ecological party with important things to say on dimensions other than the left/right spectrum. That would of course then raise the question of why it would want to continue as a separate party when a Corbyn-Labour Party would already be providing a Left Party. [For a more elaborate version of this argument, see Rupert Read: In the Corbyn era, Greens must move from socialism to ecologism ii ]

3 Another option would be to align with the Parliamentary Labour Party against Corbyn-Labour. This would gain more support, from electable Labour candidates, LibDems, and potential Green voters. But it would be at the cost of losing out on what the Corbynistas can bring to an alliance or pact, which is above all a firm commitment to social justice and an understanding of the shortcomings of capitalism as a system. Labour s troubles go back a long way. It has suffered from a decline in the sense of working class community, decline in manufacturing industry and other sectors where it was strong (e.g. mining and the docks), and a decline in the size and strength of the trade unions. Adding to this have been the many disappointments of Labour governments in office, for example over often uncritical support for US foreign policy and the failure to sufficiently re-regulate the finance sector in the runup to the 2008 crash. As a result of these and other factors, most local Labour Parties have, over decades, ceased to strongly connect with the views of Labour voters in their areas and have had dwindling memberships. In the 1970s and 1980s, this made many of them ripe for takeover by the Militant Tendency. Then when Militant was defeated, it was essentially replaced by the Blair Tendency, which proved more popular with the electorate but was also based on accepting, or even encouraging, the disappearance of local parties genuinely reflecting a sense of community amongst Labour voters. Now Momentum has moved in, substituting in place of community-based local Labour parties a social movement of activists and clicktivists. However there is a problem about criticising Momentum, because it has no regular publication, no public website setting out its ideas in any detail (though there are three designs of T-shirt), not much in the way of policy positions, and no tradition of political theory (unlike the Trotskyism of Militant, for example). I also find it difficult to criticise for another reason, which is that I agree with many of the policies put forward by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and others who Momentum supports, such as bringing the railways back into public ownership and ending the policy of cutting back on public services. Because of the importance of social media in today s politics, Momentum is almost inevitably less bureaucratic and hierarchical than its predecessors on the hard left [for an exciting account of the role of social media in the campaign that got Corbyn elected leader, see Ben Sellers: #JezWeDid, in Tom Unterrainer, Corbyn s Campaign, Spokesman 2016]. Peter Mandelson beat the Left in the world of 24-hour news, but the Corbynistas have won so far in the world of twitter and facebook. However I believe Momentum have got their politics (as distinct from policy ideas) basically wrong. They rely, like Greens seeking a progressive alliance also rely, on the continued existence of a strong Labour Party. But whilst Greens would add something useful to such an alliance, in terms of voters and issues thought through, Momentum puts it in danger, because it threatens to weaken the biggest piece of the hoped-for alliance, the Labour Party. It does this simply through narrowing down the range of opinion Labour would represent if Momentum was to be successful. It gives every impression of being into the politics of winning for its own point of view rather than the politics of building whatever combinations of people are necessary for achieving a particular task (such as crucially - replacing the Conservatives at the next election). See Matt Boulton: The Terrifying Hubris of Corbynism. iii In most organisations, the issue of Corbyn s leadership would be handled through the rules and constitution. A vote of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party should be sufficient to call the existing leadership into question, and a vote as overwhelming as the one recently should

4 automatically trigger the end of that leadership. However these are not the Labour Party s rules at present, and Corbyn is within his rights, in terms of both the Labour Party s constitution and the law, to do what he is doing. But politically it is questionable, because politically there is a need for a broad-based Labour Party, which needs to include a leader commanding the support of a majority of his or her parliamentary colleagues. The refusal to recognise this political reality is the outcome of a very natural process of bubble thinking, which occurs in many different organisations. The most powerful political bubble is the famous Westminster bubble, which includes not only MPs and their staff, but also the journalists who talk to and report on them. Now Momentum, and the many local Labour Parties which support their approach, have created a powerful bubble of their own. Such bubbles are dangerous because they can become all-consuming for those inside them, blocking off real listening to life and opinions outside the bubble. Its inhabitants come to think that it is only the opinions of those inside that count. The approach taken by Corbyn s supporters is partly a matter of choice about tactics. It is much easier for Momentum to rally those who already agree with it through social media, petitions, demonstrations, meetings than it is to go out and persuade those who don t, or don t yet, or don t entirely. It is much easier to just vote, run slates of candidates, put forward motions, and so on, within the structures of the Labour Party than to extend the base of support of Labour and other progressive parties. Yet those easier types of tactics are not what will move society leftwards in fact, they may easily have the opposite effect, making life easier for the Conservatives. This is partly about whether activists in politics simply rush to express their own views, or whether they seek to reflect to some extent, or at least take into account, what other people are prepared to go along with. It was worth a try, and it might have turned out differently, but Corbynism clearly isn t succeeding if it can t even win the co-operation of more than a third of the Shadow Cabinet (especially as some previous frontbenchers refused to join Corbyn s Shadow Cabinet in the first place). There is support for Corbyn amongst the party membership and amongst some of the voters, but it needs support at all levels to be successful. It can t afford to leave some out, in this case the levels of frontbench and backbench MPs [Gramsci discusses this general issue in The Modern Prince as the law of fixed proportions : Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart 1971, pages 190/191]. We have seen the seriousness with which the Conservative Party approaches the question of power. Many people said that the EU referendum would split the Tories for at least a decade, but it is now rapidly coming back together, despite continued differences of opinion. With Theresa May, it is renewing and reinventing itself: a bit less neoliberalism, a bit more conservatism, a bit less free market, bit more national sovereignty, George Osborne out, David Davis back in. Will the centre/left play its cards as carefully? There are differences to debate, of course there are. Labour over and over again shows it has still not really thought about the implications of climate change. The Green Party remains the only party which has any sense of the historical period we are living in, one in which the global economy is hitting up against the boundaries of what the planet can sustain. But this is not just about the expression of opinions. It is also about achieving real change, about putting together the combinations of people and ideas needed for particular tasks, moving beyond tribal overidentification with one particular party or faction, and seeking common ground where

5 we can find it. If the Labour Party falls apart, we can say goodbye to the possibility of replacing the Tories in government at the next election. And the one after. Some suggestions 1. Discussions about a progressive alliance or progressive pact should include as their first priority the need to maintain a broad-based Labour Party and to prevent the Labour Party from splitting. 2. Labour Party members should be reminded by those outside the Party that this is not simply an internal dispute, to be played out according to the Labour Party s rules, but a matter of great concern for everyone who wants to see the Conservative Party defeated at the next election. 3. Labour Party members and supporters should be encouraged to elect Owen Smith as Leader. Despite many disagreements with him from my own perspective, I believe that his political positioning on the soft left gives him the possibility of acting as a focus for the full range of opinion in the Labour Party (significantly to the left of all three of the leadership candidates Jeremy Corbyn defeated last year) and for achieving the necessary compromises to maintain a fully functioning Labour Party. 4. If he is elected, Owen Smith should reach out to Corbyn and his supporters and offer places to some of them in his Shadow Cabinet. 5. There should also be support from outside the Labour Party for Owen Smith s suggestion that a second EU referendum may be necessary, once it is clear what sort of Brexit deal is on offer. This contrasts with Corbyn s approach, most notably his call for the immediate triggering of Article Owen Smith s campaign launch call for action on climate change should be followed up by pressure on him to make much more explicit what policy changes he is advocating. Victor Anderson, Green House core team and former Green Party London Assembly Member. August 2016 i The Green Case For A Progressive Pact (Green House, July 2016) 16.pdf ii cialism_to_ecologism.html iii

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