What would a left government in the UK would look like? James Butler examines the left's challenges in building the Corbyn surge into a wholesale political transformation.
It is almost a week since the surprise of the election: well-deserved hangovers will have cleared, bodies exhausted from canvassing will have rested, and much gloating and settling of scores taken place, as is proper. Contrary to the expectations of virtually everyone, Theresa May has somehow not resigned, instead preferring to enter into an uneasy alliance with that political arm of the 18th century, the DUP. The Tory government looks weak and the party riven with cracks. Jeremy Corbyn, having led the most startling polling recovery of any party in postwar British history, in the face of overwhelming opposition from his MPs and the press as well as the Conservatives, entered the House of Commons to a standing ovation. What a difference six weeks make.
No-one seriously believes that May’s government will manage to stay together to see through an entire parliamentary term. Another general election, therefore, looks likely sooner rather than later. A week ago, I wrote that the campaign had shifted the space of the politically possible in the UK – farther and faster than anyone had expected. It put back on the agenda arguments for public ownership and social provision which had been unspeakable in the British mainstream for years, and did so by a resurgence in the kind of mass politics long absent from the electoral sphere in this country. After campaigns of any sort, especially those which lose, activists find themselves burned out or exhausted. Return to politics-as-normal – the tittle-tattle of lobby journalists, the finger-wagging bromides of columnists, the inertia of the party at local level – might be expected to dispirit and demobilise the many who participated in Labour’s electoral efforts, animated by the large-scale vision of the manifesto. Instead, many are electrified with ambition, having felt the political ground move beneath their feet, and are now thinking seriously about ways forward.
As the numbers and breakdowns from the election begin to become available, there’s a lot to hearten Corbynites. The most striking data concern age: every age cohort under 44 broke very strongly for Labour in this election. There has been much celebration of the increase in youth turnout, yet although its effects were real, it is the larger trend which will worry the Tories more. The Labour coalition in this election did not consist only of the starry-eyed young, but the age cohorts most exposed to economic fluctuation. These are the generations which came to adulthood post-Blair, and the younger layers post-financial crisis. Many will not have been able to buy a home; most will have seen little in the way of a pay rise in the past decade. Many will worry about whether they will ever be able to own a house, or whether their children will go to schools crumbling round their ears or segregated at age 11; many will also worry about how to care for their parents in their old age. Certainly, the Conservative manifesto calamitously misjudged the mood of this part of the electorate, but it is also clear that Labour’s manifesto struck at a political inclination among the British people which has often been declared either extinct or unviable: an appetite for social democratic policy far to the left of anything on offer in decades.
To be clear, this is not the politics of intergenerational warfare. To operate on that ground would be fatal for Labour: young people, after all, have parents and grandparents, and generally dislike being set against them; in any case, an offer to pensioners was part of the success story in this election, and some attention must be paid to wearing down the Tory hold there. The generational distribution of the vote can hide the most fruitful avenue to pursue: the combination of GDP growth along with stagnant real wages point to a strong story to be told about the social poison of tax avoidance, lax enforcement and austerity. With price inflation – including the sharpest year-on-year rise in food production price since the financial crash – mismatched to flatlining wages, those who have been lucky enough not to feel the crunch yet will begin to notice it as May staggers on. Between tangible pain and manifest injustice – the combination of cost-of-living rises and unequal distribution – there is a strong foundation for a Labour campaign which breaks far through its current achievement.
If the new crop of MPs has moved the parliamentary party a bit to the left of its previous incarnation, then the left’s overall position in the party as a whole is still weak. Strengthening that position requires not only an influx of left-wing talent to the parliamentary party, but thoroughgoing renewal of the party’s decayed internal democracy. The most immediately pressing of tasks – and one which will be unfamiliar to many of the more street or movement-oriented Corbynites – is to ensure a strong left-wing presence at the forthcoming party conference. Not only is this important in bedding-in the party’s left turn, it will be necessary to pass the so-called ‘McDonnell Amendment’, a rule change lowering the threshold of MP nominations for ballot access in any future leadership election. For the present, Corbyn’s position is secure, but if one accepts it was largely luck which allowed Corbyn to make it to the ballot in the first place, the conditions for left-wing succession must be secured.
There are other democratising measures to consider. The most prominent and contentious are to do with candidacies for parliament. Currently, sitting MPs are automatically reselected to stand for parliament in a general election; the procedures for a CLP to sanction or deselect a sitting MP have extremely high thresholds. There is some sense to this: it avoids the threat of deselection looming over every minor squabble or disagreement, and the ease with which some on the party’s left bandy around the threat of deselection is irritating (especially because it is so toothless a threat). Nonetheless, it does not seem right that an MP should be so entirely insulated from accountability: a process of democratic reselection, allowing open contest from constituency members, ought to be considered – along the lines already imposed on councillors. Additionally, although the imposition of candidates by the NEC in the past snap election was understandable, given the short timeframe in which it had to be conducted, the likelihood of a new election in the near future means democratic selection procedures ought to begin relatively soon.
Corbyn and the team around him have developed a strong sense of what has worked for them in this election: the decision to put the party on a permanent election footing, the promised tour of Tory marginals, and the refusal to bring dregs of Blairism into the shadow cabinet are all good signs. (The latter deserves some comment: according to many commentators, given no pause by their failure to read Corbynism correctly for the past two years, readmission of Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna to shadow cabinet would be ‘pragmatic’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only would the erstwhile champions of the private sector be unable to defend the content of the manifesto, they would be a sign to the many voters returning to Labour their trust was misplaced.) Yet along with the focus on building a movement in the country, deft political operation in Westminster will be essential to breaking May’s government to pieces. There are ample opportunities here: any minority government is going to have a hard time passing legislation even with the support of the DUP – it will require strict management of every MP on the government’s side – and public bill committees without government majority provide ample room for forensic amendment and resistance by Labour members. The Lords, which has frustrated Tory governments in the past, will not feel restrained by the Salisbury convention. The government can’t avoid these pressures by simply not legislating – at the very least there is important Brexit legislation which needs to be laid soon.
Pressure in parliament alone is not enough. The political space opened by the campaign will only remain open if it is sustained by media engagement: that requires media-friendly Corbynites to demand their views be taken seriously and represented by the political mainstream – not least because of the near universal failure of media commentators to understand the Corbyn project. But it also requires left media to carry out a complex, Janus-faced task: of both talking to the movement, hosting debates, nurturing its sense of itself, spurring to action, alongside facing outward, speaking both to curious consumer and mainstream media forums alike. It is a challenging but necessary step.
Momentum has come out of this election campaign with countless plaudits: from its digital innovation to its sheer wilful optimism, bussing canvassers to marginals written off by party HQ, and tearing up the targeting lists and insisting on speaking to every voter – a technique introduced to Momentum by American Sanders organisers. It can no longer be dismissed as an organisation of starry-eyed naïfs, sinister infiltrators or sofa-bound ‘clicktivists’. Its internal problems are a thing of the past, but the questions and arguments over its direction remain unresolved. The organisation rejected (correctly, in my view) calls for a parallel policy structure to the party proper, instead insisting its activists should engage and win in it, thus averting the tendency for the left to become involuted, faction-bound and minoritarian. Yet Momentum’s internal tension – which has been with it since its beginnings – will now come to a head. It is a tension (sometimes productive) between orientation to the party’s apparatus and to grassroots community work. So, on the one hand the organisation encourages its members to back officers in, for example, elections to the NEC, on the other, it fosters initiatives more typical of a social movement, like Momentum Kids. Internal arguments tend to be over which ought to be emphasised, yet miss that both constitute Momentum’s strength – its possibility, not yet fully realised, to act as a connector and force multiplier of local campaigns, as well as a substantial force within the party. Each depends on the other. One possible route to electoral success, and a channel for power-building in constituencies where Labour failed to gain a seat this time, would be exactly the sort of campaigning work – so-called ‘dog-shit politics’ – Momentum can carry out.
If that sounds a bit like squaring the circle, it is: it is an attempt to reconcile one of the most difficult issues in contemporary left politics – the interaction between social movement-style politics and operation within the political sphere proper. It will entail mistakes, and it will entail conflict, especially at the local level. Caution, judgement and a certain intransigence are all necessary qualities. Yet it is the key to unlocking the potential demonstrated on Thursday of last week, and to building the Corbyn surge into a wholesale political transformation.
That does not mean there are no problems with either the Corbyn project or the Labour Party more broadly. In its election materials it has strategically prevaricated about migration policy; Corbynite Labour can be too incurious about the abuses of the state – despite Corbyn’s own laudable record on both matters. Pressure from within and outside the Labour Party on both issues is essential. Internal disagreement on the domestic agenda is dwarfed by the gap in the parliamentary party on foreign policy: it precipitated the Hilary Benn-led internal fight last year, and could kick off yet again. Deeper problems still exist, not least the deep-rooted tendency to nod along to parliamentary proprieties. Parts of the left with long memories will remember the high hopes placed in the Wilson administration, and their eventual thwarting – in part because of the conflict with his own cabinet. History is not bound to repetition, but its lessons must be learned.
Yet the eyes of the Labour left ought not now be trained solely on the way to power, but what left government in the UK would look like. There are at least two issues which cry out for reflection here: one is clarifying the party’s currently ambiguous Brexit policy, perhaps through the lens of the simmering cost-of-living crisis. Its current vagueness has served well to keep the various party factions at bay, but will not remain that way forever. The second is to think about previous attempts to alter neoliberal policy consensus, and the punitive measures inflicted by capital in response to it – Mittérand being the prime, but not sole, example. Both are difficult, and require serious minds and resources to deal with, but without their solving, a Corbynite government would amount to a flash in the pan.
That we can talk of even the possibility of left government in the UK is a measure of how far we have come in the past two years, and how profoundly politics has changed in the near decade since the crash of 2008. We are not there yet. And as a historically literate left-winger, and one who holds positions to the left even of Corbyn, I am acutely aware of the limits and contradictions of Labour’s programme – not to mention the colossal resistance it has already and will yet face. Yet at the same time there is a singular opportunity to effect political change on a scale undreamt of by the British left for decades. To pass that up because of a love of minoritarianism, a nihilating cynicism which sees change as always doomed to failure or decay, or some hoary doctrine about the Labour Party’s unalterable nature – that would be colossal folly. It is time to win.
James Butler is an editor at Novara Media. Become a subscriber and support Novara Media from £1 per month.