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Corbynism, martyrdom and the other Labour split – Part III

The future of the Labour Party depends on how the party’s centre and ‘soft left’ responds to the emerging divide between Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters

Craig Berry, Deputy Director at SPERI

Craig BerryThe attempt to renew the British left via Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has failed, largely because his supporters’ efforts to sanitise Corbyn’s destructive politics has failed.  Through a mixture of naivety, hubris, loyalty and fatigue, however, his supporters will not act to depose him before 2020, despite the deepening of divisions occasioned by Corbyn’s recent speech at a Socialist Workers’ Party rally.  This impasse reveals the near-impossible situation the Labour Party now finds itself in, with a leader whose own supporters acknowledge has put the party on an inalterable path to electoral oblivion.

Of course, after the somewhat farcical Owen Smith challenge to Corbyn over summer, Labour’s ‘moderate’ wing (for want of a much better term) is in no position to act again on its own behalf. It must accept the coming wound of the 2020 election as penance for the complacency of the New Labour era, when Labour’s leaders were, at best, indifferent and, at worst, openly hostile to the resilience of the labour movement.

However, while Corbyn’s unassailable position is currently an acute problem for Labour, the ‘Podemisation’ process which underpins this status quo must ultimately be seen as a positive development for the British left. Crucially, there remains the possibility of a reconfiguration within Labour’s sizeable activist base, as support for Corbyn continues to ebb and the Conservative government’s flirtation with ‘hard Brexit’ acts to unify the party irrespective of its leader’s Euroscepticism.  A new entente between the less-loyal group of predominantly younger Corbynistas and the centre and ‘soft left’ of the party would accelerate this reconfiguration, and offers the only meaningful path to a post-Corbyn reconstruction of Labour.

The former group, increasingly, is a movement without a mission. Entente would mean co-operating with the latter group to forge new framings, objectives and organisational forms for the left, acknowledging that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – not Corbyn or Momentum, nor even, to a lesser extent, the trade unions – is now the most important conduit between the party and the working class.

It is primarily the PLP, however, whose next few moves will be most decisive in this regard. To succeed, it must be bold in its political strategy, yet simultaneously humble in recognising its failings.

Paradoxically, the pre-requisite of any entente with Corbyn supporters (i.e. future former Corbyn supporters) is for the PLP to cleanly disassociate itself from the Corbyn leadership. This is not to suggest that MPs in particular shadow ministerial briefs cannot do some good in opposition.  But whether frontbench or backbench, Labour MPs opposed to Corbyn require a single, separate structure within parliament through which to organise, with an identifiable leader and a coherent policy platform.

A formal split would be a disaster for Labour under first-past-the-post, and would kill any hope of entente. At the same time, however, individual Labour MPs need to be able to offer a plausible account to voters in their constituencies of why they should vote for Labour despite reservations about the party leadership.  The formation of new parliamentary mechanisms by which to oppose the government and showcase an alternative could be at the core of these conversations.  The ability of the PLP to connect with voters and effectively oppose the government will contrast sharply with the inadequacies that Corbyn’s own supporters are increasingly recognising in his leadership.

The new grouping need not be seen as inherently hostile, insofar as it would be focused on developing responses to exigent political dilemmas rather than opposing Corbyn for its own sake. In fact, Corbyn has himself presented the PLP with a delicious opportunity in this regard.  The appointment of the widely-respected Keir Starmer to shadow David Davis’ Brexit bravado means that Starmer is now well-placed to lead the group, and focus its attention on the most pressing political issue of the day.

Choosing a leader from within the existing shadow cabinet – especially someone Corbyn will be unable to sack in the near future without exposing the weakness of his position – would demonstrate a willingness to work with Corbyn on an issue-by-issue basis, while usefully drawing upon the formal, procedural frameworks of parliamentary opposition. Crucially, Starmer could make it a condition of his appointment that he shares responsibility with Corbyn for Prime Minister’s Questions, an arrangement more than justified by the gravity of Brexit.

But this bold strategy needs to be matched in equal parts by a new humility. Labour’s moderates must come to embody the style of politics Labour’s new members thought they would get from Corbyn.  I remain somewhat flabbergasted that Owen Smith failed to make a progressive alliance with other centre-left parties, a strengthening of the democratic process, and a radical plan for devolution, the key pillars of his leadership campaign. This should be natural territory for the soft left, and these agendas are all core Corbynista goals that Corbyn himself will never actually deliver.

Smith tried a crude version of this approach by promising a second referendum on EU withdrawal, hoping to galvanise the cosmopolitanism which many young Corbynistas embody. This was, however, entirely the wrong pitch.  It simply communicated that Smith was closer to Cameron and Osborne than Corbyn; moreover, the sheer improbability of the plan served to reinforce the perception that Smith was just as hopeless electorally as Corbyn appears to be.

Labour’s moderates can also demonstrate both boldness and humility – and without directly challenging Corbyn’s leadership – by acknowledging the national significance of local politics.  The Labour leaders of Sheffield, Bristol and Sunderland, for instance, should be as familiar to voters in Birmingham, Glasgow and Lincoln as the MPs for Streatham, Leicester and Stoke-on-Trent (and indeed local leaders in London) are.

And the PLP must, fundamentally, come to understand both the positive and negative reasons so many young, left-leaning activists have turned to Corbynism. Push factors related to the moral, political and economic collapse of the centre-left are as important as pull factors related to the Corbyn agenda.  Labour’s moderates need to be in listening mode, and to demonstrate that they are as interested in building a broad-based social movement as Momentum’s mid-ranking organisers are (or claim to be).

Of course, part of the agenda of Momentum’s leaders is to ensure that such conversations do not occur. Cross-fertilisation between Corbyn’s less-loyal supporters and the moderates is a threat to their version of Corbynism – this explains the disruptive tactics employed by Momentum within local Labour branches, and the remarkable decision to hold their The World Transformed conference at the same time as Labour’s annual conference.

Labour’s moderates might therefore need to undertake a series of symbolic sacrifices to underline the sincerity of entente, and undermine the conspiratorial narrative of Momentum’s leaders. As a matter of urgency, Progress should be disbanded, or at least denounced by the PLP’s leading lights.  Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s account of the party conference, first cited in Part II, painted a tragic portrait of Progress based on its traditional conference rally:

As always, everyone was well-dressed, manicured and slick, but in many ways it reminded me of the rallies held by the Labour left I used to attend five years ago. The usual suspects were huddled in a room out of the conference zone, angrily lamenting the loss of their party, promising to take it back, but without a clue of how to do it. The gist of the speeches was that ordinary people are frustrated and want change, but it’s unrealistic to expect policies that alter the system too much – and besides, there’s nothing you can do about globalisation anyway. The standard worshipping of Blair was also a feature, although this nostalgia was an odd sight from a group of people in love with their self-image as modernisers. In short, Progress seemed utterly hopeless: struggling and failing to come to terms with the incredible sea change in their own party, but also with what the wider public wants.

It is, to be frank, a little embarrassing. Progress existed to advance the New Labour agenda, that is, socialising the neoliberal growth model.  Whatever one thinks of this legacy, it is clear that the challenge facing the centre-left following the financial crisis, amid the Brexit chaos and ‘secular stagnation’, is quite different.  Labour’s ‘continuity Blairites’ know who each other are by now, and no longer need to maintain the provocative and unproductive Progress branding.

Furthermore, the continuation of entities such as Progress creates the impression of a stark policy divide between Corbyn and the rest that simply does not exist, fuelling an imaginary that serves to unite Corbynism’s disparate sects. Tony Blair himself feeds this form of interaction, while hinting of his own return to frontline British politics, by depicting Corbyn’s policy agenda as outmoded and unworkable – without ever naming a single domestic policy of Corbyn’s that he disagrees with. In reality, Corbyn offers little that is radical on economic policy – Financial Times columnist Martin Sandbu’s description of shadow chancellor John McDonnell as ‘a sheep in wolf’s clothing’ is entirely apt.

Corbyn and McDonnell are accidental leaders and political relics. Their attempt to present a rather mundane policy programme as a radical departure from neoliberalism is unnecessarily divisive and undoubtedly doomed.  The challenge for social democrats is the same now as it ever was: to press a genuinely radical agenda for reforming capitalism, pitched as a set of rather obvious, common sense solutions – in short, to make the case that only the left, by managing capitalism, can deliver in practice what the right promises in principle.  The coalition that can be built around this agenda is potentially enormous – but it will never include Jeremy Corbyn.

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