THE FUTURE OF THE LABOUR PARTY IN BRITAIN: The Leadership Contest and the Party’s Prospects

Should they be interested to engage with what has been happening in the British Labour party since the bruising electoral defeat in May, U.S readers of this column unfamiliar with mainstream British politics may find a point of reference in the incipient Democratic campaign for the party’s presidential candidate. The emergence of an elderly contestant, Maine Senator Bernie Sanders, who, astonishingly for the U.S., is a self-proclaimed socialist, appears to have aroused an extraordinary degree of interest and enthusiasm especially among younger people. With rallies attended by up to 10.000, he appears to be seriously eroding Hillary Clinton’s poll lead for the Democratic candidacy in the 2016 Presidential election. Here in Britain where fixed 5 year term parliaments were introduced by the last government, there will be no election until 2020, but the Labour party will elect a new leader in September of this year. It is with respect to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy that the contest for the Labour leadership bears some similarity to the U.S. campaign.  

Aspiring candidates must initially be nominated by 15% of the party’s members of parliament. Initially five were nominated but two of them withdrew. This left three candidates – all career politicians from the right and centre of the party. One, Liz Kendall, is a Blairite newcomer elected in 2010. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham held ministerial posts in the Labour government before 2010. Both are centrists on the spectrum of social-democratic Labour politics who identified with New Labour under the leadership of Blair and Brown. They both voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  At the last minute an outsider, Jeremy Corbyn, managed to achieve the backing of the required minimum of 35 Labour MPs and entered the lists. Corbyn is a veteran back-bencher and has been an MP since 1983 representing a constituency in Islington, north London. He is one of the very few consistent and principled left wingers in the parliamentary Labour party. For this reason he has never, despite his obvious talents, been considered for promotion to the front benches, neither has he sought such promotion. He, like the dwindling number of genuine left wing members of parliament has been sidelined and confined to the shadows of Westminster politics. For more than thirty years he has been what is sometimes referred to by Westminster political commentators rather condescendingly as “a good constituency MP” – meaning that he takes seriously the concerns and problems of those who elected him and works hard on their behalf. But he is also a tireless political activist and internationalist who is a familiar figure in the wider labour and working class movement. As much of his public activity has been involved with the anti-war movement, with campaigns against racism and imperialism and with extra-parliamentary activities such as defence of the NHS and the trade union movement, until now he has been ignored by most of the media which dismisses such activism as “protest marches.”  It is interesting and rather amusing to track media and political reactions to Corbyn’s candidature since it was announced on June 15th.

Until the exit polls on May 7th accurately predicted that the general election would result in a majority Tory government all opinion polls and political and media pundits had assumed that neither of the two largest parties would gain an overall majority and that the outcome would be a hung parliament. This was the expectation of both the Tories and Labour. Amazingly, within a few days at most after the election, such pre-election prognostications underwent an ex post facto revision. It was now being said, not least by leading members of the  Labour party itself, that the “catastrophic” defeat had been quite predictable and that it was all down to things that were supposedly glaringly obvious during the campaign. Foremost among these, it was claimed, were  the lamentable performance of Ed Miliband who was unelectable,  and the supposedly widespread and fully justified belief among the electorate that labour was “anti business” and too supportive of “skivers”  (undeserving welfare recipients) rather than “strivers” (“hard working families”). The conclusion drawn from this in the media at large and more crucially by acting party leader Harriet Harman and other prominent party members, was that Labour had leant too far to the left  and needed to shift its position substantially if it was to stand any chance of re-election in 2020 – or ever again for that matter. It is against this background that Corbyn’s emergence in the leadership contest should be viewed.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Left and the Leadership Contest

The widely held assumption, supposedly so obvious that it hardly need be argued, is that the election to the leadership of anyone as left wing (or, as his critics would have it, unreconstructed “old Labour”) as Corbyn would spell disaster for Labour’s prospects of ever again being elected to office. So obvious was this supposition that it was considered by certain Labour right wingers (or “modernisers” as they would see themselves) who ridiculed his politics, completely safe to nominate him as a candidate on the confident assumption that he didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected leader. Therefore his inclusion would humour the tiny band of left wing dreamers on the back benches, the new influx of younger members who needed to be kept engaged and the remaining old “lefties” in the branches who still clung on to their membership.  Also of course, when, as was expected, he came a very poor bottom of the poll it would be an object lesson to the unreconstructed old Labourites that ”modernisation” was the order of the day and that what they stood for had long ago been assigned to  the dustbin of history. Only with difficulty did Corbyn manage to muster the 35 votes from his parliamentary colleagues to secure his nomination. The last of them came in with two minutes to spare before the deadline. But what has been happening in the month or so since then is not quite what was expected.

In televised meetings before invited audiences where all candidates faced the public, it soon became clear that Corbyn was emerging as a clear favourite. His call for a complete break with austerity, for a progressive tax system, the redistribution of  wealth away from the top 1%, an end to privatisation, the renationalization of key industries , the scrapping of Trident and withdrawal from Nato met with enthusiastic applause, as has his determination to tackle low wages, high rents and child poverty. This is in marked contrast to the lukewarm response to the stale sound bites from the other candidates. More recently he has been addressing gatherings of 400 – 800, consisting of people young and old from a variety of class and ethnic backgrounds. Some reports have compared the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn to the mood of the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum last year. Six weeks ago he was the 100 – 1 outsider; in mid-July a YouGov poll had him ahead by 17 points with the earlier favourite, Burnham, second. Clearly something significant is happening. The possibility that Corbyn might win has led to some strange reactions.

He has won the backing of two of the most important trade unions in Britain, Unite (the largest), and Unison (one of the most moderate). The election for leader is open to any supporter of the Labour party prepared to register by paying £3 to vote. There has been a huge surge of support for Corbyn. But it is reported that some (inspired by the Tory Daily Telegraph) who are hostile to both Corbyn and Labour have also taken advantage of this opportunity to deal the coup de grace, as they see it, to the Labour party. Their reasoning is that were he to be elected leader the consequences would be so dire for the party that it would probably never recover – for them an outcome devoutly to be wished. Should things go the way they want, they could look forward to the prospect of Britain becoming effectively a one party state from which such troublesome seditious practices as strikes and demonstrations would be outlawed and society brought back to the halcyon days of Peterloo and the “Six Acts” of 1819. While much of the pro-Tory tabloid press seems to hanker after some such denouement, it is unfair to attribute the same motivation to the moderate liberal voices in politics and the media who seem agitated or nonplussed by the prospect of Corbyn becoming leader of the party. Because it is from this quarter that the supposedly serious arguments against his candidature are coming, it is important to address them.  

Will it be a replay of 1983? :  Is Corbyn today’s Michael Foot?

From the time Blair, Brown and Mandelson rebranded the Labour party as “New Labour” in the mid-1990s and jettisoned what remained of its social democratic heritage, they and their acolytes have claimed that in order to be elected Labour must avoid “lurching to the left” and stand firmly on the centre ground. Under Blair’s leadership this did not mean simply following the path of earlier right of centre social democrats like John Strachey, Anthony Crosland and Richard Crossman in the 1950s who remained Keynesian advocates of a “mixed economy.” It meant accepting the essential postulates of neo-liberalism and pursuing the privatisation and deregulation drive introduced by the Thatcher and Major governments between 1979 and 1997 which demolished the mixed economy, and paved the way for the financial crash of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed it. New Labour differed from its Tory predecessors primarily in its allocation during the boom years prior to 2008 of tax revenues to certain social welfare projects. Any deviation from this course, they warn, particularly any calls for the end of austerity and renationalization will represent a “lurch to the left” and lead to the same results as occurred in 1983 when the party went into an election led by Michael Foot and suffered its worst defeat since 1935.

No-one can possibly know who will win the election in 2020, whoever may lead the Labour party. At the moment no-one knows who will lead any of the main political parties in Britain. But it is being taken for granted by leading representatives of the Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats and virtually all of the national press that if Corbyn becomes leader of the Labour party it cannot possibly win the election. He is Michael Foot mark 2. And he is already being treated to the same ridicule suffered by Michael Foot. Of course, all Labour leaders from Attlee to Miliband – with the notable exception of Tony Blair – have been attacked whether or not they were perceived as left wing. Those who were left wingers (albeit far from Marxists) such as Aneurin Bevan, Tony Benn and Michael Foot  were pilloried and vilified mercilessly. Long after his retirement, in 1995, Foot was accused by the Sunday Times of having for years been a Soviet spy in the pay of the KGB - an accusation which, despite an admission by the Murdoch newspaper under threat of libel action, that the story was a “MaCarthyite smear”, was still being repeated by Daily Telegraph journalists in 2010 after Foot had died! Even Harold Wilson, a moderate social democrat, who was prime minister in the 1960s and 70s was spied upon by MI5 who claimed he was a Soviet agent! This gives some idea of the extremes to which the state security services, the right wing media and the corporate elites will go to smear and destroy the reputations of anyone perceived to pose a threat to their interests.

Only the wilfully blind would attempt to argue that the election of 1983 was anything but disastrous for the Labour party.  The Tories won 397 seats on the basis of 13 million votes against Labour’s 209 seats with 8.45 million. The Tories share of the vote was 42.4% against Labour’s 27.6% However, the Liberal SDP Alliance, which had emerged largely on the basis of defections from the right wing of the Labour party after the 1979 defeat, took 25.4% but, due to the FPTP voting system, won only 23 seats.  It is also worth remembering that of the 16 by-elections held during the 1979 – 83 parliament, Labour won 7, the Tories 2 and the SDP/Alliance 4. Thatcher’s government was very unpopular for much of this period, during which unemployment had increased from 1.5 million under Labour to 3 million in a matter of a few years. Labour had maintained a consistent poll lead over the Tories, sometimes topping 51% opposed to the Tories 35%, until early in 1982.

Although opinion remains divided on the importance of the Falklands War (April – June 1982) in turning the Tory government’s fortunes around, there is clear evidence in the polls that it was a very significant factor. The media indulged in a frenzy of jingoism with Thatcher elevated to the reincarnation of Boudicca. Her poll ratings and those of the government rocketed. Michael Foot became her loyal cheer-leader from the opposition benches. It did him little good. The overwhelmingly pro-Tory press ratcheted up the general hostility and ridicule to which they had subjected him by questioning his patriotism because of his long-term commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, as though Britain’s possession of the “nuclear deterrent” might play a role in the south Atlantic war. As was to happen subsequently in the cases of Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, the Tory tabloids with Murdoch’s Sun leading the pack, unleashed an onslaught of personal vilification against Michel Foot. It is worth pointing out that he bore no relation to the bête noir of their creation. It is possible to argue that he was not cut out to be leader of the Labour party. He was a principled social democrat with an unswerving commitment to parliamentary politics. His idiosyncratic style of public speaking captivated his audiences. A life-long passion was journalism where his career began before the Second World War. He was a brilliant essayist with a sweeping knowledge of literature. He was the author of many books.

But, unlike Corbyn, Michael Foot held high office in government before becoming party leader. In 1974, under Harold Wilson, he was Secretary of State for Employment. On Wilson’s retirement in 1976, he became Deputy Leader under Callaghan and Leader of the House of Commons. Ironically, given the resurrection of the myth that he was champion of a bunch of unelectable leftists, he was utterly opposed to the Trotskyist “entryists of the sectarian “Militant Tendency” whom he described, with characteristic barbed wit as “an insult to the memory of Leon Trotsky.” Ironically, he was labelled “a fascist” in 1975 by Murdoch’s The Times for supporting Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a state of emergency in the Punjab.

The view that if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader history may be about to repeat itself is being put about by liberal newspaper columnists, Labour MPs, Labour Peers and various other commentators who claim to have the best interests of the party at heart and wish only to see Labour re-elected in 2020. It is also the view of those who relish the prospect of Labour self-destructing. In one way or another every mainstream newspaper in Britain, including those of a liberal or leftish orientation such as The Observer , The Guardian and The New Statesman carry the same message. However sincerely they may have persuaded themselves that their standpoint is balanced, objective and based on long experience of the British political scene, it is glaringly deficient. Here is why.

2015 is not 1983. Britain and the World have Changed

The predictions about what will happen if Jeremy Corbyn is elected leader of the labour party are based on a static account of the likely course of British and wider world politics over the coming years. This point may be made clear by mentioning some of the things almost all the pundits leave out. For example, it is extraordinary that a serious liberal paper like The Observer (July 26.) could devote a 2000 word editorial and an article of 1.500 words by a leading columnist, on the post-election situation arguing that Britain had turned right, decisively rejecting Labour in favour of the Tories, without once mentioning the triumph of the SNP in Scotland. If the result had been a universal rejection of Labour for the Tories, and thus implicitly acceptance of austerity, the Scottish result, which swept to power a party that rejected not only austerity but also the “independent nuclear deterrent” - Trident – surely needs to be explained. Failure to even mention it is surely a serious dereliction of journalistic responsibility. Those whose understanding of politics is limited to what happens at Westminster are likely to dismiss any and every extra-parliamentary popular movement as “protest politics” and everyone associated with them as immature and not to be taken seriously. Those lobby correspondents who pride themselves on their contacts with “reliable sources” in the Cabinet, or the Shadow Cabinet and who relish their carefully nurtured contacts in such elevated circles, are unlikely to be persuaded that this may not be the real world. As the editor of the formerly left social democratic New Statesman admitted in introducing his recent (July 31.) interview with Corbyn, “Three months ago...he would have been an unlikely candidate for a New Statesman interview.” The reason? Because “[he] was deemed to be little more than a stubborn, if principled, relic of Benn era Labour politics.”

The same slip-shod superficiality is evident in much of the coverage of “foreign news”. Since the vultures of the Troika descended on Greece a few weeks ago to pick dry the bones of that long-suffering country, most of the media have lost all interest in it. The rising discontent in the “peripheral” states of the euro zone – Spain, Portugal and Italy is now hardly mentioned, They are treated as faraway lands about which we need to know nothing and about which we couldn’t care less. The contemporary world is bursting with crises: the mass migration of peoples from war zones and impoverishment; the disasters of Syria and Iraq; the horrendous aftermath of imperialist invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing and expanding bombing campaigns; the rise of Isis and the endless tragedy of the Palestinians facing the sixth decade of illegal occupation of their land by Israel; the perilous expansion of NATO into Russia’s borderlands and the growing threat that a new cold war may become a hot war. Then there is perhaps the biggest issue of all – global warming. We cannot know how any of these critical issues will be resolved but it is certain that nothing will stand still and the impact of any one or more will have serious repercussions, possibly globally. Britain is not insulated from these problems and domestic politics will inevitably be influenced by them.

No-one can know what the consequences will be if Jeremy Corbyn is elected leader of the Labour party. Perhaps the predictions of the gloom-mongers may turn out to be right. If he is elected in September we can be sure that there will be a united front of reaction against him. Those who predict that it will spell disaster will do everything to bring the disaster about. The forces against him will range from the present leadership of the Labour party, through the corporate media, to big business, the Tory Party and the Liberals. The whole establishment will be united against him. Any attempt to predict in any detail what may happen is futile. But there are some positive signs. The rise of the SNP in Scotland is very promising. It was achieved on the basis of a mass movement and it is the best precursor in Britain of what may be possible. The Tory government is unlikely to get an easy ride as intensified austerity bites harder. It is possible that between now and September the momentum in support of Jeremy Corbyn may gather pace and take on the character of a mass movement. Should this occur it will be in large part a movement of young people who, just a short while ago were written off as alienated and completely non political. It will complement the anti-austerity movement in Scotland. The Westminster political establishment regards such movements with great suspicion. Should such a multi-faceted movement begin to develop in support of Corbyn’s campaign it could mark the beginning of a new stage in British politics. The biggest challenge for Jeremy Corbyn will be to see whether he holds true to the principled stand he has taken and provide the leadership that such a movement deserves. To his credit, he alone among the candidates, when discussing his campaign, always uses the plural “we” indicating that he sees it as a collective effort. If  he does not win the effort will not have been in vain as the movement for radical change will continue and he will have played an important part in bringing it into being and inspiring it. But if he should be elected leader of the Labour party the challenge will be enormous and the outcome could open up opportunities for radical change unimaginable until now.