Fabian Society hustings: are you a socialist?

The five candidates for the Labour leadership were grilled on their definitions of socialism and the

Are you now, or have you ever been, a socialist? The Labour leadership candidates all pleaded guilty to quietly harbouring ideological convictions when asked what socialism meant to them, though they may well have anticipated some inquiry of a philosophical kind given that last night's hustings event at the Institute of Education in London was organised by the Fabian Society in partnership with a "broad front of the mind" (namely Progress, Compass, LabourList, Left Foot Forward and the Young Fabians).

Only David Miliband hinted that the question offered an old shibboleth, before showing that he was prepared to genuflect before it anyway in being "happy to sign up to" the assertion that "Labour is a democratic socialist party", a statement left in new Labour's new Clause Four in 1995.

This was clearly judged not quite the moment for Miliband the Elder to identify social democracy as the main live ideological strand of the socialist traditions, and to stake his claim that its political future now depends on a plural progressive fusion with the liberal tradition. Perhaps there will be other occasions and platforms for that argument, but a leadership hustings wasn't the place.

Miliband the Younger struck a Compassite note in arguing that socialism was about a critique of capitalism, or it was nothing: "being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism and the injustices it creates". There is a significant difference of tone and rhetoric here, though "It is not about abolishing capitalism, but it is about changing it" was also essentially an argument for social-democratic reform, proposed as the viable means to meet socialist ends.

Andy Burnham quoted a popular socialist, saying that Billy Bragg's line "I've got a socialism of the heart" was the ethical socialist tradition rooted in the idea of community. For Burnham, socialism is about looking out for each other -- his best line of the night had been: "All of the things we criticise in the American health system are present in the way we fund care for older people in this country." But reciprocity has a hard edge in demanding a contribution, too: "Everybody looks out for each other, and everybody who is able to does their bit and makes a contribution."

Ed Balls wanted to make clear that he had been taking flak long before the contest for declaring himself "proud to be a democratic socialist" -- in the New Statesman, no less, during the New Labour high tide. The distinctive idea was collectivism in breaking down barriers.

But the substantive shift in "party ideology after New Labour" was not demonstrated by how they dealt with the S-word. That was a question Tony Blair could answer, too: hyphenating social-ism to argue it is essentially a "we're in this together" creed. (Indeed, Blair devoted a very short Fabian pamphlet to fleshing that thought out.)

What Blair the Social-ist had been unable to say, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman during the 2001 election, was that narrowing the gap between rich and poor mattered. Each of the "next-generation New Labour" candidates found ways to directly reference and reject his approach to what became known as "the David Beckham question", showing that Diane Abbott's claim that "there was a period when it seemed as though equality was a dirty word in the party" was now about the New Labour past and not the future.

Ed Miliband stated clearly: "It must be a central objective of policy to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It is so hard to do, that unless you make it a central objective, it isn't going to happen."

Ed Balls repudiated Mandelsonism, too, stating: "We aren't intensely relaxed about the filthy rich and it is important we say that." However, he wanted to stress the important commitments the previous government had made on redistribution and poverty, while attacking its "pandering" on inheritance tax in 2007 as a major political mistake.

"The gap does matter: it is not just about the floor, it is about inequality, too," said David Miliband, wanting to give equal priority to inequalities of wealth and power. As did Andy Burnham, who spoke about his background having informed his belief in a society where "health, wealth and life chances were more equal", presenting this as his defining mission and the cause of the party.

So Labour is clearly once again a pro-equality party. Yet, on the socialism question, it was Diane Abbott of the Campaign Group who suggested that a commitment to socialism need not be rooted in an intellectual framework.

"I am a socialist. What's it about? Well, I've never been a special adviser, I'm not an intellectual. For me, it's about: if you draw a line in the sand, what side are you on? If you come from a minority working-class background, you are acutely aware of what it is to feel marginalised in society. I've always chosen to stand with the voiceless and the powerless."

That hint of disdain for the usefulness of ideological speculation may be a rather more authentic Labourist tradition than any theory of socialism has ever been (the trade unions would never have founded the party if it had really wanted to be a socialist one).

The Fabian intellectual G D H Cole had written, somewhat approvingly, of Labour having a "socialism so undefined in its doctrinal basis as to make recruits readily among people of different types".

With the candidate of the left suggesting she was the least interested in the question of ideology, Cole's description of Labour as "a broad movement on behalf of the bottom dog" would seem to be the idea of socialism around which all five leadership candidates can easily converge.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.