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The opponents of Jeremy Corbyn are running out of road

The Corbyn insurgency has opened up a chasm on the left. His opponents may have to accept that Labour is now an anti-capitalist party – or leave altogether.

The skirmishes since Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable victory have avoided the main issue. The Labour Party has been sucked into debates about the rights and wrongs of serving in the shadow cabinet, the wearing of red poppies, the style of Prime Ministers’ Questions and the singing of the national anthem. Recollections of the battles of the 1980s (which I analysed at the time as political editor of the New Statesman) have prompted arguments about whether the best way to secure a progressive government in 2020 is for Labour now to split or to stay together.

There is, however, a more fundamental question that needs to be confronted head-on. It concerns the very purpose of Labour’s existence. Corbyn’s election has opened up a doctrinal chasm on the left. Can it now be bridged or not?

If it can, then Labour might fray at the edges but not shatter. But if the divide is simply too wide, and if Corbyn is still in place in two or three years’ time, then his opponents will face a stark choice: accept that Labour has reverted to an older, firmly anti-capitalist version of its purpose – or leave this party and start a new one.

Here lies the true significance of the Corbyn insurgency. It clarifies and polarises the debate that should be held about what Labour really stands for. Of course, doctrinal arguments have been held throughout the party’s history. Labour has debated the character of socialism for well over a hundred years. But, until now, the outcome has repeatedly been a fix, a fudge, disdain by the party leader or the application of machine politics to keep out the far left. In every one of its four periods of majority government since 1945, Labour has in practice come to terms with capitalism. Now, for the first time, the far left has taken over. Corbyn has already demanded nationalised railways, energy companies and banks.

Perhaps that is all; perhaps he privately embraces the market system in the rest of Britain’s economy. However, his latest plans for corporate taxes suggest no such enthusiasm. Indeed, all the evidence points in the opposite direction. In his 32 years as an MP (and in the years before that when I listened to him backing Tony Benn, Militant and other assorted Trotskyists when we were both members of Labour’s general committee in Hornsey and Wood Green, in north London), I have never come across anything he has said or written that displays any p­assion for the process of wealth creation that flows from competition among privately owned businesses.

Indeed, the opposite is the case. In November 2013, Corbyn published a column in the Morning Star headlined “Challenging capitalism”. He wrote: “It’s high time to move public ownership firmly to the centre of the political agenda.” More broadly, he has been reported as telling his Islington North Labour Party that: “Our job is not to reform capitalism; it’s to overthrow it.” No wonder he has appointed a shadow chancellor whose Who’s Who entry declares his ambition as “fermenting the overthrow of capitalism”.

In the short term, Corbyn will doubtless compromise on his policy agenda, in order to prevent an immediate revolt by more moderate Labour MPs. We should not be fooled. He is a principled socialist. His long-term aims remain. He is a leopard whose spots have never changed, and never will. In a way, that is to Corbyn’s credit. Throughout his political life he has held to a particular view of how to achieve prosperity. He thinks the best way to build a good society is for workers and elected politicians, not company shareholders, to take the big decisions in the business world.

However, that is not remotely what most of Labour’s other leading MPs want. They believe in capitalism. They do not regard it as an evil to be fought at every turn, or even as a regrettable necessity to be endured for the time being. They like its dynamism. They regard it as the best way to invent, develop and supply most goods and services. They have no wish to replace it, even as a long-term objective. They think that one of the basic ambitions of progressive government is to find the best way to encourage private-sector success and, through the judicious use of support, regulation and taxation, to harness that success to the wider task of building a fairer, better society.

Not that many of them would put it as bluntly as that. Look at the words written and spoken by Corbyn’s three opponents and, with the partial exception of Liz Kendall, you will find no celebration of the success and virtues of capitalism and the market system, merely a guarded acknowledgement of its existence. They talk about capitalism not in the manner of a sister to be embraced, but as an awkward cousin to be tolerated.

The outcome has been an ideologically lopsided debate in the leadership contest. For those who view the New Labour years as a model to be admired not reviled, it has come across as a choice between Corbyn who has been wrong but clear, and his rivals who have been right but mealy-mouthed.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. For the character of the century-long tussle between traditional socialism and working-with-capitalism social democracy has always been thus, as left-wing clarity vies with centrist mush. The process has been consistently messy, and frequently frustrating; but it has also been seldom catastrophic and occasionally triumphant. Understanding the evasive culture of Labour’s internal discourse through the 20th century helps us to see why Corbyn’s election could mark such a profound moment in the party’s history.

 

***

Morgan Phillips, Labour’s general secretary in the 1950s and one of the old school of machine politicians, made the important observation: “The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.” This is far more than a neat contrast between two words beginning with “M”. It reflects a profound truth about the way Labour has evolved. When Keir Hardie arrived in the House of Commons in 1892 and railed against poverty and exploitation, he couched his argument in moral terms. In his maiden speech in 1893 he spoke not of Karl Marx or class war, but “the horrors of sweating, of low wages, of long hours, and of deaths from starvation”. His proposals – in that particular case, to curb cheap imports that cost British workers their jobs – were rooted in ethical concern rather than ideological conviction.

That set the course for the decades that followed. Even the famous, or notorious, Clause Four, agreed in 1918, fits the pattern. It was crafted with care by Sidney Webb, the most prominent of the early Fabians. In its final form (it went through various drafts over a period of months), it stated that Labour’s objective was:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

This is generally regarded as a call for ­full-scale nationalisation. But “common ownership” is a far looser term, and the phrase “as may be possible” suggests an incremental rather than revolutionary process. This was deliberate. Overshadowing the Clause Four debate was the Russian Revolution. It inspired some in the west but terrified many more. Webb and his colleagues were determined to distance Labour from the Soviet model. In October 1917, days before Lenin finally seized control, Webb wrote in the Observer:

It [Clause Four] is a socialism which is no more specific than a definite repudiation of the individualism that characterised all the political parties of the past generations . . . This declaration of the Labour Party leaves it open to choose from time to time whatever forms of common ownership, from the co-operative store to the nationalised railway, and whatever forms of popular administration and control of industry, from national guild to ministries of employment, and municipal management may, in particular cases, commend themselves.

In the context of its time, with Britain engaged in the Great War and with much of the economy under state control, as well as Russia turning communist, Webb’s ambition was modest, even insipid.

That said, Labour’s election manifestos in the 1920s and 1930s preached a more muscular socialism. (In 1931 the party proclaimed that “the decay of capitalist civilisation brooks no delay”.) But the party’s two short spells of minority government, in 1924 and 1929-31, gave it little chance to turn words into action. Its first proper test came in 1945, with Clement Attlee’s landslide victory.

Attlee wanted to fight the election with no specific commitments to nationalisation. But in December 1944 the party conference defied his wishes and voted overwhelmingly for “the transfer to public ownership of the land, large-scale building, heavy industry and all forms of banking, transport and fuel and power”. Attlee blithely ignored most of this list. True, his government nationalised the mines and the railways; but given how badly these had been run before the war, one could make a perfectly pragmatic, non-ideological case for taking them over. By 1949, Harold Wilson, president of the Board of Trade, was proclaiming that he had made “a bonfire of controls” to release the energies of the private sector.

As the postwar years ushered in the consumer society, Clause Four looked increasing out of place. What was the relevance of “common ownership” to a world of privately owned homes, cars, television sets and washing machines? In 1959, a few weeks after Labour’s third successive election defeat, the party’s leader, Hugh Gaitskell, sought to change it.

Once again, the party leader argued for pragmatism rather than explicitly for the virtues of capitalism: nationalisation, he said, was one of a number of means for pursuing freedom, social justice and the public interest. Once again, the leader was opposed by left-wing calls for state socialism. Frank Cousins, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the biggest trade union in Britain, addressed the party conference in terms that could have come straight from the Corbyn playbook:
 

“Let us give over pretending we have to get half a million Tory people to change their allegiance at voting time. There are five million or six million people who are socialists in embryo waiting for us to go out and harness them to the power machine we want to drive.”

Once again, as in 1944, the party leader was defeated. But once again, when Labour was next in power (under Wilson, elected party leader after Gaitskell’s death), it disregarded the conference decision. Clause Four lived on, yet as a symbol rather than a strategy. Only in the catastrophic election of 1983 did Labour take it seriously.

Finally, in 1995, Tony Blair did persuade the National Executive Committee and a Labour conference to agree a new Clause Four:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

Out went the vague ambition of “common ownership”. In came a perfectly sensible statement of the ethic of co-operation, but nothing that made the case for any kind of economic freedom, let alone full-blown market capitalism. Blair can claim the credit for refusing to take the Attlee/Gaitskell/Wilson route of ignoring Clause Four and disregarding party conference decisions. But he did not win the argument for a pro-capitalist version of social democracy, because he never spelled it out. He implemented policies that the left now attacks as “market liberalism” not by persuading his party of its virtues but by winning elections and asserting his authority.

***

Thinking with the wisdom of hindsight, we should not be surprised that the anti-capitalist left has revived. The hard truth is that it was never defeated because it was never properly engaged. It was simply thrust to the margins, where it bided its time. After two general election defeats, the left appeals to party activists in a way it could never do during the era of Blair’s election victories. And the character of the recent leadership contest matches the character of every significant doctrinal contest through the Labour Party’s history, with Corbyn arguing his case with clarity and his opponents ducking and weaving.

The difference is that Labour now has a leader, for the first time since at least the Second World War, who actually believes in the policies that the left has consistently advocated and previous leaders equally consistently ignored.

Could things have worked out differently? Could Labour done more than hold the left at bay: could it have won a head-on doctrinal battle?

Perhaps. Such a battle was waged, and won, more than 50 years ago in Germany. In 1959 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) – Labour’s sister party – met at Bad Godesberg and agreed a new doctrine. In the extract here, the final sentence is the one most frequently quoted, but the whole paragraph is striking, if only because no British Labour conference has ever agreed anything remotely like it:

Free choice of consumer goods and services, free choice of working place, freedom for employers to exercise their initiative as well as free competition are essential conditions of a Social Democratic economic policy. The autonomy of trade unions and employers’ associations in collective bargaining is an important feature of a free society. Totalitarian control of the economy destroys freedom. The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.
 

How come the SPD so long ago confronted left-wing socialism in a way that even Blair at the height of his popularity never attempted? The immediate context plainly played a part. The SPD had lost every postwar election and knew it had to change. Across the border, East Germany, and the Soviet bloc generally, were giving Marxist notions a bad name. Nothing that sniffed of communism, in however dilute a form, was likely to be popular in West Germany.

But there was something else. There was a fundamental difference between Labour’s history and that of the SPD. As we have seen, Labour, with its Methodist-not-Marxist roots, has always been a party of ethics rather than ideology. In contrast, the SPD was created in 1863 as an explicitly Marxist party. That is not to say Marx was a fan. In 1875 the SPD adopted a programme that he strongly criticised as too concerned with formal economic structures and too little with the dynamic of class struggle. However, for the following eight decades, the SPD viewed the world through the prism of ideology.

The essence of what happened in the years leading to Bad Godesberg was that the realisation grew within the SPD that its ideological theory was wrong. State control of the economy was a bad idea. A competitive market economy was intrinsically superior. Governments should intervene only when markets failed.

In a way, the SPD in the 1950s applied the tenets of the Enlightenment to itself. It approached its problems empirically. It pondered the evidence and concluded that Marxist socialism did not work, while properly regulated market capitalism did.

Labour has never engaged in any such Enlightenment-style debate. This is because the advocates of left-wing socialism inside Labour (leaving side the Trotskyists, communists and fellow-travellers who have occupied its fringes from time to time) have argued from a moral rather than a theoretical standpoint. And the ethic of co-operation and fairness does not lend itself easily to empirical investigation.

Thus Labour finds itself with a new leader who rejects the accommodation with market capitalism that every Labour leader since the Second World War, except for Michael Foot, has in practice upheld but none has properly persuaded his party to embrace.

What now? By 2020, one of three things will have happened.

1. Jeremy Corbyn will have maintained control over his party, which may have frayed but not split;

2. Corbyn will have been replaced by a more electable, less left-wing leader;

3. Labour will have split, leaving Corbyn as the leader of a significantly diminished group of MPs.

I don’t know which of these will happen, but I suspect that the outcome will depend on how many MPs decide to fight his left-wing doctrine directly. Most Labour MPs think Corbyn’s politics are bonkers. Left to their conscience, most would strive to remove him at the earliest opportunity or, if that fails, break away and start a new party. But will enough of them combine to do either of these things? Or will they recall the unsettling dictum that the plural of conscience is conspiracy, do nothing to risk being deselected as party candidates in 2020, and quietly hope that Corbyn’s leadership will crumble of its own accord?

I fear that the quiet life will win the day, that Corbyn will become entrenched, and that a head-on doctrinal dispute will, as always, be avoided. For a century, fudging the issue has occasionally allowed Labour to build an election-winning, big-tent coalition of progressive voters. Today, that approach guarantees disaster. It will leave Corbyn free to promote his electorally toxic and economically destructive brand of left-wing politics. If that is what happens, Labour’s tent will become a lot smaller and the party will cease to be fit for purpose.

Peter Kellner is the president of YouGov. Read his analysis of the new polling data that shows the challenge for Jeremy Corbyn here

Peter Kellner was President of YouGov from 2007 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for Newsnight, the New Statesman, and others.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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