If you had to pick a word to sum up Labour’s internal state, it would still probably be “confusion”. We all know our lines – for me, this is the new mass politics that provides Labour with its only hope of returning to power; for Polly Toynbee it is “the romance of the impossible, in the warm embrace of like-minded dreamers”. But one year on from Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest, with Labour now the biggest political party in Europe, no-one can fully explain what is happening. No one can easily sum up the ideas and processes that have caused the dramatic explosion of the party’s membership and its shift to the left.
It does not help that most of the language used to describe the debates inside the Labour party is designed to confuse people. The past year has witnessed the development of a whole new world of political labels, often taken from decades past and ruthlessly repurposed. The transformation of “Blairites” from respectable face of the Labour right to pejorative collective noun is now just the tip of the iceberg in Labour’s shifting language stakes.
From the outset of this year’s leadership contest, Owen Smith has adopted the banner of the “soft left”. The soft left emerged as a tendency during the 1980s, when MPs in the Tribune Group broke with Tony Benn’s more ‘”hard left” project. Its prominent figures, such as Clare Short and Robin Cook, made an awkward peace with the rightward shift of the 1990s, but continued to form a distinct group within the parliamentary party. Later, the term was used to describe Ed Miliband and those around him – although, of course, Miliband’s actual political roots lay well within the New Labour project.
Smith’s claim to represent the soft left is driven, as much as anything, by the need to appear as left wing as possible. When you examine his earlier career, you could mistake him for pretty much any politician of the New Labour era. Go back to his unsuccessful run in the 2006 Blaenau Gwent by-election and you’ll find him supporting the use of PFI in the NHS, and saying he has no areas of difference with Tony Blair other than Iraq. As recently as last year, he supported a reduction in overall welfare spending. If the whole point of the soft left was its independence from either wing of the party, can a candidate like Smith, running with the backing of the whole of the Labour right, really have a claim to represent the tradition?
Tom Watson has been the chief protagonist behind another resurrection – the Trotskyist infiltrator. There are two key narratives that this spectre is designed to promote. The first is that Trotskyists are instigators of aggression and disruption – something which Watson has sought to corroborate by brandishing a three-decades old organising manual from an organisation, the Militant Tendency, which no longer exists in its previous form. Observant critics could note the modus operandi of New Labour. Malcolm Tucker, after all, isn’t based on Peter Taafe.
The other narrative is that Marxist and revolutionary politics, and perhaps implicitly Corbyn’s politics as well, are incompatible with the Labour party – which is first and foremost an electoral party. And yet Labour has always been the place where social movements and radical ideas met parliamentary politics. Some of its founding organisations were openly revolutionary, and, largely as a result of the comparative weakness of the Communist Party in Britain, Trotskyist “entryists” and “infiltrators” have always been a part of the ecosystem. Some of them are unpleasant; others toil diligently for shifts in policy, go canvassing and help run their local party.
What the Labour right demonstrates with the constant use of this language is its own profound lack of understanding. There are, at most, a few thousand active Trotskyists in the UK today – and the two biggest groupings, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party, are not in Labour.
Those that are in Labour probably number a few hundred. The massive shift at the party’s base comes from people new to politics; many of its key activists are people who were not yet born in the 1980s, let alone schooled in the decade’s sectarian strife.
The Labour left may sometimes be in danger of falling for lazy assumptions – that radical policies and mass membership will automatically lead to victory – but it is ultimately capable of embracing the current political moment on its own terms. The Labour right, on the other hand, is in danger of falling for its own propaganda. It seeks to analyse a complex and unprecedented situation in terms which haven’t changed for 30 years. It labels itself and its opponents with badges that barely correspond to reality. Lacking any sense of self awareness, it hints at the conclusion that organised factions are bad for politics, even innately abuse.
Labour is in need of a cultural shift to match its growth in membership and vast change in political outlook. Without one, the toxicity of the party’s internal politics will worsen. Tolerance, politeness, and a respect for democracy are all vital ingredients – but more and more, it is intellectual honesty that Labour desperately needs.