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Forget the books. Jeremy Corbyn is without historical precedent

A leader of his type has never risen to the top of Labour before, says historian Glen O'Hara. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s leader has been accompanied by all sorts of talk about taking Labour back to its ‘core values’, its ‘traditional roots’, or its ‘original policies’. It is a beguiling image: an old-fashioned, straight-talking, rough-hewn, unspun Old Labour hero who’s ridden into town, saving the party from the initially successful, but ultimately shallow, ‘modernity’ of trim and muddle and compromise. The main flaw involved in this idea? It is almost entirely inaccurate.

Such claims cannot just float freely in the air: they should and can be tested, by reference to the historical record. And what that shows – once you clear away the accreted myths and stories that surround Labour’s foundation and early years – is that Labour has never before been led by a politician so far from its historic centre of gravity, so distant from the electorate, or so fundamentally divorced from the party’s intellectual mainstream.

Start with Labour’s foreign policy. Only one leader – George Lansbury, who took over in 1932 and led Labour until just before the 1935 General Election – has been an unequivocal pacifist. And the rather more realistic and belligerent trade unionists of the time made sure he was removed as the threat of European fascism became clear. Although not an absolute pacifist, Corbyn’s recent revelation that he could imagine no circumstances in which he would commit British forces to combat means he comes as close as you can without actually using the word, a position no Labour leader since Lansbury has come anywhere near.

His isolationist instincts – witness his call this week for a review of UK operations in Iraq – run clean counter to almost all of Labour’s post-Lansbury history. From Clement Attlee’s coalition with Churchill and the Conservatives to defeat Hitler and Imperial Japan, and then his alliance with the USA to fight in Korea, on to Jim Callaghan’s decision to upgrade the Polaris nuclear weapon system, through Michael Foot’s devastating denunciation of the Argentine military junta during the Falklands crisis in 1983, the party’s criticism of John Major’s weak-willed policy in Bosnia, and on to the Blair government’s intervention in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, Labour always been willing to fight to defend international peace, law and security. That is why Ernie Bevin, surely its greatest foreign secretary, fought so assiduously to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; it’s why Aneurin Bevan, so lionized by many Corbynistas, came to renounce his outright opposition to the atomic bomb; it was the means by which both Attlee and Harold Wilson, with mixed results, tried to effect leverage in Washington. To abandon this tradition as a return to “Labour’s principles” may or may not be wise: it is certainly not historically justified.

The second useful category here is how Labour is supposed to campaign – and what it is actually for. The Labour leader who Corbyn most closely resembles in tone and pitch is its first, Keir Hardie. The insistence that everything must be clear, that everything must be painted as black and white and not in shade of grey, recalls Hardie, and has helped Corbyn to the leadership with members and supporters tired of political doublespeak. But scratch a little deeper and Hardie abandoned the Liberals for a campaigning new “Labour” group not because he believed in campaigning for its own sake, and not because he wanted to stay pure and unsullied by contact with rivals and electors, but because he believed from the very start that a new party was needed to seize power and use it on behalf of the workers.

There’s a personal class element here, too. Hardie spoke in the language and accent of real lived hardship, a deeply-felt inheritance from his upbringing in the Lanarkshire mines – into which he had been sent at the age of eleven. Corbyn does not have that really instinctive feel for actual working people. He speaks in the language of the rallies he has so successfully mobilized: of younger idealists and older nostalgics. There is no doubt that there is some fallow soil for a new Left idealism, mined among others by Syriza, Podemos and Bernie Sanders. Sadiq Khan is in with a chance of being London Mayor, for instance, partly because of his inspiring life story as the son of a bus driver who grew up in a council flat. Watch Corbyn for but a moment, and read just about anything he’s ever said, and you realise: his oratory and prose are full of jargon and concepts, supposition and theory, not of a lived life as Hardie would have understood it.

Only under Lansbury has Labour even really considered going down a full-throated left-wing path. Stafford Cripps won some support with his call for a more efficiently and socialistically planned war economy in 1941-42, before Churchill cemented his position as War Premier at El Alamein; Tony Benn threatened to take over the Party between the passing of Labour’s Programme 1973 and his deputy leadership defeat by Denis Healey in 1981. But neither looked truly likely, for more than a few weeks and months, to actually become leader. The unions were too right-wing, and the selectorate too deeply rooted in practical ways of thought and life, for that: while the parliamentary party, until the 1980s, remained in control of who was Labour’s actual leader in the Commons. Both Labour’s moral and pragmatic impulses have either come from the Party’s centre (Attlee), from its soft left (Wilson, Foot, Neil Kinnock), its old right (Hugh Gaitskell, John Smith) or its trade union traditionalists (Callaghan). Even Tony Blair’s radicalism bore many of the hallmarks of long-established revisionist thought, crafted by Tony Crosland among others, insistent that the ownership and control of public enterprises and services was far less important than how they actually worked in the real world. Corbyn’s leadership rivals all stood to some extent for quite old and crucially Labour traditions: Yvette Cooper for Brown’s adaptation of Labour’s centre; Andy Burnham for its Kinnockite soft left; and Liz Kendall for full-on Blairite revisionism. Despite their new image as heretics, they are much more obviously “Labour” in a historical sense than Corbyn.

In place of all this Labour’s new leader is seeking to reawaken the plebiscitary and centralizing semi-democracy of Benn’s endless seminars and “consultations”, all the better to bore and cajole the right and centre of the party into submission. Allied as it is to the clicktivists and crowdsourced Greens and Leftists so evident from Stop the War and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, that means Labour as we know it is now subject to a takeover from outside as well as from within. All in the service of a more insular, controlling and – ironically – technocratic vision than Labour has ever before advocated, confident in the belief that the Government can reshape the economy, mildly sceptical about the European Union, supine in the face of Russian expansionism. It is beguiling, emotional, emotive – and deeply un-Labour. Attlee, Bevin, Bevan and Gaitskell would all have been appalled at the implied diminution of both Britain and Labour itself; Wilson and Callaghan would have understood just how little influence the UK could exert under these conditions; Kinnock and Smith would have sensed just how potentially dangerous such ideas are if Labour is to maintain a pluralistic, mixed, outward-looking, liberal and – yes, let’s say it – socialist view of the world.

Most Labour people can avoid the kind of divisive language that says any type of socialism or social democracy is a “virus” – if they try. And it’s certainly the case that there have always been awkward backbenchers, principled visionaries and far left activists in Labour’s ranks. But Labour has never, ever been led or even guided by its ultra-ideologues on the left. That’s a matter of historical fact, not opinion. Something entirely new and experimental is happening on one side of British politics, more novel than New Labour, more of a partisan wrench than compassionate Conservatism, and stranger than either: an attempt to bring the ephemeral campaigning techniques of the twenty-first century to the aid of policies we thought had been tested in the 1970s, before dying in the 1980s. Its fate remains to be seen. 

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2011). He is currently working on A History of Water in Modern Britain (forthcoming, 2016). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.