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13 June 2012updated 09 Jul 2021 7:31am

The next Labour leader must challenge the sectarian left

By Paul Mason

I once saw Arthur Scargill lead striking miners through Mansfield, at the head of a brass band playing the Punchinello March. It sticks in my memory because it symbolised the ideal relationship between the leader and the led. 

The absolute certainty that the miners could trust Scargill’s motives and his courage gave tens of thousands of people something the state wanted to deny them: the power to act. He didn’t just lead the miners and their families: he empowered them.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party ends, amid recriminations from the party’s right and incomprehension among parts of the left, it’s worth considering in detail what went wrong.

Corbyn, like Scargill, has been an iconic figure. By cheering him on in 2017, thousands of people discovered their own ability to effect political change. But the balance sheet of his tenure between then and now stands in marked contrast to Scargillism, and indeed to Bennism, its contemporary.

After 2017 Corbyn enthused the Labour membership but he never empowered them. He opposed open selections for MPs. His National Policy Forum barely functioned. He controlled the conference just as bureaucratically as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had. And shadow cabinet members were robbed of the ability to make policy.

When The World Transformed, a magnificently chaotic politics festival parallel to the Labour conference, became too ideologically diverse, Corbyn’s office tried to set up a rival event (which thankfully bombed). When Momentum, the original pro-Corbyn organising group, threatened to become too politically diverse, it was effectively shut down and reopened overnight, minus internal democracy.

Then, in the run-up to the election, Corbyn presided over bureaucratic manipulation on steroids. With Constituency Labour Parties pleading to be allowed to select candidates, Corbyn’s office delayed the selections so that they could impose their own candidates, many of whom then lost. As for the “grid” — the election battleplan — no-one meant to execute it was allowed to see it.

These instincts towards bureaucratic control were not really innate to Corbyn himself. His personal style was semi-anarchist, but it just didn’t work in the first iteration of his leadership, before the 2016 “chicken coup”. So he surrounded himself with officials from Unite, with ultimately disastrous results.

In the end, during this post-2017 phase of Corbynism, all that was empowered was a collective reverie about “what we should do when we win”. How we should actually win was barely considered by Corbyn’s team  so new electoral techniques had to be improvised within Momentum. But once some of the most talented Momentum organisers were moved into Labour HQ itself, the remnants of the old bureaucracy, combined with the control-freakery of the new one, stifled innovation.

So what kind of leader do we need now, and what should be their relationship with the half-million members they want to lead? After the personal experience of the last 18 months, where I’ve been frozen out, ignored and vilified by those close to Corbyn, I know what I don’t want: more of the same. That’s why I won’t support Rebecca Long-Bailey unless she makes a clean break with the officials, the policies and the modus operandi of bureaucratic control. She is a talented and competent frontbencher, but her candidacy represents “continuity” with what failed: Unite in control, a shadow cabinet with no power, MP selections in the grip of the National Executive Committee and the conference floor turned into a loyalty rally.

But if we don’t want continuity, we certainly cannot have regression to the past. This is what Jess Phillips represents, and to get it she will have to use all the money being thrown at her by Blairite backers to mobilise former members to rejoin in large numbers.

Corbyn failed because he could never think strategically about how to construct an election-winning social alliance. The sad thing is that, because Scottish nationalism is becoming hegemonic, this may be an unsolvable problem. So we need to work back from a different objective: how do the progressive parties of Britain win power, and form a government that enacts constitutional change, locking the alliance of right and far right out of power forever?

To be clear, to win the next general election, we are likely to need some form of pact among parties committed to the rule of law, human rights, constitutional change and social justice. For those of you who’ve spent the past two years designing ideal policies for a left Labour government, the message is: don’t stop — because we’re going to need those policies. But we’re also going to have to put some skill into winning an election.

So here are the criteria I will apply once we know who all the candidates are. First: do they look like they could be prime minister? Corbyn didn’t, frankly — and the lesson is, if someone has a personal net rating of minus 50, do not assume this won’t contaminate and neutralise a good, popular policy offer. In a populist era, we need someone who can either do left populism or neutralise right-wing populism effectively.

Second: can they lead a party divided along political and cultural lines? Since I’m rejecting the neo-Blairism of Jess Phillips, this is the question that must be asked of Clive Lewis, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Lisa Nandy (so far). I want to hear more than good intent: I want to hear how they plan to manage all the factions and trade union rivalries in a way that produces synergies, not friction.

Third: are they prepared to build a collegiate team in the shadow cabinet, bringing in talented people from the centre, repudiating the old LOTO bureaucratic style and taking back control of policy formation and electoral tactics from the big unions?

Fourth: will they allow open selections for MPs? The new trigger ballot process produced fewer left MPs than in the past, and was overridden disgracefully by Corbyn’s allies before the election.

Fifth: will they crack down ruthlessly on anti-Semitism, and wage ideological war against the crank political ecosystem in which it has flourished? (Watch Chris Williamson’s latest video if you want to experience that first-hand.) 

Finally, and most importantly, how do they plan to reconnect with the voters who rejected us in small, ex-industrial communities? If it’s by throwing social liberalism under a bus, I’m not interested. We are a party of educated, urban, young progressive people and our project is social justice. 

But from that core we must now reach out to older socially conservative voters. I want the party to be led from the left, but not at the cost of five more years of division and chaos. Corbyn’s team needed centralised control because they could never make a workable deal with Labour centrism: the solution to that is not another left leader and more control. And in any case, the “left” is now really two lefts — one Stalinist and economic nationalist, one open and socially liberal. Since the entire left could not run the party on its own, I doubt half the left can. 

If so, should the internationalist left concentrate not on winning the leadership but on carving out a powerful organisational and ideological space alongside a leader who will give us influence within a broader coalition?

I won’t wait long before I get behind someone in this race, but until the whole field is known, that’s where I am now. Above all, given the experience of the past 18 months, I want someone who will empower people to resist the Tories on the streets and fight for change.

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