Who will split the splitters? SDP lessons for “True Labour”

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Will Labour split if/when Jeremy Corbyn retains the party leadership? Should it split? And if it does, along what lines? Who would be the target voters for any new centre-left party?

A lot has been written about all this in recent weeks, such as this Economist piece arguing that an anti-Corbyn “True Labour” offshoot could do better than nervous Labour MPs fear. However, Danny Finkelstein contributed a useful perspective in yesterday’s Times, based on his experience on the national executive of the SDP back in the 1980s.

What I hadn’t previously appreciated is that the SDP was, from the start, divided along a faultline that still afflicts Labour: between the regional working class and metropolitan liberals. This division was personified, in the SDP, by the conflicting ambitions of David Owen and Roy Jenkins.

As Finkelstein writes:

Owen’s conception of the SDP, which was formed in 1981, is that it would be a tough-minded, hawkish party of the left. It would appeal to an aspirational working class, particularly in the north, who had tired of bureaucratic socialism and saw the point of Margaret Thatcher, but were not Tories.

When the future Labour foreign secretary was a student working on a building site he had been struck by the reaction of his fellow workers to the Suez crisis. It had been instinctively nationalist, uninterested in political protocol, and robust. It was these people he wanted the SDP to appeal to.

In the metropolitan liberal corner, by contrast, was Roy Jenkins, who had been President of the European Commission immediately before returning to the UK to set up the SDP:

Roy Jenkins, former Labour chancellor but also biographer of the Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, wanted a centre party that reflected his own liberal instinct. This would be a southern party of the middle class, disdainful of Thatcher, fastidious rather than bulldog-like on international issues, avowedly centrist.

As Finkelstein points out, by the end of 1982 Jenkins had won the battle:

The SDP would be a liberal party. It lost almost all its northern and working-class seats, was not able to compete in the south because the Liberal Party took all the best constituencies, and ended up being swallowed up by its partner.

The same quandary that faced the SDP faces Labour now, especially post-Brexit: should it stand up for “the 48%”, even if this costs it votes in the English regions? Or should it tilt towards a more eurosceptic line, opposing unrestricted freedom of movement, for example? Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith are both attempting to square this circle (“get you a party that can do both!”), neither especially convincingly.

It would face a new party of “True Labour” splitters even more acutely. Do they follow the siren calls to form a “progressive alliance” with Greens and Lib Dems, thus doubling down on the middle-class liberal vote, or do they risk alienating liberals by pursuing the traditional Labour base, much of which remains (as Finkelstein describes it):

conservative on constitutional questions, culturally sentimental and nostalgic, cautious on issues of individual freedom, opposed to mass immigration, monarchist, nationalist, patriotic and militaristic.

Of course, the only way Labour (or any new party) can win is the way it has always won: by managing to hold together its uneasy coalition of working class traditionalists and middle class liberals. This coalition has come under so much strain in recent decades that it’s hard to see how Labour can reinvigorate; harder still to see how a new party would rebuild such a coalition from scratch. As Finkelstein concludes:

Neil Sedaka was wrong. Breaking up is not very hard to do. It’s easy to disassemble a political alliance. It’s putting one together that is challenging.

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Jeremy Corbyn and his friends

Jeremy CorbynWell, no sooner have I nailed my colours to Jeremy Corbyn’s mast than I began (belatedly) to engage properly with the most serious reason not to vote for him: his choices of friends over the years.

A friend sent me a link to this article by Alan Johnson (note: not the MP of the same name), in which Johnson condemns Corbyn’s support for “the vicious antisemitic Islamist”, Raed Salah. Salah’s quoted comments include the following:

We have never allowed ourselves, and listen well, we have never allowed ourselves to knead the bread for the breaking of the fast during the blessed month of Ramadan with the blood of children. And if someone wants a wider explanation, you should ask what used to happen to some of the children of Europe, whose blood would be mixed in the dough of the holy bread. God Almighty, is this religion? Is this what God wants? God will confront you for what you are doing.

Both the authenticity and interpretation of this quotation have been contested. However, as a UK immigration appeals tribunal put it (albeit while overturning Theresa May’s decision to exclude Salah from the UK), “we do not find this comment could be taken to be anything other than a reference to the blood libel against Jews.” For Jeremy Corbyn to share a platform with a promulgator of the blood libel, of all things, strikes me as a serious error of judgement on his part. I can well understand why Johnson would regard this as a “deal-breaker”.

James Bloodworth sets out similar concerns, and suggests that what he describes as Corbyn’s “indulgence of tyranny” is the result of seeing the US as “the world’s most malevolent power”:

Thus because the US is the beating heart of capitalism, it must always and everywhere be the “root cause” (you will hear that phrase a lot) of the world’s problems; and by deduction, any movement that points a gun in its direction must invariably have something going for it.

All these are serious allegations being made against Corbyn from people on the political left. They deserve a serious response from him, which I hope they’ll get. As I commented on Twitter earlier, had I not been a Labour party member, these allegations would probably have been enough to put me off paying my £3 to vote in the election.

However, I am a Labour party member, and thus I can’t just consider Corbyn in the abstract, but in a context where I either have to vote for one of the other candidates or abstain altogether. And this response to Bloodworth from Sacha Ismail argues that Corbyn’s undoubted failures on this front (such as his “wrong and politically harmful comments about Hamas”) have to be put into the context both of the Labour contest as a whole, and (even more importantly) Corbyn’s more constructive actions during his career.

As Ismail observes:

It is not as if the other three candidates have a good record on international issues. On the contrary, they have all been complicit in New Labour’s appalling record.

And there is an important difference: Corbyn’s view of peace and international human rights is flawed, but he has one. The approaches the others take are decisively shaped by what they judge politically acceptable for a careerist bourgeois politician. […] Elect Burnham, Cooper or Kendall and the crawling to Saudi Arabia will continue!

The anti-war left has been (in many cases rightly) criticised by people such as Nick Cohen for turning its back on the victims of “anti-US” regimes — especially women and trade unionists. Corbyn, however, does have a track record of offering support, as Ismail describes:

Last year, when Workers’ Liberty was collecting signatures for the campaign to free jailed Iranian trade unionists Shahrokh Zamani and Reza Shahabi, there was a week in which I grabbed two Labour MPs at meetings and asked them to sign. One was Alison McGovern (now supporting Liz Kendall), who looked irritated and said she’d have to look into it. The other was Corbyn, who signed without hesitation and told me to contact his office for more help.

Ismail concludes that Corbyn’s failings do not “cancel out the huge possibilities his campaign offers for breaking the Blairite blockade of working-class politics.”

And yes: Sacha Ismail is writing for Workers’ Liberty, a Trotskyite organisation. Caveat lector and all that. But I think he still makes some valid points in Corbyn’s defence (or at least mitigation).

Here’s another post that addresses the main accusations being made against Jeremy Corbyn by his opponents. I’m unpersuaded by the defence offered in respect of Raed Salah (the writer claims that the “blood libel” quotations were “doctored”; I prefer to accept the immigration tribunal’s conclusions on the subject). Also, while the post defends Corbyn from the charge of being himself antisemitic (which I’m quite sure he’s not), the more widespread, credible and serious accusation is that he has been too willing to turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of some of those with whom he allies himself. The post does, however, offers some robust defences to accusations that Corbyn is pro-Putin, pro-IRA and soft on child abuse.

But to return to the accusation of cosying up to antisemites: as I said above, I can well understand why people would turn against Corbyn over his support for Raed Safah. I am deeply dismayed by it myself, and hope that Corbyn can offer a convincing explanation (and dissociation).

In the meantime, given that my choices as they stand are (a) vote for Corbyn; (b) vote for Cooper, Burnham or Kendall; or (c) abstain (and, to be frank, probably resign from the party altogether), for now I remain a wary supporter of Corbyn for the leadership – though I’m probably going to leave it for a week or two before returning my ballot paper, to see how this plays out. But assuming he becomes leader, his approach to “reactionary anti-Western movements and governments” will need to be watched carefully, and opposed vigorously if he slips back into a “diplomatic soft-soaping” of the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and Raed Salah.

Update (18 Aug): it’s worth watching Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the allegations about Raef Salah and Peter Eisen in this interview with Cathy Newman:

Hilary Wainwright on supporting Jeremy Corbyn

Red Pepper, Aug/Sep 2015I liked Hilary Wainwright’s Red Pepper article on Jeremy Corbyn enough to revive this blog. Wainwright is one of many on the left who have paid their £3 to vote for Corbyn, not as a “knight in shining armour”, but because he is

one of a modest band of Labour MPs, building on the tradition of Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone, who don’t ask to see your party card before joining struggles and debates beyond the walls of Westminster.

Unlike Wainwright, I remain a (somewhat grumpy and disaffected) member of the Labour party. However, I think Wainwright’s analysis of the current political situation has a lot going for it.

The strongest part of her analysis comes when she describes how voting for Corbyn shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to turn the Labour party into “a genuinely socialist party”, but as a response to economic and political changes that have made Labour’s style of social democracy untenable:

The economic and political conditions for social democracy no longer exist. The prevarications of both Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham are indications of this. Their goals are social democratic but the world of a mixed economy, where the profits of a productive capitalist sector could be taxed and redistributed to provide universal welfare, social security and a public infrastructure for the benefit of all, no longer exists.

Instead, we live in a world dominated by a “financialised global capitalism”, in which “social democracy as we have known it is visibly too weak to be an effective champion of social justice.” Hence the declines experienced by European social democratic parties ranging from Pasok in Greece to the German SPD, French Socialists and British Labour party. All these parties depended, during the post-war era, on a Keynesian economic consensus based on

productive capital, the aspiration of full employment, decent wages and social security (hence a strong market for the goods produced), taxable profits and a nationally regulated currency and trade.

All this has been replaced, Wainwright argues, by a neoliberal order in which “making profits out of producing things” has been supplanted by “making money out of money.” In that world, the old tools of parliamentary social democracy are of limited effect:

The levers of national governmental power have either become useless in the face of global financial flows (for example, to tax corporations or combat tax avoidance) or, in the case of the EU, international treaties block state intervention in the market or use debt to prevent radical governments from using the powers they could have (as with Greece).

The only politics that is possible in the face of this is one that “seeks to mobilise all possible sources of counter-power.” Simply aiming to form an elected national government “is simply not sufficient” – though gaining such power can certainly play an importance role in “the full realisation of people’s transformative capacities.”

This then leads Wainwright on to the section of her essay that resonated most strongly with me:

What I would stress is the need to abandon purisms and single perspective politics – whether pure anarchism, pure parliamentarism, pure syndicalism or any one-track approach – and instead to urge a hybrid and experimental politics where collaboration is the guiding method.

I find that my own political views are a shifting mixture of perspectives ranging from quasi-anarchism to social democracy to (whisper it) elements of so-called “Blue Labour” thinking­ – often reflecting the tension between what I’d ideally like to see happen versus the need and chance to make things a bit better right now, even if this falls a long way short of the ideal or even comes with some distasteful accretions. (This is why I continue to maintain that, had the Labour leadership election offered a candidate from the Labour centre or even the Labour right who I believed could win an election, I’d have voted for them over Corbyn).

Hence, for Wainwright, the politics that is needed in a post-Keynesian, post-social democratic world is “less about demands on government, more about grassroots transformation”:

Hence a movement as much about popular education and self-education as about winning elections; that is less about faction fights and more about welcoming diversity and creating space for reflection and debate, treating practice as experimental action from which to learn; an organisation, then, that is less of a central hierarchy and vanguard, more a platform connecting and supporting and interconnecting struggles.

Hence her support for Corbyn, who she sees as “a good kind of leader … for this kind of plural and non-hierarchical organisation.” This is not about rallying behind a “charismatic leader”, but about supporting someone with a track record of “weaving a web of networks”, who can see that “something new is going on, transcending traditional political allegiances.” She concludes:

We are supporting someone who has no desire to be the leader but is willing to offer his energies and legitimacy as an MP as a resource for a movement that can self-consciously create a truly transformative politics, inside and outside the Labour Party and based on principles of self‑governing democracy.

I wonder whether Corbyn, if he becomes Labour leader, will be able to live up to these expectations – given the nature of that role, coupled with the civil war likely to erupt in the party from day one of his leadership. My own reasons for voting for Corbyn are less well-formed and less hopeful: more an angry kick aimed at a defeated and intellectually bankrupt party, in the hope that at least some of the resulting destruction proves to be of the creative variety. However, Wainwright’s article is a reminder that a “best-case scenario” for a Corbyn leadership is, as Seamus McCauley puts it, an escape from the “consensus” and “status quo bias” into which British politics has slipped. In Wainwright’s words:

an opportunity to get out of a political trap into a space for debate and new radical thinking.

All that said: I wonder whether Labour will even allow Wainwright to vote

Labour axioms, Labour commitments, Labour values

In the conclusion to his essay, Labour as a radical tradition (PDF, pp.14ff.), Maurice Glasman (see previous post) sets out a number of “axioms” of Labour’s “radical tradition” (bullet points and bold highlighting added):

  • Capitalism is based on the maximisation of returns on investment, which creates great pressure to commodify land and labour markets. Human beings and nature, however, are not created as commodities and should not be treated as such.
  • Human beings, in contrast, are dependent rational beings capable of trust and responsibility, who need each other to lead a good life. People are meaning-seeking beings who rely on an inheritance to make sense of their world, on liberty to pursue their own truth, and on strong social institutions which promote public goods and virtue.
  • Democracy, the power of organised people to act together in the Common Good, is the way to resist the power of money. In that sense, Labour holds to a theory of relational power as a counterweight to the power of money.
  • The building of relational power is called organising and this is a necessary aspect of the tradition.
  • As a theory of the Common Good, Labour holds to a balance of power within the Constitution, and in all public institutions, including the economy.

Labour recognises “the innovation, energy and prosperity that markets bring”. However, it also retains “an awareness, absent in liberalism, of the concentrations of power, the disruption and the dispossession that are its accompaniment”. Labour’s response to this is

not the abolition of capital nor the elimination of markets, but their democratic entanglement in regional, civic and vocational relationships.

Glasman then suggests a number of forms which this “democratic entanglement” can take:

  1. A commitment to local, relational or mutual banking.
  2. A commitment to skilled labour, with “real traditions of skill and knowledge” in a “vocational economy”.
  3. A commitment to the balance of power within the firm, so that “managers are held accountable” and “strategy is not based on the interests of one group alone”.
  4. A commitment to forms of mutual and co-operative ownership.

For those whose heads hit the table in despair when they hear phrases like “Blue Labour” or (saints preserve us) “Purple Labour”, and who cry out “Why can’t we just be Labour?”, I suggest that what Glasman is describing in these “axioms” and “commitments” is precisely that: Labour values. Indeed, I think Glasman’s entire thesis is that Labour has distinctive values arising from its unique origins, rather than just being a classic, post-Enlightenment “social democratic” (let alone “liberal”) party.

While I don’t think Glasman’s list is exhaustive – in particular, I do think basic Labour values include a commitment to greater equality, and that this has deep roots in the English radical tradition – I do think it forms a basis for thinking about how Labour can once again present a vision of the common good that can inspire people, and maybe even win power again.

“Radical traditionalism” and the common good

I wonder whether Maurice Glasman ever regrets coining the phrase “Blue Labour”? The name has certainly attracted him plenty of attention, but equally it’s probably led a lot of Labour people to reject Glasman’s ideas out of hand (and, in many cases, unread): “What, you mean it’s like New Labour, but even more right wing???” being, I suspect, the reaction of many.

Which is probably why the new eBook edited by Glasman (among others), The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox (PDF), largely steers clear of the term. Glasman, in his own contribution, prefers to talk about “radical traditionalism”. And if we set aside our aversion to the many blossoming forms of “[your colour here] Labour” and consider Glasman’s argument, there is a lot of good material in there.

Glasman begins by considering the paradoxical nature of Labour politics:

Labour is a paradoxical tradition, far richer than its present form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism. The Labour tradition is not best understood as the living embodiment of the liberal/communitarian debate, or as a variant of the European Marxist/Social Democratic tension. Labour is robustly national and international, conservative and reforming, christian and secular, republican and monarchical, democratic and elitist, radical and traditional, and it is most transformative and effective when it defies the status quo in the name of ancient as well as modern values.

He argues that Labour’s values are not abstractions such as “freedom” or “equality”. Rather, they are “rooted in relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life” – reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity – within a philosophical framework that combines an “Aristotelian” emphasis on the Good Life and the Common Good with an English radicalism that goes back before Enlightenment liberalism to the ancient belief in the “rights of freeborn Englishmen”.

These ethical and radical beliefs led Labour to make three basic assumptions concerning capitalism:

  1. That “capitalism was an exploitative and inefficient system of economic organisation, prone to speculative bubbles and recession. A Labour political economy would be different and superior.”
  2. That there was “an ethical problem with unreformed capitalism, in that it exerted pressure to turn human beings and their natural environment into commodities”, and that as a consequence “only organised people could resist the domination of money”. Hence “for Labour, democratic association was a fundamental commitment”.
  3. That “scientific knowledge and managerial expertise” could be used “to exercise a progressive control of capitalism so that its excesses could be tamed and its general direction allied to more progressive human ends”.

From the 1960s on, however, Labour lost faith in the first two assumptions, and retreated into the managerialism of its third assumption. Labour lost its vision of the “Good Life”, and not least in the “extending [of] democracy in the social life of the nation”. As a result:

…social democracy has become neither social nor democratic. This is the land that Labour has vacated and is now being filled by the Conservative’s ‘Big Society’. The Conservative tradition does have a conception of the social, Burke is an important thinker, but it was lost under Thatcherism and has been robustly reclaimed by Cameron.

Personally, I’m not sure that the vacuity of the “Big Society” could “fill” anything, let alone represent a true reclaiming of a Burkean “conception of the social”, but I agree with Glasman that:

Labour needs to develop the idea of a Good Society as its rival, and such a society would be built on relationships built on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, all the way up and all the way down, in politics and within the economy.

As part of this, Labour needs to remember some truths that it has forgotten:

What was forgotten politically was that the welfare state was not a right fulfilled, but an achievement won through sustained organisation and political action, and that was the only way it could be sustained. What was forgotten economically was that capitalism is a volatile system, based upon the exploitation of human beings and nature, and left to itself, will eat itself and the world around it. There are ethical reasons for generating democratic association as an alternative source of power that can entangle it within institutions that promote a Common Good.

I think there are some serious weaknesses with Glasman’s essay. Some of these are stylistic (his bizarre “Mum and Dad” analogy, some too-clever-by-half turns of phrase), some are more substantive: David Miliband, in his response, points out that Glasman underestimates the extent to which inequality makes “relationships of reciprocity and mutuality” impossible.

But where I agree entirely with him is that Labour needs to recover a vision of “the Good”, and that to do so means mining seams of “radical conservatism”, invoking “ancient as well as modern values”. To take just one example: the defence of the NHS is surely, at its heart, a defence of the values of community and solidarity on which the NHS was founded, against the radicalising and revolutionary forces of capital that seek to tear it apart. And the NHS can only be successfully defended, in both the short and the long term, on that basis – not by seeking to defend one particular form of centralised state control, or by appeals to technocratic efficiency (which system produces the shortest waiting lists, and so on).

The left’s Tea Party politics

David Aaronovitch’s column today on “the Tea Party of the Left” (marooned behind the Times paywall, so no link, alas) is a healthy splash of cold water in the face for Labour supporters.

He begins with “the sense that the great Labour hinterland, largely quiet on the domestic front for half a generation, is now up for a bit of upheaval”:

Up for a bit of indulging in nostalgia for the great Maggie Out years when you knew where you stood, before Labour victory and compromises made things so complicated.

This can be seen in the apologetics from some Labour supporters on the subject of last week’s Millbank rioting – “when you’re really cross, what’s a bit of plate glass?” – not to mention former ministers “unblushingly” ditching “half a decade’s presumed consent” to policies such as student tuition fees. Aaronovitch continues:

Hitherto rational folk are having Get Out of Jail Free fantasies about how the coalition could just raise taxes (“for the rich”, naturally), cancel Trident and then none of these fee hikes, job losses, cuts in benefits, and the zillion other government outrages, need happen. But the Bastards won’t do it.

As Aaronovitch observes, all this is a matter of atmospherics rather than of open argument:

You might describe it as a Tea-Partyism of the Left, in which the idea of what you are against is in the mental and cultural foreground, brightly lit, very specific and deeply felt – whereas the idea of what you yourself would do recesses into the unexplored shadows.

The result is that even those policies which show some promise, such as increased use of mutualisation and social enterprises, are subject to furious attack rather than a desire to see them go further and be improved.

As Aaronovitch points out, we shouldn’t be assuming that anger at the coalition will translate into success for Labour at the next election. People were angry at Tory recklessness and divisiveness in the 1980s, and yet Mrs Thatcher won two successive landslides. Which brings us to the Labour party, where Aaronovitch puts into words the uneasiness I’ve been feeling about Ed Miliband recently:

People have begun wondering whether the word Miliband is Yiddish for “a long gap between things happening”. The period of unexpected contemplation by the new leader is set to end next week with a policy relaunch. This is important, not because Ed M should tell us details of policies that he can’t implement, but because it can set out a rough plan for the foundering, foolish, fond centre-left masses to coalesce around.

Let’s be blunt: if the economy recovers then the Tories (with or without the Lib Dems) will probably win the next election handsomely, however divisive and damaging their policies may be for the bottom 30% or so of households by income, and whatever Ed Miliband and Labour do (or don’t do) between then and now. But unless Labour can begin to establish a coherent narrative to its opposition – a narrative that is currently completely absent, or at least undetectable to the naked eye – then we are looking at a decade or more of Tory devastation.

When losing is winning

At first I thought William Saletan’s latest column in Slate, Pelosi’s Triumph, was going to be yet another piece of post-election straw-clutching denial. You know the sort of thing: “It could have been worse!”, “We’ve still got the Senate!”, and so on.

Instead, it turned into a thoughtful and persuasive argument that what matters in politics isn’t winning and losing elections, but what happens between elections. Health care is being blamed for the Democrats’ defeat, but as Saletan points out:

if health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election.

He quotes David Frum, who wrote back in March:

Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever.

As Saletan observes:

Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren’t going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.

This made me consider two Labour governments: the New Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the Attlee government.

New Labour took as fundamental the need to win and retain power, and it did so with great success, resulting in easily the longest continuous period of Labour government in history. However, it is undoubtedly the case that New Labour’s focus on the retention of power – that is, winning elections – distorted and constrained its actions in office, leading to a familiar sequence of lurches between populist “eye-catching initiatives” and cautious hedging aimed at keeping Middle England (and the Daily Mail and Murdoch press) on board as far as possible.

As a result, while New Labour achieved far more in office than many of its critics outside and inside the party often acknowledge, it has become painfully apparent in recent months how easy it will be for the Conservatives to obliterate vast areas of Labour achievement from 1997 to 2010. By 2015, one wonders how much of the New Labour legacy will survive at all.

By contrast, the Attlee government only achieved 6 years in office, and in particular failed to win re-election for even one further full term after the 1945 landslide. On the Blairite template this makes Attlee a failure. However, Clement Attlee and his colleagues spent their time from 1945 to 1950 concentrating more on what they did with power than on how they would retain it. As a result, they reshaped and transformed British life in ways that survive to this day, and to which even the Tories still have to pay lip-service.

In short, the Attlee government achieved (and, I’d have to say, New Labour did not) the outcome that William Saletan ascribes to the healthcare bill:

a huge structural change in the relationship between the public, the economy, and the government.

It’s tempting after this year’s election defeat, and especially as we look in horror at what is happening under the new government, to think in terms of how Labour can secure another long period in office. Perhaps, though, we should take a leaf out of Clement Attlee’s book (and, William Saletan might argue, Nancy Pelosi’s), and realise that a single term of radical transformation may be better than three or four terms of cautious hedging and managerialism.