The leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, closed a successful party conference last Wednesday. The reshaping of the party in the last three years under his leadership is second only to Brexit in transforming the British political landscape, and may even come to overshadow it. This achievement stands in stark contrast to the fate of mainstream socialist and social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe. Mr Corbyn has repeatedly been underestimated by his critics, including me. And the conference seemed to put behind the party the bitter conflicts that arose during this transformation, in order to take on tired neoliberal orthodoxy that still dominates British government. Will it work?
The first challenge to this is whether the party can break through scepticism among the public at large, fuelled by unsympathetic coverage in the media, and stoked up by their Conservative opponents. A lot of wealthy people are worried by the thought of a Labour government, and so there will be plenty of money behind such schemes to derail the party. As the Brexit referendum campaign (to say nothing of Donald Trump in the US) shows, political campaigning is not restrained by thoughts of truth or fairness. But I want to consider a second challenge: which is whether Labour will actually come up with a convincing package of policies that will transform the country for the better, or whether hopeful signs will be stymied by Labour’s internal politics.
I was put in mind of this by an article in the Guardian by John Harris. He welcomes the radicalism of ideas coming out of the Labour movement, which include such liberal ideas as the decentralisation of power, including local government and worker cooperatives. I have ordered a recently published book, Economics for the Many, a series of essays edited by Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, to get a better understanding of this new thinking, and I will report back on that when I have read it. But Mr Harris is worried that this radicalism will by stymied by nostalgic conservatives that want to turn the clock back to the 1970s. There are plenty of these in the Labour movement (such as former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott), but I don’t think these are much of an organised threat. And neither are the centrists associated with the now dated New Labour project of the 1990s, still strong in the parliamentary party. Instead I see the key battle as being between two groups that I will call “liberals” and “Leninists”. These groups don’t self-identify as such; instead I am using my own labels, much as the left uses the term “neoliberal” for critics on the right, though I aim for more precision.
Firstly, it is worth remembering what unites these groups. They both want to make society economically fairer, with a better distribution of wealth and the eradication of poverty. There is no reason to doubt their honesty about this, but there is a fundamental divide as to how to go about it. The liberals have a deep-seated belief in democracy and persuasion, and a distrust of dictatorship; they also think that centralisation of power is part of the problem. They think that the party should develop a policy programme based on radical devolution through a process of internal consultation within the party, and then persuading the electorate as a whole. The detail and content of the policies are everything, and they want to engage as many people as possible in the debate.
For Leninists it is the seizure of power itself that is the key thing, first within the party, and then in the country. And once that power has been seized, they want as few restraints on executive power as possible, so that radical policies can be enacted from the top down. Centralised power is the solution, stupid, not the problem. Leninists don’t care much for the content of particular policies, beyond as a means to rally supporters. They are supremely pragmatic in their bid for power, forming alliances with liberals and others on the journey, only to ditch them when not required. The model, of course, is Vladimir Lenin in revolutionary Russia a century ago. His ruthless focus on power meant that he easily outlasted more romantic socialists, who expected power to emanate from the workers upwards. A more modern hero is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who accepted a democratic veneer only so far as necessary to keep his Bolivarian socialist project on the rails. Labour’s Leninists are not openly undemocratic, but they have some worrying heroes.
An example of what I mean is Mr McDonnell, the leading Leninist, and his suggestion that large companies put aside 10% of their shares for the benefit of workers. This sounds all very good and liberal, until you look at it a little more closely. In fact control of the shares would rest with central government; after that the details melt away. The party’s shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long Bailey, sometimes talked of as a future leader, was easily skewered by a BBC journalist when pressed to explain the policy on Radio 4 the morning after. The policy is candy floss: designed to give a sweet sensation on contact, but which quickly melts to nothing.
In this picture the Leninists are slowly consolidating their control over the party machinery. Mr Corbyn, while lacking the ruthless streak that characterises Leninists, seems happy to go along with this. By instinct, however, most Labour members are liberals. The Leninists need the liberals as allies, but they also want to stymie any policies that might dilute their hold on power. Am I imagining all this? Well it is a huge over-simplification, but it may have some value in predicting what happens next. Let’s consider how this dynamic might play out on a couple of defining issues.
The first is Brexit. The liberals hate Brexit and want to mobilise the party to stop it. They therefore threw their weight behind the idea of a new referendum, with the possibility of stopping the process. The Leninists don’t like this idea. They don’t care that much about the issue itself, though they instinctively bridle against the restraints that the EU places on member states, for example over state aid to businesses. But they worry that taking such a clear stand against Brexit will cut them off from a working class vote that would otherwise be quite easy to mobilise against the Conservatives. I personally have a great deal of sympathy with this position. Brexit exposed a fault line in British society and real political leadership will be needed to heal it. The Leninists successfully stopped a motion going to conference that explicitly commits Labour to a further referendum. But enough movement was made in that direction, especially with statements from the (liberal) Keir Starmer, for liberals to declare victory (take this remarkable piece from the Guardian’s Zoe Williams). That seems very naive, though Theresa May’s government may yet give them an opening if she persists in pushing her Chequers or bust strategy. The Leninists must find a working alternative to no-deal to fall back on, at least in principle – even if they think that no-deal would give them a political opportunity – or they are in danger of presenting the public with a choice between no-deal and no-Brexit, which is the liberal game plan.
The second issue is electoral reform: and in particular the greater use of proportional representation. This is popular with liberals, and stands well with their ideal of a pluralistic democracy – in place of the take-it-or-leave it politics of the current system, where political elites have too much say. But it is anathema to Leninists. Their political ideal is a one-party state (preferably because electors persistently back the party in a free choice, rather than actually banning the opposition). They like the idea of large, broad church political parties, united by a tribal hatred of each other. It offers them the best chance of seizing power. And they love control by elites, as long they are the elite. It’s not that Leninists are anti-democratic: they crave the affirmation that winning elections gives them: but they are inclined to see opponents as cheats, class enemies and fundamentally illegitimate. They will not be encouraged by the fate of traditional socialist parties in proportional systems elsewhere in Europe. If the Leninists hold sway, Labour will make no serious commitment to electoral reform. Somehow it will never work its way up the priority list.
In my view the Leninists hold the upper hand. And I think that is bad because their solutions, involving highly concentrated political power, are doomed to failure. They are trying to take a short cut to solve problems that can only be solved through a tough democratic process, with the substantial devolution of political power. Perhaps I will be proved wrong, and the Leninists will find the party turning against them, and the Labour Party adopting genuinely liberal policies. I will know that day has arrived when party adopts serious electoral reform, at least to local government, in their party platform. Don’t bet on it.