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Mile End Institute

All change for Labour?

‘The Summer That Changed Everything’, the recent BBC documentary following Labour MPs and activists during June's general election, presented longstanding tensions and some emerging and intriguing questions regarding the party's future. Karl Pike, PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, looks into tensions in the Labour party and asks if Momentum could be a new 'New Left.'


Leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn

The longstanding tensions go well beyond the two and half years of Jeremy Corbyn's prominence. They are cultural tensions, with sometimes small differences becoming symbolic of ethos rather than doctrine. In other words, they revolve around the question of 'what kind of Labour' a person is, rather than what solutions somebody has to a political, economic or social problem.

The newer questions are, perhaps, a more fruitful area for discussion. Momentum, the Corbyn-inspired group, is an intriguing paradox. Its leaders, and some of its members, were actors in the Bennite battles of the 80s. Some MPs - including newer MPs whose link to Tony Blair is either tenuous or non-existent - find themselves being labelled Blairites and pitted against Momentum members who, similarly, were not much involved in Labour's past. Yet Momentum could also break with the past, with activists who do not care about either of the previous two sentences, but are still ready to embrace Labour, and its traditions, while helping to decide its future.

Let's start with the old. The longstanding, repetitive tensions within Labour - much on display in the documentary - are part of what makes the party an uneasy, diverse, creative and volatile assemblage of people on the Left. One of the more obvious tensions is a construction from Labour people that neither 'the Left' nor 'the Right' could possibly put principles into action through achieving power. The Left are accused of having principles - or 'dogma' - but in having no interest in winning elections and taking power. The Right are accused of having few principles - or being happy to jettison them - to achieve power, which, like the Conservatives, is all they really care about.

These were the accusations which flew around Labour's conferences in 1960, 1980, 1989 and 2016 (to pick just a few). These arguments have deep roots. When Labour people make these comments they, of course, further this false dichotomy and risk appearing to confirm the counter accusation. In other words, Corbyn's critics who merely repeat that he is not serious about Labour being a party of government can appear like they themselves have no sense of mission. Similarly, those who criticise Labour MPs for obsessing about power risk appearing like they don't care about it, leading to Conservative hegemony. These are extreme positions and Labour is not an extremist party. Labour is, to use Henry Drucker’s word, a respectable party. It is not a crazy coalition of revolutionary socialists and pragmatic conservatives. 

There are differences, of course. As Frank Parkin wrote in Middle Class Radicalism, ‘instrumental’ politics (concerned with the attainment of power) and ‘expressive’ politics (the defence of principle) are best understood as things that most people, Labour people included, blend. Traditionally, the Labour Left has placed a greater emphasis on the expressive, with others placing more on the instrumental. It’s not a simple continuum, and people (from the Labour Left and Right) change over the years. Others have found - at their cost - that edging towards either extreme risks severe divergence from Party or electorate. But to place too great an emphasis on this tension, as some Labour people are doing at the moment, makes these differences difficult to reconcile. And as the documentary showed, they are becoming entrenched.

This is all the more unfortunate, for Labour, when in terms of doctrine the party is not divided. Some of the undoubted policy inhibition Labour MPs showed in the run-up to the 2015 general election has been shed (and Corbyn’s popularity partly explains that). Owen Smith’s ill-fated challenge to Corbyn in 2016 emphasised that the big differences Labour people see between each other are not doctrinal. Smith’s candidacy was characterised as ‘man-for-man policy marking on the left wing’. Had Smith been victorious and led Labour into the general election he would have been further to the left than any Labour manifesto since 1987. Data from the Party Members Project (PMP) further evidences Labour’s doctrinal unity. Regardless of whether a Labour person joined the party prior to or after Ed Miliband’s defeat in 2015, members are pro-redistribution (over 90% in favour), think that spending cuts have gone too far (over 90%) and think the forces of capital seek to undermine their labour power (again, over 90%). There is a difference when it comes to how members – ‘old’ and ‘new’ – self-define on a left-right scale, which has some linkage to the ‘expressive’ politics I referred to. According to Monica Poletti, Tim Bale and Paul Webb at the PMP, new members see themselves as significantly more left-wing, with the difference ‘even more accentuated’ for Momentum members.

This brings us to some of the questions Momentum poses for both other activists and observers of the Labour Party. Data over many decades has shown Labour’s members have a preference for more left wing policies than the parliamentary leadership has chosen to pursue – nationalisation and unilateralism being examples from the 1980s and 90s. Just like Momentum activists, Labour’s members have – for a long time – wanted to be more respected by the party leadership and given a greater say over party policy.

The relevance of factionalism within Labour’s internal democracy to these new members and activists is, I think, one of the biggest questions to come out of the documentary. The energy Momentum are bringing to seats across the country was very evident, but the documentary chose not to touch on concerns over factionalism. Key personalities and organisers within Labour’s factions continue to see their battles as being between ‘the Hard Left’, ‘Bennites’, ‘Blairites’ – no ‘Milibandites’, of course, that was seen as a bridge. But do the majority of new members care for this? At a number of points over the last 70 years or so there has emerged a ‘New Left’ – one to challenge the Gaitskellite revisionists in the 1950s and 60s, and one to step into the intellectual vacuum following revisionism’s slide in the 1970s. In both instances a wider Left coalesced around some Labour figures, but never on the organised scale Momentum has the capacity to bring.

Could this latest coalescing be a new ‘New Left’? Or does the continuity of (surpassable) cultural tension alongside doctrinal unity open the possibility to far greater integration than is currently assumed? I don’t think we yet know. However, there does appear to be an open door for a project that recognises ideas need not be the property of the Left, while pragmatism need not be the virtue of the Right.

This article first appeared on the Political Studies Association's blog on 23 November 2017.

Karl Pike is a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. He tweets @p_ikek.



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