Corbyn and the new political Puritans

Last night, the local branch of my CLP gave overwhelming support to a motion in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Compared to some accounts of recent CLP meetings, the discussion of the motion avoided the degree of hostility that has occurred elsewhere, but the manner of the support given to it clearly demonstrated the current plight of the Party.

For his supporters, Corbyn is the symbol and architect of the true socialist party for which they have yearned for so long. Years of alienation from mainstream party politics, and resenting the sharp edge of right-wing media, poured out in the fervent applause for declarations of loyalty to their leader.

Their support for him was also impervious to any critical reflection. The current conflict of the Party was presented as a simple Right/Left split. ‘Is he ‘Corbynite or Blairite?’, asked a confused member at one point, unable to place another speaker in the simple binaries of this narrative. Criticisms of Corbyn’s failure to work constructively with the PLP, to appoint a strong team around him or project a clear message to the country were met with dismissive groans. A speaker who had joined the party in 1951 and campaigned for it for decades since was initially heard with respectful silence until it became clear that his point was that Corybn was not electable, at which point others simply began to talk over him.

‘I’m fed up with a Party that’s just concerned with winning’, said one person. ‘Maybe Corbyn didn’t have a great Brexit campaign,’ said another, ‘but you have to say he’s got resilience.’ The point about his honourable struggle against a hostile right-wing Party and media was repeatedly made regardless of the fact that unhappiness against him stretches deep into the Soft Left and that Corbyn is now facing sustained criticism from the Daily Mirror. When I argued that it seemed unreasonable to accuse someone like Seema Malhotra of treachery when she had worked so hard to support John McDonnell and commissioned research that was instrumental in defeating proposed Conservative tax credit cuts, I was met with stony silence. Appeals made by me and some others to attempt to find some common ground were met with resounding indifference.

I am, in my day job, a sociologist of religion. I have never experienced an atmosphere like that Party meeting anywhere before outside of conservative religious groups who are deeply convinced of the truth of their way of seeing the world. The fact of the growing Party membership was, as in any committed Evangelical group, taken as confirmation of the moral rectitude of the movement, with no interest shown in whether connections with the wider electorate were being made.

Whilst there are individual supporters of Corbyn who remain courteous and thoughtful, the movement forming around him is, at its heart, a form of political puritanism, for which Corbyn is a model puritan leader. It is a movement of moral certainty, largely devoid of policy, fuelled by symbolic struggles against evil, treachery and compromise.

If we recognise this, the current leadership contest increasingly looks like another dead end. One of the characteristics of a puritan movement is that its sense of moral mission trumps all. Corbynist puritans will not allow their sense of purpose to be thwarted by a leadership election defeat – even if that were to happen. They will continue to organise, try to take over the running of CLPs, de-select ‘disloyal’ MPs where they can, and carry forward the fight which is never ultimately about forming a government but overcoming their opponents. Trying to fight with puritans is ultimately self-defeating as it merely re-energises their sense of being engaged in a grand moral drama, struggling against forces of darkness within and beyond their movement.

Whilst Neil Kinnock’s battle against the Militant Tendency in the 1980s should be remembered with great respect, his recent compelling call to the PLP to fight for control of the Party is arguably a mis-recognition of where we are now. His victory in the 1980s was made possible by the support of unions and a majority of the Party membership. Neither of those conditions hold true now. If the majority of the PLP and their supporters attempt to fight the Corbyn puritans for the Party, a protracted struggle will ensue in which our energy will be diverted from articulating a clear social democratic response to our current national crisis.

It is not defeatism but common sense now to initiate a clear split within the Party, even if this might mean letting go of the ‘Labour’ name. This is not a re-run of the 1980s, for what we are seeing is now not the equivalent of a split between an SDP and a gradually reforming Labour Party, but a split between the SDP and the Militant Tendency. We should not fear a significant division on the Left, because the Corbynist movement will, in time, turn in on itself as it finds new ‘traitors’ to blame for the electoral failures that will inevitably face them. There is a deep current in English cultural life that is antipathetic to puritan movements, with good historical reasons. We should trust those deep pragmatic sentiments in our national life, believe that a Corbynist movement left to itself will be banished to electoral obscurity, and take on the deeper challenge of ensuring that the one nation aspirations that Theresa May sought to lay claim to yesterday are genuinely realised as we enter this crucial period of national reconstruction.

Gordon Lynch

A call for an amicable divorce

 

The moving commemorations of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme remind us of the savage depths that human conflict can plumb and the courage of those who lived through such times. Against this backdrop, some of the struggles in our current politics rightly seem trivial by comparison. As we remember the past today, though, this can give helpful pause for thought about how we manage these conflicts in the coming weeks and months.

There is no doubt about the powerful and painful emotions that the current conflict within Labour have unleashed. These will be felt particularly acutely by the Labour leadership and PLP who are at the centre of the storm, as well as journalists and commentators who receive strident attacks for any position they take on this. The emotions are amplified still further through social media in which there are always enough characters to insert a four-letter word but never enough for a nuanced argument.

Amidst this turmoil, it is worth pausing to reflect on what this conflict is about. This is not made easy by the polarised language that has become all too widespread in which the PLP are cast as traitors and anti-democratic and Momentum as nothing but a fanatical insurgency. Such ways of talking are reminiscent of a divorcing couple who need continually to rehearse the failings of their partner in order to find the emotional impetus for separation. But they obscure more complex realities. I disagree strongly with people in my local CLP who are committed supporters of the Corbynist turn in the Party. But I also recognise them as people who are deeply committed to values that I share and whose work for equality, care and tolerance in my local community I greatly respect.

So what is it that is tearing us apart? It is not the issue of opposition to austerity, despite the claims that were made for this as a distinctively Corbynist position in the leadership election campaign last year. The broad principle of addressing our on-going social and economic crisis through public infrastructural investment and a re-balancing of the economy has been well expressed by John McDonnell. But these principles are shared by a broad range of political progressives, including Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna, and supporting a struggling economy through investment rather than reliance on austerity was a central element in Alistair Darling’s response to the 2008 banking crisis. John McDonnell’s new fiscal rule of balancing the Government’s current account spending would also inevitably mean difficult decisions would have to be made about what forms of Government day-to-day spending would be prioritised over others within limited means.

On many policy issues, in fact, with the exception of foreign policy and defence, there is probably much in common between the two sides of Labour that are currently tearing themselves apart.

What is at stake though is not a specific policy agenda, but a more fundamental vision of the kind of political party that Labour should be. On the one hand, the majority of the PLP and their supporters, retain the aspiration of a majority Labour Government structured around a credible PLP able to draw support from a wide range of voters. On the other, there is the Corbynist vision of a political movement grounded in radical, participatory democracy which maintains an authentic socialist option in British politics even if this cannot achieve majority electoral support. To its critics, the failures of the PLP’s stance are writ large in the legacy of a war in Iraq in which a Parliamentary Party ignored its grassroots base to pursue a disastrous course of action. Critics of the Corbynist vision will argue that a Party shaped by the pre-occupations of a left-wing activist base risks becoming a narrow sectarian movement, intolerant of political opponents and detached from the real problems of policy-making. Both sets of criticisms are worth reflecting on.

It is these ultimately irreconcilable visions of the future of the Party that underpin the current ferocity of its internal conflict. The PLP and its supporters are terrified of the prospect of a permanently unelectable Party, no longer able to exert any meaningful influence during a crucial period of our national politics. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are equally dismayed at the prospect of losing a Party that has, for many of them, finally become a political movement with which they feel their deepest convictions are expressed.

The conflict will persist if we continue to think that only one of these political options can emerge out of the current Party. If both sides struggle to retain control of the name ‘Labour’, then this really is a zero-sum game in which a final resolution will come after much more energy and pain has been expended as one side achieves a deeply bruising internal political victory over the other. But if the struggle now is really over the Labour ‘brand’, the wider country will rightly judge the Party harshly over its self-indulgence in fighting over issues of political identity and organisational structure when far more urgent problems are at hand.

The solution, it seems clear now, must be to accept that these irreconcilable political projects need to find separate organisational structures. Managing this divorce constructively will require leadership and maturity from both sides, and the willingness to accept the losses that this will inevitably entail. But like any divorce, the way in which it is conducted will profoundly shape future relationships. From my side of that divide, I want a political future in which collaboration is still possible with those who support the Corbynist project on the many issues that we both care about, not for these relationships to be poisoned for years by on-going rancour. My hope is that those charged with the immensely difficult challenge of working these issues through can find the vision, generosity and boldness to make this possible.

Gordon Lynch