HOT’s Sean O’ Shea discusses Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s recent relaunch bid dubbed by the media as ‘the day of chaos.’ He also reviews the position of the Labour Party with regard to electoral reform and progressive alliances, reflects on the party’s prospects for 2017 and asks: will it rise to the challenge ahead?
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
An interesting range of guest speakers were invited to address the local branch of Momentum at the Isabel Blackman Centre, Hastings, last year. These included Marxist writer, broadcaster and activist Richard Seymour, author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, published by Verso Books. His talk was warmly received, but I wondered how many people had read his book or were aware of its negative prognosis about the future of the Labour Party.
Seymour acknowledges that Corbyn’s leadership has given the radical Left an opportunity to re-group but concludes that unless wider social and economic circumstances change before 2020 it’s not likely to re-group enough to win a general election – in other words the re-birth of radical politics may be a still-birth.
I felt that if he had given a bit more attention to the resources and opportunities that still exist for the Left, in what has become an increasingly unpredictable and turbulent political environment, rather than focusing on the many threats and constraints which stand in the way of progressive change, his conclusions might have been a bit more affirmative.
A culture of pessimism has been a characteristic of the intellectual Left for some time. While this is understandable, and may be sustainable in the somewhat rarefied and privileged world of academe, out in the real world it can lead to self-destructive sectarianism and demoralisation. On our streets, in our workplaces and on our TV screens we daily witness the private troubles of our fellow human beings and the struggles of communities to survive in an increasingly stressful and precarious world. Whether we are optimistically or pessimistically inclined, this suffering calls for a human response from us in the here and now and without assurance of success.
We may feel overwhelmed at times or indeed at a loss what to do. However, as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote, ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless,’ – whatever our reasons – ‘means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral’ (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, Continuum Publishing Company, 1970).
Corbyn’s New Year re-launch
A mood of pessimism prevailed in some parts of the Left on into the New Year with Len McCluskey, a Corbyn supporter and leader of the Unite Union, announcing that Jeremy and John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, would be obliged to step down if there was no change in the opinion polls. As if to reinforce his point this was followed by the publication of a report by Andrew Harrop, the Fabian Society’s general secretary, which forecast that Labour could get as little as 20% of the vote in the next election, leaving it with fewer than 150 MPs.
Corbyn’s re-launch was held on Tuesday 10 January, at which it was anticipated that he would deliver his New Year pledges. The day did not go well. In the morning he suggested a wage cap could be a good way of dealing with inequality. Subsequently a spokesman said that he had ‘misspoken’ about wage caps. Illustrating what has now become an all too familiar pattern in the Labour Party, the idea was promptly criticised by his former economic adviser David Blanchflower and by a number of Labour MPs.
By the afternoon, as Corbyn delivered his speech in Peterborough, he was advocating maximum pay ratios as a more effective way of addressing inequality, but these ideas were now presented as just ‘consultation proposals’ rather than ‘pledges’. By the late evening Shami Chakrabarti , Labour shadow attorney general, and Caroline Flint MP appeared on Newsnight, and on being asked to clarify what Jeremy ‘really meant’, managed to offer conflicting interpretations.
Focusing on the growing disparities of income and wealth, which many voters regard as unfair, ought to have been easy terrain for the Labour leader. However Corbyn failed to take advantage of this by appearing to vacillate on what he or the party intended to do about the issue.
There was a similar equivocation on immigration. Though he had reportedly understood people’s concerns and had shifted his position from the unqualified ‘free movement of people’ to ‘reasonably managed migration,’ he found it difficult to actually say this, but spoke instead of the importance to the economy and the health service of immigrant workers (a matter not in dispute), and of his determination to ensure that under Labour the conditions for all workers would be protected and improved.
Chakrabarti’s well-intentioned attempts to defend Corbyn’s earlier vacillations as an example of his ‘authenticity’ were unconvincing. Nor could his performance be attributed to ‘spin’ or blamed on a hostile media.
An apparent failure to distinguish between the processes of just floating ideas in an informal manner, presenting consultation proposals and informing the public about supposedly agreed policy positions or pledges is causing ongoing and avoidable confusion in Corbyn’s public presentations.
Where agreement has not been reached it might be preferable to be open about the fact, and admit that there remains a diversity of views within the party on a variety of issues including Brexit. However events won’t wait indefinitely for Labour to undertake and conclude its policy reviews, identify areas of consensus and set out an unambiguous policy platform related to the major issues and concerns of our times.
Corbyn redeemed himself somewhat the following day with a competent performance at Prime Minister’s Questions where he concentrated on the crisis in the NHS and managed to get Mother Theresa on the back foot.
This said, in recent weeks Mother Theresa and her new Tory Workers’ Party haven’t distinguished themselves by their degree of clarity on policy matters. The Tory leader performed her own New Year relaunch by introducing her concept of the ‘shared society’ – a phrase used by Ed Miliband during the last election. Who was supposed to be sharing what with whom remained unclear, but homilies addressed to the economically powerful have not to date had much effect on reducing inequality, and seem odd coming from a party that continues to deliver tax cuts t0 the rich while being unwilling to adequately fund the NHS and social care. So we can reasonably assume that, in spite of her warm words, the Prime Minister is not planning a substantial shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families any time soon.
Progressive alliance and electoral reform
Labour asserts its willingness to work with opposition parties to defeat the government, but Corbyn continues to rule out the possibility of a progressive alliance with other parties who share Labour’s aims.
MPs who have called for willingness to experiment with the so-called ‘radical’ concept of electoral pacts have included Clive Lewis, the shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, shadow economic secretary to the Treasury, and Lisa Nandy MP. Their calls have been rejected by the Labour high command.
The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is a cause of continuing disenfranchisement and political disillusionment, and the resulting democratic deficit was glaringly illustrated in last year’s general election, in which the Green Party gained 1.2 million votes, yet returned only one MP.
Corbyn has proclaimed his belief in the ‘wisdom of ordinary citizens’ and his commitment to extend democracy in every part of public life. He believes that the electoral system should properly reflect the collective choices of the electorate.
However when Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, proposed the Electoral Reform Bill as a private member’s bill last July, the Labour leadership whipped MPs to abstain. Fifteen Labour MPs, including Clive Lewis, Jon Cruddas, Jess Phillips and Stella Creasy, rebelled, but this was insufficient to prevent the defeat of the bill by a narrow margin.
Corbyn’s position on both these issues is a source of bafflement to friends and foes alike. Furthermore it has increased the sense of doubt about Labour’s commitment to democratisation, and led to the impression that they are sticking to the undemocratic outmoded FPTP system because of a stubborn but, in the view of many people, quite delusional belief that this will somehow enhance their chances of winning the next election on their own.
Why does all this matter?
Since the Second World War the Labour Party has been the main vehicle of progressive social change in the UK. However, its transformative mission as eloquently spelt out in its original constitution remains only partially fulfilled. We are now in the midst of a second industrial revolution. In addition to local issues associated with Brexit and the crisis in the NHS, the economic effects of globalisation and technological developments are affecting all of our lives. Automation has decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing and the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is going to put millions of jobs, including those of the middle class, in jeopardy. There is a growing consensus that dealing with the social consequences of these upheavals will require change at a systemic as well as an individual level.
Arguably the Labour Party, in spite of its limitations and internal divisions, remains best placed to take a lead role in this social transformation. But it will not be just a matter of a bit of renationalisation here and a bit of reinvestment in infrastructure there.
According to serious social commentators from a range of disciplines it will necessitate re-envisioning our roles as human beings and citizens, our responsibilities towards each other and the planet, the nature of work, and developing alternative ways of providing education, health and social care for all. Economic power will need to be made accountable to citizens and communities, and overweening corporations will need to be replaced by co-operative organisations and networks collectively administered and democratically controlled (see my article A world transformed?).
A good principle to inform the development of such a society might be that proclaimed by Marx in the aftermath of the first industrial revolution, i.e. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (Critique of the Gotha Program, K Marx, 1875).
Failure of the Labour Party to collectively step up to the plate intellectually, morally and practically and take a lead role in this transformational project, in collaboration with other parties which share its aims, will leave England in particular prey to right-wing populism, social fragmentation and the dictatorship for the foreseeable future of a single party financed by big business and supported by a small minority of the electorate.
Professor Stephen Hawkins of the University of Cambridge, writing in the Journal section of the Guardian on 2 December 2016, didn’t mince his words. ‘This is the most dangerous moment for the planet’, he warned. ‘We can’t go on ignoring inequality….more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together.’ As to the ruling elites he had this to say: ‘With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few ….the world’s leaders need to acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many.’
Hawkins, who can hardly be accused of being a rabid radical, envisages the possibility of a more co-operative society in which advances in technology are used for human betterment and enablement, including the eradication of disease and poverty. However, this outcome is by no means guaranteed. In October 2016, speaking at the opening of a new Cambridge centre created to address the potential dangers of AI, he warned that the technology that is being created may also slip out of our control, displace human beings and lead to the creation of ‘ powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many.’
What can we do?
So how are we to we hold the powerful to account? The late Tony Benn MP argued that those in positions of economic, social and political power should always be asked five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?
Benn asked these questions everywhere he went, and his favourite one was: ‘How do we get rid of you?’
He maintained that anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic society and he never tired of reminding his audiences that they had to continuously struggle to win and keep these rights.
How this wise, warm-hearted and visionary politician is missed! May he rest in peace.
Note: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed is available to read free here.
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