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What next for Labour?

HOT’s Sean O’Shea discusses the aftermath of the referendum, some of the dilemmas facing the different wings of the Labour Party and asks, is it time for a divorce?

 The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

 Antonio Gramsci

I attended a meeting of the Hasting & Rye Labour Party on Saturday 2 July at the White Rock Hotel. The topic was to reflect on the referendum results and discuss ‘What next?’. The meeting was packed to the doors with many new faces, amongst whom were presumably some of the sixty thousand new supporters that reportedly joined the Labour Party in the last week.

The atmosphere was anxious, angry, excited, concerned and hopeful – and the meeting was well chaired by Paul Barnett, Hastings & Rye Labour Chair. There were a few attendees who owned up to voting ‘Leave’, which made them vulnerable to the common accusation of racism and xenophobia. There was strong support for Jeremy Corbyn (JC), but a few people also expressed their reservations that, though a decent chap, he was perhaps not the right man for the job now and into the future.

To go against prevailing groupthink takes courage, and while not necessarily agreeing with what they had to say, I congratulated those speakers who felt able to express a different point of view, fully aware that they ran the risk of being pilloried. Further points expressed included the general dismay at the referendum result, the bias in its reportage, concern for the welfare of immigrants who are increasingly the subject of abuse, and the need for strengthening democracy. There was widespread condemnation of the recent appalling treatment of JC by his parliamentary colleagues and by the media.

As to press responses, Polly Toynbee – not distinguished for her left-wing views – seemed, in her Guardian article on 25 June, to cast aside all pretence to journalistic objectivity and surpassed herself in vitriol by describing JC in the following terms: ‘Dismal, lifeless, spineless – Corby lets us down again.’

A topic that didn’t get aired while I was at the meeting (I had to leave after two hours) was the possibility of an amicable divorce or split in the party. While this is widely discussed in private, it remains a somewhat taboo subject in group meetings, as people fear being considered disloyal or defeatist. However, there are now quite plausible arguments to be made for this option.

Social democracy and democratic socialism

One variant of the case runs as follows: The Labour Party has for many years comprised two distinct wings: the Social Democrats and the Democratic Socialists, the former being in the ascendant but, in policy terms, being increasingly indistinguishable from the Tories, and the latter nowadays comprising about thirty five to forty MP’s. They have not been the happiest of bedfellows, one partner being exceedingly dominant, devious, unwilling to listen, exclusively concerned with being in power and intellectually impoverished. If they were a married couple, their relationship would now be regarded as terminally dysfunctional.

Putting things very crudely the Social Democrats believe that the prevailing capitalist system provides the means and resources necessary for everyone to flourish; it just needs some tweaking here and there through specific state interventions, reforms and regulations. Economic crises are symptoms of the greed of bankers, an overzealous belief in the predictive power of logarithms on the part of economists and the increasing venality of some parts of the political/economic elite. There has been a failure of regulation, everyone got too greedy, citizens overreached themselves by borrowing more than they could afford and everyone, particularly the poorer sections of society, needs to tighten their belts and have a healthy dose of austerity to pay for the outburst of consumptive excesses and managerial and political incompetence. This strategy is sometimes referred to as ‘socialism for the rich.’

Democratic Socialists by contrast are inclined to the view that capitalism, while creating the conditions for the achievement of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, has inherent and irresolvable ‘contradictions’ and is subject to repeated crises which prevent the realization of full human flourishing. It follows that structural transformation and/or replacement of this system by a more just, democratic socialist society is required if full social emancipation, as distinct from merely ‘market freedom’, is to be achieved.

This said however, it’s important to note that neither the democratic socialist wing of the Labour Party nor the recently formed Momentum group have formally committed themselves to:

“securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

(Original Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution).

The democratic deficit and people power

Social Democrats and Democratic Socialists tend to have contrasting perspectives on democracy. Most Social Democrats are fervent believers in the parliamentary system and most too seem happy to live with the first-past-the-post procedure for all its failings – though opinions do vary on this. Many Democratic Socialists on the other hand are concerned that both the UK and the EU have become ‘democracy-free zones’; that we appear to be witnessing a crisis in democracy, as well as a crisis in the parliamentary system itself, and that urgent change is needed. They advocate for direct, participatory democracy and for a change in the electoral system to AV (alternative vote)  or PR (proportional representation), so as to better reflect the diversity of opinion amongst citizens and ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

A key feature of our culture over the past decades has been the sense on the part of working people of an increasing lack of control over their lives and being at the receiving end of visible and invisible powers, national and global, political and economic, which are either indifferent or antagonistic to their interests.

Concurrently, daily life has become harder, more stressful and unfair with access to basic resources such as secure employment, adequate housing and education ever more difficult to acquire. Immigrant workers are being pitted against indigenous workers in a competition for scarce resources with highly damaging strains on our social fabric and sense of community.

The ensuing sense of fragmentation, impotence and anger has been very effectively exploited by the right through a xenophobic and racist narrative, which promises to magically restore a sense of control and empowerment to the most vulnerable. There are distinct echoes here of the propaganda dished out to German citizens in the nineteen thirties.

Many in the now much discredited Parliamentary Labour Party have failed to demonstrate that they understand people’s plight. They don’t seem to have a plausible alternative narrative which accounts for mass alienation and anger, nor have they presented a coherent alternative programme which would effectively address people’s sense of despair and powerlessness. In this context the reluctance on the part of many, even on the left, to re-embrace a clear commitment to workers’ ‘control,’ as expressed in the previously cited Clause Four, gives the impression that they still don’t entirely trust the constituency they purport to serve and represent.

Possible exit route

The compulsion to repress or deny legitimate differences in the interest of maintaining a false appearance of unity does now seem to be in danger of destroying both wings of the Labour Party. So, it is argued, the warring couple need to confront their differences and amicably separate.

Yet taking this grown-up route out of an increasingly toxic and mutually self-destructive relationship seems, at the time of writing, to be still resisted by key players in this tragic drama.

Having contrasting positions and beliefs doesn’t exclude the possibility of working towards common goals in a respectful progressive alliance with other political groupings including the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and those with no particular party political affiliations. This would require an end to traditional tribalism, clear recognition of the depth of the current crisis in democracy, support for change in the electoral system and a positive embrace of a new multi-party politics.

There are of course other ways of interpreting recent events and other recommendations for ways forward. What is clear however is that business as usual seems no longer an option. We will have to see how it turns out over the coming days and weeks.

Meantime, as far as JC is concerned, there is possibly only one fate worse than being assassinated – that is being deified. I imagine our reluctant, long-suffering incumbent of the invidious role of Labour Party Leader sometimes wishes he was back on his allotment, or discretely updating his survey of the inscriptions on drain covers, many of which were manufactured by a firm called The Hope Foundry Company Ltd London.


Posted 08:57 Tuesday, Jul 5, 2016 In: SOS

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