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Hard left, soft left: Corbynism and beyond

Paul Thompson

For those of us on the ‘soft left’ who spent much of the 1980s fighting (and defeating) the hard left inside Labour, the rise of Corbynism has seemed like a peculiar nightmare. The dead are not supposed to rise from the political grave. Yet here we have familiar names like Jon Lansman and Pete Wilsman alongside other remnants of Livingstone-era GLC days back at the centre of events. Not for nothing did Jon Cruddas refer to the danger of a ‘1980s Trotskyist tribute act’.

Whilst the circumstances of Corbyn’s triumph are as much accident as march of history, the outcome was far from inexplicable. The shock of Labour’s general election defeat was intense and the campaign dismal. Having lost the economic narrative argument years before, the party defaulted to a narrow retail offer fronted by a leader lacking credibility or charisma. We spoke to neither the electorate’s hopes nor fears. Given their closeness to this safety-first approach, it would have been surprising had any of the mainstream candidates risen to the occasion and offered anything insightful or radical. And for the most part, they didn’t. By the time Burnham and Cooper had discovered a voice, no-one was listening to anything other than the siren songs of the old time religion.

The triumph of Corbyn and the resurrection of the Labour hard left has been presented as part of a wave of global political insurgency that encompasses Syriza, Podemos and Bernie Sanders. It is certainly true that the political centre is being challenged from a variety of populist directions. Yet, as Suzanne Moore has noted, ‘At the core of Corbyn’s new politics is his own very old certainty. His views have not changed in thirty years. Some call this principle, the kind of stubbornness the hard left admire. I call it conservatism, and I think it’s a problem’.1 This collision of old certainties and new realities prompts me to do three things in this short article: to explore whether there are lessons to be learned from the 1980s, to examine the extent of continuity and difference at the present conjuncture, and to discuss the choices that face an alternative left.

The 1980s revisited

During the leadership campaign a full page article in the Observer from a ‘young Labour voter’ urged ‘more seasoned voters’ not to patronise her and other Corbynistas by constantly bringing up the past to question her hero’s electability (and ‘please, stop talking about Michael’).2 I’m going to have to break that injunction, in part because the time horizon of newer activists is often confined to the disappointments of the New Labour years and there were far greater disappointments in the eighteen previous ‘wilderness years’.

The decisive defeat of 1983 was pivotal. Until then most of the left of the Labour Party had coalesced around the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC). It then split between a modernising majority and minority that combined Bennites, far left groups such as the ill-named Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour Briefing (Corbyn was on its Executive), as well as some Trotskyist entryists. These forces did not see Labour’s manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ (as Gerald Kaufman put it). Instead the eight and a half million votes were (as Benn argued) a ‘remarkable development’ as a ‘socialist bridgehead has been established from which further advances in public understanding and support can be made’.3

The hard left drew no lessons from that defeat (or its predecessor in 1979) concerning the changing culture, sociology and demography of British society, and the consequences for attitudes and voting. Instead, they persisted with the belief that if the correct leadership captured the machine they could organise and evangelise their way to power. This ‘vanguardist’ view of left politics is activist and organisation-centred, and most of the campaigns run by hard left groups in the 1980s focused on subordinating elected representatives to those activists (notably through mandatory reselection). In a telling example, in 1987 the new hard left umbrella group, Labour Left Liaison, wrote to me (as the then Chair of LCC) to propose cooperation around seven issues. Only one – defence of unilateral nuclear disarmament – was policy-based. The others included ‘democratisation’ of the PLP, recognition of black sections, changes to women’s organisation and access of women to parliamentary shortlists, and additional accountability of MPs to constituency parties. Whilst supporting some of these measures, we declined to work with the new group.

At the LCC’s 1983 AGM, the new majority began to assert a modernising agenda. Some of this was based on jettisoning unpopular policies such as withdrawal from the EEC and opposition to council house sales. More broadly, it was about developing a radical, but less statist and more market and ecology-friendly ‘pluralist socialism’. This would be combined with making Labour a ‘mass party’, with a membership capable of engaging with voters and social movements. The unwillingness of the hard left to move on its ideology or policies proved increasingly problematic. Ironically however, an organisational issue – their opposition to one member, one vote for internal democracy – proved a significant nail in their coffin. Though emphasis is rightly placed on Kinnock’s famous routing of the Militant Tendency at and after the party conference in 1985, the building of a soft left majority amongst activists and members was crucial to revitalising the Party’s prospects.

History repeating itself?

To what extent can we draw parallels? There are clearly some. The new leadership has shown a lack of interest in analysing the general election defeat, burying or marginalising the various official and semi-official reports. The policy context is different. It is early days and we cannot be surprised that a faction that spent decades opposing things isn’t so hot on proposing them. There has been some progress. Despite his Little Red Book disaster, John McDonnell has been much more forward thinking on economic policy, with some imaginative ideas and appointments as advisors. But turning policies into a programme and narrative requires priorities and trade-offs. This won’t be easy. By instinct and training, the hard left (and I’ve been there) tends towards the correct worldview on everything. We’ve already seen Corbyn struggling to say something coherent and principled on issues where silence or fudge would have been more appropriate. If the new leadership really wants to be radical on economic policy (and there is evidence of public support for this), it needs to listen to what Labour’s voters and potential supporters actually feel on issues such as welfare, defence and immigration.

The hard left’s difficulties in developing a plausible electoral strategy and policy programme is ultimately rooted in its vanguardism. Ken Spours, in the previous issue of Renewal, observed that Corbynism is a ‘primitive political bloc’ designed to mobilise the left, Greens and a new wave of younger supporters, though he somewhat spoiled the point when referring to the party’s current appeal being to the ‘25-30 per cent of the electorate that, in different ways, identify with radical left politics’.4 Surveys actually indicate that between around 2 per cent of the electorate describe themselves as ‘very left wing’ and a further 12 per cent as ‘fairly left wing’. Now it’s perfectly okay to have views more radical than most others (I do myself), but the hard left consistently fails to see the difference between the (Labour) selectorate and the actual electorate.

The responses of Corbynistas to the electability question can take a number of forms. One is: it doesn’t matter as it’s better to have the right ideas and lose, or we’re going to lose anyway so why not at least ‘change the conversation’? No politician could publicly utter those words, so we tend to get version two – win by reaching different parts of the electorate. Before he was appointed Director of Strategy and Communications by Corbyn, Seamus Milne wrote that, though it will be difficult, ‘there isn’t ... only one coalition of voters that could beat the Tories in five years’ time’.5 That is true, but as a Fabian study shows, there is no pathway that does not go through winning back large numbers of Tory voters in English marginals.6

Irrespective of hitting these electoral brick walls, the second aspect of vanguardism will kick in – building hard left power in the party and ultimately controlling the machine. They lost the battle of ideas and the ground war in the 1980s, but given the leadership outcome and the influx of new supporters, the hard left are now in a much better position to win. There will be voices in the leadership that caution against a sectarian push and to maintain a big(ger) tent. However, whatever the official line – rejecting mandatory reselection and the like – with the current leadership of Momentum, the direction of travel will likely be to move against those who many of their activists regard as little better than traitors and ‘red Tories’.

Is there a soft left alternative?

When allied to concerns about the basic competence (and leadership abilities) of Corbyn and his team, it is unsurprising that there is mutinous talk in the PLP and beyond. However, the politics of decapitation lacks realism and legitimacy. Any re-run election would produce the same or similar outcome and its effect would be more likely to destroy the Party than its current leader. More importantly, it would be a purely organisational manoeuvre without any political strategy other than a hollow ‘win from the centre’. There is no sign that those on the centre/right understand the root causes of their own dwindling influence, let alone Labour’s.

Given stasis in the mainstream, a number of observers have invoked the possibility or desirability of re-asserting a soft left alternative. Whilst welcome, a note of caution is required. Whilst the soft or ‘democratic’ left is strong amongst intellectuals and in the commentariat, it is has been substantially weakened under the New Labour years amongst Party members and activists. It has had a very limited organisational presence and has never replaced the late Robin Cook as a leader. When a group of five members of the LCC established Renewal in 1993, we felt that the former had run its course, though it stumbled on ineffectually before winding itself up five years later. It looked for a while like Compass could fill the gap, whilst doing something with a broader remit. However, the decision to loosen ties with Labour, whilst wholly understandable, ended that possibility. Potential contemporary successors to the LCC like Open Labour look more like debating vehicles than organising initiatives.

If political alternatives within Labour are not going to be squeezed between the hard left and the Blairite right, soft left thinkers and activists are going to have to break cover and recreate a visible space. That will require strategic thinking about the dynamics of Labour politics, as well as a capacity to contribute to the development of a shared transformative political project across progressive forces in Britain. Given space constraints, I can only make a few observations about the former. When editing Renewal, Neal Lawson and I tried to articulate a left social democratic perspective based on egalitarian economics, pluralist politics and socially liberal culture. Whilst the last is now largely uncontentious, the former are important dividing lines within Labour (and the wider left).

The soft left should develop an economic policy agenda that seeks to move beyond the traditional supply-side, skills approach. Challenging financialisation of the economy is the key battleground as this trend is a primary driver of instability, insecurity and inequality. Alternative policies should seek to re-balance growth, risks, power and rewards. Such an approach can make common ground with the Corbynista, but political pluralism is another matter. Vanguardists tend to focus on the empowerment of activists and are mainly party and state-centred. Pluralism seeks a wider redistribution of power that favours localism, modernisation of public services from below through workers and citizens, and above all electoral reform of our grotesquely broken system. Another area where the soft left can set out a distinctive position is on international relations and defence, providing an alternative to the ‘anti-imperialism’ of the hard left and liberal interventionism beloved of sections of New Labour. The focal point for this alternative could be Trident. There is a strong, radical yet pragmatic case for non-renewal. Yet this is only plausible if combined with strengthening conventional forces and remaining within the NATO nuclear umbrella.

Such examples are far from a comprehensive program, yet they indicate how the soft left can achieve some leverage for engagement with other forces and build a new centre left majority in the medium term. The volatility and fragmentation of contemporary politics creates opportunities as well as risks. Within the Party there are already signs that Momentum is not a monolith and that newer, younger activists have minds of their own. The situation amongst representatives and activists on the centre and right of the Party is also fluid. Renewal can and must continue to play a key role in promoting new thinking and dialogue in this challenging political environment.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founder and co-editor of Renewal.

 

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Notes

1. Suzanne Moore, ‘Corbyn’s Labour is a party without a point, led by a rebel with a cause’, Guardian, 27.9.2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2015/ sep/16/corbyns-labour-is-a-party-without-a-point-led-by-a-rebel-with-a-cause.

2. Rosie Fletcher, ‘As a young Labour voter passionate about Corbyn, please don’t patronise me’, Guardian, 23.8.2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/23/ why-young-voters-favour-jeremy-corbyn.
3. Tony Benn, Guardian, 20.6.1983.
4. Ken Spours and Patrick Diamond, ‘The Osborne Supremacy’, Renewal, 24:1,2016.
5. Seamus Milne, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s surge can be at the heart of a winning coalition’, Guardian, 23.9.2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2015/aug/19/jeremy-corbyn-coalition-labour.

6. Andrew Harrop, The mountain to climb: Labour’s 2020 challenge, Fabian Society: May 2015, http://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Mountain-to-Climb.pdf.

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