The Labour Party is a party of Democratic Socialism. It says so on the membership card.
But let’s make something plain. The Labour Party has never been a party of socialist revolution, and, because it is a political party standing for election within a parliamentary system of democracy, it is reformist rather than revolutionary. But in the United Kingdom, with its tradition of and emphasis on parliamentary politics and universal suffrage, Democratic Socialism is considered to be the best and the most effective way to ensure equality and justice for the majority of people.
In other words, a revolution might well be favoured by socialists, including some in the Labour Party, particularly those who follow the Marxist tradition (rather than, for example, the paternalistic socialism of Robert Owen), but it is a dream for the future, rather than the present. And the present badly needs attention right now. So the Labour Party as a Democratic Socialist party is not and never will be ‘extreme left’. It is no threat to Parliamentary Democracy.
Nevertheless, as Labour Party members try to define and assert their fight for democratic socialism, you may have thought that our whole way of life is under threat having read the mass of right wing newspapers.
So how and why is this misreading and misrepresentation of the Labour Party by the media, especially Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, happening? Let’s look at recent history:
Many socialists have joined the Labour Party over the last couple of years in the hope of being able to play a part, however small, in not only helping the party regain its Democratic Socialist position, but in helping Labour candidates at local and national level to win elections and eventually to bring in a Democratic Socialist Government and local authorities run on the Democratic Socialist principle.
But those hopes for the Labour Party and for a future Labour Government will be very difficult to fulfil. And we can see that clearly in the treatment that staunch Democratic Socialist Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters suffer every day, not only in the media, but by some in their own party.
Watching the media attack Corbyn (‘gently’ by ‘suggestion’ at first and then with ever more harsh, out and out attacks) even before he won his first leadership election in September 2015, it was painfully obvious right from the start that there were those in the establishment who would do anything they could to prevent Corbyn gaining power. But I guess that was to be expected, given that the media during the Blair years had pulled back on their attacks but had then increased their attacks even on his successor, Gordon Brown, and even more so on Ed Miliband. So, they were bound to greatly increase their attacks when faced with someone who insisted on keeping his word to follow the path of Democratic Socialism and all that entails for the establishment.
Because, at the base of all those attacks on even slightly ‘left sounding’ Labour politicians like Miliband was an unsaid (in public anyway) agreement that anything which affected the position of the establishment and the Neo-liberal trend for the economy must be stamped on, crushed to tiny pieces, and then thrown back into the garbage of History. Anything slightly more ‘left’ than ‘New Labour’ and its politics of ‘gentle’ Neo-liberalism could never be allowed to prosper.
So, as the Blair Government came to an end, it appeared that even a slight and very tentative ‘turn towards the left’ in the Labour Party would never again be welcomed. And, for those media players who portrayed themselves as ‘left of centre’ (The Guardian, The Mirror…), it was one thing to support the Liberal Democrats, knowing that they were unlikely ever to be a majority party (and that while they may have sounded ‘left’, they still supported Neo-liberalism), but it was quite another thing to support a more left wing Labour who dared to question ‘austerity’ and who could quite possibly gain power.
In fact, so ingrained upon the political psyche was the ‘need for austerity’, that any party or party member calling for anti-austerity measures was seen almost as a traitor. Ed Miliband was left in 2015 with policies which were only just a little ‘softer’ than those of the Tories, and on national TV was forced to argue against parties with anti-austerity policies on their manifestos when it was plain for all to see that a left of centre Labour Party should have been arguing on behalf of ordinary people alongside the anti-austerity parties (and finding other points to differentiate on instead).
But why was Miliband left with such a weak manifesto to fight back against the Tories? Many long-standing Labour supporters argue that some of the economic policies put forward to the 2015 manifesto by then shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, were very similar to those put forward more recently by John McDonnell (and now considered radical). So were they that weak? Or could it be the way these policies were presented that was so weak?
It was the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum who laid out the manifesto. Ed Miliband merely had to learn and repeat it. And, because of Labour’s fear of being accused of ‘not being able to manage the economy’, those, basically Keynesian economic policies were put forward with the proviso that ‘Britain must balance its books’. In other words, despite those (gently) left-of-centre economic policies, the end note, on the economy and on everything else, was ‘don’t rock the boat. Labour must be seen as a safe pair of hands’. And in doing this, Labour fell straight into the trap of repeating Tory-designed rhetoric.
After Labour’s defeat in the 2015 General Election and Ed Miliband’s resignation, the election for a new party leader at first brought forward three candidates: Andy Burnham, seen as ‘more to the left’ than the other two, perhaps for his strong opposition to the government’s Welfare Reforms Bill; Yvette Cooper, campaigning on a message of hope and the only candidate to say categorically that Labour were not responsible for the fall in the economy as argued by the Tories; and Liz Kendall, always considered ‘the outsider’ and ‘a Blairite contender’, whose main focus was in ‘making the party electable again’.
All were perfectly sound candidates with the strong CV to go with their application, but it did appear that when it came to policies there was little to choose between them. In other words they were not going to ‘rock the boat’. They were instead, all ‘safe hands’ to present to the voters.
But from a voter’s point of view, neither were any of them likely to inspire a passion to go out and vote for them!
Then along came Jeremy Corbyn, just scraping onto the ballot with enough supporting MP votes at the very last minute. He spoke about taking the railways back into public ownership; about his support for NHS reinstatement, about spending money on jobs, health and welfare, rather than on the defunct Trident; and he dared to speak about ‘austerity’ as something to be opposed, rather than complied with.
It was a breath of fresh air for all those who had felt that Democratic Socialism had been lost for good.
Knowing the sheer animosity produced in much of the media and aimed at Ed Miliband for his rather tentative ‘slightly leftward’ stance, no one expected Corbyn to have an easy ride. But few expected the total vitriol that would be aimed at him, with his every move and statement analysed, criticised and vilified by all means available.
But even more astounding was the total animosity aimed at Corbyn from some in his own party.
This was a party who had, on the whole, stood by Blair even when many feared that ‘things were going too far right’. Some Labour MPs may have stood up in Parliament and opposed Blair’s stance on Iraq, but they did not belittle him and they did not go to the gutter press to vilify him. Members left the Labour Party under Blair, but of those who stayed, they agreed to stand by their leader. They may have disagreed with him on some views, but generally they did not call for his resignation.
So, why did many Labour MPs and certain Labour Party members think it was okay to write to the newspapers complaining about Corbyn? Why did groups like Progress think it their duty to plot against him at every opportunity? Why were new members after Corbyn’s election (deemed to be Corbyn supporters even when they were not) excluded from CLP meetings, mocked by some older members, and generally feared by others?
Of course, despite the events of the 1980s being over three decades ago, for some older Labour Party members, the influx of so many new members (especially those who joined Momentum [mainly because their own CLPs excluded them from participation]) brought fear into their hearts. They remembered Militant and the animosity throughout Labour at that time. They saw new Corbyn-supporting members as ‘a new Militant’ and no way did they want to go down that road again.
But, even allowing for a fear that history would repeat itself felt by some older members, that does not explain the sheer animosity expressed by some Labour CLPs towards Corbyn supporters (especially when most Corbyn supporters made real efforts to fit in with older members and allay their fears). After Cobyn’s election as leader in 2015, many CLPs simply stopped telling new members about meetings, while others belittled new members with counter-arguments about ‘rules’ given when any new member tried to speak (even though the Labour Party Rule Book had been largely disregarded by the majority of ordinary members up until this point).
But it was much worse in Parliament for Corbyn and the small group of MPs who supported him. When Labour should have been fighting the Tories and supporting their leader at PMQs and in all other Parliamentary debates, Corbyn was opposed by many in his own shadow cabinet; everything he said or did was criticised in the press by a small number of his own MPs, and then he was mocked on social media by members of his own party. Strangely, these members were hardly ever called up by the Labour Compliance Unit to explain their actions, and yet Corbyn supporters began to be suspended at a rapidly-increasing rate for comments they had made on social media.
In fact, mass suspension of Corbyn supporting Labour Party members began with and continued through the ‘coup’ of Summer 2016, when Corbyn was repeatedly asked to resign by his own MPs; a drip-feed of resignations from his shadow cabinet accompanied this; and then a ‘motion of no confidence’ by 172 MPs followed. Thus resulting in the Labour Leadership election September 2016.
I won’t bother to go into detail about the efforts made to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper for the leadership election; nor about the decision to increase the affiliated supporter payment to £25; nor the NEC decision to prevent newer members (from the end of January 2016 onwards) from voting (despite the Labour Party website claiming they would be able to vote), and trade union affiliates being refused in the same fashion; nor about the thousands of new applicants for membership being refused, while others found themselves suspended for the strangest of reasons (the person who particularly liked the Foo Fighters comes leaping to mind…), while others were not even told why they had been suspended…
All of that is past history. But it is a history that demonstrates an almost total obsession to prevent Jeremy Corbyn, the man who speaks the language of Democratic Socialism, from power. And that happened within the party of Democratic Socialism itself.
Today we await May’s triggering of Article 50 and setting Brexit negotiations fully in motion.
A ‘hard Brexit’ will go against everything that Democratic Socialism stands for. It will leave workers with little defence in the workplace; our human rights could be in tatters with the new ‘British version’; our welcoming of migrants will be at an end, along with our generosity to a wide range of cultures; our children’s education will be further limited, this time by the curtailment of access to share education across borders; and our solidarity with workers in Europe will only be enabled only at a distance because free movement across the EU will have ended.
To add to this, the country will be poorer; everyone but those who can afford to buy themselves out of trouble, will be worse off; our NHS will be in even more danger of privatisation, this time at risk of being sold off to US companies; and all those ‘extra homes and jobs’ we so badly need will not materialise just because EU workers have left…because they will not be available in the first place.
And here comes the rub… to be a democrat means to agree to represent the majority, and the majority ‘won’ Brexit. So, despite a hard Brexit going against everything that socialism aims towards, Labour is stuck with repeating the May-designed mantra, “We must follow the will of the people”.
Over the last few weeks, it is my personal opinion that Jeremy Corbyn has faced and still faces the biggest threat to his leadership yet. And this time it is going to come from the left as well as the right.
Although many on the left voted ‘Leave’ in the EU Referendum, just as large a number on the left of the Labour Party voted ‘Remain’, particularly younger members. Many of those members who voted Remain also canvassed for Remain on Jeremy’s behalf before the Referendum. Make no mistake, it is highly unlikely that such a large number of people would have turned out to canvass for Remain had it not been that they also supported Corbyn. Now, exactly how many of them feel betrayed we will see over the coming weeks.
Corbyn’s reason for calling the three line whip on Article 50 has been made clear to those who want to listen, but not everyone does and others take a different view (including, it has to be said some Corbyn-supporting MPs).
Of course, alongside the ‘wobbles’ felt by some on Labour’s left over the article 50 vote, we again find increasing pressure from Labour’s right wing. As last summer, they are saying that Corbyn’s leadership is not effective, but now they have added support from so-called left wing journalists like Owen Jones.
The future for Corbyn’s leadership is now far from certain. And the sad thing is, the huge movement behind Corbyn was never a ‘cult’ as described by detractors: it was a movement for real, Democratic Socialism. The left of the Labour Party may never have another chance for years to achieve this, because no MP from the left of the Party is ever likely to get on the leadership ballot paper again.
And the ironic thing is, for all the onslaught of the media and right wing Labour MPs, it is a dilemma over democracy that is threatening to bring Corbyn down, plus, it has to be said, those socialists who vote ‘Leave’ because they felt that Britain outside ‘fortress Europe’ could become a socialist society despite knowing of the continuing strength of the Tories and firm resistance from the establishment.
If Labour is to become a fully Democratic Socialist Party, having this as a description on membership cards is nowhere near enough. Those who have this vision for Labour need to work for it and fast, because it is rapidly slipping out of grasp.