The Labour Party is headed for an all out civil war between its social democrats on the one side and its reformist and revolutionary socialist wings on the other. This is inevitable, although at the moment both sides are trying to wait for the opportunity to say “you started it” (a bit like Ken Livingstone recently).
[Labour MPs and front-benchers vote with their feet and leave Corbyn to face Cameron almost alone?]
In the 1972 post-script to his 1961 book on the Labour party, Parliamentary Socialism, Ralph Miliband finally comes out clearly and says what he has clearly thought all the way through his history of the party:
“[The] Labour remains, in practice, what it has always been – a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted.” (1972, p376).
In today’s language, Labour has always been predominantly a social democratic rather than a socialist party.
As Miliband spells out, throughout its history Labour leaders have often adopted socialist rhetoric to placate their usually more radical ‘base’ within the labour and trade union movement, but their policy practice has been firmly social democratic.
It has always been relatively easy to blur the divisions between social democrats who are comfortable with – indeed positively believe in – a ‘mixed economy’, welfare state and limited redistribution, and reformist socialists who see complete public ownership (at least of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy), public services and redistribution as stepping stones towards a fully socialist future.
The more or less successful ‘modus vivendi’ between social democrats and reformist socialists that held Labour together for the last century effectively occupied the full spectrum of centre-left politics in Britain. There was no space for a large communist or socialist party to Labour’s left (as in much of Europe), nor for any more purely social democratic party to their right (although there were flurries around the SDP in the 80s and the LDs in 2000s).
The very much smaller revolutionary socialist element in British politics – some of which has always been within Labour but also outside it in various sects – has mostly pursued a strategy of trying to ally with the reformist socialists within Labour. The biggest of these historically – the Communist Party – always used to set up all sorts of ‘united front’ campaigns around specific issues. The numerous smaller Trotskyist groups either emulated the CPGB’s strategy and tactics or practiced so-called ‘entryism’ – joining Labour to try to effect such alliances within the party.
New Labour and ‘Blairism’ was not, as many on Labour’s socialist left now want to claim, an historical aberration in which the traditionally socialist Labour party was captured by neo-liberal infected right-wing social democrats. New Labour was merely a tilting back towards traditional social democracy, slightly revised, after the surge in reformist socialist support within Labour of the 80s (which did it so much electoral damage).
What is happening now in Labour is qualitatively different from the ‘socialist surge’ of the 80s. The socialists never captured the ‘commanding heights’ of the Labour machine, despite the best efforts of both the reformist socialists and their revolutionary socialist allies.
Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the leadership election may have changed fundamentally the historic alignment of forces with Labour. Let’s be clear, Corbyn is a reformist socialist himself but one who is very open to collaborating with more revolutionary elements. The ‘Stop the War Coalition’ to which he has devoted so much energy over the past decade is a ‘united front’ with the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party and others (some would say it is more just a front for the SWP now).
Corbyn does not even have the wholehearted support of all the minority of reformist socialists in Labour’s leadership. His closeness to the ‘Trots’ makes many of them nervous, with good reason. Others, like Ken Livingstone, Dianne Abbott and John MacDonnell are veterans of such alliances going back to the 1980s and have always been happy to work with various revolutionary socialist factions.
Amongst the Parliamentary Labour party even the reformist socialists are a small minority – social democrats predominate (although some of them would call themselves ‘socialists’, although objectively they clearly are not). There are no real revolutionary socialists.
The split in the PLP now is not mainly between socialists and social democrats, it is between social democrat ‘consilliators’ and ‘refuseniks’.
The former want above all to hold Labour together. They know Corbyn is a disaster and their strategy is to remain ‘loyal’, try and limit the damage and wait for him to fail so spectacularly he can be removed and replaced without an open civil war.
The ‘refuseniks’ clearly see Corbyn as a absolute disaster for Labour. Like the ‘consiliators’ they are engaging in ‘wait and see’, for the moment, but want to say very clearly ‘not in my name’. They are discussing, in an as yet not very advanced way, how to launch a counter-revolution.
The problem both these groups have (and they are not clearly demarcated) is that Corbyn and his allies see this as an historic opportunity to convert Labour into what it has never been – a fully fledged socialist party (with an alliance within of reformists and revolutionaries). It is not clear how much Corbyn is tolling up for civil war himself, and how much he is just turning a blind eye to the would-be ‘purgers’.
Those who hoped that in office Corbyn would build bridges to the social democrats and distance himself form the far left are rapidly being disillusioned. His actions in appointing MacDonnell as shadow chancellor, Livingstone to the defence review and his defiance over Andrew Fisher as a special adviser all point in the other direction. These are all putting up two-fingers to the social democrats in the PLP.
The illusions that maybe there is a constituency for Corbyn’s left-wing views ‘out there’, that maybe he can mobilise the great ‘unvoting’ to come out for Labour, attract back SNP and UKIP voters, and that maybe he will become more conciliatory as the realities of leadership sink in, all these are rapidly being stripped away. There has been no ‘Corbyn bounce’ in the polls, with Labour if anything dipping further.
Nor is Corbyn’s Labour mounting an effective opposition to the Tories – even where they could be united, such as on opposing the completely unnecessary and foolish mortgaging of our nuclear industry to China, they are failing to even make a case. They completely screwed up the opposition to George Osborne’s unnecessary austerity with school-boy tactical games. The amateurish and confused reaction to the Paris events this week will prevent them being taken seriously when they ask important questions about how we fight jihadis.
Reports from the constituencies suggest the Corbyn phenomena has very shallow roots. Few of the surge in ‘members’ and ‘£3 voters’ have turned into actual active members.
Labour’s social democrats are talking about “18 months to 2 years” before Corbyn’s time is up. At the current rate of ‘progress’ by that time there will be precious little of the historic social democratic Labour party left to salvage – even if it is possible. History may well judge that they missed their opportunity to seize their party back when they had the chance and by the time they did try it was too late. We may yet end up with a more ‘continental’ configuration of the left in Britain: two parties, one social democratic and the other reformist socialist with maybe a revolutionary wing.