How A Victory for Jeremy Can be Turned into the Transformation of the British Labour Party

Combo hi-resPublished: 2 September 2015
Author: Pat Byrne (TSN Editor)

The announcement of the outcome of the British Labour Party leader election is almost upon us. While we don’t want to ‘count our chickens before they hatch’, we need to start seriously preparing for the historic likelihood that Jeremy Corbyn will become the next leader of the Labour Party.

The unprecedented scale and speed of the upsurge for Jeremy is evidence of the huge dam of discontent that has been building up for a long time. A movement that was artificially held back by a capitalist media that has done all it can to suppress the mass of anti-austerity and pro equality voices. And a Labour Party machine that has undemocratically sought to prevent the natural development of a strong left opposition. However, the more something is held back the more forceful the flow when it is released. In this case, the powerful combination of a social media bypassing the tradition press and television, and an open voting system for Labour leader free of the Party’s machine, has finally let the genie out of the bottle. In doing so it has allowed us to achieve something that the Labour Left has dreamed of for generations.

But in all the enthusiasm and excitement, we also have to recognise that the election of Jeremy as Labour leader is just the start of a much bigger series of tasks: transforming the Labour Party; convincing the larger public of our alternative to Austerity and inequality; winning a majority in the 2020 election; and changing Britain into a democratic socialist society.

The first task:  transforming the Labour Party  is what we now urgently need to address.

Jeremy comes into the leadership in a difficult position. He faces a Parliamentary Labour Party and a Labour Party machine that is dominated by his political opponents, a significant section of which have made it clear that they will do as much as possible to undermine and defeat him. In this, as the Party leadership election has clearly demonstrated, Jeremy’s opponents are clearly out of step with the feeling of a majority of Party members and large sections of Labour supporters across Britain. This is where we need to start.

A Political Tsunami
The scale of the massive eruption of support for Jeremy is something never seen before in British politics. In contrast to the political pundits who are still writing in terms of the old parliamentary machinations, this insurgency has the potential to change the rules of the game. If Jeremy is elected that will not become the high water mark of the advance of the Left within Labour as the media is predicting. On the contrary, we can expect this tidal wave of support to rise even higher as people from all walks of life respond to the strong lead that a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn will be offering.

In preparation for this it is vital that we now start to think about how all this new energy and enthusiasm can be fulfilled and not allowed to dissipate.

An Even Bigger Tour
For a start, Jeremy needs to quickly recuperate from the rigours of the leadership campaign and organise an even bigger tour of Britain. Speaking at much larger venues and backed up by a blitz of social and mass media, this time Jeremy will be reaching out to the wider public appealing for them to join the Labour Party and to help in transforming it into a mass, participatory and campaigning movement.

Political Education
Hand in hand with this, there needs to be a special campaign of political education and discussion organised throughout the Party so that the hundreds of thousands of new members do not find themselves stuck in endless meetings limited to discussing the mechanics of election campaigns, fundraising and so on. The new members will be thirsting for ideas and answers and it should be a central task of the new leadership to provide an innovative structure and culture to achieve this. Not only should we utilise the power of social media to this end but we also need to lay the basis of our own television channel to provide a space for the party and its membership to continuously discuss and learn together with the wider public.

Moreover, we need to widen the Labour Party as a movement – Jeremy can to use his new position as Labour Leader and campaigner against austerity to reach out to the tens of thousands of community groups and campaigning organisations and appeal for them to get involved.

The Threat of Revolt Against Jeremy by Labour MPs
The ridiculous system that allows a relatively small group of Labour MPs to force a leadership contest even when there is no big support for it, is a force for instability and damage within the Labour Party. It was used by the Blairites to undermine the previous Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, which makes all their calls to vote for Jeremy’s rivals in order to save the Party from splitting apart all the more ironic.

Now, the threat from some Labour MPs of triggering a new leadership election is being held over Jeremy Corbyn’s head like the Sword of Damocles. Jeremy needs to ignore such threats and instead take steps to end this ridiculous rule. The exclusive and antiquated power to trigger a fresh leadership contest must be taken away from the Parliamentary Labour Party and put into the hands of an agreed percentage of those in the original electorate. The right of recall is an important democratic principle but this right can only be exercised by those who were entitled to vote in the first place, not just by a select group of Labour MPs.

Labour’s Shadow Cabinet
In a situation where the Parliamentary Labour Party is so clearly out of step with the Party’s membership, Jeremy Corbyn is right to appoint his own Shadow Cabinet rather than revert to the old practice of it being elected by Labour Members of Parliament. There is no point in having had such a big election for the Labour Leader only to see a Shadow Cabinet voted in by Labour MPs that is clearly unrepresentative of the Labour Party as a whole, a Cabinet that has actually been chosen in order to prevent Jeremy carrying out his mandate.

Again Jeremy is right to propose that the Shadow Cabinet include representatives from all wings of the Party. But he needs to ensure that the views he has been elected on are the driving force of the cabinet. Or why did we have the election in the first place? As Jeremy said all through the leadership election campaign, his candidacy was not about personalities but about policies. The new Shadow Cabinet must fully reflect Jeremy’s platform or he risks losing momentum and dispiriting the mass movement that has put him there.

For those who are willing to serve in his Shadow Cabinet from other wings of the Party, it should be made clear that while Shadow Cabinet membership should not be a gag upon political expression, it also carries with it an obligation to constructively build the Party and advance its policies.

Looking further ahead, we need a system where Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and its actual Cabinet when it comes to power is elected by representatives of the whole movement, not just by the Parliamentary Labour Party. If a wider franchise is good enough to elect the Party leadership, then a wider franchise should also apply to membership of Labour’s Cabinets whether in opposition or in power.

Labour Party Conference
A few weeks after the announcement on September 12th of the leadership election result, the normal Labour Party Conference will be held. Our first step needs to be the carrying of an Emergency Motion at this conference calling for a 2-day Special Party Conference to be held in Spring 2016. The purposes of this Special Conference should include:

  • To decide on an anti-austerity platform against the Conservative Government. To this end, in the six months before the Special Conference a big campaign of political discussion needs to be organised throughout the labour movement with meetings open to all party members.
  • To replace the rule on triggering a Labour leadership now exclusively held by Labour MPs into one based on right of recall for the whole of the leadership electorate.

Bringing Back Conference Democracy
It is also important at the forthcoming Labour Party Conference to elect a new Conference Arrangements Committee so we have democratic debates and decisions at future conferences rather than a manipulated agenda within a rally-style event given over mostly to lectures from Labour’s front bench. Labour Conference needs to become once again a parliament of the labour movement where the views of all wings of the movement are expressed and binding decisions are taken. To this end, Jeremy and his campaign team should approach the trade unions and ask for their support in transforming the Conference Arrangements Committee and future Party Conferences.

Do We Need Splits?
Looking further ahead, some on the Labour right have been predicting that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory will cause a split with a section of MPs leaving the Party. Unlike the Labour Left MPs who have been willing to loyally and patiently accept a position of having no influence over party policy for three decades, these Labour Right MPs are saying that as soon as they lose their dominating position within the Party they will leave. This is a childish and scandalous attitude that gives no consideration at all to the feelings of the mass of Party members or the wider damage that a Labour split would cause to the interests of working people. We saw how the departure of the social democrats from Labour in the early 1980s helped Margaret Thatcher to stay in power and caused lasting damage to the lives of tens of millions.

Fortunately, much of this talk of splitting has been a vain attempt to scare Labour Party members away from supporting Jeremy’s candidacy. As such it was a form of political blackmail designed to force people to vote not for the person they wanted but for a centrist candidate who would maintain Party unity. However, the more it became clear that Jeremy was on course for a decisive victory the rhetoric and threats from the Labour right have been toned down. First we were told there would be an immediate revolt. Then it was put off until the middle of next year. The latest talk is of Jeremy having 18 months before a decision is made to revolt and/or split.

No doubt, these potential splitters have been casting their minds back to the fate of those on the right who broke away in the 1980s. Despite all of the mass media publicity that they received at the time, they ended up in the wilderness with no government positions or real influence in society.

Possibly, many of the Labour Right MPs are also beginning to understand that Jeremy’s election is not some kind of palace coup but represents a tremendous shift of mood in the labour movement. In truth, Labour’s Right have no idea of what is coming their way and the huge impact that the new mood and a flood of new members will have on Party life at all levels.

The same is true for many on the socialist left who are currently outside the Labour Party and watching the current developments with welcome surprise albeit mixed with some confusion. Some of them are also talking about the need for a split in the Labour Party in order to separate the left and the right wings of the Party. Echoing this there have been calls from some on the left in social media forums for the expulsion of supporters of the other candidates in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in the ranks of the Party. While this is an understandable reaction to the decades that the Left’s views were suppressed and sidelined by the labour leadership, we must not allow ourselves to be driven by frustration and impatience, seeking revenge and retribution upon our opponents. Not only will this guarantee a speedy split in the movement but it will deeply antagonise many party supporters members and wider members of the public who remain to be convinced of the wisdom and great potential of our policies. In this context, Jeremy’s call for party unity has been the correct one. If there are any on Labour’s right who want to split let them disappear into oblivion. But we should not be encouraging them or their supporters to do so.

To proceed thus would be a profoundly mistaken approach to democratic debate and representation in the Party that can only result in a narrower and weaker movement.

These Events Will Affect Everyone and in Unexpected Ways
Moreover, the desire for expulsions and splits is follow an unnecessarily pessimistic perspective. It underestimates the huge potential now opening up within the movement. The potential recruitment of hundreds of thousands of new members will have an impact on the thinking of everyone in the party. In the light of this we should not look at people in a static way. Everyone will be affected by these events and we can’t predict how people will respond to them. Those on Labour’s right are not cardboard stereotypes. Some will be shocked by the depth of support and enthusiasm that Jeremy’s election portends. Many have never even considered the strength of our arguments and the massive potential support for them that exists in the British population. Once this is demonstrated in practice some individuals on the right will respond positively.

Of course, there will be those who will remain unmoved by these developments, but even among these there will be some who will go along with the movement and see how it turns out.

For those in the hard core of Labour’s right who are not willing to abide by its democratic elections and policy decisions, and see their role within a leftward-moving Labour Party as one of sabotage, there will be no sympathy from the membership. However, our approach should not be to expel such people (except for extreme cases where there is no alternative) but to make them democratically accountable. Thus, MPs and all party members are entitled to express different views to the new leadership of the Labour Party, just as Jeremy did on so many occasions in the past. We don’t want a stalinist-style uniformity in a future Labour Party. And from past experience, such a regime will in time be turned against the rank and file Left as well.

Labour Must Become a Democratic Forum
We want the Labour Party to be a forum where all progressive views can find a respectful hearing. Jeremy has quite correctly called on all his followers to avoid using abusive terms which only waste time and divert discussion from the key issues that needed to be debated and decided upon. Condemning other Party members or leading figures with phrases such as ‘red tories’ ‘enemies of the movement’, ‘traitors’, ‘betrayers’, ‘capitalist agents’ etc. may make the accuser feel better but usually has the opposite effect to that intended. Such personal attacks tend to create sympathy for those attacked in this way, and alienates the large numbers who may still have some respect or agreement with them. Effective criticism can only be done through solid, accurate and well-thought out argument delivered free of personal rancour and insults. It requires an element of self-discipline and not hiding behind the distance that social media appears to give us. Denunciation and vicious mudslinging only serves to obstruct political debate and embitter relations between members. We need to create a climate of tolerance and respect in which discussion- can flourish and differences are encouraged rather than stifled. Such a situation can only help raise everyone’s consciousness and help the Left.

Indeed, if we want Labour to develop into a mass and truly representative movement we have to accept that there will be need to be a wide range of views within the party including those from the reformist and revolutionary wings, all of which will reflect the widely different views of working people. To handle such differences we need to develop a democratic culture inside the Party. Not one where people are denounced for having different views.

Creating a Representative Parliamentary Labour Party
Respect and tolerance for different views doesn’t give Labour representatives the right to ignore the views of the party members who selected them and in whose name they were elected. If someone wants to be a Labour Member of Parliament s/he has to represent and reflect the views of the local Labour Party without which they would never be in parliament in the first place. And one has also to respect the views, policies and elections in the Party as a whole, not issue threats of sabotage or seeking means to overturn results one doesn’t like.

Given the success of the new election system for Party leader we should give consideration for a similar system to be introduced for the selection of local Labour candidates for parliament. This will certainly cause no problems where there is a vacancy as there will be in hundreds of constituencies during this parliament. Whether this should be immediately applied where there is already a sitting Labour MP needs to be discussed widely in the movement. At the very least we need to properly enforce the current rule that allows for local Parties with sitting MPs to trigger an election, especially where local Labour Party members and supporters are really fed up with their current Member of Parliament.

Learning the Lessons of the Past
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader is not an end in itself. We can’t just leave the job of transforming the Labour Party to the new leader who in the initial stages will be surrounded by many Party officials opposed to his approach. If we leave it to Jeremy we can only expect disappointment and defeat.

Instead the Labour Left needs to develop into a organised and democratic mass movement that reaches all corners of the Party. In this regard we have to learn the lessons of the past. In the 1970s the Left had a majority within the Labour Party but because of a lack of unity and strategy we did not transform the Party but allowed key sections of it to remain in the hands of the old right-wing machine which undermined and damaged the forward development of the Party. In particular, the Left was fragmented between the Tribune Group in Parliament, the left in the trade unions, and left activists in the local constituency parties. There was no overarching democratic Labour Left movement offering an alternative at all levels of the Party. As a result we did not succeed in winning the leadership of the Party and fully democratising it. We must not make this mistake again.

We Need a Mass Labour Left
We need to bring the existing Labour Left groups together with the big organisation that has developed around Jeremy’s leadership election campaign. Whatever it is called, be it Labour Left or a broader title such as Renewal, we need such an umbrella labour left movement to be created at every level and in every section of the movement, transforming local and regional Labour Parties; Party Conference and the National Executive; as well as Labour Party Headquarters and the Parliamentary Party. And for the first time we need a movement to democratise the trade union-Labour Party link so that we are no longer at the mercy of a few trade union leaders on the National Executive and at conference helping to keep the Labour right in power as has so often been the case in the past.

If we are able to harness these lessons of the past with the huge outpouring of enthusiasm of the present then with patience and comradeship there is no limits to what can be achieved within the Labour movement and in British society as a whole.

6 thoughts on “How A Victory for Jeremy Can be Turned into the Transformation of the British Labour Party”

  1. Excellent constructive article, reinforcing the message that our movement must be grassroot based and motivated. This will require work, and commitment to ensure that JCs efforts are not side-lined. I believe that even simple steps of JC maintaining his dress code, and ignoring parliamentary protocols, such as addressing the likes of Duncan Smith as right honourable gentlemen etc. will have an immediate educational impact. I look forward to the day when we have a partisan ‘prime minister’ who will be joining trade union picket lines.

  2. As a former CWI member in the 1980’s (better known in the UK as the Militant Tendency) and, in fact, and international organiser for the CWI, I would like to congratulate you on an excellent article. I was a leader of the Labour Party Young Socialist (its youth wing at the time,) and a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party 1985-86. I worked closely with the Labour Left, including figures like Tony Benn and I was an honorary member of the Left wing Labour MP’s Campaign Group.

    Unfortunately, reflecting on the past, Militant played an extremely sectarian and manipulative role in the LP (and so did I as its representative.) I believe instead that your general approach to the building of a broader, more democratic and tolerant Left in the LP is far more correct.

    I feel the call for unity is very important, given the fact it is the cornerstone of the whole workers’ movement, which will get an important echo among workers and the unions. Although I think the article is a little too tolerant of the right-wing, even though I agree with steering clear of personalized attacks, I would agree with 90% of what you say.

    A very good article!


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