IT’S welcome that Rebecca Long Bailey’s London launch of her leadership campaign has shifted attention to the democratisation of the Labour Party.
The resurgence of socialist politics known as Corbynism came as a shock to Establishment insiders. As others have observed, the shift to the one-member, one-vote leadership election contest that allowed Corbyn to win was actually driven by the right, as a bid to weaken trade-union influence.
Their assumption was that opening the contest up to “registered supporters” who were not members would depoliticise it. The opposite proved the case.
The role of the Corbyn project as part of a democratic revival is one its enemies could never acknowledge. MPs spouted puerile nonsense about hordes of far-left agitators “infiltrating” Labour. Organisations set up to increase member engagement, such as Momentum, were slandered as vehicles for controlling the party.
One of the most striking results was to expose the entitlement of MPs not used to being challenged, except in the highly ritualised context of parliamentary “debate.” By December 2015 MPs were demanding that Momentum be “wound up” because its members had lobbied them against bombing Syria; cases of “bullying” that prompted them to run to the press included being called warmongers in emails.
The pattern was set. Any suggestion that MPs should not have a lifelong right to be their party’s candidate would be denounced as heralding sweeping purges of the parliamentary party.
MPs’ hostility to democratisation led the leadership to prioritise other matters, such as developing its ambitious policies for government. It is unclear how easy these would have been to implement without democratising the party, since much of the PLP clearly was and is hostile to socialism. The issue will confront any future socialist government.
But defeat itself stemmed partly from that lack of combativeness on the part of the left. With even the most vocally anti-Corbyn MPs allowed to trash the leader with impunity, the media had a never-ending stream of hostile headlines with which to hit Labour over the head. “They offer the interview and the MP uses the platform to undermine the leadership, they do a dance and they each understand the steps,” as Ken Loach put it. Tory research showed that the perception that Corbyn was unable to control his own party played a bigger part in undermining his appeal than the specific accusations his enemies threw at him.
Secondly, democracy was not only about the Westminster Parliament. Except in a handful of areas, there was no sense that Labour majorities on councils empowered the labour movement or its members. Activists often clashed with Labour councils over cuts.
Given the huge reductions in local-authority funding imposed by the Tories, blanket condemnation of councillors is simplistic, but the clashes themselves showed a disconnect between activists and Labour’s elected representatives. It is an obstacle to building a mass democratic movement and, crucially, for building one that is strongly identified with local communities and can counteract the labour movement’s retreat from areas in which it was once entrenched.
Reconnecting with those areas will also be a democratic question. By reintroducing real choice to politics, Corbynism contributed greatly to democratic revival after decades of dwindling party membership across the political spectrum and declining voter turnout. But it was part of a bigger democratic upheaval, other signs of which were the very high turnouts in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the 2016 vote on EU membership.
Labour surged ahead when it was identified with the spirit of popular revolt that was sweeping Britain. It tanked when it appeared to be a guardian of the status quo. The huge interest in the current leadership race — with party membership now soaring above 600,000 again — shows the revival continues. But to own it, Labour needs to approach democracy as a revolutionary demand which will transform our highly unrepresentative institutions and cannot be subordinated to them.
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