Labour Divided: Corbyn versus the Parliamentary Labour Party

by Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

It has almost become a cliché to say that we have entered unchartered waters following the decision to leave the European Union. Leadership and direction is sorely lacking. The Prime Minister has resigned and the Conservative Party is about to become fixated on who succeeds him. At the same time, many of the main players on the Leave side of the argument appear to have absented themselves from the scene, or else are busy explaining how those who supported them are unlikely to get much of what they want, whilst millions have signed a petition demanding a second referendum. The country is in a state of shock after the result, even – it seems – the winners. Prime opportunity, you might think, for the Opposition to step into the breach, provide the leadership the country sorely needs and start to articulate a way out of this mess, a golden opportunity perhaps to shape the agenda and set a way forward.  Instead, we have – at the time of writing – approaching sixty resignations from the front bench and an emphatic vote of no confidence in the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected only nine months ago by a large majority of members. Why – many have reasonably asked – do this now?

At the heart of this are a series of divides that run through the party and that may prove very hard to reconcile.  First, it exposes a huge divide between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the membership, especially those that have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. Much was made of the £3 Registered Supporters and the role they played in getting him elected, but Corbyn also won the vote amongst longer-standing members and it seems likely that, if put to the vote, he would win again unless those who oppose him can get new members and registered supporters in to vote for an alternative candidate.  There is a caveat to this, however, since many of his supporters, younger ones especially, were also Remain supporters, if there is evidence that he somehow scuppered the Remain campaign, as has been suggested, then enough of them might turn against him. Secondly, it exposes a key divide which concerns many of those in the PLP, that between core, ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the formal industrial parts of the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated, and many of the more cosmopolitan, urban and left-wing ‘new’ membership who support Corbyn. The fear that many Labour MPs have is that those voters simply will not vote for the party whilst someone like Corbyn is the leader, thus damaging the party’s capacity to achieve anything on their behalf. However, and thirdly, it exposes at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.  One of the triggers – but by no means the only one – for many in the PLP has been Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign.  And yet those key Labour areas voted overwhelmingly for Leave.  Regardless of the current struggle, the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis, in danger of haemorrhaging support to UKIP in the North of England, making no headway in Scotland, and virtually non-existent in most of the South of England.  This crisis is not new by any means, but it underlines a conflict about the party’s future, what kind of party it is, and where it should be building its support.

Some have tried to characterise this as some kind of ‘Blairite’ ‘coup’, perhaps with an eye on the forthcoming Chilcot report, but this is patent nonsense. None (perhaps bar one) of the Shadow cabinet members who resigned could reasonably described as ‘Blairites’ – they represent a broad spectrum of political opinion in the party – and very few of them were even around when the decisions under investigation by Chilcot were made.  Even though Corbyn won his leadership election with very little support from the PLP, many were prepared to go along with it for what they saw as the good of the party, and perhaps even in the hope that Corbyn might be able to reverse their decline in some of these areas. That MPs are doing this now is a sign that they do not believe this to be the case and, with the possibility of an election later this year, it was a case of move now or face electoral annihilation. It is also worth remembering that most MPs are in regular touch with their constituents, and if they thought that Corbyn was winning support, they would back him. It is evident that they do not believe this to be the case and, indeed, so much so that they are prepared to take such a risk at such a time. There is no doubt that it is an act of desperation on the part of MPs, and it is difficult to see how this will end well for the party.  If Corbyn stands again (and party rules are ambiguous over whether he has the automatic right to do so) and wins, then it is difficult to see how the party can hold together afterwards.  Indeed, even if he does not win, it is still difficult to see how this can end well. Labour, it seems, is more emphatically than ever, (at least) two parties. As one insider suggested yesterday, unless Corbyn gives way, a split between them is almost inevitable and it looks as if it might simply come down to a fight over which side keeps the party name and brand.

In Defence of the Party

Reflections on ‘After the Party’ seminar held on 24 April 2014 at Birkbeck University of London , Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life.

Political parties are still our best hope for articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities, but they need renewal.

By Dr Danny Rye

Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck University of London

It is almost a truism to say that political parties are in decline. Their memberships have dwindled away to historically low numbers, and although they are still effective vehicles for recruiting candidates and political elites and organising government and opposition, their capacity to fulfil their democratic roles of articulating and aggregating interests, mobilising and integrating populations, facilitating popular choice and control are seriously in doubt. Thus, if this is the case and the party is dead or dying, what comes after the party?

There were two broad strands of opinion on the panel. The first, represented by Neal Lawson of Compass and Liam Barrington-Bush (from More Like People), was that parties as we know them are all but finished as bridges between the electorate and the state and urgently need to be replaced by something more relevant and effective.

Lawson argued that social media facilitates a flattening process which reduces the cost of organisation and makes a more egalitarian, cooperative politics possible, or at least easier. This, he says, can support the development of a kind of politics where we solve problems ourselves rather than ‘waiting for heroes’ to do so for us. The future of political organisation needs to be more like an ‘open tribe’, pluralistic, adaptive and relational. For Barrington-Bush self-organisation is the key. Institutions like parties are based on a lack of trust in people and empowers an enlightened elite over ordinary people. People are far better at self-organising than they are given credit for and we don’t need top down strategies or elites to tell us what to do. What is needed is more autonomy: the kinds of networks that have emerged out of the Occupy movement, which have provided practical solutions to problems of everything from housing and finance to participative decision-making show us what can be done when people are free to organise themselves.

The second broad line of argument, represented by Nick Anstead of the LSE and James Dennis – a research student at Royal Holloway – was that parties are by no means dead but need to adapt to survive.

Anstead argued that parties have become distant and elitist, vacating the social arenas and become subsumed into an elitist, state-centred vehicle for winning power. Part of this has been motivated by the desire of political leaders to wrest control of their parties from a dwindling band of ideological activists who alienated the mainstream electorate (New Labour springs to mind). In doing so, however, political elites have themselves alienated the public by eroding the ‘bridge’ between them. The possibility that technology offers is material with which to rebuild that bridge, creating space for participation, dialogue and pluralism. Dennis pointed out that organisations like 38 Degrees are increasingly acting as that bridge. Most famous for mobilising large-scale single issue campaigns via the web and social media, they are increasingly focusing energy on building capacity, providing people and communities with the tools they need to organise their own campaigns through the use of web tools and templates. Crucial to this model is not by-passing political parties, but communicating and working with them as articulators of public interest.

The common theme that emerges from these arguments is that mainstream political parties have a problem in that they simply haven’t adapted to the changing social and political landscape. Their structures and organisation are products of a bygone age when they were not only political machines but the centre of social life in many communities (Conservative Clubs and Working Men’s Clubs for example), and – especially in Labour’s case –working lives too. As this social role has diminished so has the articulation of distinctive class interests, and thus their ability to mobilise. The world has changed and so has the way people relate to each other, socialise and organise. People are less inclined to join and submit to the disciplines of ‘traditional’ party life. They are less deferent, more articulate about their rights and opinions and, with the help of social media, more able to organise and express themselves. If they are to survive – and I would argue that it is important that they do – parties need to recognise and embrace this.

All of this points towards possibilities for the renewal of political participation facilitated in part by the possibilities that social media provides. This is not an idea which is exclusive to the left either nor one that mainstream parties have ignored: from the right, Douglas Carswell amongst others, are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the web offers for refreshing political participation and activism. Peter Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister has argued that their respective parties’ fortunes can be revived by redefining the relationship between supporters, members and party elites, an idea which is being taken very seriously within the Labour Party. Indeed, the signs are that parties are increasingly seeking to blur the distinction between ‘formal’ members and less formal supporters in the hope of reviving participation. The way in which the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 harnessed activism through technology has been held up as something of a model to learn from.

However, these kinds of approaches are still somewhat elite driven and although perhaps it goes some way to addressing problems of participation, it does not go far enough. Too often the problem of political engagement, why aren’t people joining, campaigning and voting for them is framed as a problem that political parties need to solve by making a better product, or by marketing it better. This misses the point and indeed perhaps says something about what theproblem is in the first place. It is not a case so much of parties ‘listening’ or ‘responding’ to potential voters, so much as to open up and let other voices in. To survive, in other words, parties need to let go.

Nonetheless, we cannot reject parties out of hand. Parties also provide a continuity of organisation and an access to political power at a national level that flatter, more transient forms of self-organisation cannot so easily do. As Barbara Zollner of Birkbeck pointed out, although social media and spontaneous forms of grass-roots organisation have played crucial roles in recent revolutions in the Middle East in particular, the failure of more traditional forms of organisation like parties, has perhaps gone some way to undoing them in places like Egypt especially. The powerful elites in society (like the Egyptian army) are well-organised and disciplined and therefore those that seek to challenge them must be also.

Thus parties may have isolated and distanced themselves in recent years, but they are still our best hope of providing a channel through which the electorate’s voice can be heard in the halls of government, articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities. These roles are vital to democratic health and to provide them, parties need to re-imagine themselves. They need to understand themselves as part of wider movements and thus be much more open, much more willing to allow a plurality of voices to find articulation, much less concerned with command and control. This is vital to the renewed relevance and flourishing of organisations which at their best can provide some form of linkage, however filtered or indirect, between the political elite and the ordinary voter.

But the rest of us too must recognise that although politics can be understood as many things – the pursuit of the ‘good-life’ or the good society, the pursuit of power –it is also in part the art of compromise. The way in which we organise ourselves can enhance the autonomy of individuals and communities and maximise political empowerment, but that does not mean that we can always get what we want. It does, however, mean that we might have more chance of getting heard.

Why Parties Need to Change But Not Too Much.

Parties need to adapt to the changing ways in which people engage in politics, but they must also challenge  individualised consumerist politics and provide a platform for collective decision-making and accountability.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a recent article for Labour Uncut, Peter Watt – a former General Secretary of the Labour Party – argued that traditional political parties are under threat.  Parties need to wake up to how the ways in which people engage (or not) with politics have changed.  In particular, parties need to use social media platforms to engage with members of the public beyond the narrow confines of a community of politicians or activists.  They need to seek invitations into and meet people in their worlds rather than making ‘clumsy attempts’ to entice them into traditional political settings.

This would require no less than a revolution, not just in the way that political parties engage with the outside world, but also how they are organised: for example becoming ‘flatter’, more ‘networked’, a new kind of ‘cyber party’ using web-based technologies to build relationships directly with voters.  This perhaps means departing from out-dated notions of ‘membership’ which suited the age of the mass class-based party, but is out of step with political engagement in the contemporary world (indeed, the Labour Party may have taken an important step towards this already with the launch last year of the Labour Supporters Network).

On the face of it, this is a sensible thing for parties to do.  Since the heyday of two party politics, we have undergone a social revolution.  People do not feel they need to be committed traditional political parties anymore: the social role they used to play has long been lost to the market (which is a problem all social institutions like churches, clubs and societies have faced) and allegiances based on class have dissolved, being replaced by a more fragmented identity politics, or by brands and consumer-oriented niche interests.  Similarly, political activity and commitments have shifted into the increasingly crowded market-place of single issue causes (like conservation or aid) and specialised interests, or relatively spontaneous ‘grass-roots’ campaigns such as those organised by 38 Degrees or Occupy.  In short, no one has to submit to the disciplines of party life because one can pick and choose which causes to support with no need for messy compromise or accommodation.

Underlying all this is a consumerist ideology, in which ‘free’ individuals make rational decisions based on our interests and desires.  The modern consumer-citizen can expect to get what she wants when she wants it, with little concern for ‘collective’ or ‘class’ interest, which belong to the drab paternalistic world of the past.   And if people do not need political parties to meet their interests, then all they are is a means by which the powerful and those that wish to join them seek to dominate others.  Why, then, should anyone else want to participate in them?  Indeed, why should parties as we know them even exist in a world where everyone potentially has their own platform?

I would argue that parties must have a future if representative democracy is to remain healthy.  Yes, they must change and adapt to the world as it is, but they must also provide a challenge to the individualistic and atomised politics, which ultimately lead to politics being dominated by remote elites.  Thus, any attempt to meet and engage people in ‘their worlds’ must not be to the detriment of three crucial roles that parties have to different degrees played in representative democracies.

Firstly, parties provide a structure for collective political activity and expression which individualised media and fragmented causes cannot.  In particular, the party provides an arena for debate and a system for making and influencing policy.  It provides clear rules and procedures and a context of shared values that gives focus and meaning to the process and its outcomes, even if that outcome is not the one desired by all participants.  Party members and activists I have interviewed as part of my own research have talked about how much they have valued being able to contribute to debates, even when they knew they would probably not get their way.  In attempting to attract more support, parties must not lose sight of this.  It is something that the fragmented politics of single issues and social media cannot offer.

Meeting the demands of all the fragmented competitive interests in society is impossible and  dividing people up into specific causes and atomised voices undermines the ability of people to act collectively.  If we cannot act collectively we run the risk of becoming dominated by those that can, or who do not need to: that is, ever more remote political elites and the powerful interest groups lobbying for a small slice of the policy pie. This leads the individual even less able to influence the context and content of politics, despite the opportunities they have to express their opinions and pursue their desires.  Parties can play an important role in educating people to understand this and providing them with a platform that is effective because it is collective.

Secondly, parties can and should provide some kind of ‘linkage’ between those that seek to govern and the generality of voters.  This, many would argue, is precisely the reason they must change.  However, the quality of this linkage is crucial too:  it is vital that action designed to make parties more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ avoids the danger of hollowing them out even further.  Providing a more direct transmission belt between party representatives and the public could be an important act of ‘democratisation’ but the danger is that it bypasses the organised, collective power of a membership and replaces it with an uneven relationship between an elite with all the advantages and resources and a series of fragmented voices with no collective authority or power.  A democratic party organisation can supply that collective authority to speak to and challenge elites which a ‘network’ cannot.

Vibrant political parties that engage with supporters and give them real power can be vital to ensuring that the needs of real communities are reflected in the policy process, in other words to ensure that parties remain rooted in the places in which people live.  Of course, that means branching out into online communities too.  But however parties respond to the challenges of modern life, they must attempt to engage people not only by meeting them in their worlds on their terms, but also by challenging the atomisation of consumerist politics and drawing people into a greater sense of collective life.  Social media is part of this and must be used to help bring it about, but the medium must not become the message and it must not end up driving politics in a direction which is even more atomised and unequal.

This brings me to the third reason why so-called ‘traditional’ parties remain important:  stable, healthy party organisations with meaningful accountability mechanisms are a crucial check on overmighty leaders.  In our political system, parties are the means by which leaders are selected and their support sustained.  Whereas in some systems, parties are vehicles for leaders and can be discarded when they are no longer of use, here leaders are arguably vehicles for parties.  Thus they can be removed if they become detached, remote, or a threat to the political or electoral health of the party.  ‘Network’ parties in which political leaders communicate directly with the voters may allow leaders to circumvent the need for an active and powerful membership base whilst at the same time appearing to be more ‘democratic’.  This may make them more politically nimble and even more responsive to the public in some sense, but without proper structures of accountability and powers of recall, parties may be little more than empty brands, engaged with individuals on a superficial level: surfing the mood of the mass whilst providing no means to check the power of leaders and replace them from time to time.

Thus, in summary, whilst I agree with Peter Watt that parties must adapt to new realities, this must not be a pretext for abandoning the democratic role that old-fashioned organisations can play.  I do not suggest that parties as they are now perform these roles perfectly and at times there have been worrying indications that parties are responding to problems like membership decline by attempting to undermine the basis for it.

Parties are collective organisations trying to survive in an individualised age.  They are hierarchical broadcasters in an era of networks and interactive social media.  But whilst they must adapt to these changing modes of communication and engagement, they need to do so in such a way that provides a challenge to the individualism and atomisation that poses very real dangers to democracy.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 22 MARCH 2013 by the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London