Corbyn, Labour, and the British Left: prospects for realignment after GE2017

Lecturer in Politics, Danny Rye considers Labour’s future after 8 June, if the party does lose the election and the continuing prospects of a re-alignment of the wider British left under the Labour Party’s tent.

Until recently, the received wisdom had been that in order to win a general election, Labour had to appeal to a moderate ‘centre ground’. In 2015, Ed Miliband had gambled that the centre of political gravity had shifted to the left. His failure to return Labour to government after one term in opposition was taken as a signal that this was not the case and the party needed to tack back to the right. The subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the party’s electorate disagreed with that analysis. The shifts in the polls in recent weeks, seems to suggest that quite a lot of the UK electorate might too.

As I wrote at the time, Corbyn’s election opened up an opportunity to realign politics on the left. A re-engagement of the Labour mainstream with the broader left would help to reinvigorate and refresh the party’s policies and approach – developing not only new appeals in terms of policy but also new ways of organising, building a stronger presence in communities and reinventing the party for the future. This is arguably dependent on Corbyn being able to do two things: pull off a more leftist version of ‘big tent’ politics, drawing together the left, the centre-left, and the left-behind into a coherent alternative to austerity; and reform the Labour Party structures in such a way as to secure the left’s continued ascendancy.

Corbyn has certainly been successful in drawing the wider left into his tent. However, at present at least, much of this appears to be entirely based on his leadership rather than reflecting any general inclination to support the Labour Party. Were he to step down, it is difficult to see how that broad alliance would hold together. It seems also that some see the survival of Corbyn himself as vital to the whole project of the left in the UK – hence the qualified support he has from groups like the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party. The failure of the Corbyn project would thus be a setback for the left more widely.

Corbyn has also undeniably been successful in galvanising new support and reawakening old support that had drifted away from Labour in the 2000s. Despite some suggestion that many of these newer members may be less keen to do the hard graft of party activism, there are reports around the country of greatly expanded participation in meetings and the day-to-day grind that is essential to the functioning of an organised political party. Whilst it is true that a good number of those are thought to be older, returning members, many of them are new and relatively young. This may be an important base from which to build for the future. The key again is how much these newer members are specifically wedded to the Corbyn project rather than the Labour Party itself. If he fails, or falls, will they stay on and engage in the debate about how to go forward?

Where Corbyn has been notably less successful is in persuading the bulk of his parliamentary party of his merits. It was clear from the outset that the vast majority of MPs did not support him. Despite a level of acquiescence by some in the wake of his initial victory, there has been more or less consistent hostility, which broke out most spectacularly in the failed so-called ‘coup’ of 2016. Thus, instead of a debate, what we have had is a long period of stand-off, infighting and distrust, followed then by what can best be described as an uneasy  peace, or a kind of sullen hostility. Whilst things have gone remarkably quiet during the General Election campaign, this seems likely to break out into the open again on June 9th. This underlines the division, too, between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership, particularly those who have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. But the membership itself is also divided. In the 2016 leadership contest, Corbyn got a slightly higher per centage of the vote than he did in 2015, but those who were members before May 2015 cast most of their votes for Owen Smith, whilst those who had joined since the general election voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn.

However, there are more serious divisions which animate many of Corbyn’s critics in the PLP: that between the more cosmopolitan, urban Corbyn supporters and ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated. Many Labour MPs fear that these ‘left-behind’ voters simply will not vote for the party whilst Corbyn remains leader. But there is at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.

For many in the PLP, a trigger for last year’s vote of no confidence and failed leadership challenge (although by no means the only one) was Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign, whilst most voters in key Labour areas overwhelmingly supported Leave. This double whammy of hostility both to Corbyn and Remain-supporting MPs underlines the fear that the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis in areas where support had previously been solid.

In this light, Corbyn’s unwillingness to make an issue of Brexit might be a wise move, but Labour’s electoral challenges do not stop there. On top of this, Labour is making no headway in Scotland, and is already 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.

A key aim for the left of the party, and precisely what Corbyn’s opponents would like to prevent, is changes to party rules to their advantage. Much, as ever, will depend on events, specifically the election result and what happens in its immediate aftermath. If he does badly in the election, Corbyn will be under pressure to step down. But, although a bad defeat might on one level make it harder for Corbyn to justify staying in position, it may also ironically make him more secure than before. Analysis by Policy Network found that Labour’s most vulnerable seats tend to be held by Corbyn’s opponents. This means that pro-Coryn MPs will make up a larger proportion of a smaller PLP in the event of a Conservative landslide. In any case, the PLP are unlikely to risk another challenge unless Corbyn voluntarily stands down, since it seems likely that were it to be put to the vote, he would win again.

But if Corbyn does well – and the polls are suggesting he might do much better than anticipated – the converse is true. The snap election meant that there was no time to go through full candidate selection processes and most existing ones were simply readopted. Attempts to install Corbyn supporters were unsuccessful except in the odd case like Walton. So, if Corbyn does as well as the polls now suggest he might, he is likely to face a still largely hostile parliamentary party. A key problem therefore will be what to do about his MPs. Yet, many of the objections that MPs hold come down to a concern about electoral prospects, so perhaps a good result will quieten them for now. At the same time, it will give party moderates a stronger hand within the parliamentary party (if not in the party as a whole), which will be crucial when the time comes to replace Corbyn.

The risk for moderates is that this would give the party’s left room to focus on reshaping the party internally in its own image and gradually change the internal dynamics of the party, and the make up of the PLP. However, despite their numerical support, the key problem for the party’s left up to now has been an organisational weakness which means that the leadership has found itself frequently unable to get its way. Moderate groups like Labour First have been very effective at organising within the party and winning key organisational positions such as the Conference Arrangements Committee which makes key decisions about what gets discussed at party conferences. Thus, even if he stays in position, there is no guarantee that the left will get their desired rule changes and the party will be locked into an ongoing internal war of attrition.

The stalemate seems likely to continue for the time-being. The only chance of change in the moderates’ direction is if enough members change their minds. But, in a lot of local parties there is still enthusiasm for the Corbyn project and, if the party can hold onto its vote or improve it, then it seems likely that members will want to stick with him. A relatively successful campaign may well win over previous sceptics, too. Whether this is enough to secure genuine organisational change and sustain a longer term realignment on the left depends ultimately on the capacity to win over the support (or at least the acquiescence) of the parliamentary party and other internal doubters, at least in the short-term. A measure of electoral success may go some way to achieving that.

This post originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

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Labour’s Registered Supporters Scheme Should be Seen as a Success

by Dr Danny Rye

Since the 2015 election defeat the Labour Party has attracted many thousands of new members  and supporters, largely it seems as a result of the enthusiasm generated by the current leadership contest. What initially promised to be a very dull contest of triangulating centrists was electrified by the unexpected explosion in support for Jeremy Corbyn. As a result around half a million people or more will be eligible to participate in the contest to lead the party. On the face of it, this seems to buck a trend to which nearly all political parties in the Western World have been subject, that of disengagement and declining participation and membership. House of Commons Library figures suggest that in 2013 all significant parties in the UK – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Greens, UKIP and the SNP – had collectively less members than those now taking part in the Labour leadership contest.

What has made this possible, of course, is a key reform to the party’s internal election process put in place under Ed Miliband which were a response to bad publicity over the Falkirk selection process (involving Unite apparently recruiting members en masse in order to ensure the adoption of their favoured candidate). The outcome of the ensuing Collins Review was the abolition of the party’s electoral college and its replacement with a system of one member one vote, including individual trade unionists who signed up as ‘Affiliated Supporters’ and enhanced with the enfranchisement of a new category of Registered Supporters, allowing individuals who registered by signing a declaration of support and paid a small fee to participate in the ballot for leader. This, the report said, meant ‘the final realisation of the … process that was begun by John Smith thirty years ago’ towards One Member One Vote in leadership contests.

One might think that the fact that the effect this scheme has had on participation levels would be something for those concerned with the state of participatory democracy to celebrate. However, there has been a growing strand of commentary in the British press and media (now thankfully being countered by some such as Tom Baldwin) which suggests that somehow the groundswell of supporters and members that have signed up to Labour since the election defeat in May should be seen as a disaster and that they are ‘killing the party’. Whilst the scheme is not perfect, this kind of response strikes me as overdramatic. Political parties have been struggling for decades to identify ways in which they can attract new supporters and members, largely without significant or sustained success. Although some ‘insurgent’ political parties have in recent months had some impact in terms of membership – UKIP claim well over 40,000 members, the Greens over 60,000, whilst the SNP claims over 100,000 – these (with the exception of the SNP in its specific national context) represent small numbers compared with the large memberships the main parties claimed in the past (3 to 4 million between them by some estimates), which have been in inexorable decline. Political parties seem to have been at a loss of what do about it. The Conservative Party, seemingly giving up on the idea of membership altogether, have even experimented with open primaries, allowing anyone to participate in selecting candidates for Parliament  which involve making no commitment to the party at all (although the resulting selection in Totnes of an independent-minded MP in Sarah Wollaston may have given them cause to think again).

Labour’s experiment with the registered supporters scheme in conjunction with a high profile leadership contest has been in many respects, therefore, a potential breakthrough. There has been much hype and hysteria about so-called infiltrators or ‘entryists’ from either the hard left or the right, including a Tory MP, and clearly the party might need to think about how it polices its borders, but a certain amount of ambiguity is going to be inevitable if parties are to be genuinely more open and engaged with the public beyond the usual, and dwindling, band of activists. In its favour, the scheme provides a simple and easy way in which people can indicate their support for a political party and their willingness to get involved on some level. It is thus a pool of potential new members, activists and donors. The fact that they have to sign up and pay a small fee to join up gives the party the opportunity, by widening support, to then deepen it.  Certainly not all of these supporters will make the leap into membership, perhaps even a majority will not, but the most important question for Labour is whether – whoever actually wins the leadership election – the party can hold on to enough of these new members and supporters and convert them into activists and participants.

It would be a mistake therefore to unravel the scheme completely, although some adjustment, for example to guard against systematic infiltration by hostile groups or individuals, may be necessary.  However, handled correctly, it could be a positive boon for the future of the Labour Party, firstly by bringing a wider range of voices into debates about the party’s direction and, secondly, by harnessing greater potential for electoral mobilisation and the growth of more committed members and activists, which was the point of the Registered Supporters scheme in the first place.  It might even be a model that other parties would consider emulating in order to arrest the decline in participation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, for the Labour Party in particular, the opportunity is to finally have a proper debate about what its response to so-called ‘austerity’ should be and to engage a wider movement of participants in that process can only be a positive thing.  A wider range of voices and participants in this debate, then, is surely welcome. Together, and with the involvement of many thousands of new supporters, members and activists, they might be able to produce a coherent, genuine and realistic response to austerity with popular appeal that is rooted in centre-left ideas and has the backing of enthusiastic grass-roots supporters across the Labour family. If so, this will be in no small part due to the life that the Registered Supporters scheme has injected into the party. That should be celebrated on every wing of the party and perhaps be watched closely by officials and analysts of political parties in general.

This post was originally published on the Political Studies Association website here

A victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race could bring about a realignment of British politics

Jeremy Corbyn looks set to win the Labour leadership election, despite initially being pegged as a no-hope also-ran. The conservative right are cheering him on, seeing the Islington North MP as ushering in a period of Conservative Party hegemony. But is he being underestimated? Danny Rye argues that a Corbyn-led party could see a realignment of not just the Labour Party, but British politics, in a way which brings the traditional left back into the mainstream. 

The unexpected ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership campaign has clearly been a boon for the press, the commentariat and academics. What was looking like a dull and predictable contest has been electrified, and many column inches have been filled with speculation on what it all means for the left, the Labour Party and British politics. With some notable exceptions, much of what has been written suggests bad news for the party: stories about ‘entryism’, warnings of internal strife and electoral catastrophe echo the travails of the 1980s. However, I may be a hopeless optimist, but this is not the 1980s and it is possible to take a more positive view without buying wholesale into the Corbyn phenomenon.

Whether he wins or loses, an opportunity exists to revitalise and reinvigorate the centre-left, by reconnecting the Labour Party with the left more broadly and challenging it to refresh its ideas. There are three aspects to this: the effect of this development on the broader democratic left, the effect on the Labour Party in particular and its impact on the key lines of debate in British politics.

Firstly, it could mean a revitalised left wing voice in mainstream British politics. The Corbyn campaign has clearly galvanised activists both inside and outside the party, and has the potential to reconnect the broader democratic left to the political mainstream. This appears to be made up of two elements: those on the left in the Labour Party and those on the broader democratic left outside it. The former – many of whom are the most active, engaged and loyal members who regularly attend meetings and are out on the doorstep making the party’s case – have become revivified and are less willing to moderate their views in the electoral interests of the party, as they had been during the New Labour era.

This may explain why Corbyn has done so well in terms of constituency nominations. In those nomination meetings, the sound of yearning for a Labour Party more true to itself and its members has been heard quite clearly. The latter, including former members and activists who had given up hope that it would ever provide a home for them again, are increasingly enthused that they might actually have some kind of voice in political debate and have thus rejoined, or signed up as Affiliated or Registered Supporters in order to vote for Corbyn. Added to that are, it appears, some who may never have voted Labour before (perhaps supporting other left-wing parties at previous elections, or who have not voted at all), but who would be willing to engage in a party they felt to be more clearly distinguished from the Conservatives and more robust in its opposition to austerity.

Secondly, the consequences for the Labour Party might be that it finally has the debate that it badly needs to have. During its dark days of electoral failure and internal conflict in the 1980s, Keith Waterhouse pointed out that, however bad things looked, there was too much life left in the party for its decline to be terminal. Indeed, the conflict between left and right, between power and principle has been part of what seems to give the party energy as much as disables it. The catastrophic rift with MacDonald in the 1930s, the battles with Bevanites in the 1950s, and those with Bennites in the 1980s were all desperately damaging to the party and yet presaged significant electoral and political successes. However, in recent years, it appeared that with New Labour, the right’s ascendancy within the party was so complete that there was no longer any serious debate left to be had. Ed Miliband’s defeat only strengthened the argument that any move towards the left, however small, would be electoral suicide.

But the problem for the right was that their very ascendancy has arguably made them complacent and devoid of new ideas. Thus, despite much talk about the party needing to have a ‘debate’, the mainstream candidates singularly failed to engage in one. Rather than addressing the question of what actually had gone wrong for Labour Party in any meaningful way or addressing the question of what the Labour Party is actually for, the response appeared to be simply that the party’s platform was not ‘right wing’ or ‘centrist’ enough, a response at least as simplistic as one which says it was not ‘left wing’ enough. Some MPs lent Corbyn their nominations despite not supporting him in order to promote ‘debate’ and they have perhaps got more than they bargained for. Nevertheless, the party badly needs to have it and, for good or ill, perhaps that debate might finally begin. It is heartening that there does still appear to be life in the party and that there are enough people who still care on both sides of the debate to get involved. Thus, what was consequently looking like a routine and very dull exercise in choosing who might be the least offensive candidate to Conservative swing-voters, now looks like something much more important, or at least more interesting.

If this debate is to be productive, however, it needs to be inclusive of both the left and right of the party. Name calling and making personalised accusations will not produce anything other than bitterness. The left, revitalised by the campaign, can no longer be ignored in the party, whatever the result. But it will need to draw in new ideas, energy and expertise if it is to produce a more broadly appealing vision and maintain momentum beyond its most enthusiastic supporters. Although some of the more closed-minded elements of the left might not welcome it, something that will help this process is the somewhat belated recognition by party centrists of their own failures. Hence, Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna’s recent call for the right and the ‘soft left’ in the party to cooperate on ‘Labour for the Common Good’, with the aim of articulating a coherent political vision for a moderate, electorally oriented Labour Party.

Suddenly the future of social democracy and the centre left is up for grabs and there is an opportunity to both produce new ideas and galvanise enthusiasm and engagement amongst activists of all stripes in the Labour movement. The danger is that this energy will be wasted on bitter infighting. The opportunity is that the creative energy this generates could be galvanised and turned into something that can respond in innovative ways to the Conservatives and their ideologically driven ‘austerity’ agenda.

The great risk is that a prolonged period of internal debate means that the Labour Party will be out of power for an extended period of time. The consequences of this could be a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s in which Labour was locked out of government and a long Conservative hegemony ensured that any version of the left’s agenda would not be implemented. This, indeed, is the fear of many mainstream Labour members and leaders. From this point of view, the ascendancy of Corbyn could be seen as a boost for the Conservative Party and its political strategy. However, and this is my third point, the opportunity is that, rather than simply attempting to navigate a landscape fashioned by its political enemies, the Labour Party can seek to reshape the terms of debate. Out of the clash of ideas, perhaps a fresh, distinctive response to austerity can be fashioned, backed up by a new generation of activists which reconnect it with the broader democratic left in British Politics. This might have the additional positive effect of helping to stem at least some of the decline in political engagement and participation.

Thus, an optimistic view might be to see this as an opportunity for all strands of thought in the Labour Party – left, right and centre – to respond to the austerity agenda, not by chasing the tail of Conservative political strategy but by actually developing a coherent critique and appealing alternatives of its own. In other words, challenging orthodoxy rather than simply moderating it, producing distinctive ideas, rooted in centre-left thinking and traditions, rather than moderating right wing thinking with the odd left-ish idea.

It is possible, therefore, that this could represent an important moment for the left in Britain – a realignment of sorts which brings the broader left back into the political and Parliamentary mainstream by providing it with a legitimate voice within a mainstream political party. One which forces the Labour Party to reassess what and who it is for and stimulates ‘moderate’ voices on the left into more imaginative responses that engage with a broader spectrum of left-wing ideas and traditions whilst maintaining the potential for a broad appeal.

Or it may be that I am just a hopeless optimist.

This post originally appeared on the Democratic Audit blog here

Analysing intra-ideological disputes in the intermediate public sphere reveals why the British left has failed to develop coherent solutions to the economic crisis.

Based on a reading of Alan Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational Change and Left Political Economy after New Labour’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations 15:1, 70-88.

by Danny Rye

In a recent article for the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Alan Finlayson argues that the failure of the British left to develop a coherent response to the ongoing economic crisis is, in part at least, the result of a dispute between state-oriented Keynesians and Polanyians[1] concerned with grass-roots issue of equality, which is encouraged by the competitive nature of the market in which the advocates of these differing views operate.

The ideas, solutions and frameworks that underpin major policy transitions, he says, are embedded in existing ideological communities which provide resources for debates to draw on and an anchor point from which to engage with outside ideas.  New policy paradigms emerge from a process of mediating between specific proposals and general philosophical commitments.  Thus, monetarism emerged as a specific solution to the economic problems of the 1970s on the political right because it was consistent with ideological frameworks on the right.  However, the British left has singularly failed to produce a coherent response to the current economic crisis: why?

With the decline of traditional forms of participation in political parties, an increasingly important context for the emergence of new narratives is the ‘intermediate public sphere’ located between the realm of policy professionals and the public.  On the left, it encompasses the Labour Party, associated factions and parties, trade unions, pressure groups, think-tanks, journalists and commentators, bloggers and more.  It represents therefore a relatively diverse sphere of intra-ideological debate situated in various institutional locations. It provides a structure for debate and facilitates the development of solutions congruent with ideological traditions.  Crucially, moreover, this is the basis on which supporters can be persuaded to communicate and promote those solutions in the wider public sphere.  In short, the intermediate sphere provides a link to the general public essential for the dissemination of policy ideas.

Exploration of this sphere suggests that the left’s failure is not for want of something to say but because it has in a sense too much to say.  The British left is embroiled in an intermediate level dispute at the core of which is a disagreement over the conceptualisation of ‘the state’ and ‘equality’.  This is not a traditional ‘left-right’ cleavage as such but one between those advocating a ‘Polanyian’ ethical socialism, with a core philosophical commitment to grass-roots democratisation and anti-commodification (famously associated with ‘Blue Labour’), and those of a more ‘Keynesian’ persuasion who see promoting equality and economic stability via state intervention as being the key purpose of social democracy.

Keynesians see the interventionist state and equality as going hand-in-glove and regard Polanyians as uninterested in equality for ordinary people.  Polanyians are more ambivalent about the state’s role, being committed to a pluralistic conception of participatory democracy rather than centralised state activity.  To them, Keynesians are elitists, hostile to the political participation of those same ordinary people.

This seems to indicate that all the ideational elements for responding to the crisis are present in the debate on the British left.  All that needs to be resolved is their precise configuration.  So why the failure to develop a narrative?

A key to resolving these arguments is the development of innovative solutions to which elements of both can consent but, ideational differences aside, a crucial barrier to this is the politics of the sphere itself.  The competitive policy market between advocates of different views, their need to maintain brand images and supporters and the pressures of the short-term political cycle militates against the forging of a common front and prevents the emergence of new patterns of ideological thinking which can break through into the mainstream.

Before the left can put forward coherent proposals for solutions to our economic woes, then, it appears that rather than competing with each other for ‘market share’, they need to start talking to each other about how their ideas might be creatively and usefully synthesised so as to be applicable to the very real problems we face.


[1] after Hungarian social theorist and economist Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation