While Corbyn is far from perfect, the left must ask itself whether it is acting in good faith–or promoting purity politics–in its criticism.
One of the least edifying things about the seemingly endless internal dramas of the Labour Party is the how much they have exposed the often confused nature of principles and tactics within politics. The debate around these issues is a familiar dynamic within broad-church parties of the centre-left, usually in countries whose electoral systems incentivise a two-party dynamic. On the one hand, there is a more centrist section of the party, often allied with the leadership and party organs, stressing a “pragmatic” course, for reasons that are said to be purely tactical. “Of course”, they will say, “we would like to enact a bolder program, but the public simply isn’t there. Better to make some concessions to get in power, rather than be purists with no practical effect on the world.” Opposed to them, there is a more leftward faction which critiques these notions from a position ostensibly based on principle. “Yes, we may win by taking more towards the status quo”, this group says, “but at what cost? We do not want to be in government merely for its own sake, but to transform society.” They stand, so they say, on matters of principle, things upon which it is important to not compromise and be true to essential values. At the extreme edge, this tendency can bleed into a kind of anti-electoralist purity politics, with the idea being that any compromise with the existing system is inherently sullying.
“At the extreme edge, this tendency can bleed into a kind of anti-electoralist purity politics, with the idea being that any compromise with the existing system is inherently sullying.”
In the case of the current debate in the Labour Party, this familiar situation has seemingly gone topsy-turvy, as a leadership aligned with the party’s left faction has faced withering criticism from more centrist elements in the party. The reason this is novel is more for the players than the plot itself, as left factions within parties have long been familiar with accepting moral, political and policy compromise as the price of doing business. What is most interesting from my perspective is how much the Labour moderates, despite their ostensible commitment to pragmatism and tactical foresight, are indulging in some of the worst tendencies of left factionalism in the way they have approached their newfound position.
This is not to say that Corbyn is above criticism, or ought to be. I say this as someone who (I’m sure due to a tremendous oversight on the party’s part, given that I was only living in Britain for three months, but nevertheless) did register as a Labour supporter and voted for Corbyn during his initial successful run for leadership. To lay out my specific qualms: I do not care for some of the advisors that Corbyn has surrounded himself with (Seamus Milne in particular seems like a fairly malign actor, though Corbyn’s loyalty to him is somewhat understandable). Corbyn’s foreign policy is often simplistically “anti-imperialist” (though he does seem to be evolving on some points) and some of his past associations are bad in a familiar “enemy of my enemy” way. Suffice to say, he is not my perfect ideal of a political leader, nor do I agree with him in totality on every issue. Mostly, I wish he and his inner circle would learn to better distinguish between good and bad faith in critiques made of his actions or policies. Whilst allowing for the fact that a good deal of the latter has been present, the bunker mentality being evinced is not a healthy sign for any party’s political culture. Indeed, such a mentality bodes ill for the prospects of the kind of social and economic democracy that the Labour Party have pledged to build up should they win the next election.
However, and here is the crucial thing, the notion of being in total agreement with any political actor at all times is a pipe dream. Politics, in particular electoral politics, is not the space through which we perfectly self-actualize and articulate our inner-most beliefs and desires. At best, it is a contest on terrain shaped by innumerable factors where an attempt is made to shape social structures to make the realisation of a better reality possible. Most critically, it has to be recognized that the terms of debate are not solely, or even mainly, shaped by the dynamics within a self-described “left”, however broadly conceived. Space for political action is shaped both by outside forces that are self-described as political (parties of the right and, to a lesser extent, the illusory centre) and those which are not thought of as such. Broad economic and ecological dynamics, demographic trends, the influence of culture and media and changes in technology, to name a few, are often conceived of as existing outside of a purely political realm, but nevertheless have massive impacts on the range of possible political articulations that can achieve a measure of success. This is not to say that pushing for a policy or program which is currently unpopular is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Doubtless there are some cases where majority opinion favours something immoral or otherwise ill-advised. If one is going to push for an unpopular policy, however, this must be done in a clear-eyed way, with an emphasis on shifting conversation and popular belief on that topic. Simply asserting a position loudly fails outside of those areas where the public already agrees with you. Luckily for the left, on many issues (progressive taxation, minimum wages, income inequality, health and education spending, etc.) public opinion is already onside, and the problems of enacting these policies lie elsewhere. The point, though, is that we cannot will a different political reality into being simply by wishing that it were so.
“The notion of being in total agreement with any political actor at all times is a pipe dream. Politics, in particular electoral politics, is not the space through which we perfectly self-actualize and articulate our inner-most beliefs and desires. At best, it is a contest on terrain shaped by innumerable factors where an attempt is made to shape social structures to make the realisation of a better reality possible.”
That act of wishing is precisely what Corbyn’s critics on the centre -left are engaged in. The term “Corbynism without Corbyn” captures some of this, but that misstates at least some of the agony that is going on here. Some of the problem that people have with Corbyn is doubtless down to personal decisions or associations that don’t necessarily have anything to do with policy. But, as can be seen from the flare-up regarding Corbyn’s recently dug-up comments on NATO, for instance, there is a principle-based critique here that goes beyond the man himself. With the 2017 election having rendered the idea that Corbyn’s Labour would simply be “unelectable” beyond the pale, the ostensibly pragmatic case against his leadership is revealed to be something else entirely. Many of the members of the centre-left simply do not like Corbyn’s politics, in particular his foreign policy, and are starting to pitch their critiques in these terms. This is an odd position for them to be in, because the roles of leadership determining policy and the backbench peanut gallery have, in this case, been turned on their head.
If I may draw an analogy to the situation I find myself in as a member of Canada’s New Democratic Party, some light may be shed on the dynamics of this situation. I did not support current leader, Jagmeet Singh, during the leadership contest, having voted and done some campaign work for another candidate. I made this decision primarily because I felt that Singh did not offer much policy substance, that where he did specify unique positions, they were wrong-headed (his stance on Old Age Security, for example) and because his record on some matters of importance was inconsistent. I mostly continue to feel these same apprehensions today, though there have been some improvements. Despite this, I will continue to engage with the party, to support its candidates and to campaign for it in the next election, barring some totally unforeseen incident. Why, you may rightly ask? Firstly, because I respect the democratic judgment of the party membership in electing Singh (he won convincingly on the first ballot of the leadership contest, besting three other serious contenders). I may disagree with those members on policy matters and political approach but, if I wish to convert them to my views, I will have to engage with them respectfully, listen to what they saw in Singh and keep an open mind about where our points of convergence are. Secondly, given the current Canadian electoral system (which, yes, is hugely problematic, but, again, pointing this out does not make it less of a hurdle), any new party of the further left which I might ostensibly have more in common with policy wise would quickly flounder. We saw a bit of this in the 2011 provincial election in Ontario when some members on the left of the NDP who were aggrieved by the party’s (to be fair, quite lackluster) platform in that election formed the Socialist Party of Ontario in response. Though this move did pick up some press at the time, in the event, it would be generous to call it a fizzle. The party earned less than 1% of the vote in the election and quickly folded. By contrast, others who were troubled by the direction that platform portended stayed in the party, fought for better policies and contributed to the party now being Official Opposition in the Ontario legislature after the 2017 election.
If one is willing to accept that in the act of joining any political formation, a certain measure of absolute self-sovereignty is given up, then much more is accomplished by identifying those formations where institutional power, resources and an existing base are located and attempting to shift them towards more progressive ends. At this point in political history, absent a truly monumental set of events such as those which led to the creation of Podemos in Spain, there are no shortcuts or magic wands, as much as those pushing the prospect of new left parties would wish it so. This is not an endorsement of “lesser evil” thinking, but rather a statement of fact based in recent historical reality.
“If one is willing to accept that in the act of joining any political formation, a certain measure of absolute self-sovereignty is given up, then much more is accomplished by identifying those formations where institutional power, resources and an existing base are located and attempting to shift them towards more progressive ends.”
All of those statements apply, with the political valences reversed, to those individuals in the Labour Party who are sincerely concerned with Corbyn and have policy disagreements with him and his supporters. They are, for the most part, not making a genuine effort to understand the appeal of his policies and political approach within the current socioeconomic context, instead choosing to label Corbyn supporters a “cult” of people immune to reason. The fact is that Corbyn won clear majorities of the membership vote during both of his leader elections, and there is little sign that this has dropped. If anything, given that the recent increase in membership has been largely driven by Corbyn himself, if such an election were run again, his margin of victory would likely be larger. If his policies are as bad as internal critics claim, they should spell the disagreements out, rather than speaking in code or innuendo, and have an honest debate. Clearly they believe an alternate approach would be more electorally viable and/or better on the merits. If this is the case, let it be subject to honest, forthright and comradely discussion. The recent chatter about some Labour MPs setting up a “new centrist party” may end up going nowhere, but, its “taking the ball and going home” approach to internecine conflict is short-sighted and, ultimately, harmful to any kind of progressive project.
The stark political reality in Britain today is this: there are two options for the future, a Tory government, most likely led by a figure further to the right than Theresa May, or a Corbyn-led Labour government. The former will mean more austerity, more misery for the majority of the population, more anti-migrant baiting, more of everything that both sides of the internal Labour divide claim to oppose. The claim that a “new centrist party” would do anything other than facilitate Tory victory is wishful thinking, the kind of hoping against hope that the people pursuing it would label as deeply naïve if it came from the left. The major difference which makes it more of an active threat than a time-wasting sideshow a la the Socialist Party of Ontario is that the Labour centrists have money, media interest and a larger platform. These facts do not change the essential reality of how successful such a party would be. Even if Corbyn’s critics could cohere around a set of policy principles, it is far from clear that there is much of an appetite for the kind of pro-EU, socially liberal, fisically moderate agenda they would likely pursue. The numbers would not be of the scale to achieve a hoped-for Macron-style breakthrough, but could be enough to deny Corbyn’s Labour a working majority. People within the Labour Party who oppose Corbyn’s policies should reconcile themselves to this reality and then decide what it is they want they want to do with it. If they are truly concerned about the effects that Corbyn’s policies could have, they should debate this clearly and within the normal structures of the party, respecting the democratic will of the membership. Otherwise, they are going to, in their moralism and haste, deny crucial supports to very vulnerable people in society. I will say, and have said, the same thing (within obvious limits) about similarly wrong-headed critiques of more centrist leadership figures from the left. It is time to get serious, recognise where the world is and what consequences our words and actions have, and get on with the business of actually changing society.