Is another Labour Party—one that looks towards struggle, movements and campaigning to change society—possible?
With Jeremy Corbyn now secure as party leader and the left growing stronger, plenty of Labour activists believe it is.
Corbyn’s leadership and the changed political landscape after the general election have transformed the situation inside Labour.
New members have fought to change their Constituency Labour Parties.
Some groups that were once unwelcoming and undemocratic are now organising campaigns and involving more people.
And this year’s Labour conference saw lively political debates that often ended with delegates demanding changes to the party’s policies.
It’s a big difference from Tony Blair’s leadership, when members were shut out from having any real say.
Writer Alex Nunns said the conference was “Unrecognisable from the New Labour days, when ministers would deliver drab perorations to half empty halls.”
For many Labour members the battle inside the party is about more than taking control of its structures.
It’s about turning Labour into a party where ordinary people are involved in the decisions that count. For some it’s about turning Labour into a broader social and political movement.
That was a major theme throughout Labour left group Momentum’s World Transformed festival in Brighton last month.
There were big discussions on how Labour could be powered “from below.” And there were plenty of differing—often vague—views among the hundreds of activists there about what that meant.
But everyone seemed to agree that Labour needs to focus on campaigning and activism not just on parliament to help it change society.
Many went further and said a left wing Labour government would need a mass movement to resist the assaults it would face from the ruling class.
Even shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Labour’s biggest defence against a financial crisis orchestrated by bosses and bankers would be “the mass base we can build to support us”.
It’s a version of the idea that a left wing government can succeed in parliament if it has a movement outside parliament to sustain it.
Yet the relationship between a movement and a parliamentary party often starts to break down quickly.
Trying to change society through parliament means having to accept and work within the limits of the parliamentary system. It means having to manage and maintain the health of the current system even as you try to transform it.
That means the threats and measures the ruling class will use against a left wing government are effective because they would paralyse that system.
Bankers, investors and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund can blackmail a government with investment strikes, currency runs or downgraded credit ratings.
Giving in to that blackmail to protect the system can end with a left government opposing the movements that once supported it.
One of the clearest and most recent examples is the Syriza government in Greece.
Transforming society doesn’t mean transforming Labour. It means looking towards struggle that breaks beyond the boundaries of the current system
Masses of people took to the streets and voted in a referendum against an austerity memorandum imposed on Syriza by Greece’s creditors. But in the face of threats from those creditors to bankrupt Greece, Syriza accepted austerity.
That pressure brings itself to bear on would-be radical left governments even before they get elected.
So when McDonnell called for mass support against the ruling class at World Transformed, he also talked of plans to reassure them and “calm things down”.
Economist and left wing columnist Paul Mason went even further. He said that the social movement “has to be mobilised”.
But he also lectured that social movement. “We might see the government make compromises and retreats,” he said. “That’s how you get victory”.
For Mason, those retreats have started early. He argued that the left should pacify the ruling class by abandoning campaigns against war and nuclear weapons.
“If you’re going to take their power away from them, then don’t take their toys away,” he told the assembled left wing activists.
Mason went even further in his introduction to a new book of left wing essays, The Corbyn Effect. He argued that the left must drop its “knee-jerk anti-imperialism”.
“If we are going to dismantle the economic power of the elite, we cannot simultaneously try to disrupt their institutional, diplomatic and geostrategic certainties,” he wrote.
“The left has to align itself with parts of the ‘national story’ and take parts of that apparatus with it.”
Mason gave us an example of what that all means in an article for the Guardian newspaper last week.
He argued for Labour to pledge more funding into the army than the Tories to take on “Russia and jihadi terrorists”.
“There is a big opportunity here for Labour,” he wrote.
Labour is different from Syriza in some important ways. But if anything these differences make it even more vulnerable to those same pressures.
Labour’s founders decided from the outset that they wouldn’t try to radically transform society.
In fact when Labour was founded in 1900 its only aim was to represent the fairly limited interests of the trade union bureaucracy. The first Labour MPs spent most of their time in parliament tailing the Liberals.
From the very beginning this setup meant there was a division inside Labour between Labour MPs, their trade union backers, and the party’s membership.
Union leaders tried to organise workers in industrial struggles.
But Labour MPs’ focus on parliament meant they tried to appeal to all sections of society—not just workers and the left—to get elected.
That same division also sets Labour MPs apart from the party’s members.
Most Labour members join the party because they want to see major left wing, if not socialist, changes in society.
But governing through parliament ultimately means trying to manage society on behalf of the bosses under the guise of the “national interest”.
Marxists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein explained that this contradiction is at the heart of the tension between the left and right inside Labour.
They wrote, “Labour voices working class aspirations but only to the extent that they can be fitted into the workings of the national state.
“The balance between the two factors is represented in the split between Labour’s left and right—each side representing one aspect of the common reformist whole.”
That split means there’s a constant struggle between left and right in Labour.
As Cliff and Gluckstein explained, “Much of the history of the Labour Party revolves around the struggle for dominance between the party leadership centred in the PLP and its supporters outside.”
Unfortunately that struggle almost inevitably ends up with the right on top as Labour’s focus on parliament and elections makes MPs the most powerful.
In the 1980s a movement grew around Tony Benn that culminated in his campaign to become Labour’s deputy leader. He nearly won.
But when told that his movement was disrupting party unity and damaging its chances of getting elected he agreed to back down. The movement behind him dissipated.
Real power in society lies with unelected bosses and bankers, not parliament.
Labour’s focus on parliament to change society leaves that power in place. It also means Labour has often acted to block workers’ struggle.
In opposition it has been ambivalent at best to some major struggles, including the 1910-14 Great Unrest, the 1926 General Strike and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. In office it has sent police and soldiers to break strikes.
None of this is a reason to despair. It doesn’t mean the left can’t win battles or even change Labour—and these things can have important effects on people’s confidence to resist.
Socialist Worker backs Jeremy Corbyn against the Tories. We want the Tories out and a Corbyn-led government in.
But any movement that is tied to a party whose main focus is parliament, will always be limited.
Transforming society doesn’t mean transforming Labour. It means looking towards struggle that breaks beyond the boundaries of the current system.