Labour’s Left Won’t Go Down Without a Fighton 6 May 2017
By Jake Watts
Labour has gone into this snap General Election finding itself in an acutely difficult position and looks set for defeat. The last year and a half has seen infighting, backbench rebellions, a vote of no confidence and a leadership contest all rocking the party from the inside. Beyond this internal turmoil, Labour have also struggled to put together coherent positions and to connect with voters. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has proved to be a particular source of unpopularity amongst voters. Furthermore, the changing political landscape after last year’s Brexit vote has presented new challenges for a party that was already struggling to build itself an electoral coalition. Despite this, the psyche of the Labour left, its capacity for resilience and the sense of certitude it has in its own mission means it will not give up the party’s reins without a fight.
For a great deal of the last 40 years, the Labour left has found itself locked out by moderates within the Labour Party. After 1983, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband each sought to carve out a moderate political identity for Labour. For these figures, this meant keeping hard left stalwarts well away from the party’s upper echelons. Labour’s darkest hours in its ‘wilderness years’ of the early 1980s were something they were each determined to avoid repeating. Key figures in the Labour left’s rise like Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all of whom now all hold senior positions in Labour’s front bench team, were largely kept away from policy and positions of influence. Furthermore, the gains the Labour left made in terms of party structure and the empowerment of the grassroots were gradually but surely eroded.
During this period, the Labour left were increasingly side-lined but managed to keep themselves and their networks going, in resistance against what they ultimately considered to be a betrayal of Labour’s real transformative socialist mission. A more radical agenda, and the renaissance of Labour’s movement roots through greater grassroots control over policy and the parliamentary party, consistently remained their primary goals and they continued to engage in Labour’s internal battles despite regularly coming out worse off.
This history shows the way in which the Labour Left has been accustomed to finding itself in situations where it feels excluded, marginalised and under threat but has continued to push on regardless. Leading thinker of Labour’s avowedly socialist wing Richard Crossman once argued that Labour should make itself ‘thoroughly unpopular by harrying the Establishment’ and that coming under heavy criticism would be a clear sign it was doing the right thing. Such thinking provides equal measures of strength and relief for the Labour left today, just as it often has through the past.
From all this ‘exclusion’ and what the left considered to be the numerous ‘mistakes’ of the New Labour years, the Labour Left found compelling a narrative that won over the party’s selectorate, propelling them to the top of the party in 2015. Corbyn and his supporters argued that Labour had tacked to the centre and compromised on authentic socialist values and ways of doing politics for too long. After years of little influence, Corbyn and his closest supporters finally had their chance. Despite intense criticism from within the party and a leadership challenge, tough rhetoric from Labour’s political opponents and hostility in the press Corbyn has stayed and his supporters have continued to push on and make their case. They will continue to do so, even when Labour loses in June.
At this stage of the campaign, all the signs point towards a bruising time at the ballot box for the party. Polling has consistently put Labour streets behind the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn has had historically low popularity levels. Furthermore, the local elections have seen Labour suffer substantial losses and fail to regain any ground in the areas crucial for it to return to office. Despite this, the Labour Left will continue to find succour in the challenge to Corbyn that is likely to follow and they will not vacate the leadership without putting up a fight.
It will not be straight forward, particularly if Corbyn decides he himself wants to step down. Any other candidate from the Labour Left would require, on current rules, 15% of the PLP to make in on to a leadership ballot. But you can be sure that the left will try everything, including pushing for rule changes, in order to try and secure themselves a lasting legacy. If such a legacy is not immediately within grasp, expect Corbyn to hold out for the time being. If moderates want to regain control of Labour’s commanding heights, they will most likely have to do it the hard way and find a way of persuading Labour’s members that the left’s road to socialism is a dead end. Whether or not they can manage this may ultimately determine the party’s fate beyond June 8th.
Jake Watts is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. He tweets @JakeTW91
Image: Garry Knight CC BY-NC-ND