Some notes on the Labour Party leadership contest

July 21, 2016 § 2 Comments

Maybe my optimism is unwarranted, but I find reasons for hope in some of the articles I have seen in the past week discussing the current leadership contest within the UK Labour Party. Before, I felt despair, because it seemed like the Labour Party was engaged in a dialogue of the deaf between pro- and anti-Corbyn factions, caricaturing each other, talking past each other, both unable to acknowledge that some points made by the other side might be substantive. This filled me with despair because it seemed so obviously counter-productive if one of the goals of people linked to the Party is to figure out how best to present an effective opposition to the Conservative government. In the past week I have seen some articles written from one side that at least start to engage with what the other side is saying. To me, this seems crucial if people linked to the Party are become clearer about how the Party can move forward from its current civil war. So here I want to say a little bit about some of these articles, as well as about a local ward branch meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago.

The article I found most compelling was Matt Bolton’s “The Terrifying Hubris of Corbynism”. My understanding is that Matt’s argument against Corbyn as leader goes like this. Before Brexit, it was possible to successfully argue in favour of doing two things together: keeping Corbyn as leader and trying to transform Labour into a strong anti-austerity party. Transforming Labour into a strong anti-austerity Party would probably take a long time, and might involve more than a decade of Conservative rule during which Labour would not be a very effective party of opposition. Brexit means Labour needs to be an effective opposition party right now – with the possibility of getting elected in the next general election. Matt’s view is that this is not possible with Corbyn as leader, so it is no longer possible to successfully argue in favour of keeping Corbyn and transforming Labour through a long period of being out of power and ineffective as an opposition party.

If what Matt says is correct, then right now, the Parliamentary Labour Party (the MPs) need to explain to the Party members (the people who are going to decide who wins the leadership contest) why they think the Party has a better chance of winning a general election with Owen Smith as leader rather than with Jeremy Corbyn. More than anything else, I think this requires two things: explaining why Corbyn does not have the support of most of his MPs, and explaining the evidence – the facts – that make the anti-Corbyn faction confident that the Party has less chance of winning a general election with Corbyn as leader. I don’t think that MPs have done enough in this direction yet, although Jo Cox co-wrote a useful article before her murder and Thangam Debbonaire has written this.

I also feel the pro-Corbyn faction have some questions to answer about how they see things moving forward, and this is where I find Matt Bolton’s argument about the nature of Corbynism persuasive, insofar as from their actions (and from the arguments they present), it really seems that that many Labour members who support Corbyn don’t understand the distinction between ‘party politics’ (which aims to gain power in order to make changes in society) and ‘extra-parliamentary activism’ (which aims to influence those in power in order to make changes in society), and don’t understand that by voting for Corbyn as leader in the current contest they might be ensuring the Party cannot be an effective party of opposition, which means the strength of the forces challenging Conservative rule in the UK will be massively reduced (which is apparently what is bothering some of those in the anti-Corbyn camp). Assuming these members want to challenge Conservative rule, this starts to sound like an example of people being given a vote on a yes or no question (in this case, yes to Corbyn as leader or no) where it is difficult for these people to understand what is at stake and the likely consequences of voting one way or the other. A bit like the EU Referendum.

What I have just written might make it sound like I think I’ve got it all figured out and/or that I’m satisfied with these broad brush-stroke comments. That’s not the case. I’m still trying to figure this out, because it seems important to try to understand what’s going on; like Ani Difranco said, if you don’t understand then how can you act. I’m writing this to solicit feedback, to try to understand better than I currently do.

I attended a meeting of my ward branch of the Labour Party last week. The focus of the meeting was four emergency motions related to the recent vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader by the Parliamentary Labour Party. The debates around the motions were a dialogue of the deaf, two groups of people talking past each other, often aggressively. The meeting’s one saving grace, for me, was that some of the questions posed pushed me into a self-doubt about my own position in the debate. I think this kind of critical self-doubt might be exactly what both sides of this debate need right now – or, if not self-doubt, then at least a greater clarity about why the other side takes the position they do, and what evidence and arguments might be presented to them that they might find persuasive. Having come to the meeting sure of which way I would vote on the motions, I stared at my ballot paper for a long time before indicating my decision.

But I’m not sure many others in the room felt that way. Instead, it seemed like most people left the meeting with the same affiliation they entered, with the same level of certainty about the rightness of their side and the wrongness of the other side, no closer to figuring out what would be best for the future of the Party and the constituencies it serves.

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§ 2 Responses to Some notes on the Labour Party leadership contest

  • There are two debates that I have found persuasive. The first is the anti Corbyn stance that the media will always be working against him, and they are the piper that electoral politics follows. Hence someone more media friendly like Owen Smith. This feels wrong in principle, but not entirely innnaccurate in practice.

    Balancing this is the fact that Corbyn seems pretty electable, judging by recent results. Not spectacular, but nowhere near what is being projected on him by the PLP and the media. So your point about Owen Smith doing better, there being no evidence thereof, is apposite.

    Of you are making a winning right now argument, with Corbyn polling in the mid range, it seems clear that ongoing party unity is likely to be more persuasive than a change of leadership. So maybe, maybe the actions of the PLP accentuate and amplify the media attacks on Corbyn, and without all this he would be doing (even) better.

    So viewed performatively, in the light of current evidence, the challengers come off as the more irresponsible group. If the PLP showed a united front with Corbyn, in order to won, that would probably have been the most winning scenario. If the PLP is not willing to take the media on, then they will always run to a media agenda. Is that realistic? Maybe not, but it seems more realistic than Owen Smith somehow building a national profile before a snap election. The Tories are very tactical, they will see that weakness and strike at it.

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