With the Labour Party hurtling towards a catastrophic split, many otherwise sympathetic persons might feel compelled to tactically abandon the Corbyn project, before the grim wages of his political rebellion are made apparent to all and sundry. This would be a most untimely move – Corbyn’s failure to construct a positive, radical consensus merits a revision not only of the British Left’s relationship with Labour, but of traditional Leftist notions concerning the role of parliamentary politics altogether.
Owen Smith’s attempts to depict himself as a slick, marketable alternative to the incumbent leader, a ‘no-frills’ revolutionary, should deceive none – far from a clash of mere ideals, the contest at hand is a bare-knuckle factional struggle between the Parliamentary Labour Party and a progressive, militant grassroots.
The adoption by Smith of much of his rival’s platform lays bare the naked opportunism of his critique. His is no high-minded quest to ‘Save Labour’, but a cynical power-grab, a vehicle with which the PLP might seek to reassert its authority over the disaffected base.Of course, a hypothetical Smith victory would see these pledges swiftly rescinded, for it would also mean an exodus from Labour of the very movement that safeguards the program’s survival against the yearning of MPs for a more diluted, Milibandite vision. In the absence of sheer popular will, words can count for little more than wind in politics.
At any rate, the election outcome will prove a cosmetic factor – Smith and his allies hold all the right cards, something even the typically recalcitrant John McDonnell has come to recognise. Corbyn’s opponents in Westminster can deny him the significance his office theoretically embodies by simply pulling out of the Labour Party; though this would likely cost them key assets, namely vital trade union funding, the prospects of a reconciliation on any terms with the Shadow Cabinet are currently dismal. Even if the much-touted divorce never amounts to anything, Corbyn cannot hope to police the PLP effectively. Most likely is a rapid degeneration of Party formality, with Labour MPs turning their noses to partisan commitments in favour of an unofficial Parliamentary leadership (Hilary Benn, Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna are names to remember).
Corbyn’s predicament is the predicament of British socialism, a force that has been gradually stripped of the very political terms and praxis it once took for granted. Anglo-Saxon trade unionism, a customary means of propagation and agitation, has collapsed woefully since the 1980s, with only 25% of adults now paying their dues. In this age of across-the-board precarity and social atomisation, it is quite simply absurd to discuss 20th Century-style workplace mobilisation as if it constitutes an imminent possibility, let alone a pertinent reality. Corbyn’s experience over the past year illustrates the futility of the other primary model, organisation within the context of an entrenched political party.
British Leftism finds itself penalised by the ossified nature of the Parliamentary system, a machine that presents opponents with a troublesome paradox – whilst electoral conventions favour the assimilation of radicals into a single, large grouping, that grouping is liable (as in the case of Corbyn) to marginalise them. Successful outsider bids are virtually unheard of; a British Syriza or Podemos is literally unthinkable.
If Corbyn has a future, it is to be found within Momentum, the ‘social movement’ he routinely musters to his own defence. But the future of Corbyn is not the future of the Left; he has missed one too many an opportunity to claim anything close to such a mantel, his thinking and ethic lacking any discernible dynamism.Whilst critics relish an opportunity to dub Momentum a cult, its problem can actually be said to lie in its humdrum existence as a glorified members’ organisation, an uninspired talking shop with no unifying purpose beyond the reelection of Corbyn. This is not to say that it does not offer the foundations for something potentially meaningful and emancipatory.
Critical theorist Fredric Jameson, in his most recent work, advocates ‘dual power’ as a solution to the present malaise. Noting the aforementioned failure of orthodox practices to account for the condition of the Western masses in the 21st Century, he argues that the Left’s salvation lies in those crevasses of public life abandoned by the state over the course of neoliberalism’s unremiting march forward – in other words, that it must usurp the functions of the decaying welfare apparatus.
Greece’s vast solidarity networks provide a living example of such a project, though Europe’s Left have yet to effectively seize upon the model for unabashedly political purposes. This may well be the most productive means presently available to British radicals, allowing them to challenge the present hegemonic order whilst recruiting and marshalling large numbers of working people in a sophisticated, programmatic fashion.
The debate within Labour appears to surround the party’s alleged coming to a crossroads – that is, whether it should operate as a party or a mass-movement, with all the implications such doctrinaire austerity entails either way. The illegitimacy of this dichotomy must be called out, but so too must Corbyn’s attempts to dress Momentum as the movement we need.