Category Archives: Anti-austerity

Book Review: Protest and Power in the Labour Party


There’s a genre of journalism that consists of interviews with political actors to produce an apparent “behind-the-scenes” look at the politics of power. Bob Woodward, for example, has written a number of volumes about the American presidency that chronicle internal dissensions in the White House – but do not leave us much the wiser about the true significance of the power struggle. The author tends not to account for the gap between the stated intentions of politicians and the historical outcome of their actions.

This approach, then, has considerable limitations. None of them are overcome in David Kogan’s new book, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party. He presents a history of ideological conflicts within the party as a Game of Thrones struggle for supremacy, where the terrain being fought over is the party leadership. The book’s dustjacket promises a revelation of “Corbyn’s long march to take control of Labour” (Robert Peston); how the left “turned decades of protest into the once unthinkable – the prospect of power” (Nick Robinson); and “the political drama of the popular uprising that is Corbyn’s Labour party” (Jon Lansman).

But anyone looking for insights into the dynamic of the disputes within today’s Labour party will be sorely disappointed. Kogan’s superficial assessment of the party’s condition is that it is splintered in multiple ways, between Corbyn’s alleged machine politics and the new membership, as well as between leavers and remainers. Kogan’s top-down analysis, made inevitable by his method of interviewing established political performers rather than actual party members, avoids situating his interviews in a more objective description of relations between the party tops and the grassroots.

What the recent Panorama documentary about anti-semitism within Labour demonstrated was the existence of a tight-knit clique of young apparatchiks in the party’s compliance unit, most of whom came out of student politics, and who were linked by their determined hostility to Corbyn and their claims that the party is institutionally antisemitic. The subsequent ideological fallout has confirmed once again that what is driving the rifts in the party today is the tension between the bulk of the parliamentary party, aided by the party bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the empowered membership on the other.

Kogan assumes a historical logic of repetition, where the intra-party conflicts inevitably reproduce what came before. He writes: “The different elements of the Labour movement in the mid-seventies: the big tent centrists, the pragmatic center-right, the Tribunite soft-left and the New Left have never really gone away, they have just taken different forms over the decades.”  Kogan’s thesis is that there is a continuity of the Labour left from the 1970s to the present that managed unexpectedly to attract majority support within the party in 2015. The huge growth in party membership after Corbyn’s election, he says, does not alter the value of Labour’s history in assessing its future prospects. In fact, he implies that the influx of new members was absorbed into the party’s structures with no noticeable effect on the leadership which “learned its politics in the 1970s and 1980s,” at the genesis of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) in 1973.

The result of Kogan’s approach is a narrative that is remarkably bland, a flattening-out of the historical process. He writes that the competing groups “have seen Labour’s pendulum swing from the centrist governments of the 1960s and 1970s, to the first manifestation of the New Left between 1978 and 1982, and back to the centre under New Labour in the 1990s. New Labour had thirteen years in government until 2010 when it was repudiated first by the country and then by the party. In 2015 the left rose again, reincarnated by the veterans of the 1980s who used the new, powerful engine of social media to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader.”

This talking-heads form of journalism leads Kogan to accept uncritically the establishment narrative in the guise of a “definitive account.” New Labour’s electoral defeat and ousting from the party leadership is framed by a quote from Blairite Peter Mandelson that explains it as merely the result of the breakup of the “progressive alliance” between the northern working class and socially liberal southern middle class, triggered by divisions over the Iraq war.

Where the narrative picks up is when it tells the story of Corbyn’s election as party leader, when individual decisions and opinions meshed with a dynamic movement. Even so, his account is curiously one-sided, and decidedly inferior to Alex Nunns’ The Candidate. Corbyn’s popularity among the young was a complete surprise, he writes: nobody could have foreseen “the impact of Corbyn’s appeal to the young who had never been in the Labour party.” He mentions as a kind of aside that “this was the generation that, since 2010, had suffered from hikes in tuition fees, cuts in benefits and the overall impact of austerity.” And he adds his own assessment of its significance: “It was a prime target market if it could be reached”  – in other words, a demographic that could be manipulated, rather than a generation with its own self-consciousness and agency. Austerity, which had spawned a number of active protest groups, was simply a political influencing factor, not a reality for masses of people.

Kogan ignores the social content of the “Corbyn movement” because he sees it as merely a rerun of the Bennite left’s struggle with the party right. In fact, what was new in the movement was that it represented a fusion of the Bennite appreciation of the importance of extra-parliamentary struggles with the enthusiasm and horizontal democracy of anti-austerity movements like Occupy, UK Uncut and the antiglobalisation protests of the 2000s.

The movement was unleashed after Corbyn’s nomination for the party leadership united loyal party members, older members who had left the party in disgust with New Labour, and the new social movements in his support. Voting for Corbyn became a way to express political hostility to the Westminster political establishment that denied representation for the victims of austerity. The key factors in his election were not the manoeuvring and organising of Corbyn’s close supporters, which gets highlighted in Kogan’s account, but the radicalisation of the membership at the base and the rapid politicisation of the anti-austerity movement after Corbyn’s candidacy was announced. These fused around his ethical socialist message, which resonated in the heart of the labour movement.

Jon Lansman’s description of Corbyn campaigning is interesting, but doesn’t go far to explain what the social movement was all about; Lansman took it for granted that there was finally a mass left movement, but he understood it in terms of the old Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Corbyn’s campaign message, says Lansman, “was anti-austerity, it was hope. It was not triangulation. It was politics that inspired.” But he characterises it as a repeat of the Bennite arguments: “You know, the people could feel enthusiastic, refreshed by things they’d never heard before; it was from twenty years before they were born. So, even if they were old ideas, the alternative economic strategy hadn’t had a hearing for decades.”

The pitfalls of taking participants’ words at face value is shown by Kogan’s acceptance of Lansman’s account of the history of Momentum. While Lansman himself was focused on organisational structure, the other founders “wanted it to be a totally horizontal organisation, totally anarchic.” He admits that in 2015 he was still thinking in terms of a larger CLPD that would support Corbyn at the constituency level, but he and his colleagues moved closer together after the “chicken coup” of 2016 that made Momentum more prominent in the Labour party.

The opportunism of the attempted coup against Corbyn is inadvertently illustrated in an interview with right-wing MP Margaret Hodge. She says “Corbyn was blamed for the referendum going wrong. It felt like an opportune moment in which to move against him.” But the effect of the coup’s announcement was to energise the membership to defend Corbyn in a second leadership election. Momentum leaders were able to organise a mass demonstration of support in Parliament Square in a matter of hours, and quickly doubled its own membership, becoming a force within the party in only a few months. However, Lansman controlled the mailing lists and shifted its membership structure from the delegate system it had initially adopted to one-member-one-vote. His rationale was to prevent Momentum from becoming embroiled in internal fighting over an independent political line, and he steered the organisation to changing the Labour party itself through influencing parliamentary and functionary selections.

A new constitution was devised in secret and emailed to Momentum’s members that required them to become members of the Labour party, the national committee was abolished and replaced with a Labour-only coordinating group. An online mode of organisation without a regional structure was created specifically to curb the influence of the sectarian left. In other words, Lansman circumvented the perennial desire of left activists for an alternative socialist grouping that would challenge Labour from the outside by making Momentum an element within the party. This bureaucratic manoeuvre was temporarily effective but did not resolve the underlying tension between the leadership and the grassroots.

If we look at that history from the viewpoint of those grassroots, we find that Momentum groups sprang up autonomously around the second leadership election in 2016, independent of the national body. The national organisation was formed after the event to coordinate these groups. Momentum was able to successfully organise interventions in national elections because it broadly facilitated what its members wanted to do anyway. But grassroots members are still chafing at the way decisions are being taken by Lansman personally without consultation, and have strong disagreements with some of his interventions in party disciplinary actions and statements on antisemitism in the party.

Kogan’s top-down approach seriously misleads him when he asserts that “Jon Lansman’s challenge to Unite in March over the Labour party general secretaryship was an example of the grassroots challenging the unions over a key post”. Momentum’s leadership is not a synonym for the grassroots, and Lansman’s claim to represent it was not supported by any kind of democratic vote within his organisation. His rhetoric was part of a campaign to win support away from the Unite-backed candidate Jennie Formby, risking a split in the left vote that could have seen a right-winger elected. He was eventually forced to withdraw after one of his supporters, Christine Shawcroft, called for the party to sever its connection with the unions, creating a monumental backlash from those same grassroots. John McDonnell had to declare explicit support for Formby before Lansman abandoned his candidature, and reportedly Corbyn also called Lansman personally about it.

Since Kogan’s claim to originality lies in his interviews with many of the key Labour figures of the last 40 years, it is a shame that he develops no theoretical framework that would situate their views more concretely in the party’s history. None of his interviewees reveal much about what they were involved in. But that is to be expected when asking politicians about their past – more critical analysis of their responses would be needed to avoid being taken in by their self-justifying rationalisations, and Kogan has not done the historical research this would require.

David Kogan, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party (Bloomsbury, 2019)

Leave a comment

Filed under Anti-austerity, Britain, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, political analysis, Uncategorized

Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part One


Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part One: Is Corbyn a populist?

The two authors previously published an article in the New Statesman that argued antisemitism in the Labour party was the logical outcome of a critique of capitalism that framed it as a conspiracy of the economic elite, citing the idiosyncratic views of the Canadian theorist Moishe Postone. Their book, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, extends this argument much further, claiming that Corbynism rests on a populist understanding of capitalist society that stresses the divisions between “us” and the elite. Corbyn, they say, fills a “symbolic space” carved out by the economic and political collapse after the 2008 banking crash. His “depoliticised image of moral exceptionalism” became attractive to the Labour membership because of “the particularly moralistic way in which the broad liberal-left came to terms with both the 2008 financial crash and the Tory program of public spending cuts that followed.”

The symbolic space they describe is large enough to include a diverse array of populist movements: Occupy, UK Uncut, Bernie Sanders, Trump’s voters, and more bizarrely an “austerity nostalgia” that the authors say accounts for the election of Cameron’s Tory government (ignoring the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote). But grouping together all these movements as somehow equivalent distracts from their specific nature and the social realities underlying them. Corbyn’s support is characterized as a left populist movement marshaled behind Bennite “economic protectionist” policies, expressing the zeitgeist of “a certain kind of society,” Corbyn himself being “a kind of cipher for a wider political moment.”

The problem with their analysis is that they view the social responses to the 2008 crash as an unreflective populist reflex, when in reality there are always a series of complex mediations between the contingencies of any specific political moment and the logic of capitalist economy. The protests against austerity cuts and UK Uncut’s campaign against tax evasion were clearly part of the wider political moment, but were mediated by a cultural sense of fairness, distinguishing them radically from, say, the Republican “tea party.” In the same way, when the Labour membership rejected the leadership of New Labour and moved towards an anti-austerity alternative, its response to inequality was mediated by its conception of what Labour should stand for. The authors discount the agency of the membership: it favoured Corbyn not because of his moral exceptionalism but because of his ethical socialism. This was an expression of his politics maintained over many years that aligned him with the shift in the party, as well as with anti-austerity protestors and returning ex-members.

The significance of this return to ethical socialism is that it continues a long tradition of the labour movement. In his book, Losing Labour’s Soul? Labour historian Eric Shaw clarifies how New Labour, while retaining the social democratic principle of redistribution, had abandoned ethical socialism in its policies and practice. “The ethical socialist criticised capitalism not simply because it distributed resources in a grossly unequal manner but because it extolled the values of acquisitiveness, ruthless competitiveness and individual aggrandisement, all derived from the market mentality and market practices.” The welfare state was intended to be insulated from market forces and to embody the values of public service, solidarity, altruism and cooperation. This notion of the “public service ethos” had survived the decline of the industrial working class because it was “historically deeply embedded in both the ideology and the culture of the Labour party.”

Corbyn’s election as party leader validates Shaw’s argument; his appeal to the membership derives substantially from his rehabilitation of ethical socialist values against New Labour’s market philosophy. These values are clearly apparent when Corbyn describes socialism as a type of society where “we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else,” appealing to a strongly-held popular desire for social support that seeks to restore collectivist priorities. In his speech to the 2017 party conference, he criticized the Tories not only for driving down wages, but also for their promotion of ruthless competitiveness and individual acquisitiveness: “their disregard for rampant inequality, the hollowing out of our public services, the disdain for the powerless and the poor have made our society more brutal and less caring.”

At the 2015 Labour party conference, Corbyn posited the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders, and attributed his election to the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society.” New Yorker correspondent Sam Knight also noticedthe appeal of Corbyn’s ethical approach to the broader left-leaning public. After his first speech for Labour’s pro-EU campaign at the University of London in 2016, a student asked about the refugee crisis in Europe. “The crisis has flummoxed leaders on the left and the right, from Berlin to Athens,” wrote Knight, “but Corbyn didn’t need to think. ‘They are all human beings, just like you and me,’ he said. ‘In a different set of circumstances, we could all be in those refugee camps.’ When he speaks simply and off the cuff, Corbyn can have the moral clarity of a priest. The room broke into loud applause.”

Ethical socialists sought to integrate the community through a sense of belonging and shared fate. While the revisionist right concluded in the 1950s that the future of social democracy was tied to the efficient management of the capitalist economy, Shaw maintains that the vision of ethical socialism persisted insofar as its values were embodied in the universalist aspects of the welfare state, which both secured a fairer distribution of life-chances and “a mode of human interaction in which people related and behaved towards each other as equals in a spirit of mutual respect.” One important corollary to this principle for Labour is that basic needs should be filled by public organizations. The idea that the public domain should be insulated from market forces and commercial competition became central to social democratic thought. The maintenance of a large and expanding public sphere, governed by an ethos of public service, came therefore to be seen as the principal institutional expression of ethical socialist values, according to Shaw.

The National Health Service, then, forms an oasis of ethical socialism in a capitalist society and has taken on the responsibility for the overall well-being of the public, even though that is not what was intended at its foundation. The reluctance of Thatcherite governments to dismantle it and its current centrality in public opposition to privatization is a testament to the persistence of the social change begun in 1945. New Labour, Shaw says, shed this socialist tradition when its introduction of the market principle into the public domain “represented an explicit effort to re-engineer the culture of the public sector and to lessen the role of professional norms in favour of market or instrumental rationality.” For Bolton and Pitts, this is only normal, since they believe “we live in a world structured and socially reproduced as and by capital, a social relation which exists as a world market” so that “local wealth only appears as such through its validation as social, or global, wealth.” They make the assumption that use-values needed to maintain life are only accessible through the global market, as though they all have to pass through the portals of Amazon. Trade therefore can and must be extended globally, not limited to the national or local community.

This assumption is a misapplication of the labour theory of value. It the basis of their objection to Corbyn’s stress on the shared process involved in wealth creation, which he called “a cooperative process between workers, public investment in services and … innovative and creative individuals and businesses.” The wealth Corbyn is referring to takes the form of products needed by society, in technical terms use-values, the consolidation of productive capacity that includes the workforce rather than the accumulation of money. However, the authors comment: “The wealth Corbyn talks about here … in capitalism takes the form of value,” and as such has to be mediated in the world market. Since they consider that in a capitalist society “the fulfilment of social needs and the need to make profit exist in an inseparable contradiction,” the authors equate all forms of wealth-creation with abstract labour, which is validated as wealth in the market, so that for them “labour and capital are two sides of the same coin.” In effect, they extend the sway of capitalist logic into all forms of social life.

They assert that Corbynism naturalizes concrete labour, regarding it as “production as such,” or “the means by which humans interact with the external world in order to satisfy their needs, existing in the same way across history.” But human needs still have to be satisfied, even under capitalism: concrete labour is only part of capital circulation if it is engaged in producing commodities to be sold on the market, in which case it takes on the form of abstract labour. Socialism, from Corbyn’s point of view, has the aim of organizing production for society’s needs and removing it from the sphere of capital circulation. This does not necessarily mean a totally state-controlled national economy – the NHS, for example, has survived up until now as an institution oriented to people’s need for healthcare and not an insurance-based market. The political pressure for privatization of the NHS is precisely to return it to the ambit of the market and make the efforts of doctors and nurses subject to “globally mediated” abstract labour.

To give another example, workers who installed badly-fitting windows, faulty fire doors and combustible insulation on Grenfell Tower were engaged in labour that contributed to the creation of surplus value realized by the subcontractors, contractors and manufacturers involved in the refurbishment. The firefighters who courageously attempted to contain the fire and then risked their lives to rescue people after the initial instructions for them to stay put in their flats were rescinded were, however, from the point of view of capital, engaging in labour that had no value.

Bolton and Pitts further confuse the nature of labour when they critique the “Preston model,” often cited by Corbyn as an example of how Labour policy might work, which uses the procurement policy of locally-based “anchor” institutions such as hospitals and universities to favour local supply chains, local businesses and cooperatives. They describe it analogous to what they call Bennite national “protectionism,” which they consider reactionary in the face of international trade and production. However, if the surplus value produced in a community is redirected into local supply chains, the model provides more jobs and local control over the economy, it increases the tax base for local services and keeps wealth in the form of both money and use-values within the community. It answers corporate disinvestment in a way that the building of an Amazon warehouse would not. The Preston model is not socialism: but it has in practice increased democratic participation, reduced unemployment in the city, and strengthened the hand of the labour movement in its struggle against local deprivation and central government cuts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anti-austerity, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, political analysis, Uncategorized

Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn


Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the election for Labour party leader in Britain represented a spontaneous upsurge from both inside and outside the party, despite the open hostility of most Labour MPs. It restored political agency to Labour supporters who had been disenfranchised by the Blairite leadership and who fused with an anti-austerity movement that had been building outside the party for some years.

The party’s membership soared to over 400,000 as enthusiasm for the leadership election grew, making it the largest political party in Britain. Significantly, the members include a huge influx of a new generation of activists, alienated up until now from the political system and radicalized by the gutting of British society by a Tory government attuned only to the needs of the City. Many ex-party members and left activists rejoined in order to support Corbyn’s campaign.

For example, Rebecca Prentice, a doctor from Crouch End in North London, told reporters she joined the Labour party immediately after this year’s general election “because she was so angry at the result and because she was seeing every day what Tory policy was doing to the NHS.” When Corbyn was nominated, for the first time in her life “someone was up there saying what I believed in.” Laura Parker, who leads a children’s charity, said she had “lost faith” in Labour years ago, but was inspired by Corbyn to rejoin. “This is a man who is absolutely principled, who is interested in debate about ideas and who doesn’t care what color tie you wear,” she said.

A groundswell of enthusiasm built from Corbyn’s last-minute nomination, as people began to volunteer for his campaign. According to The Guardian, he attracted over 16,000 volunteers in three months. Seumas Milne commented: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. Whatever now happens, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed. Eight years after economic crisis took hold of the western world, the anti-austerity revolt has found its voice in Britain in an entirely unexpected way.”

Corbyn has given this revolt a focus and direction, challenging Tory austerity ideology when Labour’s official response was to abstain on welfare cuts. Gary Younge pointed out: “For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.” These movements included a massive anti-austerity protest earlier this year that mobilized tens of thousands in major cities.

Corbyn’s opposition to the dominant political narrative appears to reiterate ideas from the 1970s. But in today’s context, where the political class has shifted to the far right, his commitment to public investment has a popular appeal. Renationalization of the railways has overwhelming public support from rail passengers who now pay the highest fares in Europe to travel on services that are all too often unreliable and overcrowded. Scrapping tuition fees, resetting rent controls on landlords, increasing the top tax rate and a mandatory living wage all have general support; even scrapping the Trident nuclear system is favored by 64 percent of the public.

The newly-elected leader also pledged to end cuts and privatization of the cash strapped National Health Service. Its dire situation is reflected by an organization representing doctors in general practice which recently reported that, despite their efforts to meet rising demand, “unprecedented rises in patient demand” means that “the saturation point has been hit even by the most competently working practices in London” as doctors attempt to deal with the knock-on effect from cuts to hospital services.

Corbyn’s rhetoric in his victory speech mixed biblical imagery with a collectivist sentiment that resonates with the ethical sensibility of Labour voters: “I want us, as a movement, to be proud, strong and able to stand up and say, ‘We want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system; instead, we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.”

At his first opportunity to question Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Corbyn noted that many people he had spoken to wanted above all for their voices to be heard in parliament. So he began with a question from Marie in Putney, who asked about the UK’s housing crisis after Corbyn had appealed for ideas from the public. According to the Independent, she joined the Labour party after his campaign caught her eye. “All around where I live we are surrounded by buildings going up … completely surrounded by massive new flat developments … those are flats for rich people. No ordinary working person on an average wage could even begin to contemplate buying one of those, and social housing itself is being completely demolished by this completely stupid policy of selling off the housing stock.”

But Corbyn’s performance in parliament is hardly crucial, notwithstanding the parliamentary fetishism of many journalists. The rejection of his leadership campaign by so many Blairite MPs has exposed their hand and his overwhelming majority weakens their ability to undermine his authority. Gary Younge pointed to “an elemental clash between MPs, many of whom made it to Westminster courtesy of a centralised vetting operation, and a vastly expanded membership who want to take control of their own party.”

Corbyn has encouraged a movement that continues to grow, transforming the Labour party in the process. Left commentator Richard Seymour argues: “Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That’s the only chance he and his supporters have.” But this is something that has already happened. A grassroots movement against austerity has flooded into the Labour party. As these members assert sovereignty over their constituencies, they will clash with the centralized party bureaucracy in Transport House over policy and selection (or possibly deselection) of parliamentary candidates.

The Guardian, interviewing Labour voters about their reaction to Corbyn’s win, noted their sense of relief that the parliamentary party can no longer ignore the views of its membership. “Finally I feel I have a choice,” said Sam Brazier. “We, the people, have given the party a very clear mandate. They are there to represent us, not dictate how we should think, feel or vote.”

1 Comment

Filed under Anti-austerity, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, tony blair