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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)

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