Corbyn: Labour’s Accidental Leader

IAN BULLOCK’s recurring nightmare is that the Labour Party will end up like the ILP at the end of the 1930s – with a leader who could do no wrong in the eyes of an adoring membership, but with little or no political influence, let alone power. ‘But at least Jimmy Maxton was a brilliant orator!’

In the leadership election last year I voted for Yvette Cooper, but I gave Jeremy Corbyn credit for giving the Labour Party a very necessary ‘wake-up call’. In fact, once I was sure he was going to win easily I voted for him as my second choice as I found Andy Burnham difficult to pin down and Liz Kendall insufficiently radical.

Corbyn cap picI thought all three contenders apart from Corbyn lacked sufficient inspiration and radicalism. Cooper seemed the best of a not too inspiring lot. I think her refugee work since has gone some way to vindicating this judgement. Corbyn did at least seem to be generating some enthusiasm. My doubts about him at that stage centred on his membership of the Campaign Group and his seemingly unreconstructed Bennism. His apparent radicalism seemed – at best – of a 20th century variety.

What I wanted to hear from candidates was how they proposed to tackle 21st century issues – climate change, rapid technological advance and the changing nature of employment; reviving areas of Britain devastated by Thatcherite de-industrialisation; reversing growing inequality; trying to make the world a safer and fairer place; introducing necessary constitutional reform in the UK.

My ideal candidate would certainly be on ‘the left’, but a left more in line with Alec Nove’s ‘feasible socialism’ than any variety of the Leninist canon, however watered-down – which is how (rightly or wrongly) I see Corbyn, McDonnell, et al.

I enthusiastically welcomed the idea that Labour should be a real social movement as well as a party for winning elections. I also recognised that my gut reaction might be too rooted in the past and I was very willing to give Corbyn a fair crack, although his early appearances in the media seemed very inept. I hoped they might improve. Sadly they haven’t very much. He does get it more or less right sometimes, but not with any consistency.

I wanted to hear ideas about how to make technological advance work for people by guaranteeing their incomes and providing for the retraining of those faced with technological redundancy. I wanted to hear that the idea of a citizen income was being looked into carefully.

And I wanted to hear more about climate change. In something I was re-reading recently the writer talked of the irresponsibility of capitalism towards the future, of “forests, which can perhaps never be replaced, swept away, in every direction, to the permanent injury of the climate”. Who was that? Henry Hyndman in chapter 2 of his England for All. He was writing in 1881 , for God’s sake, when he was still cautiously moving towards socialism.

After JC’s election I was pleased that so many MPs were prepared to join the shadow cabinet while respecting those who honestly felt that they couldn’t work with him. But I was horrified by the creation of Momentum. Having experienced a Labour party ward under the control of Militant years ago, I was bound to be apprehensive, though I recognised that most people joining the new organisation were simply new or returning party members attracted by the idea of getting back to Labour ‘basics’.

But I suspected, and still suspect, that many of the key figures in Momentum are not so very different from the ‘entryists’ of old. In any case, the point was – or should have been – to turn the Labour Party itself into more of a campaigning social movement rather than to set up yet another factional organisation, much as Owen Jones argued the other day. I can see that Momentum represented Corbyn’s ‘insurance policy’ in an insecure situation where few of the PLP supported him – and it’s turned out to be a very effective one. But even so, how was this an example of the ‘new, kinder, politics?’

Personality cult

I think that Corbyn is a sort of ‘accidental’ leader – not only because he had to rely on nominations from MPs who didn’t really support him, but because he became a sort of lightning conductor for so many who wanted to see a more robust and inspiring Labour Party. As is evident from a number of statements made by MPs who tried to make his leadership work in the shadow cabinet, he has not proved an effective team-player, never mind a team leader.

It seems to me a perfectly reasonable provision that all contenders should be able to demonstrate at least minimal support from the PLP. After all, leading the parliamentary party is still one of the main functions of the party leader and not an unimportant one. It is a great shame that the rules are not clearer on this and the NEC took the decision it did by a relatively narrow vote, in spite of fact that the bloke who drafted the rule said it was meant to  apply to all contenders.

I think there has been some opportunistic exaggeration of anti-Semitism, misanthropy and so on, but that does not mean such charges are always without foundation. There’s certainly an absence of sensitivity in these areas. It is a strange kind of ‘kinder’ and ‘new’ politics that seems to boil down to factionalism, intimidation and personality cult – too much like the ‘old’ politics of yesteryear.

When I first heard about the vote of no confidence my immediate response was ‘I just hope they have thought this one through.’ It’s pretty clear they hadn’t. I think Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer got it more or less right when he said it was an act of despair rather than a carefully planned coup. And if they thought JC would step down they clearly don’t understand where he is coming from.

I think Corbyn relates, not to the Labour Party or to a wider democratic socialism, but to a fuzzy concept of ‘the left’, which includes, uncritically, the SWP and the rest of the Trotskyist organisations, along with much well-intentioned general ‘leftism’ and of course the Stop the War folks. It’s a ‘left’ which happily supports dictatorships and authoritarian leaders as long as they call themselves socialists.

I don’t blame Corbyn for the appalling referendum result. There are plenty of other candidates for chief villain, starting with Cameron. But he and his supporters can’t have it both ways. They say he campaigned really hard for ‘Remain’; his opponents say he was half-hearted. Either way the result suggests he was ineffective. A clearer and more energetic lead from Labour might have made the difference. After all, the result was pretty close.

My limited personal experience

My ward, which is part of Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion constituency, has held several Labour ward meetings since Corbyn’s election, hoping to see a good turn-out from the many new members who have joined up since. Few have turned up and those who did were horrified when the ward chair started talking about canvassing (foolishly, I thought, remembering Middleton Murry’s comment that the Catholics would never treat a convert the way the ILP did. Murray, briefly a stalwart of the post-disaffiliation ILP, makes a few appearances in my book on the interwar ILP – Under Siege – due out in a few months time.)

Many of the new members are said to be young but it is still me – at the age of 75 – who delivers the leaflets at our end of the ward, despite appeals for new volunteers to take on such tasks. I gather Brighton and Hove now has the largest Labour Party in the UK, although there’s not much evidence of it in practice, apart from when they turn out in force to cheer on the great leader.

I attended the Brighton and Hove Labour Party AGM meeting on Saturday 9 July – subsequently ‘suspended’ and subject to investigation by the party. It took place at the full-to-capacity hall at City College where I used to work. I found the behaviour of some of the audience childish and inappropriate at a serious meeting – whooping whenever Jeremy Corbyn’s name was mentioned, as it was by many of the candidates for office who seemed to believe supporting Corbyn was the only recommendation needed for what are sometimes quite ‘technical’ positions.

I can’t honestly say I felt intimidated – as distinct from irritated – but I can understand that other people might have been. It seemed to me that some of those present didn’t understand the difference between what is OK at a demonstration and the way a meeting should be conducted.

A ‘pro-Corbyn’ meeting at another venue not too far away had begun an hour or so earlier and many of those present then marched down to the college. At some point during the AGM the chair told us that there were hundreds of people ‘baying’ outside and, since the hall was not big enough to hold any more, all business except the elections would be suspended and we would be asked to vote, hand in our ballot papers and then leave the hall by the side entrance – which I did.

I understand there were then two more sessions. Since they would have included most of those from the earlier ‘pro-Corbyn’ meeting, I imagine the behaviour was unlikely to have improved after I left.

The ward I live in was represented by three Labour councillors from when I arrived in 1969 until recent years. The Greens eventuially managed to secure the seats, but at the last local election we elected an excellent Labour councillor. So I was horrified to learn that one of the candidates for office at the AGM was someone who had stood against her at the election representing the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

I am in favour of people changing their views and allegiances, as they will, but I think there should be some kind of ‘cooling-off period’ during which those who have opposed Labour in the recent past are not allowed to stand for office in the party.

Vote loser

At the end of the day my doubts and suspicions about Corbyn and his supporters don’t matter very much. What does matter is that he seems no more cut out to lead the Labour Party than I do – the difference being that I know that. All too often he comes across as inept and unable to communicate to anyone not 100% on his wavelength. On second thoughts, I think I might make a slightly better job of it.

Owen Smith picSo where are we now? I’m starting to find Corbyn’s evident self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, and his lack of concern for the future of Labour, more and more repellent. I’m not overly impressed by Owen Smith – I’d have gone for Angela Eagle if I had been in the PLP. That said, my opinion of him has improved since I saw his YouTube interview with Owen Jones.

However, whatever his merits or demerits, if Smith doesn’t win it is difficult to see much future for the party. Having said they have no confidence in Corbyn, MPs can’t credibly turn around and say they’re now going to support him if he wins – as seems almost inevitable. Having taken this very dangerous course, which may well end with most of them either being deselected or defeated electorally, I’m astounded that the 172 aren’t doing more to state their case. Perhaps they are and I’m not hearing about it – I hope so.

All 172 should hold public meetings to explain to their constituents, in as calm and detailed a way as possible, why they have ‘no confidence’. Given that the Corbynistas are behaving like a religious cult (no accident that his initials are JC!) what I’m suggesting would take some courage – but it seems to me the best bet if they are serious about seeing the back of him.

I’ve made the same suggestion to the nearest Labour MP – Peter Kyle in Hove – and to Hilary Benn and the resigned members of the old shadow cabinet. Surely they’ve got to do something, if only for self-preservation?

It’s no good Smith just banging on about his policies, which are not much different from Corbyn’s. I didn’t think we made policies by voting for leaders anyway. Corbyn should go because – rightly or wrongly – he is a vote loser. Unlike us, most people are not obsessed with politics, and they see him as a nice old softy who they can imagine working on his allotment. They say they like him, but then look horrified when asked if they would vote for him.

The problem is, of course, that a party as divided as Labour at the moment is even more of a vote loser. Who knows how we are going to cut the Gordian knot.


Ian Bullock writes about the relationship between socialism and democracy. He is the author of Romancing the Revolution: The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left, and co-author, with Logie Barrow, of Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914.

Under Siege: The Independent Labour Party in Interwar Britain, by Ian Bullock, will be published by Athabasca University Press in January 2017.

Also see Ian Bullock’s ‘What Can We Learn from the Inter-War ILP?’, plus ‘A Living Wage: A Policy with History’, and ‘Disaffiliation and its Aftermath’.

His profile of Fred Jowett is here.


  1. Ian Bullock
    12 September 2016

    I couldn’t agree more with what Kenneth has had to say in both comments. There is clearly no stopping technological change, nor should we want to as long as people are protected from the negative consequence.

    We should – as I suggested in my first piece – be thinking about a citizen or universal income independent of work. But immediately what is needed is provision for the incomes of those made redundant by technological change to be protected and their opportunities for retraining and further education to be made as widely available as possible.

    We should welcome the possibility of people being freed from boring repetitive work – but only if their incomes are maintained.

  2. Kenneth Curran Snr
    4 September 2016

    When I wrote about what happened to Labour’s heartlands, it was my attempt to introduce a further dimension to the debate triggered off by Ian Bullock. All of the contributions to date have some relevance in seeking an answer to Labour’s dilemma. Using my own experiences over the 70yrs I have been a Party member, I tried to highlight events which occurred throughout those years. I also gave an indication about how the Labour Party responded to the industrial disputes which were caused by the introduction of new technology, and the ultimate impact the changes had upon local communities and their economies.

    Although the Parliamentary Labour Party is the forum for discussions and debate among Labour MPs, there is no structure or rules which requires the body to monitor how social and economic changes are having an impact on Labour voters. In the main our traditional supporters, do not write to their MP or send letters of complaint to the press. The general feeling is that they think Labour didn’t care. If the Parliamentary Labour Party reformed itself in order to ensure the politicians are more aware of how economic and political decision-making is impacting on Labour’s supporters, that would be a step forward.

    Introducing change is a huge challenge for democratic socialists.

  3. Ian Bullock
    2 September 2016

    I just hope that Harry is right both about Momentum and the prospects for a compromise peace in the Labour Party. I agree that my reactions are influenced by an experience of a Militant-controlled ward which was not typical of the party generally.

    My namesake, Ian, is certainly right to say that there were those – both among MPs and the membership generally – who were never prepared to give Corbyn a chance. But I think they were a pretty small minority in both cases. The so-called ‘coup’ was certainly not competent. In the original piece I said that my immediate reaction when I heard about the vote of no confidence was ‘I just hope they have thought this one through.’ And I added that it was pretty clear they hadn’t. It was an act of desperation. Nothing that has happened since has changed my view, in fact I think the incompetence has continued. The MPs lacking ‘confidence’ have left things far too much to ‘Team Owen’, as though this is a conventional leadership campaign. If the rise of Corbyn is a sort of ‘insurgency’ – a peaceful one – you can only defeat it by a ‘counter insurgency’. If, for example, every one of the 172 had held a public meeting in their constituency to explain why they had ‘no confidence’ there might have been at least an outside chance of turning the Corbynista tide back.

    Ian may well be right in saying ‘it ain’t Smith’. We can all probably think of candidates we would prefer. But as I said in an earlier comment ‘unfortunately they are not standing’. My nightmare about the Labour Party is that we will end up with those of us inclined to be pessimistic expecting that UKIP will pick up the bulk of Labour support in the next few years while optimists hope it will be the Greens.

    On a more ‘philosophical’ note, one question that is becoming more pressing is the need to define more exactly what we mean by ‘democratic socialism’. The ILP would have a lot of important things to say during such a debate.

  4. Ian Barnett
    29 August 2016

    Ian, look at what Smith now professes to believe, and then look at how he’s actually voted on those issues. (And then look at what Corbyn professes to believe, and then look at how he’s actually voted on those issues.) Look at Smith’s cheap shots against Corbyn in debate (say it, Jeremy, say ‘I voted Remain’).

    That Corbyn is a much more experienced MP than Smith is beyond dispute.

    And how many serious clangers has Smith made in this campaign? Has he shown any more ‘competence’ here than Corbyn? Was the coup against Corbyn ‘competent’? Is the current behaviour of the NEC ‘competent’? I concede freely that Corbyn has made mistakes and that he needs to raise his game, but there are a large number of pots calling the kettle black….

    Like I said- the answer may not be Corbyn, but it certainly ain’t Smith……

    Has Corbyn ‘lost the support’ of Flint, Kendall, Mann et al? No. He never had it to lose.

    Who is more responsible for Labour’s standing in the polls- Corbyn, or the MPs of his own party, particularly those who Prescott calls ‘the Bitterites’- is, I submit, an open question. So is whether Labour would actually do any better under Smith in the medium to long term…

    And “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” was never persuasive…….

  5. Kenneth Curran Snr
    28 August 2016

    Having lived 34yrs on Tyneside and becoming a Labour Party Member at the age of 16yrs and serving as a Councillor on Tynemouth County Borough Council during my late 20s. Also Chair of the Rising Sun Colliery Mechanics Branch of the NUM for many years. And served upon the Northumberland NUM Area Council. I left Tyneside in 1969 to live in Sheffield after being appointed Area Officer for the National Union of Public Employees to cover South Yorkshire. I took early retirement in 1989 and in 1990 was Elected as Councillor for the Manor Ward on Sheffield City Council. After 6yrs I stood down to take the Chair of the Manor & Castle Development Trust Ltd. I am a life member of the Labour Party having 70yrs membership.

    The reason I have given an outline of my activities over my past, is to justify the observations I shall be making in this document. In 1945 there was so much hope, and a feeling we had been to Hell and back. North Shields where I lived was a very working class town within the County Borough of Tynemouth. Because of its location at the mouth of the River Tyne and the fact it was a Naval Base for Minesweepers, Destroyers & Battle Cruisers, plus the Smiths Docks and Royal Key’s. From 1940 until 1943 we received more than a fair share of visits from the Luftwaffe. To state the town took a beating is an under statement. There are still scars of WW2 to be seen. However we had just elected what in reality was the first Labour Government with a working majority, everyone
    was looking forward. The comradeship of the war years was evident, we had full employment during peace time. For Tyneside and other industrial area’s this was a new experience. Within a few weeks of Labour taking office land was being cleared for new housing. To the North West of North Shields new Trading Estates were created bringing new Light Industries to the Area. The local Shipyards were booming, repairing many of the ships who had spent the War years bringing much needed food and materials to fight the War. Up the river at Wallsend with its famous shipyards work went on day and night to rebuild our depleted Merchant Fleet. The pattern was the same on the South bank of the Tyne from South Shields, Tyne Dock, Hebburn, Jarrow. The Collieries on both sides of the river were working flat out. We knew the Mining industry was to be Nationalised, as a lad I recall the men at the Rising Sun Colliery saying that in future there will be no short time working. A Labour Government in Office, we still had rationing, food was basic supplemented by fish & chips two or three times a week, and fresh fish which was plentiful. Throughout the years from 1945 to 1950 the Tory press carried out an insidious campaign against the continuation of rationing. The Tories formed what was called The Housewives League consisting of Middle Class Women dressed for demonstrations in Fur Coats,
    they became a national joke. They complained because they couldn’t find any young girls to employ as nannies to look after their children. The young girls were getting jobs in the new industries with better wages and conditions. While the Housewives League were burning their ration books protesting over rationing, the Political pundits at the Rising Sun Colliery would declare the Tories wouldn’t dare to allow the 1930s to return.

    The Shipyards were the first workers to express their concerns over the changes in working practices. During the war the Americans introduced Arc Welding in their Shipyards. In Britain all of our Ships were held together by Riveting the Metal Plating together. Arc Welding would lead to job losses, the workers were accused of being luddites and backward, against progress. There was walk outs up and down the Tyne as disputes burst into flame. Eventually the Employers had their way as uncertainty returned. Today there is no Shipbuilding on the Tyne. The progress the Riveters were said to be holding back is no where to be found. By the 1960s the insecurity of the 1930s was returning only to be tempered by a bit of redundancy pay brought in by Harold Wilson’s Government. Redundancy pay was a placebo for insecurity and unemployment it was not the solution required. The feeling of insecurity was returning to Labour’s Heartlands. Nothing I have written up to this point has identified at which point or what event created the disillusionment with Labour. The first instance I can recall was during the late 1950s. Durham County Council produced a report which voiced the concerns in the Villages of North West Durham around Spennymoor. Stanley, Annfield Plain there was 200 villages where it was expected that within a decade all of the local Collieries would be closed due to the Seams being worked out.

    The fear of the local communities was that they would become ghost towns. Bearing in mind that the National Coal Board were by far the largest employer of labour in County Durham this was a terrifying prospect. The people of Durham were among the greatest supporters of the Labour Party. One would have thought that the Parliamentary Labour Party who had a number of Labour MPs as members of the PLP, that the matter would have been of concern for all because of its importance Politically, Socially and Economically. I have no evidence the contents of the County Council Report ever being the subject of discussion at the PLP or in the House of Commons. At that time I would be in my 20s a Pit Lad and member of the Labour Party, I could not understand how or why the Labour Party nationally could ignore the significance of Durham County Council’s report. Today the Villages of Nth West Durham have become the ghost towns forecast over 50 years
    ago. Why didn’t Labour act?

    However it was much the same when Containerism replaced the traditional Docker’s at all of Britain’s sea ports. Thousands of Docker’s at ports stretching from Southampton to Aberdeen lost their jobs with communities socially and economically devastated all in the name of modernisation. The Parliamentary Labour Party was mute, yes under Harold Wilson redundancy pay was introduced as a sop to undermine any organised opposition to the modernisation of the docks. The redundancy schemes did not represent a strategic Social and Economic plan for former Dockers and their Communities. In effect workers who were predominantly
    Labour voters and supporters received little better consideration than what they might have received from the Tories. There is no strategic thinking taking place right across the Labour Party at any level.

    We are now faced with a blizzard of new Technology which is already impacting upon our daily lives. Given the current crisis over leadership it is probably a waste of time to try and identify when the rot set in. The behaviour of many Labour MPs over the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal has cast a dark shadow over
    the public image of everything Labour is supposed to stand for. The blatant arrogance of Peter Mandelson over his friendship with millionaires. Tony Blair as slippery as a snake and as equally dishonest. The Iraq war and its consequences which still haunt the corridors of power. All of these have left deep scars among many former and present Labour Supporters. The fact that the poor continue to carry the main burdens of ill considered business decisions carried out under Labour Governments seems a good enough reason for people to look elsewhere when polling day arrives.

    Kenneth R. Curran Snr

  6. Harry Barnes
    21 August 2016

    From joining the Labour Party in 1957 when Gaitskell was its leader, I have always felt a need to have a foot in two camps – especially as I then saw myself as a Bevanite. The first camp being that of activity within the Party itself and in the wider labour movement; the second camp being associated with bodies that examined, debated and pressed for democratic socialist ideas. So at the same time that I joined the Labour Party, I also had an involvement with a short-lived body called the “International Society for Socialist Studies” (ISSS). It was based upon a pamphlet written by GDH Cole entitled “World Socialism Restated” which I had first come across as New Statesman articles, when I read the paper’s air mail editions in Iraq during my National Service the previous year. After the ISSS, there was the influence upon me of the development of the early New Left. Then after many bits and pieces, there was my joining the ILP in 1975 when it became a publications organisation.

    I have never, however, wished to follow a common “line” and have kept clear of enterist bodies – except to tackle their approachs on occasions. What has always seemed to me to be important in shaping political perspectives is to be involved in the dialectics of debate. For as John Stuart Mill pointed out, if a person only understands their own side of a case, they understand little of that.

    However, given a pattern which I have followed for nearly 60 years, there is now a question of whether this will now satisfy the current circumstances. Keeping my ISSS-syle leg in operation still seems to me to be key. But as matters have developed in the Labour Party, then I find I need a crutch to keep that leg moving. At the age of 80, there are many personal reasons for me keeping hold of my Labour Party membership card. I have friends in the Labour Party and surprisingly few verbally aggressive enemies. Besides it is not easy to give up such a long habit.

    But are there more important politically significant reasons for my remaining? Is Labour still a feasible vehicle for the pursuit of the values and methods I support?

    In its favour there is the great problem of finding an alternative. The Greens, the SWP, variants of the SNP and PC, Ken Loach (et al) all seem to me to all have serious shortcomings and to be incapable of making a parliamentary breakthrough. Or am I being simple minded, like a Lib-Lab follower in the 1890s who argued that the ILP and the moves to founding a Labour Party itself would get nowhere?

    But if I am to plod on with Labour then I have to be on the side of keeping the show on the road, whilst seeing that it retains some avenues for the advancement of a responsible and a realistic set of democratic socialist concerns – such as those recommended in Ian Bullock’s article.

    The problem we face is that given the current turmoil in the Labour Party, how do we aviod a massive split and electoral disaster from opposing factions? It seems to me that what is needed is to work for peace and reconciliation within the Labour Party. Yet this is between two trends, which I feel should both know better. And how is it done?

    If re-elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn faces a problem of putting together a Shadow Cabinet which has a reasonable element of cohesion. There arn’t anywhere near enough Corbynites in the PLP to do this. So he will need to make significant compromises to attract and then hold onto many of his current opponents within the PLP. That he is capable of doing this is shown by the fact that over the EU he moved away from his natural Brexit stance, to put a good socialist case for remaining a member in one major speech. The trouble was that he then acted in a half-hearted fashion as if he didn’t really believe what he had said.

    He will now need to compromise with some conviction. This still gives him scope to seek to gradually tack and manoeuvre towards his key objectives. After all the future could even give him a period as PM in which he could actually deliver something worthwhile, rather than just pontificating about visions for the future. In fact, in politics you can even achieve bits whilst spelling out what still needs to be added.

    If Owen Smith wins then he needs to act in ways which will cut the ground from under a Momentum-sytle reaction – as seen by the media. I am not convinced that this is as difficult as it sounds. Ian Bullock describes a situation in Brighton and his past experiences with Militant, which are not (and were not) common across the great bulk of Labour CLPs. I am currently placed on certain Momentum mailing lists to seek to understand their development and have been to a couple of their open meetings, although I have no intention of joining them. In my area, the Labour Party has found difficulty in engaging with new (perhaps Momentum-sytle) members. Few of whom are young and numbers who are old retreads. I suspect that Momentum is a body which functions rather differently in different areas. Many of its members may be content if they see that in practice Labour is overcoming the worst aspects of its Blairite past.

    So, at the moment, I am for sticking to my two-legged approach. Although my belief in the dialectics of debate could always help shift my stance – given that it has some substance.

  7. Jonathan
    20 August 2016

    80 per cent of the working population does have disposal income which is why you need a centrist Labour Party. They didn’t vote Labour last time cos they don’t trust us with their money and because we had a muddled message, we’re full of careerist and insufficiently radical about making capitalism work.

    Corbyn’s message may be clear but he won’t get people’s trust on the economy. He only resonates with those who agree with him, even then he makes enemies like anti-austerity hero Richard Murphy.

    Momentum is a separate organisation to the Labour party and is an echo chamber and alternative power base for Corbyn and McDonnell. It doesn’t sound inherently democratic to me. The Trotskyite entries stuff is a red herring at the moment.

    I agree when people say that Labour moderates/social Democrats have little posiitve to say. All this at a time when left economics is beginning to sound credible again having ditched bankrupt socialist nostalgia. Yet McDonnell says socialism is ‘all about planning’ like some cold war throwback.

  8. Ian Bullock
    19 August 2016

    From my standpoint there is much to agree with – and quite a lot to disagree with in Ernie’s comments. I don’t want to hog the discussion but I feel bound to respond to one bit where he writes ‘To my mind, it is beyond disappointing that someone of Ian Bullock’s standing should give credence to Tom Watson’s narrative.’

    Well, I wasn’t conscious of having a ‘standing’ but leave that aside. In the original piece I said I believed that ’most people joining the new organisation [Momentum] were simply new or returning party members attracted by the idea of getting back to Labour “basics’”. And Tom Watson I think had said something very similar. This does not exclude concerns about Trotskyist infiltration. But I’ll return to that later.

    I ended my previous comment by saying that ‘the real point is that you don’t have to be a ‘Trot’ to behave in this unacceptable way. And that’s the worry about Momentum.’ I’m quite happy that Labour is a ‘broad church’, as the old cliché has it , and don’t want to exclude any individual because of their beliefs even if they hold those that seem to me totally out of date in the 21st century. But organizing a ‘party within the party’ is quite different and it’s what I meant by behaving in an unacceptable way. Reports that Momentum is planning what looks like – even if not intended as such – a ‘parallel conference’ in Liverpool with appearances by Corbyn and McDonnell are not going to ease fears about that organisation. It looks quite different from the ‘fringe events’ that normally accompany Labour Party conferences. We shall see. I hope my concerns about all this prove to be baseless.

    As it happens, the ILP has had more experience than most of the ‘party within the party’. In 1920-21 it was the ‘Left-Wing of the ILP’ that wanted the party to affiliate to the Communist International. At the 1921 the chair, Richard Wallhead, in his opening address said, ‘There cannot be permitted allegiance to an outside body whose mandates are to be carried out against the expressed will of the Party’, and suggested they leave and join the CP – which many of them subsequently did.

    Then in the 1930s the Revolutionary Policy Committee [RPC] behaved very much like a ‘party within the party.’ In the same decade there was a serious attempt at covert infiltration by the CP itself and for a short time a more open attempt by the early Trotskyists. And in the later 1920s in the years leading up to disaffiliation for many Labour MPs the ILP itself seemed like a ‘party within a party’ in the PLP. So, to repeat, it’s this kind of behaviour rather than Trotskyist or any other specific political beliefs which is the most disturbing thing about the present situation in the Labour Party. So, can we completely forget about ‘entryism’? Sadly, no.

    I don’t think its fanciful to think that people new to politics – as we are told so many of the Corbyn supporters are – might be vulnerable to accepting, for a time, until they got wise to them, the ‘leadership’ of people from the Trotskyist organisations. Ernie refers to ‘a dead Militant tendency’. But is it dead- or does it still live as the so-called Socialist Party? If you look online at the current – 9 August – edition of The Socialist, the successor to Militant as it proudly proclaims, you’ll find an editorial, ‘Keep Corbyn, Stand Firm for Socialism’. All very supportive of JC. But of course the leadership of the real ‘true believers’ is required if the revolution is to succeed. Not even Momentum is above suspicion. ‘The Momentum-recommended candidates do not all have a consistent left record. Nor, unfortunately, does the leadership of Momentum,’ says the editorial. Here we go again!

    There was a report on the Guardian website that Peter Taaffe, one of the surviving leaders of the old ‘Tendency’ is intending to try and rejoin the Labour Party. In last week’s Observer in an interview responding to Tom Watson’s complaints Corbyn refers to the ‘alleged entryism’ (my emphasis) of the Militant era. Does this mean that he hasn’t changed his view since he was ‘Provisional Convenor’ of the campaign against the ‘witch hunt’ which opposed Militant’s expulsion and that he rejects the findings of the Labour Party enquiry/disciplinary procedures which led to it? And that Taaffe and the rest should be welcomed back? I think we should be told!

    I’m afraid it’s not all dishonest ‘political spin’, Ernie. Wish it was.

  9. Ernie Jacques
    18 August 2016

    Who could disagree with Ian Bullock when he says it is reasonable to expect leadership candidates to have minimal support within the PLP. But this begs some important issues:

    1. Jeremy Corbyn is the current leader elected by the membership in the face of huge and sustained hostility by Labour MPs, grandees and the political machine supported as always by the right-wing media as well as more liberal papers like the Guardian and Mirror.
    2. That MPs representing Labour are in some meaningful sense social democrats and progressive and are in-tune with the mood and politics of party members.
    3. That all party members embrace the democratic ethos – in spirit and practice – in a one-member-one-vote decision-making process where all votes count the same and where the toxic influence of big money, corporate interests, threats and bullying are explicitly proscribed.

    But one-member-one-vote is anathema to the Labour rebels who seem to think it would jeopardize their career interests and access to the Westminster and corporate gravy trains, gongs and House of Lords. Not all, but far too many.

    Trotskyist smokescreen
    Labour rebels are tearing the party apart but Ian raises the specter of the 1980s and a dead Militant tendency. What is that about? While a handful of Tom Watson’s Trotskyist entryists might have joined the party since 2015, the notion that hundreds of thousands of new party members are unrepresentative ideologues or unthinking, ignorant nut cases is hugely insulting. To my mind, it is beyond disappointing that someone of Ian Bullock’s standing should give credence to Tom Watson’s narrative which is nothing less than dishonest political spin.

    Likewise, saying the leader is a vote loser is the excuse peddled by practically all those on the right of the party. But if he is a vote loser (and this is debatable insofar as Corbyn is given no credit for the London Mayoral win or for defying expectations in the Oldham Parliamentary by-election and in numerous council elections in southern England) it is hardly surprising. And who was responsible for Labour in Scotland if not Gordon Brown, John Reid, Alastair Darling, Jim Murphy and Labour’s free market apologists north and south of the border?

    But it is Corbyn (not Alan Johnson and the Labour plotters) who must take responsibility for Labour’s dismal showing in the Referendum campaign. What Ian fails to mention is that millions of traditional Labour voters, myself and all my family, and most of my friends included, voted Brexit – not because we are xenophobic and don’t like immigrants, but because we felt the EU’s free movement rules are OK if you can afford to hire a nanny, cook, gardener, servant and eat out, take holidays abroad, and have disposable income, but not if you are at the bottom of the pile and cannot afford a mortgage, ridiculous rents for crap, third-world accommodation, or if you are forced out of your job and community by restructuring and economic policies that are hideously regressive and which fail to cater for working people struggling to survive on slave wages and precarious contracts.

    Unlike Corbyn (the best of a bad bunch in my view), they must live and survive in the real world without the luxury of disposable income, moving home and going private to escape sink estates and to dodge the pressures on the NHS, schools and community services.

    Labour, social exclusion & the politics of King Canute
    The question Ian and Labour MPs and others, including some lefties, need to answer is why are they in denial vis-a-vis the consequences of free movement and its effects on the people they claim to represent? Decent UK citizens paying the price (as ever) for Westminster’s embrace of neoliberal economics and the scam and casino economy that Labour along with the Tories and Coalition governments helped build and sustain.

    While Ian rightly points to Labour activists and politicians working hard day-in-day-out and doing their best with the boring bits to provide support for society’s victims, to me, this is akin to acceptance of the status quo and a bit like King Canute and his tidal plans – well-meaning, hopeless and a job for life. Because in so many key areas Labour seems to be politically bankrupt, not least when it comes to the provision of housing insofar as councils and governments of all persuasions have been complicit, for many decades, in the growth of homelessness and landlord exploitation.

    While failing to build genuinely affordable houses, including social houses, they have conspired with the private sector to cut living wage, public sector work which morphs into minimum wage, zero-hour temporary jobs, aka shameful 15-minute home care (non-services) with devastating consequence for those affected and at the bottom of the pile. While at the same time failing to oppose benefit cuts but printing billions (via quantitative easing) to benefit the City, hedge funds, super-rich and criminal money launders and those with assets in a way that rigs the market at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable. How on earth do you make capitalism work if capital doesn’t circulate and those at the top, are allowed to scam and hoover money off the poor and those who work and create the wealth?

    But Labour has allowed this to happen while promoting their business friendly credentials and the regeneration of towns and cities across the UK to the benefit affluent citizens and investors while socially cleansing poor and vulnerable residents who are often forced out of the communities they grew up in and placed into disgusting and hideously expensive bed and breakfast accommodation, miles away from the people they know and from friends and family support networks.

    With the EU’s free movement policy, which many councils and politicians support, the three million on council house waiting lists grows by the day and many innocent people are bumped in the scramble for scarce houses or see their rents rocket. With upwards of 500,000 immigrants and new citizens per year the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon because accommodating a population the size of Birmingham every two years requires concreting over many acres of green field sites, massive infrastructure programmes, and lots of money.

    But a decent, warm and comfortable home is a fundamental human right so our concerned Labour politicians should try squaring that conundrum, and for once start prioritizing the homeless and making the case for a major house building programme and decent houses for all. This was done post war and in another age of austerity.

    So the crises of Labour and social democracy has nothing to do with Trotskyite or left-wing infiltration and everything to do with a Labour Party that has lost its way, is overly business and corporate friendly, and had long ago ceased to represent the interests of working people or champion the basics, such as i) equality; ii) a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; iii) fair taxation; iv) a decent home for all.

  10. Ian Bullock
    17 August 2016

    Thanks for Mike, Ian and Peter for your interesting comments.

    If I gave the impression, Mike, that I ‘underestimate just how tired the Labour Party was immediately after the 2015 general election and what that signifies’, I’m sorry. It was far from my intention. And I never thought that New Labour was ‘the answer’ – partly because when it came to it Blair and co never really did what it said on the tin.

    I also agree that there is a crisis in European social democracy (or as I prefer, having a soft spot for our old SDF, social-democracy). The reasons for this are, as always, very complex, but I can think of a couple of genuinely difficult questions that I think relate to it:

    1) To what extent should we try to follow public opinion – or what we take as such – rather than attempting to lead it? There’ll always be the argument that if we drift too far from what seems the ‘centre’ or political consensus we will isolate ourselves politically. Equally – and I think the current situation not only in the UK supports this – if we don’t take a more principled and inspiring lead why should anyone bother to vote for us?

    2) We do want our MPs and councillors not just to mouth exciting slogans but to get down to the often difficult to follow and even boring detail. We want the former to come up with policies, amendments to legislative proposals, etc and our councilors to make sure the dustbins are emptied regularly – or as here in Brighton at the moment our appalling low rate of recycling is radically improved. But we all know how easy it is to get lost in the detail and lose contact with the bigger picture. This will always be an occupational hazard for our active political people. I can sit on the sideline trying to analyse things – but it’s them not me that ‘get things done’. But ‘getting things done’ can come to seem uninspiring and even to some unimportant.

    I do, though, disagree with Mike about the PLP – I don’t think they are trying to reduce members and supporters to ‘employees’. A very few may behave in ways that go some way to justify Mike’s concerns but I don’t believe that is generally the case for a moment.

    As regards Ian, I just simply disagree. The argument for supporting Owen Smith is simply that it will be a disaster for Labour – or a bigger and longer disaster – if Corbyn wins again. There probably are better potential candidates – but unfortunately they are not standing – and there is absolutely no reason to believe that having lost the support of most of the people who see him at work at the closest quarters, and seeming unelectable as PM to the majority of the electorate, there is any prospect of an effective opposition, never mind a Labour government any time in the foreseeable future. I hope I’m wrong and Ian is right. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about this.

    Peter has something very interesting things to say about Momentum – and I hope he is right and I am wrong too. Perhaps Momentum will now concentrate on making the Party more of a social movement rather than operating as a faction. Let’s hope so.

    As I said in the original piece my concerns are bound to be influenced by the experience years ago of trying to be an active LP member in a ward totally dominated for many years by Militant. As I said I don’t believe that anything but a small fraction of new LP members are Trotskyists or any other variety of entryist. But I am worried when Corbyn talks about ‘alleged entryists’ back then. Does he still take the view he did as ‘Provisional Convener’ of the ‘Stop the Witch Hunt’ campaign? Does he accept that the LP decided there was illegitimate entryism and expelled the leading members of it? Or does he want Peter Taafe et al to come back into the Labour Party. I think we should be told!

    But it’s not really about ideology – or at least not simply about it – when it comes down to it.

    When our ward party was under Militant control it wasn’t really their political demands that bothered us – if we were sceptical about the nationalisation (under workers’ control, naturally!) of the 200 (or whatever) monopolies, we all thought that massive concentrations of economic (and therefore political) power needed to be brought under democratic control and some non-Militants would quite happily vote for massive nationalisation. What bugged us was the way they operated as an intolerant and intimidating ‘party within the party’. I think I could demonstrate the connection between this and Leninism given something nearly as long as a book to do it, but the real point is that you don’t have to be a ‘Trot’ to behave in this unacceptable way. And that’s the worry about Momentum.

  11. Peter Smith
    15 August 2016

    This article mirrors almost exactly what I think about the leadership debacle. My only point of difference is that I wasn’t horrified when Momentum was formed and I’ve even been to meetings with some of them locally to explain how the new members could get involved with the party and how it works.
    This and other recent articles make me want to get involved with ILP again (after nearly 30 years!)

  12. Ian Barnett
    14 August 2016

    Well, to paraphrase Tony Blair, (heaven help me) this isn’t a choice between Corbyn and the Labour leader of your dreams; this is a choice between Corbyn and Smith.

    IMHO Smith is talking a good ‘left’ story at the moment to try to impress the membership. His voting record doesn’t match it. He gives the distinct impression that once in office he would ‘veer’ very quickly.

    For me Corbyn is the better of the two, on policies, on consistency and on experience.

    Do I think Corbyn is the Labour leader made in heaven? No. Do I think he’s made mistakes? Yes ( but so did Miliband and Brown, and don’t get me started on Blair). Do I think he needs to raise his game? Yes, definitely.

    I’d certainly consider voting for someone else- but who? They’re hardly queueing up.

    The answer may not be Corbyn, but it ain’t Smith, that’s for sure….

    OK, PLP- what are your policies? What’s your vision? You’ve got to do better than ‘Not Corbyn’……

  13. Mike C
    14 August 2016

    I don’t think this is where we’re at. You underestimate just how tired the Labour Party was immediately after the 2015 general election and what that signifies.

    Here is where I think we’re at. Social democracy across Europe has been in crisis since the 1970s at least, when the post-war model broke down. In an era of declining rates of profit in the developed world the old model couldn’t work. New Labour was not the true adaptation to circumstances we thought it was, based as it was on the belief that there could be no such things as crises of capitalism anymore, that the basic economic question had been solved. New Labour simply kicked the can down the line for the future to sort out, believing that an ever-increasing rate of prosperity would justify their PFI-agreements and the like. That model has nothing to say in these conditions and most of the improvements gained under New Labour have been quickly wiped out, proved to have been superficial and temporary.

    Labour’s decline has been long-term, the EU referendum was lost over decades. My family migrated to UKIP long before Corbyn, a few protest votes against Labour after the war solidified into a habit and they eventually ended up there.

    I’m no entryist. I joined under Gordon Brown because I was convinced by the argument made by people on the right – don’t join a left-wing party, join Labour and try to change it democratically, and until then do your best to keep the Tories out of power. I stood in no-hoper council elections under Ed Miliband because the Labour Party needed people in those areas. 2015 was a depressing election, and the knee-jerk response of the PLP straight afterwards even more depressing. It was a basic question of ‘what is Labour even for anymore?’ and they had no answers – that’s why Corbyn won. That’s no accident.

    The biggest issue now is that if Corbyn can be forced out, the PLP have effectively taken control of the party. A century of grassroots organisation in communities up and down the country by volunteers, people who believe in the Labour Party, will count for nothing. The PLP already think it’s acceptable to treat us as their employees, that we’re here to be seen (leafleting for them in our spare time) and not heard. That’s not parliamentary socialism, and it’s no model for a Labour revival of substance either. If Labour is going to avoid the path to a popular vote in the teens taken by so many of its sister parties it needs a long process of reform to make it fit for the post-2008 world, and indeed the post-1970s world that it failed to accommodate itself to. We need to involve everybody in the Labour movement to achieve that. Patching up our manifest tiredness with a media-friendly leader is no solution to this problem, but just yet another dodge of the fundamental issues.

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