Long Live The Corbyn Vortex? Part Two: Two Versions of Labour Values

Part One: The Incorruptible.

1. Mild and Circumspect at Home, Fiercely Colonialist Abroad

“Socialism is what a Labour government does”, Herbert Morrison (attributed).

“Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic- not about socialism but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference.” Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p. 13.

The question of the meaning and application of “Labour Values” has become crucial at three points in the leadership context. Firstly, in Corbyn’s campaign there has been the promise of a reconnection with Labour Values, embodied, to an extent, in Corbyn’s own past, against the betrayal and corruption of the Blair years. Secondly, there has been the “Labour Purge”, the exclusion of many, particularly on the left, from voting due to the suspicion that they “do not support the aims and values of the Labour Party”. Finally, there has been the demand for a “credible” Labour Party able to win a General Election in order to implement Labour Values, “there is nothing progressive about being powerless.” (Gordon Brown)

In the last case, “Labour Values” function almost entirely as an empty signifier, whilst the phrase “Labour Values” is constantly deployed, the values themselves are almost never defined, they exist merely as that which demands compromise in order to win elections. Two broad conclusions may be drawn from this, firstly that, in the absence of any other definition, “Labour Values” like Morrison’s socialism are nothing more than what a Labour government has done; secondly, following Miliband, on Labour’s dogmatic devotion to parliamentarianism that the primary Labour Value is the desire to exercise power, there is a “moral duty to seek power to relieve suffering.” (Brown, again, with “to relieve suffering”, one of the few times anyone outside of the Corbyn campagin has defined “Labour Values”).

As the Morrison and Miliband quotes suggest this devotion to parliamentary power (what Miliband describes as Labour’s “ministerial obsession”) is nothing new, indeed it is constitutive of the Labour Party itself. Brown’s demand that Labour be a party of power not of protest, mirrors, consciously, one imagines, Keir Hardie’s “Labour must prove to the nation that its members could be statesman as well as agitators” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 27). In this identification of Labour Values with what a Labour government does, there is an odd identity between the Labour right and the left that is hostile to Labour, with both suggesting that the question of Labour Values is exhausted by the activity of Labour in government and that this activity amounts to vicious colonial and imperialist wars, servility towards the US (“Atlanticism”), a timidity amounting to capitulation to the ruling class and disciplining of working class militancy and organisation justified through the promise of very limited social reforms. For the Labour right this set of “values” are to be opposed; for the anti-Labour left, to be opposed but whilst the evaluation of these values differs, there is broad agreement on what they are and there is a broad assumed continuity between all Labour governments.

Large parts of the Labour Left (and this broad outlook is shared, with slightly different conclusions, by parts of the left outside but not existentially hostile to Labour, notably Ken Loach), by contrast, would argue that Labour values may be defined by the 1945-51 government, but not by the government of 1997-2010, which betrayed these values. In appealing to what one (but not every) Labour government did, the Labour Left retain a broadly ministerialist emphasis, which is intensified by the fixation of 1945, Miliband writes, “the victory of 1945 has had one very bad consequence, in that it has so powerfully reinforced Labour’s ministerialist obsession. There is no inherent virtue in opposition; but it is all too easy to exaggerate the virtues of office, as a thing-in-itself, independently of the real, concrete purposes office is intended to serve. Politics, lots of people need to learn again, are not exclusively electoral” (“The Sickness of Labourism”). It is worth, therefore, examining the record of the 1945 Labour government, what Miliband describes as representing “the climax of labourism” to address how far it works to appeal to this government against Blair. Of the 1945 government Miliband’s assessment feels broadly correct (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 272).

To begin with, Miliband describes Labour’s 1945 manifesto Let Us Face the Future, “a mild and circumspect document” (p. 278) but notes that the government was, especially from 1945 to 48 responsible for “achievements that were real, and of permanent importance…in housing, in education, in welfare, it could well boast to have done more than any government had done before” (and it could added, in retrospect, since) (p. 286). This then is the positive side of the most revered (by almost everyone in Labour) government, on the other, as Miliband argues, Labour’s nationalisation programme did not aim at socialist transformation but merely, timidly, at a more efficient broadly capitalist economy. Moreover, for all the useful reforms, the 1945 government “made it its business to moderate and discipline [organised working class] claims and their expectations” and when this industrial discipline broke down the refusal to support working class demands entailed using troops as “blacklegs who reduced the effectiveness of the strikes” (p. 287). Miliband also argues that after 1948, with much of Let Us Face the Future implemented Labour could have made a radical break towards socialist transformation but failed to do so with Morrison, in particular, arguing for the necessity of “consolidation” and tempering any radical demands because of “public opinion”. Outside the UK (almost entirely ignored by the Labour Left) Labour’s response to anti-colonial challenges was, “a mixture of minimal constitutional reforms on the one hand, on the other, as part of the defence of the “free world” against Communism the waging of a fierce colonial war in Malaya.” (p. 304)

Following Miliband’s analysis it should be quite clear that Labour Values, if they amount to the what Labour has done in government, even when it comes to the government most admired to the left, have very little to offer for those like Corbyn who believe in “justice, freedom, solidarity and equality for all”. Moreover, if they do amount to what Labour has done in government, the values of many of those excluded from voting in the leadership election are not compatible with Labour Values.

When considering the usefulness of Labour Values it is also important to remember that the deployment of Labour Values against their betrayal by the currently existing party need not be benign. This narrative very often operates to defend the privileges of a particular (white, male, heterosexual in regular employment) section of the working class- the BNP campaigned in Barking and Dagenham under the slogan of “The Party that Labour used to be.” Indeed, whilst less disgraceful, parts of Andy Burnham’s Bloke Labour campaign and its embarrassing fixation on his own “authenticity” shares some of these features. Burnham’s campaign has combined the nasty and the inept, particularly aiming to reconnect with “ordinary” voters through a mixture of ordinary blokishness and “listening to their concerns on immigration.” Burnham’s narrative also includes a fixation on the recovery of the lost symbols of patriotic social democracy without a retrieval of their political content, most notably in his demand (borrowed, tellingly, from the 2010 UKIP manifesto) that all trains whether nationalised or not, have the same livery. Burnham’s self-presentation, therefore, includes a moment of utter capitulation, analogous to that demanded from Suzanne Moore, where the most revanchist features of what is imagined to be working class consciousness are appealed to, refusing to believe working class people are able to transcend these (sometimes imaginary) deformations. This is a travesty both present and past of working class struggle.

The question to be posed, therefore, is whether there is any credibility to the claim that Blair (or whoever else, is held to be responsible for the fall) betrayed “Labour Values” and whether this can be useful for the left. This argument is central to Corbyn’s campaign largely due to its astonishing resilience on large parts of the British Left whether inside or outside Labour. On the one hand it could be argued that this appeal to Labour Values is reliant on a mixture of wishful thinking and historical sloppiness, on the other it is true that the grasping of the “spirit” of something can and does exclude, whether in Robespierre’s image of the Roman Republic or Corbyn’s historical Labour Values, any material deformation and, moreover, that these images are powerful and politically useful regardless of their truth.

This argument, however, poses some problems. Firstly, there is a moral-historical one, unambiguous praise of the 1945-51 Labour government is a betrayal of the memory of the dead, in this case, most significantly, the dead and tortured of Malaya’s Anti-British National Liberation War. Secondly, the persistence of this image of 1945 can lead to political errors, most notably, a “ministerialist obsession”, or, as Miliband notes of the Labour Left, a constant acceptance of parliamentarianism coupled with a never very succesful but “continuous search for means of escape from its inhibitions and constrictions.” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 14). The ministerialist has also led to an acquiescence by the Labour Left in the name of compromise when, “from [Labour’s] inception…the compromise gave very little to the socialists in the way of political influence.” (p. 25) It is only the Labour Left that compromise, and it is only to the Left that demands to compromise are made. In the leadership campaign Blair, Cooper and Kendall have all insisted, “this is not a choice between principle and power”, this argument works precisely because their principles are absolutely unthreatening to capital and the state so no sacrifices need be made in the interests of a narrowly defined “credibility”. The Labour Left, whose principles would challenge the state and capital tends to compromise precisely because it can see no force able to challenge “credibility” so believes itself, virtuously, forced into acquiescence, “party unity” for the sake of very limited social reforms.

Corbyn’s campaign has exercised a retroactive force on Labour history, beginning to reveal the depths of the invariant structures of Labour politics, which have become clear in the deployment of Labour history both in his favour and against him and the recurrence of the arguments of the past. This revelation, however, of these structures is only taking place in the context of the possiblity of the logic of the Corbyn vortex leading to a break with these invariants.

2. Labour Values: The Great Creative Achievement of Working People

The question of the usefulness of “Labour Values” to socialist transformation can be addressed by exploring why Corbyn entails this break, particular a break with the traditional compromises of the Labour Left and how this break discloses another location of Labour Values. In 1961 in The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams described the common understanding of the choice that demands compromise from the Labour Left, “it presents itself as between a qualified acceptance of a subordinate capacity or the renewal of an apparently hopeless challenge. The practical benefits of the former have to be balanced against the profound loss of inspiration in the absence of the latter.” (p. 328). The likliehood of Corbyn’s victory indicates that the logic of this compromise has now broken down. The immediate cause for this breakdown is the unelectability of the candidates opposing him, Burnham, Kendall and (albeit perhaps less so) Cooper are eminently unable to offer the plausible hope of winning elections to exercise power to implement moderate reforms that is required to force the abandonment “the renewal of an apparently hopeless challenge.”

It is telling how many of those who argued on May 8th that Labour needed radical change if it is to win again now put their hopes in Andy Burnham. Burnham with the air of a friend’s new boyfriend, who in the absence of any other discernible positive qualities you imagine must be “nice”, until you realise he’s actually a little unpleasant coupled with slightly less inspiring policies than Ed Miliband is supposed now to offer the hope of winning the almost 100 seats (with boundary changes) Labour will have to win to form a government in 2020. If the question of “electability” is the only considered, Cooper’s mixture of technocracy, petty authoritarianism (demanding, for example, huge increases of funding for Prevent), and policies around childcare may at a stretch, in the event of another economic crisis, offer some hope of scraping together an arrangement with the SNP (Corbyn has been the only candidate paying any attention to the necessity of winning back Scottish seats) in 2020. This very slim hope (and it is questionable whether Cooper offers any more hope of being elected in 2020 than Corbyn), however, has failed to be sufficient for large numbers of people on the soft left in Labour to accept the very profound loss of inspiration voting for Cooper would amount to.

The success of the Corbyn campaign and with it the break down of the logic of compromise has allowed it to become clear where Labour Values are truly to be located, and this becomes clear if Williams’s text, which speaks of a demoralisation of Labour is read through the Corbyn campaign. Williams, in The Long Revolution, modifies an argument from Culture and Society, which he summarises, “the institutions of the labour movement- the trade unions, the co-operatives, the Labour Party were great creative achievement of the working people and also the right basis for the whole organization of any good society of the future.” (p. 328) By The Long Revolution, Williams was substantially more equivocal for two reasons, which remain relevant. Firstly, Williams argued that the defence of sectional interest from the Trade Union movement has limited their ability to develop alternative patterns and left them as “a set of men playing the market in very much the terms of the employers they oppose” (p. 328- my emphasis). The question around sectionalism and the unions now needs to be redefined to emphasise still the desire for a marginally improved wage or conditions within the broad acceptance of the terms of existing society but also the tendency in large parts of the Labour movement to continue to defend the privileges the white, male, paid worker in regular employment. Secondly, Williams emphasis the demoralisation (in both senses of the word) occasioned by the “steady pressure, from the existing organization of society, to convert these institutions to aims and patterns which would not offer this kind of challenge” with the demand that Labour become merely an alternative possible government within the same system as one of the main means by which this conformist pressure is exercised. The affinity between Miliband and Williams here is obvious, both in terms of the conformism produced by Labour’s dogmatic parliamentarianism and in the limitation of the activity of the Trade Unions, for Miliband, the industrial leaders of Labour as much as the political ones were equally “imbued with parliamentarianism” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 13) to the point that Trade Unions opposed industrial action with any poltical content, whilst in Williams, the Trade Unions become “simply industrial organisations with no other interests, each union keeping to its own sphere.” In both cases the critique focuses on the malign consequences of the domination of the space of politics by the Labour Party and, therefore, by parliamentarianism.

A similar account of the “world of labour” as the creative achievement of the British working class is offered in Miliband’s “The New Revisionism in Britain”, “Not revolution, not a popular levée en masse, but the creation of a dense network of institutions—parties, trade unions, cooperatives, a labour and socialist press, associations and groups of every kind—which constitute a world of labour, and whose purpose is pressure, challenge, struggle and renewal. The creation of this world of labour has not been a smooth process, and its history is as much one of defeats, setbacks and betrayals as of successes; and its shortcomings, from a socialist perspective, are not difficult to see. But the process has gone on year after year and decade after decade; and it will go on so long as capitalism itself endures. Indeed, it will need to go on for a long time after. It can be diverted, divided, even temporarily arrested and crushed. Even so, it begins again, and pushes on, for the simple reason that pressure and challenge are Siamese twins of exploitation and oppression.” The details of this description, especially the inclusion of “associations and groups of every kind”, which includes political parties opposing the Labour Party as well as other agnostic or actively hostile organisations.

Corbyn’s campaign and the forces it has attracted reveals that the alternative then to Morrison and the modern Labour establishment location of socialist or Labour values in the activities of Labour governments and nothing else, is to locate Labour values in the labour movement as the great creative and collective achievement of working people in Britain. At the same time it is necessary to constantly challenge the potential disciplining, demoralisation and limiting of this movement by both established powers and the morally and politically corrosive dominance of certain privileged sectors of the working class. This shift of location also entails a shift in how the values come about, for the Labour establishment Labour Values are given, static and closed, to be imposed on a situation through the exercise of ministerial power; for the Labour movement, Labour Values emerge from the struggle as a process, they are not static, not to be applied to a situation by the narrow exercise of power over others. Labour Values instead occupy a similar place and function to courage, humour, cunning and fortitude Benjamin’s argument that, “the class struggle…is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils that fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.” (Theses on the Philosophy of History IV) There is, however, here a vital question, which can only be mentioned in passing at this point, about the place political struggles less or not rooted immediately in the working class at all but in the activity of, for example, women or Black militants, which certain versions of the world of labour have excluded, and which offer their own capacity for developing alternative patterns, which carries the great advantage of, necessarily, being at much less risk of being entangled in the sullen, backward looking often sexist or racist workerism that has corroded the movement.

The Corbyn campaign, moreover, reveals that, precisely as Miliband’s argument on the inevitability of pressure and challenge under conditions of exploitation of oppression, that the world of labour is not dead, despite predictions, across the political spectrum to the contrary. One retroactive disclosure of Corbyn’s campaign is the importance of campaigns and organisations like Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly which may have seemed unglamorous (not a problem for genuine left organising) or uninspiring (a real problem) in, at the very least, maintaining this world of labour through a particularly bleak time. Here it is worth noting, from two sides, the limitations of Owen Jones’s argument that, “A grassroots movement and political phenomenon has emerged now. It could well be that, without Jeremy’s candidature, it would never have emerged.” These limitations are in the notion of “emerged” and in the notion of the “grassroots movement”. Firstly, to present this movement as emerging now, undermines any links to the world of labour and the struggles that have preceeded it and that now have been drawn into the Corbyn vortex. Secondly, the Corbyn campaign is still not the grassroots movement Jones claims it to be, it is drawn partially from the existing fragmented material of grassroots struggle on the left, and partially from individuals joining without the mediation of existing struggles- here Corbyn the incorruptible as expressing a set of values, a moral framework, above narrowly economistic struggles of the class, enabling an appeal which centres collective values but appeals to individuals in their individuality is essential.

Miliband’s argument also make clear, especially in the inclusion of parts of the world of labour that are hostile to the Labour Party, precisely how the terror against a largely imagined entryism operates. The Labour Party as merely, “an alternative government in the present system” requires its sundering from the incredibly dense and complicated world of labour in the assertion of the absolute primacy of devotion to the parliamentary system. The tension around Labour Values is therefore a choice between the increasingly unqualified subordination to existing power, to seek ministerial power on the terms and limits given by the ruling class, and the linking of the Labour Party to the movement and world which creates its own autonomous and distinctly Labour values.

In the context of the “Labour Purge”, two groups of people excluded are instructive: former members of Militant and those sympathetic to it and student movement activists. Militant were, not only absolutely embedded in the world of labour but also aimed at working within and through the Labour Party and local government, albeit ambiguously. As one of those denied a vote has argued, Kinnock’s betrayal of Militant in Liverpool, probably represents, “the final death of the long-standing Labour tradition of reforms through local government” (Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, p. 335). Militant’s willingness to defy the law in the service of this long-standing tradition coupled with the revolutionary justifications for entryism stands at the point where the Labour Left’s acceptance of the categories of parliamentarianism while seeking a way round the implications of that choice is transcended towards the position of the Left outside of Labour, which in the early years of the party was often Communist, for whom “parliamentary politics has always been of secondary importance” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 15). Militant’s discipline and self-sacrifice in order to build council houses contrasts admirably with Kinnock’s legalistic servility, arguing, Labour “could not seek power to use the law in office, but in opposition show contempt for the law.” (Pugh, Speak for Britain, p. 378)

With Militant and the secondary importance of parliament, it is worth mentioning briefly (more on this in a future post on the prospects for Corbyn) that the ministerialist obsession of Kendall, Cooper and Burnham has led to them offering nothing for the next five years, for their campaigns everything relies on ensuring a Labour government is elected in 2020 even if this includes the demoralising stupidity of refusing to oppose the Welfare Bill. Corbyn by contrast, argues that the next five years could mean something politically, “we need a Labour government in 2020, but we cannot wait until then. Labour has to be a strong and constructive opposition in the next five years. If we can win the argument in the country, then perhaps we can force this government to change course. Our opposition cannot be limited to the parliamentary chambers and TV studios of Westminster. Labour is best when it is a movement, and that movement has swelled to an enthusiastic 600,000 who will decide this leadership election. Once that is over, we face a bigger task: to force this government to abandon its free-market dogma and become the strategic state our society needs. That challenge begins on 12 September.” What form precisely this movement is going to take and what powers in can exert, and, perhaps even more centrally, what is relation will be to existing struggles (there is a moment of quite considerable hubris, retaining the regrettable privileging of the Labour Party, in “that challenge begins on 12 September”, when people have been organising as long as there has been exploitation and oppression).

A further aspect of the rejection of the primacy of parliamentary politics by much of the world of labour is the centrality offered to the cultural world of labour and its educational institutions and attitudes (again a great creative achievement of the working class). Hatherley is also excellent on this, writing of his family, including his Militant activist father, “What made all of us able to rise out of our class was a culture based on the class rising collectively. The culture of the Labour movement – its literature, its debates, its prizing of learning as a means of struggle, its insistence that “knowledge is power” – is what made my parents educate themselves in the first place. Being brought up in that environment, being unafraid of books and intellectual argument, meant that I had the confidence to cope easily with the very different intellectual culture of university, without being intimidated by its privilege.” Hatherley adds, which further emphasises the malign consequences of the sundering of the Labour Party from the world of labour that “as the labour movement, with its own educational institutions, becomes more distant from the Labour party, it can only dangle the hope for individual self-advancement – the chance that you, too, could get on in the rat race.” Corbyn potentially offers the hope of the reconnection that would help with the reinvigoration of the educational institutions of the class- an absolutely vital part of any possible socialist transformation- and policywise help correct the limiting “aspiration” to the chance of getting on in the rat race.

The second vital group excluded from being to vote are student movement activists, and this offers its own lessons about the contradiction between the two versions of “Labour Values”. At first glance Labour’s managing to transform an influx of young, enthusiastic, politically engaged people with useful organising and campaigning skills into a serious problem appears utterly bizarre, but when related to the insistence on the primacy of parliamentarianism the necessity of this panic should become clear. Whilst the student movement activists support and profoundly desire a Labour government, their political activity, if it is worth anything, refuses the absolute primacy of this goal. In “The Sickness of Labourism”, Miliband is particularly (even by his standards) frustrated by how Labour’s commitment to parliamentarianism and treating socialism as “a mean little experiment in bureaucratic piecemeal social engineering”, renders it “hesitant, fumbling, petulant- and boring”. As Miliband argues, this positioning, leads to “a sick party, immured in a frame of mind which excludes the noise and the bustle, the challenge and the promise, the adventure and the dedication which are at the core of socialism. And they wonder why youth finds them trivial bores!” The ability of the Corbyn campaign to engage young people (and not just young people) suggests that it does hold out the hope of noise, bustle, challenge and adventure. The engagement of student activists and other left activists such as Salma Yaqoob who have been hostile to or indifferent to the Labour Party also suggests a reassuring break with one of Labour Leftism’s traditional limits, its being,“more concerned to strengthen its influence within the Labour Party than look for allies outside it.” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 26)

For the Labour establishment, however, any enthusiasm, any people believing hat the Labour Party are not trivial bores, is a cause for suspicion, because this enthusiasm would suggest the possibility of political action that disrupts their own authority by overflowing the aggressively policed boundaries that identify “Labour Values” with the mixture of dreary tinkering and moral horror of the Labour Party in government. The Labour establishment would rather be “hesitant, fumbling, petulant and boring”, it would rather struggle for members than risk its position being undermined by the possible assertion of the alternative, autonomous Labour Values which could infect the Party and make it marginally less boring.


1 thought on “Long Live The Corbyn Vortex? Part Two: Two Versions of Labour Values

  1. Pingback: Long Live The Corbyn Vortex? Part One: The Incorruptible. | A Handbook for City Renters

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