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Labour Must Become a Socialist Party

The stakes at this UK Labour Party conference are high: can it secure a parliamentary party willing to support a transformative socialist government?

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks as supporters hold signs gathering around him on May 10, 2017 in Rotherham, England. Anthony Devlin / Getty

Whenever the Labour left has the temerity to push for the changes it wants to see within the party, it unleashes what Gregory Elliott once derisively called the “Burkean Furies.” Such is the nervousness surrounding the impending reselection of Labour MPs, it only takes a single Labour member to send an (albeit ill-considered) email to their CLP chair for the indignant wrath of the deputy leader to be splashed across the national press.

The Labour left was unsuccessful in its efforts to secure full mandatory reselection, or “open selection,” at last year’s party conference — but it did manage to significantly lower the threshold of the trigger ballot system. Under the reformed system, it only takes one-third of branch parties to vote in favor of reselection for a process to take place. Some reports suggest (though their reliability is difficult to gauge) that as many as seventy MPs, including some of those on the Left, could find themselves vulnerable under this new setup.

In the weeks and months ahead, Labour left activists should expect to face a fierce and bitter rearguard action from the party’s right wing, and its associates in the press, against their efforts to reshape the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). But we cannot allow ourselves to be browbeaten into docility: unless there are substantial changes to the political composition of the PLP at the next general election, any left-led Labour government will be severely hamstrung from the outset, and will stand only a remote chance of successfully carrying out its program. The forthcoming round of trigger ballots therefore represents a significant milestone in the long struggle to renew the Labour Party.

Transforming the PLP

Nearly four years into his tenure as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s support within the PLP remains minimal. There have been numerous attempts to quantify exactly how large this group is. Before the 2017 general election, the infamous “core group” list suggested as few as seventeen MPs. In an essay published in New Left Review last year, Robin Blackburn somewhat optimistically claimed that the number was as high as forty. The Shadow Cabinet has thirty-one MPs — but includes Tom Watson while excluding reliable socialists like Dennis Skinner. Regardless, none of these totals are impressive in the context of 247 Labour MPs currently in the House of Commons.

Despite the recent Change UK/Independent split, the PLP’s right wing remains a solid, embittered, and highly disruptive faction, sufficiently numerous to scupper significant policies of a Corbyn-led government — or maybe even bring down that government altogether. Anyone serious about ensuring the success of a socialist-led Labour government must therefore recognize the necessity of transforming the political composition of the party’s parliamentary ranks. Of course, the post-reselection PLP will remain, like the party as a whole, a broad and somewhat eclectic alliance. But the socialist pole within the PLP needs to be drastically strengthened. Leaving any left-Labour government at the mercy of MPs who have spent nearly four years straining every sinew to undermine their own party’s leadership would be to invite disaster.

The next intake of Labour MPs is likely to be considerably more left-wing than the last one. This is certainly to be welcomed, but merely selecting nominal Corbyn supporters as candidates is insufficient. A Labour government led from the Left will need the backing of a substantially expanded bloc of socialists in Parliament. These should be MPs committed to the implementation of a left-wing program and, in the longer term, working towards a fundamental redistribution of power and wealth in our society. The forthcoming reselection processes offer grassroots Labour activists across the country an opportunity to interrogate these commitments for themselves, and should open the door to much-needed re-invigoration of the party’s base.

But the transformation of the Parliamentary Labour Party needs to go well beyond this. Here, the role of an active and assertive party democracy is essential. The rarefied position of the PLP in the political hierarchy, isolated from and elevated above the party’s rank and file, leaves even its more radical members open to the concerted conservative pressures that come with life in Parliament.

Countless numbers of socialists have entered the House of Commons only to succumb to what Ralph Miliband called “the sedate parliamentary minuet.” It takes real political fortitude to resist it. Continuous efforts must be made to minimize the distance between the PLP and the grassroots of the labor movement. The Labour left needs to reconsider what it expects from socialist MPs — not just with regard to their standards of personal and political probity, but also their responsibilities as socialist educators, agitators, and standard-bearers.

Reselection, Party, and State

Corbynism’s lack of reverence for the conventions of Parliament is one of its most contentious aspects, and one of its most promising. It inherited this healthy skepticism from the Bennite New Left of the 1970s and ‘80s, which aimed to use Parliament as a vehicle in the pursuit of far-reaching social change while simultaneously recognizing its limitations. Tony Benn’s experience in government office — particularly as Industry Secretary under Harold Wilson in 1974–75 — taught him the hard way that Parliament’s path to political and economic power was limited, and that it could only be sustained by movements from below.

On the back of this, Benn and his supporters came to reassess the role of party democracy in holding a Labour government to its promises. It was folly, they realized, to expect a right-wing party leadership, a right-wing Cabinet, and a right-wing PLP to put left-wing policies into effect. This struggle for enhanced party democracy, however, threatened to subject the PLP to a level of scrutiny which it was not prepared to tolerate. The parliamentarians recognized, as the Bennites on the whole did not, that what was implicitly being called into question were the prerogatives of the state itself. As Hilary Wainwright put it in her landmark study, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, MPs appreciated that this challenge represented merely the “thin edge of … a very dangerous wedge.” It is this latent and still amorphous potential that animates much of the splenetic hostility directed towards Corbynism today.

In a similar vein, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys observed in The End of Parliamentary Socialism that most Labour MPs were assimilated not just to the “routines” of the British state, but to its “perspectives” as well. This is vital to understanding why the Bennites’ struggle for party democracy proved to be so hard-fought and drawn-out. The adversarial stance adopted by the Bennite left towards the state, however inchoate, was unsettling for the PLP majority, as this also meant that its own role was being placed uncomfortably under the microscope.

Reselection of parliamentary candidates is uncontroversial in many parties across the West, but in Labour it takes on a particular significance as the right and center of the PLP has served over the years as an especially important bulwark of stability against demands for socialism. To continue to perform this role, as Panitch and Leys argue, these MPs need to defend their freedom “to operate within the rules of the existing state system without having to answer to the extra-parliamentary party”; in particular, they need to ensure that “they should continue to have no responsibility for mobilising popular support for new socialist measures, including measures to change the state.”

The Corbynite left has yet to devote its full attention to the British state: the archaism and absurdities of its political culture, its inadequacies as an apparatus for delivering even fairly modest social reform, and how these might be addressed. But the Labour left should not be under any illusions on this score: the frequently furious opposition to reselection from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and among its media allies is not purely self-serving.

It reflects a genuine, deep-seated identification with the existing state and its conventions, against which an effective and insubordinate internal party democracy is seen as a genuine threat. These are high stakes indeed. The struggle to shift the PLP to the left will be met with fierce opposition. It will most likely be unpleasant, ugly, and wearying. It nonetheless remains necessary for anyone determined to see a socialist-led Labour government succeed.