It is surely a remarkable illustration of how political parties change over time that the current Presidential candidate for the political party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant is Donald Trump. Whereas, during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, white supremacist terrorists hunted down and killed members of the Republican Party across the Southern states, nowadays leading members of the Ku Klux Klan endorse the Republican candidate.
The reconfiguration of the Republican Party has been a long drawn out contest, and has been a process of evolution. While a consideration of the internal arguments in the party can partially explain such turns as Nixon’s Southern strategy, for example, that orientation can only itself be understood by the enormous changes in the Southern states, the process of industrialization and urbanization, and the crisis in the Democratic Party over racial issues.
Today, the totally unnecessary leadership challenge that is currently limping to its conclusion in the Labour Party can arguably be understood as institutional stakeholders of pre-Corbyn Labour seeking to prevent the party from changing.
In order to understand political parties, it is generally necessary not only to consider their own internal dynamics, and their competition with other similarly constituted parties; but also how those parties intersect with social and economic interests, and how the political divisions of the day are reflected through the party system.
It is also necessary to understand the degree to which political parties, and election contests, are only one component of democratic and civic society. Ideologies, reform strategies and economic plans, among other ideas and programmes, are generated not only by political parties, but also by think tanks, trade unions, public intellectuals, universities, government departments, faith groups, single issue campaigns, charities and others. Contested elections are certainly an indispensible element of liberal democracy, but democratic society can be reduced to neither the electoral cycle, nor to the political parties which contest elections. Political divisions in society and competing economic and social interests lead to conflict at the political and ideological level, and also more direct conflict, for example, such as industrial action by trade unions.
To stay with the example, of the Republicans; in the mid nineteenth century in the United States the two issues of slavery and Catholic immigration cut across both the Whig and the Democratic parties, so that the most vital political issues of the day could not find expression through the existing party system, leading to the eclipse of the Whigs in favour of the newly created Republican Party. The campaign against slavery, which Owen Smith would have perhaps decried as a mere “protest movement” eventually triumphed, and of course for many years it was a protest movement that had no realization through a political party capable of winning power. However, sometimes it is necessary to stick to your principles, time and time again protest movements change history.
While much is made of the continuity between Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diana Abbott and others with the legacy projects of the Labour left, and the absurd attempts by self-proclaimed “moderates” to conjure up the ghost of the early 1980s; the far more significant phenomenon is the discontinuity with the establishment consensus about austerity economics, and the development of economic policies by John McDonnell and his team which commit a future Labour government to calibrated state intervention for a capitalist economy that works.
McDonnell is not arguing for “nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy” or other nostrums from the 1980s, but for a “mixed economy of public and social enterprise… a private sector with a long-term private business commitment” and a national investment bank channeling £500 million into the productive economy. Labour now argues for economic stimulus through, for example, a council house building programme. In a move that is controversial with some Keynesian economists, Labour is committed to “a fiscal policy framework that broadly states that the Government should borrow for investment (the capital account) and that over the business cycle Government day-to-day spending (the Government’s current account) should be in balance”.
[Since the second world war,] high points in net public sector investment coincide with the very large surpluses on the public sector current account (or in reality precede those surpluses by 18 months to two years). This demonstrates a fundamental law of public finances. The returns to the public sector from investment are not registered in the investment account but are overwhelmingly returned to the public sector current account.
When governments build a rail network, a university science park, superfast broadband, or when a local authority builds a home, the investment return is not more rail networks or homes than those built. It is registered as increased tax revenues and, via job creation, as lower social security outlays such as on unemployment, payments for poverty such as tax credits, and so on. The investment comes back mainly as tax revenues, which is part of the current account balance. The UK Treasury estimates that every £1 rise in output is recorded as a 70p improvement in government finances, 50p of which is higher tax revenues. Those revenues can either be used either for more investment, or to increase current spending or some combination of the two.
The challenge of “Corbynism” for the establishment is that it has created a mass party committed to an economic policy that breaks with austerity, and this means a wholesale rejection of the mainstream political consensus.
The phenomenal popularity of Corbynism cannot be understood by considering the personality or personal attributes of Jeremy Corbyn himself, notwithstanding the qualities of the man which genuinely do inspire so many people. His much commented upon honesty and sincerity connect with huge numbers of people outside of normal politics not only because they are admirable traits, but because when he addresses the problems of job insecurity, NHS waiting times, the housing crisis, low pay and benefits sanctions, he does so in a way which acknowledges that these are not merely debating points to be checked off by a politician seeking votes, but are the grinding daily reality which oppressively shape the lives of millions of citizens for whom the society and economy we live in simply does not work.
Yet up until now, the aspirations of these millions of people has not found expression through the mainstream political process, instead there has been a growing gulf between them and the professionalized, managerial politics of the Westminster elite. This has expressed itself in a number of morbid symptoms: through falling voter turnout, the rise and fall of the BNP, through the advance of UKIP, the vote for Brexit, through hostility to immigrants, and the near total eclipse of Labour in Scotland. Alongside this has been a growing phenomenon of progressive politics finding expression outside of the Labour Party, whether through the patchy but nevertheless substantive electoral challenges of the Green Party (and latterly Respect), or through manifestations like the Occupy movement, or the growing networks of alternative media on the Internet.
The political landscape has been so transformed by all these aspects of anti-establishmentism, that it has become extremely challenging for future electoral success by the Labour Party. Continuing in the old way is simply not an option.
Those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party broadly fall into two camps. Liz Kendall’s recent article in the Financial Times is truly remarkable in that it demonstrates almost no reflection about the challenges facing Labour. According to Kendal the immediate task is to accommodate to Tory policies over welfare spending and the economy. These irreconcilables are utterly bereft of ideas, and the most signal characteristic of the centre-right in the Labour Party for the last decade has been its inability to develop new tactics, leadership or strategy. The last general election saw 36.8% vote for the Conservatives and 30.5% for Labour. A strategy only of triangulating to win over swing Tory voters may close that gap, but only at the likely expense of further moving Labour away from the millions who are disenchanted by politics as usual. The self-proclaimed moderates are locked into a Groundhog Day of low aspiration.
The other camp, personified by the hapless Owen Smith, partially understands the need to embrace radical policies, but do not want the Labour Party to be changed in the process. The ridiculous purging of individuals from the party for such misdemeanors as tweeting agreement with the Green Party shows a dangerous lack of understanding of how mainstream political parties need to adapt and change. The Labour Party has played an historical role as “gatekeeper” allowing those who have previously been involved in radical anti-establishment activity to bring their creativity and new ideas into the mainstream, in exchange for adapting to the constitutionality of the Labour Party. In the current context, those behind the Labour purge are not only seeking to exclude handfuls of individuals, but seeking – like King Cnut – to arrest the tide of history, and prevent the Labour Party from stepping outside the tired and failed routines of Westminster politics. Adopting Corbyn’s policies, but without seeking to connect with the social phenomenon that has seen hundreds of thousands flooding into the Labour Party, is doomed to failure.
The achievement of the last year in Labour’s politics is that the party is now articulating an increasingly coherent ideological opposition to the Conservatives, based upon a fundamental critique of their economic presumptions. Of course, further elaboration of policy needs to happen, and sadly the turbulence from the Parliamentary Labour Party has delayed that necessary process. The anti-Corbyn rebels say that winning the election is indispensible, without acknowledging that such an election victory will be highly challenging whoever is leader, and that harnessing the party to the mass movement building behind Corbyn is an advantage not a disadvantage. Mass rallies may not win election, but they are certainly better than small rallies, whether or not Ice Cream is provided.
But in any event, political opposition cannot be reduced to elections. We do need to build the best, most effective and determined campaign to win the next general election, and that means uniting as far as possible all the talents of the Labour movement, and overcoming the divisions of the last few months. I think we can win and that Jeremy Corbyn will be Prime Minister, but it will be a tough battle.
But Labour also needs to win the battle of ideas: in arguing for and campaigning for an economy that works for ordinary people and that benefits and revitalizes communities, we can change the ideological consensus. The best way to finish off the Tories is to expose the degree to which they are the party of the past, and that Labour is the party of the future.