The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Fighting for the heart and soul of Labour!

Photo by Jason
The Labour Party is currently embroiled in a bitter internal struggle over the election of its next leader. While the challenger Owen Smith enjoys the predominant support of the Labour MPs in Parliament as well as the party establishment, the vast majorities of constituencies and individual labour members endorse Jeremy Corbyn. Critics of Corbyn argue that he lacks the necessary leadership qualities, visible in his allegedly weak role in the EU referendum, and is unable to ensure a victory by the Labour Party against the Conservatives in the next general elections. In this blog post, I will argue that this kind of criticism misunderstands completely what the current movement around Jeremy Corbyn is about.

A different kind of leadership

The general expectation in liberal representative, parliamentary politics is a focus on ‘a strong leader, who can deliver’. A leader is expected to tell others what they should do with the leader determining, together with a small group of advisers, the most important policies of the party and, when in power, the policies of the government. This understanding of leader is closely related to the institutional set-up of the British state. As Hilary Wainwright has recently succinctly put, ‘the “strong man” notion of leadership by which Jeremy Corbyn appears all too often to be judged is not just a matter of a “macho” style (though a strong feminist influence would help in any radical rethinking of leadership). It is embedded in the nature of the UK's unwritten constitution and the immense but opaque power that it gives to the executive: extensive powers of patronage, powers to go to war, be ready to press the nuclear button, to be at the table of the UN Security Council and NATO, and in many ways preserve the continuity of the British state’ (Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1282; July 19, 2016).

Corbyn in Coventry, Photo by Ciaran Norris

Jeremy Corbyn is clearly different. Soft-spoken, principled, always prepared to listen to others, he refrains from commanding others what they should do. What is often described as an inability to organise a well structured opposition is parliament is in fact the result of facilitating the participation of others in decision-making. Empowering people to become political agents is key to understanding this different kind of leadership. Although a long-time serving MP for the Labour Party, Corbyn has never been part of the Westminster establishment. Rather, he has been much more closely aligned with a new type of politics based on social movements such as the CND and their emphasis on activities outside Parliament and the surrounding lobbying activities.

A new type of politics

Traditional liberal democratic policy-making has been increasingly challenged across Europe and the wider world. Whether expressed in the Occupy movement, the grassroots movements in Greece resulting in the election of the Syriza government in January 2015 or the Indignados movement in Spain and their challenge of austerity policies, people have increasingly turned their backs to traditional politics and started to organise separately from the bottom up. In the UK, the movement behind the leadership election of Jeremy Corbyn in the summer of 2015 is the expression of this new type of politics (see Corbyn’s Campaign: The story of a remarkable summer).   

Within traditional politics, the role of individual party members is secondary. Disregarded in general discussions of policy formulation, members are mainly mobilised around election times to campaign for the party. As I witnessed myself in Nottingham, the election of Jeremy Corbyn has resulted in a fundamental transformation of local Labour Party branches. Once disenchanted by the way they were side-lined by the party leadership in London, now members have started to attend local meetings in large numbers participating in concrete policy discussions not only about local issues, but also general national policies. If they continue to support Corbyn despite the revolt by MPs and the party establishment, it is not because they are part of some kind of ‘Corbyn fanclub’, as some have alleged. It is because they realise that a victory by Owen Smith would imply a return to the old days (see The Corbyn Factor: What does it mean in practice?).

Climate change march, Photo by Matthew Kirby

David Graeber, a long-time activist and observer of this new type of bottom-up democratic politics, points out that traditionally members of new social movements have avoided political parties. Whether on the left or on the right of the political spectrum, they were all regarded as part of a political establishment having been complicit in maintaining the existing system characterised by continuing austerity and increasing levels of inequality. ‘It was our strong conviction that real, direct democracy, could never be created inside the structures of government. One had to open up a space outside. The Corbynistas are trying to prove us wrong’ (The Guardian, 5 July 2016).

In turn, it is not surprising that Labour MPs are opposed to this kind of new politics. The reason for their opposition to Corbyn is not that he is not electable. As Wainwright correctly points out, ‘electability in the context of today's anti-establishment consciousness requires radical political reform and the alliances to achieve it, not an obsession with being an establishment in waiting’ (Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1282; July 19, 2016). Jeremy Corbyn offers precisely this. Labour MPs, however, clinging to the traditional, old system of policy-making, feel threatened by this new type of politics, which undermines their privileged position in the political system and the way things have been done.

Refugee march and rally, Photo by Paul The Archivist

As Graeber asserts, ‘if the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. It’s an attempt to change the rules of the game, and those who object most violently to the Labour leadership are precisely those who would lose the most personal power were it to be successful: sitting politicians and political commentators’ (The Guardian, 5 July 2016).

A focus on anti-austerity and social justice

Importantly, this new politics expressed in the movement around Corbyn is not simply about a new form of policy-making. It has concrete contents expressed in clear anti-austerity policies, anti-Trident renewal and a general focus on issues of social and global justice. When the welfare bill was voted on in July 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership candidate at the time, who rebelled against interim party leader Harriet Harman’s recommendation to abstain (The Guardian, 21 July 2015).

It is this clear anti-austerity, pro-social justice position, together with the new type of politics, which continues to ensure such broad support for Corbyn amongst Labour Party members and beyond. Long may it last!

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

21 August 2016

1 comment:

  1. A great blog! The Labour Party membership in the constituency where I live has tripled and generally is buzzing with activity to support Jeremy (admittedly I live in Islington North, but I don't think we're unique!), although 100 people did vote against him (284 in favour of JC) at our local nomination meeting. It is apparent that the political establishment, however aware it may be of voters' lack of trust in feeling of connection to it, is running scared of the prospect of a senior politician who has actually gained the public's respect and trust by voicing policies and beliefs that run counter to the neo-liberal economic model existing in the UK. Interesting times.


Comments welcome!