‘A death toll for Blairite strategy’: Labour’s Leadership Contest So Far

by James McAsh

13 August 2016

After weeks of hand wringing by sections of the parliamentary Labour party we now have a leadership election. This has forced the rebels to select a candidate and to articulate a vision. It has also encouraged the Jeremy Corbyn campaign to clarify and refine its plans for the country. Now that we’ve seen two sets of policy pledges and a couple of hustings, we can begin to compare the candidates. So far I can see three clear dividing lines relating to strategy.

State-management vs economic transformation.

If you take him at his word, Owen Smith offers a programme of state-sponsored redistribution and an end to the government’s suffocation of public services. In other words, Smith wants to put up taxes and increase public spending, leading to a bigger and more compassionate state. This should not be underestimated, and in a sense it is refreshing. It is testament to how far Corbyn has shifted the political debate that these proposals read as though Blairism never happened. Smith is unafraid to reverse no fewer than six Conservative laws. A vote for Smith is a vote for the 1990s we never had.

By contrast, Corbyn’s proposals begin with the recognition that the last 20 years did in fact happen. The world has become increasingly globalised. Our industrial base has collapsed and entire communities have been thrown onto the scrap heap. Neoliberalism has permeated our schools, our NHS and our communities: our lives are increasingly out of our control and governed by unaccountable elites under the guise of ‘the market’. The problem is not that public services have been under-funded for six years, it’s that for decades now our economy has been a casino-rigged against us.

The Corbyn offer is for a restructured economy. This means the creation of the first proper industrial strategy in 40 years, designed to deliver £500bn of infrastructure and jobs to the communities which have lost out since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Instead of trying to paper over the cracks caused by neoliberalism, this approach begins to challenge its fundamental tenet that the market knows best. The same could be said of the proposal to introduce universal public childcare. This will radically alter the gendered inequalities in the economy much more than any quota for women on company boards.

So the question comes down to this: does capitalism basically work? If the answer is “yes but neoliberalism has gone a bit too far so needs to be coupled with public spending” then vote for Smith. If instead you see capitalism as fundamentally opposed to human freedom, and neoliberalism as a particularly aggressive form, then you’re better off with Corbyn.

Politics as spectacle vs politics as participation.

In the candidates’ summation speeches at the first hustings, Smith focused on his personal qualities while Corbyn focused on what ‘we’ as a movement can achieve. This isn’t because Smith has a huge ego and likes to talk about his genitals, but rather a combination of two phenomena.

The first is a long-standing debate within the Labour party concerning the relationship between the membership and the parliamentary party (Labour’s MPs). Under Tony Blair the parliamentary party asserted its supremacy, subordinate only to the Leader’s Office, but under Ed Miliband and then Corbyn this has begun to slip. Neil Kinnock’s ‘barnstorming’ speech to the parliamentary Labour party last month concluded: “Dammit, this is our party!” By ‘our’ Kinnock doesn’t mean the Labour right, he means the Labour MPs.

The second phenomenon is newer, and much newer still to the Labour party. This is the networked social movements that arose in the anti-globalisation struggles of the 1990s and have since grown exponentially thanks to the rise of social media and the greater availability of smartphones. Unlike political parties or campaigning organisations, decision-making is fluid and taken by a crowd rather than a committee. These movements are traditionally suspicious of electoralism but 2015’s leadership election saw them collide with the hierarchical Labour party structures. Momentum is the – sometimes uneasy – synthesis of these organisational models.

The Smith offer shuns these social movements, and pays only lip-service to the rights of members to shape the party. Instead he emphasises his personal ability to command support from Labour MPs (the only important agents for social change) and to sell his policies and visions to the voting public. This model casts the electorate, and to an extent the party membership, as political consumers and spectators who watch politics played out in the media and every year or so vote for their favourite characters.

The Corbyn campaign recognises the power of political participation and seeks to utilise it and expand it. We have seen some tastes of this in the past ten months with initiatives like the People’s PPE and the exciting The World Transformed on the horizon. But the biggest change will come when Labour moves from activating its membership to encouraging political participation in areas where today there is none. Corbyn’s policy of a £500bn investment programme is coupled with a commitment to local democracy, the idea being that communities who have been ignored by the political elite will not only be flooded with jobs and opportunities, they will be put in the driving seat and empowered to decide on their local priorities.

Convincing the party vs convincing the country.

Corbyn’s opponents argue that he is just preaching to the converted whereas Smith has wider appeal to the electorate. In fact, their approaches to this leadership contest so far suggest the complete opposite. For instance, when Smith announced his plan to rename the Department for Work and Pensions to the Ministry of Labour he described the need for a ‘cold-eyed socialist revolution’. This is a not-too-subtle appeal to the robo-Trot membership that exists in the Labour right’s imagination. It is not their pitch to the swing-voters of Nuneaton.

More concerning though is Smith’s attitude to the EU referendum. Knowing that Labour party members, including Corbyn’s core support, are very pro-EU he has offered a plan to overturn the EU referendum. This is hugely dangerous. The Brexit vote was driven in part by a hostility to establishment politics. The worst possible response to this is to say that their democratic participation should be binned. This amounts to Labour giving half its northern seats to Ukip and writing a fat cheque to far-right street organisations. But that is not Smith’s concern.

By contrast, Corbyn’s proposals are the beginnings of a manifesto for the 2020 general election. In line with Paul Mason’s excellent analysis it situates the ‘urban salariat’ as new Labour’s core, and the “impoverished small-town working class as the battleground.” Bridging these populations is Labour’s best route to power, but the party can only launch a charm-offensive on this battleground if it is secure on its own home turf. Under Corbyn, Labour has a consolidated base so it is possible for him to begin to speak beyond that. But Smith still needs to piece together his own core support. He currently has a handful of people who still believe in Blairism, and a larger cohort of the soft-left who like Corbyn’s politics but think his leadership has been shambolic. Smith needs to expand this dramatically to win the leadership election, but doing so requires the creation of a precarious and unstable coalition which is totally unprepared to take on a general election.

Insurgent vs incumbent?

Owen Smith’s policies are a radical departure from Blairite orthodoxy but his strategy and ideology is not. His position on the economy is that it requires tinkering, not overhaul. He sees politics as a consumer activity, and the Labour party as being in need of better branding. And he sees triangulation as his best strategy to win this leadership election (and presumably the general election after). Hence the odd language and shopping-list approach to policies.

Corbyn is in the fortunate position of being both the incumbent and the insurgent. This allows him to offer a more coherent vision that builds on his already-consolidated base and looks outwards. It means that he can treat the newly-expanded membership as an asset to be treasured and utilised, not an obstacle to overcome. And it means that he can begin to craft an approach that can win a general election.

Last year’s leadership election was the death-toll for Blairite policy. It looks like this year’s could mark a similar end to Blairite strategy.

Photo: Labour party/YouTube

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