To celebrate the birthday of Julius Caesar, born 2116 years ago, here are some thoughts on Corbyn’s claim to democratic legitimacy.
Diane Abbott yesterday morning recited the now familiar refrain: Corbyn is the party leader by the will of the Labour Party membership. The unwieldy baggage of party membership has been joyfully cast off by the Tory Party, who yesterday revealed that the long-awaited last stage of the leader selection process would not in fact occur, it turning out that the members’ input in the final stage was not required. Similarly, SNP parliamentarians anointed Nicola Sturgeon as leader rather than allowing her appointment to go to a membership election.
But in Labour, Momentum activists, ‘£3 trots’, long-standing Militants, and syndicalists find themselves in a position of unprecedented importance. Their gleeful cries about rightfully owning the party have a tone of panicked surprise, but nothing that can match the abject terror of the parliamentary labour party, the PLP, whose party structure seems to them to have entered a period of crisis and decline, inaugurated not by Corbyn but by Miliband.
The Labour Party’s constitutional structure appears as a parody of the British constitutional system – there is a tripartite balance of PLP, Trade Unions and other affiliates such as socialist societies, and Labour Party members. To be crude, we might say that the PLP represents the experienced aristocracy, the trade unions the experience of the people. But the members are a difficult part to conceptualise. They represent no one but themselves.
When party members scream of their importance, the question on the lips of the labour coup strategisers is an indignant ‘Why should the members have any say?’ As Chuka Umunna said on the Daily Politics, ‘I’m not walking off from my party at the instruction from the people who have joined in the last two minutes.’ Members used to know their place – they were to disseminate the message of the party in order to win elections. They were to hold the offices required for running the party locally, to allow MPs to get along with more important work (note the embarrassing situation of David Coburn MEP, who through lack of interest in the role was forced to become the treasurer of his local UKIP branch). As a reward for their labour they were to be given some representation on policy forums that have a largely depleted role, and on the National Executive Committee. The labour movement – the trade unions, co-operative organisations, socialist societies – had a clearer right to representation, since it could claim to represent working people, the people the party was founded to represent. The PLP are the experts: representing continuity-in-parliament, they nobly strive to uphold a reassuring constancy. And of course they are also representatives of the electorate. But members – what are they for, beyond grunt work? This is the undoubtedly reasonable question being asked this week, as thousands more people join the ranks of Labour membership, and the party nears overthrowal by a plebeian crowd.
The Tories, who have just disposed of their membership’s mandate like a used tissue, must be enjoying the spectacle of Labour being commandeered by the agents of democratic tyranny. Culpability seems to lie with the rather unlikely figure of Ed Miliband. His solution to the demand for weakening the trade union link in the labour party was to correspondingly weaken the PLP. American advisers encouraged him to develop a primaries system entirely unsuited to the British representative structure of the Labour Party, and a system as it turned out that would create a tyranny of the crowd, the mob, the plebs. Not only did Miliband increase the power of the members in electing a leader, he also increased the power of said leader by ending the elections of shadow cabinets by the PLP, allowing shadow cabinets to be appointed by the leader. Rather amusingly, this was justified at the time by a senior labour source who said “It is important that we no longer have the distraction of internal elections whilst we have a job to do of holding the government to account and preparing ourselves for the next election… It is important that we are talking to the public and not ourselves.”
Democratic tyranny had never been the tactic of the trade union part of the party. The strategy of the most powerful trade union force in Labour, Unite the Union, was a bunker tactic, adopted in 2011: Unite trained up candidates for selection and election in the 2015 General Election. Several of those candidates were duly elected. They were to lie low, staying out of trouble, waiting for the next wave of labour movement MPs. The whole plan was thwarted by an over-enthusiastic and expanding socialist membership, who forced the bunkered MPs to come out of hiding in Corbyn’s second desperate attempt to form a shadow cabinet. Having lost the sympathy of the PLP, these MPs now reluctantly represent the labour movement’s divergence from the existing Labour MPs.
In the middle of the spectacle stands one man. Tom Watson, the only link in the dissolving Labour Family, was elected by the membership, has long-standing (and entirely cynical) links with the Left and the trade unions, and is able to work with the MPs. Thus, as the party moved into deeper crisis, Watson was the one to broker talks between the trade unions and the PLP, the nature of which we may never be privy to. They broke down, intentionally or unintentionally. All we can know is that for some time there was actual or feigned collaboration between the two more obviously legitimate parts of the Labour triumvirate – the trade unions and the PLP. Watson is the keystone of the whole structure, the one charged with saving the party from constitutional crisis and electoral ruin, the one who has for whatever reason shoved Angela Eagle in front of the tank driven by newly enfranchised labour members.
In the notorious meeting in which MPs expressed their lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Helen Goodman MP cried, ‘What’s John McDonnell doing there, lurking and skulking like Marc Antony?’ While these senators fear McDonnell, he seems to have no intention of making a move just now. But Goodman is correct that McDonnell is a general of Corbyn, who is the Caesar figure in his own party, brought to power through the support of a part of the population that has only a questionable right to representation. This support has made him sterner and more ambitious than his backbenchers reckoned. And if Corbyn is Caesar, Watson is Cicero – the constitutionalist trying to hold it all together.
When constitutions start to fall apart their demise can only be hindered, not reversed. The membership will not relinquish power, and the PLP will not stand for being controlled. But the fatal flaw of the pro-Corbyn Labour members is to repeatedly hold up the Labour constitution as the grounds for their legitimacy. Corbyn has a constitutional right to remain leader, they cry. Constitutional legitimacy is such a poor basis for power from a socialist perspective that it is somewhat surprising to see this line being parroted by anarchists and militants. They bemoan the ‘undemocratic’ actions of Corbyn’s opponents, as if they were not engaged in small-scale coups five years ago in the context of a Labour constitution that they perceived to be unfair.
The fact that thousands of people have signed up to an organisation that Miliband haphazardly reformed into a membership organisation does not give Corbyn or their movement legitimacy. Members do not deserve power in the party of labour by dint of their paying membership fees, or even by virtue of their activism in the party. Why should votes be bought with either time or money? These arguments for constitutional legitimacy are inward-looking and not compelling for the electorate. As Jeremy Corbyn said at the Durham Miner’s Gala last week, constitutional pressure is no pressure at all. Of course certain tactics are required to prevent a right-wing seizure of the party, involving the mobilisation of membership in votes. But the role of members should be to earn the party’s popular legitimacy, not crow about constitutional right. In this, Owen Jones was right when he wrote two weeks ago that ‘A clear coherent message that would resonate with people who aren’t signed-up left-wing activists, that addressed people’s every day problems and aspirations, has yet to be created — and that’s a collective failure of the left.’
The complaint of socialists in the Labour Party for the last ten years has always been that the party is too geared towards parliamentarism and too tied up in constitutional coils. The desire of members to become politicians, the desire of Unite to have its own group of MPs, led to the PLP becoming unduly powerful. But now the socialists have seized power the cloak they have inherited from the old controllers has become an iron cage. As we wrote in Roch Winds, when socialists get stuck in cages, or lobster pots, they become an easy target. They need to break out while they can or else they will lose momentum. We all know the members have constitutional advantage. They need to turn that advantage into power and control, and to do that they need to stop talking about the constitutional legitimacy of Corbyn. They need to give other reasons as to why they should commandeer the party, why Corbyn should be the leader of the opposition, why they have any place in history at all.
When he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
If they really mean to take control, socialists need to make Labour the party of the class, not the party of a damaged constitution.