Opening Labour

Media controversies about civility are obscuring the real battle in the Labour Party — for real democracy and representation.

Simon Moores / Flickr

In the litany of scaremongering stories about the British left, the “Trot plot” is an evergreen favorite. The Labour left, the line goes, is overrun with Trotskyists who are endlessly scheming. And so it was with the latest story about a “hard left plot to out MPs” — as the Times put it — which, it turned out, was a Facebook post from a local branch of Momentum, in South Tyneside, suggesting that fifty Labour MPs should “join the liberals.”

It was ill-advised, swiftly removed, and not representative of Labour policy. Nor was it a position taken by Momentum, the grassroots organization of supporters for party leader Jeremy Corbyn. One of the MPs mentioned by the original post was Luciana Berger, Labour’s MP for Liverpool Waverside. According to the Liverpool Echo, in a story that quickly spread across social media, Corbyn supporters had gained control of the local Labour group and demanded an apology from the MP, who had resigned from the shadow cabinet last year during the party’s leadership challenge. A response from the new constituency Labour party secretary made clear this one officer’s words were not shared by this new Labour executive, who looked forward to working with Berger.

At party level, two Corbyn-supporting MPs, shadow fire minister Chris Williamson and party chair Ian Lavery, suggested a review of the rules over reselection. In terms cast by the not-at-all melodramatic Telegraph as showing the Labour party to be “in chaos,” Lavery said: “You can’t be any more democratic than allowing the people in your constituency to pick who they want as their MP.” But shadow cabinet members Richard Burgon and Angela Rayner, also Corbyn allies, have since spoken more favorably about the party’s “broad church”; with Rayner urging for focus in the fight against “the real enemy”. Fostering a united Labour front against the Conservatives fits with the party’s permanent campaign mode, smoothing issues that could likely aggravate rifts.

What’s interesting, though, is how quickly things spiraled, among Britain’s commentariat, into frenzied claims that the Labour left, emboldened by the party’s surge in the recent election, was about to purge all those less than gushingly fanatical about its leader. Much of this seems to be about confirmation bias and bad-faith assumptions that still cling to the Corbyn leadership — even while the stories generating panic were about local activists rather than about anyone in positions of power.

The press fosters a selective view of how power is exercised across the political spectrum: Conservatives are considered ruthlessly efficient, an admirable trait in pursuit of their natural right to rule, while a blind eye is cast over the control freakery of the Blair era — anyone remember the proposed loyalty pledges of that time? — which is one of the factors making the current accusations of plots and purges so charged. Meanwhile, rudeness and hostility from Corbyn supporters is cast as endemic and a defining feature, while aggressiveness outside this group is not viewed as seriously, or seen as part of the problem.

This is not to excuse insulting behavior, much less to try and airbrush the wholly unpleasant macho posturing of demanding an apology of an MP on maternity leave. Whatever view you take of Luciana Berger as an MP, there is plenty to be said about the unacceptably relentless scrutiny and abuse experienced by women across the political spectrum. This is also why, surveying the current state of our political conversation, a more realistic baseline assumption is that neither civility nor offensiveness is unique to any particular side of the spectrum.

Still, member democracy is a component of Corbyn’s politics and it is here that things get fractious. It isn’t only the political appeal of the party’s turn leftwards under the new leadership that has attracted a surge of new members, it is also the element of political participation beyond voting every five years, the chance to get involved and make a difference. This potent combination is behind the election mobilization pulled off by Momentum, sending throngs of enthusiastic campaigners into marginal constituencies — and, as a happy by-product, creating affinities inside the frame of some previously frosty dynamics at local party level.

But it’s clear that democratizing the grassroots should go beyond that, with more engagement, participation and accountability in the relationship with both constituency MPs and the parliamentary party. This is where things rub against the centralizing instincts of Blairism, with, among other things, its practice of parachuting MPs into constituencies, often against the wishes of local activists, and penchant for remote, technocratic candidates on a career trajectory.

This began to shift with Labour’s 2015 intake of MPs, some of whom are now key members of the shadow cabinet. And you can see development in 2017’s newcomers, too. Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP for North West Durham, pointed to this new reality in comments about parliament during her maiden speech, saying that the building “reeks of the establishment” and that its “intimidating nature is not accidental — the clothes, the language, the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination is symbolic of the system at large.”

Recent years have seen an emerging generation of politicians who, far from being centrally dispatched, are embedded in local communities. They are in line with Corbyn in no small part because of a deep-rooted understanding of the cruelties of austerity and neoliberalism, and an analysis of the type of politics required to redress that. They hint at the possibility for another kind of representation, one where remote and managerial politics is replaced by one that increasingly resembles the wider society it claims to speak for.

While all this playing out there is anger among Corbyn supporters at grassroots level that, rather than welcome the new membership as a positive counter to mass political disengagement, parts of the party apparatus viewed it as cause for alarm. Newer members have been barred from participation in internal elections and conference, and often, when they haven’t been excluded, their involvement in party affairs has been met with suspicion or derision. There is also frustration that some party MPs sabotaged the Corbyn leadership and, in a few cases, continued to undermine it even during the election campaign.

In this context and with the Left now ascendant, the challenge for Labour’s grassroots is to avoid being domineering in victory while retaining their goals. Talk with Momentum organizers and you get the sense this is ongoing work: the ambition is not to take positions at local level for the sake of it, but rather for the purpose of promoting an inclusive, participatory style which would represent a change in Labour’s political culture.

This bit is key because, as women, people of color, or anyone else who sits outside the dominant group know all too well, inclusiveness within left movements does not happen organically. It does not just sort itself out. For member democracy to be a truly empowering venture, conscious and continuous attempts to make inclusiveness and participation a built-in part of the program are an essential part of the politics.