The ‘organic’ crisis of the British Labour Party: is it too late to save Labour?

The British Labour Party has embarked on a self-inflicted public meltdown, thanks to the action of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in triggering a leadership contest against Jeremy Corbyn. This is taking place just a month after the biggest political and economic shock in my lifetime: Brexit. Whilst the governing Tory Party, the European Union and the pan-European elite were roiling under the hammer blow of Brexit…Hilary Benn and others organised a mass resignation of MPs from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. The failed ‘coup’ culminated in a ‘no-confidence’ vote against Corbyn by 172 MPs and triggered the move to a leadership contest. Sustained pressure on Corbyn by the Labour right-wing to stand down followed; a situation only prevented by the steadfast action of the leaders of the trade unions. The refusal of the unions forced the coup plotters and their busted flush into the open. We must be clear: it is the Labour right-wing which have made the Labour Party a laughing stock to the general public and clearly lined up, alongside the Murdoch-owned media, against Mr Corbyn. By inflicting such a massive and public attack on the Labour Party, the Labour right have precipitated a ‘conjunctural’ crisis of the party in the midst of an ‘organic’ crisis of British society. The question must be posed: is it too late to save Labour?

We must be clear what the British Labour Party is: it has always been an uneasy parliamentary and political alliance. Starting life as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, it was a pact between the trade unions, ethical and statist socialists, to ensure independent Labour representation on political bodies. It was during the First World War that Labour MPs first entered government and following the war a clause, the ‘socialist’ clause IV, was inserted into the new constitution of the party:

‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’

It was Tony Blair and ‘New’ Labour which removed clause IV and definitively won the British Labour Party to the Thatcherite agenda and the neo-liberal ‘common-sense’ of our era. This is the strategic ‘conjuncture’, but we are also witnessing the emergence of new forces, a re-energised layer of young people, workers and trade unionists. A significant issue here is that these new layers have awoken to political consciousness in the midst of an ‘organic’ crisis of the British Labour Party and wider British state and society.

What do we mean by ‘organic’ crisis? Antonio Gramsci, a Communist theoretician in the 1920s and 1930s who died in a Fascist Italian prison, defined ‘organic’ crisis in a number of ways. Most importantly he defined this type of crisis as a ‘certain point’ when ‘social classes become detached from their traditional parties.’ A breakdown between ‘“represented and representatives”’.[1] This is the wider significance of the revolt of the PLP against the membership and unions of the British Labour Party. Further, this revolt by the right-wing is matched by the electoral changes hitting the Party across Britain: in Scotland it is unclear if Labour will ever recover from Ed Miliband’s and ‘New’ Labour’s disastrous leadership; in the north of England a similar detachment and disenchantment, although not expressed electorally so far; whilst in Northern Ireland there is a vibrant Constituency Labour Party which is still prevented from contesting elections openly; it is only in the midlands and south of England and in Wales that Labour is still holding up. It is into this uncertain electoral field that the Labour right-wing has seen it fit to attack, denigrate and publicly shame the party. The conjuncture is favourable to the Labour Party: the governing Tory party is in disarray following Brexit, so why has the Labour right broken ranks so catastrophically?

The Labour right-wing has broken ranks so decisively because they know the political ground is shifting. They’ve clearly adopted ‘red-scare’ tactics more suited to the Daily Mail than the labour movement. Their strongest argument, however, is that they wish to be in government and not a ‘protest party’. The left-wing of the Labour Party is weak on this issue as it does have an aversion to taking government. The question is, why? Because much of the left looks at government as the pond they wish to rule but, with a guarantee they will never have to place a toe in the water. The key issue for the left is not whether to be in government or not, the key issue is: on whose behalf? Never again must a government, led by the British Labour Party, be a government of imperialist misadventure (Tony Blair, 1997-2008), nor that of saving the 1% at our collective expense (Gordon Brown, 2008-10). The Labour Party was set up to deliver socialism for working people. Socialism means delivering real, tangible gain (in power and monetary terms) for working-class people. The Labour Party can be saved, but only by returning to its radical roots. If this requires losing the (neo-)liberal right-wing of the party then so be it. If they split the Labour Party, as they so clearly wish to do, then we must roll up our sleeves, like they did in 1931, and prepare the Labour Road to Power.

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 210.

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