An ideological split in the Labour Party?

This post expands on some of the ideas explored in this discussion with Jolyon Maugham regarding this post by Colin Talbot – read those and you’re up to date

Colin Talbot’s recent post on the future of the Labour party suggests that it is on course “for an all out civil war between its social democrats on the one side and its reformist and revolutionary socialist wings on the other”. The division, as he sees it, is between “social democrats who are comfortable with – indeed positively believe in – a ‘mixed economy’, welfare state and limited redistribution, and reformist socialists who see complete public ownership (at least of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy), public services and redistribution as stepping stones towards a fully socialist future”. He suggests that Britain is in danger of a “ ‘continental’ configuration of the left”, from which we can infer that he takes Die Linke or the Left Front  to be ‘socialists’, compared to the ‘social democrats’ of the SPD or French Socialists (Those party names alone should give an indication of how confusing this terminology can be!). 

This is plausible, at least in the long term. Jeremy Corbyn isn’t as extreme as Jean-Luc Melenchon or Oskar Lafontaine, the two most prominent far left politicians in France and Germany, respectively. I can’t imagine him being as confident in his desire to overthrow capitalism, or working in the framework of historical materialism. But the relatively pragmatic policies they tend to present for election don’t seem too far away from things Corbyn might endorse. And as Talbot says, given the radical backgrounds of some of the people around Corbyn, we could expect such a division to open up.

For now, though, I can’t see much that Corbyn has said or done to provoke such a split. His (and John McDonnell’s) economic policies exemplify the relatively moderate position he has taken. McDonnell’s conference speech was remarkable for its continuity with Ed Balls. His team of economic advisers are impeccably Keynesian, a point of considerable frustration for genuine Marxists who have been critical of this tack.

It may be helpful to distinguish between different types of political disagreement. Disagreements can be about ends (which fundamental principles we believe in)  or about means (the way to achieve them). Political parties have almost always been divided on questions of principle or ideology – fundamentally they have wanted different things. Labour was historically more concerned about inequality, the condition of the working class and wanted social change; the Conservatives were more interested in protecting the middle class and resisting social change. Disagreements over how to realise these principles have historically been less significant.

In practice, the distinction between ends and means in politics is not a clear one. Ultimate principles can be specified so vaguely as to be almost vacuous: almost everybody is in favour of a happier and more prosperous society. But questions like whether there should be a high level of public services, significant redistribution of income or wealth, access to healthcare and education for all etc, are best understood as questions of ideology rather than practicalities.

The historical divisions of the left on the continent stem from a major dispute of principle: whether to pursue parliamentary or revolutionary politics. My argument is that the differences between the current Labour leadership and the discontents in the party is nothing like as extreme. Nothing in the principles or vision that Corbyn is espousing is particularly divisive. The society he is trying to create doesn’t sound particularly utopian. If anything, it sounds a bit like Germany (another thing in common with the previous regime).

The disagreements occur over how to achieve this vision. The arguments against Corbyn (I’ll take Jolyon Maugham’s from our discussion as an example) fall into two categories: strategic and technical. Strategic criticisms suggest that Corbyn is incapable of winning power. Maugham talks about the “distrust” the public feels towards him, and the danger of his “rhetoric” on businesses. The point here is not that Corbyn is morally wrong, or has the wrong goals, but that he is never going to be in a position to implement them. In my view, this is the major dispute at the heart of the Labour party. The major objection that many have to New Labour is that they believe it was too timid. It was so focused on electoral popularity that it compromised too much and failed to achieve all it might have done for fear of alienating voters. I believe opposition to Corbyn, similarly, is about where he has drawn this line: it is less about what he believes than his unwillingness to compromise on it to attract the ‘centre ground moderate voter’.

A second set of objections are technical – again, it’s not that Corbyn wants the wrong things, but that he lacks the judgement to achieve them. Basically, the claim is that he is bad at policy. In this category falls ideas like increased benefits for pensioners or spending money from closing the ‘tax gap’. I think Maugham almost certainly has a point that Corbyn has ducked hard decisions – I suspect that is why he has made such bold statements on pensioner benefits, rather than seeing them as a particular priority per se.   

What these arguments have in common is that they reflect a lack of confidence in the capabilities of Corbyn, rather than a disagreement with his principles. I think this is significantly different from the situation Talbot outlines, which is an atmosphere of deep-rooted ideological disagreement. However, there is one clear and dangerous ideological fault line opening up: defence/foreign policy. The one area where Corbyn has taken an extreme line, and does have a substantially different view from much of the Labour party is on Britain’s role in the world: he rejects the idea of military aggression out of hand. I don’t know if this issue is salient enough to cause a split, and it wouldn’t be the split that Talbot predicts. Though Socialists (as Talbot terms them) have tended to be more pacifistic, I don’t think the pacifist/non-pacifist division naturally maps onto his ideological cleavage. But it is interesting to note that the German Communist Party originally split from the Social Democrats over whether to go to war.

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