Over the past couple of weeks I have had several conversations with people (journalists and academics) who cannot understand why Labour under Jeremy Corbyn may not be focused on, or even that bothered about, winning or losing the General Election. It seems so counter-intuitive.
What it is necessary to understand about the motely crew of Bennite socialists, Trotskyists, Communists and ‘fellow-travellers’ now running Labour is their attitude to Parliamentary Democracy is very different from most.
What they share are three assumptions about how genuine socialist change can happen:
First, they believe that real progressive change only ever comes about through mass movements from below – Tony Benn – their mentor and for many years leader – gave numberless speeches about how vital the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the trade union movement, etc were in advancing progressive change.
Benn reinforced this when he eventually announced he was retiring from Parliament in 1999 – he said “I am not retiring from politics, but I believe the work that needs to be done now to rebuild the Labour Party is best done from outside.”
Second, they believe “the Parliamentary Road to Socialism” can easily turn into a trap for radicals – that the British Parliamentary system and its surrounding institutions (Monarchy, civil service, armed forces, etc) is adept at absorbing and neutralizing radical socialist politics. The ‘bible’ of many of the hard/far left on this was Ralph Miliband’s “Parliamentary Socialism” was a historical analysis of how Parliament and winning elections had diverted the Labour Party from serious socialist politics.
Third, they believe that even if by some miracle a truly socialist Labour government were to be elected it would face huge opposition – up to and including a coup against it – from “the Establishment”. So to avoid being overthrown and drive through radical change it would need strong “extra-parliamentary” support willing to “man the barricades” if necessary. That is why they have put so much effort into building Momentum – which is seen as a sort extra-parliamentary auxiliary.
So this amounts to a strategy that focuses on (1) building a solidly socialist Labour Party that can resist the temptations of “parliamentarism” and (2) building mass movements for change – trade unions, protest movements, etc. Running in, and winning, an election is subsidiary to these two principal aims. Indeed winning can easily be a distraction from them.
There are significant differences between the various factions that comprise ‘Team Corbyn’ – the Bennites (Corbyn himself and most of the supportive MPs), McDonnell (more of an unaffiliated Trotskyist) and the “ex” communist apparatchiks like Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray – but they would all agree with the above approach in general.
That is why Corbyn is so focused on rallies – building the movement – which have very dubious, if any, electoral benefit. The post-local government and mayoral elections rally in Manchester which gained publicity because the new Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, didn’t show up was organized by Momentum, not the Labour Party.
It is why their aim is to get the Labour vote-share up to at least or above the 30% achieved by Miliband in 2015. This is also why Corbyn’s personal appearances seem aligned with seats where Labour can pile-up their vote rather than the ones they have to win to protect their existing MPs, much less win the General Eelection.
In 1983 Tony Benn hailed the General Election as significant progress for socialism because 8 million people had voted for a socialist Labour manifesto – Labour lost 52 MPs.
In 2017 the Corbyn team will claim 9-10 million people voting for his Labour is huge progress – even if Labour lose a similar number of MPs (as current polls and analysis suggest they might). They will seek to cling on to control of the Labour Party at all costs. That is their version of New Labour’s “Project” and its why for them losing the election is secondary.