Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 27 February 2016

Labour's new militant tendency

I thought I would write a bit more about the strategy of undermining your own political party’s leadership, and why I think it is daft even on its own terms

One of the characteristics of a few on the far left of politics is a total belief in the ends they strive for, and very little concern about the means used to achieve it. Anything that brings on the revolution is OK. We now seem to have some near the centre of the political spectrum behaving in exactly the same way. Their revolution is deposing Corbyn from the leadership of the Labour party, and undermining that leadership is their means. For the sake of clarity, let me call this group the anti-Corbynistas.

When someone loses a leadership election, they generally retire gracefully. Sometimes they are offered a senior role under the new leader (Clinton and Obama) and become an active supporter. On other occasions (David and Ed) they would prefer, for whatever reason, to withdraw from the scene. And normally their supporters do the same. The goal of getting the party re-elected overrides any thoughts about who might have been a better leader. Other parties and the media will do their best to exploit these past divisions, but nearly everyone in the party avoids this bait.

As far as the contestants for the 2015 Labour party leadership are concerned, they have played by these rules. One chose to be in the Shadow Cabinet, and the two that declined have not spent their free time writing critical articles in the media. The majority of Labour MPs have made a similar choice: work with the new leadership or stay quiet. But an important minority, accompanied by a large group of political commentators, have not. They are the anti-Corbynistas.

Their mantra is the impossibility of Labour led by Corbyn winning. [1] This has the same status as a belief in the inevitability of revolution: just as the latter is fed by every injustice, so the former is supported by every opinion poll. For that reason I do not want to try and contest the certainty of their belief - there is no point. Instead I want to question the logic of what then follows.

Their reasoning goes like this. Because Corbyn is a barrier to Labour winning, the prime goal must be to hasten his departure by any means. As these individuals have easy access to the media, their main means is to criticise, or even mock, the Labour leadership at every turn. By doing this they ensure that Corbyn’s defeat at the polls will be sooner or greater, and thereby they believe hasten his removal from power.

What I want to argue that this tactic is counterproductive. Just as the behaviour of the revolutionary makes most sensible people doubt the attraction of any revolution, so the constant sniping at the leadership extends rather than shortens its life.

The reason is straightforward. Corbyn was elected by the membership, and if anything support for him has grown since then. (This and subsequent statements are based on this poll.) On key issues like Trident this membership share Corbyn’s own views, although it is worth noting that most expect their MP to represent their constituents views rather than their own. [2] So the question you have to ask is what will persuade Labour members to vote for someone else.

The obvious answer is a gradual realisation that Corbyn cannot win a general election, together with the emergence of someone else who looks like a better bet. [3] The mistake the anti-Corbynistas make is to then think that their tactics of open criticism will hasten this process. [4]

In fact the tactic will have the opposite effect. If they kept quiet and Corbyn loses in elections badly, as they are sure he will, then Labour members will see quite clearly the need for change and look elsewhere. By constantly generating bad publicity for the party, they muddy these waters. Corbyn supporters will claim that the bad results are the result of anti-Corbynista activity, and it will not be obvious they are wrong. So if anything the tactic of the anti-Corbynistas will delay, rather than hasten, the day that the membership elects someone else. That is why people like Tony Blair should tell them to stop. 

If their strategy is so obviously misguided, why do the anti-Corbynistas persist? One reason may be human nature: they hate Corbyn, and find it difficult to bite their tongue. Another is that they are constantly cheered on or goaded by the right, although you might imagine that would worry some people. But there is an alternative and more rational reason. Their real goal may not be the overthrow of Corbyn, but the creation of a new party. That strategy within the UK system is also flawed, but that would have to be the subject of another post.

Why am I, a macroeconomist, writing about such a political issue? I get annoyed by their constant references to me as a Corbyn supporter because I consort with the enemy, but I can live with that. (The same would come from the right anyway.) What annoys me more is that they are playing a large role in depriving the UK of an effective opposition party. Every time the new leadership launches a justified criticism of the current government, there is a fair chance this will turn into a discussion of divisions within Labour.

This is in danger of influencing macro policy. Osborne’s fiscal charter - which involves going for surplus - is so isolated in terms of informed opinion and out of tune with current concerns that it deserves to be ridiculed at every turn, so that if nothing else it is not tried again. I think that could happen with concerted pressure, but that pressure needs to include a united opposition. This did not happen before the election because Labour seemed to want to avoid the subject. We then had McDonnell for a moment flirting with the idea of supporting the charter. Now that Labour appear to have decided on a more sensible strategy, it would be tragic if this opposition to Osborne was diluted by some within Labour seeming to support the charter and dishing their own side.

[1] Some argue that these people are really a fifth column that should not be in the Labour party at all. I think this is wrong. Their belief that Corbyn is a barrier to Labour winning seems perfectly genuine to me, and I think Labour needs to be a broad church.

[2] Another part of the anti-Corbynista’s mantra is that Corbyn’s goal is to take control of the party by deselecting MPs, and there are examples of individuals who do indeed want that, but this poll suggests it is not what most party members want.

[3] Sometimes anti-Corbynistas complain that Labour party members would prefer to lose than compromise with the electorate: that does not seem true, but it also rather obviously contradicts their own strategy.

[4] In comments to this blog I have had some anti-Corbynistas deny this disloyalty has any effect on the electorate: again this seems very dubious but also contradicts the strategy.


  1. This is just getting your excuses in early for the failure of your preferred political strategy. You moaned and moaned before 2015 that Labour wasn't adopting the approach you would like robustly enough.

    Well, now they are.

    We can all only exercise our own judgement about how this will turn out.

    1. Hugo, you have completely missed the point. The post isn't about what strategy Labour should be adopting. It's about what strategy Corbyn's opponents should be adopting.

  2. The real problem is that the PLP cannot be trusted to nominate a non-'NuLab' candidate in any new leadership election - in fact it seems they can be relied on not to.

    That means that for the moment Corbyn is not in a position to stand aside in favour of a successor candidate.

    Until either the composition of the PLP or the rules for nominating leadership candidates is changed, Corbyn has no option but to remain leader. To do otherwise would be to betray the membership who gave him such an overwhelming mandate.

    If the PLP cannot find a way of tieing their own hands so as to assure the membership that the candidate they want to vote for will be nominated, it seems that a change in personnel ('deselection') represents Corbyn's only hope of relinquishing control of the party in good conscience.

  3. Part of the reason why some in the PLP want to get rid of Corbyn is because they believe he is unelectable but I suspect there are other reasons. One is deep hatred of the left amongst the Labour right. Another is the deep sense of entitlement that many on the Labour right have about their perceived role in the party. There is also the fact that many of his vocal critics are tied in to the key sectors of the state (most obviously the arms industry) that Corbyn opposes.

    I hate to say but I really think a significant element in the PLP would prefer to lose the next election- if that offered them the opportunity to banish the left for a generation - than win under Corbyn or someone else from the left of the party.

    1. I would say that it seems that a significant number of Jeremy's supporters would prefer to lose the election than move a pragmatic inch from their principals. I am an ordinary Labour party member- I am not tied to any one or anybody, I am not any sort of sore loser, I do not hate anybody, and I don't think any of the the other candidates at the leadership election were up to the job. I understand completely why Corbyn was elected, but he is the symptom not the cure. i would like a leader who had a broader vision, a keener intelligence and who was not hampered by having to prioritise old allegiances. It is intellectually lazy to characterise everyone who thinks like me as having some sort of old axe to grind and therefore to dismiss any criticism. I do feel that party is irrevocably split, and will remain so as long as the Corbynistas dismiss all criticism as some sort of personal vendetta, and keep suggesting that those of us who disagree with them are just Tories in disguise. I go to Progress meetings and meet very dedicated true Labour people, and i am sure there are many on Corbyn's side, and that he is a principled man, but i can't go to some Labour Party meetings because, some of the Corbynistas are very aggressive, unpleasant people.

      And I have to say, with regard to this blog, SimonW-L, that you are someone to whom I, as a lay person, have always turned, and will continue to turn, to make senses of economic matters, but i am really disappointed that your more political arguments are rather a little naive, and reveal some major blind spots.

    2. Glynis. You seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. Unless you are busy rubbishing what the Labour leadership are doing in the media, then you are not an anti-Corbynista. My discussion was specifically addressed to a minority of MPs and certain "political commentators" who are doing this. Nor is there anything in this post which tries to defend Corbynistas who are intolerant of other views - see the first footnote. I would just like to see the opposition given a chance to oppose, and to me it looks like the anti-Corbynistas are the ones stopping that happening.

    3. Thanks, Simon. I see what you mean. The whole issue has become so emotive in the LP, and ordinary members, across the spectrum of opinion get very upset when their motives and principles are questioned, by implication, by the more extreme voices on both sides. With this atmosphere, it's hard to see how unity can be achieved. But a strong leader is someone who should be able to overcome this sort of thing. The clue is in the name.

    4. 'Strong leadership' isn't just an attribute of the leader, though. Tony Blair certainly took a short way with actual and potential dissenters, but he was pushing at an open door, both in the PLP and in the Labour-sympathising media. Admittedly, New Labour was never wildly popular in the constituency parties, but the constituency parties had to take what they were given and shut up; in extremis they could even be suspended or dissolved. The worst that could happen was that individual members would drift away (as indeed they did).

      Corbyn was also pushing at an open door - among party members. But that's his only power base. If he started throwing his weight around to any extent, he wouldn't have Mandelson, Hattersley, Prescott, the Graun and the BBC in his corner; he'd have John McDonnell, Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott (I'm not even sure about Tom Watson). Imagining how a Corbynite 'party modernisation' programme would have been received tells its own story.

      That said, I wouldn't welcome a left-wing clampdown, and I don't think Corbyn's failure to implement one is entirely down to the weakness of his position at Westminster. I think he genuinely wants to foster debate in the party - as well as wanting a certain set of positions eventually to win the debate - and I think it's very much to his credit. It's just a shame some MPs take advantage of it, and do so in such silly and self-defeating ways ("You never followed the whip, so I'm not going to follow you, so there!").

    5. Phil. I agree. As I have said many times, to survive Corbyn/McDonnell have to reach an accommodation with the shadow cabinet and the majority of Labour MPs. Of some Corbynistas do not understand that, and some anti-Corbynistas do not want to see that, and that makes everything much more difficult that it needs to be.

    6. Reply to [Glynis Jones 28 February 2016 at 09:43]:

      "I can't go to some Labour Party meetings because some of the Corbynistas are very aggressive, unpleasant people."

      It's a real shame the way that some people can work against their own interests just by the way that they communicate, and behave as if they don't realise that being unpleasant and aggressive like that will just push people away from their point of view.

      Maybe the bigger problem is that the people organising those meetings are not firmly and assertively responding to such aggressive types and making it clear that they're undermining the whole endeavour. If you find it happens again I'd recommend bringing up this point with the group and having a good discussion about it, because the organisers have a responsibility to ensure that everyone feels comfortable enough to contribute to the discussion.

    7. I have to say I think that (present company excepted) the picture of the Labour left is often shall we say contrived (whether via groupthink or more conscious processes).

      I find that what has by now become the Labour establishment has become unused to any opposing views being put forward and tends to react rather badly. I attended the Progress Rally at conference and I have to say the atmosphere was that of a baying mob.

      However, as befits those used to a hegemonic position and to closing ranks in an organised fashion, aggressive Labour rightwingers are assured and supercilious rather than fervent or 'shrill'. They also of course manage to be blind to the faults of their own faction. On Twitter, for example, they regard their own use of expletives merely as urbane expressions of justified exasperation, while if any of the great unwashed get vernacular on them, the 'offending' Tweet is triumphantly passeed around as evidence of something-or-other. It's a distinctly unedifying spectacle.

      The upper echelons of the Progress faction are well-practised at this kind of thing, are more than happy to fall in line with their Conservative colleagues in painting the left as dangerous thugs.

      Accordingly passive-aggressive smears and provocation have become normalised among those opposed to Corbyn.

      Its a complicated dynamic, though an entirely standard one. There are producers of spin who are fully cognisant of the tactics they're using, and there are 'pure' consumers - those who earnestly internalise the line handed down to them.

      And there are a large number who manage to maintain a certain ambiguity - when a suitable attack line crops up, they certainly don't look a gift horse in the mouth by questioning it, and giving free rein to confirmation bias does the rest.

      This pdf purports to show an explicit version of the process in detail, via screenshots of Facebook conversations; this case concerns the use of false allegations of anti-semitism in Labour Youth elections. More experienced practioners have learned to express themselves in even more guarded terms.

  4. "most expect their MP to represent their constituents views rather than their own"

    This is not quite right - from memory, the Q was an oddly-worded one of the kind that immediately rings alarm bells - it asked whether MPs should represent the views of their constituents or of Labour party members *in their constituency*. I.e. it was framed as 'should MPs show favouritism among their consitituents?'.

    This question is also oddly abstract, and orthogonal to the issues relevant in a party system of representative democracy.

    Real, concrete issues are more along the lines of how far MPs should go in opposing Labour party policy where they think it necessary to do so to ensure re-election in their own constituency, etc.

    BTW the 'Election Data' guy gives the superficial impression of being a lone blogger but avoids divulging who paid for the YouGov poll (I asked him and he sarcastically, if not wittily, replied 'Barack Obama'). 'Election Data' seems to be acting as one of a number of recently emerging conduits for antiCorbyn-ista PR output.

    (Another is 'The Conversation' which is presented as an academic style 'journal', rather than being an astroturf blog, and the conceit of which is to host articles and counterarguments. ONly the most cursory inspection of the 'counterarguments' is required to discern that the appearance of genuine disgreement and debate is illusory.)

  5. I think your footnotes 3 & 4 need unpacking. The argument seems to be that anti-Corbynistas are attacking Corbyn & promoting division to hasten the day when party members realise that Corbyn is electoral poison and withdraw their support. However, this strategy is in open contradiction with two assertions which are often heard from the anti-Corbyn camp: (a) that Corbyn's supporters within the party don't even want to win the next election and (b) that the electorate don't care about party divisions, and hence that Labour's current opinion poll ratings are entirely the fault of Corbyn being too left-wing. If (a) is true, the anti-Corbynista strategy is futile: there is no way to depose Corbyn which is not open to both legal and political challenge, and the best result the current strategy could have is splitting the party. If (b) is true - if the boat is shipping water because it's ideologically holed, not because it's being factionally rocked - then the anti-Corbynista strategy is pointless: maintaining a dignified silence while Corbyn and McDonnell demonstrate how unelectable they are would have just the same effect.

    If we assume that the anti-Corbynistas are working towards a split, though, the strategy starts to make sense. It doesn't matter that there's no way to depose Corbyn - they can leave him behind, and if they leave the Corbynite Labour Party in bad shape, so much the better. And it doesn't matter if the electorate are oblivious to their grandstanding and position-striking - they're doing it to communicate with potential splitters and supporters of a split, not with voters at large.

    This argument does run up against the anti-Corbynistas' identification with Labour and desire for a Labour government, both of which I think are genuine. But I think it's the logic of what they're doing. Some, perhaps, just haven't thought it through; others (and I'd include McTernan in this second group) have looked the possibility in the face, but are betting on an eventual split being as painless as Kinnock's 'split' with the Socialist Party (formerly known as the Militant Tendency).

    Needless to say, I think both groups should think hard about what they're doing and turn away from their current course. At the moment the best case scenario is a rancorous failure to split the party, and even that would be quite enough to lose Labour the next election.

  6. Has nobody noticed that the Conservatives are suddenly looking very vulnerable?

  7. There appears to be two factions in the Labour party vying for control. Those that want to ape the Tories and those that want to ape the Green party.
    There doesn't appear to be a distinct Labour identity at all.

  8. > If their strategy is so obviously misguided, why do the anti-Corbynistas persist?

    Consider this reason, both the conservatives, the corbynistas and you have a shared attack line - that the Labour Party is the Corbyn Party - that the Labour Party stands for bad policy making and giving away the Falklands to Argentinian control. Consider how much the Conservatives and the Corbyn Side could both gain from this arrangement?

    You say Labour needs to be a broad church, and you decry the meanness of the antiCorbynistas. I would remind you to look at how non-Corbynista MPs are treated on their facebook pages - look at what is happening to Peter Kyle for example.

    1. Not sure what you're getting at in either paragraph. Can't you explain what you mean clearly & directly? Or are you concerned that they won't stand up to scrutiny if stated straightforwardly?

  9. Part of the reason for the anti-Corbyn maligning is panic. Everyone on the left and centre left knew that if Labour lost the 2015 election the UK would be in big trouble. Having lost it, the prospect of losing again is horrifying. It is easy to forget is that there was no leadership candidate who appeared to be electable. What must happen now is the declaration of clear costed policies. Once the party knows the details not the dreams, there can be proper debate about the validity of the leadership.

    1. "What must happen now is the declaration of clear costed policies."

      OK. Labour will pay for the policies by spending the money from HM Treasury's cash buffer. Spending generates an amount of tax and saving.

      If there is no saving in the spending chain the government will get all its money back as tax.

      The cost of spending is the real resources it uses.

  10. I take issue with one major theme of this piece and that is that as far as I can see the far left do not want to oust Corbyn? In fact they staunchly defend him and have returned in numbers or been inspired by his election? Surely you mean that it is the right of the party who do?

    The Militant Tendency was a left wing organisation but I haven't seen anything in this piece where you attack the far left other than your first paragraph, rather you seem to be attacking the right wing which is overly represented within the PLP.

    I think it's rather strange that you choose to bash the Militant when the people you describe in this article and their views are far more in keeping with the SDP which formed as a means to split Labour in the 80s and has been a catastrophic failure ever since.

    Feel free to levy criticisms at the left, this is after all a democracy, but levy the relevant criticisms at them and please refrain from criticising them for actions which are not their own but those of the right wing and influential MPs within the party.

  11. First off - thanks for all the blogs, I think it's great non-economist types like myself get access to something beyond the news-lite conventional media - it's all great food for thought. On this subject though, it strikes me that what 'anti-Corbynistas' may fear most is Corbyn winning an election, rather than losing it. Perhaps they fear that if Corbyn won an election the Labour Party would take longer to return to being 'New Labour' and/or the ensuing Corbyn government would do much damage to their party's standing with the electorate? If that were the case and they were of the belief that the electorate may 'fall for a populist politician selling snake oil' (I'm pretty sure most politicians don't trust the electorate) then perhaps they are acting rationally. Then again I suspect Occam's razor would suggest your human nature explanation was more likely!

    1. Interesting question. should I worry about Corbyn winning?

      Well, it isn't utterly impossible.

      Labour is 11/4 to have most seats at the GE

      and 4/1 to have a majority

      Although those odds don't reflect those of Corbyn ever being PM as the most likely route to power is Corbyn leaving.

      He is 7/2 to become PM

      We *could* have some kind of economic crash, and Labour is still currently the only opposition party. So the odds are much shorter than they were for his becoming leader of the Labour party back in May 2015.

      So, given it is possible, should I worry?

      I think Corbyn would be so catastrophically bad as PM, that Labour would be finished as a political party, probably within the space of a few short months.

      But that might be a good thing. The social democratic left's current problem is that Labour is too weak to win, but too strong to die. Either it needs to be replaced, or it needs to radically change. The election of Corbyn as PM would at least hasten the latter.

      So, good for the medium term future of a European style social democratic party regaining power. Just very bad for the UK in the short term.

  12. Social Demoncrats (sic) was a misspelling that nearly made it into the first edition of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia in the mid-1980s. It is a slip that seems useful to describe for the behaviour of some of the New Labour die-hards.

    (The same book also nearly had pubic sector borrowing requirement!).

  13. A modest proposal. A way of addressing the unelectability issue through gaining the youth vote (and their parents) ; scattering helicopter money among those most likely to spend it; and lessening inter-generational inequality. Write off the university loan (which also would save costs through not chasing non-payers). This is already being reviewed in the USA- see today's FT article

  14. The only people responsible for Labour's demise are the Corbynistas.

    The Tories will come second in Scotland this year and first in Wales. London will elect a Tory mayor for a second time.

    Any self-respecting social scientist who tries to pin the blame on centrists after this will permanently tarnish their reputation...

    1. The blame goes to Blair (who alienated the former "base" o the Labour Party), Brown (who quite effectively lost the 2010 election), Nick Clegg (who imploded the LibDems), and the feckless Milliband (who was simply unpopular).

      The SNP picked up all the votes in Scotland. The Green Party received its highest vote share ever. But thanks to First Past the Post, a lot of votes went to the Tories.

      Keep up the neoliberal anti-democratic and anti-Corbynite stuff long enough, and the Green Party will overtake Labour. At this rate it'll take about three election cycles (unfortunately).

  15. "If they kept quiet and Corbyn loses in elections badly, as they are sure he will, then Labour members will see quite clearly the need for change and look elsewhere. By constantly generating bad publicity for the party, they muddy these waters. Corbyn supporters will claim that the bad results are the result of anti-Corbynista activity, and it will not be obvious they are wrong. So if anything the tactic of the anti-Corbynistas will delay, rather than hasten, the day that the membership elects someone else."

    I think the explanation is actually that they are pretty overtly threatening to sabotage the party until it elects a candidate acceptable to them. One might suppose this would only harden the resolve of those opposed to them, but in real life threats generally work. That's why people make them.

    Obviously they are not resting their whole case on explicit use of muscle - for one thing, the sabotage itself would be harder to carry out if it were universally recognised as such. But that element is certainly there.



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