Paul Mason has an article in the Guardian which I think exemplifies where many on the left are right now. He looks back at the electoral failure of Michael Foot in 1983 and the formation of the SDP, which together began the gradual marginalisation of the left in the UK. He goes through the obvious differences between that history and now, but then notes a key similarity:
“As with the SDP, there is a prospect that a few entitled Labour MPs will split, and that the media will get behind the narrative that they are the “true” Labour party. Disunity has already damaged Labour in the polls, just as it did with Michael Foot.”
Why will that not matter this time? His answer seems to be that neoliberalism is on its last legs and the Labour party has 300,000 new members, which he describes as the main event of 2016. These are times of hope for the left, he says.
Of course a revitalised membership is great, as long as that membership understands that it is just one small part of what has to happen to actually change things. It has to combine with a united parliamentary party if it is to have any hope of victory. Just try putting yourself in voters’ shoes: voters who know little of politics, but want to elect a prime minister and a party that will govern well and govern in their interests. In Labour they see a party that has voted no confidence in their leader. It really does not matter if that happened yesterday or 4 years ago because the media will remind all concerned as if it was yesterday. They will say to themselves if their own MPs have no confidence in Labour’s leader, how can I?
I have made this point so many times over the last few weeks. Responses fall into two kinds. The first says that if Corbyn is reelected, MPs must unite behind him, and it will be disgraceful if they do not. If it all breaks down, it will be their fault. But MPs are not soldiers who must carry out orders (although even soldiers ordered into battle by a commander they think is hopeless do not fight very well), but people who have experienced Corbyn’s leadership at first hand. To disregard their experience as just the smears of Blairite plotters is escapism. There are some smears of course, but there is also real frustration and anger among MPs at failures of leadership. If this experience of MPs is ignored, it will be Labour party members, and they alone, who are responsible for the consequences of the votes they cast.
The second response is that the party will have to replace its troublesome MPs. Here history does suggest that this is a excellent way of achieving the split on the left that Paul Mason agrees may happen. To cross fingers and hope it does not happen, or to imagine it will not matter this time, is a triumph of hope over experience, to put it kindly.
But what about the imminent demise of neoliberalism? Here I have to disagree with Paul Mason. The main event of 2016 was the Brexit vote, not 300,000 new Labour members. To think otherwise is delusion. The Brexit vote, in its way, was a blow against neoliberalism, but of an entirely reactionary kind. Economic crises embolden both the radical left (those 300,000 new members) and the reactionary right, and how that turns out depends in part on how united, organised and smart each side is. Under Corbyn, even with 300,000 new members, the left was not able to stop Brexit. Thinking the next time will be different is again putting hope over experience.
What is more, this hope seems rather selective to me. What about putting hope a leader who is standing on a radical economic programme with no question marks over their commitment to closer ties with Europe. He cannot be trusted, I am told, even though he was once ‘core group plus’. Little hope extended there. What about a leader who will be able to unite the party, with a chance of taking power back from this Conservative government that is doing so much harm. He will be overthrown by the Blairites, I am told, even though according to the Corbyn camp the original number of hostile MPs numbered less than 40. This is close to paranoia.
This is not a hopeful left, but a left that wants to rerun past victories rather than adapt to reality. A left that will not allow itself to believe that by electing Corbyn in 2015 the membership has stopped the drift of the party to the right. A left that does not want to see how Brexit has changed the political landscape. And above all else a left that will not let go of a leader who started out with less than 40 hostile MPs and ended up with 172. A man who is not a victim of some Blairite plot but of his own inability to lead.