The Corbynites are right, there is more to politics than getting elected
Labour’s renegade membership – a majority of whom support the left-wing leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn – has certainly peeved the parliamentary party. To paraphrase Brecht, the party deems it increasingly urgent to dissolve the membership and elect another.
Those in parliament – and some of those recently booted out – are acting with an electoral machine logic which means nothing to most newer and many older members. The parliamentary party insists politics is all about winning elections. This is what political theorists call a “party logic.” However, many members of the party and many members of Labour-affiliated trade unions, working with a much more “movementist logic,” are quietly asking another question: What’s the point of taking power if you don’t know what to do with it?
Winning power is not, after all, the principal political goal of the mass of people. It is rather securing representation. Parliamentary representation acts as a means to foster political consciousness, build confidence, and fight battles against those in power. For a great many Labour simply does not represent them. The need for representation thus takes precedence over any question of power. So often marginalised by the concentrated state and media weaponry of the ruling class, the old left is well acquainted with opposition. The new left – young; un- or under-employed; without unions; without mortgages; increasingly cut out of state welfare – operates politically from a position of social marginalisation anyway. They are quite comfortable with the idea of not taking power immediately.
Only certain Labour supporters – mostly those who end up parliamentary candidates – feel affronted at the idea of losing. The expectation of victory by the left cleaves all to closely to the barren land of genteel sports metaphors – as if the two “sides” are, in principle, evenly “matched”, with just performance variables dictating a “win” or a “loss.” The point is the rules of the game are stacked. Time and again, the left loses. Try, fail. Try again, fail better, as Samuel Beckett said. Victories are shortlived and never final. When you pit yourself against powers that are overwhelmingly dominant (in cash terms, in access to the media, in legal and property terms, and so on), losses are the norm.
The phrase “take power” is quite deceptive: as Greece’s Syriza understood (but did little to counter), election victories do not amount to “power.” The latter takes ideological hegemony – a thing built in real institutions through the slow build up of material force.
The membership of the Labour Party appears to understand this. Labour’s grasping desperation to be elected is proof that it is the leadership and the MPs who are clinging onto a bygone era of easy Blairite majorities wrung from a quiescent public. It is the Corbynites who are aware that many voters feel they can go elsewhere or not turn out at all (as over thirty percent of voters did in 2015). They understand that public opinion is not fixed – a point to which all political forces must move – but in a constant process of formation. Consensus breaks down. People change their minds. Events and ideas combine to create sudden changes in direction. Politics is about articulating ideas and capitalising on the events that drive those changes.
This is the problem with those who say Labour needs to simply modify the Tory line to get elected. They will either be outpaced by events and lose or win and achieve nothing.
Better would be to lose – but have a party with a mass membership, steadily rebuilding itself, incorporating new ideas. The Corbynites understand Labour’s loss better than the innumerable sages of the centre-left press and the prime-time parliamentary hand-wringers. The latter believe victory is just a triangulation away. It is not.
Rebuilding a Labour Party worthy of the name will take a generation, not an election victory. Ultimately it will take a purge – not of the young radicals now signing up, but of the neoliberals and Blairites who want nothing but the “eternal return” of the same 1997-2005 coalition. Well, that means of victory is dead. Can a Labour Party which has systematically avoided a movementist strategy for most of its existence get there? It is doubtful; but it would be churlish not to support them.