“What did last week reveal about the state of Labour?” the journalist Helen Lewis asked in the midst of fresh calls for more action to tackle antisemitism in the party. Jeremy Corbyn’s own actions, and the time it took for him to apologise for the issue, have also come in for scrutiny. Lewis concluded that “Corbyn’s strengths as a speaker are matched by his weakness as an actor. That some supporters believe any criticism must be motivated by jealousy, disloyalty or factionalism. And that there is no appetite for a breakaway party or another doomed attempt to topple him”.
Prior to Lewis’ compelling article, another columnist, Rafael Behr, noted that the “unfolded triptych” of Corbyn’s responses – or lack thereof – to the Skripal Salisbury attack, antisemitism and Brexit necessarily raised questions over Labour’s future.
As we approach a year since Theresa May decided to call an election which severely damaged her own political standing, and enhanced Corbyn’s, a look at the state of Corbynism is apposite. How can it be understood, and from where does it draw its power?
Analysing the Labour party through the different interpretations of its ethos – what it means to be Labour – can help form a broader understanding than that gained from looking at party policy or organisation alone. This can be done through analysing different positions taken along key fault lines in Labour’s ethos.
There’s the role of theoretical revision and the renewal of party aims; the idea that individual policies – rather than values – become symbolic of a person’s socialism; decision-making within the party; and the balance between “instrumental” politics (concerned with the attainment of power) and “expressive” politics (the defence of principle).
The Corbynite ethos, certainly in terms of the leadership, is reasonably clear. So far there is little sign that theoretical revision or reforming party objects is a priority. That isn’t to say Corbyn’s leadership is not ideologically distinctive – it clearly is – but there hasn’t been a sustained effort to revise the party’s aims and values.
When he first became leader, Corbyn swiftly disowned a rumour that he was planning to revise Tony Blair’s amendment to clause IV of the party constitution. Since 1918, clause IV has been regarded as an anachronistic shibboleth or a timeless call to arms, depending on a person’s view of public ownership (that is the people, through the state, owning large parts of the means of production, distribution and exchange in the economy).
Corbynite political economy is avowedly interventionist (as demonstrated by the 2017 manifesto), and Labour’s series of events on its “new economics” contributes something, but the Corbyn programme is not underpinned by a clearly articulated alternative worldview. Indeed, the slogan “the many, not the few” was printed on New Labour’s membership cards. The “party objects”, then, remain those written in 1994. What aspects of Labour’s doctrine to focus on remains up to individual Labour people.
Policy as faith
Shorn of a coherent theoretical basis for the party’s socialism, some Labour policies can become emblematic of the party’s worldview. This is more prevalent in the Corbynite ethos. Public ownership – with the usual caveats of what form it will take – has been reinstated as part of Labour’s socialist identity, for example.
This is a longstanding characteristic of Labour’s ethos. A “means” becomes symbolic of values, engaging with socialist history and acting as a “glue” for the movement. Labour’s commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, despite it being considered electorally harmful in the mid-1980s, was maintained because the party leadership judged changing it a step too far for the movement at the time. At times of strife, certain policies also become factional tools – as has happened in the party’s past with public ownership and nuclear weapons, with support or opposition to both used to symbolise affiliation with Labour’s left and right.
The fiercest debates about Labour’s immediate future should be expected in the area of internal democracy, particularly while the Corbynite left is seeking to reform the process of intra-party decision-making.
As has long been the case, arguments from across the Labour party around the question of “who decides what” will have some merit – though of course each argument will also have a seemingly all-important factional edge. While Corbynism posits enhanced party democracy in its interpretation of Labour’s ethos, it isn’t a simple democratic/non-democratic equation. The Corbyn leadership operation, including Momentum, has demonstrated its appetite for “grip”. It has, for example, been known to select issues for debate at conference which work better for the leader. That’s the very kind of party management for which previous leaderships have been attacked.
Instrumental vs expressive
That leaves the relative priority given to instrumental and expressive politics. The Corbynite ethos has been orientated towards the expressive (something shared, historically, with the majority of Labour members), yet there are interesting debates on the Labour left about what Corbynism means for Labour’s tradition of “parliamentary socialism” when factoring in the place and role of Momentum, the campaigning organisation set up to support Corbyn.
There’s also frustration with Corbyn’s Brexit stance within Labour. One could argue a more pro-European approach would be “expressive” of the party’s principles, and that Corbyn is adopting a more “instrumental” electoral line by avoiding taking a firm stance in either direction. Similarly, Europe is a trigger point for attitudes to party democracy. Labour’s pro-European membership could challenge the frontbench position. Yet, agree or disagree with the Labour campaign to stay in the single market, such a policy does not represent an alternative to Corbynism as an identity, it is simply a policy (however vital people may judge it to be).
There are substantive differences along the four fault lines identified above, though they are rarely expressed. The extent to which they are debated and resolved will in part define what it is to be Labour in the months and years ahead.