A head turned against its body: centrist arrogance and (maybe) quitting the Labour Party
‘The Party shall bring together members and supporters who share its values to...promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process.’
So states Clause One of the constitution of the UK Labour Party. On June 8th 2017, this party came close to an extraordinary electoral success under its most left-wing leader…probably ever, certainly since the 1940s, when Britain’s modern welfare state was born.
The Labour Party is internally organised as a corporate hierarchy, like virtually all major modern political parties.
‘Corporate’ here has no connotations of venality; it merely means that the Party employs a centralised, top-down structure, with a clear executive decision making function that allows it to act ‘as if’ it were a person, a corporate, collective body made up of many individuals whose internal facilitates these people in acting ‘as one’ in pursuit of a common purpose. This kind of structure is very widely used by everything from the state itself to private corporations, non-profit organisations and smaller entities like social clubs and the like.
This means that the Labour Party has bosses, like the senior executives of a company; people who make decisions day-to-day, even if they are, in theory, accountable to their members and the party’s principles, rather than shareholders and the pursuit of profit. Some of these bosses are elected by members while many are appointed by these elected officials to administer the party itself, the most senior of these being the ‘General Secretary’ of the party.
At 10pm, June 8th 2017, the election poll suggested a hung parliament with the possibility that Labour would be able to form a government with the Scottish Nationalists. Just over forty minutes later, the then General Secretary of the Labour Party, Iain McNicol, engaged in the following exchange with several senior colleagues in the executive team (edited for brevity).
‘08/06/2017, 22:42 – Julie Lawrence: We are stunned and reeling.
08/06/2017, 22:45 – Tracey Allen: They are cheering and we are silent and grey faced. Opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years!!
08/06/2017, 22:47 – Emilie Oldknow: And at least we have loads of money now…
08/06/2017, 22:47 – Julie Lawrence: Not if we go into coalition and lose short money
08/06/2017, 22:53 – Iain McNicol: It is going to be a long night.’
These people literally run the Labour Party and were in charge of administering its election campaign. So at the very same time that I and many thousands of others were celebrating gleefully, our ‘bosses’ in the Party were miserably bemoaning the prospect of actually forming a government, especially as this could cut the amount of public money they would be directly in control of disbursing. Short money is a state subsidy for opposition political parties, controlled by the party itself with little oversight, whereas the governing party can use the state administration to, for example, formulate policy).
The revelation of this and many other truly horrendous communications is, in many ways, not very surprising. There were many rumours of this kind of thing going on in recent years and, more generally, it has long been widely understood that the Labour Party exists in large part to discipline and neutralise any radical left threat to British capitalism. And clearly this kind of behaviour is part of a broader pattern across the world. Mainstream, ostensibly social democratic parties have been hollowed out and thoroughly captured by their right-wing factions; this happened mostly during the 90s as the left cowered in abject post-1989, post-Thatcher disarray.
These parties have also been widely taken over by progressive careerist types for whom any left principles they may have once held have long since been outweighed by the opportunity to have a comfortable professional life shuttling from think-tank to party administration to elected official and, finally, the great prize, private sector roles utilising political contacts - this is where the realest real money is made by from politics. Again, it was ever thus, to some degree at least, though there did used to be a few more actual working class people in the upper echelons of the Labour Party.
Elsewhere we have seen, for example, the utter electoral collapse of the Greek, French and Dutch left parties, and we have seen the SDP in Germany and PSOE in Spain doing everything they can to defeat parties to their left, even when this seems to hurt their own chances of governing and aiding the right. So this latest leak maybe should not shock us too much. I can only imagine that a similar leak of messages among senior figures in the PSOE here in Spain would also be pretty damning in terms of the vitriol directed towards Podemos, their voters and those in PSOE who might want to work with rather than destroy them. But here they would at least be opposing another party, not their own. (Let’s not even get started with Bernie and the Democrats, that’s a whole other tale of woe and predictable skulduggery.)
However jaded we ought to be though, there is something breathtaking about this leak. The sheer arrogance is quite stunning. These people are the ‘bosses’ of a corporate body that exists to win elections. Instead, they were trying to lose! They were so convinced of their own rectitude, their nobility, the validity of their desires and of the absolute illegitimacy of Corbynism, that they quite consciously worked in explicit, direct, dia-fucking-metrical opposition to the foundational stated goal of the organisation they ran. This is a bravura display of…what’s the opposite of ego-death? It almost has a kind of Nietzhschean glory to it, but only if you can completely detach yourself from the reality, to the suffering caused by Conservative governments.
It is truly sickening. Party members are at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. They are the body, the (semi-autonomous!) tools with which the executive acts in the world on a large scale. They worked, in huge numbers and with enormous energy and sacrifice, to win that election in 2017. And they almost fucking did it! But their own ‘head’, their ‘bosses’ in the executive were actively working against them, actively misdirecting and undermining their efforts so that they would lose. And they did lose. And now here we are, with Johnson at the helm during a vast global health and economic crisis.
There have been many, many moments and events in the last 20 years where any political naiveté one suffers from has been first eroded and then shredded. I, for my sins, was too foolishly liberal as an 18 year old to see the evil and folly of the Iraq war, so my disillusionment began as that went to shit. It was rocket-boosted by the 2008 crisis and its aftermath and by the shitness of Obama’s presidency, which almost exactly coincided with my time living in the USA. As an independence supporting Scot, I also had the experience of seeing all British political parties and media organisations defeat Scottish independence with a barrage of lies and threats, plus we all saw how Corbyn was treated in public. And now this. A glimpse of the private face of the liberal centre, its true character unmasked. Just grotesque.
I can only imagine how many of the young people - younger than me! - who joined Labour in recent years will be shaken out of their naiveté by this leak. How many will stay in the party? How many will campaign for it? I understand and mostly agree with arguments that the left should stay and fight against these people, keep up the never-ending battle, vote for left candidates in internal elections, keep the flame alive, at least until electoral reform makes it possible to break the Labour Party’s monopoly on electoral leftism in the UK.
My membership, however, costs money. Should I really keep giving money to people who will use it to directly subvert the foundational goals of the party? That seems like too much. I hope but do not believe that Starmer will respond to this adequately. And maybe even if he doesn’t my anger will subside and I’ll decide to keep the nice red membership card. But this is disgrace.
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