The conflict between the left within the British Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, and the rest of the parliamentary party has exploded into open conflict. I would like to suggest that this is a potentially important moment for the British left. Perhaps it is also an important moment for the global left; it is certainly part of the structural unraveling of the “Third Way” neoliberal turn in social-democratic parties that the British Labour Party and the U.S. Democratic Party best exemplified from the early ’90s until today.
Details of how this fight occurred are readily apparent: the Labour left has been marginalized since the party fights during Thatcher’s reign. Corbyn was allowed on the ballot by fellow MP’s who saw no harm in it but who had misread the tea leaves of how the party membership felt after seven years of austerity budgets. He won in a landslide (59.5% of the vote). After decades of taking the left for granted, the neoliberals and careerists had been soundly thrashed, even though they are the majority of Labour electeds in Parliament.
Corbyn has ties to the socialist and union movements and seems to be a principled, fairly honest politician. Of course his principles are at odds with the majority of those in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP): antiwar, anti-austerity, Euroskeptic, and not a neoliberal. The no-confidence vote taken today by the PLP members shows clearly that the size of the left within the parliamentary party is small: Corbyn garnered 40 votes as opposed to 172 against (13 did not vote and 4 papers were spoilt). Fully 80% of Labour MP’s rejected Corbyn, even while the vast majority of the party voted for him in a landslide nine months ago. Nonetheless, Corbyn adamantly refuses to step down as leader in the face of what is a coup attempt.
This type of open fight has rarely occurred inside a social-democratic party at this level in the last 30 years, but it will become increasingly common as the world-system organized around US hegemony and its regional allies, born out of WWII, reaches its death-spiral. Within capitalism, and really within the long cycle/Kondratieff wave beginning in 1945, left-reformist parties like Labour played an important role in buttressing bourgeois control. During the first, productive phase of the long wave, parties like Labour were allowed entry into government provided they abandon any pretense to socialism. Their role in this era of expanding core industrial production was to represent the interests of a large labor aristocracy of organized workers who were happy with secure jobs and large welfare states; Labour and its sister parties kept the working class in check while allowing business to make huge profits in the industrial sector. Policies passed during this era of Keynesianism helped sustain the demand for goods that rebuilt the world-economy – and given that capitalism in the core still saw the possibility of increasing returns in productive capital until the early 1970s, Labour (and the Democrats) had a seat at the table as a left-guardian of the capitalist order.
The rise of financialization after the early 70’s saw a crisis of capital accumulation in core productive industries meant there was a decreasing role for social-democratic parties; the industrial working class was to be killed off along with industry. The pivot these parties made, Labour included, was to absorb the middle-class liberals who benefited from the new economy but demanded identity politics reforms, and to attract finance sector backers. Workers were an uneasy afterthought, in a weak position as the productive economy contracted and finance ballooned – but we should remember that parties have a logic of their own, and workers were a part of the reformist electoral coalition (they just weren’t really represented at any level beyond marginal lip-service).
This brings us back to Labour and Corbyn. This isn’t the first example of social-democratic disintegration as the party’s apparatus refuses to budge from neoliberal careerism: PASOK in Greece imploded, the PSOE in Spain has seen serious erosion of its base, and most other social-democratic parties are under increasing pressure from a re-energized left. It is, however, the first example of a high-profile fight in a core country with the possibility of a split. To now the fights have occurred in (semi)peripheral states.
The potential of sharpening the ideological contradictions and clarifying a left, anti-austerity (perhaps even socialist) platform purged of neoliberal holdovers is a distinct possibility given the structure of the world-system. It is likely to not to be the last debate in coming years as the system collapses into something else; the potential for a return of open class struggle in the electoral arena is possible as well.
That is why the left may win regardless of what happens to Corbyn and his bloc, if it is able to regroup and educate around the outcome. If Corbyn and his 20% of the PLP are backed by the Labour membership, the 80% of Labour MPs who do not back Corbyn (and who are not backed by the party members) may split and form their own, centrist party. They may fade into irrelevance as leftists stand for Labour seats instead, but at least the untenable situation will end and voters will have a clear ideological choice. If Corbyn loses the left could choose to exit the Labour Party once and for all, but taking a significant portion of the membership with it into a new coalition of the anti-austerity left – though this would require serious leadership to do and the willingness to suffer short-term electoral defeats.
I think we are very likely to look back on this fight as the first, and not the last, within the old reformist “big tent” left parties. It remains to be seen what the left, and the radical left, can do with the results.