Is Corbynism Dead in the Water?
by Callum Cant (@CallumCant1) on September 19, 2018



Last night (September 18th), the Corbyn project seemed to be teetering on failure. Despite winning a new ‘left’ majority, the National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to compromise on the most substantial recommendations made in the Party Democracy Review.

On Saturday they will finally vote on the precise form of the package of proposals they put to conference. If nothing changes between now and then, and those proposals are accepted by conference, the left wing transformation of the Labour Party will have suffered a major defeat. The final legacy of Eddie Izzard and co., before they are replaced on the NEC, will be an act of rank sabotage.

The democratisation of the Labour Party is the fundamental precondition of a mass socialist politics. ‘For the many, not the few’ was never just a slogan about economic redistribution - it also promised that society could be reorganised so that ordinary people could lead their own workplaces and communities.

But that principle is now under attack from within our own party. Reports from the NEC suggest that a number of significant positive changes to contemporary motions, members rights and other structures have been accepted. But there are two crucial issues where the left is facing a significant defeat.

Leadership

The proposal put forward for future leadership elections are a significant compromise with the Labour right. The democracy review proposed a ‘ten plus’ model, whereby there were multiple routes to get on the ballot, some of which involved support from only 5% of the PLP. The NEC, however, seems to be consider a ‘ten and’ model. Any future leadership candidate would need to be backed by 10% of the PLP, 5% of CLPs and 5% of trade unions.

The 10% PLP threshold is a halfway point between the existing rules (15%) and the ‘McDonnell amendment’ (5%). The PLP, which is still significantly to the right of the membership, will retain an important veto power over who is able to get on the ballot. But as well as the PLP threshold, the new trade union threshold poses significant questions. Only a few unions represent 5% of affiliated members: Unite, Unison, GMB, USDAW, or the CWU. As a result, the political choices of the block votes of these unions will be able to set the limits of who the wider membership are allowed to vote for. There is no guarantee that they would automatically include a left-wing successor to Corbyn on the ballot.

If this rule change goes ahead, the next leadership election might shape up as centre-left versus a centre-right. Full revanchist Blairism is unlikely to be on the table, but any hard-left Socialist Campaign Group candidate could easily be kept off the ballot by the PLP or the trade union block vote. In which case, the left will have been successfully locked out of the leadership race. That would mean that the next leader of the Labour party would be all but guaranteed to be to the right of Corbyn.

One Member One Vote Selection

Open selection is the fundamental democratic demand of the left. The open selection of parliamentary representatives would mean that once every parliament, Labour would re-run the selection process (with the incumbent automatically on the ballot), and give every member a vote on who represents them at the highest level. Selecting candidates would become a normal democratic function of the party membership, giving control over the party to the vast majority of members rather than cliques at the top.

There are conflicting reports about what exactly the NEC proposal will be. Aaron Bastani has written about one version rumoured to entail huge turnout thresholds. However, what seems to be the most recent version of the proposal is significantly less catastrophic - but still represents a climbdown. This proposal is known as ‘OMOV selection’, the details of which remain imprecise. However, the best estimate seems to be that under 33% of all Labour branches which make up a CLP or 33% of all trade union branches affiliated to a CLP will have to vote for an open primary in order to trigger it. Once that ballot is triggered, all members and affiliates will be able to vote for a parliamentary candidate via one member one vote in a preferential ballot. Unlike open selection, members or union affiliates will have to go through a process in order to begin an open primary process, rather than it being a conducted as standard.

In practice, this change means a reduction in the proportion of branches or affiliates within a CLP required to initiate reselection from half to a third, and divide branches and affiliates into two camps to prevent affiliate ‘ghost branches’ being used to prevent a ballot being triggered. It is clearly a step towards genuine mass democracy, but in most cases it will still necessitate some level of negative campaigning to achieve an open primary- precisely the thing which the open selections approach aimed to avoid.

The end goal of those on the right of the party is clearly to reduce the number of MPs who are deselected, in order to maintain the PLP’s disconnect from the politics of the membership. The result of such a disconnect is that the current manifesto - let alone a full socialist programme - will face determined internal resistance by the very people who are meant to vote to implement it. The disaster looming in front of Labour is clear: win an election, form a government, and then be unable to pass key pieces of legislation because an incorrigible minority of the PLP rebels over and over again. Open selection is the best possible defence against such a situation, because it would be the fastest and most effective way of reconnecting the CLPs to the PLP.

Taken together, these NEC proposals give ground to the kind of centre-left social democratic tendencies which are failing across Europe. Rather than continuing the trajectory of the party away from collapsing centrism, the outgoing NEC is wavering back towards the void. A full three years into the project, those in the know are still making concessions to the few party elites at the expense of the many party members. At the moment, we are left hanging on the word of inaccurate blogs obsessed with spinning every defeat as a victory and Twitter whispers, whilst the future of the movement is determined behind closed doors. What is the alternative?

Mass Socialist Democracy

Two challenges face the Corbyn project. First, ensuring that the leadership process can’t be stitched up to prevent a continuity candidate being on the ballot when Corbyn steps down, and second, ensuring that the PLP reflects the CLPs and is willing to vote for the policies supported by the party. The two proposals made the NEC fudge these issues. If nothing changes by Saturday, we have missed an opportunity to decisively democratise party structures.

One of the major reasons for this failure to grapple with the problems of mass democracy within the Labour Party is the role of the block vote of the large affiliated trade unions. The block vote is, in many circumstances, wielded by trade union leaderships to suit their own ends. In the context of this NEC, it has been used to force through compromise positions rather than the democratic measures supported by the mass of the membership.

In more recent years, these block votes have tended to go with the Labour left. Now, for perhaps the first time in the Corbyn era, a powerful ally has become a powerful obstruction. The left’s failure to deal with the question of block votes and the role of the trade unions before this point is biting us on the ass.

As Richard Seymour has pointed out, the leftwards turn of trade union leaders was a vital factor in the unique emergence of Corbynism in the first place.1 This uncharacteristic turn left has led to a general failure of analysis about the role of the block vote in the party. This NEC vote is a harsh lesson in how a block vote can be used to support ‘stability’ and the political status quo rather than a total transformation of society and parliamentary socialism.

Opposing the trade union leadership’s use of a block vote as a stranglehold on the NEC doesn’t mean I oppose the role of organised workers in socialist politics - it means that I believe that the vast majority of workers in the party and affiliated to the party should rely less on indirect block voting and more on direct democratic participation. For rank-and-file trade union members, open selection is essential. If the composition of the PLP doesn’t change radically, there will be many MPs that escape reselection in order to vote against the abolition of authoritarian trade union legislation, against the nationalisation of key industries, and against socialist policies in general. This use of the block vote has contrasted with their interests. Workers should be empowered to select their own parliamentary candidates as a matter of course.

This NEC decision has shown that the forward progress of democracy in the Labour party is wavering. The elites want control back. But will we give it to them?

There is now a narrow window for the new mass membership of the Labour party to put pressure on the NEC. Saturday’s NEC meeting will finally decide what proposals go to conference. In the few days we have before then, NEC members have to be persuaded and leveraged by every means available in order to change their collective position. Members should immediately lobby their CLP conference delegates to reject this package when it reaches the conference floor. Trade union members in particular should begin vigorous protest against this use of the block vote. The mood and principles of the rank-and-file are not represented by this meek centrist retreat.

Everything up to and including mobilisations outside the Saturday NEC meeting have to be considered. We are at a strategic tipping point. Unless something changes, this could be the start of a long retreat. The question is, will Labour go forwards as a mass socialist party, or backwards as a social democratic husk?


Click here to email Labour’s NEC members and lobby them for open selections and a lower leadership nominations threshold.


  1. Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, Verso 2017, p63. 


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