Cheers then mate

Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party.

What is the Labour Party? Fundamentally, it’s an institution. Institutions – local councils, charities, the BBC, the Museum of Science and Industry – have two key properties. First, they stand for something – corporate mission statements are a backhanded homage to the sense of ‘mission’ that a true institution always already has. Second, they perpetuate themselves: they keep themselves going, so that they can do the things they believe in. But, of course, institutions aren’t alive: everything they ‘do’ or ‘believe’ is mediated through people, specifically people occupying particular roles and sharing a particular institutional culture. What the British Museum believes is what the Director of the British Museum believes – and vice versa. There’s a certain way of criticising politicians that counterposes ‘idealism’ to ‘careerism’, but in reality they’re two sides of the same coin: the classic occupier of an institutional role is, precisely, a careerist idealist.

Any time an institution gets a new ‘leader’, that person will find that it already has an institutional culture and a good supply of people occupying institutional roles. This is all the more the case if the institution is articulated across multiple levels of authority and/or geographical locations. Changing an institution’s culture is a slow and laborious process; it’s one of the things that differentiates an institution from a business, or a Leninist party. The Labour Party is not a corporation (or even a university), and Jeremy Corbyn is not its CEO (or vice-chancellor): it was never going to be possible for Corbyn to wipe the slate and inaugurate Year Zero of Corbynite Labour. However much support Corbyn had, there were far too many people throughout the party who had careers or were building careers, occupied institutional roles or hoped to occupy them, on the basis of a culture and ideals very different from his. (And I stress ‘ideals’; these are all good Labour people that we’re talking about, let’s not forget.)

Just how slow and laborious it is to turn an institution around will depend on what the institution is like, in two respects. Any institution is more or less democratic; it either is or isn’t possible for pressure from below to cause a change of policy, a change of overall leadership, a change in the occupancy of a specific middle-ranking role. The more democratic an institution is, the more susceptible it is to sudden changes of direction; a democratic institution is more open to real social mobilisations, and more vulnerable to infiltration when no broader mobilisation is going on. At the same time, any institution is more or less bureaucratic. Bureaucracy is an inherently conservative tendency: it tends to keep the institution running in much the same way. A bureaucratic institution is better able to weather periods of low social mobilisation, but risks being left behind by periods of high mobilisation. Democratic institutions take new leaders straight from the street; established office-holders live with the awareness that they may be out of touch, and that the remedy may be for them to stand aside or be pushed aside. Bureaucratic institutions wear newcomers down slowly, turning this year’s spiky radical into next year’s smooth operator; newcomers live with the awareness that existing office-holders are doing a fine and principled job, and that they will just have to wait their turn. Democratic cultures tend to radicalism; bureaucracies tend to conservatism, and sometimes they tend pretty hard that way. When I first came to Manchester, the Labour council had a (left-wing) Labour opposition group, many of whose members were suspended from the party twice or three times. In 1984 the numbers shifted and the opposition group took over the council, which duly became a byword in the tabloids for anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid advocacy and for the municipal ‘loony left’ generally. The leader of the group was Graham Stringer. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, eh?

When Corbyn was elected leader, I was surprised by the failure of most of Labour’s MPs and power-holders to fall in behind the new boss. (I say ‘surprised’; ‘outraged’ would be another word, or ‘disgusted’.) This was naive of me; I should have realised that the change at the top was only the beginning of a process of democratic renewal in the party. Maybe I’m still naive, but what has continued to surprise and disappoint me is the strength of the bureaucratic resistance to that democratic renewal. When the rank outsider has won on the first ballot (and won again when challenged); when the party’s membership has grown and kept on growing; when the Labour general election vote has risen after everyone expected it to collapse – doesn’t that suggest to even the most sceptical observer that something’s going on out there? And might this not be a time to start working with the new leader and his supporters, rather than paying lip service to our numbers and our ‘energy’ and then fighting us for every office and every vote? Apparently not. It’s taken two years even to reorganise the National Executive Committee so that the leadership – and the membership – will have a fighting chance of getting their way, and that change won’t actually take effect for another year; it’s trench warfare all the way down. Which, incidentally, explains an awful lot of the negative stories about Corbyn. “Damaging Labour split”? People are organising against the leadership. “Labour in chaos”? People are organising against the leadership and talking to the press. “Corbyn misses crucial vote”? People are organising against the leader, and on this occasion they’ve managed to outmanoeuvre him. And so on.

And so it came to pass that, when my local branch held its annual election of officers and delegates to the constituency party, a number of delegates signalled their allegiances and intentions through key phrases in our personal statements: things like “I support Jeremy Corbyn” and “I support the party’s manifesto”. That’s the ludicrous position I personally found myself in – effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto. And so it was that, when the votes were counted, I and other ‘Corbynites’ got absolutely rinsed. Existing office-holders, as well as being protected by a variety of – doubtless entirely rulebook-compliant – procedural devices, were given the opportunity to assure the meeting that things were going swimmingly under the current management and that no kind of renewal was needed, or if it was that they were the best people to manage it; most of the votes went 55/45 or 60/40 in their favour; and the outsiders between them ended up with one officer (an uncontested position), and a total of four delegates out of 17. All of which isn’t going to make anyone lose sleep, or divert the local party from its present, comfortable course.

Corbyn stands for turning Labour into an active, outward-looking, campaigning party, and that’s one of the things that’s attracted all of those new members. Is that going to happen while local parties are managed by the same people who were managing them three years ago – people whose political culture and ideals are very different from Corbyn’s? It doesn’t seem likely. And if the local party was working with Momentum, agitating to get suspensions of good comrades reversed, holding political discussions, working to build the party in target seats and generally contributing to the renewal of the party nationally, would that be such a terrible thing? Terrible enough to make it worth organising to secure practically every post for a safe candidate? I really don’t understand the mentality here. I’m temperamentally rather conservative (I’m a folk singer, for goodness’ sake), so I can certainly see the appeal of not rocking the boat unnecessarily as a general principle. But there’s such a thing as moving with the times – and the times have been moving rather quickly since September 2015.

So, no – Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the leader of the Labour Party; at best he’s the leader in name only (LINO?). He is the leader of a movement whose membership is numerically dominant within the Labour Party, and which wants to transform the Labour Party. Unfortunately that movement, despite its numbers and its association with the elected leader, is currently being blocked by office-holders with an excessive attachment to the status quo and/or insufficient attachment to democratic principle. But I’m sure that won’t always be the case. Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party – yet.

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One Comment

  1. gastro george
    Posted 20 September 2017 at 18:04 | Permalink | Reply

    Presumably, despite the GE failures and the dead-ending of triangulation and the fabled Centre Ground, they still think that Corbyn is a short term phenomenon, and that he or any successor can be manoeuvred out and replaced by somebody more Realistic. Maybe buoyed by the idea that the Tories are about to repeat the Major Years, when a donkey in lipstick could have won Blair’s first GE. Who cares about people and policies, even principles, when there are careers at stake.

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