John Harris describes the alliance currently at the heart of Labour — between the old school Hard Left and the new socialist progressive, one a relic of the Cold War, the other a product of disaffection with New Labour, the 2008 crisis and austerity. What he and others get wrong is the relative importance of the two groups and the relations between them. The common assumption is that the former rule the roost and the latter follow out of tribal loyalty. Yet, I think that that old school is less important and on its way out.
Those old Cold Warriors stand out at most Labour events, if you know who to look out for. They love forming numerous organisation; you might spot them pitching up a pro-Palestine stall at an event (at my local fair a few months ago there were two such stalls — one run by what seemed to be actual Palestinians, the other by rather well-spoken and elderly white men and featuring books by Tony Greenstein). Many of them are retired and devote all their time to the Causes. These are: Palestine, opposing NATO expansion, Lexit and the fighting of the tired old sectarian battles.
It is a cosy milieu in which everyone knows everyone else. It is also tiny — I would guess there isn’t even a thousand of those people in the whole country, the vast majority residing in North London. Their high point was the failed take-over of Momentum in 2016, with Jon Lansman swiftly taking the group safely out of their reach.
It is however convenient for many to pretend the ‘hard left’ are in charge. They themselves are very happy to promote that view — through activity in CLP’s and on social media. Corbyn’s opponents see them as an easy target (which, let’s face it, many of them are) and then smear everyone else by association. The older moderates still remember the battles of the 80’s and want to get one over the old foes.
To people like myself, very much in the ‘anti-austerian’ part of the new membership, those people are pitiable and irrelevant. Contrary to what Harris says, I do not ‘defend or support them out of loyalty to the Corbyn project’. I am happy to overlook them because they are a vocal and self-important but ultimately powerless bunch. I object to the powerful mainstream narrative that paints them as somehow pulling the strings. I also feel that the drive against austerity, against the other systematic problems, is so vital, so crucial, that any allies that want to take part are worth having — we didn’t, after all, quiz second world war Allied soldiers on their moral character before allowing them to fight.
But Milne… but Murray, I hear you object. Of course, but they are merely cogs in the machine, captives, people who might still think it is the 20th century but are forced to play by the rules of the present. If (hopefully when) Corbyn is in number 10, they will find there are boundaries they cannot cross because neither the parliamentary party nor the membership want to see them crossed. Faced with a Civil Service that openly hates them, a parliamentary party split between moderates and younger, progressive Socialists and a membership also dominated by the same, they will quickly discover pragmatism or be sidelined. Anything else would be a case of tails wagging dogs without precedent.
The same goes for Corbyn himself. Is he more of an unreformed hard left stooge or a progressive anti-austerian? No one really knows, but it doesn’t actually matter. The political currents can only sweep him one way, away from his hard left chums. Those obsessing with his past miss this. Of course, they might still induce him to nudge British policy towards their aims. But the nudge can only be tiny. The 2017 manifesto reflects the views of the anti-austerity members far more than it does those of the ‘hard left’. This is an accurate reflection of the very unequal balance of power between the two.
The interesting question that should concern Corbyn’s opponents is: why hasn’t a effective wedge been driven between the two groups? Worth mentioning here is an article by Gavin Shuker about the rise and fall of Change UK. What Gavin seems to not understand is that all they had to do was offer to copy Corbyn’s domestic program verbatim and sound reasonably convincing about it. What sunk Change UK — on the first day — was Chris Leslie wanting to turn the clock back to 2015. It gave fuel to the suspicion that the Changers mostly opposed the leadership on the economy — not just on handling anti-semitism or Brexit. Since people like myself feel the domestic economic policies and opposition to austerity trump everything else, it was therefore a non-starter.
There are only so many ways in which we can tell people that the country is in dire straights and needs a transformative government implementing Socialist policies. Everything else — even Brexit — is secondary to this. Corbyn himself is likewise unimportant— we only support him because of the said policies. If people feel that there are certain other issues within Labour that for them are red lines, then go ahead and offer us those transformative domestic policies without those contentious issues. I have no doubt that many would gladly accept a combination of the 2017 manifesto, second referendum on Brexit and a better way of expelling and/or re-educating racists. Go ahead and offer it — but until you have, we stay put and keep fighting.