Jon Lansman, veteran of the Bennite left since the 1970s, has performed a great service to the Labour movement. Not, obviously, for enabling Jeremy Corbyn and his friends to take temporary charge of the Labour Party, nor for creating Momentum as the siege engine to allow the far left to flood local CLPs, but for setting out his thoughts in his valedictory article on Labour List.
By allowing us to see inside his wise old head, we are better armed for the huge struggles to come. The Corbynites understand that Labour is at one of those crossroads at which it finds itself every 30 or so years. They know that to own any kind of future inside Labour, they must control the past.
As John Golding points out in Hammer of the Left, in 1979 the Labour left successfully blamed the Labour moderates for defeat. Former Labour ministers were vilified, abused and spat at. This gave the Bennite left space to win internal elections and secure their agenda in the manifesto. But after the 1983 defeat, the moderates successfully blamed the Labour left (longest suicide note and all that), and created the space for the Kinnock/Smith/Blair reforms and ultimate victory.
Now, to an objective observer, Labour’s recent past is a litany of failure: internal division and hatred, matched by external electoral collapse. That’s obvious, because Jeremy Corbyn said he would win the election by galvanising voters in Scotland, in the heartlands, amongst the young and disaffected non-voters, and create a fairer society, and he didn’t.
Instead, he led Labour to a series of terrible defeats — losing two general elections against two different rubbish Tory leaders, losing council seats all over the nation, and coming third in the Euro elections on less than 15% of the popular vote. The legacy of Corbynism is an electoral challenge almost impossible to surmount in one go, and an investigation by the UK’s equalities watchdog into institutional racism.
So what is to be done? Within minutes of the worst defeat since 1935 being declared, the Corbynites moved to establish their mythology. In short, this is the ‘stab in the back’ myth so beloved of failed leaders down the ages. In this case, the fault for defeat lies not in the strategy, tactics, leadership, personnel or policies of the people in charge for nearly five years, but at the feet of anonymous ‘staff’, shadowy ‘Blairites’, and their friends in the ‘media’. Anyone who understands politics knows this was the context for the ‘leaked’ report commissioned by the Corbynite general secretary Jennie Formby, and why it seems likely this dodgy dossier will form part of the evidence in support of the charge that Labour is institutionally racist.
Lansman talks about Labour returning to its ‘roots’ by an infusion of ‘socialists’ to create a ‘people-powered mass movement’. This is the Corbynite view of history — that those trade unionists who created Labour in 1900 were Marxist revolutionaries. Of course, they were mostly nothing of the kind. An overtly Marxist resolution was soundly defeated. The SDF left after a couple of years. Labour’s founders were liberal-minded democrats, aiming to use peaceful, democratic means to improve the lives of working people. That’s why Clause One remains our founding principle, not The State and Revolution.
Then there’s the rewriting of the election results. In 2017, Labour was just 2,500 votes away from ‘forming a government’, apparently. This myth relies on the idea that if only a few votes switched in a few seats, Labour would have been able to form a coalition with the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems. First, the votes didn’t fall like that, because of Corbyn’s massive unpopularity amongst voters in key seats, and nothing to do with hard-working Labour Party staff. And second, the other parties made it clear that would have nothing to do with Corbyn because of his toxicity.
To call Labour’s result in 2017 a ‘near miss’ is like calling it a near miss when an asteroid misses earth by 73,000km. The facts are plain and simple. In 2017, there was a swing to the Conservatives of 5.5%. The Tories got 13,636,684 votes, 760,000 more than Labour. The Tories won 42.4% of the vote to Labour’s 40%. They got 317 seats, 55 more than Labour. They formed a Government, and Labour lost.
Because Labour did better than anyone expected, Jeremy Corbyn used this as an excuse to hang around and have another go, like an unwanted guest who can’t take the hint. Most Labour leaders step aside when they are defeated. The recent exception was Neil Kinnock, who Jeremy Corbyn attempted to topple in a coup in 1988 when he organised Tony Benn and Eric Heffer’s disastrous leadership campaign. But because the Corbynites’ true objective was always control of the party (as evidenced by Lansman’s list of ‘achievements’ which are mostly about internal election results), Corbyn stayed and led Labour over the cliff.
The other elements of the Corbynite myth are that the policies were ‘incredibly popular’. Again, a dispassionate observer might ask if they were so popular, why didn’t Labour win? In 1945, Labour offered Let Us Face the Future, with its promise of a better life for all, and won a landslide. Blair did the same in 1997. Popular policies tend to win popular support, and yet in 2019 Labour lost Bolsover, for heaven’s sake.
It is too easy to blame Corbyn’s unpopularity, although this is well-documented by those knocking on doors, and by the evidence of polling. To scapegoat Corbyn is to risk running the same manifesto past the electorate for a third time, with a different leader, in the hope of getting a different result. Elements of the manifesto were popular. But the accumulative effect was an unbelievable wish-list which had voters sniggering at us. As Wes Streeting MP wrote in his post-election Fabian pamphlet Let Us Face the Future Again:
‘the problem was not just Corbyn, but Corbynism. It saddled us with a manifesto that people didn’t believe in, a world view that people reviled and a culture that people feared.’
When lifelong Labour voters in Sedgefield, Workington, and Grimsby vote for Boris Johnson, Labour’s policies cannot be described as ‘popular’. But it is vital to the Corbynites that Labour does not veer away from the 2019 manifesto, because to win support on a moderate, radical, social-democratic manifesto, appealing to the centre-ground, would prove them wrong, just like in 1997.
Lastly, there is the question of Lansman’s legacy: Momentum. I give it a couple of years before the internal contradictions tear it apart. Proper Leninists like the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) want to take it over. Hipsters want to turn it into Occupy. The coming elections for the Momentum NEC reveal the splits and rivalries. Many of those earnest young people pointlessly directed by Momentum to Uxbridge and Chingford will drop away, finding better ways to express their values. Something called Momentum may continue, just like the CLPD lasted beyond its Bennite heyday, but nothing like the ‘people-powered movement’ of myth.
There’s a stirring of mainstream social democracy in Labour’s undergrowth. Starmer’s victory was an early sign, as was the decisive defeat of the Corbynite candidates for leader and deputy, and for the NEC vacancies. Under Starmer, decent moderates are returning to Labour (although as 2017 and 2019 proved there is no correlation between size of membership and electoral success). Some, such as Thangam Debbonaire, are showing a bit of fight in the face of Corbynite impossibilism. We may actually have shadow cabinet members willing to say no to transitional demands and face down critics to their left. The people wanting to win are slowly outweighing the people wanting to whinge. But it rests on who owns the past. If Lansman and the myth-makers succeed, Labour will repeat the same mistakes until it fades from view. If we can be honest about the reasons for our failures, we may just avoid reliving them.
Paul Richards is a writer.