The leaked report into the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism when Iain McNicol was general secretary contains a great many revelations that will make members angry. It contains evidence of staff in the party engaged in bullying, harassment, racism, sexism and Islamophobia, while actively working to undermine the party’s chances of electoral success and preventing it from taking action against Holocaust deniers.
But these extreme levels of sabotage and foul play do not simply reflect poorly on the characters of those involved – they also present a deeper question about the values and ideology of those on the right of the party.
The 2017 manifesto contained a swathe of broadly social democratic policies that many in the party were surprised to learn were extremely popular with the electorate. Nationalising the railways, raising taxes on the wealthy and the abolition of tuition fees were all policies that struck a chord with voters more used to hearing politicians battle it out during election time over which version of austerity to implement.
Yet senior members of staff reacted to the manifesto with utter horror. A WhatsApp exchange detailed in the report shows staffers reacting to John McDonnell’s announcement of an increase in corporation tax by exclaiming that they “can’t quite believe it.” Responding to the announcement of public ownership of rail, another said such policies “look like trots doing what trots do.”
Aside from their apparent misunderstanding of the nature of Trotskyism, such statements suggest that the party’s anti-socialists hold views that place them not simply to the right of most members of the Labour Party, but also to the right of most of the electorate. The question then presents itself: why are these people in the Labour Party at all?
Answers can be found in the rise and fall of Blairism, which transformed the Labour Party into an appendage of the state, almost entirely unmoored from sites of working-class power in wider society. In the 1990s political scientist Peter Mair based his analysis of the ‘cartel party’ – shrunken, bureaucratic organisations that existed simply to further the interests of their most senior members – on Blair’s New Labour. In contrast to the mass parties of the post-war period, Mair argued that many modern political parties had effectively become cartels that relied less on the support and resources provided to them by members and affiliates, and more on patronage from the state.
Hollowed out political parties, which had become more common as active political participation declined through the 1980s and 1990s, ceased engaging their members and affiliates in policy development. These parties would refrain from competing with one another in the realm of policy and would instead collude to limit the realm of political contestation to a shrinking field of ‘common sense’ policies. The cartels would then take it in turns to govern, implementing their version of the neoliberal consensus – the privatisation of public assets, the marketisation of public services and reductions in taxation and regulation.
The ideologies that surrounded this shift will be familiar to many readers. Political parties justified their homogenisation by claiming that political scientists had proved beyond doubt that the only way to win elections was to capture the support of the median voter – the voter with the most middling views on any one set of issues. In any case, 1989 was supposed to have spelled the end of any real ideological conflict, and voters were far more concerned with questions of ‘effectiveness’ ‘efficiency’ and ‘what works’: they wanted to be treated like consumers, not citizens.
Of course, these discourses simply served to obscure the real shift of power within these parties away from members and affiliates, and towards an increasingly remote and self-interested bureaucracy, whose sole aim was to acquire and hold onto state power in order to further their career ambitions. The psyches of these individuals, who perhaps once genuinely held social democratic principles, are vividly illustrated in the leaked report. Their descent into bullying, bigotry and racism came while desperately clinging onto the remnants of power in a political arena which was fast outpacing them.
Combating the culture created by Blairism was just as much a part of the Corbyn project as was the development of a democratic socialist policy agenda. In fact, the changes that angered those at the top of the party hierarchy the most were those that pertained to internal party democracy. Open selections, promoting member-led policy development and reinvigorating the party’s link with the labour movement were all resisted by anti-socialists who saw these changes as an existential threat to their personal positions. A Labour Party run by its members and affiliates is not a Labour Party that would tolerate constant attempts to sabotage its leadership by bureaucrats and parliamentarians concerned, above all, with their own power and ambition.
But where does this leave Keir Starmer? He is, by all accounts, a middle of the road technocrat. By his own admission, he “hated” being forced to sell himself to the membership. He would rather the leadership was left to its own devices, freed from pressure exerted by various vested interests, in order to decide upon what works. Of course, the experts who will undoubtedly be advising the leadership from various consultancies, businesses and financial institutions don’t count as vested interests – they’re simply there to promote efficiency.
The question arises for Starmer, does he want to return to the bad old days of Blairism – with a Labour Party totally alienated from its grassroots and a party conference reduced to a pageant for the leader? Many members are so incensed about the revelations in the report that they are threatening to leave in droves. If the leadership does not act quickly and decisively, we may be facing a return to the hollowed out Labour Party of old. Then again, maybe that is what Keir Starmer wants.