– The politician should resemble the man, who, as we have often seen in Africa, seated on a huge and unsightly elephant, can guide and rule the monster, and turn him whichever way he likes by a mere sign, without any violence.
– I recollect, when I was your lieutenant, I often saw one of these drivers.
– Thus an Indian or Carthaginian regulates one of these huge animals, and renders him docile and familiar with human manners. But the genius which resides in the mind of man, by whatever name it may be called, is required to rein and tame a monster far more multiform and intractable, whenever it can accomplish it, which indeed is seldom. It is necessary to hold in with a strong hand that ferocious beast denominated the mob, which thirsts after blood, and exults in all kinds of cruelty, and rages insatiably after the most hideous massacres of men.
De Re Publica, Cicero
In the Scottish borders story of Tam Lin, a man who has been captured by the Queen of Faeries fears he will be offered up as a tithe to Lucifer. His lover must save him, but can only do so by keeping hold of him as he undergoes shape shifting, into a wolf, a bear, and a lion, before he will become a man again. She succeeds, and they escape the faeries to live in happiness.
This is the fabulous image of the Labour party that underpins much of the Labour left’s current approach to Corbyn. In their adoring eyes, the party has metamorphosed from a ‘Blairite’ election machine into a mass party. Under pressure from members and supporters on the left, and right-wing MPs, donors and advisors, the party is being pushed into increasingly fantastic shapes. But as long as Corbyn’s activists can dig their fingernails in hard enough to their lover (for whom they feel great passion though only recently acquainted), the story goes, they will ride the party through its shape-shifting ordeal, and away from the mouth of hell towards a green and pleasant land.
But we have only undergone one supposed transformation and already the Labour Party is looking awfy strange. Rather than changing into some vicious beast, it has taken the weird and warped form of the Cortical Homunculus – a human body reproportioned according to where the brain’s attention is focused so that its hands and head become bizarrely oversized. With the leader’s office and its bulging membership thrashing wildly about in defiance of convention and elite advice, the Labour Party now appears both comical and conflicted – a far cry from the muscular electoral beast all sides hope it can become.
The Left has control of the party’s head and a set of limbs in the form of the membership. Meanwhile its stomach, the Parliamentary Labour Party, is churning. In Capital Marx refers to the legend of Menenius Agrippa (d. 493 BC), a Roman patrician who persuaded the plebeians to refrain from overthrowing patrician rule by using an analogy with the human body. The patricians represented the stomach, he said, the plebeians the limbs: the limbs were required to feed the stomach, and, conversely, if the stomach were not fed, the limbs themselves would soon wither. Labour’s spoilt cohort of MPs now wail about an upset tummy, demanding remedial attention from anyone who’ll listen – but their influence has shrunk, and the party’s new rulers are no longer paying attention.
The party doesn’t look healthy. It looks monstrous – and wonderfully unattractive to the public. The mere weight of supporters, however fervently they paid their £25, confers little public legitimacy on Corbyn. The voters, like most of the PLP, don’t see why members would have the judgment to direct a party of government – especially when those members contain rogue elements mounting abuse. A good politician takes control of a wild animal and guides it to her ends. Corbyn has been given ample time to take the reins of the nervous creature, but the elephant he mounted rather reluctantly last summer is finally getting out of control. He is losing his grip altogether.
It is not just those on the right of the party that are reaching for the tranquiliser gun. With parts of the new membership starting to rampage, activists on the left flank are growing uneasy. Veteran Labour socialists like Anne Black, one of the candidates for re-election to the NEC on the left-wing slate sponsored by Momentum, have played a part in freezing CLPs out of Labour and reducing the potential for the kind of wildcat party-joining tactics which are increasingly favoured by the Left. The latest suspension was of Brighton and Hove CLP, where former TUSC candidates and Trotskyists entered the local structures and won positions of dominance. Inter-left factions are clashing – the Labour Representation Committee wrote a statement calling for a revocation of the left’s support for Black, before ‘clarifying’ the position after members of the Committee complained that they had not been consulted. Meanwhile Momentum continues to back her. The strange and uncontrollable impact of members that grow apart from the body is becoming evident as parts of the Labour left realise brute force without guile is the hand they have been dealt.
The party seems incapable of effective organisation. What are the hundreds and thousands of members to do? In Scotland we have a prime example of a party that now has incredible density of membership – 1 in 37 people of voting age in Scotland are SNP members – and yet very little has been done to engage or activate this membership. The SNP realise that distended membership can act as a drag on the party, and that numerical strength comes with its own problems. When one of us volunteered in a phonebank to encourage members to vote for the left-wing NEC slate, many were crying out for instructions – other than to vote in more elections. Labour has been labelled a social movement, but it is yet to become at all clear what that label means. Much of the energy Momentum has mustered is spent on the very electioneering which not so long ago the left of Labour were attacking. Paul Mason wants us to believe the movement is formidable, though Corbynism has been perhaps fairly described as a simulation of a social movement: the organisational joints and sinews that should connect the leadership and members to the bulk of the working class remain dangerously weak.
Some are confident any problems of leadership will be solved if Corbyn sticks to his principles – by repeating throughout the new campaign that Labour is a party determined to eradicate the five social ills and institute a more caring politics and society. But preaching principle to a political monster will not make it any prettier, and demanding people cease from internal conflict because there is ‘no place for it’ in the movement will not inaugurate harmony.
About a year ago at the celebratory drinks in Whitehall there was great jubilation when Corbyn arrived – a mass of members and organisers were ready to greet him. There were murmurs: had people been down to the Labour offices to take control of the machinery? Where were the trade union leaders? While most activists anticipated the road ahead, and even expected coups at that early stage, they were on the whole blithely confident that the membership and leadership could take care of the whole party corpus. This never materialised: the party HQ, regional and national infrastructures (particularly in Scotland, Wales and London), and of course the NEC have not yet demonstrated any kind of coherence of purpose or identity, while the fate of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet of ‘all the talents’ was predictably disastrous. The aftermath of Corbyn’s initial election suggested that little preparation had gone into actually taking power, having ostensibly won it. The continuous homages to the membership as the sole source of legitimacy only serves to distract attention from the fact that there are multiple power bases within the party, and each of them must be won if Corbynism is to grow beyond its current limits.
All this is not reason for despair but for careful consideration as to what a mass membership socialist party can do, and what the point of it may be. It raises a very exciting question that is at the heart of a debate that has raged for a century: what is the point of a parliamentary socialist party in general, and the Labour Party in particular? And can it be taken over by an influx of thousands of people committed to bringing about a socialist society?
The media flock like gulls to parliamentary stories, as the attention around Sarah Champion’s ‘de-resignation’ demonstrated. Clever shadow cabinet manoeuvres, effective use of the conference, and a well-pitched policy agenda could act as leverage for the political campaign Corbyn is mounting – but they provide no role for the membership. Internal wrangling is necessary but totally insufficient. If the central end is a socialist government, this would require the deselection of all MPs who would make a habit of not following the whip, a complete re-thinking of Corbyn’s messaging strategy, and the co-option of the massive membership into a controlled electoral machine. It is not a project for the faint-hearted. But the greatest fear for socialists must be that having somehow ridden the monster into Westminster, Labour will be in a ‘Syriza situation’, confronted by other States as well as banks, finance and industry that will not let it have its way. Quite clearly, having a socialist party in government is not enough for anything. Socialism needs strength outside government, and against government, and a mass membership can be used to these ends. In Roch Winds we call this ‘Unparliamentary Politics’, something distinct from the so-called ‘extra-parliamentary’ politics which exists outside parliament only to make demands upon it.
One way to burst politics’ parliamentary bubble is to encourage action outside of parliament in resistance either to the government or to capital. Corbyn has expressed outrage about poor housing, high rents, and social cleansing from council houses in London – so why not call for members to rush against property itself – with rent-strikes, and solidaristic activity exposing bad landlords, and the setting up of tenants’ unions like the Living Rent Campaign in Scotland? What happened to the pledge we heard John McDonnell make to a group of trade unionists in Parliament Square the night of the second reading of the Trade Union Bill, when he said we needed to fight on the streets? What about Len McCluskey’s pledge to break the law in opposition to the Bill? This used to be par for the course, not just in industrial but in social and public spending issues – as McDonnell well knows. When he spoke a couple of weeks ago at an event in Lambeth to commemorate the 1985 Council’s refusal to implement Thatcher’s cuts,increase the rates of council tax or shutting services, he described how it was the decision by councillors to break the law that mobilised hundreds of locals into supporting the rebellious councillors with a fighting fund – and sparked life into the communities that had stood with the Labour rebels Momentum has the capability to suggest and support activism, from migrant solidarity and housing activism to interrupting precarious workplaces. It could train, prepare and equip activists to take the fight to the owners of property, and could provide solidarity and support for those who choose to overstep the law.
These are the means around which Corbyn could reconstitute the Labour party, so that the members and the leadership had a task it was able to handle, and so that this is not one great anticlimactic climb towards a weak patchwork Labour government in 2020 or 2025. This Labour party is ill-suited to a slow and weary road to a victory at Westminster when there are battles that a united movement of people, signed up to socialism, could fight in the coming weeks. For socialism is not the belief in obtaining a Labour government at Westminster with a Left-wing leader, nor is it the business of sincerely regretting the ill effects of private property on people’s lives. It is the real movement to overturn and replace property and the power of its owners. There are many battles to be fought. They may end in defeat. But it is better to be defeated in a battle worth fighting than brought down by your own side. If the moderates find this monstrous – good. It’s time to embrace the monster.