Fight Within UK Labour Party Pits the Political Elite Against its Left Pt. 1/2

17 December 2017 — TRNN

The fight between pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn forces within the UK’s Labour Party is intensifying as the anti-Corbyn camp attempts to stop Corbyn supporters from being on the ballot. Prof. Leo Panitch of York University explains (inc. transcript)


Leo Panitch is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto. He is the coeditor of the annual Socialist Register, the 2018 volume of which is on “Rethinking Democracy”. Leo is also the co-author of the UK Deutscher Book Prize winner The Making of Global Capitalism: the Political Economy of American Empire.


SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The fight within UK’s Labor Party is heating up. The Labor Party movement, Momentum, there to mobilize the party base in the same way say, our revolution is here behind Senator Sanders in the US. Recently, they tried to position one of its members on a short list for a parliamentary seat in Watford. Well, the local labor members in Waterford were outraged because they had already rejected his candidacy. Similar fights seem to be taking place at different levels within the labor party, between long time moderates and newer, more radical members of the party.

Joining me now to analyze these developments is Leo Panitch. Leo is a senior scholar and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at York University in Toronto. He’s the editor of the recently released issue of the Socialist Register for 2018 titled: “Rethinking Democracy.” He’s the author of many books, among them: “The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labor.” Good to have you back with us, Leo.

LEO PANITCH: Hi Sharmani. Glad to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: So Leo, the fight in Watford appears to be one of many battles within the party between Momentum and the more moderate pro-Corbyn Labor politicians. Elaborate on these splits and the developments here.

LEO PANITCH: Well, I don’t know that moderate quite captures what’s going on here and it reflects the title that I gave to that book: The End of Parliamentary Socialism. What we’re dealing with here is a class of career politicians. You have them in the United States. The Clinton s represent them. Obama represented them, et cetera. And these are people who, from the time that they go to university or sometimes they come in via the trade unions, become career representatives. Their job is to be representatives under the Labor Party rubric within our limited parliamentary or liberal democracies. And yes, they are moderate in the sense that they are entirely bound within the existing system. They are part of representing voters’ interests but in a way that is oriented to reproducing the current system.

And what they’re being challenged by now and Corbyn represents it most dynamically, the movement behind him and he himself, what they’re being challenged by now is a tremendous sense, especially among young people, that that type of representative has lost his or her base. That they, the system because it’s become so unequal because as it reproduces itself it reproduces more and more inequality and more and more irrationality, in terms of the climate crisis, and the refugee crisis and the militarizations that are going on. That reproducing this system is simply not acceptable. And they don’t know where to turn when this happens.

So, their whole role as not educators for the development of an alternate type of economy, an alternate type of society. They don’t know where to be for themselves, insofar as they can’t play that role. And they cling with all of their might to this career role that they’ve got, whereas they’re being pressed from below and being led by Corbyn. And they tend to respond to this, tragically, and I don’t think this is just true of the people on the right of the Labor Party, the Blair-ites, et cetera. It’s to some extent even more true of those who don’t have much ideological orientation. They tend to respond to this in a Cold War way.

That is, when they’re challenged by new activists, and the last thing they want is activists inside their labor party branches, they ll only cause them trouble. When they’re challenged by new activists, they feel that they’re being challenged in some sense by, you know, some ultra-revolutionary Leninist or even worse.

So, in Watford, which you referred to, one of these guys said that he felt like he was being subject to a style that you would experience in North Korea. Well that’s absurd, absolutely absurd and it’s reflected, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this more, in the media, because the media journalists, the career journalists in the mainstream media, are closely linked to these type of full-time politicians and then they pick up that kind of claim and engage in the worst type of McCarthyism.

SHARMINI PERIES: Leo, let’s talk about the media angle and how Jeremy Corbyn is being covered in the media in the UK in the second segment, but let’s stay here with the radical movement within the labor party, here being Momentum. You can see that they were responsible for making sure that Jeremy Corbyn was elected the leader by joining the party and mobilizing. And when you looked at the party conference last year, they invited people like Naomi Klein to come and speak, and I’m sure they had a big role in that invitation, so it’s really changing the dynamics of the party. Is that going to stick or do you think that will lead to a split in the party?

LEO PANITCH: Well, that’s the $64,000 question, Sharmani and a good one. Yes, Momentum is a important new development. It was formed by the former campaign manager for Tony Benn, when he was leading, spearheading an attempt to democratize the labor party and renew some socialist vision in it, back in the 1970s and early 80s. His name is John Lansman. I knew him as a young, remarkably committed and creative organizer with no connection to any far-left Leninist or Trotskyist group but one of the activists in a organization called the Campaign for Labor Party Democracy.

They were simply trying to get the Wilson and Callahan governments of the 1970s, which were such disasters and led to Thatcherism, they were trying to get them to adhere to the policy program they were elected on and to the resolutions passed at party conference. You know, with Thatcher’s emergence and her tremendous success, the defeat of Benn, this comes with the media as well that we’ll talk about. The media played a big role defeating him. That got marginalized. Jeremy Corbyn was part of it. It revived again in the wake of the appalling participation by the Labor government under Tony Blair, the invasion of Iraq. And it got even energized further with the crisis of 2007, 2008, when it was clear that the way in which a Labor government that got into bed with the financiers with the city of London had blown up in their faces.

So, you already began to see, in labor party branches there’d been a massive decline in membership, but those who stayed were not at all happy with that Blair/New Labor leadership. You began to see in the unions, a revival of left-wing activists and leadership in them. And you most tellingly began to see people who had been active in the anti-globalization movement, who were active in other campaigns and social media. They got behind the nomination and election of Ed Miliband, as leader of the Labor Party who wasn’t quite part of the Blair circle. And that didn’t amount to a transformation of the party, not least because Ed Miliband did not want to be too closely associated, in the face of the media, in the eyes of the media with these radical young people or with the trade union left.

The failure of that interim leadership led to Corbyn’s nomination and election to the great astonishment of everyone. And yes, this new organization, which brought together the old folks like Lansman, I first knew him as a 23-year old. This is now almost 40 years later, coming together with these remarkable young people who had engaged in the social media around what was known as Red Labor. And they formed Momentum and they were crucial to Corbyn’s election but they didn’t do it by themselves. They did it by galvanizing young people into the party in unheard of numbers. As we know, Labor is now the largest political party in Europe with 600,000 members. Labor Youth has 110,000 members but also linking up with trade union activists and with long standing rank-and-file members of the Labor Party. Some of them left, some of them joined.

And what these guys were good at were actually organizing people. Organizing people in a campaigning kind of way, and that showed itself in the overwhelming election of Corbyn as leader twice, ’cause he was challenged and there was a second election but also in the tremendous role they played in the election campaign through the social media and that was, everyone agrees, absolutely crucial in what happened in the election in June in Britain in this year, this summer.

Everyone thought that the polls were showing that Corbyn was gonna get wiped and far from it, he almost won the election. And that was done through the use of social media, which Momentum was extremely good at, very professional, very low cost, incredibly creative. Now, the goal of people in Momentum is not just to get Corbyn elected and Corbyn’s goal is not just to get elected. It’s to play a role in educating the broad electorate and educating Labor Party members into being active socialists, active democratic socialists and in playing a creative role in developing the Corbyn team develop alternatives inside the British state, in the British economy for this tremendously unequal and irrational capitalism we’re all living with.

So, yes there’s conflicts that emerge inside Labor Party branches, at a local level in choosing councilors, at the national level in choosing members of Parliament. This doesn’t come from a Machiavellian targeting of certain branches by North Korean-minded, demented members. It often comes from local, long suffering, local Labor Party members who see this as an opportunity to get their party branches to become centers of working class life again rather than just ciphers for a career politician. But when this happens, this of course creates almighty hell in the eyes of the political establishment.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now Leo, off the top, I compared what’s going on in the Labor Party to what’s going on in the Democratic Party here in the US. The Our Revolution folks being equal unto the Momentum movement and the, you know, party old guard and Centrists and the corporate elements of the party fighting it out right now, through various commissions and hearings, trying to democratize the party and similar questions arise, you know. Should there be a split and Our Revolution forming its own party or should they try to democratize the party?

LEO PANITCH: Yes, well, one: it’s gone much further in the Labor Party case. And it has a pedigree in the Labor Party case which is much firmer. It’s gone much further insofar as the people supporting Corbyn are in control of the National Executive Committee of the party. It goes much further insofar as many of the largest trade unions are fully behind this attempt to support Corbyn’s team and are supporting Momentum. So, it goes much further in that respect.

The Labor Party is a different beast than the Democratic Party because it really does have a party organization. It’s not just a electoral machine that, you know comes together as an accordion does at the time of elections. It actually has an institutional structure linked to the unions, linked to party branches in every part of the country which, you know involves some organizational ballast that the Democratic Party doesn’t quite have.

So, you can see that the kind of fight that goes on there is one that can flare up in unexpected ways. In Watford or in Harringay or elsewhere in the UK, in ways that are not orchestrated by say, what Our Revolution would be doing in conflict with the establishment of the Democratic Party but there are real similarities, no question.

It’s just that it’s gone further in the case of the Labor Party and it has a more working-class socialist profile to it, which is very significant. The extent to which the Democrats have lost their base in the strongest arenas that were, you know democratic communities since the New Deal, is very much more marked in the American case than it is in the UK case.

And Corbyn and his team have a way of speaking to working-class people, even those who might, who voted for Brexit, that is more lacking, except perhaps in the vernacular, of Corbyn’s speech, than it is in the case of the people who are trying to change the Democratic Party.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alright Leo, let’s continue this discussion but from a media coverage angle and how the UK media is covering the Labor Party and it’s leader. I thank you so much for joining me for now.