Article: Beatrix Campbell
What would it take for the biggest political party in Western Europe to be accorded a bit of respect?
Will the mass media reports from the Labour Party conference be the same when the membership tops 750,000? Or a million?
What does the Labour Party have to do to get taken itself taken seriously?
And what has happened to our political discourse that when democracy is exercised it is traduced as a kind of dictatorship?
In an otherwise thoughtful column by The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley describes the outcome of Labour’s second leadership election campaign, and Jeremy Corbyn’s increased share of and increased vote as a coronation.
It wasn’t a coronation, it was an election.
He was not crowned, he was elected.
No sooner had he won overwhelmingly, than a queue of discontented MPs were lined up to protest.
This is an example of what the political and cultural scholar, Prof Jeremy Gilbert describes as the ‘anti-democratic discourse’ of what passes for political commentary.
Hilary Benn recycled his anti-Corbyn plea for military intervention in the Middle East – as if staking out a lonely pitch for himself as a Churchillian anti-appeasement, anti-fascist leader in waiting;
Anti Corbyn Louise Ellman was everywhere; Chukka Umanna re-iterated his cautions against de-selection of MPs…same old voices, same old complaints…endless laments that Corbyn is unelectable…
Will they still be rehearsing these lines if and when Labour Party membership – excited by the prospect of a social democratic political project for the first time in three decades – hits 1 million?
Will they rebuke the party members if and when they mobilise actual, active resistance to the Tories’ neo-liberal strategy?
Why? Because they can’t stop themselves: they are fighting for their political lives. Not because they are menaced by a de-selecting mob, but because most of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been shaped by New Labour and it our doesn’t know what else to do. It has been chosen and trained by New Labour; it has been disciplined by New Labour, and by its biblical belief that there is no alternative, that Labour’s adoption of the neo-liberal global settlement is not only Peter Mandelson’s failed Third Way, it is the Only Way.
The surprising dullness of candidates challenging Corbyn during the first leadership election campaign, and their performance since then, is indicative — it is a kind of mute inability to connect with the impact of 2008 and the neo-liberal implosion; it renders them the living dead.
The decline and fall of political journalism, its cloistered internment on Westminster Green, its symbiotic dependence upon the tenants of the raggy palace across the road, produces gossip as a proxy for analysis.
It worked well with a party leadership that controlled the commentariat much as it controlled the party. But it doesn’t work when the membership itself is taking everyone — including itself — by surprise.
I once described New Labour as a kind of anti-party party — an organisation run by people who didn’t like its members, a project that preferred an audience to a membership. That era has been extinguished by the rush to join up and join in.
Hence Corbyn’s critics’ strange obsession with the new mass membership as a ‘movement’ rather than a ‘party’. Prof Jeremy Gilbert has written an adroit critique of this polarisation.
Movement and party are not irreconcilable — exemplified by the Green Party which is both a movement and a party. The rise of radical anti-austerity movements across Europe and Scandinavia, Podemos, Syriza and the pirate parties, are simultaneously movements and parties.
You can have effective movements that aren’t political parties — feminism is the exemplar: movements, ideas, campaigns that don’t have an address, a political energy and imagination that is not tethered to a place or time.
Civil rights movements in the US, Northern Ireland and South Africa operated within and beyond the boundaries of parties.
But as Labour needs to know by now: you can’t have successful mass parties that aren’t also movements.
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