Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn appear to be at war over the former’s claim that there has been some infiltration of the Labour Party by the old Left – along the lines of Militant – who are influencing new and especially younger members; Jeremy Corbyn’s camp is dismissing it as nonsense, relying on the claim that with 300,000 new members in the Party it’s not credible to talk of mass entryism – put crudely, there just aren’t enough Trots to cause a surge of this size.
For me, this response begs three questions that aren’t being answered at all in the debate.
First, it’s certainly not the case that there are hundreds of thousands of exiled Leftists waiting to lead Labour to a glorious Socialist future. Of course the new members come from the widest range of political and social backgrounds. But that isn’t really the point, and it’s not what Tom Watson and others are claiming. The question is about influence; I know of no-one who has not encountered individuals from the old Left, especially the SWP and the Socialist Party (the Party formed by Militant after their expulsion from Labour), at Labour meetings and events – and in particular at Momentum events (I’ve had credible eyewitness accounts of how the Socialist Worker sellers outside a Momentum meeting have later been happily sitting inside the meeting and voting, despite the Chair asking nicely for non-Labour people to leave). Yes, it may be no more than one or two in some parties: but it’s influence, not numbers that’s the point here. And some of the most trenchant critics of Momentum’s tactics that I’ve encountered are former Militants from the 1980s who argue that Momentum has taken over their methods. So the first question: In the interests of “straight-talking honest politics”, when will the Corbyn camp stop playing the numbers game and answer the real questions about the relationship between Labour, Momentum and Left groups outside Labour, which are about influence?
The second question concerns the curious phenomenon of parties outside the Labour Party campaigning to influence its leadership elections. In my corner of Cardiff, I’ve recently seen stalls from both the Socialist Party and the SWP inviting passers-by to back (or more precisely to “defend”) Corbyn. The man on the Socialist Party stall, when asked why they were backing Corbyn in another Party’s leadership election, replied simply, “He’s one of us.” Now these are both parties who backed candidates opposing Labour as recently as May 2016, in the Welsh Assembly elections (under the banner of TUSC). All of which begs the question – if there is no entryism, why are these parties seeking to influence the leadership election in a party that they oppose electorally? Where is their legitimacy for doing so? And will the current leadership of the Party challenge them for doing so?
And, finally, there is a question at the heart of this leadership election – which is, quite simply, what the Labour Party is for. Right from the start, the aim of the Labour Party was to secure workers’ representation in Parliament. After the First World War, it voted for a Constitution that reiterated its position as a movement based, first and foremost, around Parliament – at a time when revolutions in Europe and mutiny in Britain meant that non-Parliamentary action was a genuinely live option. The current debate in the Labour Party is, at least in part, about curtailing the role of Labour Parliamentarians so that they become the delegates of activist local parties. And that is a huge, and fundamental change. Momentum talks internally (and occasionally externally) of deselection as its aim (normally dressed up in the more appealing language of Party democracy). More generally, Corbyn supporters talk of the sovereignty of the Party membership (perhaps in ignorance of the fact that it is a Leninist model, based on an assessment of political life in Imperial Russia, in which party activists provide a legitimacy that an economically-backward electorate steeped in false consciousness cannot). Meanwhile their opponents talk of representing the interests of those beyond the Labour Party, and governing in their name. The two models are obviously incompatible unless you assume that activists understand the needs of the people better than the people themselves. Moreover, the idea that people will flock to the banner of Socialism in response to transitional demands lacks one iota of empiricial evidence – least of all in the Attlee government of 1945-51, still regarded by many as the high-water mark of Socialism in Britain, and which was based firmly on the Parliamentary model. Which leads to the third question – what is the democratic model, embracing the relationship between party, electorate and the institutions of Government – that is being proposed by Corbyn’s supporters? And in what way does it reject the Trotskyist model of transitional demands, as espoused by the Fourth International, and advocated by parties that have never been part of the Labour tradition?
This third question is one of intellectual and cultural – as distinct from organisational – entryism but is no less important for that; it is about the mindest and beliefs of the people who are asking Labour people for their votes. And these are all genuine questions – as Labour faces what could be a defining crisis it would be fascinating indeed to get beyond the social media abuse and wishful thinking and get some hard answers.