On Wednesday, those of us who listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech heard a plea for party unity. Today, on Friday, comes confirmation that Derek Hatton of Liverpool Militant has been readmitted to the Party. Not only does this news show how shallow that appeal for unity was, but serves as a powerful reminder – if any were needed – of the way that Corbynism has changed Labour’s political method.
There can be few people involved in politics at the time who could forget Neil Kinnock’s savage, passionate denunciation of Hatton and Militant at the 1985 Labour conference. Everybody remembers the phrase about the “grotesque chaos” of Hatton’s Liverpool Council sending taxis scuttling around the city serving redundancy notices on the council staff; but, in the context of Labour in 2018, there were two much more important phrases.
First: “you can’t play politics with peoples jobs or their services or their homes”. It’s a particularly relevant statement at a time when there is no group of people in the Labour Party who have had to struggle harder with the effects of austerity than Labour councillors – especially in England. Faced with the most sustained squeeze on local authority resources in modern history, Labour councillors in office have been faced with agonising choices about how to protect the most vulnerable in their communities; it has been a daily struggle, in the face of not only expenditure cuts but of criticism from some in the Labour Party who have never held office – indeed in many cases have only been involved in Labour politics for a couple of years, having spent their political lives campaigning against Labour local politicians. In 2015, I was a Labour candidate in Brighton and Hove – had I been elected I would have been facing those choices, and I have watched with sadness and anger as people who campaigned against Labour in 2015 have sought to undermine that council and its sterling efforts to improve people’s lives in desperately adverse circumstances. To readmit Derek Hatton – a man whose expulsion in 1985 was a vital milestone on Labour’s journey to electability – is nothing less than a grievous insult to those Labour Councillors who have struggled so hard in the years of Tory austerity. They deserve so much better than this from their party leadership.
Second: “it seems to me lately that some of our number become like latter-day public school-boys. It seems it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game…. They might try to blame others – workers, trade unions, some other leadership, the people of the city – for not showing sufficient revolutionary consciousness, always somebody else, and then they claim a rampant victory. Whose victory? Not victory for the people, not victory for them. I see the casualties; we all see the casualties. They are not to be found amongst the leaders and some of the enthusiasts; they are to be found amongst the people whose jobs are destroyed, whose services are crushed, whose living standards are pushed down to deeper depths of insecurity and misery.”
It seems that in this passage, Neil Kinnock uncannily anticipated the methods and flavours of Corbynism. It’s a reminder that the Corbyn surge of new members is overwhelmingly middle-class, made up of people who are not on the front line of austerity. These Corbynistas are more interested, as David Hirsch has argued (and as I argue in my book The Theory and Practice of Corbynism) in taking positions than achieving change; of feeling good about themselves rather than alleviating the economic and social condition of the vulnerable, of seeing the world in terms of reified propositions rather than measurable outcomes. And they are led by people schooled in the Leninist model of a vanguard party, who, for all the rhetoric about being member-led, see the “rank and file” as people who simply vote through the vanguard line.
My own experience is that the people who really made the Labour Party work – the people who gave unstintingly of their time to put in anonymous effort because they cared – are leaving in droves; for all the growth in actual numbers, the Labour Party is being hollowed out. The readmission of Derek Hatton, without any real evidence that he has recanted the political games he played in Liverpool in the 1980s – is a gross insult to the people who have driven the Labour movement, whether of the left or the right.
The readmission of Derek Hatton is further evidence that the Labour leadership is running away from the need to provide a nuanced, grounded narrative around the ending of austerity, rather than a platform for adolescent posturing. And the real damage that this will do – of the attitudes that this readmission represents – will be measured, not in the numbers of taxis scuttling around Westminster delivering torn-up Labour Party membership cards to Labour HQ, but in the embedding of austerity and the misery that electoral defeat will bring.