Afterthoughts On Corbyn, Labour, And Its Prospects For Winning The Next Election

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally at Pier Head in Liverpool, England, Saturday Sept. 22, 2018, ahead of the party's annual conference in the city. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)
September 27, 2019 12:43 p.m.

I often complain about foreigners who write about American politics without knowing the first thing about our history. I know something, but not a lot, about British politics, so don’t take as gospel my observations about the Labour Party and its convention this last week in Brighton, which I attended as research for a book on the left in the U.S. and Europe. I may have gotten things wrong, but as an outsider, I may have seen a few things not so obvious to a native partisan.

The Labour Party’s domestic economic program, as articulated by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and affirmed by party leader Jeremy Corbyn in his conference speech, is the closest thing to a real socialist program that I know of. I mean that as something positive. Labour advocates, McDonnell explained at one of the conference events, “an irreversible shift of wealth and power to working people.” Wealth is one thing — reducing income inequality has become a mantra among liberals — but shifting power is key. McDonnell and Corbyn advocate, among other things, sectoral bargaining for unions (through which unions would negotiate wage and working conditions for all the workers in an industry, regardless of union membership), giving workers a 10 percent share in the companies they work for, and requiring at least a third of a company’s board of directors come from its workers. Labour would also establish public ownership, with worker input, of railroads, utilities, including the electrical grid, and the mails. These measures would not abolish the capitalist class, but they would bring a significant element of democracy to the economy by shifting the balance of power from capital to labor.

But it’s a real question whether the Labour Party will ever be in a position to put these changes into effect. The party has had, and is having, a very difficult time handling the politics of Brexit. I went to an opening forum held by Momentum, the key activist group within the Labour Party. Four British speakers were to address “How We Win the Next Election.” The session was to last ninety minutes, and the speakers’ opening talks lasted an hour. None of the speakers discussed Brexit in the first hour. The word itself was only mentioned twice in passing. At the one hour and eleven minute mark — I was taping the session, so I had a tally — one of the audience finally questioned the speakers, “When I ask people to vote for Labour, they don’t want to because they say Corbyn is so anti-Europe. What should I tell them?” One of the speakers then gave the official Labour line.

The issue and the official line finally came up in the conference itself when a resolution, number 13, was introduced that would have committed the party to advocate remaining in the European Union. It was countered by a resolution that committed the party to reuniting the country by negotiating a more favorable Brexit deal and then allowing the public to decide in a referendum between it and remaining in the European Union. When the conference voted by a show of hands, the meeting’s chair declared that resolution 13 had won, but was then advised by the party’s general secretary, who was seated next to her, that the leadership resolution had won. She then declared resolution 14 the victor. A motion to actually count the votes was rejected. The vote was a farce that betrayed the party’s gaping divisions over the issue. To make matters even more confused, McDonnell and the party’s shadow foreign secretary both said that if matters came to a public referendum between a Labour-negotiated Brexit and Remain, they would support Remain.

Labour’s official position, backed by Corbyn and much of the union leadership, makes a certain amount of sense. Labour wants to heal its own divisions and maintain its vote among working class advocates of leaving the EU, and it does seem peremptory simply to advocate, as the Liberal Democrats do, reneging outright on the 2016 vote without a new referendum. But Labour’s position may simply confuse voters as well as arousing skepticism about whether Labour could make a better deal within three months, as it promised. As the conference showed, the resolution also failed to overcome the divisions within the party itself. The party’s best hope, as expressed by one member of Parliament, was for voters to see Brexit as a “distraction” and to vote for Labour based on its domestic program, but that may be wishful thinking.

Still, I wouldn’t begin to predict where the vote will eventually go in an election that may take place before the year is over. Polls pitting Corbyn against Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson don’t tell the entire story. The election is not over who will be prime minister, but over who wins parliamentary seats. Corbyn currently trails Johnson in opinion polls, but he also trailed former prime minister Theresa May in similar polls before the 2017 election, and while Labour didn’t win a majority, it denied the Tories a majority. But I think this much can be said of the party’s prospects: While Corbyn has a devoted following within the Labour Party, he is not a widely popular figure. He is an angry man who lacks the avuncular presence, say, of a Ronald Reagan that would allow him to win over voters who might otherwise reject some of his policies. I would guess – based on estimates even from devoted Corbynites – that the best the party could hope for in a coming election would be to deny Johnson and the Tories a majority of seats. Conceivably, it might then be able to cobble together a majority of its own with the Scottish National Party and the Greens or (even less conceivably) the Liberal Democrats.

To assess not just the party’s electoral prospects, but its future, I spent a good deal of time as forums organized by the younger party activists. Obviously, I had to be selective and what I say here should be taken with a grain of salt. But I would draw a very rough distinction between what I heard from elected officials or trade union leaders and staff and what I heard from Labour members who teach or study at universities or work for political organizations or the media. Of the latter, I’d say that like their American counterparts within the Democratic party, they advocate positions that don’t take account of what a political majority might now or someday support. Their ideas are expressions of moral and even quasi-religious conviction. For instance, they want the British to give up their “privileges” that came from their colonial empire; they favor open borders; they warn of planetary extinction, on the other hand, but on the other hand, see a Green New Deal not merely as a way to stem global warming, but as a sure pathway to full employment.

On Wednesday, after much of the leadership had left for London for the reopening of Parliament, the delegates who remained got the conference to adopt measures along these lines. They voted to remove any control on freedom of movement to the UK, remove any caps on or selective criteria for immigration, grant immigrants immediate access to social welfare, including the National Health Service, and grant the vote immediately in national elections to immigrants and to foreign nationals living within the UK (so that the proverbial Polish plumber would be eligible to vote in the UK and Poland.). They also voted to eliminate by 2030 — in only ten years — all power plants and vehicles and home heating that depend on fossil fuels. These positions contradicted those of the party’s leadership and its 2017 manifesto, but would also land the party in very hot water if it were identified with them in the next election.

The party leadership’s equivocation on Brexit was precisely meant to win over some of the 52 percent, including the voters in Labour constituencies who supported Brexit, but these voters supported Brexit partly because they rejected the EU’s policy on immigration and borders. Labour’s parliamentary candidates may diverge from these positions, but the resolutions mandate that the positions will show up in the party’s official election manifesto (which carries far more weight than party platforms in the US do). If they do, Labour will be in even more trouble, and its dazzling economic program, which has considerable political support in the country, could be lost for a generation.

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