Lessons for Jeremy Corbyn from the Argentinian left

By Pia Riggirozzi, Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


 

Jeremy Corbyn won a decisive victory over Owen Smith in a second Labour Party leadership contest on Saturday. With it Corbyn not only strengthened his authority but also the right to lead his party. This election was interesting on many counts, not least because it opens questions about where political power and legitimacy reside. The emergence of Corbyn in Labour politics has been politically and ideologically divisive from the outset, confirming a chasm between what is considered the Labour establishment, and ‘the people’ who have rallied to Corbyn’s support, including unions and local activists. Corbyn has revealed his intention to give more prominence to ‘the people’, to ‘do things differently’, and to build a more just and decent society. These promises put a spin on the Labour Party, reclaiming its role within the global resistance to neoliberalism.

Take Argentina, for example. From 2001 to 2015, the challenge to neoliberalism came from electorates that refused to accept parties committed to free markets. Furthermore, Kirchnerismo, the movement associated with the legacy of the 12 years administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor, led on the promise of moving beyond neoliberalism, ‘putting politics at the service of people and the economy at the service of the well-being of all citizens’. And it did so in the context of a global political economy where rising commodity prices and strong commercial and financial links with China gave the Kirchners resources to focus efforts on Argentina’s poor. The nation made significant progress on reducing poverty, introduced universal child benefit plan as well as higher pensions, and the expansion of civil rights, including same sex marriage. But this political project undoubtedly proved to be very divisive. For some, it represented a real commitment to prosperity and the expansion of citizenship rights. For others, it represented a quasi-authoritarian, state-led interventionist system, leading to mistaken exchange rate policies, ruinous energy subsidies and unsustainable fiscal deficit. With the economy slowing and inflation worsening, this polarisation explains Kirchnerism’s defeat in November 2015, and a swing to political and economic conservatism with the election of Mauricio Macri.

As for Corbyn, he won the mandate to do something different and he will thus have to provide an alternative to the unravelling of neoliberalism in the UK, where Labour has so far failed to refashion a social contract of ‘capitalism with a human face’ while Conservatives, caught off-guard by the Brexit vote, double-down on their endorsement to an economic model based on rising inequalities.

Can the Labour Party work again?

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


 

In The Discourses, the infamously astute republican thinker Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the strength and vitality of the Roman Republic compared to other republics lay in the fact that it successfully institutionalised the inevitable antagonism of the people and the nobles in such a way that each held the threat posed to the republic by the other in check and hence republican liberty was preserved. Mercilessly mocking the pieties of republican thinkers who imagined a harmonious transcendence of this antagonism, Machiavelli recognised that a sustainable balance of opposing forces could produce something stronger and more resilient than efforts at harmonious unity could realistically hope to achieve. Machiavelli’s insight is one that the Labour Party, in the midst of its current travails, would do well to remember since the history of the Labour Party is also one of antagonism between opposed forces. Simplifying somewhat we can see the current implosion as a recurrence of a tension that has structured the history of the Party from its inception between a Left that is focused on Labour as a transformative social movement and a Right that is focused on the acquisition of Parliamentary power (with plenty of folk in between). When the Labour Party has functioned at its best, the role of the Left has been to keep the Right honest, to block its tendency to surrender too much in its electoral pursuit of power, to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategy, and the role of the Right has been to keep the Left focused on the point that principle is impotent in the absence of power, that sacrificing electoral success (or deluding yourself concerning the prospects of such success) for ideological reasons surrenders the field to an opponent who will not advance the interests of the people that the Labour Party is meant to serve. There are, though, relatively few points in its fractious recent history in which the organisation of the Labour Party has successfully institutionalized this antagonism, although it is vital to its ability to succeed as a political party.

Today it seems that the Labour Party is closer to a split than anytime since 1981. The Left with its Leader in place has responded to a rebellion of the vast majority of its MPs by reaching, once again, for its long established vocabulary of betrayal and plots, asserting its claim to represent the true flame of socialism and, at times, dismissing the importance of becoming the governing party. The Right draws on its long-practised appeal to electorability, to being a credible government in waiting, asserting its claim to represent those who will suffer once more if the field of government is effectively abandoned to Tory rule. Meanwhile Corbyn is holding firm and leadership challenges by Eagle and Smith are already on the table, while NEC decisions are surrounded in a penumbra of recrimination. There is almost no hope of compromise.

So let’s stand back from the field of internecine conflict and ask if an institutional change might help alter the terrain. Suppose, for example, the role of Leader of the Labour Party were divided into three roles. The Chair of the Party, elected by members, who has the role of re-building Labour as a social movement across the country. The Leader of the PLP, elected by the MPs, with the role of mounting effective parliamentary government and opposition. The General Secretary of the Party, elected by members and MPs (through an electoral college), who occupies the role of organising party campaigns and, with the other two leaders, working out its strategy. Such a structure would aim not to overcome but to balance the tensions between Left and Right – as Labour Party structures have generally tried to do – in order to realise the strength and vitality of the Labour movement in a parliamentary form.

How might this help the Labour Party in its current crisis? It is relatively easy to see Jeremy Corbyn’s real strengths coming to the fore in the role of Chair of the Party without being undermined by his real weaknesses. Similarly the General Secretary role is a natural fit for Tom Watson (and others like Stella Creasy). As for Leader of the PLP, well there are several plausible candidates other than those currently standing against Corbyn: Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Dan Jarvis would be among those uncluttered by the past. No doubt there are flaws in this proposal, it would be surprising if there were not, but my point in proposing it for consideration is to draw attention to the point that the problems bedevilling the Labour Party are not new and are not likely to be solved simply by changes of personnel. Rather it needs to think seriously about its organisation and how is structures the division of leadership responsibilities in order to use its internal antagonisms as a source of strength rather than weakness.

Polling Observatory #26: Politics becalmed as summer approaches

Nott 30-06-13 low res cropped (1)

Cross-posted at NottsPolitics.org

This is part of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

As the political hurricane of the May local elections has quickly become a distant memory, with hostilities easing as parliament heads towards its summer recess, support for the parties has seen a slight unwinding of some recent developments. In the last month the media, and the public, appear to have lost interest in Nigel Farage and his party, with support for UKIP having fallen to 12.8% (down almost two percentage points on our estimate last month). This is the first time UKIP support has seen a monthly drop for several months – suggesting its challenge to the main parties has eased temporarily at least. The Conservatives, in contrast, have seen their political fortunes improve slightly, with their support rebounding to 30.0%, up almost two percentage points on last month. This figure still puts them far down on their standing in the polls at the start of 2012, and there is clearly a long way to go before they have any chance of forming the next government. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have edged up slightly in the polls to 8.3%, though their support has seen little meaningful movement since the end of 2010, which does not portend well for their hopes at the next general election.

Despite persistent talk of Labour’s struggle to gain traction in making the political weather and convincing the public that it offers a credible alternative to the current government, it retains a healthy lead over the Conservatives of almost eight percentage points, with its support standing at 37.6%.

This currently becalmed state of British politics arguably reflects the high degree of uncertainty about the country’s future, combined with wider public disillusionment about politics. Talk of economic ‘green shoots’ is clearly premature, although there are some signs that the worst may be over and voters may be starting to get the feel-good factor back. There is much potential for the political weather to change again, with the upcoming Scottish Referendum and continued debate over an EU referendum leaving much uncertainty over where the UK will stand in May 2015, when the parties are next due to face the electorate. Just to what extent austerity will change the British economy and politics is unclear. What is unquestionable, however, is that citizens have become deeply disenchanted with politics and mainstream parties. In a recent YouGov poll for the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southamptona remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, while 72% agreed with the suggestion that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”. Interestingly, older voters were even more negative about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. It is no wonder, then, that all the parties are struggling to convince anything close to a majority of the public that they have the capability and strength of character to make a difference.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup