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.