The Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith seems to be heating up. It seems to many people, that the result will be a forgone conclusion: The re-election of Corbyn as the leader of the party. However, with the constant string of anti Corbyn reports in the mainstream media, and select members of the Labour party being banned from voting for trivial reasons (In one case, someone was even banned for saying that they love the Foo Fighters!) the right of the Labour Party seem absolutely determined to oust their leader. Should they be successful, we can expect a return to Tory light economic policy, with the casual bit of leftist rhetoric thrown in, as not to dissuade the corbynistas too much. Should the attempt to get rid of Corbyn fail, I think we can expect a potential split in the party and greater support among the vast majority of Labour party members for Corbyn and his progressive agenda. Now that we have seen two sets of policy pledges and multiple Labour leadership debates, we can begin to compare the candidates, and analyse how the leadership debate has unfolded as a whole. Although Owen Smith likes to pay lip service to Corbyn’s supporters by pilfering his policies, there are a number of clear ideological dividing lines related to the candidates.
State Management or economic Change?
Although it may not seem like it from hearing them speak, Corbyn and smith have two very different economic agendas. Smith focuses on softening the worst blows of neoliberalism, using gentle reforms and public spending. Corbyn urges criticising the economic system, which allows austerity and neoliberalism to flourish. The difference is crucial.
If you trust Owen Smith, you may be lead to believe that he supports a centre left programme of state sponsored redistribution and an end to the governments underfunding of public services. What this means from a Libertarian Socialist point of view, is that Smith favours the expansion of the welfare state with increased taxes and bigger public spending. He promises increased funding for services like the NHS and the Fire service, an institution whose union currently supports Jeremy Corbyn. Slogans such as ‘Anti austerity’ and even ‘Socialism’ litter Smith’s campaign posters. Although Smith does not support Corbyn’s plan for unilateral military disarmament, he is very vocal about his former membership of the Campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND). On the issue of Brexit, Smith is proposing a second referendum, despite the fact that both Labour leadership candidates are disappointed about the referendum result. On the surface, to Labour Party members, Smith’s programme should be slightly refreshing. It is testament to how far Jeremy Corbyn has shifted the political debate, that the ‘anyone but Corbyn’ candidate has left wing policies. The problem is that these proposals leave out a criticism of Blairism, instead behaving like Labour have always been a progressive party, and like the last 20 years never happened.
In contrast to Smiths policies, Corbyn’s proposals begin with the recognition that Labour have in fact been pursuing a right wing economic programme, and that their failure to offer a credible alternative is what lost Labour the 2010 and 2015 general election. There is no ignoring this reality. Our industrial base has been destroyed and essential public services such as the NHS and our school system, have been torn up and sold to the highest bidder. The problem is not that our public services have been underfunded by the Tory’s, but that the whole economy has been casino rigged against us, and that both main parties have been complacent in this. As such, the Corbyn offer is for a restructured economy. This means the creation of the first proper industrial strategy in 40 years, designed to deliver £500bn of infrastructure and jobs to the communities that have suffered the most as a result of Thatcherism and Blairism. Rather than introducing reforms and hoping people will forget about the past 20 years, this approach begins to challenge the ideology that the market knows best. This is not to say that Corbyn should be the be all and end all to challenging capitalism. As I have explained before, in leaving the essential structures of capitalism in place, social democracy ultimately ends up recapitulating to anti progressive policy, by caving in to corporate demands or bribes. If however you see the neoliberal unbridled capitalism of the past 20 years as a massive failure, then you would be better with Jeremy Corbyn than Owen Smith.
Manegerialism or Participatory Democracy?
In the candidate’s summation at the first leadership debate, Smith focused specifically on his personal qualities. The main reason for this is probably to show himself off to be more electable than Corbyn. Contrast this with Jeremy’s summation speech where, among other things, he focused on what ‘we’ as a movement can achieve. These speeches reflect two very different approaches to leading the labour party and fighting an election.
The first approach is a long standing tradition within the Labour Party, emphasising what the relationship is between the Parliamentary Labour party (PLP) and Labour Party members. Under Tony Blair, the PLP asserted its supremacy, making itself answerable only to the Leader. Ironically, the Labour MP’s who abide by Blairite principles seem extremely unwilling to abide by this rule with regard to their current leader. Regardless, under Corbyn, this tradition has begun to slip. Although Owen Smith pays lip service to giving greater power to the membership, he emphasises his personal ability to command support from Labour MP’s and to sell his visions to the voting public. This model casts the electorate and the Party members as political consumers and spectators, who watch politics played out in the media, and every few years get the chance to vote for their favourite characters. The reason for this is that, as a result of Corbyn’s election as leader of Labour, the PLP are terrified at the influx of new Labour Party members having a say. It is for this reason that they have resorted to anti-democratic tactics like election rigging and abuse. They can see that Corbyn is steering the party in a more democratic direction, away from the Labour MPs, parliamentary donors and political insiders like them. Tom Watson gave the game away a few weeks ago when he labelled Corbyn supporters ‘Trotskyist infiltrators’, and described the democratisation of the party under Ed Milliband as a ‘terrible error of judgement’. If Owen Smith wins, he would be under enormous pressure from Tom Watson and the rest of the PLP to scrap the one member one vote electoral system, so that ordinary people never get the chance to threaten the Labour managerial class ever again.
The second approach is one that is much newer to the Labour Party. This is the networked social movements that arose as part of the anti-globalisation struggles of the 1990s, and have since grown exponentially thanks to the rise of social media and the greater availability of smartphones. Unlike political parties or campaigning organisations, decision making is fluid and taken by a crowd rather than a small group of people. These movements are rightly suspicious of electoralism, but 2015 leadership election saw them collide with the Labour Party. As a result, this movement currently takes the form of Momentum – a pro Corbyn campaign group. The Corbyn campaign recognises the power of political organising and seeks to utilise and expand it. We have seen some example of this in the past ten months, with initiatives like peoples PPE and The World Transformed, on the horizon. However, the biggest change will come when Labour moves from letting its membership vote, to encouraging political participation and Democracy in areas where there is none. Corbyn’s economic policy of a £500bn investment programme is rationally coupled with a political commitment to expand democracy. The idea behind this is that communities that have been devastated by neoliberalism will not only be flooded with jobs and opportunities, but they will be put in the driving seat and empowered to decide on their local priorities.
Convince the Party or Convince the Country?
Corbyn’s opponents argue that he is preaching to the converted, whereas Smith has wider appeal to the electorate. In fact, their approaches to the leadership contest so far suggest the complete opposite. For instance, when Smith announced his plan to rename the department of work and pensions to the Ministry for Labour, he described the need for a ‘cold eyed socialist revolution’. This is a not too subtle appeal to the Trotskyist membership that only exists in the Labour rights imagination. It is not a pitch to swing voters.
More concerning is Smiths attitude towards the EU referendum. Knowing that most Labour Party members, including Corbyn’s core base of support, were remain voters, he has threatened to overturn the referendum result. This is extremely dangerous. The Brexit vote was driven in part by hostility towards what was seen as the establishment. This is not to suggest for a moment that vote Leave or UKIP, are in any way anti-establishment, but simply that this was the message that these campaigns put across. The worst possible response to this, is to say that the democratic participation of Leave voters should be binned. This would result in Labour giving half of its northern seats to UKIP, and writing a fat check to other far right organisations. This does not matter to Smith however. He would rather attack Corbyn for not putting up a big enough fight to stay in the EU, so he can position himself as the pro EU candidate.
By contrast, Corbyn’s proposals are the beginning of a manifesto for the 2020 general election. He appeals to the young, who have been saddled with tonnes of student debt and the working class, who have been impoverished by Tory Austerity. Appealing to these people is Labours best route to power, but the party can only use this as their battleground if it is secure on its home turf. Under Corbyn, Labour have consolidated a base, so it is possible for him to speak beyond that. However, Smith still needs to consolidate his core support. He currently has a handful of people who still believe in Blairism and a larger cohort of the soft left who like Corbyn’s politics, but see him as unelectable. Smith needs to expand this dramatically in order to win the leadership election, but doing so requires the creation of a precarious coalition between these groups. A coalition which is totally unprepared to fight a general election.
Owen Smiths policies are a radical departure from Blairite orthodoxy, but his strategy and ideology is certainly not. His position on the economy is that it requires reform, not overhaul. He sees politics as theatre and the Labour Party in need of better marketing. Corbyn on the other hand, is able to offer a coherent vision that builds on his already consolidated base and looks ahead. He treats the newly expanded membership as something to be treasured, not overcome. This means that he can begin to craft an approach that can win a general election. Last year’s Labour leadership election marked the death of Blairite policy. Let’s hope this one will mark the death of Blairite strategy.