Will Sefton reviews the new book by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn.
Leo Panitch and Colin Leys are relatively quick in getting a book out to rake over the coals of the Corbyn project. Their new book Searching for Socialism condenses and updates their earlier book The End of Parliamentary Socialism by addressing the parliamentary labour left from the 1960s till Labour’s election loss in 2019.
The book is clear that it focuses on what they call the “New Left”. That left grew after 1956, as the Communist Parties fell into disarray after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and Gaitskell pushed to shift social democracy to the right.
The content covering the Wilson government through to the rise of New Labour is well-worn and not worth too much comment. The book reads very much like an extended interview with Jon Lansman, for whom the book tells a story he would be extremely comfortable with - other than on antisemitism.
It goes like this. After Gordon Brown's defeat in 2010, the New Labour cohort frays, and the Labour soft-left, helped by the union block vote get their candidate, Ed Miliband, elected. He talks more about "predatory" capitalism, and goes in harder against Murdoch than his predecessors. But his attempts to relate to the extra-parliamentary movements against cuts on the basis of being for shallower and slower cuts leave him floundering. Labour suffers defeat again in 2015.
The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs are dogged defenders of some form of Bennism, seeking greater democracy in the party, but not doing much to fight for it. They become mostly a forum to promote some Labour support for trade union disputes, and the backbone of the smaller unions' parliamentary groups.
Attempts to move away from the corporate and managerial structure that Blair had imposed are few and far between. The shutting down of Labour party democracy has seemed almost complete under Blair and then Brown, and there is not much reopening.
But, in an already well documented period which starts with Eric Joyce punching a Tory MP in Strangers' Bar in 2012, a set of events leads to Ed Miliband changing the electoral college that allowed him to beat his brother David to a one member one vote system. With little organised opposition, those reforms pass easily.
Then, in 2015, Corbyn initially seen as a token left candidate, pulls off a shock win.
Panitch and Leys rely heavily on Alex Nunn’s book The Candidate for much of the take on what was happening in the Corbyn election and wider project. Many of those people quoted there did not retain their influence after 2015.
The reliance on Nunn skews the analysis. Great play is made of the importance of Red Labour (a Facebook page) and its establishment of 30 local groups. These groups were never much more than Facebook pages, with reach on social media but very little to show for it in terms of lasting influence.
Momentum is described as trying to walk a tightrope between engaging the electorate and campaigning and supporting the leadership. A feat accomplished, according to Panitch and Leys, only with the constitution which followed the Momentum "office coup" of early 2017 (when all Momentum's democratic structures were abolished by decree from above). Later, in their conclusion, Panitch and Leys acknowledge that Momentum lacks basic democratic structures to enable it to go beyond the role of praetorian guard for Corbyn. But until these final few sentences Momentum gets a glowing report.
While there is a critique of some aspects of Corbynism -dropping a manifesto out of the sky in 2019; an insufficient critique of the state; over-reliance on trying to play clever in Parliament - there isn't much. Cases when the Labour leadership came up with policy "on the hoof", particularly from John McDonnell, are seen as some of the most positive moments.
But the previous chapters have championed the views of the Bennites about a sovereign conference, democratically decided Labour policy, and structures to ensure its actual implementation.
Whatever is good or bad about the “Alternative Models of Ownership” policies that McDonnell released, they were not a part of conference policy. Free broadband was a good idea, but never put forward for discussion at conference. A leadership being bound by the conference decisions of the party should be a lasting aim of democratising the party.
Antisemitism or anti-semitism does not appear in the index but the writers lay out their view on lines that will be all too familiar. “Under enormous pressure the party succumbed by stages to an acceptance that opposing Israeli policy in Palestine was antisemitic, to the point where no party member could express an opinion unacceptable to Labour Friends of Israel without risking suspension and possible expulsion.”
They go on to defend Jim Sheridan and Chris Williamson. It was left to “progressive websites”, the authors say, to counter the "smear". Given the book later cites the Skwawkbox, it's clear what Panitch and Leys mean by "progressive" here.
The New Left in the Labour Party were not as in general Marxist, though many of its leaders were friendly to Marxist critiques and worked with Marxists. Panitch and Leys distinguish people like Benn, Derer, Corbyn, Holland from figures like Scargill, Knight and the Militant.
When they do talk about "Marxists", they pay no attention to what kind of “Marxist”. The figure of Andrew Murray looms large in the later stages of the book. He was a Communist Party member who “steered clear of Marxism Today” and a Morning Star journalist before rising through Unite to the role of Chief of Staff.
But if Murray steered away from the Marxism Today eurocommunist faction, where did he steer to? He was a member of the hardline Stalinist Straight Left, alongisde other Corbyn apparatchiks Seumas Milne and Steve Howell. His leadership in the Stop the War Coalition is what brought him into long term collaboration with Corbyn. The book has no discussion as to how the politics of StWC meant that Corbyn had almost nothing to say on Syria for the entirety of his leadership.
We are told that Labour’s position on Brexit was really very simple to explain and that the Labour party did what it could to stop itself adopting either a full Lexit attitude or one favouring stopping Brexit. If the Labour party was committed and solely committed to winning the 2019 election, then whatever position it took would have almost certainly resulted in a loss. Adopting any position than two months before an election was unlikely to cut through pre-existing nationalism, all of which had been ramped up since the referendum.
The authors say that Corbyn was too focused on parliamentary manoeuvres and not enough on mobilising the party membership and the campaigning which was his strength. But that was true not just on Brexit, but on almost all areas of Labour policy, including on things that the majority of voters support like railway nationalisation and reversal of NHS cuts. There was no consistent effort to get local Labour Parties out doing street stalls, no campaign of demonstrations or even public meetings.
The reliance on Momentum to push aspects of Labour policy, insofar as they were pushed, led to the pushing being almost all through social media and slick videos.
The Labour left needs to be organised and is currently more divided than it has ever been. Those looking for some history from Panitch and Leys they should read The End of Parliamentary Socialism and give this volume a miss.