Steve Freeman takes a different view if the crisis in the British Labour Party from the views taken by the British Left. Steve relates the crisis in the Labour Party to the ongoing collapse of the post-1945 UK’s social monarchist welfare state.
THE CRISIS IN THE LABOUR PARTY
I want to begin with a nursery rhyme which sums up the character of the present political stage we are living through.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty back together again
This is in original a civil war story about the royalist army having a very big cannon – called Humpty Dumpty – sitting on a wall before being knocked out by the parliamentary forces, such that all the kings horses etc. couldn’t fix it.
.I am going to discuss the Report of Labour Together – the 2019 Election Review’(RLT). We are discussing the situation before Covid 19 or Black Lives Matter. These are the immediate issues that are at the front of our minds today. Why go back over the ‘ancient’ history of a Labour defeat best forgotten? The answer is we can learn a considerable amount about the state of peoples’ views or political consciousness, as expressed through England’s two-party system, and revealed in their voting behaviour in December 2019. This ‘moment’ was a mass event with millions of participants and therefore worthy of critical analysis.
The Report is a subsection of the electorate based on the views of academics, Labour politicians and thousands of rank and file party members. They bring their own worldview with which to make up the report. The Labour Party is divided between its liberal and socialist wings. Without doubt the interests of both factions cast a shadow over the report and over who should get the blame. Therefore, it is important to approach the report as republican socialists who are dealing with the same (or similar) political realities from a different angle.
This review has three parts:-
Part 1 – Historic Defeat
1. Scale of the defeat
2. Longer Term Drivers (trends)
3. The Issues in the Election Campaign
Part 2 – Labour’s 2019 election campaign
Part 3 – The Way Ahead
I am going to concentrate on Part 1 the “Historic Defeat” and explore that idea. I am interested at this point in the strategic framework in Part1 and not the skill and organisation of the actual election campaign in Part 2 or indeed the “The Way Ahead” Part 3, which should be called “The Dead End”.
Labour’s Historic Defeat
“This Election was no ordinary defeat for Labour” says Tony Blair, “It marks a moment in history. The choice for Labour is to renew itself as the serious, progressive, non Conservative competitor for power in British politics; or retreat from such an ambition, in which case over time it will be replaced”. (Tony Blair, Labour’s Historic Challenge speech for the Institute for Global Challenge, 18 December 2019).
To examine what kind of defeat the Labour Party and the people of the UK have suffered we need to begin with the dangers we face from the intersection between two crises:-
- The crisis of imperialism
- The crisis of the UK’s social monarchy
Time will not allow me to examine the first – which includes Climate Change, Covid, China, US and EU etc. So, I am going to ignore the crisis of imperialism and focus of the crisis of the ‘social monarchy’. This analysis is therefore like hopping on one leg instead of walking on two.
The British social and constitutional monarchy
This term refers to the United Kingdom state formed as a constitutional monarchy based on the sovereignty of the Crown-In-Parliament governing the nations of England, Scotland and Wales and the province of Northern Ireland. The ‘social’ component refers to the welfare state created in the decade from 1940-50. In historical terms the ‘social monarchy’ is the Glorious Revolution 1688-1707 meets the 1945 Social Contract.
None of us were alive during the Glorious Revolution or even know much about it. However, in Northern Ireland it is remembered every year on July 12 when Ulster Protestants celebrate Orangemen’s as the victory of King William III at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). For the rest of the country 1945 remains a pivotal moment in our national culture.
Ken Loach’s films The Spirit of 45, The Navigators, I Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You bookend the story of the rise and fall of the social monarchy. Some us, the Baby Boomers, are the children of the social monarchy. I have a memory of drinking national health orange juice from a mug decorated with the emblem of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
‘British’ is the UK’s nationalist ideology, which binds the people and nations to the state with common ideas about history, culture, with patriotism and pride in the achievements of the British ‘race’ celebrated in the many statues found around the country. These ideas and values extend beyond British shores to the former colonies of the British Empire. Immigrants in England, such as the Windrush generation, can identify themselves more easily as ‘British’ but not ‘English’ seen as a white Anglo Saxon identity.
The ‘welfare state’ and the ‘social monarchy’ are both descriptors of the same phenomenon in the post war social contract. They don’t (necessarily) imply support or criticism. We could use other terms, like the ‘Elizabethan welfare state’ (1953-2020) to distinguish it from ‘Victorian England’. Such terms at one level are similar and interchangeable.
‘Social monarchy’ refers to the welfare state or social aspect but connects this to the specific British state as a constitutional monarchy (i.e. Crown, Parliament and Union). If they are interchangeable why use one or the other? Supporters of the social monarchy prefer the term ‘welfare state’. Republican socialists use ‘social monarchy’ because it gives a political picture by connecting the 1945 social contract with the politics and constitution of the state.
Stages in the life of a social monarchy
Political and social identities like ‘constitutional monarchy’ and ‘social monarchy’ are not fixed. They are historical and evolving. How they are changing is the important factor. The constitutional monarchy at the beginning of the 18th century is not the same one we have today. The British royal family has survived by continually updating itself to appear more modern and less feudal before.
In rereading Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed I came across points he makes about the French revolution, which is pertinent for us today. He talks about “The consecutive stages of the great French revolution, during its rise and fall alike”. The revolution is ‘one’ historical epoch within which are birth, maturity and death. It has its internal stages of development, crises and change. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed. Pathfinder Press 1972, p.87)
Revolution is evolution on steroids and therefore has its own slower moving stages. In three hundred years since the Glorious Revolution, the UK ‘s constitutional monarchy has evolved through its life cycle from birth towards death. The ‘social monarchy’ was its most advanced stage growing out of the crisis of the Second World War. This may or may not be the last stage but it has its own life cycle.
The social monarchy was born in the decade from 1940-50. It reached its peak in the 1960s and went into crisis in the decade from 1974 to 1984. The election of the 1979 Tory government was a turning point. The introduction of the virus of neo-liberalism into the body politic, the so-called ‘Thatcher revolution’, spread rapidly after the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike (1984-5). The destruction of the social monarchy continued under New Labour government until the 2008 when major banks crashed.
Degenerated Social Monarchy
In 2008 the global financial and banking crisis was a turning point in the destruction of the social monarchy. At first it seemed the ‘state’ had returned to save people from deregulated ‘free wheeling’ financial markets. The failing banks were nationalised and it seemed as if the old state ‘socialism’ had returned. The debts of the banks were taken over and handed to the people.
This was not the end or reversal of neo-liberalism but the opportunity for a new extension. Everything belonging to the public would have to be sold or closed to pay for the people’s massive new debts. Austerity was a social contract in reverse, robbing the poor to pay the rich. The UK entered a new epoch, the stage of the Degenerated Social Monarchy. It began and continued after 2010 when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition ousted discredited New Labour government.
Degenerated is a process of transition from one state to its opposite and thus degraded, deteriorated or corrupted. For example “With all the rain, the ground was very soggy. It quickly degenerated into a muddy quagmire at the jumps” (Yourdictionary.com) or the Crusades, as a holy war to save the religious sites for God and Christianity degenerated into mere robbing and pillaging of peaceful local populations.
I will use the metaphor of the Titanic. When the ship hit the iceberg it was stopped and becalmed. It was in crisis, not yet in panic. In fact it was doomed. It was already sunk. Soon it was no longer a ship but a wreck on the bottom of the sea. But for a period of time it still looked like a ship and still functioned as one. It kept you above the sea not under it. It was in effect a Degenerated Ship and this reality was going to impose itself on the ship and its crew over the next few hours.
Once the ship hit the iceberg there was no going back. We can’t reverse engines and go back to the good old days before the accident. A Degenerated Ship is a transitional stage between a ship and a shipwreck, between floating on the ocean and sinking to the bottom.
Trotsky used the adjective ‘Degenerated’ to describe the ‘workers state’ in the USSR. In his 1938 “Transitional Programme he says “the apparatus of the workers state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class.” (Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism, Pluto Press p.45).
“The USSR embodies terrific contradictions”, says Trotsky “But it still remains a degenerated workers state”. (Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder New York 1974 p102). The contradiction was being resolved through struggle between bureaucracy and democracy. The ‘degeneration’ concentrated power in the hands of bureaucracy through Stalin’s counter-revolution. It became a ‘Bonapartist’ dictatorship, whilst Marx and Lenin were immortalised and red flag flew above state institutions.
The crisis of democracy
In 2008 the British social monarchy was already in serious decline, undermined by thirty years of neo-liberal policies. Then it hit the iceberg of financial crisis. With the impact of this ‘accident’ the ship of state entered its last and most dangerous stage – the Degenerated Social Monarchy – when the ‘Titanic’ had already hit the iceberg but was still afloat.
The difference between the decline of the Social Monarchy from 1979-2008 and the Degenerated Social Monarchy after 2008 is the ‘crisis of democracy’. Poverty and austerity damages lives and ruins health and welfare. This changes how politics is seen. Westminster doesn’t solve growing problems and appears corrupted by self-serving politicians. When the social contract is stripped away, the political system is left exposed.
Democracy is a general problem for capitalism, not least because owners and management bureaucracies control economic organisation and their workforces are merely employees. The ‘crisis of democracy’ is about the lack of democracy in particular states, which give rise to political crises and constitutional change. We can see examples of this recently in Hong Kong and in the US with the Black Lives protests.
The ‘crisis of democracy’ emerges from the contradiction that ‘democracy is both too much and too little at the same time. For some social interests, ‘democracy’ concedes too much to the people who need a strong state to impose authority. For the popular classes ‘democracy’ is insufficient to meet their needs and interests. Either way the political-constitutional system, whether authoritarian or liberal, is failing, with the prospects for fascism and democratic revolution rising.
Neo liberalism has brought the steady destruction of the welfare state and this impacts on the political-constitutional stability of the state. The Westminster system stands ‘naked’ before a disgruntled people who now want political change. The ‘crisis of democracy’ in the UK showed itself in two referenda on the constitutional future of Scotland in the UK in 2014 and the UK in the European Union in 2016 and the crisis in the Good Friday Agreement with the suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly from 2017 to 2020.
The Scottish and EU referenda gave a frustrated society an opportunity to come out and register a protest. In 2014 nearly half of the Scottish people voted to leave the UK and seek a different constitutional settlement to Union of 1707. In 2016 a majority in England voted to leave the EU to restore our ‘democracy’ or take back control. Both these events are expressions of a degenerated social monarchy.
Labour as the party of the British social monarchy
Labour is the modern version of the Whig Party. The impact of the industrial revolution, the expansion towards universal suffrage and the rise of the organised working class turned the Whigs into Gladstone’s Liberal Party in the 19th century and into the Labour Party in the 20th century.
(See Tony Blair, Labour’s Historic Challenge, Institute of Global Change 18 December 2019 – for a similar historical summary where he traces Labour back to 19th century where “the Whig Party became the Liberal Party” before “the Labour Party took over as the main alternative to the Conservative Party”)
The trade union movement created the Labour Party from the two traditions of liberalism (or liberal imperialism) and socialism. The liberal values of 1688 met the socialist ideals of the 1917 Russian revolution, synthesised in the 1945 British social monarchy. Labourism brought liberals and socialists to unite in perpetual warfare, maintained by the constitutional cement of the first past the post voting system.
The fundamental pillars of ‘Labour’s social monarchism are its commitment to the British state, the constitution of the Crown-In-Parliament, the Union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the ‘welfare state’ and the mixed economy. Liberals see this as protecting and reforming capitalism and the socialists think of it as a ‘British Road to Socialism’.
The Corbyn movement
In his comments on the French revolution, Trotsky notes the succession of leaders from Mirabeau, to Brissot, Robespierre, Barras and Bonaparte. They are like actors coming on stage, dressed up for the drama. They appear as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ or vacillating or as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. What is really important is not their supposed charisma or virtues as individuals but the voice they give to the social forces gathered around. “Only this correspondence, and not any irrelevant superiorities whatever, permitted each of them to place the impress their personality upon a certain historic period”. (Trotsky The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder Press, 1972, p.87)
It is important to examine the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn not as individual, with various alleged human positive and negative qualities, or even as the victim of a campaign of lies and misrepresentations. Corbyn became Labour leader because of the crisis facing Labour Party in 2016 and in the crisis facing the social monarchy impacting on the lives of millions. The unexpected rise of the Corbyn movement came out of the 2008 financial crisis, which finally ended any credibility New Labour had left.
The newly discovered Corbyn charisma and adulation, as in the chanting “O Jeremy Corbyn”, came from the enthusiasm of the movement and social forces that gathered around him and propelled him to victory and in the political programme that united this movement. It was a programme to restore the social monarchy by reaching back to the ‘spirit of 45’ when Labour had its great days of nationalising major industries, setting up the welfare state, the NHS and expanding public sector council housing. It was a restoration of Labour to its historic roots and values in the labour movement.
Just as New Labour was an historic victory of liberalism and free markets so Corbyn represented the social monarchist wing of the party striking back. Of course, it did not end the long struggle between the liberals and social monarchists but raised it to a more intense level. The programme of this movement appealed to the trade union movement and the socialist movement.
It galvanised the ‘Baby Boomer’ who had opposed the social vandalism of Thatcher and New Labour’s Iraq war. It won a new generation of young people, ‘Millennials’, brought up in the neo-liberal world of individualism and capitalist greed, for whom the old left wing radical socialistic ideas seemed relevant and appealing.
These different interests rallied behind the banner of socialism unfurled by Corbyn and McDonnell. It took the Labour Party by storm to the shock and disgust of New Labour MPs, and the New Labour bureaucracy that ran the party. Like the French aristocrats of 1789 they ran to the Palace of Westminster in panic, donning their revolutionary caps of liberty, whilst quietly plotting how they could restore the old regime.
The election of Corbyn to lead the Labour Party was an historic victory traceable to the ‘spirit of 45’ and the traditions of Labourism and the trade union movement. However, in the epoch of a Degenerated Social Monarchy this programme was already out of time. The political problem can be summed up by an amended nursery rhyme:-
The social monarchy sat on a wall
The social monarchy had a great fall
All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men couldn’t put it back together again.
The Corbyn movement, mainly in England, represents “all the queen’s men” who, try as they might, cannot put the social monarchy back together again. It was not that the programme was some strange alien invention produced by ‘Marxists’. It simply did not meet the new post 2008 reality of a broken social model in a failing ‘democracy’.
This movement was defeated in 2019 not just because of Labour’s internal civil war or the war waged by the millionaire press, the BBC and the establishment. The fundamental issue for the Corbyn movement, with or without Corbyn as their leader, was in an out-dated programme that left them barking up the wrong tree. In the epoch of a Degenerated Social Monarchy the central question is the ‘crisis of democracy’.
Labour has to go back before 1945 to the achievements of their Whig ancestors in the constitution of 1688-1707. This means addressing the relations between the Crown, Parliament and People and the Union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The crisis of democracy requires a democratic (i.e. republican) programme, a democratic party and a mass democratic movement. This is not the programme of the social monarchist Labour left or the 2019 Labour Manifesto.
The EU referendum and Brexit was the most concrete expression of the crisis of democracy when England and Wales voted to leave the EU and Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. This gave the Corbyn movement the fleeting opportunity to defeat May in 2017. The longer the Brexit paralysis continued the more the crisis of democracy demanded answers the less capable was the Corbyn movement able to come up with credible answers.
The Tories with their instinct for power took hold of the ‘crisis of democracy’ for their own advantage. The Johnson-Cummings democratic slogan “Take Back Control” won in 2016 and was replaced with another “Get Brexit Done”. Labour’s ‘historic defeat’ came from an inability, rooted in its own traditions of 1945, to deal with the historic lack of democracy embedded in the constitution of 1688-1707 and exposed by the ‘Brexit’ debacle.
(These are the paper from the Notes from Republican Socialist Zoom meeting 23 June 2020)
Also see the following articles by Steve Freeman
- THE LABOUR LEFT ALLIANCE AND ROYAL SOCIALISM
- THE DEBATE OVER SCOTLAND, COBYN AND THE UNION
- JEREMY CORBYN AND THE RE-EMERGENCE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY
and the following articles by Allan Armstrong:-
- THE IMPACT OF THE DECEMBER 12th GENERAL ELECTION ACROSS THE CONSTITUENT PARTS OF THE UK – sections a) b) and c)
- FROM BLATCHERISM TO MAYBINISM
3. A CRITIQUE OF JEREMY CORBYN AND BRITISH LEFT SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, Parts 1, 2 and 3