Good Opposition: bad opposition


In my job I teach a thing called Critical Linguistics. It’s about unpicking the relationship between language and ideology and asking how the words we use might sustain or legitimate unequal or illegitimate relationships of power and domination. There are lots of things I ask my students to look out for in seminar, but one of the main ones is opposition – how do language users construct binary oppositions in the texts they produce? And in opposing two concepts, which one is it they privilege and which one is it they denigrate?

All this isn’t to say that opposing two ideas is always wrong, but it makes me suspicious. I’m wary when I hear Labour politicians like Lord Kinnock wheel out a series of oppositions as if the ideas they were talking about were all mutually exclusive. For Kinnock and his like, the Labour Party is either a party of ‘power’ or of ‘protest’ (note the alliteration, too, just to add a little more rhetorical force to the dichotomy); we’re either interested in winning or in remaining pure; we’re compromising and in government, or principled and consigned to opposition; we either represent the broad view of the electorate, or the narrower view of Labour Party members.

Notwithstanding the quite wonderful irony of making the case for political ‘moderation’ on the basis of such a Manichean rhetorical style, I think these binaries are illusory. It’s a shame that some on the left fall into the trap of accepting them. So, Jon Lansman – one of the co-founders of Momentum (an organisation I should emphasise that I support) – yesterday gave the impression on Twitter that party ‘democracy‘ and ‘winning’ elections were two opposed, competing concepts (which I don’t actually think he believes). The tweet attracted the sanctimonious ire of a number of anti-Corbyn MPs, not least Hilary Benn, who in a flurry of tweets outlined a host of Labour’s successes in power, ending with the question ‘aren’t these all the result of “winning” in a democracy, Jon?’

As far as I’m concerned, accepting this division between internal party democracy and electability is very much to play the Labour right’s game. In the parliamentary democracy we have – and which isn’t going away any time soon – winning elections is important. But, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and therein lies the problem with the simple-minded, black and white view that we either ‘moderate’ positions and win, or stick to our principles and lose.

There are a plurality of strategies for winning an election – strategies that cohere with the different values and variegated ideologies of the Labour party ‘broad church’. My problem is not that the Labour right compromise; it’s that they make rotten compromises. It’s not that they want to win elections, but that the strategy they propose for doing so is wrong.

Which leads me to the coup attempt in the PLP. The reasons for the coup and Angela Eagle’s newly announced leadership challenge, she assures us, are not about policy or politics, but about Corbyn’s competence as a leader. This is nonsense. I simply don’t buy into the idea that an opposition leader that in 9 months has closed the gap between their own party’s share of the vote and the government’s, won every by-election, every mayoral election and, as the man himself points out, inflicted 22 defeats on the government, is ineffectual (especially when he does so despite an unprecedentedly hostile media and sabotage by elements of his own shadow cabinet).

Doubtless, some on the soft left of the PLP do have concerns about the competence of Corbyn’s outfit, even if I think these concerns are unfounded. As we’re endlessly (and a little smugly) reminded, this is not just a Blairite coup.  But pointing to the composition of the coup in terms of its participants is not the same as defining its political content.

There is abundant evidence to suggest this manufactured crisis was a long time in the making (see also this). The engine of discontent in the PLP is not the technical question of Corbyn’s competence, his ability to ‘lead’ etc. but the anti-austerity, anti-imperialist politics for which he stands. The coup leaders may well have forged an alliance between the right and soft-left of the party ostensibly on the basis of these technical criticisms, but their motivation for the coup is rooted very firmly in their political opposition to Corbyn. The idea that there is a “continuity Corbyn” candidate is fantasy. As I’ve written elsewhere, the political outcome of removing Corbyn would be to row the anti-austerity economic agenda back to the boat house.

And this would be a disaster. We’ve already seen what happens when we run a “centrist” campaign founded on an incoherent policy of austerity-lite. Re-running the 2015 general election will give us the same result as it did last time. As I’ve argued, and as the polling has demonstrated, Labour lost the last election because it wasn’t trusted on the economy. It will never be trusted for as long as it offers a watered-down version of Tory cuts. Why have that, when you can have the real thing? We need to define a new narrative on the economy. Corbyn’s break with austerity represents the opportunity to do just that – an opportunity he and John McDonnell are very effectively seizing upon.

Think, too, what the effect of a coup would be on the Party itself. Although it’s the PLP renegades that have created this crisis, the Labour left has been accused of pushing the party to a split. But if the PLP is successful and Corbyn is removed, the fallout will be profound. Kinnock has argued that the wishes of the PLP matter because Labour was founded as a political party committed to parliamentary democracy. Certainly, it was – a party organically linked to the labour movement and committed to representing the voice of working people in parliament. If the PLP is able to place a veto on the decisions of the membership and affiliated supporters, what then for the idea that it is the voice of the labour movement in the corridors and halls of Westminster? Subordinating the membership to the parliamentary party implies the opposite relationship – that Labour members should be the voice of the parliamentary party on the electoral doorstep.

The PLP rebels may well invoke the spectre of unruly Momentum supporters to justify their collision with the membership – that these aren’t “real” Labour supporters, or that the new layer of left-wing “ultras” in the party are out of tune with the politics of the average elector – but a veto is a veto is a veto. This coup is an attack on not just those supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, but the right of the whole movement to have their voice heard in parliament at all. It will be a victory for the right today, but will also set a precedent in the years to come that says it is the PLP, not the members, who in the final analysis control the direction of the party. This coup is about more than just a political struggle in the short term, but competing long-term visions of what a progressive political party should be.

One of the many reasons Corbyn won last September was because people were fed up of being taken for granted. The subsequent growth of Labour to over half a million members should be a cause for celebration. It’s absurd to suggest that there is some inherent opposition between the size and democratic representation of the membership and our ability to win elections. These aren’t just more people to knock on doors; they’re people with new ideas, new talents and new areas of expertise that should make the Labour party ideologically, politically and electorally stronger, not weaker. Treating them as anything less will lead to disaster. It’s exactly this mentality that has destroyed the Labour Party in Scotland and hollowed out our support in England and Wales. The anti-democratic manoeuvrings of some Labour MPs to “save Labour” will only exacerbate this process of hollowing out.

Kinnock’s attempt to prettify attacks on the parliamentary representation of Labour members with high minded appeals to Keir Hardie and labour movement history is rather a non sequitur to the debate. No one is saying that we should take to the barricades in extra-parliamentary armed resistance to the government. To suggest that they are is ridiculous hyperbole. All that is being argued is that the members have a right to expect that the results of a leadership election are respected. If asserting this right is an act of revolution, then what exactly is the democratic content of Kinnock’s ‘democratic’ parliamentary reformism?


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