Paul Mason and the Labour left

Submitted by AWL on 18 December, 2019 - 12:40 Author: Sacha Ismail
corbynism

Did Paul Mason write his own headline for his latest New Statesman article? “Corbynism is over – Labour’s next leader must unite the centre and the left”.

The article is better than the headline, but the headline does indicate the problem with Mason’s arguments. As often, he combines useful left-wing insights with ambiguity and right-wing elements.

Mason’s starting point is that Labour’s shift to a more anti-Brexit position was too little too late. “Because we had to waste half a year, and a fractious conference, winning over Liberal Democrat and Green voters, could not simultaneously do the preparatory work in small-town, northern Leave constituencies to sell an internationalist policy on Brexit.

“Whether the second referendum position could ever have been sold is debatable — but Corbyn’s team, having been forced to accept the policy, decided not to try.”

Mason identifies the “fatal moment” as the early months of 2019, when Labour lost support to pro-Remain parties (first Change UK and then the Lib Dems). The severity of the crisis, revealed in the disastrous May Euro election results, was partly obscured by the Tories also losing support to the Brexit Party.

After activists pushed the leadership into more solid backing for a new referendum at September’s party conference, Labour began to put the squeeze on the Lib Dems, but only after a protracted period of damaging ambiguity.

The “febrile summer of ‘four-party politics’” demanded “strategic action by both Labour and the Conservatives to regain the initiative. The Tories took decisive action. Labour did not.”

Even after the conference, Labour’s Brexit policy remained ambiguous – particularly as interpreted by the leadership, but also more fundamentally.

Mason’s analysis seems to be in broadly the right place.

He makes the important point that in early autumn the Stop the Coup protests “seized the mantle of insurgency from the Leave movement”; but that the leadership and Corbyn’s office stood aside, lest he be “tainted by association with Remain”.

It soon became clear that Johnson, unlike May, had “the team, the money and the intent to out-populist Corbyn”. As Mason goes on to say, after justified praise for Corbyn, the Labour leader “never understood what a left populist has to be.

“He never was able to express the gut hatred of political institutions and the rich that might have inspired workers in small English towns.” This was exacerbated by the way his officials built a closed culture around him.

What now? In the face of “an alliance of conservatism and authoritarian nationalism”, Mason argues the “only response is an alliance of the centre and the left”. What does he mean?

Practical cooperation with liberals, even quite right-wing liberals, in concrete actions to defend democratic rights can make sense. (Mason criticises alleged block-headed refusal to “align” with the Lib Dems over anti-Brexit parliamentary tactics. It’s hard to judge this without knowing what he’s referring to.)

For working-class and socialist politics, electoral alliances with and tactical voting for straightforward capitalist parties is another matter.

It also makes sense to recognise that in today’s Labour Party the political environment is topsy-turvy and in flux. Some former moderate or self-styled soft-left people may be to the left of self-proclaimed left-wingers, on Brexit or antisemitism and even on basic class-struggle issues. In that sense Mason is right that “the non-Stalinist left needs to build stronger working relationships with the soft left and the Labour centre”.

But a huge amount rides on what is meant by “the centre”. Despite their retreat and weakening, various forms of the Labour right remain a strong force, and some are clearly moving after the election to try to smash the left. As Mason knows, these peoples call themselves “moderates”, “centrists”, sometimes “soft left” and so on.

Mason’s prescription is: “keep the economic radicalism, ditch the politics that drove voters’ fears over national security, and transform the Labour Party into something that thinks and acts more like a social movement.”

But “economic radicalism” – relatively left-wing policies for reversing cuts and public ownership – and the weak, fragile shoots of Labour becoming a democratic activist movement are precisely what the “centrists” wants to put an end to.

As for national security, what politics does Mason mean? Socialist internationalism is just as likely to alarm voters influenced by the right as Corbyn’s brand of “anti-imperialism”. Perhaps even more so if we prosecute the abandoned fight against Trident and NATO – questions where we cannot agree with Mason.

“Corbynism is over”? “Corbynism” is not a useful concept. It blurs over crucial differences on the left, and acts as a block to developing more radical class-struggle and democratic alternatives; and in that sense it should be “over”.

But to talk about ending Corbynism while advocating an alliance with the “centre” implies support for a shift to the right. We hope that is not what Paul Mason wants.

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