Who are the Hard Left?
In a recent sky news debate, Nora Mulready, standing in as the representative of the ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour Party, seeks to deflate Momentum’s hope that open selections would lead to the election of more left-wing politicians. She asserts that in fact, those type of ‘hard-left’ politics lack electoral appeal.
This phrase — the ‘hard left’ — is bandied around quite a bit in media debates surrounding Labour. Its often used interchangeably with more derogatory terms like Stalinist or Trotskyist (despite their well known historical antagonism) and Communist, entryist, etc.
Qualifiers like hard and far left denote an extreme position, a dangerous ideological orientation that conjures up notions of totalitarian repression. But it’s unclear what these people are actually referring to when they say it. When Nora says a hard-left platform — of the like Corbyn and Momentum represents — lacks electoral appeal, what kind of policies does that platform actually involve?
Is it the pretty ordinary social-democracy of Labours 2017 manifesto, which had as its tentpole proposals the nationalisation of utilities, infrastructure investment, and higher tax rates — all of which are entirely common across Western Europe? And which achieved the endorsement of 40% of the British electorate, delivering Labour the highest increase in their vote share since 1945? Polls show that taking water, electricity, gas and the railways all back into public ownership command significant support, with 83%, 77% 77% and 76% approval, respectively. She can’t have meant these ‘hard-left’ policies, can she?
I’m not quite sure. Because no one ever challenges its use, it’s meaning is never specified. It just hangs there, menacingly, over our discourse, used to draw equivalency between Corbynites and far-right thugs and Islamophobes. As one Tweet I noticed a while back articulated, there is no legitimate equivalency to be drawn between these two sides of the political spectrum. On one, you have people calling for forced deportation and the preservation of ethnic purity. Meanwhile, on the other, they organise with cleaners to bring contracts back in house so as to improve working conditions. Ash Sarkar, a senior editor for site Novara media had this to say in response to such accusations of equivalence:
If white people could stop telling me that reading Marx makes me just like the racist neighbours who used to urinate on our door, put lit cigarettes through our letterbox and throw bottles at me when I was coming back from *primary school*, that would be fucking great.
Now perhaps such comparisons are not predicated on the precise quality of their political proposals, but for their conduct and means of implementing them. After all, don’t we know how thuggish and intolerant the hard-left is? Here, media framing has resulted in a case in which political online abuse is presented as the sole purview of the Left wing; the preferred manner of engagement by these Momentum members supposedly being inflammatory and offensive tweets. Of course, little attention is given to the fact that online assholes are spread out pretty equally across the political spectrum, with centrists and bigots indulging in as much name calling and diminution as the Left does. (In fact, Amnesty found that Diane Abbott — a darling of the hard-left — received 45% of all online abuse directed to female MP’s in the run up to the general election, suggesting that if any strand is punching above their weight in the share of social media abuse, it’s those to the right of Abbott.) What strikes me is that there is often no attempt to avoid generalising the entirety of those energised by Labour’s new orientation as harassing bullies, rather than, say, young people like myself who are enthused by a party that offers radical change, or cynical one-time non-voters who have been persuaded by Corbynism’s ambition into re-engaging with the political process.
Just as little effort has been put in to wondering why such a profound realignment of the Labour party’s platform has occurred; what it is about the contemporary political economy that has allowed the space for a radical left-wing vision for Britain to coalesce into a broad social movement. Instead, the commentariat is largely happy to denounce such vibrancy as the spontaneous capture of Labour by a committed network of militant entryists, totally unconcerned with changing the country for the better. Even my own grandmother, when mourning poor Frank Fields rejection by his local constituents, warned me about getting involved with those ‘Momentum types’ at university, blissfully unaware that her beloved grandson sitting next to her was part of that very same ‘cult’.
And before your rudimentary understanding of political science compels you to present the horseshoe theory — the idea that the further you go toward the left and right poles in political orientation, the more similar they become in authoritarian tendencies — as cast iron evidence that the ‘hard-left’ and ‘hard-right’ are effectively indistinguishable, perhaps you should have a read of this recent study from David Adler. Finally putting to bed this notion, Adler demonstrates that in Europe and North America, it is self-identified centrists who are “the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism.” Perhaps it is the moderates who are extreme after all.
The reduction of socialism to Soviet-style state communism is absurd. It ignores the strong libertarian tradition within radical leftism, a canon of which Luxembourg, Orwell, Proudhon, Bakunin, Goldman, Chomsky, among various others, all belong. But what’s even more absurd than this fundamental refusal to engage with socialism as a dynamic, pluralistic, and reflexive ideology is the insistence on using a reds-under-the-bed narrative to smear the Labour left. Momentum doesn’t just win — fairly and democratically — internal elections on the NEC, but ‘seize’ positions on the governing body. Calls for mandatory reselection of local MP’s to make them more responsive to their constituents isn’t just greater accountability, but the ‘purging’ of Corbyn’s opposition in the PLP.
You’d think it’d be hard to miss the flagrant contradiction present in suggesting the literal expansion of party democracy is similar to the USSR’s violent repression. But here we are.
So I think, in answer to the question of what the right of the party think this ‘hard-left’ means, is that they themselves have no idea. Stephen Kinnock seems to suggest Corbynism is about total centralisation, for example, and the consistent use of Stalinist by other MP’s hostile to Momentum suggests the same. Now, this isn’t entirely their fault. It’s hard to see the wood for the trees when all news is refracted through a media severely lacking in journalistic integrity. And some blame has to be placed partly at the door of the Left themselves, failing to articulate a coherent libertarian alternative in the wake of the financial crash. But really, such a perception is so utterly miss judged that I’m unable to craft a generous explanation for it. Maybe they just haven’t been paying attention.
Currently, a good placeholder for what this ‘hard-left’ politics may look like in the short term is the Institute for Public Policy’s fresh report, Prosperity and Justice: A plan for the new economy. It has been praised by some of Corbyn’s most vocal cheerleaders — from Owen Jones to editors of the aforementioned Novara media, Aaron Bastani and Micheal Walker — and was co-authored by a rising star of the British left, the economist Grace Blakely. Far from mass collectivisation, the reports key recommendations include a publicly owned investment bank to revitalise our ailing infrastructure, workers on boards and the reversal of shareholder primacy in corporate charters, tackling inequality through wealth taxation and the creation of a sovereign wealth fund, as well as measures to democratise control of data and regulate the ‘Big Five’ tech companies.
We now have a situation in which the Archbishop of Canterbury, who signed the report, agrees wholeheartedly with the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who likened its analysis to the Beveridge report in its scope and ambition. Either the head of the Church of England is an lefty extremist, or the ‘hard-left’ isn’t that hard after all. And once again, a majority of those polled look very favourably upon the IPPR’s recommendations.
Of course, the Labour left ideally have their horizons set firmly beyond this report. Worker representation in corporate boardrooms is a good start, but It’s a long way from the kind of decentralised worker ownership many of us advocate. Yet if these proposals can unite communists and business leaders, Marxists and Archbishops, I invite Labour ‘moderates’ to stop dismissing Corbynism as the remit of hard-line Soviets, and actively engage with the most exciting political project in Britain since Thatcher abolished society and unfurled corporations from their Keynsian restrictions. In so doing — in critiquing and contemplating the more transformative suggestions — they may find themselves shaping the future of Britain’s political economy. Much better that then being purged, eh?
Chuka Umunna, in a speech to be made today at Progress’ conference, will reportedly urge Jeremy Corbyn to “call off the attack dogs” in reference to Momentum’s push for Mandatory and open reselections for sitting Labour MPs. These measures would transition Labour’s current system – which allows local MP’s to hold their seat indefinitely, challenged only if activists mount a divisive and time consuming negative campaign against them which would then trigger a ballot for a new selection for the post - to one employed in places such as the United States and Ireland. In allowing any constituency member to run for the Labour parties nomination, the hope is that more fresh-faced lodestars of the community will find their way into politics; able to shake Westminster from its torpor by keeping MPs in safe seats accountable. Advocates point to the whirlwind success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, who beat Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley for New York’s 14th congressional district’s nomination, as evidence of the kind of energising, committed and locally-rooted candidates these kind of mechanisms could bring.
All in all, it’s a pretty good idea to regain some of the public’s faith in politics, hopefully allowing Labour to incorporate lots of exciting new talent into it’s PLP. This is what makes the Labour moderates never-ending furore surrounding it so utterly grating. If Umunna believes his constituents value his service enough to reselect him, he has literally nothing to worry about. But even if he doesn’t, what he is getting so fearful of and bitter towards is just good old fashioned democracy; the right of local members to dispense with the incumbent, for whatever reason, in favour of someone who they believe better represents their own interests. That he intends to make a flagship speech condemning this fairly quotidian expansion of internal democracy as an existential threat to anti-Corbyn MP’s, thereby reigniting fevered media coverage surrounding Labour’s infighting, may give many pause for thought over who the real ‘factionalists’ are.
The truth is, the demography of Labour has changed. At nearly 600,000 members, Labour stands as the largest political party in Western Europe. And whilst it may be a hard pill to swallow, the majority of those members no longer support the politics of Ummuna and his band of so-called ‘moderates’. So they mistake ideological obsolescence with repression; misconstruing the empowerment of the membership as the nefarious bidding of Corbyn’s ‘attack dogs’, plastering it all over headlines and ticker-tapes. In the eventuality that ‘moderate’ MP’s do lose their nominations, this is not the product of entryist plots, but a sign that Blair’s Labour party is no more; that ordinary members have finally dispensed with the arm’s length, centralised politics of New Labour, when constituency parties were comatose, and are embracing a more inclusive, liberating, and autonomous politics. What’s not to like?