The Labour leadership election is over. Jeremy Corbyn has won and, however unpalatable a fact this is for many us, this is where we are.
With every justification the Corbyn camp is drawing attention to the impressive numbers of people voting in his re-election. The Labour Party now has the largest membership of any European political movement and there is no doubt that something remarkable has happened. People who had to work with Jeremy Corbyn lined up to testify to his incompetence; many of those who didn’t know him were star-struck by his approach to politics.
Inevitably the immediate focus has been on the position of dissident Labour MPs who are facing hard personal and ethical choices. This will capture the headlines over the next few months. However there is a need for sober reflection and to begin a discussion on what is at stake in the longer term. My main concern is whether we in Labour Party still supports power through the ballot box – or has become simply a protest movement. My starting point is to reproduce the opening sentences of the statement that Jeremy Corbyn sent to me and the other 640000 electors. To quote:
I have a serious plan for troubled times – a plan that has its focus on winning the next general election to rebuild and transform Britain. At the heart of my strategy is growing our movement by organising communities to win power through using the most advanced techniques online and offline. We must make Labour a living, breathing movement in every part of the country. (My emphasis in bold)
It is difficult to judge how ‘serious’ a plan is in place. However the intention is clear and it is dangerous. It emphasises activist control at the expense of Parliamentary democracy. The Party not the electorate rules supreme. The main criticism of Jeremy Corbyn should not concern his incompetence but his intentions. He has never displayed any interest in the Parliamentary process and so given the opportunity naturally wishes to downgrade it.
Not only are such intentions damaging but also they are wholly impractical. It is one thing to capture and consolidate power through advances online and off line methods – through social media and inspiring rallies. This has been a considerable achievement: the first of its kind to gain power and should be recognised as such. It does however require very little of the adherent – a banner on the Facebook site, a click online and, with luck, the opportunity for a selfie with the Messiah. Achieving change in communities is quite different and requires building consent across a wide spectrum of perspectives – this is why the sensible left has historically been wholly committed to Parliamentary democracy.
The Corbyn victory is a huge setback for those of us who believe in democratic socialism as opposed to control by activist cliques. More importantly, whatever their frustrations with their political representatives, UK voters still believe in the primacy of electoral democracy achieved through ballot box. They will not attend rallies nor be attracted to worship at the cult of the leader.