The founder of Momentum, Jon Lansman, triumphantly tweeted “a Lan-slide”, having just been elected by a generous margin to one of three newly created seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee. The three seats have been invented to ensure that Corbynites achieve more representation in Labour’s ruling body.
One important facet of politics, whichever creed you belong to, is outwitting your enemies. That was as true of the Blairites and Cameroonians, seizing power against dull Old Labour and dusty conventional Tories in their day, as it is of Labour today — except that the outcome is a different one in a time of more brutal insurgencies.
The ease with which this has occurred is a sign of the decline of moderate Labour as a force. Lansman has fought on the hard Left for so long that he figures widely in the Seventies chapters of Tony Benn’s diaries as a dedicated factotum of the great pipe-sucker.
As for the vanquished Labour centrists, it’s too glib to mock Eddie Izzard, who ran against Lansman’s clique, as a serial loser in his campaigns on behalf of the metropolitan soft Left. At least Eddie showed up for the fight. That’s more than can be said for the erstwhile Blairites, Brownites and Ed Milibandites, who can be found doing almost everything in public life except campaigning for a kind of Labour politics with a residue of liberalism and a role for markets.
The tension between the role of a populist socialism and a more technocratic variety which wants to harness markets and innovations for the good of the widest number of people is a longstanding one. It takes us back to the tangled co-operative and utopian roots of the credo in the 19th century, the ensuing capture by Engels and Marx and the divisions ever since about how statist the Left should be.
But what makes Corbynism different and riskier than previous turf wars is that it poses a threat to parliamentary democracy itself. What happens to mere elected MPs who do not agreed with the Corbyn credo of control? Are they, like the hens in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, driven to rebel, only to be seen off by the loyal hounds of Momentum, bent on consolidating the power of their revolutionary masters?
I ask because not even avid supporters of Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell seem to be candid about what the line is on internal Andersdenkende — “those who think differently”, in Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase.
Adherents believe MPs should fall into line or get out of the way. In hard power terms, this sounds like a recipe for de-selections. Formally, this is denied (something has been learned from Comrade Squealer here). But de-selection is a mentality, long before it is a trend. And from Haringey to Merseyside, constituency parties are developing splits redolent of the nastier end of the Leftist politics I grew up with in the Eighties.
Corbynism is a curious mix of the visceral and the benign. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell used the phrase “lynching” about a female Tory minister and then defended it in an exchange in Parliament as “honest”. It is one thing to say something daft or even inflammatory when passions run high. But Labour’s second-in-command is clearly determined to stand by the sentiment, which indicates a certain way of pursuing political goals. You cannot be in a lynching frame of mind towards Tories one minute and then head to Davos (as McDonnell is doing) to suggest openness to urbane dialogue about post-crash economic models the next.
Labour now presents its political DNA as a saintly defence of the poor, with a renewed push at community level to become the representative of benefit claimants and food-bank users. It is a kind of identity which can start as a laudable interest in those at the sharp end of capitalism but easily cross into mawkishness and a tendency to corral all social ills into a pre-agreed framework of pat phrases. A party serious about government needs to recognise the difference between rhetoric and deliverables.
Yesterday Corbyn made rather a good Opposition leader fist of sounding cross about the collapse of Carillion and the mismanagement behind it. But is anyone the wiser about how he would replace PFI contracts or any other form of public-private mix? Of course not —and neither is he, because there is no real interest in alternatives, beyond the cosh of nationalisation.
You cannot be in a lynching frame of mind towards Tories one minute and then head to Davos
If the plan for state ownership applies to the railways, water and the energy companies, where would it leave other monopolies broken up in the Thatcher era? And how would a Corbyn-led government decide how to ensure state ownership becomes more efficient? It’s hard to see any coherence on this.
Among Labour centrists, a Pollyanna-ish denial about the implications for a more nuanced Centre-Left has crept in. When Corbyn insists that he does not want Britain to be in the single market, they insist on telling each other that Keir Starmer will somehow persuade his boss to be properly anti-Brexit. When the mood turns toxic in Haringey, they insist it could never happen where they are. The new daydream is that Corbyn will somehow wither away and someone palpably nice, if a bit muddled, like Angela Rayner, will end up in charge.
But the milk of human kindness in Labour is semi-skimmed for those who don’t share the prix-fixe menu of acceptable ideas served at Chez Jeremy. My guess is that what Billy Bragg once dubbed the “softy tendency” will lose in the next couple of years, because in this brand of pitched ideological politics it usually does. No amount of hip-hop videos can alter that. It is the difference between the role of a political party, as derived from Marxist-Leninist thinking, and social democracy.
Lansman understands this and pursues his brand of beliefs with intelligence and ruthlessness. Far wiser, then, to take his quest at face value than to assume that an ideology about uncompromising struggle is more elastic, flexible or forgiving than it ever said it was.
Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist