These are a few personal reflections on the current Labour leadership election and what it means to me. It is not an academic analysis, and should not be taken as such!
I will start by saying this is a leadership election that no one ever wanted to see. Not because Jeremy Corbyn is fantastic, or that Owen Smith is dreadful. But because of what it represents to lifelong Labour supporters and the very fabric of the Party. The Labour Party is a Parliamentary Party because in the 19th Century (during the worst excesses of market liberalism) the Left relied on other parties such as the Liberals and Tories to defend workers interests. They had no choice - Labour had no Parliamentary representation. The various disparate groups that ultimately founded the Labour Party did so because the workers needed representation in Parliament in order to defend their interests against those who were more concerned with maintaining a completely free market. It was a debate that was had over 100 years ago and won by those that argued Labour should be in the country and in Parliament. This debate is a matter of historical record.
As such the heart breaking nature of this campaign is that it revives this ancient debate in a generation that has forgotten why Labour in Parliament is so important. A generation that contains many older and younger socialists who believe that the Parliamentary Party is synonymous with Blairism and therefore 'illegal wars'. This is an unfair conflation as many of the Keep Left Group or the Tribune Group of old will confirm. Those who make the unfair conflation appear willing to destroy the Labour Party in Parliament in favour of creating a protest movement that has no interest in seeking Parliamentary power. Their power is in the movement, where they can rally and shout but ultimately never secure the levers of government. If this path is followed then the Left in British Politics would once again be reliant upon Tories and Liberals to hear their shouts from outside Parliament in the hope they may impact upon legislation in some small way. This backwards step right to the foundations of the Labour Representation Committee would be a very dramatic and unhelpful move for those seeking a fairer or socialist society. It would be folly to go down this route and, more than that, betray the Left wing Parliamentarians from Labour's history such as Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, who used the Party in the country in Parliament whilst maintaining considerable respect for the importance of the institution.
Today, Corbyn's brand of socialism is incompatible with the Parliamentary process. He prefers the loyal protestors who hear his words without questioning them. He has little time for debate. When asked a question, he says what he wants to say, rather than address the topic of the question. The protest audience is there to applaud only. If they do ask questions, it is usually constructed in a way to sound supportive of him and opposed to so called 'traitors' or Tories. There is little or no critical discourse here. During the recent Trident debate, Corbyn was asked direct questions, yet avoided the subject of the question and simply stated a set line from which the points of others were simply brushed aside. For that reason, he is not able to blend with Parliament in a way used by Michael Foot.
What kind of Party is Labour? Is it a Parliamentary Party that aims to be in government, or is it a protest movement that hopes the change the mind of Tories and Liberals. That is the central question being debated in this leadership election. The outcome will have dramatic consequences regardless of the outcome. If Corbyn wins, then it has chosen the path of endless protest; if Owen Smith wins, then it has chosen to be a Parliamentary Party. Either way, the losing side will have dramatic questions to answer that could lead to a split of some description.
For me, it would be best for Smith to win because the country needs a confident Parliamentary Labour Party that hopes to secure the powers of government so it can make genuine changes to the lives of those in most need. The Labour Party cannot rely on protestors or the goodwill of the Tories and Liberals today any more than it could in the 19th Century. We have to remember why Labour exists and put it at the centre of this campaign.
It is probably the important leadership election in Labour's recent (or indeed distant) history. It is because it determines what kind of Labourism is on offer. The 19th Century Labour pioneers fought hard battles to form a Labour Representation Committee out of the bones of the ILP. Even when it did, the SDF and others kept the debate going. But after 18 years, the Labour constitution stated clearly that the purpose of the Labour Party is to be in the country and in Parliament. It is in the very blood of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum Group represent a challenge to that. If they succeed, then the future of the Labour movement will be to protest only, with the Tories set in government for far longer than 18 years. Rather, Labour would have chosen defeat because Parliament was too difficult. That would be the ultimate betrayal of Labour's values, and it would have done it with its eyes open with the passionate and active support of its leader.
This is no small choice. It is no tiny moment in Labour history. The PLP have made their position clear on Corbyn, with 80% demonstrating no confidence in him. The question is, if the Labour membership returns him as leader, then there can be no future for a Corbyn-led Parliamentary Party and to save the ideals of the constitution the PLP must be open to all options, no matter how hard they may seem.