Last week the debate about Labor Party reform in the lead-up to ALP National Conference really kicked off after ALP National President (and Shadow Minister) Mark Butler gave a speech to the Victorian Fabians on party democracy. Butler highlighted the lack of Labor Party democracy compared to sister parties and also pointed to the British example of Labour growing significantly after party reform, urging those with power within Labor not to fear it.
Unsurprisingly it resulted in a number of responses. One of the better responses was in the Guardian Australia which published an op-ed by academic Liam Byrne commenting on Butler’s speech. Byrne argued that it is not party reform that will encourage people to join Labor but rather ideas that make people think it is worth participating within Labor.
I agree with him that ideas and a reason to be involved is essential. Many joined Labour because of Corbyn and I have written extensively about the Labor Left’s need to reform its ideas. However, there is a wider problem when trying to compare and contrast British Labour and Australian Labor.
It was the interaction of party reform, Corbyn as a candidate and ideas he represented that underpinned the growth of British Labour. None of it was planned though and it cannot be easily replicated or transplanted. Even the intellectual contours of Corbynism, “the ideas”, right now are quite sketchy and without strong institutional infrastructure. I have previously written about why a Corbyn is unlikely in Australia due to our electoral system and political culture but the extent to which Corbyn’s election was an accident and organic is not grasped by many people. There is a reliance on the benefit of hindsight, especially after the 2017 British election result.
To really understand how British Labour got to where it is, we need to go back to the 2010 Labour leadership election when Ed Miliband was elected leader over his brother by a tiny margin because of his massive victory in the union section of the Electoral College. The left-leaning unions had endorsed and actively supported Ed over David. There was animosity towards the unions from the Blairite wing of the Labour Right over the result.
The following year, the Blairite pressure group Progress started a campaign urging Labour adopt primaries. The seeming success of the Parti Socialiste Presidential primary in 2012 added weight to this belief that it should be adopted. It also followed a number of MPs (including Ed Miliband) suggesting primaries in the lead-up to Labour’s defeat in 2009.
Everything came to a head in 2013 in the parliamentary constituency of Falkirk where the Unite union was accused of “rigging the vote” to get its preferred candidate preselected. In response to this manufactured political crisis, Miliband committed to a range of party reforms including opt-in affiliation and the adoption of a leadership primary and he commissioned the Collins Review to examine how to implement it. The move towards primaries was about distancing Labour from the unions under the guise of “reforming the Labour-union link”. It is worth remembering that Tony Blair was a big supporter of this move.
In 2015, Labour unexpectedly lost the election with the Conservatives winning a majority. Ed Miliband quit as leader and in the leadership election that soon followed, Corbyn barely got enough MPs to nominate him, some “loaned” from the Labour Right to allow a broad church debate. He ran but he did not expect to win. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were the frontrunners.
In the beginning, his campaign struggled though it started to gain support from unions. The surge in support was unexpected. It was organic and it happened around June around when the debate about the benefit cap happened. Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to vote against it.
Corbyn was the beneficiary who tapped into a mood that already existed both within Labour and outside in the extra-parliamentary movements. From that, he built momentum because he seemed genuine, took advantage of the new electoral system and his opponents campaigned badly. One classic example of how bad the opposing campaigns were was that Corbyn was the only candidate to include join and registered supporter links on his website.
Corbyn won in the first round and his campaign list was turned into the organisation Momentum to bring together all the parts of the Left that backed him in a formalised institution. He had difficulties with chaotic Cabinet reshuffles, poor polling and local council losses.
After the shock victory of Brexiteers in the 2016 European Union membership referendum, Labour figures blamed Corbyn for the result and planned to get rid of him. After he sacked Hillary Benn, they attempted to blast him out by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet en mass. When that failed, there was an attempt to hold a new leadership election with Corbyn not automatically included. Again that failed.
The problem is they assumed they should pressure Corbyn out of the leadeership so had not determined which candidate they would fall behind: Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. Smith ended up as candidate but not after an aborted leadership launch by Eagle. Smith ran a Corbyn-lite candidate, focusing less on his agenda but that he would be a better messenger who could work with the rest of the party. Despite new restrictions on participation in the election, Jeremy Corbyn again won.
While there was talk of a split, his critics concluded that they would wait out until the next election, hoping a large defeat would discredit Corbyn and his agenda amongst the party. With Labour infighting and the Conservatives polling well, newly elected Prime Minister Theresa May sought to hold an early election, believing it would result in a landslide victory.
The subsequent campaign was the worst run by an incumbent government in living memory. Labour’s manifesto, which was leaked in an attempt to damage the party, was received positively and Labour surged in the polls as Corbyn embraced a populist rebrand with the now well known slogan “For the many, not the few”. National security was not the electoral liabilities many predicted and there was polarisation with those aged under 45 shifting to Labour. Labour recovered in northern seats where immigration was an issue until the Brexit vote, UKIP’s vote collapsing, and won educated socially liberal constituencies.
The Conservatives lost their majority in a shock result that few expected, leaving Corbyn in a strengthened position and May as well as Corbyn’s internal critics in a weak position. His critics acknowledged he would remain leader with potential challengers like Yvette Cooper, who planned to run for leader, not challenging. He was also able to make ground on the threshold for nominations being lowered, something his opponents previously opposed. Along with the subsequent collapse of Carillion and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it all seemed to symbolise a shifting landscape. What everyone had assumed would occur had been turned upside down with Jeremy Corbyn seemingly now Prime Minister in waiting.
There are a few things that we can conclude from all this.
Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn was accidentally elected off an already existing mood within Labour combined with a surge of radicalised support from outside the party, shaped by years of austerity. The party which grew under Miliband had already shifted to the left on a range of issues, to the anger of the Blairites. In fact, much of Corbyn’s manifesto could be said to be Milibandism with a different tone.
The broader context is that since 2007, Britain has experienced the second worst real wage growth in the OECD (only Greece was worse), there is endemic low pay and university degree debt is the highest in the English-speaking world. The economic situation in Australia is getting worse but it is not comparable.
Secondly, the Labour Right, the Blairite wing, in particular, made a huge mistake. The Blairites mistakenly thought open primaries would benefit them but instead were wiped out. They continue to misread the mood. Furthermore, what remains of the Labour Right (both old Right and Blairite), bereft of big allied unions, do not know how to recruit and organise. They have no distinctive agenda. Instead they rely on campaigning in the media against the leadership.
It is clear that all of Corbyn’s victories have been because opponents underestimated him and his team. This is not to say that they always had a well oiled machine or fantastic strategy. His opponents were arrogant and failed to understand why people might support him. They all thought he was unelectable or he was not a nice shiny suave politician.
But what happened in Britain cannot be replicated here. It is not a single event or factor but multiple unplanned things that led Britain to its current situation. The path to where we are is full of arrogance and missteps by Corbyn’s opponents. Even if a primary was to be adopted in Australia, the result would not be the same.
That all said, ideas on their own are not enough. It is not an either or proposition. A party structure that is open and flexible is necessary. While it would not cause an upsurge alone, it makes it possible. Party reform is important in this regard but it is not an end in itself.