Labour's Creative Chaos

The sturm und drang surrounding the Parliamentary Labour Party [PLP] in recent months is only part of Labour's political story.

What is going on deep inside the Party is equally interesting and potentially revolutionary. Jeremy Corbyn's surprise victory (to himself as much as to anyone else) saw an insurgence not so much from within the Party as within the Left. The Party's membership grew rapidly as both those alienated by Blair returned to the Party and new and younger activists decided that there was an opportunity here and that they should take it.

What is not understood widely is just how hollowed out the Party had become by the time Ed Miliband failed in his bid to become Prime Minister. It was not just a matter of numbers but one of organisation. Across the country, small sometimes almost defunct branches and CLPs were managed by dedicated but perhaps often imaginative volunteers acting as transmission belts for a leadership that seemed not to care that its national vote and acceptability was declining year on year. The system was 'burning out'. Tory funding 'reforms might well have been the last blow.

The PLP sits on top of this system as if by divine right so that the elite of the British Left has become detached from the people who support it. This is not to say that constituency MPs are not in touch with the voters if they are effective in their surgery work and have good agents but only that the MPs have been so used to treating the Party as a machine for their own support that they have forgotten that party workers need something to motivate them, some sense of doing good in the world. Any implosion of capability would eventually be damaging to the MPs themselves.

Until Corbyn arrived, the dwindling numbers of activists could rely on a tired but worthy soft left ideological language tempered by pragmatic exhortation (ironic in view of the actual decline in its electability) to put electoral organisation before political education, debate and persuasion in the community. One of the fruits of this has been that the 'right on' ideology has sometimes, equally ironically, triumphed over the sort of organisation that would transmit working class fears over jobs and identity, in terms they would understand, back up the line to the politicians.

The organisation remained rule-bound and mechanical, reliant on a residual tribalism with an ageing and almost nerdy activist base that declined to think creatively about new challenges. The PLP became complacent and arrogant although that is now beginning to change. The voters drifted to UKIP or started to stay at home. The Corbyn administration - on which I am sure we will write again - has shaken that system to its very core. The coming months and years will see whether it results in an ultimate party renaissance or final collapse.

 

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