Corbyn and the Roots of Labour’s Discontent
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise is not due to the appearance of Momentum or the arrival of newcomers – it comes from the frustration of Labour’s base with the majority of the party MPs, says UK economist John Weeks
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
In the lead up to UK’s Labor Party annual conference in which a leadership struggle is taking place, Jeremy Corbyn is expected to win. However, it is to leave the Labor Party itself ripped apart.
Joining us now to discuss the turmoil in Britain’s Labor Party is John Weeks. John is professor emirates at the University of London and author of the book, The Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscure Reality, and Distorts Policy. John so good to have you with us.
JOHN WEEKS: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: So John at this Saturday’s annual Labor Party conference, the results of the party leadership elections will be announced. It is generally, many people are predicting that Jeremy Corbyn will be reaffirmed as the leader of the party through this election. What are your thoughts?
WEEKS: Well I think people who are not familiar with the British political system should think of this as sort of like a party primary. The difference is that you have over about a month to cast your ballot and you don’t find out who’s won 3 or 4 days after the last ballot is made–I mean the last voted is counted. The situation is that Labor Party for generations has been a top down party. For a while it was top down controlled by the trade unions and recently it was top down controlled by the centrist and right wing of the party, quite a long time by Tony Blair who was Prime Minister for 11 years.
Now Jeremy Corbyn changed all of that. The voting rules I’ve talked before, I’ll talk about why the voting rules circumstances under which they were changed and they’re basically changed to try to minimize the impact of the trade unions in the party and just a good example of the law of unintended consequences. Rule change was supposed to prevent a radical from being elected the head of the party resulting in a radical being elected a party and the situation is now this each party member gets one vote.
Jeremy Corbyn swept into that, much to the horror of the overwhelming majority of members of parliament in the Labor Party called Parliamentary Labor Party. All of them, almost all of them, I don’t want to exaggerate but 80% of the Labor Party members of parliament adhere to a philosophy more or less like Tony Blair’s and suddenly they discovered they had a leader who was a real social democrat, Jeremy Corbyn, who had been a thorn in the side of Tony Blair and every other Labor Party leader and of course they were livid. The last year has been spent trying to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn but much to the horror of those on the right and in the center of the party, the party members love him.
PERIES: Now of course if you were to compare this situation to a union, you have a situation where the rank and file is opposing what the leadership wants of this party. Part of that rank and file is really the Momentum movement that’s taking place in the UK within the Labor Party and outside of the party. Tell us a little bit outside the Momentum and the role they’re playing in making sure that Jeremy Corbyn stays the leader of the Labor Party.
WEEKS: The opponents of Jeremy Corbyn attack Momentum as a organization formed recently entrance into the Labor Party. It’s called entryism and that is not people that are committed to the Labor Party and that they’re just a bunch of a young radical [inaud.] and god knows what who came into the party to try to shift it to the left and don’t really have any interests in the Labor Party as such. And don’t really have any interests in winning the election. They want to put forward a left agenda.
[inaud.] bears little resemblance to that. It’s not all rosy but Momentum in my experience, the experience of friends of mine who’ve gone long to it, been in the Labor Party for quite a long time, is that you have many older people in Momentum. You have people in Momentum for the most part, people who have been around the Labor Party for a long time and have wanted a left wing leader and now they have one and now they’re supporting him. So I think that the allegations that they’re just a bunch of recent entry full of [inaud.] is not valid. That there may be some [inaud.] there. No doubt that they are.
The head of Momentum are—well more so let’s say the person that organizes up is a man named John Lansman who I have met who had worked for the only MP that I knew well, worked for Michael Meacher. Left wing progressive very good MP who died about a year ago and John, just about the time that Jeremy Corbyn was elected and John Lansman began to organize this group Momentum. In other words, the people organizing it have been in the Labor Party for a long time.
I would say that on the downside of Momentum is it does tend to be focused on a person. I think it should be focused on social democratic policies but it’s very much focused on elect Jeremy.
PERIES: But partly that’s because that’s the task at hand. What I wanted to ask you about is that a lot of young people are also supporting Jeremy Corbyn within the Momentum movement. But today something unique happened which is a very popular mayor of London Sadiq Khan put his weight behind Owen Smith who’s running against Jeremy Corbyn. And also that also cited the fact that because Jeremy Corbyn was unable to successfully convince the UK population in terms of the Brexit vote to remain within the EU, he cited that as one of the reasons that he wasn’t able to support Jeremy Corbyn. How much is that sentiment out there and will it really have an effect on the election coming up within the Labor Party.
WEEKS: First let me say you’re quite right about the young people in Momentum but there are a lot of young people that came into the Labor Party before Momentum was formed. Jeremy Corbyn has inspired young people and you’re quite right that given the circumstances the question of reelecting Jeremy Corbyn, for me it’s a question of also emphasizing the policies so I’m not saying that it’s just hero worship, I’m just saying he would be useful since Corbyn’s going to win anyway to put a bit more emphasis on policies.
But to go to your question, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. I’ve worked for Sadiq Khan. He was never, he and Jeremy Corbyn have not been close in the past. Sadiq Khan is more to the center. He’s not as far to the left. He is as Mayor of London, more accommodating of business interest. But having said that he’s taken very progressive policies on housing, on trade unions, and on issues of–over here it’s called 0 hour contracts for things like Uber and delivery people who have no contracts, who are just paid by amount of time they work. They might show up to work and if there’s no work then they get no pay. Sadiq Khan has taken a strong position on that.
So he is a definitely a progressive. He has come out for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponent Owen Smith. He has said that he is for Owen Smith one because the Brexit issue which I would like to come back to because I think there’s a lot of misrepresentation over that. And that he thinks that Owen Smith is more likely to unite the party and win the next election. That is speculative of course. Is Owen Smith more likely to win the election? Well, policies which Owen represents did not do very well in 2015 a bit over a year ago when we had an election so it’s not obvious that he would be a more popular candidate. Also it’s not that obvious that he would unite the Labor Party.
The Labor Party is not something that because Jeremy Corbyn split it. The Labor Party is split because the grass roots of the party do not hold the same views as most of the MPs. That is the basic problem. Owen Smith would face that same problem. Only if he were elected, there would be an exit of people at the grass roots level. If Jeremy Corbyn is elected, maybe there will be a split in the Parliamentary Labor Party. It is hard to say.
On the Brexit issue, I think that Jeremy Corbyn has made mistakes and his team has made mistakes. That is not one of them. A larger portion, 52% of the British population voted to get out. There was an official Labor Party campaign to stay in. It was not run by Jeremy Corbyn. They did not pass it over to him when he became leader. It was run by someone that represented the right wing of the party and he did an absolutely miserable job of it. To blame it on Corbyn is to pick out a headline event in which the party’s leadership was rejected and assign it to Corbyn when in fact he was not the cause of this problem.
PERIES: One other thing if you could shed some light on this issue. There was some rumor speculation that those who joined the party with the last election within the Labor Party and elected Jeremy Corby, who joined for that purpose would be disregarded in this election or should be discounted in this election. What is the actual facts surrounding that issue and does it have any merits?
WEEKS: What occurred is that when Corbyn became leader, or in the process of becoming leader, a new category of labor supporters was created which had a much lower party fee that you have to pay membership dues to be a member of the party and this was a very low, less than $10 to join. That it was alleged by Corbyn’s opponents and played up in the newspaper that many of these people were in fact not members of the Labor Party and they had been members of other parties. They were still members of other parties. Labor Party has a rule. It says you cannot be a member of the Labor Party if you’re a member of another party. Since there’s a Green Party, the Communist Party, or any other party. The Liberal Democratic Party. Whatever it might be.
That many of these people in fact were members of other parties and so shouldn’t be party members. For that purpose, the executive council of the Labor Party which is controlled by the center and the right excluded all the people who had joined the party before the middle of January of this year. I think it will turn out to make absolutely no difference whatsoever. Jeremy Corbyn was not elected by people who joined the Labor Party for the purpose of electing him. He was elected by people who had been in the Labor Party for a very long time who were sick of the right wing neoliberal policies of Tony Blair.
As soon as Jeremy Corbyn was nominated, everyone it was assumed that he didn’t have a chance. The first poll that was taken of Labor Party members showed him with 60% support. This was before you began to get any rush to join. That is the existing party members overwhelmingly supported him. For better for worse, those people that have been in the Labor Party for a long time who were for social democracy, they felt they had been denied a voice and Jeremy Corbyn would provide them with that voice. That’s what’s going to happen on Saturday, I have no doubt. I mean I’m not good on predictions but I would make this prediction. Jeremy Corbyn will be announced as winner in a 2-person race and he will probably come in. Last time he got 59% of the vote. I suspect he’ll come in at about the same or slightly higher.
PERIES: Alright John. We’ll be watching as I’m sure you will be. Hope to speak to you later next week about the results. Thank you so much for joining us.
WEEKS: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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