David Herdson: Harold Wilson’s ‘moral crusade’ has been re-invented by Corbynites

Written by David Herdson on 27 July 2016 in Opinion

The philosophical transformation that is happening within Labour is quite remarkable.

The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing, Harold Wilson once claimed – though it’s notable that he did so when it was in opposition and before he was leader.  Crusading principles become a lot harder in government and a lot easier when they’re ultimately someone else’s responsibility.

Hence the tension within every party and often within individual politicians between the pragmatic need to win power and the ideological imperative to wield that power for a cause.  Until now.

What is happening within Labour is quite remarkable and possibly unprecedented: not only the purist wing of the party but the leadership and a large part of the membership are rejecting the premise that such a tension exists.

They argue – as Corbyn does when he claims credit for U-turns the government has performed, such as over benefit reform or economic policy – that in holding to the faith they have exercised power, because power is simply the ability to make or to prevent things happening. You don’t need to be in office to do that.

Conversely, if winning elections means becoming Blairite then what’s the point?  In short, winning elections is less important than winning the argument.

The scale of this change in thinking and campaigning is extraordinarily profound.  It is transforming Labour from one of Britain’s two historic parties of government into a protest movement designed to apply pressure from the outside.  And in defining itself as ‘outside’, it is rejecting parliamentary politics as anything more than another means to apply pressure to someone else’s power.

In doing so, Corbyn’s supporters are both looking back to the 19th century as well as forwards to the 21st. It was once said that Labour owed more to Methodism than Marxism; a point exemplified more than anything in Labour going down the parliamentary route at a time when socialism still retained revolutionary overtones.  But the party’s new direction revisits that historic strategic decision. 

Corbyn hasn’t quite adopted Marx’s economics (though his recent comment that “it cannot be right that in some parts of Britain you earn more than in others” certainly tends in that direction), but his supporters undoubtedly – if unknowingly – echo Marx’s social critique.

The labelling of opponents, whether internal or external, as ‘Tories’ or ‘Blairites’ (which amounts to the same thing in their eyes), is a tacit acknowledgment in their belief that whether Labour or the Conservatives hold office, it’s the rich in power and whose interests will be protected. 

As an aside, that same self-marginalisation is the impetus that propels activists and leaders within the movement to align with others they perceive as marginalised without paying too much attention to whether that marginalisation is justified.

Is the eschewal of parliament a conscious decision?  Not in terms of rejecting both the efficacy and legitimacy of ideological compromise; there’s no choice to be made between pragmatism and holding to the faith because the former is a mirage. However, the mechanics of how it’s happened are a very 21st century phenomenon.

The moral crusading that Wilson spoke of is still alive and well but is now far more likely to be found in single-issue campaigns than broad movements, something which social media makes far easier than ever before.

Signing petitions or circulating campaign literature to the like-minded is so simple as to almost make it appear that politics can simply be done wherever there’s wifi to connect to.  And the election, and likely re-election, of Corbyn is very much part of that phenomenon: from reports, few of the enormous number of new Labour members and supporters are keen to become in the hard tasks of attending planning meetings or delivering leaflets.  Many will, however, be active keyboard warriors.  In an ironic tribute to Clause IV, power now lies in the hands of that ‘many’.

To others, of course, the slide from a party of power to one of protest does matter.  To MPs whose jobs are on the line and whose whole conception of how politics is done, it matters very greatly.  It isn’t just self-interest which is plunging Labour into civil war; there’s a deep philosophical division about both the means and the ends too (as well as questions of individual competence).

But MPs have no special place in the new movement; Westminster has no special place.  And besides, Corbyn was quite clear this week that mandatory reselection under the new boundaries is on the cards.  As such, those MPs seen as disloyal will be extremely vulnerable to the changed membership.  The £25ers might not do the hard miles but they’re capable of organising themselves to intervene in internal party elections once in a while.  So much for Corbyn’s initial policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom.

Can the situation be recovered?  Maybe not. When it becomes unremarkable that MPs such as Jess Philips talk openly about leaving Labour, the psychological Rubicon has already been crossed and a division is already taking place. But then she probably didn’t join Labour simply to go on marches and sign petitions.



About the author

David Herdson is a political analyst who writes a regular column on the Political Betting website and tweets at @DavidHerdson.

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