Analysis: Leonard, Corbyn and the two souls of Labour socialism

Ben Wray

David Jamieson analyses the ideologies on the left of labour that have emerged as two competing strands of socialism at the party conference, one represented by Richard Leonard, the other Jeremy Corbyn

WITH THE LABOUR conference rounding up today [26 September] a confused image of Labour’s political profile has emerged. On the one hand shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s speech hosted some of the most radical economic ideas ever put before the British electorate.

On the other, even Labour’s own leftwing Scottish activists were dismayed by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard’s performance, with confusion and counter-claim abounding on constitutional issues.

The conference was also dominated by a left that failed to make any major advances on the big issues of the day. With the right marginalised, internal strife is is now made up of different visions of what Labour’s socialism involves. Nowhere in the party are differences more apparent than between the offices of Corbyn and Leonard.

An outline of two different approaches to leftwing politics – both with roots in the socialist tradition – is becoming discernible. These are orientations rather than set political positions and are prone to change under pressure. But combined they represent the swelling divide within the Labour left.

Corbyn: Internationalism                             Leonard: Nationalism

Labour General Secretary Ian Lavery infamously told the conference: “We need to kill off the nationalists in Scotland and regain that great country.” Leonard himself was reportedly on a mission to make the SNP “toxic” in Liverpool.

But it’s nationalism, of two different kinds, that breeds this level of animosity to the SNP. It’s seldom recalled that Scottish Labour does itself harbour a version of Scottish nationalism, one based on being “the party of devolution” rather than independence. The second nationalism is the orientation on the British nation state, which  of course Corbyn shares.

A major difference though, is Corbyn’s views on the national right to self determination. This is not the same thing as supporting national independence whereever there are nations. But it is the view that nations, polities and peoples have special democratic rights which are inherent to them. This colours his views of international affairs, but also his view of Scotland. That is why he differs with Leonard, not on Scottish independence, but on the national right of Scotland to make decisions on its national future.

In general, Leonard appears disinterested in constitutional form, or indeed anything other than the election of a UK Labour Government. This British nationalism – which sees the UK state in its present form as the main vehicle for change – is reflected in his attitude towards devolution, which in theory proposes a “radical federalism” but in practise means little more than the extension of a narrow set of new powers, and in no way shapes to fundamentally alter the nature of the UK constitution.

Corbyn: Democratic redistribution                Leonard: Patronage

Probably the most radical ideas to emerge from the the Labour conference concern the nature of wealth and power redistribution under a UK Labour government. McDonnell and Corbyn launched two key policies in this regard: one which would see large corporations place 10 per cent of their equity into a fund owned by workers. A second would see an increased presence for worker management, including a policy of making large corporations reserve a a third of seats for workers.

Leonard. who has proclaimed himself “too long in the tooth to be a Corbynista”, gave a speech which was far more traditional, focusing on counterweights to the market and state planning. It’s only nod in the direction of UK policy was the creation of a statuatory right for workers to buy their businesses if it is put up for sale or facing closure – a less radical proposal than McDonnell’s.

Scottish political culture is shaped by the limitation of Scotland’s stateless nationhood. It was under these circumstances that Scottish Labour molded the country over decades, as a community of fiefdoms requiring special allowances from the state. This patronage model is a strict hierarchy, with the state at the top doling out items of budget to supplicants below. It is partly this culture which freezes Scottish Labour in its narrow tax and spend version of social democracy.

Corbyn: United class politics                                    Leonard: Sectional class interests

If there is an obvious difference within the Labour left that emerged in the UK Labour conference, it’s the difference between the unions and the leftwing membership. On key questions, such as open selection of MPs, the trade union bureaucracy led the way in pulling the party to the right.

Perhaps the main small-c conservative force in the unions is GMB, which on issues such as Trident renewal and immigration have consistently been to the right of Corbyn. Leonard spent a quarter of a century in the GMB, much of that as a full-time officer, and its this politics which shapes his instincts as Scottish Labour leader. Leonard drew on this background when he voted against the Corbyn backed candidate for vice-chair at a NEC meeting in favour of the Unison candidate, a decision which turned out to be decisive in defeating the Corbynite candidate.

Corbyn emerged from mass movements, and from a tradition of British socialism that views the working class as having united interests regardless of the many stratifications within it. His politics, at its peak performance, is about unity through the pursuit of radical action, rather than ‘buying off’ layers of society by appealing to their immediate concerns. He, for example, has no time for the GMB argument that Trident nuclear missiles is good for jobs. This is ‘politics’ in the truest sense – attempting to arrive at a total vision of society and rallying people behind it.

Corbyn: British politics                             Leonard: Scottish politics

Finally, in a very fundamental way Leonard has a different political orientation to Corbyn based on the two leaders (and indeed the Scottish and UK party’s) different contexts. Whereas the latter aims to be Prime Minister, and thus should be willing to ally with the SNP to help that happen in the very likely event of no party coming out of the General Election with a majority, the former aims to be First Minister, and consequently is utterly opposed to the sniff of any alliances with the Scottish nationalists.

Leonard’s tone in this regard is unlikely not to be helpful to his political cause – following his predecessors Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale in belligerent hostility to the SNP – but the nature of being an opposition party in Scotland to the SNP Government means there is a natural gravitation towards a confrontational outlook. This divide will likely increase significantly post an election, but even in the run-up to an election the Tories are likely to play the SNP scare card in the way David Cameron did before the 2015 election. Corbyn would be foolish to combat such a manouvere in the way his predecessor Ed Miliband did – by ruling out working with the SNP in power – but will be under pressure from a party leadership in Scotland which appears incapable of developing a more nuanced, sophisticated stance towards the Scottish nationalists.

Picture courtesy of duncan c