Labour’s Future

Aaron Bastani

Upsets don’t come much bigger than Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour party leadership, so it’s unsurprising that Sadiq Khan’s triumph over Tessa Jowell to be the party's candidate for London mayor has been overlooked. Londoners won’t go to the polls until next May, but the ballot will be a defining moment for the Corbyn project in opposition, and the first significant bellwether of the likelihood of a Labour government, of some kind, four years later.

Khan’s most likely opponent from the Conservative Party will be the MP for Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith. The two men could not have had more different upbringings: Khan’s father was a bus driver from Pakistan, Goldsmith’s a financier whose ancestors include a consul to the Grand Duke of Tuscany; Khan’s mother was a seamstress, Goldsmith’s an Anglo-Irish aristocrat descended from the Londonderry family. Khan, one of eight children, spent his early years in a council flat in south-west London; Goldsmith went to Eton before travelling the world as a dilettante environmentalist.

The differences in their biographies readily correspond to London’s growing economic divide, but the context of the Corbyn leadership there is a more important story. Khan, though on the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party, is a social democrat with far more faith in markets than such London MPs and shadow cabinet members as Corbyn, John McDonnell or Diane Abbott. Consigliere to Ed Miliband during his time as leader, he represents a large section of the party that is vocally critical of the Blair years yet unable to articulate a different way of doing politics. They could see that the crisis of 2008 brought an end to ‘third way’ social democracy, whose investment in the public sector hinged on its financialisation. And yet for seven years, five of them in opposition, they offered no alternative.

Over the course of the leadership race it was often remarked that both the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership could be divided into two groups. On one hand were the ‘Jacorbyns’: trade union activists, younger members and those on the left who remember the glories of Bennism in its first flowering. On the other hand were the ‘modernisers’: the Blairites who, in the context of flat-lining pay and changing attitudes to such issues as utilities nationalisation, have moved into both public obscurity and, with Liz Kendall’s shambolic campaign, electoral inconsequence within the party.

There is a third pillar of the party, however, which grasps the inadequacy of Blairism in the context of austerity, yet remains unswayed by radicalism: they favour unions, and might even defend their role in fighting income inequality, but will rarely, if ever, be seen on picket lines; they may have read Marx, but probably only the Communist Manifesto, which they are likely to dismiss as naive and utopian.

Khan is typical of this third group – along with Andy Burnham and Luciana Berger – and it is members and MPs like him who will decide whether Labour stays together. If they side en masse with Corbyn, and an economic programme outlined by Britain’s first Marxist shadow chancellor, then Labour stands every chance of success in 2020. But if they get cold feet and side with the likes of Tristram Hunt and Rachel Reeves, Labour might have a new front bench in twelve months time.

For now, the former seems far more likely. Khan has overtaken Goldsmith as the favourite and if he takes City Hall next year – on a platform well to the left of anything touted by Burnham, Kendall or Yvette Cooper – it would strengthen Corbyn immeasurably. Khan is far from perfect – he has accepted significant donations from property developers, for example – but his rhetoric has been increasingly shaped by the events of the summer, and he’d have had little chance of beating Jowell without the support of people who signed up to vote for Corbyn.

A split in the Labour Party looks inevitable in the coming years. Which way Khan and those like him choose to go will be decisive. If they shift left, it will make the current realignment far from temporary, ensuring a permanent re-engineering of Labour, and with it British party politics. The founding moment for that could be next May’s election. Khan as mayor could be the anchor that gives Corbynism institutional as well as popular power.


  • 20 September 2015 at 8:51pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Jeremy Corbyn may prove to be a good caretaker while the green shoots of 21st-Century thinking begin to poke through the platform of the branch-line railway station that is the wider Labour Party on which he also serves as the porter, played by Bernard Cribbins.

    Sometimes a caretaker is more important than a mentor, pastor, therapist or inspirational team leader. Labour MPs should think twice about quitting for such issues as nuclear weapons, bombing ISIS or waiting for rail nationalisation to arrive. These may be life and death (by waiting) issues but the Labour Party is more important than that, as long as it looks back down the line and realises it gets in only ever gets in properly every 30 years or so.

  • 22 September 2015 at 5:15am
    farthington says:
    Excuse me if I get more than a little irritated at a pervasive cavalier posing of a supposedly 'market-state' dichotomy (including from academics).
    All commentators should think first before referring to 'the market' in the abstract.

    Thus here we have the candidate 'with far more faith in markets'.
    Well what does that mean? Nothing whatsoever. Because it is vacuous.
    And let us hope that the phrase does not refer to a genuine vacuity on the part of the candidate.

    The term 'market' has no meaning without the particular rules (regulations, culture, players, structural characteristics, etc.) being attached that display the relevant substance.

    Now the particular rules that dominated in the lead up to 2008 have been shown to be a monumental failure.

    Anybody, especially those elected to govern us, who believe (or are too cowardly to become apostates) that 'the market' under those particular rules should continue to prevail shouldn't be taken seriously by the electorate, and should be summarily turfed out. Let us bury Blairism and its equivalents elsewhere, and summarily.

    Europe, for example, carries on regardless, helped by the comprehensive undemocratic character of Brussels. The banks, the corrupt and opportunist political and bureaucratic classes that brought us the current disaster are still in place, unrepentant. Greece is merely the entrée.

    And of course, the current agenda has nothing to do with 'more faith in markets'. It has to do with involvement with and acquiescence to corporate power.

    This is the environment in which the Trans-Atlantic and the Trans-Pacific 'Trade' Treaties are being developed under the table.
    'More faith in markets' my arse.

    • 24 September 2015 at 9:30am
      Alan Benfield says: @ farthington
      Well said.

      Anyone who has read into the subject of the neoliberal consensus which has emerged since 1979-80 and 'triumphed' over the East in 1989-91 will realise that the so-called 'free market' is a myth: the truth is one of corporate power supported by state subsidy, both in the USA and the UK and increasingly in the EU. Who asked the German government to take over the debts Greece owed to its banks? Why not let Deutsche bank just take its lumps (as the market would normally decree).

      But no, privatised profits, socialised losses, over and over again.

      Markets my arse!

    • 24 September 2015 at 2:35pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Alan Benfield
      In total agreement.

      It is striking how little actual experience such New Labour evangelists as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown actually had of how markets really work. You don't have to work for too long in the private, especially corporate sector for too long to note its real behaviours rather than those it likes to claim.

      Myth: the market thrives on competition, indeed welcomes it.

      Reality: the market, as cornered by huge corporates, loathes competition, craving monopoly power or, failing that, a cartel.

      Myth: the market is a good corporate citizen.

      Reality: the market will do everything it can to ignore, bend, rewrite, lobby and/or bribe to change the law in order to suit its business agenda. Volkswagen is but the latest example of a universal rule: every corporate business is a white collar criminal organisation.

      It does not have to be like this. There is nothing inherently wrong in a for-profit business. But in recent years 'business' has overtaken the church as the sector of society commanding the greatest authority, whose interests are paramount to the point of being almost unquestionable.

      That is what Corbyn is all about. People talk tosh about Corbyn being a Marxist. He is not. He is an Attleeist. If his Labour leadership can reopen the debate on where is the 'centre' of British politics, that is all to the good. As it stands, the 'centre' — a consensus shared by Lib Dems, a section of Labour and the wetter end of the Conservative Party — currently stands somewhat to the right of the 1970-74 Heath government.