The Forde Report: Lessons for the Left

This week’s release of the Forde Report is useful for many reasons, but not least of all because it provides a fresh angle from which to examine why Jeremy Corbyn still remains suspended from the Labour Party and why we are still left without a mass party of the Left in the UK. Of course, this was not the intention of the report – whose recommendations aim to chart a new harmonious way forward within a political party riven by class conflict – but its pages present further evidence demonstrating how Corbyn’s leadership was always opposed by a small bureaucratic pro-capitalist caste ensconced in the leading positions of the Labour Party.

Although the Forde Report naively accepts at face value the assertions by Labour’s right-wing bureaucrats that they are committed to the ideas of socialism, it accurately summarises the problems inherent in the overall political orientation of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The Report acknowledges:

“On the whole… there was deep hostility from the majority of the PLP to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and within a year there a vote of no confidence amongst MPs followed by a leadership challenge. That deep animosity continued even after the unexpectedly good election result in 2017…” (p.29)

Corbyn’s power-base was always within the rank-and-file members of the Labour Party – a membership that under his leadership grew by an “estimated 325,000… between May 2015 and July 2016”. On the other hand, the power-base within the party of his ideological opponents was numerically far smaller, located primarily within the PLP and senior staff positions including, of course, the party’s headquarters. The Forde Report comments on the nature of this internal bureaucratic opposition when it explains:

“It is to be expected that, at any given time, some of the Party’s staff will disagree with the politics of the elected leader; however, it is disastrous for almost all of them to do so, especially in circumstances where the leader in question enjoys widespread support amongst the membership.” (p.75)

As the Report goes on to point out, this led to the position where…

“Factionalism within the Party is so extreme that whole sections of the Party view other facts as entirely illegitimate, that is people who should not be in the Party at all. In recent years this has manifested itself in large elements of the Right of the Party regarding Corbyn supporters as entirely illegitimate (and this arguably a mirror image of an earlier time in the Party’s history when large sections of the Left of the Party regarded the supporters of Tony Blair as illegitimate).” (p.107)

However, in both instances the Right has always viewed the democratic aspirations of the majority of Labour’s ordinary members as being illegitimate, precisely because rank-and-file members have continued to express their interest in the promotion of internal party democracy and in pushing for the broader socialist transformation of society.

So, if we accept that Corbyn’s true power laid within the active ranks of ordinary members, and that his efforts to promote socialist change were always going to be undermined within the existing leadership of his own Party, then we should acknowledge that certain democratic strategies always existed that might allow him to bypass the unrelenting hostility of his internal enemies. One such strategy, and one that was widely debated within the base of the Labour Party, was the need for introducing democratic selection processes within the PLP, that is the introduction of mandatory reselection. But this means of empowering ordinary members to affect change was mistakenly blocked by Corbyn.

Instead of pursuing this strategy, Corbyn and his Leader of the Opposition’s team (LOTO) prioritised trying to transform the party from the top-down. This represented a misjudged attempt to promote further democratic participation at the base of their party without publicly confronting the institutional power of the Labour right. This was a strategy which placed more faith in Corbyn and his team’s ability to win a war of bureaucratic maneuvering than it did in giving more democratic powers to the majority of the Labour Party’s membership.

The nature of this ultimately doomed leadership strategy was hinted at within the Forde Report when it pointed out how “Senior LOTO staff concluded that the only way to progress Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda was through direct hires to the LOTO.” This, of course, only led to a further escalation of internal political tensions, but all contained within an undemocratic institutional space where ordinary Labour Party members could not rally in their thousands to actively support Corbyn’s socialist agenda. Here Corbyn and his team missed a huge opportunity, and the working class is continuing to pay the price for this mistake.

That is why future socialist leaders must have genuine faith in the power of ordinary people to affect political change. As tragically, despite spending most of his life saying as much, when it came to the crunch Corbyn failed to act to demonstrate such trust by encouraging the types of internal political reforms that could have released genuine working-class power.

Hence the task that now lies before the working class is to create a new mass workers’ party that is rooted in the democratic participation of its new members. That task will not be easy, but if we learn from the mistakes of the past years, we will at least be in a better position to fight for a real socialist alternative to the capitalist mayhem that is destroying all life on earth.

As Jeremy Corbyn himself argues in his own short review of the Forde Report, it’s findings “should help us see a path forward.” Because as he concludes: “Most of all, the [Labour] Party needs to decide what it is for and who decides that. Are we a democratic socialist party, run by members and affiliated unions, that aims for a fundamental transfer of wealth and power from the few to the many? Or are we something else?”

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