Party of Government or Social Movement? Labour must decide

(Letter published in The Guardian, 31 July 2016)

Owen Jones believes that there is a “false dichotomy” between Labour as a social movement and as a party of government (Mass membership alone doesn’t make a social movement, 28 July). But there are stubborn differences.

Social movements – for example the feminist movement, or the environmental movement, or youth movements, or movements of LGBT people – usually have ambitions which are not limited to any one political party and seek supporters from all parties and none. Why would one want credit unions, or food banks, or tenants’ movements (all instances cited by Jones) to be party political in their identity rather than working across party lines?

Moreover, social movements, like the “campaigning organisations” which Jeremy Corbyn uses as a description of his party, are responsible to their own members alone and may take decades to secure their goals (if they ever do), as different governments come and go. By contrast, a party of government must show that it can govern on behalf of the whole people, not just its own members, and can make the necessary arduous compromises that every government must make in order to reconcile competing interests and views. It therefore requires skills and temperaments that are different from social movements’, and cannot afford to wait for many years and decades in the wilderness as social movements may do.

Jeremy Corbyn is undoubtedly a fine supporter of social movements, on picket lines and at evening meetings and demonstrations for decades, never erring from the movements’ goals, enduring in the wilderness, rarely deflected by other people’s views and interests. The question is whether he can also be an effective leader of a party of government, with its very different requirements.
Andrew Purkis


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