Rightwing panic grows
Ordinary leftwing activists are using the weapons supplied by the right against the right, says Eddie Ford. Things will never be quite the same again
With the ballot papers due to be sent out on August 14, Jeremy Corbyn still maintains his lead in the Labour leadership contest. Private polling by the Daily Mirror has Corbyn way ahead on 42%, with Blairite clones Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham trailing behind on 22.6% and 20% respectively.1 As for Liz Kendall, who could have been selected by Tory Party central casting, she is obviously out of the race on 14%.
The July 22 YouGov poll had very similar results, and although Burnham was still ahead of Cooper (26% to 20%), perhaps the latter is now becoming the ‘ABC’ candidate: ie, ‘anyone but Corbyn’. That would hardly be surprising, given Burnham’s farcical antics over the recent Welfare Bill vote: he had said on his Facebook page that the Labour Party “could not simply abstain” on the issue, and then abstained himself - nothing like consistency.
But the result is too close to call, even if Corbyn does appear to have a generous lead. According again to the Mirror, once second preferences are taken into account, then the MP for Islington is only two points ahead of Cooper on 51% to 49%. From such polls, it still seems the case that Corbyn has to come very close to an outright win on the first vote in order to prevent the second preferences piling up against him - whether they end up going to Cooper or Burnham.
When it comes to CLP nominations or recommendations, insofar as they are an indication of the mood among ordinary Labour Party members, Corbyn is still out in front with 121 - followed by Burnham on 107, Cooper with 91 and Kendall just 14 (when it comes to the deputy race, Tom Watson is leading Stella Creasy by 85 to 53).2 The New Statesman recently carried some interesting, or amusing, anecdotes about CLP meetings, where the numbers attending are “vanishingly small”.3 At one contest, we read, there were just 25 votes: nine for Jeremy Corbyn, eight for Andy Burnham, four for Yvette Cooper, and one simply reading “Fuck Kendall”. Making a more substantial point, the unnamed NS journalist observes that the majority of CLPs that are nominating Corbyn backed one of the Miliband brothers in the last leadership contest - the author therefore sees “no reason to suggest” that these local parties “have become less reflective of the party’s mood than they were five years ago”. Indeed, the writer is “more convinced than ever” that Corbyn is going to win - though he or she does note that Corbyn has a “far smaller pool” of second preferences to draw on than his rivals.
But, looking at the polls, the Labour establishment is sweating - Christ alive, Corbyn really could win. As they stare into the abyss, with maybe the abyss staring back, the language from the right is getting steadily more bitter, angry and recriminatory. Tony Blair nastily said that Corbyn supporters needed to “get a heart transplant”, earning him a rebuke from Lord John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister - such “abuse” is “totally unacceptable”, apparently. Margaret Beckett regards herself as a “moron” for nominating Corbyn, and the prince of darkness himself - Lord Peter Mandelson - admitted to experiencing a “growing sense of déjà vu”: believing that Labour’s existence as an “effective electoral force is now at stake”.
With the divisions opening up, Labour First (essentially a vehicle for the relatively influential Blairite blogger, Luke Akehurst) has written to Progress, the New Labour think-tank amply bankrolled by multi-millionaire Lord Sainsbury. His open letter expresses annoyance that Progress still “have not recommended use of second and third preferences” to stop Corbyn, who represents the “most serious threat of a hard-left victory” in the Labour Party for over 30 years.4 Rather, it continues to back the loser, Kendall - the letter implores Progress to amend its position in order to “demonstrate the unity of moderate and mainstream forces”, given the “strategic priority” of preventing a Corbyn victory.
Kendall herself, however, is refusing to drop out of the race - a position endorsed by Cooper, who told the BBC that the Leicester West MP should not “leave it to the boys, just because of one poll”. Maybe playing the feminist card is the key to victory for the anti-Corbynites, as Jonathan Freedland desperately suggests in The Guardian (July 23). He asininely hopes that the prospect of Labour’s first ever elected female leader will somehow “match the excitement” unleashed by the Corbyn campaign, the “pragmatists” needing to convince their fellow party members that the “purity of impotence” will lead to a lifetime of opposition. Get real, Freedland.
Anyhow, supporters of Kendall have told YouGov that 55% of them will give Cooper their second preference vote, 22% Andy Burnham, and 6% Jeremy Corbyn (with a small number remaining undecided). Of course, as this is not a first-past-the-post election, if a candidate drops out before the vote, that should in theory make no difference to the eventual outcome - votes can be transferred to the best-placed rightwinger in any case. But obviously to beat Corbyn the three other candidates need to persuade their supporters to transfer their second and third preferences to the other anti-Corbyn candidates.
All very simple on one level - there should be enough votes to block Corbyn, assuming he does not get an absolute majority in the first vote. But unfortunately for the right wing, the political momentum is against them. Everything seems to indicate that Corbyn is picking up support with almost each day that goes by. Expressing this concern, Richard Angell of Progress wrote an article for The Times worrying that both Burnham and Cooper are in danger of being regarded as “Corbyn-lite” (July 26). If they do not “draw a line to their left flanks” and “start a step-change towards the centre”, he warned, then their chances of becoming party leader “might be dead” already.
Panic seriously setting in, some Blairites are agitating for a coup - Operation Stop Corbyn. Rumours abound about a vote of no confidence against the likely new leader - current rules stipulate that 20% of the parliamentary party (ie, 47 MPs) can nominate an alternative candidate. Trying to further stir the excrement, John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, informed TheSunday Times that the leadership contest was “totally out of control” - the party being flooded with new members and registered supporters at the £3 bargain price. At the current rate, it is projected that about 140,000 extra voters will have registered by the August 12 deadline - the ballot will close on September 10 and the result will be announced two days later at the special conference.
Therefore time to change the electorate, who are just not doing what they are told. Mann has written to the acting leader, Harriet Harman, asking for the election to be suspended until “proper checks” can be conducted on the new members/supporters. The contest has become a “farce”, he said, with long-standing members “getting trumped” by people who have “opposed the Labour Party and want to break it up”. Other senior Blairites and the rightwing press have muttered darkly about Tory and “hard left” infiltration of the party, even naming small groups like the CPGB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales (sorry - Militant Tendency) as supposed evidence for this sinister plot (see p9).
Unluckily for Mann and his fellow coup-makers, his request has been turned down (at least so far). Harman has insisted that processes are in place to ensure “integrity” in the contest, which involves amongst other things a “special unit” of 48 people working six days a week listening in their entirety to two-thirds of recorded phone calls made by union members asking to become party supporters - with half of the remaining third being played back and checked (adding that she has personally listened to some of these calls). Very thorough, Harriet, but have you not got better things to do? Burnham too was less than impressed by Mann’s claims, saying on Sky TV that if he has any “evidence” then he needs to send it to Labour HQ, but far more importantly “we’re in the middle of a debate that is actually now finally capturing attention” - which is a “good thing” for the party.
But the insults against Corbyn continue. With stunning hypocrisy, Emma Reynolds, the shadow communities secretary, accused Corbyn of being “disloyal”, as he had “rebelled against the party literally hundreds of times” - in fact, she tut-tutted, “more than 500 times just in the last 14 years”.5 If Corbyn became leader, Reynolds predicted, he would not be able to “command the loyalty” of his colleagues in parliament when it comes to votes on key issues - he might also “struggle” to appoint a shadow cabinet, she thought, as many Blairites and ‘modernisers’ would refuse to serve under him. In other words, it is the right wing that is being “disloyal” and rebellious - when they are not actively conspiring to overthrow a leader elected by a popular mandate of party members.
Indeed, it is the right wing that is threatening to split the party if none of its favoured candidates wins. John Mills, one of Labour’s biggest benefactors, who gave £1.6 million during Ed Miliband’s leadership, has declared that if Corbyn wins then he “suspects” that there would be “some sort of split”, leading to an “SDP-type party” - referring to the last time the right waltzed out of the party with the ‘gang of four’ (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981). Similarly, John Hutton - the Blairite quisling who worked for the last Tory-led coalition government - has said that a Corbyn victory would “immediately split the party” (and no guessing which way Hutton would jump).
Then again, look at recent remarks by the so-called “Corbyn-lite” Burnham. He may now be trying to distance himself slightly from the excesses of New Labour - hence his comment about how the party has become “frightened by its own shadow” and would not have the “courage or capacity” to create the NHS today.6 All very true, of course. But in an interview for the Sunday Mirror, just like Mills and Hutton, he talks about the “real risk” that Labour could split if the ‘modernisers’ do not defeat Corbyn - dishonestly saying that the party must use the leadership election to “call time on factionalism and division” (July 26). Come again, brother Burnham? It is you and the right wing that is causing “factionalism and division” with your constant talk of splits and the SDP. Pots and kettles.
By contrast, there is the letter to all Labour MPs from leading leftwinger John McDonnell, in which he calls for a halt to the “personalised infighting” that has been accompanied by “talk in the media of splits and breakaways” if Corbyn gets elected.7 Everybody should “calm down”, he continues, and argues for a whole period of consultation after the election that “would ensure the fullest inclusion of everyone within the party in determining the party’s strategy for the coming period, its policy programme and its decision-making processes”. In this way, he writes, nobody “would feel excluded” and “everybody would have a democratic say”. No talk of purging the right from McDonnell or Corbyn (rightly or wrongly).
Meanwhile, getting even nastier, Mann has written a lengthy open letter on his website about Corbyn’s “inactions” in the 1980s and 1990s over allegations of widespread child sex abuse in Islington - which “says a lot” about Corbyn’s politics, we are invited to believe.8 Furthermore, the “so-called ‘trendy left’ politics of the early 1980s was a contributory factor in covering up child abuse”. No attempt here to sow “division”, is there? Nothing “personalised” at all.
Far from being a leftwing loony totally out of touch with the ‘aspirational’ British public, as endlessly insinuated by Corbyn’s opponents and an overwhelmingly hostile media (yes, that includes The Guardian), he is actually keying into a mass leftwing sentiment in society - as proven by numerous surveys and polls on this or that subject or social attitude. Not that we in the CPGB would want to exaggerate the reach of this sentiment or pretend it is held by the majority of the population - which would be self-deception.
But it is certainly the case that perhaps 20% of the country subscribe to views that are to the left of where mainstream Labour has been for the last 20 years or so. Here we have Corbyn’s natural constituency. A member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Amnesty International, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition - you name it - he has clearly hit a popular chord with his calls for the renationalising of railways and the mail service, the nationalisation of the utilities and banks (bailed out to the tune of billions by the taxpayer), opposition to tuition fees, PFI schemes, cuts in corporation tax, Iraq war, House of Lords, and so on. These are views you can overhear every day on the tube or bus, or encounter all the time at work - nothing ‘extremist’ about them. Another genuine widespread sentiment is how great it is that Corbyn is on the ballot, livening up the otherwise dull debate - not something they had to read in a far-left paper to realise, even if the rightwing media think we are all stupid.
What happens if Corbyn wins? Here we really are entering politically unknown territory - and rerunning the past is not particularly helpful. Sections of the press are prattling on about Michael Foot, TheSunday Times having an allegedly amusing picture of Foot morphing into Corbyn (July 26). What nonsense. Who voted for Foot? Was it through ‘one member, one vote’ (Omov) and new members flooding into the party, as with Corbyn now? No, the election of Foot was not primarily the result of a leftwing upsurge from below. It was the Parliamentary Labour Party which elected him as a compromise candidate. He beat Denis Healy in the second round. The labour bureaucracy wanted a shift to the left in an attempt to secure Labour’s base,traumatised as it was by the experience of the social contract, which left the party deeply unpopular with the trade union movement. Historically, something similar happened in 1931, when Ramsay McDonald dismissed the Labour cabinet and formed the National Government. In response, the party expelled him and elected George Lansbury on a pacifist, leftwing ticket - but Lansbury was the candidate of the party establishment.
Nothing could be further from the truth with Jeremy Corbyn. He represents a rebellion against Labour’s establishment, using the weapons accidentally supplied by the Labour establishment itself. Omov, ‘registered supporter’ category, and all the rest - these are classic rightwing innovations that stink of American politics and which the left has always opposed, quite correctly, well aware that the Blairites wanted to use them to swamp the ordinary members with ‘sensible’ people influenced by TheSun, the Mirror, the BBC, Channel Four, etc. Communists, on the other hand, positively favour the working class exercising influence and power collectively - we want block voting, but done proportionally according to delegation, political balance in a particularly union, and so forth. We were always against US-style primaries.
But life itself threw up a weird historical accident: from above and below. In the name of opening up the debate to all factions, MPs from all wings of the party found themselves nominating Corbyn (such as the rightwinger, Frank Field), either because of constituency pressure - which existed to a certain degree - or cynical calculation. For instance, the Burnham camp did not want its candidate to be dubbed ‘Red Andy’ - hence Corbyn could perform the useful function of attracting the arrows of the rightwing press, leaving Burnham free to act the responsible statesman. Or so the plan went. In the end, Corbyn just managed to scrape together the required 35 nominations despite having little support amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party and initially a lukewarm reception from the union leaders. Who would have thought that not only Unite, but now Unison, would come out in favour of the left candidate?
Quite wonderfully though, thanks to the Blairite rule changes, ordinary leftwing activists are now wielding the weapons supplied by the right against the right - sensibly ignoring the advice of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party to build an imitation or replica Labour Party mark two. Everything is there to play for.
But it is important to inject a dose of realism. Corbyn’s chances of radically changing the LP should not be rated extraordinarily high. There is no Communist Party (except in name), no skilled cadre force in the working class that has a strategy and coherent world view. We will inevitably see all sorts of confusion, splits and divisions - good, bad and contradictory. Nevertheless, we are seeing before us a fluidity which would not have existed if we had had a grisly beauty contest between Blairite clones chosen by the Mirror - a huge opening up of politics, even if Corbyn comes second.
Things will never be quite the same again.
6. ‘Andy Burnham: timid Labour would not be up to creating the NHS today’, The Guardian July 27.