Firing the first shots
Eddie Ford predicts a lengthy civil war between Jeremy Corbyn and the parliamentary party
You can argue as to whether Corbyn’s crushing victory was down to a huge miscalculation by the “morons” of the Burnham camp - the latter desperate not to have their man tagged ‘red Andy’ by the Labour-hating press. But, regardless of who you choose to blame or praise for the result, the new leader’s democratic mandate is unarguable. He achieved full-spectrum dominance amongst all sections of the massively expanded electorate, securing 83.76% of registered supporters, 57.61% of affiliated supporters and 49.59% of full party members - something which surprised many commentators, though it should not have done so. By contrast, the new deputy leader, Tom Watson, had to go through three rounds of voting in order to win - receiving 39.4% first preferences and 50.7% of the vote on the third ballot.
In fact, if you were a real ‘glass half-empty’ type of person, you could be slightly disappointed that Corbyn did not win by a bigger margin - say 63%. Given that his previous lead in the polls seemingly way back in August had been 53%1, it was not being wildly unrealistic to think that he could have picked up an extra 10% in the last phases of the election. Nor should we forget that the overwhelming majority of the 4,000 ‘entryists’ denied a vote by the Harriet Harman witch-hunting machine were Corbyn supporters - such as Ken Loach, Mark Serwotka, Mark Steel, former Socialist Alliance candidates, returning Labour members, etc.
Still, though it might have been an accident of history, Corbyn’s victory - and ‘Corbynmania’ in general - is of enormous historical significance: maybe to a degree which we might not appreciate until many years to come. Showing what is possible, another 15,000 joined the party in the 24 hours after Corbyn’s victory was announced - doubtlessly many more have signed up since then, and will continue to do so once it becomes obvious that he is here to stay.2 Fantastically, right before our very eyes, Labour is being transformed into a vibrant mass membership party, with the new £3 registered supporters (hopefully proper members soon) becoming a new militant phalanx in the party.
Regular readers will recall that as the writing on the wall became apparent, some Blairites started muttering about mounting a “coup” against Corbyn at the Labour Party conference which begins on September 27 - effectively by getting 20% of the parliamentary party (47 MPs) to declare a vote of no confidence in the new leader and thus trigger a fresh leadership contest.
However, this now seems extraordinarily unlikely. Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate would make any such move a transparent attack on party democracy and natural justice. Not only that: it would just galvanise yet more support for Corbyn and hence would be idiotically counterproductive. As Tom Watson bluntly said on the Andrew Marr show, there is “zero chance” of a putsch, as party members “will not accept that”3 - remember, this is coming from Gordon Brown’s “ninja assassin”, who helped to dispose of Tony Blair in 2007.4 There was also bluster about mounting a legal challenge to the “totally out of control” leadership contest - as John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, put it in TheSunday Times. But that came to nothing too. As we have seen above, if anybody has a grievance - legal or political - it is the ‘Corbynites’ unjustly denied a vote, not sour Blairites resentful at being hugely outvoted.
Shell-shocked, the Blairites at the moment do not yet appear to have worked out a strategy for dislodging Corbyn. For instance, we had the August 29 Daily Mirror article about “senior” MPs offering Corbyn a “truce” if he allowed the Parliamentary Labour Party to elect the shadow cabinet - then giving him 18 months to prove he is “up to the job”.5 Unsurprisingly, comrade Corbyn rejected their generous offer, but note the military language - truces are temporary cessations of hostilities between openly warring parties. Then we had Tony Blair’s “Alice in Wonderland” article in TheObserver, in which he said that Corbyn and his supporters are operating in a “parallel reality” that rejects evidence and reason and can only mean electoral disaster (August 30). Obviously, this was no last-minute appeal for the electorate to finally see sense, as the vast mass had already voted - which Blair knew perfectly well. Rather, it was a rallying call for the troops: Corbyn is beyond the pale, so prepare yourselves for battle.
But over the last week we have seen the first real shots, or skirmishes, of the civil war being hatched by the Blairites - even if comrade Corbyn, perhaps naively, is still talking the language of peace. In an act of collective civil disobedience, several members of shadow cabinet have walked out or resigned - Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy, Emma Reynolds (communities and local government), Rachel Reeves (work and pensions), Chris Leslie (chancellor), Jamie Reed (health), John Woodcock (transport), Dan Jarvis (foreign office), Caroline Flint (energy) and former leadership candidates Mary Creagh (international development), Tristram Hunt (education) and Chukka Umunna (business). The latter said he left because he had not received “unambiguous assurances” from the Corbyn leadership that they would support Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in the coming referendum. Shabana Mahmood, the shadow treasury chief secretary, also refused to work with Corbyn, while Ivan Lewis, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, was sacked despite saying he was “willing to stay on” until Christmas to help tackle the political crisis in the province. Whatever their exact future direction, you can guarantee that some or all of these people will organise against the Corbyn leadership in one way or another.
Naturally, sections of the media tried to whip up a scandal about Corbyn’s new cabinet - not enough women had “top jobs”, like shadow chancellor or foreign secretary. But for the first time ever, the majority of the shadow cabinet is female, with 16 women and 15 men.6 These included Lisa Nandy, tipped by many as a future leader, as the new energy and climate change secretary (a position formerly held by Ed Miliband), Maria Eagle (defence), Heidi Alexander (health), Lucy Powell (education), Angela Eagle (first secretary of state), Gloria De Piero (young people and voter registration), Lilian Greenwood (Northern Ireland), Seema Malhotra (chief secretary to the treasury), Rosie Winterton (chief whip) and Diane Abbott (international development minister). In what must be a welcome innovation, Corbyn established the new post of shadow minister for mental health, which went to Luciana Berger.
Strangely enough though, Suzanne Moore in The Guardian described Corbyn as an “anointed” leader in a place where “not one female voice was heard” - a “new brocialism” in which “good lefties” do not “even notice gender” to the point that Labour “appear to have dispensed with even the token woman” (September 12). Quite how winning a democratic election with a thumping majority on a massively expanded electorate means you were “anointed” remains a mystery, as does how appointing a majority female cabinet is equivalent to “brocialism”. More succinctly, or more stupidly, Daisy Benson in The Independent thought that if Labour is “truly progressive” then it would have voted in a female leader “regardless of her policies” (September 11) - very enlightened. Corbyn and others countered such criticism with the not unreasonable argument that the traditional “top jobs” were actually a reflection of a pecking order derived from 19th century-style colonial politics - why is foreign secretary more important than delivering decent education to children or good mental health for the general population?
Wisely ignoring advice to reach out to the right, comrade Corbyn chose John McDonnell as the new shadow chancellor - an excellent development as far as communists are concerned. This sends out a real statement of intent about how the Corbyn-led Labour Party will have a totally different programme to both the Tory government and previous Labour leaderships - which merely wanted to implement austerity-lite. The Corbyn opposition will fight the Tories tooth and nail, or, as comrade McDonnell memorably said, he would “swim through vomit” to vote against benefit cuts.
On the other hand, Charles Clarke, Labour grandee and former education secretary, declared himself “aghast” at McDonnell’s appointment, as it signalled a clear turn to the hard left. A headline in The Daily Telegraph declared: “Corbyn has just appointed a nutjob as shadow chancellor” - only to be removed a few hours later. The rest of the press have tried to horrify us by quoting, or misquoting, various comments made in the past by the comrade - how his stated mission is “not to reform capitalism”, but to “foment revolt against” it; that he would “like to go back to the 1980s and assassinate Thatcher”; IRA fighters should be “honoured” for taking part in the “armed struggle”, and so on. A little taster of what is to come.
Although Corbyn has not clasped the right to his bosom, it is equally true that the new shadow cabinet is hardly a ‘hard left’ outfit of dedicated Corbynites - given the wretched political composition of the current PLP, that was not much of a possibility. Indeed, just three shadow cabinet members - Abbott, McDonnell and Jon Trickett - voted for the new leader. Andy Burnham’s team is generously represented, with the second-placed candidate becoming shadow home secretary and his campaign chair, Michael Dugher, taking culture. Meanwhile Lord Charles Falconer and Owen Smith, both close to Burnham, got positions (the former remaining justice secretary and the latter moving to work and pensions). Gloria De Piero was a Kendall supporter but now serves under Corbyn - not to mention the ‘continuity’ ministers such as Rosie Winterton, Hilary Benn (foreign secretary) and John Healey, former shadow health secretary who left the cabinet in 2011, but returned as shadow minister for housing and planning. Very broadly speaking, the new shadow cabinet could be classified as ‘moderate’ centre-left, albeit infused with the Bennite militancy of comrades Corbyn and McDonnell.
There can be no doubt that the Blairites are gearing up for battle. In an article for TheSunday Times, Lord Peter Mandelson made clear his view that Labour cannot win under Corbyn - his policies are “far to the left” of Labour’s “historic mainstream”, and amount to a rehash of the “early 1980s leftism” that allowed Margaret Thatcher to win a series of election victories. For Mandelson, it was a political programme that “wouldn’t work then” and “most certainly will not work three or more decades later” (September 13).
Similarly, David Blunkett echoed his former master, Tony Blair, in the Mail Online - the perfect venue.7 He notes that the new leadership has “tapped into an anti-establishment, anti-austerity, anti-war mood” - which is a bad thing, apparently. Ironically, continues Blunkett, it will be “their determination not to compromise” which will “bring them down”. Why? Because “disillusionment will follow, as night follows day”, when it becomes clear that they are “disengaged from, and in a parallel universe to, the bulk of the electorate”. Rather patronisingly, he comments that those like him who have “seen this all before” can “forgive young people eager for something new and those under 40 who have no meaningful recollection of the politics of the 1980s”. However, the same cannot be said for the “zealots who have re-emerged to capture the Labour Party and take it back to a bygone era” - Blunkett dishonestly warns that Labour’s “thugs” are on the march again. True, Corbyn himself might not be a thug, he concedes, but you cannot necessarily say the same about those “hanging on his coat-tails”: beware the “iron fist in a velvet glove”, he added luridly.
In the same paper, our Blairite recalcitrant, John Mann, pops up again - this time telling us that Corbyn has “more positions than the Kama Sutra” and is “not remotely up to the job of leading my party back to power” (September 12). The “miracle man” is here, remarks Mann, despite “having uttered barely a word on economic policy in 32 years in parliament” - but now promises “economic salvation for the world with ‘people’s quantitative easing’, whatever that is”. Exuding contempt, Mann does not believe that Corbyn “represents the values of this country or of the Labour Party” - which makes you wonder whether he has been following the news. But from now on, Mann sternly writes, it “must be payment by results” - Corbyn is on notice.
Needless to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Blairite discontent will at some stage reach a tipping point and become open sedition, with any issue or incident being used to undermine Corbyn. But Labour Party members need to intervene and pressure comrade Corbyn from the left. Take the battle to the Blairites and the establishment - do not wait for them to come after you.
4. The Daily Telegraph August 10.