Nice guys finish last
Battle lines are being drawn in the Labour Party, writes Paul Demarty
According to the old cliché, a week is a long time in politics - and in Britain over the last few months there have been a lot of very long weeks.
Jeremy Corbyn made his long march from no-hope outsider to conquering hero of all those alienated by the cosy neoliberal consensus; the extant Labour right wing was thereby exposed as an exhausted force, unable to defeat an insurgency of naive youths and old Labour-left veterans so confidently described as ‘dinosaurs’ by a generation of triumphant rightists.
We are barely six weeks into the new era; but those naive youths - and the old Labour lefts, who have proven themselves rather suckers for punishment over the decades - must surely all be disabused of any notion that their victory was final. The right is reorganising, the left fumbling to build almost from scratch. Open warfare is unavoidable; and it is coming fast.
Right on the march
We have wondered often, in these recent months, what is to replace Progress. The late Denis Healey is reputed to have told the ‘Gang of Four’ that they should vote for him to defeat Tony Benn, because they had “nowhere else to go” - something even truer at this new nadir of British capital-L Liberalism. They therefore need some fighting formation to replace the declining Progress.
The latter organisation served its myriad purposes well for more than a decade. Funded by Lord Sainsbury, it functioned as an all-purpose organisational nexus for the Labour Party hard right. It corralled wonks and academics into an intellectual phalanx around Tony Blair. It drove government policy.
Perhaps most importantly, it fostered a new generation of careerist politicians, schooling them in the necessary skills of the trade: seeming to say something when actually just dribbling out inanities, sneering with contempt at one’s core vote, remembering one’s place in the chain of command. A somewhat Jesuitical organisation, its motto might have been ‘Give me the first-year undergraduate, and I shall show you the sycophantic junior minister’.
Of course, it bred only mediocrities, capable of mimicking Tony’s soundbites and tics, but failing to achieve either Blair’s stern grasp over the party or his authority in the bourgeois media, failing to understand either that the Labour core vote and activist base cannot absorb unlimited punishment or that the affections of the bourgeoisie are not always up for tender. You could call it cargo-cult Blairism. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership is, in substance, Progress’s epitaph. Its name is muck from Aberdeen to St Austell. Labour Party rightists look upon its works and despair.
An early contender for replacement was Labour First, a long-running rightwing pressure group, now run by hack blogger Luke Akehurst - perhaps too early, however, having emerged from a long period of relative obscurity to put itself up as the headquarters of the ‘Anyone But Corbyn’ faction during the leadership contest itself. ‘Anyone but Akehurst’, replied 60% of the Labour electorate.
Now there is Labour Together, which looks a little more like it. It has the nicey-nicey, ‘modern’ branding; it is open to everyone (of course); it praises the Corbyn campaign for re-energising people and so forth. Behind it, we have some familiar faces: Jon Cruddas, the centrist gadfly (he of Compass, then of Blue Labour) and eccentric intellectual Maurice Glasman (Blue Labour again) seem to motivate its vaguely defined ideological agenda (decentralisation, ‘returning power to communities’ - that type of thing).
There is, naturally, another agenda at work here - among the high-profile supporters of LT are Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt - both Blairites of a somewhat more sophisticated stripe; they were, at least, smart enough not to run, in the end, for the leadership this year. Umunna wants Progress formally wound up - it has served its purpose. Hunt, equally, is capable of boxing clever.
Within parliament, both are members of the PLP-only Labour for the Common Good: the mailed fist in Labour Together’s velvet glove. They are fond of calling themselves ‘the resistance’. That ought to tell you all you need to know. Apparently unconnected, the vile Rochdale MP, Simon Danczuk, has openly put himself forward as a ‘stalking horse’: should the opportunity arise, he will stand to unseat Corbyn, thereby opening the door for more suitable candidates.
On the ground, too, the Labour right are on the march. Having created a McCarthyite atmosphere of paranoia about infiltrators, these people are looking around for people to purge. They have found four members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - some of whom have been Labour members for years - and summarily terminated their memberships at the constituency level.
Now we at this paper have no end of criticisms of the AWL, for its economism, sectarianism and most egregiously its soft, equivocal attitude to US imperialism. These problems, however, will not be foremost in the minds of the persecutors of the ‘AWL four’ - rather it is their association with an avowedly Trotskyist organisation, with a long (if somewhat inconsistent) record of Labour Party activity. All partisans of the left should defend them - and indeed the right of all avowed supporters of the working class socialist cause to organise openly in the Labour Party, provided they do not currently support other candidates.
Organising the left
In the Corbyn camp, meanwhile, there are at least signs that people are copping on to the level of hostility they face among the Labour establishment.
We may mention, first of all, the appointment of Seumas Milne as the Corbyn office’s “director of strategy and communications”. In this role, he is the distant inheritor of Alastair Campbell, with whom he presents an illuminating contrast. Both, of course, are press people - but Campbell was a tabloid man to his bone-marrow, whereas Milne has been the leftwing face of TheGuardian’s comment pages, which he helps edit, for more than a decade.
And, while Campbell had no serious involvement in politics before working for Blair, Milne has - shall we say - a colourful history. He was, for many years, business manager for Straight Left, a ‘Labour movement paper’ that in reality fronted an opposition faction in the Communist Party of Great Britain. You wouldn’t know unless you knew; although the back-page editorials by Fergus Nicholson (under the name ‘Harry Steel’ - after Pollitt and Stalin respectively) might have clued you in a little.
Straight Left’s line was virulently pro-Soviet, and it was largest and longest-lived opposition grouping of its type in the party. Its ranks incubated a whole generation of CPGB dissidents, though for the most part they were hamstrung by an utterly uncritical attitude to the ‘socialist countries’; its name was a not entirely healthy rebuke to the Eurocommunists’ obsessions with ‘trendy’ matters such as gay liberation.
Milne is hardly the only Labour figure to have a communist history, of course: Blair’s clique was riddled with ex-Euros, and not a few ‘tankies’ to boot. “I used to be a communist,” sneered John Reid in the late noughties; “I used to believe in Santa Claus.” The difference with Milne is that he seems not to have budged an inch from his Straight Leftism over the years. We can, at least, commend his stamina.
Indeed, we can go with him at least part-way on most issues of day-to-day politics: his trenchant and consistent opposition to western imperialism has made him almost unique among mainstream journalists. He has a habit of pointing out that atrocities like the July 7 bombings - horrendous crimes, as he acknowledges they are - are exceptional in the imperialist heartlands, but a matter of everyday life in the failed states manufactured by the past decade and a half of perpetual imperialist war in the Middle East. He catches his share of flak for that, and he should be proud of it. In any case, his appointment is much like that of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor - a polite ‘fuck you’ to the right wing, who have clearly taken it that way. Good.
Keeping up the momentum
With Milne reporting for duty at the top, there is the matter of how things are looking at the rank-and-file level. The left’s organisation here - for the time being at least - is Momentum, the official successor to the Corbyn leadership campaign.
It is telling that Momentum’s right to exist has been disputed on the most fatuous grounds by the right since its inception. It is unusual, apparently, for a leadership campaign to maintain itself even after victory; but why should that be the case? Political parties do not dissolve between elections. Leaders invariably represent distinct tendencies within their parties; so scattered and demoralised was the Labour left before Corbyn’s campaign, an awful lot of energy is going into forming the faction that should have existed beforehand, but, apart from that, there is nothing new here.
The right fears that Momentum will be a vehicle for witch-hunting - by this, it means the holding of MPs to account and, most of all, the dreaded mandatory reselection: the renewal of Labour Party endorsement of MPs every so often. From this we learn only what we already knew: Labour rightists view their seats as their property, perhaps grudgingly subject to approval by the electorate twice a decade, but never to the control of the party that got them elected in the first place.
Our worry is rather that mandatory reselection is being evaded as a demand by Momentum, despite the fact that one of its leading lights, Jon Lansman, has spent most of his political career fighting for it, even briefly achieving it at the height of Bennism. A campaign for mandatory reselection is all the more urgent, given the sort of degenerates currently infesting the Labour benches, but it is in any case an elementary democratic principle: no, sunshine, you do not ‘own’ your Labour Party nomination. It belongs to your CLP.
More insidious problems exist, too. The aforementioned Labour Together seems to be pitching itself as the non-Corbynite Momentum. Like the latter, it wants to go out into communities and ‘do something’. It is starry-eyed about grassroots campaigns, as the likes of Cruddas and Glasman always - in a peculiar sort of way - have been.
And, though it is a sort of rhetoric we are more used to from the left, it is hardly the first time the right has latched onto it. David Miliband, before his defeat to brother Ed last time around, had the bright idea of setting up just such a grassroots campaigning organisation. You see, the 2010 election showed that the Labour Party had lost touch with communities and voters, etc, etc. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It failed for the same reason LT will almost certainly fail: democracy. Can you imagine David Miliband’s little do-gooding organisation breaking ranks with its progenitor’s bland Blairism? Of course not: people like him, and Cruddas and Glasman, can run a mean press office; but the self-activity of broad masses is alien to them. It is a threat.
This is the final danger facing Momentum: that it, too, in the name of being collegiate and thus shying away from open breaches with the right, suppresses any life emerging at the base, where its people - away from the Westminster bubble - will be cracking skulls with their local party rightwingers, whether they like it or not. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: keeping everyone on message means killing democracy, and thus killing the organisation.
The right is gearing up for war; is Momentum willing to fight?