Turn the Momentum inwards
As the hard right readies for phase two of Operation Discredit Corbyn, James Marshall outlines the tactics and strategic goals of Labour Party Marxists
Labour’s civil war is ongoing and intensifying at every level.
Using the agenda-setting power of the capitalist media, the Blairites are sniping, leaking and throwing accusations at every possible opportunity. Quite possibly a planned operation, with strings being pulled deep within the establishment.
A small sample. Lord Alan West, Labour peer and former security minister, condemns Jeremy Corbyn over his disrespectable failure to sing the royal anthem at the St Paul’s Battle of Britain service; a ‘private’ paper written by Lord Peter Mandelson comes to the barbed conclusion that electing Corbyn is like “putting two fingers up” to voters; shadow defence minister Maria Eagle rounds on Corbyn for staying true to his life-long opposition to nuclear weapons; the Nigel Farage-admiring Simon Danczuk announces he is willing to serve as a ‘stalking horse’ candidate against Corbyn; various grandees, including Chris Leslie, former shadow chancellor, condemns Corbyn over his refusal to advocate that the British police should shoot first and ask questions later; John Mann denounces Corbyn’s appointment of that “appalling bigot”, Ken Livingstone, to co-chair the party’s defence review; Chuka Umunna noisily demands that Corbyn should allow a free vote over bombing Syria; Lord John Reid declares Corbyn neither “competent, “coherent” nor “sensible”.
The first stage of the operation is pretty obvious. Discredit Corbyn. Make him appear in the popular mind a combination of prize idiot and terrorist-loving monster. The underlying assumption being that you can fool most of the people most of the time.
And so far Operation Discredit Corbyn seems to be working. According to The Times, three out of five people believe “he should stand down now”. Furthermore, only 28% want him to lead the Labour Party into the 2020 general election. Welcome news for the Tories. A recent ComRes national poll puts them on 42%, with Labour trailing badly at just 27%. A 15-point lead - the highest recorded by any pollster since 2010.
However, within the party, the right’s unremitting attacks on Corbyn have predictably backfired. It is the hard right that is being blamed for the civil war … and traditional Labour loyalists do not take kindly to anyone damaging Labour’s chances with the electorate.
Less than a fifth of Labour members and supporters think Corbyn ought to resign as leader. Even worse for the right, YouGov reports that two thirds of the party’s full members, registered supporters and affiliated trade unionists “approve of Corbyn’s performance”. This rises to 86% among those who voted for him. An approval rating that is higher than the 59% who voted for him. And the YouGov poll also reveals that he has impressed 49% of Andy Burnham’s supporters and 29% of Yvette Cooper’s. As The Times gleefully comments, this makes it “almost impossible” for rightwing MPs “to remove their leader”. All that would happen is that Corbyn would be re-elected with an even bigger majority.
Furthermore, the “present cohort of Labour members and supporters” back automatic reselection, which would undoubtedly lead to “waves of mainstream MPs” being ousted. Nearly two in five said that there should only be a vote if the MP “fails badly or is very unpopular”, while 52% agreed with automatic reselection of MPs in each parliament.1
Not that we should bank on the hard right going for a breakaway. Yes, today’s gang of ten - Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Tristram Hunt, Emma Reynolds, Shabana Mahmood, Mary Creagh, Jamie Reed and Rachael Reeves - have in effect constituted themselves a shadow shadow-cabinet. Despite that a 21st century version of the 1980s Social Democratic Party should be discounted. Unlike the early 1980s, the political centre is not enjoying a sustained revival.2 Eg, at the last general election the Lib Dems were decimated. They remain marginalised and widely loathed. Except as an antechamber to the Tory Party, a breakaway has nowhere to go. And, of course, minor all-Britain parties tend to suffer “significant under-representation”.3 So, given the punishing logic of the ‘first past the post’ election system, an SDP mark two outcome, no matter how welcome for us on the left, is not to be expected. The abject failure of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers is surely instructive.
It is probably true that “more than two” Labour MPs are considering defection - either to the Tories, the Lib Dems … or Ukip.4 Nonetheless, political suicide remains an unattractive proposition for most Blairites. Constituents would probably turf them out at the first opportunity. Instead of the glories of high office it will therefore be the musty corridors of the House of Lords. That is why the hard right is determined to stay firmly put and fight till the bitter end.
We should therefore expect Operation Discredit Corbyn to enter its second stage. When a Labour candidate succeeds, or otherwise does well, that will be in spite of Corbyn. When a Labour candidates fails, or otherwise does badly, that will be because of Corbyn. A case of ‘Heads, the right wins; tails, Corbyn loses’. Eg, if rightwinger Jim McMahon maintains Oldham for Labour, but - as is almost certain, even in the best-case scenario - he does so with a substantially reduced majority, this will be blamed on Corbyn.
For many in the party, and not only on the right, the sole purpose of being in politics is getting elected. “The worst Labour government is better than the best Tory government” - a well worn phrase that just as easily trips off the lips of Luke Akehurst5 as Owen Jones6. The idea of a good Labour opposition, a Labour opposition committed to socialism, being better than a bad Labour government, a Labour government committed to running capitalism, simply does not occur to the reformist left.
Unless our candidates go from one election triumph to another, which is just not going to happen, then the well prepared clamour will begin. Corbyn is a loser. Corbyn is a liability. Corbyn is hopeless. Corbyn must go. Replace him with a responsible, election-winning Blairite - a man, or woman, who can finally kill off the Labour Party as a labour party.
Of course, if - and in my mind it is highly unlikely - Corbyn leads the Labour Party to a victory in 2020, there is always the nuclear option. After unleashing a ‘strategy of tension’, MI5 - the institution that John McDonnell wants to grant “additional funding” for7 - will oversee the surgical removal of Corbyn from office. A state of emergency declared by the monarch or the privy council, charges of high treason, a fatal road accident … or maybe even blackmail and a diplomatic illness, as imagined by Chris Mullin, the former Bennite, in his A very British coup (1982). Whatever its exact form, the nuclear option will be hatched with the active involvement of the CIA, while the military high command, key leaders of the opposition and the top judiciary will give it their full cooperation and backing.
Corbyn’s much publicised admiration for Karl Marx, his campaigning against US-led imperialist wars, his opposition to Nato, Trident and nuclear weapons, his commitment to increase the tax take from transnational corporations, the banks and the mega rich, his republicanism - all mark him out as “a danger for Britain” (Financial Times editorial).8
The civil war is not only being fought out in parliament and the national media.
The hard right’s Labour First says it is getting reports from up and down the country that the left is now on the offensive.9 The AGM in Lewisham Deptford saw narrow victories for the hard right in officer elections and a 23-23 draw on Trident. Walthamstow’s AGM had mixed results - the left made gains, but some hard-right officers hung on. In Portsmouth there were three votes for the chair. Labour First complains that the left is “running full slates for every position, including positions like fundraising officer”. This shows “that every vote at every meeting is now vital.”
What is true for the hard right is true for the left too.
This bring us to Momentum. Launched in October, the organisation boasts well over 60,000 members. Despite being committed to making “Labour a more democratic party”, Momentum activists claim not to want the deselection of MPs. Instead the emphasis is on campaigning against austerity and turning outwards.10 And, funnily enough, when they turn up at Momentum meetings, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales and Left Unity members serve to reinforce this orientation. Typical contributions go along the lines that the PLP is dominated by the right, Corbyn is isolated and the ‘real class struggle’ is about demonstrations and strikes. Not ‘boring stuff’ like parliament, constituency Labour Party meetings, annual conferences and party rules.
No-one on the left would want to downplay the importance of fighting austerity. However, as well as street work, getting people onto the electoral register and supporting this or that action called by the People’s Assembly, Momentum needs to be firmly directed towards winning the civil war in the Labour Party. Not that members of the SWP, SPEW or LU should be turned away. But they should be encouraged to join the Labour Party and stop standing aloof from what is a concentrated form of the classstruggle.
We have argued that Corbyn’s election as leader gives the left the historically unprecedented opportunity to fight the pro-capitalist hard right both from above and below. While Labour Party Marxists want the abolition of the Bonapartist post of leader, we welcome the fact that for now Corbyn has decided to keep the dictatorial powers long favoured by past Labour leaders. After all, these are extraordinary times. It is therefore worth noting that Corbyn seems to be using his position as leader to exert control over the national executive committee, supposedly with a view to “giving the party back to its members”.
Peter Willsman’s report of November’s NEC makes interesting reading.11 Amongst its decisions was to “develop a Labour Party code of conduct in relation to the use of social media”. News of this produced a rabid Daily Telegraph headline proclaiming: “Labour MPs who criticise Jeremy Corbyn online to be ‘silenced’.”12
There are also going to be “wide-ranging” party reforms covering the national policy forum, gender representation, bursaries for working class candidates, political education, youth review and the implications of the Trade Union Bill. A working group will begin meeting before Christmas and is due to report to every NEC meeting. It will be jointly chaired by Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson and be open to all NEC members. The actual members will be Angela Eagle, Ann Black, Jennie Formby, Johanna Baxter, Andy Kerr, Cath Speight, Alice Perry and Jim Kennedy. Comrade Willsman stressed that the NPF should be “accountable to the NEC”, as it once was. He further argued that the “NEC must be restored to its central position in the party that it held for some 80 years before it was downgraded and sidelined by Tony Blair”.
Showing the Corbyn effect, general secretary Iain McNicol reported that, while in November 2014 membership stood at 192,707, now it is almost 400,000, with some 1,000 joining last week alone. This makes Labour bigger than all the other UK parties put together. The largest increases in membership being in London, the north-west, south-east and south-west, and the largest increase by age are those between 20 and 29 and those between 70 and 79. I would guess that most of the 20-29-year-olds are new members, while the 70-79-year-olds are mainly returnees. McNicol also told the NEC that the “conversion rate” of registered supporters to full members is something like 30%-40%.
Finally, comrade Willsman assures us that the NEC was not “locked in combat” over the issue of Andrew Fisher. Corbyn’s political advisor was suspended because of a light-hearted tweet “supporting” Class War in the May general election. Rest assured, the matter will be “satisfactorily resolved very shortly”.
However, all is not well. Both Corbyn and McDonnell have been in full retreat over a range of symbolic issues. Refusing to sing the royal anthem, praising the bravery of IRA fighters, not bowing before Elizabeth Windsor - all have already been sacrificed on the altar of respectability. Indeed, burdened as he is with an unstable left-centre-right coalition cabinet, there is a distinct danger that Corbyn will have his whole agenda set for him by the need to maintain unity. Put another way, in the final analysis the centre and the soft right sets the political limits and therefore determines the political programme. Why? Because they are quite prepared to walk.
So Momentum needs to respond to the hard right’s civil war independently of Corbyn. Support him against pro-Tory MPs, yes. Support him against a hostile capitalist media, yes. Support him against a coup organised by the secret state and the establishment, yes, yes, yes. But do not support his conciliationism.
Tactically, Momentum should, at least for the moment, concentrate its fire on the soft right in the shadow cabinet. ‘Blairites, out’ should be our slogan. The mass of Labour members clearly trust the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership, but they have an instinctive distrust for those who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, those who are closely associated with Tony Blair, those who threaten to quit over this or that. An obvious target is Lord Charlie Falconer.
Certainly MPs proven to be in the pay of big business, MPs sabotaging our election campaigns, MPs who vote with the Tories on austerity, Trident and bombing Syria - all should face the threat of deselection. We should take full advantage of our current rules. The ‘trigger’ mechanism allows local party units, including both individual members and affiliated organisations, “to determine whether the constituency holds a full open selection contest for its next candidate, in which other potential candidates are nominated, or reselects the sitting MP without such a contest”.13 Ironically, if it happens, both David Cameron’s proposed reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and the expected boundary changes, due to be announced in October 2018, could prove a golden opportunity for us. We should deselect hard-right MPs and democratically select tried and trusted leftwing replacements.
If that results in a smaller PLP in the short term, that is a price well worth paying.
Meanwhile, obviously, we need to set our sights on “wide-ranging” party reforms that go far beyond anything being considered by the NEC at the moment. The Labour Party must be radically reorganised from top to bottom. We need a new clause four, we need a sovereign conference, we need to be able to easily reselect MPs, MEPs and councillors.
Clearly, it is going to take time to change the political make-up of the PLP and subordinate it to the wishes of the membership. But, with force of numbers, tactical flexibility and ruthless determination, it can be done.
1. The Times November 24 2015.
2. From a 2.5% historic low point, the Liberal Party saw a revival in the 1970s, which saw it win 19.3% of the popular vote in the February 1974 general election.
3. A Blais To keep or to change ‘first past the post’? Oxford 2008, p66.
5. Progress February 15 2012.
6. Left Futures March 2 2011.
7. The Guardian November 19 2015.
8. Financial Times November 21 2015.
9. Labour First November 20 2015.
11. Left Futures November 23 2015.
12. The Daily Telegraph November 23 2015.