Right’s fear and loathing
Communists defend Corbyn from his impatient assassins, whilst retaining our criticisms, writes Eddie Ford
Over recent weeks the media has been full of excited speculation about a possible leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn - despite the fact he won a landslide victory only six months ago, with 59.5% of first-preference votes on a massively expanded electorate. Still, the right wing of the Labour Party has never been renowned for its devotion to democracy.
Corbyn’s fate, at least in the imagination of his more determined opponents, depends on the results of the May local elections. From various reports, it seems that the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party (or “moderates”, as the rightwing press insists on calling them) are setting the bar at 434 English council seats - the average local election gain for an opposition party since 1974. This figure, needless to say, is way above current projections - which has Labour losing around 200 seats1 and getting somewhere between 30% and 33% of the total vote.2 If Corbyn fails to meet this target, it seems, his parliamentary foes will deem him to be “unelectable” - and thus he must go.
The obvious danger is that, whatever happens in May, Corbyn cannot win. Rightwing Labour councillors responsible for imposing cuts will bitterly blame Corbyn if they lose, but if they do fairly well then it will be in spite of the Labour leader - that you can guarantee, as we saw with the Oldham West by-election. Nevertheless, having said that, the Oldham result did matter - the fact that Labour convincingly won with an increased share of the vote put the right on the back foot for a while. Indeed, those of a more ungenerous frame of mind could almost think that the right actually wanted Labour to do badly on the night.
As for possible leadership challengers, there seems no getting away from the Barnsley Central MP, Dan Jarvis - former paratrooper and current darling of the right. Writing in the Yorkshire Post on March 10, Jarvis argued that the party will “never” form a government again unless “we respond to what the public think about us” - which, decoded, means the party has to swing to the right. Labour needs, he continued, “fundamental change” and that means “rooting our politics in the things people actually care about - their family, work and community.”3
Then, on the same day, he gave a speech to the Demos think-tank - a natural venue for ambitious rightwingers. Here he outlined his “vision” of Labour’s future, widely interpreted as the beginning of a leadership bid. Jarvis wanted Labour to be “more radical” than it was under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband - a party does not just “oppose the government”, but beats it. He argued that today’s senior Labour politicians must be critical of some of the choices Labour made in power after 1997, while embracing others - “we should defend our achievements and learn from our mistakes”. For “anyone outside” Westminster, said Jarvis, whether the person on the bus or tube, that is “common sense”.
Trying to attract the ‘soft’ left, Jarvis tactically distanced himself from the excesses of New Labour, which did not get at the “root causes” of rising inequality and had been “intensely relaxed about things they shouldn’t have been intensely relaxed about” - a direct reference to the notorious remarks of Peter Mandelson, who was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”. We also learnt that Jarvis had only met Tony Blair a “handful of times” - good to know, Dan. Alas, the spirit of Blairism seemed to animate his remarks about being “tough on inequality” and “tough on the causes of inequality” - not to mention his asinine remarks about wanting businesses to “do well” and “make profits”, because in that way the profits can be used to “pay dividends to their shareholders” (including “employee-owners”), thereby “benefitting customers, workers and savers”. According to Jarvis, this is how a capitalist system “should work” - as a “servant, not master”.
Alongside trooper Jarvis, Rachel Reeves is being touted as a shadow chancellor-in-exile. Other names regularly mentioned as potential candidates include Caroline Flint, the ex-minister who came third in the deputy leadership competition, and Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions - plus usual suspects like Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt and Liz Kendall. Yes, the right really is getting desperate - Liz Kendall, for god’s sake!
Highlighting the contradictions and tensions of the Labour Party, The Daily Telegraph prominently featured an ‘exclusive’ (March 11), describing how 24 of the party’s 30 biggest individual donors have not given to Labour since Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Instead, they are funnelling money into the private offices of Jarvis, Umunna, Hunt and Kendall. We discover that the funds are being used to hire staff to help - try not to snigger - “intellectually reboot” our brave moderates: salaries that would have been covered by Labour Party monies when they were in the shadow cabinet.
True, we are not talking enormous sums of money - tens, not hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, it is still significant - if only for the political symbolism. An analysis of electoral commission data by the Telegraph shows that Labour’s 30 biggest individual donors gave more than £8.7 million to the party between 2010 and 2014, but the same individuals gave only £74,109 between Corbyn’s election in September and the end of the year - with, as noted above, 24 giving nothing at all (figures for 2016 have not been released yet). For example, John Mills, Labour’s biggest donor under Ed Miliband, has not given to the central party since last September, though he has contributed something to Sadiq Khan’s London mayoral campaign.
Then we have the grateful recipients. Umunna, the former shadow business secretary, has been given £25,000 by property tycoon Sir David Garrard - who had previously donated around £700,000 to Labour. Tristram Hunt, former shadow education secretary and historian, has received £40,000 from Bet365 founder Peter Coates, £20,000 from Lord Sainsbury and £5,000 from Trevor Chinn, another of Labour’s biggest donors. Kendall, who was comprehensively trounced during the leadership battle, has nonetheless received £23,000 from, amongst others, Lord Waheed Alli and businessman Michael Foster.
Jarvis - as we all now know, thanks to the headlines - received £16,800 from hedge fund manager Martin Taylor. That earned him a stinging rebuke from Ken Livingstone, who stated on LBC radio that receiving money from the manager of a hedge fund - the “most rapacious and damaging form of capitalism” - is like a children’s group getting money from Jimmy Savile. As nearly always seems to be the case these days, this generated a fake moral outrage from the ‘politically correct’ guardians of the right over Livingstone’s supposed “disgusting, offensive and stupid” remarks.
Explaining his decision to quit funding Labour centrally, one former donor stressed that the “most important thing” is to get rid of Corbyn as soon as possible, since “anything that props him up and drags out the agony before he’s replaced would actually be against Labour’s best interests”. In fact, he helpfully added, in business terms it is like “having a company struggling on the edge of bankruptcy with a hapless chief executive” - the very first thing you do is “change the chief executive” and “trigger a recovery plan”, not “dribble money in and keep him going”. Using similar language, a Labour rightwinger told the Telegraph that “the first eleven isn’t on the pitch; it’s on the backbenches” - adding that “it is not lost on anyone” that Corbyn won partly because of a “big money campaign from the unions”.
Labour’s paradoxical nature as a bourgeois workers’ party could not have been made clearer by recent developments. When it comes to funding, we are seeing in almost chemically pure form the two wings of the party fighting it out. It is more than obvious that the capitalist wing of the party wants to dump Corbyn, but the problems facing the right are legion. For starters, as much as the right must hate it, Corbyn remains overwhelmingly popular with the party membership. According to YouGov, the Labour leader has an approval rating of 55% from Labour members and 63% say he should stay to fight the 2020 general election. Out of a long list of suggested candidates he would get 43% of first preferences, while on a shortlist of big Labour names Corbyn’s share of the vote increases to 63%.4 It is hard to argue with the maths.
Compounding the problems for the right, proposed rule changes at the party conference in September will make it a lot harder to dislodge the leader and keep out left candidates. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has drawn up draft rules for the party’s national executive committee that would see the incumbent’s name automatically placed on the ballot paper if he or she states their intention to stand in a fresh election, and also lower the nominations threshold for any potential leadership candidate from 15% to 5% of all MPs/MEPs. This means that if Corbyn stood down for some reason (say, as a result of ill-health) then any leftwing successor, anointed by the Labour leader or not, would be able to get their name on the ballot paper and therefore stand a good chance of winning the election.
The putative rule changes, tabled by the veteran CLPD secretary and NEC member, Peter Willsman, were motivated by the totally legitimate concern that if 20% of Labour MPs - the required threshold - triggered a leadership ballot, there was previously a degree of uncertainty over whether Corbyn would be allowed to put his name on the ballot. Encouragingly, Willsman also proposes changes to make it easier for the left to table motions at the Labour conference after Corbyn failed to table a contemporary motion on Trident - as well as giving affiliated organisations and party branches a greater say in the selection of Labour MPs.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, reiterated on Sky News that Corbyn had been elected on a “very large mandate” and his supporters would “not accept any attempts at a coup”. But to stand any chance at all Corbyn’s impatient assassins have to make a move in the summer, as time is running out. Yet it would almost certainly be a kamikaze operation, to which communists have no inherent objection - we would certainly enjoy seeing the right crushed and humiliated, and Corbyn winning by an even bigger margin.
Given the obviously hopeless nature of the ‘stop Corbyn’ project as currently constituted, it is clear that we are not dealing with the entire right of the party - just a particularly desperate section or faction, driven half-mad by fear and loathing. The more patient or intelligent members of the right know that to take on Corbyn now in a straight battle would be extremely foolhardy. Talking to The Guardian, one senior shadow ministerial source said “nothing has changed” - there might have been a “lot of chat among a lot of people, but there has not been a single coherent, concrete actual plan about how it could be done” (March 4). The more honest anti-Corbynites know that their leadership candidates deserved to lose, as they totally failed when it came to organisation and political inspiration - “they lost because they were shit”, as one former minister bluntly put it.5 At this point in time there is no sign of a candidate or programme around which the dissident Labour right can rally, communists are glad to report.
Therefore it does appear that the right have no choice but to play the ‘long game’, the idea being that Labour members will eventually become sympathetic to a leadership challenge, once they have seen the Corbyn experiment starting to ‘fail’. In the words of one disgruntled MP in a marginal seat: “Before people lecture me about loyalty to Jeremy, they should try selling Jeremy on the doorstep.” The game plan, such as it is, holds that constant sniping and carping - and active sabotage - are counterproductive because they actually play into Corbyn’s hands, enabling him to portray disunity from the right as a reason for Labour’s underperformance. A party divided can never win.
Communists, it almost goes without saying, defend Corbyn from the putschists on the right, whilst retaining our criticisms - whether over his nonsensical suggestion of Trident submarines without missiles or John McDonnell’s recent hogwash about “iron discipline” over day-to-day spending. We will never be simple cheerleaders or Corbynistas, but intransigent advocates of socialism and radical democracy - within the Labour Party and society as a whole.
1 . www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/22/labour-warned-to-expect-losses-in-may-local-elections.
2 . www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/feb/29/jeremy-corbyn-confident-about-mays-local-elections.
3 . www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/opinion/dan-jarvis-labour-will-only-change-if-it-becomes-a-party-of-reform-1-7770720#ixzz41wjs0iEs.
4 . https://labourlist.org/2016/02/grassroots-support-leaves-corbyns-position-secure-until-at-least-2020.
5 . www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/11/labour-rebels-jeremy-corbyn-long-game-leader.