Don’t demand an election
The main task is to transform Labour into a party that can form a genuine workers’ government, argues Peter Manson
On August 1, BBC television’s Newsnight programme featured the thoughts of some (undisclosed) members of the Parliamentary Labour Party on how to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn.
As this paper has spelled out, all the options of the Labour right are looking shaky in the extreme. The PLP majority, together with the party’s top bureaucrats, have been attempting to depose Corbyn by fair means and foul. As everyone knows, the national executive committee decided last month (after Corbyn himself, together with a couple of allies, had left the NEC meeting) to allow a mere two days for people to register as Labour supporters and to charge them £25 (as opposed to £3 for last year’s leadership election) to be able to vote.
Since the June 23 European Union referendum, no fewer than 130,000 have signed up as full Labour members, but, of course, that did not allow them to be able to vote as such - the NEC also decided that only those who had joined by January 12 of this year would qualify. The right suspected (correctly) that the overwhelming majority of both new members and registered supporters would cast their vote for Corbyn, which is why it did all in its power to limit their numbers.
But to no avail. No fewer than 183,000 people paid their £25 last week to sign up as Labour supporters during that 48-hour window - no doubt a good proportion of them were actual members who had joined after the January cut-off. True, according to various sources, it seems that some 40,000 of these £25 supporters are being investigated - some do not appear on the electoral register, their payments bounced or some may have previously supported a candidate for another party (if that candidate was a Conservative or Liberal Democrat, then apparently there is no problem, but if they were someone considered to be to Labour’s left ...). However, that still leaves 140,000 more, most of whom will surely vote for Corbyn rather than his PLP challenger, Owen Smith.
Readers will also know that a section of the right was hoping that their legal challenge would result in Corbyn being barred from standing - on the grounds that the need to gain the requisite number of nominations from MPs ought to apply to the incumbent as well as any challenger. But the application - made by former parliamentary candidate and party donor Michael Foster - was contemptuously dismissed by the high court on July 28.
So, assuming a Corbyn victory, what next for the right? There has been talk of a PLP breakaway declaring itself to be the official opposition - reducing the official Labour Party to a rump of 40-50 members and even demanding that it be recognised as the genuine article, with the right to ownership of the Labour name. However, it seems to this writer that the likelihood of such a legal challenge being successful is even more remote than was Michael Foster’s.
All of which takes us back to the August 1 Newsnight programme. According to the BBC’s sources, some sections of the right are now banking on an early general election. Not in the expectation of a Labour victory - precisely the opposite. The Labour Party is now clearly in such disarray, there is a widespread belief that a snap election would see the Conservatives re-elected with a huge majority - very likely their biggest ever victory margin. That is because there are now clearly two Labour Parties, with the PLP having backed by 172 votes to 40 a motion of no confidence in their leader on June 28.
Of course, the right pretends that its main disagreement with Jeremy Corbyn is not over his political platform - after all, Owen Smith himself has adopted a raft of left-sounding policies, ranging from a wealth tax to support for trade union rights - but over Corbyn’s alleged lack of leadership qualities. He did not campaign with any enthusiasm at all for a ‘remain’ vote on June 23; he does not know how to handle the media or even present himself. This week the rightwing press had been claiming that Corbyn is “scared” of a TV debate with Smith, because he declined an invitation to appear on a Channel Four programme with his rival - even though a spokesman for the leader said, “Jeremy will definitely participate in broadcast debates” (the party itself will decide where and when they take place).
But despite Corbyn’s ‘poor media presence’ the right knows as well as the rest of us that Smith is in for a drubbing. So some are looking to Tory leader Theresa May to help out. By the calculations of PLP rightwingers the biggest ever Conservative victory would be a price well worth paying if it results in the departure of Corbyn. After all, it has now become something of a convention that the leader of the opposition throws in the towel following a general election defeat - all the more so if he loses by a landslide. And in fact shadow chancellor John McDonnell has promised that he would resign immediately if Labour fails to win the next election, surely making his leader’s position untenable.
The calculation of the right is that, if May were to call a general election within the next six months or so, almost all of the PLP right would remain as official Labour candidates, as no reselection process would be possible in such a short time. A good proportion of its number would be sacrificed on polling day, but the remaining caucus would elect a new, ‘responsible’ leader, who would help marginalise the left once more and bring the party back into ‘good shape’ in time for the following general election. As for the current MPs who would lose their seats, well, sorry about all those promising careers cut short, but what else can we do?
For such an early general election to take place ahead of the fixed five-year term, it would have to be agreed by two-thirds of MPs - a target easily surpassed by the Tories and PLP right together. Either that or the Tories could repeal the fixed-term legislation - for which only a simple majority would be required. And it has to be said that, despite prime minister May’s denials, this option must be very tempting for the Tories - strike now and they will have an overwhelming majority for the next five years.
If it is true that the Labour right is prepared to cooperate in that endeavour, it underlines the extraordinary position the party is now in - and the desperate lengths to which the right is prepared to go to regain control.
And that, of course, makes it all the more foolish for sections of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, to add to the calls for a ‘general election now’, in the belief that Corbyn’s policies - opposition to Trident, an end to austerity, support for renationalisation of the rail, etc - are just so popular that Labour would be elected and at last we would be rid of the Tories! Firstly, while it is true that such policies strike a chord with many people, that does not add up to a parliamentary majority. But, secondly and more importantly, the current, deeply divided state of Labour can hardly help its chances.
How would it campaign in the event of a snap election? As a united force, with the right pretending to stand shoulder to shoulder with Labour’s newly re-elected leader? Even though he has been damned as not having the confidence of the vast majority of his MPs?
What we need is a worthwhile Labour government - one that enjoys overwhelming support from its MPs for a comprehensive programme for working class rule. It goes without saying that we are some way from such a situation, which would require the defeat of the Labour right. That is the task that faces us now, not imagining that we are just about to sweep the Tories from office.