Victory and retreat
Despite the talk about ‘wiping the slate clean’, Jim Grant of Labour Party Marxists expects the war to continue
So the inevitable came to pass: Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected leader of the Labour Party. By the last week of the campaign, even Owen Smith was talking about it basically in the past tense; he had been beaten, fair and square - or, rather, beaten despite the most strenuous efforts among his supporters and compromised elements of the party apparatus to rig the game in his favour.
It is, to be sure, the end of something - possibly the most ham-fisted attempt at a political defenestration in modern political history. There are recent contenders, of course - one thinks of Matthew Oakeshott’s catastrophic coup attempt against Nick Clegg towards the end of the last parliament, which succeeded only in speeding his exit from the yellow benches (and nearly in sacrificing his friend, Vince Cable). That coup, however, was at least launched and botched within a week; then it was over, and Oakeshott got on with his life (Wikipedia tells us he was later spotted in a red rosette on some campaign trail or other).
Three months, now, have passed since the referendum result deployed as the plotters’ shabby pretext; two weeks less than that since it became clear that Corbyn would not voluntarily resign. At the end of all that, with every dirty trick in the book deployed, smears cast around like machine-gun fire, what have they to show for it? That’s right - a weaker position vis-à-vis the Corbynites. Worse: there has never been a moment during the contest proper when a crushing victory for Corbyn looked less than inevitable. The right has essentially spent the last month and a half or more parading its impotence and moral turpitude before the nation.
This is hardly lost on those queuing up to conduct the autopsy of the Labour right’s dead-duck coup - we were amused to find some analysis from William Hague in The DailyTelegraph, who believed that the coup “was launched too soon. In the Conservative Party, where the overthrow of leaders is an art form nurtured and treasured over two centuries, we would never have made this error” (September 27).
Burying the hatchet
For Hague, then, the problem is partly a matter of training: Labour rightwingers are essentially lightweights. When they have a whole apparatus behind them to bludgeon them through a selection meeting, they’re golden; but, left to their own devices with a backstabbing to organise, they come up spectacularly short. So we end up almost back to square one: a Labour conference - of (essentially) two Labour Parties - tiring rapidly of sharing the same body.
For now, of course, the talk is for the cameras, and is of peace. Before the formal announcement of his victory, Corbyn told the BBC’s awful Laura Kuenssberg that it was time to “wipe the slate clean and move on”, and such has been the tone from his quarter ever since. So, for now, is it among the more sensible rightwingers - after all, what else can they do, having been whipped like a red-headed mule for the second time in a year? Stephen Kinnock, Sadiq Khan and others are on message (barely): we need to concentrate on beating the Tories in the next election! Those who made the most unambiguously Braveheartish war-cries over the summer (Alan Johnson, say) are mostly choosing circumspection.
There is the exception of Peter Mandelson, who now welcomes an early election - and presumably a Labour defeat - “so we can deal with the awful situation in the Labour Party earlier than 2020” (The Times September 27). Mandelson is likely a better representative of the actual underlying temper of the right, but most of them have their precious careers to consider. So we have before us the rather ridiculous dance of both the leadership and the right making peace offerings that, upon closer examination, are merely, as the saying goes, war by other means.
Stephen Kinnock, for one, believes that Labour can win the next election - provided, of course, that the parliamentary party is granted the right to elect the shadow cabinet. That has been the constant refrain. It is only fair, apparently, to grant all power to the losing side in a leadership election, provided the right is the losing side, otherwise the leadership (as Tony Blair’s notoriously intolerant operation demonstrated) shall decide absolutely everything. Clear? I hope so.
The leadership, of course, is perfectly happy to discuss the composition of the shadow cabinet, but not in those terms. The idea has been floated of a tripartite structure - a third elected by the PLP, a third by ordinary members, and a third chosen by the leader. It has all the appearance of a compromise, but, of course, an unacceptable compromise is no compromise at all, and the idea amounts - under current conditions - to a two-thirds majority for Corbyn. Moreover: who gets to choose who is shadow home secretary, and who gets the much coveted mental health portfolio?
The two sides are deadlocked on this point, as I write; but a big old pile of rule changes have gone through conference already, including - it is fair enough to say - something for each side. For the left, there is the ‘clarification’ that an incumbent leader is automatically on the ballot in the case of a challenge; for the right, there is the addition of representatives of the Scottish and Welsh Labour leaders to the national executive committee, which for the time being gives the balance of power on that body to the right. That, to put it mildly, is unfortunate - we direly need an NEC that will take on those parts of the Labour apparatus that are plainly the factional property of the right (first and foremost, the Orwellian compliance unit). It would be good if our Celtic comrades could find the time to redress the balance …
For a demonstration of the ridiculous logic of the pseudo-truce, we need look no further than the problem of Trident, as it has farcically surfaced at conference.
The shadow defence minister - for the time being - is Clive Lewis, who is (necessarily, given the past few weeks) close to the leadership. He has been rather left in the lurch, however: for a planned announcement that Labour would not abandon its support (or non-opposition) to Trident renewal was apparently pulled at the last minute from his speech, and then (of course) readmitted to the formal policy agenda after the whole thing was inevitably leaked to the press amid dark murmurings about the Stalinist games of press officer Seumas Milne. We rather suspect that things have been blown out of all proportion, so far as the competence issue goes (a lot of people are treading very carefully at the moment, with the concomitant last-minute changes of heart), but the political issue bears a little more examination.
At first glance, it seems like a wholesale retreat. Indeed, from our point of view, it is scandalous, and the symbolic value of the Trident issue makes the whole thing worse. But look at what is actually being offered here - basically, the redefinition of nuclear weaponry as a matter of ‘conscience’, on which the party shall not impose its official view. That formal position was not challenged at this conference, true. Yet Corbyn and McDonnell (and - who knows? - Clive Lewis) have reserved for themselves the right to speak like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament members they are. This is a sell-out, but it is a sell-out that has already been made - over Syria last year, for example, when a licence to betray was granted to Hillary Benn and ‘Saint’ Jo Cox. Will the right be satisfied with a formal position in favour of Trident renewal, when the leadership of the party continues to vocally oppose it? We doubt it.
So, with neither side giving in enough to resolve matters - yet - we must ask, again, what path forward for the vanquished?
Hague offers some advice, which is not uninteresting. First of all, the right must get organised, forming “a party within a party”. So far, so typical. Hague has slightly higher sights, however:
… they need leaders and a philosophy. No political movement can succeed without those two attributes … Such leaders need to write the books, pen the pamphlets and make the big speeches that show there is some point in being a moderate, centre-left leader. They need to say what they would do about combining the benefits of globalisation with looking after the people who can miss out on its riches.
The plan should be to oust Corbyn in 2018, when “he will be tired”, and if that fails then,
yes, they should be prepared to launch a new political party. Haunted by the failure of the SDP in the 1980s, this is anathema to them. But this is 30 years on, and voters are more flexible about change than they were then, just as the position inside Labour is even worse.
We draw attention to Hague’s comments not because they are exceptional; indeed, they must touch on the dilemma for many Labour rightists. Where is the ‘vision thing’, brothers and sisters? What are you all for, besides feathering your own nests and restricting any and all political horizons to what is acceptable to a rampant City?
In truth, it might actually be in our interests for the right to follow Hague’s advice. A right that was organised in a “party within a party” - anti-democrat-speak for a faction - would at least give its opponents the advantage, as we have had with Progress over the years, of being able to point and say, ‘Look, there the bastards are.’ A right with some sort of theory and substance to it might provoke the left into upping its intellectual game - or at least would strengthen the hand of those of us who think it must anyway. A contest over ideas is preferable, in general, to a contest over fatuous soundbites and slivers of bureaucratic territory. And a split of the right - a split! Oh happy day …
The latter, alas, will not happen (certainly, not on a large enough scale to make much difference to the maths): for it would be a walk into oblivion for any who dared. As Hague notes, the Social Democratic Party experience is pertinent for most of the would-be splitters, but at least the SDP could be absorbed into a then resurgent Liberal Party. “Voters are more flexible about change,” he blithely reassures potential splitters; one thing no more ‘flexible’ than it was in the mid-1980s, however, is the electoral system, thanks in some part to Hague himself. He was part of a Tory front bench that fought tooth and nail against even the modest change of an alternative vote system in 2011 (at a time, admittedly, when an electoral system that would tend to produce more Liberal Democrat MPs was a hard sell to the electorate).
No, comrades: this one is set to run and run.