Tails you lose, heads you lose
Whether over Brexit or Labour strategy, writes Eddie Ford, Corbyn is determined to appease the centre and the right
There is an old Irish story about someone who, when asked for directions, replies: ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start here’. This fairly accurately sums up the position Jeremy Corbyn currently finds himself in. Of course, he is partly the victim of circumstance and partly the author of his own misfortune with regards to Brexit, article 50 and the recent House of Commons rebellion. That saw 52 of his own MPs - including 17 frontbenchers, even three whips - refusing to back legislation authorising the government to trigger article 50, and this ended in yet another reshuffle.
In terms of the actual referendum, at first Corbyn had almost a boycottist attitude, in the sense that he was obviously not actively for ‘remain’ - no-one looking back at this period could honestly say that he was enthusiastically throwing his all into the issue. In some respects this was not surprising, given his historic Bennite hostility to the ‘bosses’ club’ of the European Union - most commentators, including the CPGB, had assumed that the Labour leader would default to his ideological comfort zone and back some form of Brexit.
However, coming under increased pressure from the Parliamentary Labour Party and sections of the press, he eventually changed his position, reluctantly or not, and came out for ‘remain’. Corbyn noticeably shifted up a gear when it came to participation in the campaign, becoming almost hyper-active compared to Theresa May, the invisible woman.
All of this meant, sure as night follows day, that Corbyn landed himself with a dilemma. If your political opponents go for a referendum, are you bound by the result? For example, if there was a referendum tomorrow on hanging, would you feel obliged to change your principles and now advocate hanging yourself, because, after all, ‘the people have spoken’? No, of course not, unless you are a rank opportunist or coward - you continue to oppose hanging (or Brexit). At the end of the day, at least for the CPGB, if you have a general objection to referendums anyway, and definitely to Cameron’s referendum - he called it, not us - then the idea that we should ‘respect’ it is risible.
However, it is perfectly understandable in terms of his advisors - what about all those people in our heartlands who backed Brexit? We have to vote with the Tories and the UK Independence Party to trigger article 50 - amendments or no amendments. But then, quite inevitably, you precisely end up with the Hobson’s choice situation that faced Labour MPs (especially shadow cabinet ministers) on February 8 when it came to the parliamentary vote. Where you have one MP whose constituency solidly voted ‘leave’, you have another whose constituents were clearly for ‘remain’ - you cannot get round this contradiction. Tails you lose, heads you lose.
Clearly, this pathetic psephological approach does not remotely add up to a strategic view of a fundamentally important political question. Instead of being guided by opinion polls in this or that constituency, or by a referendum result, the best thing to do from the outset is come out with a principled working class position - which is precisely why we in the CPGB called for a boycott in order to dramatise our position of ‘No to a capitalist Europe’ but ‘Yes to a workers’ Europe’. We fully favour “ever increasing union” of the European working class, not to mention the global working class. Our goal of a socialist Europe would not be promoted by calling for an exit from the EU any more than agitating for the ‘break-up’ of the UK - but the CPGB was not prepared to back Cameron or save his bacon, nor defend the status quo. Communists do not prettify the existing EU, which, just like the UK state, is an instrument of the ruling class - we have no illusions in either.
Instead, we want working class unity - that is our programme regardless of the result in a referendum or any particular constituency. Yes, we readily recognise that sometimes you have to engage in tactical manoeuvring or form temporary alliances of mutual convenience, but you do not abandon principles or fashion your principles according to narrow electoral advantage. But that would be news to the Labour right and increasingly, it seems, for the radical and Corbynite left.
Of course, Corbyn’s insistence on a three-line whip in favour of triggering article 50 led to a rash of resignations. He felt obliged to undertake his fourth cabinet reshuffle since becoming party leader - now becoming something of a habit. This means that more than a third of Labour MPs have served in Corbyn’s shadow team since he became leader in September 2015, and the party is saying that the gaps in more junior frontbench roles created by the reshuffle would be filled “in due course”.
And now there are more rumours of a potential leadership challenge to Corbyn, confronted by consistently abysmal opinion polls. A ComRes poll had Labour trailing the Tories by 26% to 41% and, worst of all, Theresa May has a net favourability rating of 9% compared with minus 33% for the Labour leader.1 Increasing the agony, the Labour bureaucracy was forced to deny that it had been “road testing” possible Corbyn successors when TheSunday Times obtained a leaked copy of polling carried out by BMG Research to examine voters’ reactions in the north of England to Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner as potential leaders.
Of course, the name Clive Lewis keeps cropping up in all the intense media speculation about a possible challenge. Naturally enough, he has totally dismissed the notion - bluntly stating: “You can quote me on this. It is total bollocks”. Any talk that he was preparing to challenge Corbyn, he went on, was part of a “game of fantasy politics in Westminster” and “nothing could be further from my mind”. Rightly or wrongly, some of our more cynically-minded readers might take that as virtual confirmation that Lewis is thinking of having a go for the job. Meanwhile, Tom Watson, the deputy leader, popped up on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show to deny that the party was vetting potential leadership successors - “it wasn’t road-testing leadership candidates”, he informed the audience. Rather “there was a range of shadow cabinet members that were so-called road tested”, which is “what we do in our normal run of political consultations”. He went on to declare that Corbyn got a “second mandate” from party members last year and is now the “established” leader of the party - though, of course, Corbyn “has to improve” his terrible poll ratings, something that “he’s well aware of”.
As it happens, the chances of another leadership challenge any time soon seem highly unlikely - even if the contender is Clive Lewis or the new star, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Corbyn would be expected to win again, so why be a lemming and stand? Most rightwing MPs are prepared to live with Corbyn for the time being. They may not like him politically, but standing against him for the third time, or constantly bad-mouthing him to the media, could undermine their own positions vis-à-vis a general election - they could even lose their jobs, for heaven’s sake. Much better, goes the calculation, to keep quiet and not rock the boat too much - you might keep your job and then Corbyn goes following a drubbing at the general election. Ideal result. Tails you win, heads you win.
Just as with Europe, what is clear is that the leader’s strategy for Labour - insofar as he has one - is fundamentally lacking. Remember the leak from Corbyn’s office of Seamus Milne’s infamous - though in some ways rather impressive - spread-sheet that ranked Labour MPs according to their loyalty to Corbyn?2 This saw them classified into various categories like “core group”, “core group plus”, “neutral but not hostile”, “core group negative”, “hostile”, and so on.3 The idea being, of course, you should try to appeal to the middle, or centre, and also try to win over a few on the right as well. Therefore, you shape your entire politics towards these people, emphasising ‘bread and butter’ issues and stay well away from anything controversial or difficult: you do not bang on about Trident and you certainly do not even mention the monarchy. Stick with the NHS and this will do the job.
Well, putting it very mildly, the plan has been less than successful so far. The fact of the matter, at least with members of Momentum, and for that matter Labour’s rank and file, is that if Corbyn had gone to the left then the vast majority would have been enthused: they would have stayed on board and on-message. Raising questions like the nationalisation of the banks, republicanism and championing a new, socialist, clause four - or even following various US states and advocating the legalisation of cannabis - would not have led to mass resignations. Quite the opposite: it would have energised existing members and attracted new ones. Yes, the PLP would be up in arms about ‘crazy politics’, but the mass of Labour supporters would be enthused. It is worth noting that Benoît Hamon, the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in France, has included ‘crazy’ calls for the legalisation of cannabis as part of his political platform.
We need radical politics that will inspire people and give us a chance of transforming the Labour Party. But Corbyn is so determined to appease the centre and the right that he has backtracked on basic issues, such as automatic reselection - something supported by most of the left. The same goes even when it comes to longstanding issues like Zionism. The Jeremy Corbyn of 1984 backed a motion to disaffiliate Poale Zion (precursor to the Jewish Labour Movement) from the Labour Party, but the Jeremy Corbyn of 2016 gives an embarrassing speech to Labour Friends of Israel.4 Even when Al Jazeera broke the story about the Jerusalem-directed machinations of Zionist groups such as LFI, we heard absolutely nothing from Corbyn. And what about the cynical ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign conducted by the Labour right? A deafening silence. But ‘party unity’ demands nothing else.
Unless he drastically reorientates his political approach, Jeremy Corbyn’s congenital conciliationism could well be his undoing.