Chuka Umunna: irreconcilable Blairite

Now let’s crush the Blairites

There is a greater opportunity than ever to break the grip of the right, argues Paul Demarty

Since the Brexit vote, it has become increasingly difficult to define what ‘business as usual’ looks like in the British context.

Whatever it is, the present post-election situation is certainly not it, with its prominent roles for the bigoted fundamentalists of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose only fear greater than a united Ireland is an Ireland divided by a ‘hard’ border, and the reduction of the Tory government to a parody of its august role in the nation’s politics. Not the least of these incongruities is Jeremy Corbyn, whose great-escape act last month had the effect of silencing his critics (barring some petulant, pro forma sneering in the humiliated Daily Mail) and propelling his supporters into new ecstasies of adulation (on this point, see Peter Manson’s report of the July 1 demonstration elsewhere in this issue).

Within Labour Party politics, it seemed that only Chris Leslie was able, in the immediate aftermath of the election, to express disappointment at Labour’s defeat - a defeat it certainly was in the narrow technical sense that Corbyn is not currently prime minister, but Leslie’s sullen intervention demonstrates only that his Blairism has left him utterly disconnected from the reality around him.

Since then, there have been some signs of revival from such quarters, if only in the matter of chutzpah. The attempt of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy to increase the number of CLP representatives on the national executive committee and reduce or even eliminate the threshold of nominations needed for a Labour MP to stand for leader have been characterised by some of the press, in suitable silly-season fashion, as a bid to make Jeremy into a “supreme leader”. Even George Osborne was able to take a few minutes out from lusting after Theresa May’s blood to run with this weak-tea scaremongering.

In the opposition benches, there was also the rather bizarre spectacle of Chuka Umunna’s decision to move a wrecking amendment to the queen’s speech that would have committed the government to maintaining Britain’s membership of the single market. Unsurprisingly it was defeated, though not before attracting the votes of 49 other members of the PLP.

It is odd to think back to the autumn of 2015, when 66 Labour MPs defied the whip to support David Cameron’s token bombing campaign in Syria - including Umunna and the late St Jo of Cox - and were greeted with the most nauseating display of media fawning. Hillary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, was compared to Churchill and Bevan, so extraordinary were his powers of rhetoric. Not a finger was laid on him. How different things are this time around! Slightly fewer MPs defied the whip; the response in the media at large was basically one of bafflement (on top of which, even those papers committed to a ‘remainer’ outlook are shamed into silence); and three shadow cabinet ministers who backed the amendment were promptly sacked. So much for Blairism’s crack suicide squad.

In the swamp

That these follies have come to nought in the current situation is no kind of a surprise. Opinion polls currently put Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings marginally above Theresa May’s, his surprisingly high and hers surprisingly low, given their respective standing a mere six weeks ago. This reversal is his achievement and her failure - not wholly, but the individual contributions are real, and moreover amplified in a society ingrained with ideological individualism.

The immediate consequence was a great and theatrical display of ‘party unity’ in Labour’s ranks. Corbyn had not won the election, but those who declared that victory was unimaginable under his leadership had been all but proven wrong. There were thus negative and positive reasons for this love-in. The negative reason is plain: the remaining moral authority of the Blairite ‘resistance’ within the party was severely damaged, and the fear of the rightwing press, who now appeared to be mere paper tigers, was greatly mitigated.

The positive reason is a little more subtle. The Parliamentary Labour Party, and other parts of its machinery, are not composed entirely of a small group of leftwingers, on the one hand, and a vast mass of irreconcilably hostile rightists, on the other. Between them there is a vast swamp - the soggy centre. Let us examine the creatures who dwell in that swamp. Some are middle class careerists - what did they want to be when they grew up? Successful, sure - but they did not just want to be hedge fund managers or lawyers or whatever. They wanted to ‘make a difference’. Others (a shrinking number, in all honesty) graduated from trade union officialdom, where they would not shrink, no doubt, from making compromises if it suited ‘their members’, and developed a distaste for the highfalutin, studenty idealism of the left, but would hardly have taken Blair’s naked contempt for the union movement well.

We could go on, through the student unions and the councillors and so on, but the point is that the motivations of vacillating elements are by definition complex. For this sort of ‘mainstream’ Labour representative or functionary, the point is to ‘get into power’, because only from there can you ‘make a difference’, and the constraints imposed by the compromises necessary on the road to power are objective constraints, a necessary part of the whole business.

This focus on government at all costs is held in common with the left and right. But the latter two forces have relatively coherent solutions to the dilemma of government - the left takes the view that we must get ‘back to basics’ and reconnect with Labour’s natural core support by taking clearer leftwing positions; whereas for the right junking ever more of such principles is a principle in itself, and only parties overtly committed to the market and imperialism shall obtain or even deserve the support of the electorate (‘modernisation’ was the Blairite euphemism for such a position).

Both wings focus strategically on bringing the centre on board and, since the 1983 election, the right has had all the success in this regard. By poetic happenstance, that period coincides completely with Corbyn’s parliamentary tenure; his election as leader did not really change this, but instead created an alternative power base in the form of a new mass membership, with Labour’s ranks trebling in number since its late-aughts nadir (you could say, after Brecht, that Blair dissolved the party and Corbyn elected another). In the last few weeks, however, the rightwing argument has been denuded of much of its force. Parts of the soggy centre are beginning to believe - and other parts are at least better reconciled to the idea - that Corbyn is as good a leader as any other.

War of manoeuvre

The absence of war is not peace, and the absence of gunfire is not the absence of war.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, the right wing of the Labour establishment was emboldened to pursue a coup, and was able to carry its less true-believing comrades of the centre with it. This time around, there is barely any appetite for such an escapade, except among those whose humiliation is so complete that they are prepared to hunker down in deep resistance. Why attack the enemy when he is strong?

Instead, we are out of the immediate heat of battle, and into a different situation - that of strategic manoeuvres. Those around Corbyn - even those collapsing to the right, like Paul Mason - feel emboldened to take on their enemies. The sacking of the shadow cabinet rebels is a clear and welcome sign of a new hardness towards those guilty of overt sabotage.

Wiser heads on the right are preparing for their long march to Shaanxi, withdrawing from overt criticism of the leadership and instead pursuing their political commitment to imperialism through other means. The idea is persistently floated of the pursuit of a cross-party, non-partisan effort to ‘deal with’ Brexit (by which, one assumes, many mean ‘get rid of’). The national interest must be put ahead of party interests - doing the reverse, in such a view, is the great sin of Theresa May, as she weakly wobbles from one crisis to the next.

There is also the small matter of internal Labour politics. Party conference is scheduled for September, and all sorts of juicy items might be taken onto the agenda. We have mentioned the CLPD’s efforts, of which there will surely be others; meanwhile, Labour First - Luke Akehurst’s shadowy outfit - is pursuing a quest to add two more seats for councillors to the national executive committee, who would very likely be from the right. LF’s rhetoric is the very picture of Christian humility at the moment, but, of course, the real game is to grab as many delegates as possible, to hold the fort for just a little longer in the party bureaucracy.

The danger in this situation for the left, however, is not that the plotting of the right shall not be recognised as such, but that the support of the centre is taken for granted, or in anyway overstated. In reality, it is entirely conditional on Corbyn’s continued strong standing in wider society, which seems all but impregnable today, but may not be a month or two from now, never mind a year. We should not expect Corbyn and his immediate circle, who have been engaged in trying to build an alliance with the centre for decades, to recognise this danger, at exactly the moment that it appears to be working - it is up to the rest of us to fight for what is needed, not what vacillating careerists can stomach.

That means, yes, stronger representation of members leadership. But much more needs to be done. The Welsh and Scottish NEC members ought to be elected by the members in Wales and Scotland, the shadowy compliance unit must be swept away, the sovereignty of conference must be restored, new trade union affiliates won and, of course, the PLP has to be made into the servants of the rest of us. This can only be done through some form of mandatory reselection, and, while we note with some satisfaction that a version of the same is also rumoured to be on the conference menu, we must be under no illusions - without serious pressure and careful organisation from the left, this will be the very first thing given up when the time comes to stitch up a deal. There is a greater opportunity than ever to break the grip of the right for good. Let us not squander the advantage.