Scorched earth and statesmen
Mike Macnair looks at the continued efforts of the Labour right to procure an electoral defeat
Last week there was a 24-hour flurry of interest when Tory MPs, ‘remainer’ rebel Anna Soubry and ‘grandee’ Nicholas Soames, separately called for the formation of a ‘government of national unity’ (GNU) to deal with Brexit. Accusing the Labour shadow cabinet of being Trots, she “personally would abandon the Labour front bench and I would reach beyond it”, to include “‘eminently sensible’ Labour backbenchers” and “Plaid Cymru, the SNP and other sensible pragmatic people, who believe in putting this country’s interests first and foremost”.1
Commentators in the broadsheets were quick to rubbish the idea.2 And this week a quick look shows that petition.parliament.uk on July 18 rejected a petition for a GNU on the ground that there was an existing petition on the same issue. That petition has received ... 20 signatures, as of July 24. Evidently the idea is not greatly exciting the public.
Meanwhile, however, talk has continued about a split in the Labour Party. Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats is allegedly threatened with a leadership contest, due to his missing a Brexit vote on the ‘customs union’ on July 16. This vote was so tight that the Tory chief whip urged cheating on ‘pairing’ arrangements,3 so that the absence of both Cable and Tim Farron was rather notable. Cable’s excuse is that he was engaged in confidential discussions about the possibility of a new centrist party.4
Also on July 18, Barrow MP John Woodcock resigned from the Labour Party to sit as an independent, issuing a resounding attack on the supposed takeover of the party by the ‘hard left’.5 His case is inevitably weakened by the local party’s request to Labour HQ to start reselection proceedings,6 and by the context of “#MeToo” allegations against him about inappropriate text messages to a female aide. Woodcock in his resignation letter says that the procedure used against him on these is unfair. This last claim is almost certainly true: the Labour Party’s disciplinary procedures are clearly in violation of the principles of natural justice. But it is stunningly hypocritical, since, like the rest of the Labour right, Woodcock demands that the principles of natural justice should not apply to allegations of anti-Semitism.
This, of course, brings us to Margaret Hodge’s decision on July 19 to bring the campaign of defamation about anti-Semitism home to its actual target: Jeremy Corbyn.7 Together with her July 22 reaffirmation of her position, the right have demanded that Corbyn staffer Seamus Milne retract his criticisms of the Israeli state.8
Until now, this campaign of defamation has been careful to target lesser figures (with the exception of the right’s most famous hate-figure, Ken Livingstone), creating a temptation for Corbyn and his immediate allies to throw people to the wolves in the hope of neutralising the issue. The Labour leadership has succumbed to this temptation. Now the wolves, undistracted, are catching up with the troika - as must have been planned all along.
Hodge now faces disciplinary proceedings herself - which, if the accusations are upheld, will be a convenient excuse for a split. Meanwhile, on Monday, the Parliamentary Labour Party took a preliminary vote to adopt the so-called ‘full’ IHRA definition of anti-Semitism - which inter alia, by prohibiting comparisons between Israeli state policies and the Nazis, would make the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz an organ of ‘anti-Semitism’ (a view held, in fact, by some Netanyahu supporters ...).9 The issue will now go to a ballot of Labour MPs. Again, what is involved is not an immediate split, but a threat of a split in the short term.
In reality, the probability of a new centre party is low. Recent polls have shown the Chequers Brexit proposals and the resulting resignations leading to a sharp drop in Tory support, but no significant rise for the Lib Dems; rather, the corpse of Ukip has temporarily risen from the grave, and Labour has a poll lead. The YouGov poll for The Times (July 18) shows 41% for Labour (+2%), 36% for the Tories (-1%), 9% for the Lib Dems (-1%) and 8% for Ukip (+1% - reaffirming an increase in its support found in earlier polls).10
On July 22, YouGov (again for The Times) found 38% would support a new rightwing Brexiteer party, 24% a new far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party (like the Hungarian Fidesz); 33% would consider backing a new anti-Brexit centre party - down from 49% on April 21.11 All these figures are almost certainly journos’ fantasies converted into questions for pollsters - spun to suggest more support than actually exists for one or another ‘new party’.
On the other hand, it is clear that the Labour right has never given up on its campaign to get rid of Corbyn and win back control of the party, so Labour’s significant lead in the polls is a disaster for this political trend. It thus galvanises them into ‘media spectaculars’ - talk of a new centre party, Woodcock’s resignation, Hodge’s anti-Semitism slander, the PLP initiative to prohibit anti-Zionism ...
These initiatives are all designed in the last analysis to restore the Tory lead in the polls - with the eventual aim of another coup against Corbyn. The prohibition of anti-Zionism is merely code for prohibiting criticism of US policy in the Middle East, on the ground that (for example) the Iranian regime is said to pose an “existential threat” to Israel.12 If that is the case, then opposing the bombing of Iran must be ‘anti-Semitic’.
It is, in fact, likely that that if the Labour right actually succeeded in getting rid of Corbyn and his allies, the party’s standing in the polls would fall. The Tories attempted last year to run a Brexiteer-populist campaign which targeted ‘leave’ voters in northern and Midlands Labour constituencies. This approach failed - partly because, in spite of the timid manifesto, the smears against Corbyn led voters to think Labour was returning to its roots; and partly because the Labour leadership round Corbyn has carefully avoided committing itself to ‘remain’.
Brexiteer-populism is still a ‘live’ Tory policy: witness the (alleged) boost to NHS funding announced in June, the suggestion that the government would give back a little security to private rented tenants announced on July 1, and the latest public-sector pay announcements13 - all clearly intended to defuse the Labour Party’s appeal to voters on health and wages. A return to Labour right leadership and an explicitly pro-‘remain’ policy would open the door to the Tories running a Brexiteer-populist campaign against Labour as representing the metropolitan elites against the working class - this time successfully.
There is a cynical interpretation of this stuff, which is to say that it is a ‘scorched earth’ policy. This military policy - rendered obsolete by modern military supply techniques - consists of devastating your own country, as you retreat, in the hope that the invaders will starve as they advance. The political equivalent here would be for the Labour right to take the view that it would rather destroy the Labour Party than see it fall into the hands of the left.
This is not a completely implausible story. The Parliamentary Labour Party(PLP) consists, after all, of career politicians and ‘realists’. And, as such, they may recognise that, even though they owe their election to claims to represent the working class, their actual sponsors are in the capitalist class, through media and lobbying operations.
The capitalist class does not, in general, rule by direct participation in politics. Active business leaders are not like aristocratic rentiers, whose claim to their rents is based on their role as a governing class. Business leaders are too busy making money (and making money in competitive markets is the basis of the social legitimacy of their wealth and status). They act through agents - meaning lawyers, lobbyists and ‘professional’ politicians - and they tend to put more effort into blocking policies perceived as threatening than into steering policies positively.
The PLP are professional politicians - which means that they are committed to being open to business sponsorship and business lobbying operations. They displayed as much under the Blair and Brown administrations.14 If Labour ceased to be open to business control in this way, they might well share the view that it should also cease to exist.
The disadvantage of this view is that the upshot is likely to be fatal to these politicians’ individual careers. It is, of course, true that Tony Blair has been munificently rewarded for services rendered as Labour leader and prime minister. Lesser figures are unlikely to attract so much - or even to be selected as Conservative or Lib Dem candidates after they have wrecked the Labour Party.
A better explanation is that members of the Labour right have deceived themselves into the belief that they are doing the ‘statesmanlike’ thing for the benefit of the country as a whole. There must, of course, be an element of simple self-deceit by repetition of the unfounded claim that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, in order more effectively to persuade others of the lie (as ‘evolutionary psychologist’ Robert Trivers has suggested15). But there is a larger pair of repeated media narratives that Labour rightists may ‘buy into’, which may persuade them that defeating Corbyn, even at the cost of destroying the Labour Party and their own careers, might be the ‘statesmanlike’ thing to do.
The first is the Brexit issue. The complaint that a ‘responsible’ Labour Party leadership would be explicitly pro-‘remain’ and overtly fight against Brexit has been incessant in the liberal press (The Guardian, The Independent), in the Tory, but more or less pro-‘remain’ The Times, and in BBC coverage of the issue. Clearly a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be a very bad idea for British capital (unless this caused the European Union itself to break up). But what looks more likely (and the basis of May’s Chequers proposal) is some sort of ‘Norway’ or analogous deal, in which Britain retains single market access from outside the EU by accepting binding rules - very undemocratic, and potentially disastrous in future if the EU changed the rules adversely to British interests, but not in itself immediately disastrous to business interests.
The second is a widespread view among capitalists that a Corbyn government would be a worse threat to ‘business’ than Brexit.16 This is odd, given, on the one hand, the (realistic) blood-curdling threats being issued about the possible consequences of Brexit; and, on the other, the extremely timid quality of the proposals in Labour’s 2017 manifesto and in Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s policy speeches.
In reality, however, it is not stupid. Corbyn became Labour leader because an accident gave the large element of the working class opposed to neoliberalism, which has been denied any political voice since the 1990s, an opportunity to speak. Hence, no matter how responsible Corbyn and his close advisors are willing to be, if a Corbyn-led Labour government was elected, this class would see it as legitimising an offensive over wages, job conditions, housing, and so on.
The ‘statesmanlike’ thing to do, then, would be both, if possible to secure the defeat of the Brexiteers and definitely to secure the defeat of Corbyn by one means or another. Some on the left are tempted by such ideas - the Alliance for Workers’ Liberalism effectively promotes both ‘remainism’ and the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt.
Anyone tempted should contemplate the ‘statesmanship’ of Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown and co in 2014 and its consequences. They swung the vote for ‘no’ to Scots independence - and on the morning after the referendum David Cameron knifed them in the back by proposing English nationalist ‘reforms’. The result was to wreck the Labour Party in Scotland, hand the Scottish National Party a landslide victory north of the border in 2015, and give Cameron a (slim) majority at Westminster. Labour so discredited itself that Scots Toryism has revived from its previous marginality.
The equivalent in England would be to hand over Labour ‘leave’ constituencies - probably not to Ukip, but to some new further-right populist-Bonapartist formation. The ‘anti-Semitism’ campaigners would then have been exposed as promoting not only the destruction of the Labour Party and the limited political representation of the working class it allows, but also the parliamentary representation of real racists and anti-Semites. Some statesmanship.
1. The Sun July 18; Politics Home July 18.
2. ‘A national unity government? A second referendum is more likely’ The Guardian July 18; ‘A government of national unity? Forget it’ The Times July 19; ‘A national unity government to tackle Brexit? Don’t make me laugh’ The Daily Telegraph July 19.
3. ‘Theresa May supports the chief whip at the centre of “pairing” cheat claims’ The Sun July 21.
4. ‘Sir Vince Cable slams “ridiculous” claims his Lib Dem leadership is under threat’ LBC Radio July 23: www.lbc.co.uk/radio/presenters/tom-swarbrick/sir-vince-cable-slams-leadership-question; ‘Sir Vince Cable “made mistake” in missing Brexit vote’ BBC News July 22: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-44917347.
5. ‘MP John Woodcock quits Labour with attack on “hard left”’ BBC News July 18: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-44871628.
6. ‘Barrow MP “saddened” by email plot to oust him’ NorthWest Evening Mail July 18.
7. ‘Hodge stands by comments accusing Corbyn of antisemitism’ Guardian July 23.
8. ‘Corbyn aide Seumas Milne told to take back his attacks on Israel’ The Times July 23.
9. ‘Showdown averted as Labour MPs defer vote on antisemitism rules’ The Guardian July 23. Ha’aretz: see, for example, www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/216179.
10. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/, July 17.
11. https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/brexit-deadlock-majority-of-voters-would-now-vote-for-a-new-party; www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-21/almost-half-of-u-k-voters-want-new-centrist-party-poll-shows.
12. 168 hits from Googling within the last year. Eg, (Israel) Naftali Bennett reported in the Jerusalem Post (September 12 2017) ‘Bennett: Iran is Israel’s number one existential threat’; (US) ‘Schumer says he opposed the Iran deal because of “threat to Israel”’ Mondoweiss March 19 2018: https://mondoweiss.net/2018/03/schumer-opposed-because; (recent) ‘Will Israel and Iran go to war? Leaders warn of imminent threat during Netanyahu’s trip to Europe’ Newsweek June 5 2018.
13. ‘£20bn-a-year funding boost for NHS branded a “missed opportunity”’ Financial Times June 25; ‘Renters would get longer tenancies under government plans’ BBC News July 1; ‘Public sector workers: Pay rises announced for a million people’ BBC News July 24. The debunking arithmetic has not yet been done on this one.
14. Documentation of the early stages in D Osler Labour Party plc Mainstream 2002.
15. It is interesting in this context that Zionist narratives are one of the examples used in Trivers’ 2014 book Deceit and self-deception (which argues that self-deception has evolved to serve more effective deceit).
16. Eg, ‘Corbyn becoming PM is “worse threat to business than Brexit”, says bank’ The Guardian November 27 2017; ‘The City should fear Corbyn much more than Brexit’ City AM February 21 2018; ‘Who speaks for business?’ The Sunday Times March 18 2018.