Grovelling will not save you
No olive branch is big enough for the Labour right Paul Demarty wonders why the leadership keeps offering them
So, farewell then, Frank Field. The dishonourable member for Birkenhead will not be missed. His whole career is marked by a thoroughgoing cynicism. He was key to the purge against Militant in the late 1980s. In the Blair years, he made himself into a hired thug for that wing of New Labour whose job it was to throw pieces of raw meat to the rottweilers at the Daily Mail. He was the guy who would “think the unthinkable” about welfare reform, who would bang the chauvinist drum against ‘multiculturalism’.
He should have gone long ago - and certainly not on his own initiative. In the run-up to the 2010 election, he busied himself trying to offload Gordon Brown as Labour leader. When the votes were counted, he was one of three Labour MPs who took up jobs in the Tory government - since thinking the unthinkable on the aforementioned issues is such an addictive drug, he became the coalition’s ‘poverty tsar’ to keep the supply going. That was the time to give him the old heave-ho - an opportunity ‘Red’ Ed Miliband was destined to squander.
So, unfortunately, he was left in place to continue his career in treachery and misanthropy. His departure was clearly timed to cause the maximum damage, a week before the September 4 NEC vote on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s fraudulent examples of anti-Semitism. It cannot be seriously argued, even by the usual standards of this absurd moral panic, that the Labour Party is more anti-Semitic than it was two weeks ago, or four, or 40 - so why jump now? Clearly to make mischief. Field, whatever his many depravities, is not given to backstabbing - he likes to watch as the life fades from your eyes. Another motive, perhaps, is the recent vote of no confidence held in his constituency Labour Party, as a function of his rebellion in a Brexit vote the government won by a margin of three. It is not difficult to imagine him being deselected even under the present trigger-ballot system. This way he goes out on a high, with a fig leaf of ‘honour’ to cover his endless betrayals.
Even as reptilian an animal as Field, it seems, can play the tiny violin: thus he complains of a “culture of nastiness, bullying and intimidation”, which is really a little rich coming from this scourge of ‘welfare cheats’ and serial hatchet man in Labour politics. Frank Field complains of bullying! It is like reading about world history with all references to Genghis Khan and Gandhi switched over.
No such firm words from John McDonnell in a heavily-trailed interview for the New Statesman. “Yes, I think there are people who are willing to leave the party,” he told the Staggers’ creepy Blairite editor, Jason Cowley. “I’m saddened by that. I really am saddened and I’m disappointed ... [An] open door is always there to prevent that happening because any split is automatically damaging.” Predictably, he fudged the issue of supposed anti-Semitism, demanding that it be “resolved quickly” and descended rapidly into the familiar gibberings of a politician on the spot - “My view is this. I want it resolved quickly. People have expressed their views on how to resolve it” - whose views are resolving whose? We lose track.1
For McDonnell (and the wider leadership) to take this cringing attitude is, unfortunately, not altogether surprising - indeed, probably no more surprising than was ‘Red’ Ed’s willingness to overlook Field’s collaboration with Cameron.
The explanation has to do with the inner nature of the left-Labour political project. The objective is, of course, to get into government at any cost, in order to deliver a package of reforms that will make a ‘decisive difference’ to working class voters’ lives. That requires a party with a wide reach to the whole of Labour; and it requires that the party be ‘united’. The Labour right can never be expected to make a political alliance with the left; however, an alliance can be forged with the centre, to keep the right marginal. On that basis, it is possible to politick your way to a left Labour government.
This was the policy most explicitly formulated by Vladimir Derer, the founder of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and is associated with his name in the traditional Labour left milieu; but was also in reality the policy argued by elements of the ‘official’ communists through their influence in the trade union left fractions and so on. The key is to find an adequate compromise with the centre, in order to start making a difference and giving the people a taste for socialism.
The million-dollar question is, naturally, whether it works. It would have to be said, in the first instance, that it never has so far. It seems, on the face of the hitherto existing evidence, that Labour centrists fit much more cheerfully into alliances with the right than with the left.
It can be argued that we are into uncharted territory today, and not without some justice - no leftwing leader has yet been forced on the parliamentary party and the bureaucratic machine by the mass membership. Part of the story of the last two years is the astonishing inability for the finely-honed tools of the Labour right to actually re-establish control; the fact that Labour members have stubbornly remained firm partisans of Corbyn and enemies of his enemies has made attempts at counter-attack into either suicide missions (remember Owen Smith?) or half-baked plans to ‘dissolve the people and elect another’ ... It is thus not unreasonable prima facie to expect Labour centrists to shrug their shoulders and make their peace with the new order.
Yet that is clearly not what has happened either. Corbyn and his handful of allies remain utterly isolated in the PLP. Their strategy has remained constant: focus almost entirely on ‘anti-austerity’ type politics, with a helping of Keynesian gimmicks (“Build it in Britain!”); give way on anything ‘divisive’, like the thorny matter of whether it is anti-Semitic to denounce a blood-and-soil colonial regime and its ethnic cleansing, sniper assaults and aerial bombardment of civilians in Palestine. (Whoops - did it again ...) Retreat, apologise, sing the national anthem, denounce the IRA, even now the queen can meet and greet their old commanders - there will be time enough for all that later.
In the lead-up to last year’s general election, this paper (and this writer) repeatedly lampooned the idea that this was the royal road to success at the polls. There was a great deal of humble pie to eat on that score, without a doubt. In spite of the stunning success of last June, however - surely the greatest possible attraction to forces to the right of the leadership - peace has not come to the PLP.
Insanity, it is said, consists of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The first step to recovery is to ask why the results are so unsatisfactory. In the case of the Labour right, the matter is obvious. Its objective is for Labour Party policy to follow directly state policy, and not at all to threaten the extant diplomatic arrangements that weave Britain into the US-led world order. Having a leader who keeps quiet about his opposition to all this is not enough - only complete capitulation will be good enough for the state core, and therefore for the Labour right.
When it comes to the centrists, the matter is a little different. They are not committed as a matter of principle to following the line of the foreign office. But for them the electoral contest is basically fair, and winning is a matter of doing better on match-day than the other lot. This means, in most circumstances, playing nicely in the media; the media’s obvious expressed preference for the Labour right, on top of state intervention in its favour, most commonly sends the contest for the soggy centrists’ ‘hearts and minds’ in their direction. The worst imaginable sin for the centrist, and thus also for John McDonnell, is splitting the party; but because the media takes the side of the right in all disputes, the left will always be blamed in the end, whoever actually jumps in a given split. Thus the price of unity with the centre turns out to be unity with the right; the price of unity with the right is permanent civil war and sabotage.
There are just a few glimmers that a different tack may be taken. An idea of Derer’s actually worth keeping is mandatory reselection, and Momentum seems finally to have come around to the idea, which was certainly far too ‘divisive’ at an earlier stage.2 Grovelling will not save Jeremy and John, and in extremis amounts to a total failure of solidarity with their supporters. Sending a bunch more saboteurs and traitors out the door with Frank Field, on the other hand, would be a start on a much more promising road.