Diane Abbott splits left

Communists want to see the Labour Party completely transformed, writes James Turley

Labour’s leadership contest is now properly underway, with the opening of nominations on May 24. Aspiring candidates will have to secure the consent of 33 Labour MPs in order to go to the vote later this year.

According to the Labour Party’s website, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are now officially nominated, though David is now ahead of his brother in terms of backers. Ed Balls and Andy Burnham are still some way behind … and at the time of writing John McDonnell has just four nominations - including, believe it or not, the execrable Frank Field and Kate Hoey.

While previously the post-Brown leadership contest was due to have been conclusively stitched up, with a ludicrous three-day nomination period initially imposed by the Labour national executive committee, now it has been extended to a miserly 16 days.

The protests began, naturally, on the Labour left, who are hobbled enough already by the MPs’ stranglehold over nominations; but quickly they spread. Jon Cruddas, the soft left angling for a post as David Miliband’s deputy, criticised the time limit forcefully. It was a measure directed clearly against the left, traditionally underrepresented in parliament anyway, but particularly badly marginalised at the present time.

In fact, so flagrantly anti-democratic was the original timetable that even Ed Miliband deigned to offer support to disaffected Labourites, via the social networking site Twitter. With both Miliband camps dissatisfied with the three-day period, to say nothing of less powerful figures in the party, one has to wonder who supported it in the first place.

So the contest - at least, any contest not completely internal to New Labour - is just about alive. Still, the safe money is on a New Labour-only non-debate, as the first Labour left to throw his hat into the ring, McDonnell, knows all too well. His was the only serious left challenge to Gordon Brown’s coronation in 2007, but despite an energetic campaign - not to mention a longer campaigning period - he was unable to get enough nominations. The reasons are multiple, but the two most important were the Labour Party machine’s desire for an orderly Blair-Brown transition, and the fact that the largest trade unions refused to lift a finger for him and cajole their parliamentary groups into offering support, preferring instead to crown Brown. (It does not help that some left-led unions are not affiliated to Labour, leaving them in no real position to influence the outcome of such struggles.)

This time around, the number of nominations necessary has fallen - but only in proportion with the overall size of the parliamentary Labour Party. The number of identifiable lefts has certainly fallen too; though their electoral performance in the recent general election was generally better than the right, the latter have long consolidated their control over selections.

McDonnell’s only major rival on the left last time was Michael Meacher, who pulled out when it became clear he had very little support whatsoever (it turns out, thankfully, that barely coherent conspiracy theories are not enough to secure leftwing support for a former Blair cabinet minister). He recommended his nominators transfer their support to McDonnell. This time around, the surprise rival is Diane Abbott, a long standing left MP best known today for her odd-couple TV partnership with reformed Thatcherite Michael Portillo.

This makes it extraordinarily difficult for either Abbott or McDonnell to make the ballot. They both fish, broadly, from the same pond: the shrinking number of Labour left MPs. There are differences too: McDonnell enjoys (if that is the word in a Labour leadership race) support from the far left, for a start. Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Workers Party, the CPGB and many others have weighed in for his candidacy; even the Socialist Party, officially committed to the dogma that the Labour Party is completely dead as any kind of organisation of the working class, has found the necessary spine to come out for McDonnell. He also has the advantage of enthusiastic support from the RMT.

Abbott’s supporters have tended to use a single buzzword: ‘diversity’. It is certainly true that she is the only woman and the only ethnic minority candidate; for anti-racists and anti-sexists whose beliefs tend towards the narrowly statistical, a black woman on the ballot is an achievement in itself. It would be something of an event, particularly if she somehow managed to go all the way and get the job.

The question is rather: what is there that politically differentiates Abbott from her better-established rival? The only honest answer is: not a whole lot. Both are opposed to the government’s programme of cuts, and would be opposed to a Labour government’s programme of cuts; both opposed the Iraq war from the outset, unlike Johnny-come-latelies like Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (although Abbott, unlike McDonnell, refused to call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops). Both are, of course, opposed to all forms of racism, and are at least prepared to position themselves to the left of the Tories and Lib Dems on immigration. In the absence of significant political disagreement, Abbott’s campaign amounts to splitting the left-Labourite nominations and votes. McDonnell, either diplomatically or naively, officially welcomes Abbott’s campaign, calling for further reforms from the Labour NEC so they both can contest the leadership; but in reality, their uneasy coexistence would destroy the chances of a leftwing Labour leadership - almost certainly at the nomination stage.

Behind this lies the widespread sentiment that this is a squabble between unelectables, and the real duty of socialists is to support somebody like Ed Balls, who represents a ‘realistic’ left candidate. That is the argument of Ken Livingstone and, one presumes, his allies in Socialist Action. Perhaps also of the Morning Star. Its report avoided taking sides between McDonnell and Abbott. So is she being used by the ‘soft left’ in order to sabotage McDonnell’s campaign so as to excuse rallying to Ed Balls in the name of left unity? Possibly. Yet the fact of the matter is that Ed Balls has said basically nothing that separates him substantially from the Milibands; he is assumed to be to their left simply by not sharing their surname. The battle between McDonnell and Abbott is a battle to represent the Labour left not satisfied with that choice; but it is a battle neither can win.

It is also worth noting that a certain amount of left posturing is ubiquitous among the Labour candidates. Ed Miliband and Balls both express, as noted, certain regrets concerning the Iraq war. There is a tendency for the Labour Party to drift to the right as it approaches government, and to the left when its power expires; the election defeat has finally robbed an increasingly directionless New Labour of its last remaining selling point - results. The careerists most closely associated with the New Labour project have had to disavow the term - not New Labour but ‘Next Labour’, demands David Miliband ... Speaking of the Labour right, the choice is just as slender as between candidates of the left. All candidates appear to be outdoing each other at cynical anti-immigration rhetoric. The trick, as it ever was for New Labour, is to outflank the Tories to the right; only Labour, it is claimed, is in touch enough with the ‘white working class’ properly to ‘control’ immigration. Neither Ed nor David Miliband, nor Ed Balls or Blairite former health minister Andy Burnham, is able to sustain this illusion; exactly how the NHS, for example, would function without a ready supply of skilled migrant labour is a problem of scanty concern to our would-be premiers - unless they should be so unwise as to try to translate this kind of policy into reality.

David Miliband and Burnham are, we are told, Blairites, and the Eds Brownites; this is supposed even now to indicate some kind of principled difference. Yet the notion that Gordon Brown represented anything other than a less PR-friendly spin on Blairism is transparently risible after three years under his cosh (with the collusion of the Milibands and Balls). Both, it turns out, were enthusiastically Atlanticist variants of neoliberalism. Neither was guaranteed a future after the financial crisis. The political franchise of most mainstream media outlets has long been transferred from Labour to the Tories (even the Labour-stalwart Guardian backed Clegg in this election); the competition between Labour factions over immigration is suddenly of precious little concern to a reactionary press with its favoured boot-boys back in charge.

That the Labour right - or New Labour, as it branded itself for the last 13 years - represents nothing politically distinctive from typical rightwing governments around Europe is old news. That Blair and Brown were so transparently mendacious in their political billing as ‘progressives’ paralysed the trade unions and workers’ organisations as they struggled to politically dissociate themselves from a government they nonetheless materially supported.

Today these organisations have the opportunity to revise radically their political commitments; even a consistent version of the Labourism unsurprisingly endemic in the unions would be an improvement over the incompetent ‘realism’ that recommends a vote for Brown over Blair, or Ed Balls over Ed Miliband. There is every sign, however, that this opportunity will once again not be taken. John McDonnell’s support is concentrated in disaffiliated unions; though Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, politely touts both McDonnell and Abbott for glory. Most of the other unions - Unite, Unison and so on - can be expected to come out in favour of whichever New Labourite appears least comfortable in his own skin, with Balls the main contender.

Communists want to see the Labour Party completely transformed - from its foundations it has stood for the British working class’s attachment to the nation-state and to the undemocratic constitutional order, and the reciprocal delivery of crumbs from the ruling class table. We want do drive out the pro-capitalist right wing, not seek some comfortable deal with it. That means we need to overcome Labourism in both its leftwing and rightwing guises. If the Labour Party were to disappear, or be completely subsumed into a bourgeois liberal grouping on the model of the Democrats in America, it would be a big setback for the working class movement in Britain. But that is exactly where right Labourism points - strange though it might first appear, something reinforced by left Labourism. In the name of realism and gaining a majority, left Labourites constantly seek to reach out to the right. In other words the trade union bureaucracy and the openly pro-capitalist right. So in order to cement the independent initiative of the working class it is necessary to supersede left Labourism positively. The nomination and election of John McDonnell as Labour leader would provide the best conditions to take forward this argument.