A civil war has erupted inside the Labour Party, initiated by the party’s minority right wing with the backing of the media. It is a battle between the ordinary labour party members and the anti-democrats in the Parliamentary Labour Party and their acolytes. It is a civil war over the soul and direction of the party; over social change or the status quo; about austerity or a better life for present and future generations; about the possibility of getting rid of capitalism or accommodating to it.
Ultimately, it is about whether the Labour Party can become an instrument for socialist change or will remain a tool for managing capitalism – a safe second XI for the ruling class to fall back on when the Tories run out of steam.
Clearly orchestrated and planned well in advance, the minority Blairites have drawn behind them the 172 MPs who passed a vote of No Confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. At the very time when the Labour Party should have been pressing home its advantage against the Tory party following the Brexit result, the right wing chose to turn on Corbyn.
It should be remembered that Corbyn won the leadership election last September with 60% of the vote (251,417 votes) in the first round, with a majority in all the party sections. Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate won just 4%. Angela Eagle, who has now challenged Corbyn for the position of party leader came only 4th out of 5 in the election for deputy leader.
New members had flocked to join Labour or to register as supporters in order to vote for Corbyn and his anti-austerity politics. Between 7 May and 11 September,2015, 116,753 joined. In a completely unanticipated development Corbyn acted as a lightning rod for a broad layer of anti-austerity sentiment. Unseen, the “old mole” had been burrowing away and unexpectedly emerged through the topsoil of the Labour Party. With Corbyn’s victory the surge into Labour continued, with 87,158 joining between Corbyn becoming leader on 12 September and Christmas Eve.
When Corbyn won, his opponents knew that they had to bide their time, such was his support in the party as a whole. But they were simply waiting for an opportune moment. And that came with the victory for Brexit in the EU referendum. His opponents had prepared. Noone can seriously doubt that the drip-drip, hour after hour resignations from the Shadow Cabinter were co-ordinated.
Corbyn was unfairly blamed for the Brexit result; his abilities as leader were mocked and ridiculed; his ability to win elections was called into question. On all three issues the criticisms are baseless.
On one analysis of the EU referendum results 63% of Labour voters voted Remain. 64% of SNP voters voted to remain. Yet Nicola Sturgeon was lauded for her Remain campaign, while Corbyn was condemned. Another analysis had Labour voters at 74% for Remain at the start of the referendum campaign and still on 72% on the eve of poll – so hardly a condemnation of Corbyn. The real problem lay with the huge swathes of the disaffected traditional Labour voters who feel that the party has abandoned them to austerity, cuts and poverty, with run-down inner city and town centres and deprived working-class estates. This process began under Blair and has continued since. Labour’s espousal of anti-immigration rhetoric, as we saw after the Eastleigh by-election, left many Labour voters open to the arguments of UKIP and the Tory right. Corbyn could not be expected to overcome this problem overnight. Under Corbyn, Labour has won every by-election and polled very well in local authority elections, showing that Labour can win elections under his leadership.
The attacks on Corbyn’s supposed lack of ‘leadership’ qualities have very little to do with his personal calmness, his dress sense or his alleged lack of charisma. They have everything to do with the policies he advocates. He openly calls himself a socialist; he supports workers on strike; he opposes the anti-union laws; he opposes Trident. More generally, he opposes the austerity agenda that was, until recently, supported by Tories and Labour alike.
More importantly, the ruling class is worried about where the Corbyn movement may end up. They see the possibility that his continuation as leader of the Labour Party may call forth even more people into political activity – reaching particularly the youth and voters in deprived working-class areas – around a radical, left-wing, anti-austerity programme. His opponents are petrified that Corbyn could be pushed well to the left of where he is now, which is, after all, a programme not nearly as radical as the Alternative Economic Strategy supported by the Labour left in the 1970s and 1980s. They cannot tolerate the possibility that someone may enter government with a mandate – and popular expectation – to take on the banks and the super-rich and propose public ownership even on a limited scale.
Corbyn must be defended because his success will mark a decisive break in politics in Britain. The right must be decisively defeated because they want to halt that process. For the first time in three decades socialists have the opportunity to talk to hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, about a different form of society, one based on production for need rather than for profit. Socialists must do everything possible to organise for a Corbyn victory in the forthcoming leadership ballot and for a left-wing victory in the Labour Party NEC elections.
The right-wing have shown that they are prepared to trample on every element of democracy in the party. They care absolutely nothing for the members’ rights under the party constitution. In breach of clear party rules, they tried to keep Corbyn off the leadership ballot, despite his immense popularity in the party membership and trade unions. When that failed, they moved in a completely undemocratic way – moving proposals under Any Other Business at the NEC, when this is impermissible – to change the voting rules.
They have undemocratically disenfranchised something like 180,000 party members who have joined Labour since 12 January, which has been made the cut-off for an entitlement to vote. They have increased the registered supporters’ fee from £3 to £25, thus disenfranchising the very people Labour should be representing and encouraging to join: the young, the poor, the low paid, those on benefits, the unemployed, pensioners, none of whom will easily find £25. There is anger and resentment amongst tens of thousands of those disallowed from voting. It will backfire on the right. Those responsible will not be forgiven.
Further, the NEC has now closed down the party until after the leadership election ends, disallowing meetings of local branches and constituency parties, in order to prevent votes of no confidence in those MPs who voted against Corbyn and to prevent motions of support for him. Brighton and Hove Labour Party annual general meeting was attended by 800-1,000 members and Momentum supporters swept the board in elections for officers’ positions. But now the NEC has suspended the local party and annulled the election results. Incredibly, a letter has been sent out by party officials to Labour members in South Shields Constituency Labour Party warning them that conduct like “eye rolling” and “dismissive body language” during meetings could see them facing suspension. You could not make this up. Where are the letters to the MPs who have shouted and sworn at Corbyn and John McDonnell and their supporters at the weekly PLP meetings at Westminster?
Despite this, unofficial meetings of the members are taking place across the country. The members are getting organised and they will insist on their rights, their democracy, being recognised and implemented.
All of those prevented by the £25 fee from voting should be encouraged by the left to join Labour as full members, under the reduced rates for those not in work, so that they can participate in the party in the future. This battle will not be over with the leadership election result. This may well be a long, drawn-out battle. We do not know the outcome of the election. There can be no complacency. Some, even many, of Jeremy’s supporters, may have been persuaded by the argument that Labour needs a more effective leader. We have to do everything possible to persuade people that this is not the case. This is not an attack on Jeremy because of his leadership skills but because of what he represents now and what he may come to represent in the future. It is a battle for the soul and direction of the party. If the members want progressive, democratic and socialist change, they must vote for Jeremy. If they want to go back to the years of war and privatisation, with someone who is prepared to push the nuclear button, they will vote for Angel Eagle or Owen Smith.
It is impossible to say whether there will be a split in the Labour Party. But the two wings are clearly incompatible and politically irreconcilable. Will the right split off if they lose? They may carry the bulk of the present Labour MPs but they would not have the party name “Labour”, which is what gets them elected. They would not have the backing of the trade unions. They have the experience of the SDP in 1981 for reference, which will not give them any comfort. On the other hand, they may find individual financial backers and they may be able to do deals with other political forces. Alternatively, they may well decide to fight a rear-guard guerrilla struggle in the party, undermining the Corbyn leadership and continuing to sabotage the task of holding the government to account. They may do both.
If Corbyn wins, it will be a historic victory for the left in Britain and will mark a turning point. It could be the beginning of a process that turns the Labour Party from a party that has socialists in it into a socialist party per se. If Corbyn wins, there should be magnanimity in victory. We do not want anyone who accepts the democratic result to depart. We want the unity of all party democrats who respect the decisions of the membership. We need to show by argument and deed that a Corbyn victory is a good outcome and persuade those who were on the other side or who had doubts that they need have no fear about the effectiveness of a Corbyn leadership.
But those who want to wreck and sabotage surely must be accountable to the members. They have no right to abuse positions of power. The members have the right to select who represents them in local and parliamentary elections. Councillors and MPs have no automatic right to be re-selected. They are there to represent the party, not themselves. It is the members who pay money and give time, energy and shoe-leather to get them elected. None of them would be MPs if it were not for the party name and the efforts of the members. It is for the members to decide democratically who should be candidates. That is why the decision of the Unite conference to support the call for mandatory re-selection is welcome.
Locally, Labour members will make up their own minds about who they want to stand in the 2020 elections and beyond. There will be democratic debate and votes. So long as the democracy and rules of the party are protected, there can be no complaints about who is chosen.
If Corbyn loses, it will be because of the gerrymandering of the electorate by the NEC. The left should not act precipitately. A period of regroupment and reflection would be vital. There should be no talk about walking away individually and abandoning the struggle to change the Labour Party. That is what the ruling class and their echoes in the party want. Under his leadership party membership has reached well over 500,000 members, making it the biggest party in Europe. Every single person who supports Jeremy Corbyn should commit to continuing the struggle for democracy and socialist policies inside the Labour Party, even if we lose this time. There should be no individualistic acts of despair – tearing up party cards or cancelling standing orders – but a collective response to be more organised and more determined to fight our corner. Any steps must be taken together; that way we are stronger. But, make no mistake, if the right win they will work swiftly and ruthlessly to close down party democracy, to purge by explosions and suspensions those on the left. We will have to fight this. We have to be better organised and better prepared.
Over the next two months we have a huge task to reach all Labour Party members, affiliated members and registered supporters and to persuade them that Jeremy Corbyn is the right person to be leader of the party. The media will be doing everything in its collective power to heap ordure on him, to tell lies, to distort, to misrepresent. We must organise locally and nationally to ensure his election. That means local meetings, stalls, phone-banking. Half a million conversations are required. We have to counter with patient persuasion, using our own public activities, networks and social media and a serious strategy to try to utilise the mainstream media as best as possible. Importantly, we must follow Jeremy Corbyn’s own advice and example and refrain from abuse and swearing. Everything our side does will be scrutinised. We must not allow gaffes and naïveté to undermine our cause.
Momentum has already thrown its organisational weight and structures into the campaign for the leadership and the NEC elections. Every Corbyn supporter should join Momentum and do what they can in these campaigns. But Momentum also needs to become more democratic and allow more participation of its members in the decision making process, both in terms of organisation and policy.
The Labour Party Socialist Network has been set up recently to bring together all those who stand for a fundamental socialist transformation of society to argue for democracy and socialism inside the Labour Party. Our goal must be to build a Labour Party of a million members committed to democracy and socialism.
That is why the “We support Corbyn – Fight for Socialism” letter was written. Its aim is to build support within the party and trade unions for a campaign around socialist policies to be taken to every single part of the country, especially to those deprived working-class areas where traditional Labour voters feel abandoned and let down by the party.
There could be a tremendous resurgence of interest in socialist ideas as a result of recent events. This will be given a further boost if Corbyn wins in the leadership contest. Whatever the outcome, the struggle to make socialist ideas popular and the common sense thought of the working class continues.
As the letter states, ““Labour must set out its aim of a society in which the obscene gap between the super-rich and the rest of us is ended; where there is no poverty, austerity, exploitation or discrimination. That will require a fundamental change in the way this society is run. It means campaigning on a socialist programme.
“This society is rich enough to provide for all. But a tiny minority owns almost all of the wealth and the means of producing it.
“Labour must stand clearly for a society in which the resources and wealth are owned in common by all, so that we can plan the economy democratically to meet the needs of everyone – not to make a profit for a few.
“Labour must inspire its voters with a vision of a society fit for our children and all future generations.
“The battle must commence now.”