“You don’t have the right to lead just because you’ve been elected”.
Harriet Harman MP, Camberwell & Peckham Constituency Labour Party meeting, 30 June 2016
Since its inception the Labour Party has talked about being a broad church, by which it means there is room for everyone, from socialists through to free market capitalists as long as they adhere to the rather nebulous values of Labourism. This means the Labour Party can have both John McDonnell and Tony Blair in it. The party can have both Alan Sugar in it, and one of his workers. It is this attitude that saw the right wing ex Chancellor Denis Healey campaign for his arch rival Tony Benn in the Chesterfield by-election in 1983, declaring that “Tony without Denis would be like Torvill without Dean”.
But whilst a thousand different voices can be heard in the congregation, only one hymn can be sung from the pulpit. Throughout recent history the party had been seduced by the tunes of social-liberalism sung by the Blairites. But today members want a different song. But now we discover that the broad church is very selective about its membership. In fact the church was built on a lie: that socialists and liberals could co-exist in a political party and have an equal say.
Tony Blair knew that the broad church myth was nearing the end of its time. That is why he wanted to return the party back to the days of the Liberal Party, in alliance with the Trade Unions. He wanted an explicitly capitalist party, modelled on the Democrats in the US, where people were happy “getting filthy rich” as Peter Mandelson once boasted. But his task was left half done, and the people that came after him lacked his ruthless ambition to finish the job. Now in the face of austerity after a generation of neoliberalism, Corbyn was seen as a desperate, last ditch move to reverse the decline of our society into free market madness.
Now as the contradictions unravel, Corbyn finds himself under siege from within the PLP. The MPs – who usually make up the most pro-establishment wing of the party – have unleashed hell to try and drive him out. They see him as a foreign object, tolerable when he was benignly on the back benches, but now he represents something far more dangerous – the return of socialist politics to mainstream society. The most ferocious attacks by the ‘bitterites’ is designed to break Corbyn, and in doing so to break the left. This means everyone joining Labour and defending his leadership is crucial now. If Corbyn is ousted then we will all suffer the defeat.
Two parties in one…
But what do the attacks reveal about the nature of the Labour Party?
The reality that is sinking in is that the right of the party, in alliance with the media and the wider establishment (Cameron’s call for Corbyn to resign) will never accept a left leadership of Labour. The Broad Church suddenly becomes more akin to a cult of the right when the left gets a chance to lead. And if Corbyn is defeated now the right will ensure that there is never a chance to elect another left wing leader – they have sold their souls already to a system that is corrupt and corrupting of all those that embrace it. That will mean a Labour Party that is committed to austerity, neo-liberalism and racism just a time when we need the politics of solidarity and socialism.
And this is the real fight – about policies. It isn’t about Corbyn’s shabby appearance or his overgrown garden or that he only gave the EU 7.5 out of 10 (a generous score, to be sure). It is what he represents and the desires of the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions behind him. This is where Owen Jones intervention, to discuss a possible replacement with the same politics but more charisma, misses the point. The Labour right hate Corbyn’s politics – all the baggage about his leadership style might also be true but it is secondary.
Pushing someone like Clive Lewis into poll position won’t help – the sight of Corbyn stepping down because of PLP bullying will make it impossible for any future left leader to exert their authority – and it won’t resolve the fundamental contradiction; that the majority of the PLP are committed to some form of austerity and controls on immigration. Unless the new ‘left leader’ backs down on those issues, in which case it is just another repeat of the historic problem of the Labour left compromising themselves into irrelevance, then the same war will break out next year or the year after.
This was starkly revealed in an exchange between Graham Jones MP and Labour party activists Barbara Ntumy on BBC news. When Jones argued that Corbyn is out of touch because he isn’t tough enough on immigration, Ntumy was crystal clear – it isn’t about immigration it is about austerity.
This is the sharp end of the fight, who is to blame for the lack of jobs, for the decline of many towns across the north? Is Labour committed to fighting for socialist, trade union solutions to lack of jobs and low wages, or will it pander to the UKIP vote by producing more ‘Control Immigration’ mugs, as Ed Miliband did at his lowest point.
The right plans to split
The broad church was fine as long as the left was in an isolated minority. When the left was getting too big for its boots, the broad church required them not to be too bolshie. Now the left is in charge, the broad church requires them to surrender. Quite simply – the left won’t be allowed to win.
And the right are terrified of Corbyn not only holding onto power but transforming the Labour party in a more socialist direction. A Labour MEP let the cat out the bag when she admitted on the 29 June; “So what is the immediate future of the Labour Party? There is a real possibility of Corbyn getting on the ballot paper and being re-elected. At that stage 200 MPs may form a new party. And if need be I will join them.”
So the right have revealed their own views on the broad church – that in fact if they lose power they would rather split the party in two than be led by someone with Corbyn’s politics.
At this stage the only way that a split could be avoided is by either side capitulating. Just as the right crushed George Lansbury in 1935 and attacked Nye Bevan in the 1950s until he surrendered and now they are doing the same to Corbyn, hoping he will buckle.
Coming out fighting
However, if the left can survive this and go forward then things need to change. We need serious policies on a range of issues that begin to fundamentally reverse the balance of power in this country from the 1% to the 99%. We need bold measures – accepting that they might not win over the electorate in the first outing, but that it will take a generation to undo neoliberalism and rebuild a culture of solidarity and hope.
One area where Corbyn’s leadership has been weak is that he isn’t playing to his strengths. They focus their energies where they are weakest, in the corridors of bourgeois power in parliament. Instead, Corbyn and Momentum should be calling mass rallies across the country, announcing a date for a mass demonstration in the autumn to save the NHS or to defend migrants. Something that will show what kind of leader Corbyn is and what a Labour party led by him is capable of.
For a Labour party led by the left to win an election, it has to come to power on a wave of resistance. Campaigns, strikes, mass demonstration – huge pressure from below showing the ruling elites that the rest of us are fed up and organised to fight back. The Labour Party has historically shied away from taking responsibility for building social movements or throwing its weight behind trade union struggles. No more. If the right want to jump ship and bring the broad church crashing down around their ears they can. The historic basis of the Labour Party as an alliance of liberals and socialists is coming apart. The congregation wants to sing a new hymn now.