Jeremy Corbyn speaking in 2016. Photo: Flickr/ Plashing Vole Jeremy Corbyn speaking in 2016. Photo: Flickr/ Plashing Vole

Labour’s internal tensions are jeopardising its most socialist stewardship in modern times, argues Alex Snowdon

Most opinion polls attract little media attention, but a YouGov poll of general election voting intention last week putting Labour on just 18% – and in fourth place – generated a remarkably large amount of coverage. YouGov has repeatedly put Labour on a lower vote share than other pollsters lately. This latest poll was particularly bad for Labour, but also strikingly worse than other new polls which have put Labour in the mid-20s and, crucially, ahead of the other parties.

This is obvious media bias – focusing excessively on a very poor poll for Labour while mostly ignoring those that give the party a lead. But it’s more than that. It has served the purpose of creating an unquestionable narrative: Labour is absolutely tanking in the polls. That simplistic narrative provides a framework for every Labour-related story at present. Every other issue and development is presented through the prism of Labour’s disastrous polling.

There will be further negative coverage, no doubt, in the wake of this Wednesday night’s Panorama programme on Labour’s supposed antisemitism crisis. I looked up Panorama on BBC iPlayer. There are currently 52 previous episodes available, but I couldn’t identify a single one on racism. There are no recent programmes on the Windrush scandal, the Tories’ ‘hostile environment’ policy or the claims of extensive Islamophobia in the Tory party – or anything else concerning racism. This is a rare case of a Panorama programme examining racism, but having the Labour Party as its focus might appear rather peculiar.

Notwithstanding outlier polls being given undue weight, the problems faced by Labour are real. It should be acknowledged that Labour, typically in the mid-20s for vote share, is not polling well enough. This is largely a symptom of the Brexit deadlock and how it dominates politics, squeezing everything else – from the NHS to schools funding, from the housing crisis to inequality – off the political agenda.

It is reasonable to suppose that an actual general election would catalyse an increase in support for both Labour and the Tories, providing at least that Corbyn remains leader and there is a broadly left-ish platform like the ‘For the many, not the few’ manifesto of 2017. An election campaign would allow Labour to highlight a wider range of issues and reach millions of people with its policies. We urgently need agitation, from across the entire labour movement, for a general election. A coronation of Boris Johnson as prime minister by the dwindling numbers of Tory Party members is an undemocratic outrage.

Yet it would be a big mistake for anyone to assume that an election campaign would inevitably propel Labour into office. The Tories are divided, weak and incapable of resolving the Brexit crisis, but relying on Tory meltdown is unwise and complacent. Boris Johnson – Old Etonian, Bullingdon Boy and bankers’ friend – is vulnerable to a powerful campaign, rooted in class politics, by Labour. But Labour will only have such an opportunity if the left gets on the offensive now and defies the attacks on Corbyn.

Labour’s Brexit debate

The biggest dangers to Corbyn-led Labour are the divisions over Brexit and the weaponising of antisemitism. I commented on the latter last week, but it’s worth pausing to consider the former. Advocates of a second referendum have been shrewd in their framing. They present it as obvious, self-evident and common sense that Labour must move to a more anti-Brexit stance. It is then a question of how rapidly the shift takes place, not whether it takes place at all.

A major political question is reduced and distorted so it appears to be a matter of tactics or competence – or both. The direction of travel is assumed: progressively away from respecting the referendum result, and championing a positive version of EU exit, towards acceptance of a second referendum. Everything then becomes about whether the leadership is moving fast or far enough, and how ‘frustrating’ it is for sensible MPs and commentators who already grasp what is needed.

This framing has been successful partly because the counter-offensive from the Labour Left has been stuttering and ineffectual. The fundamental political and economic issues about Brexit have mostly been evaded. There has been no concerted effort to articulate a positive vision of what can be done in the wake of leaving the EU. This has let the anti-Brexit hardliners dominate and shape the debate.

There was a time when Labour’s internal civil war was mercifully straightforward. Think back to the Owen Smith leadership challenge in 2016, following the EU referendum result and the attempted coup led by Hilary Benn. Most MPs opposed Corbyn, but the majority of members rallied to Corbyn in what was clearly a straight Left vs Right contest. Now it is far more complicated – and dangerous – because much of the Left is making concessions or peeling away from adherence to the Corbyn project.

This has a lot to do with confusion and weakness in the upper echelons of the Labour left. John McDonnell has publicly backed a change in policy, saying that Labour should back calls for a so-called ‘people’s vote’. McDonnell has typically been viewed as Corbyn’s closest shadow cabinet ally and a key player in the collective leadership. Meanwhile, commentators like Paul Mason and Owen Jones have advocated a major shift on Brexit, while Momentum is divided and thus paralysed.

Many grassroots Labour activists are holding the line. Though most of them backed Remain in 2016, they recognise the dangers posed by a U-turn to Labour’s support – and electoral chances – in areas, especially in northern England and the Midlands, that had a Leave majority.

Grassroots Corbyn supporters, by and large, desperately want a loud and clear message foregrounding class politics, one that can overcome Leave/Remain divisions, backed by a coherent policy platform that offers a convincing alternative to failed establishment politics. However, this mood is finding little organised expression and is not being amplified by left-wing figures in parliament or the media. Quite the opposite.

Beyond the Westminster bubble

The current impasse is also a reminder that personnel really does matter. Shadow cabinet members are openly saying there must be a shift in position – a remarkable state of affairs. Backbenchers are more vociferous and strident. This reflects the massive weakness of the parliamentary left that Corbyn inherited: there simply are not many socialists available to put on the front bench. The Parliamentary Labour Party does not reflect the wider party membership and it does not express its aspirations.

This highlights why the need for democratic selection of candidates cannot be ducked. It is completely unsustainable to have a left leadership while the Parliamentary Labour Party remains so right-wing. That right-wing dominance is inevitably reflected on Labour’s front bench. It also acts as a powerful pull on the more left-wing elements in the parliamentary party, who – in the absence of mass movements or major trade union struggle beyond parliament – are prone to shifting ground.

The right wing of the Labour Party cannot defeat the left in open combat, for example through a leadership election. On its own, it cannot end the political project centred on Jeremy Corbyn. It is relying on dividing and demoralising Corbyn’s traditional allies and support. In this respect, it is currently having a lot of success.

The consequence of all this division and disarray is that Corbynism has, for now, been largely demobilised. Westminster dominates, horizons are narrowed and there is too little momentum and energy. This can of course change. It does, though, require a systematic effort to change things rather than hoping for a lift when an election comes.

It starts with resisting the calls for endorsing a ‘second referendum’ position. It also requires the kind of policy announcements that can enthuse and inspire, going beyond the 2017 election platform, and a systematic effort to widen the political debate. It means a much greater focus on the big rallies and campaigning that have previously galvanised support for Corbyn’s agenda and on mobilising around major issues.

On Saturday I will be at the Durham Miners’ Gala, where Jeremy Corbyn will speak. I have no doubt that he will get a similar reception to his previous speeches over the last three years. It will be a reminder of the groundswell of support and enthusiasm for the politics that he embodies. The challenge is to utilise that support in defending Corbyn and building on the breakthroughs of the last few years. This is no time for retreat. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).