Labour supporters at the 'Keep Corbyn' rally of many thousands in Parliament Square, 27 June 2016 - the evening of a PLP vote of confidence against Corbyn, which sparked the 'Chicken coup'. Photo: Jim Aindow. The 'Keep Corbyn' rally of many thousands in Parliament Square, 27 June 2016 - the evening of a PLP vote of confidence against Corbyn, which sparked the 'Chicken coup'. Photo: Jim Aindow.

The attacks on Corbyn and the left this summer have been damaging, and can only be dealt with through political struggle, argues Kevin Potter

The antisemitism smear campaign waged during the parliamentary recess by the right wing of the PLP, the Tories, and the mainstream media, succeeded in imposing the IHRA definition of antisemitism upon the Labour Party. Worse still their assault has exposed, and maximised upon, a clear weakness in the left leadership of Labour and Momentum and of certain large trade unions.

The lie that Labour’s leader and the left are antisemitic was allowed to spiral through the failure to challenge a palpably outrageous right wing narrative, with Corbyn himself becoming the prime target to the extent that his leadership was once again brought into question. John McDonnell, and the leaderships of Unite the union and Momentum capitulated even further by openly calling for the adoption of the IHRA definition.

There should be no confusion now: the antisemitism smear campaign is an attack on the left as a whole and it is not going away.  Even today, Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson has suggested that Labour’s general secretary Jenny Formby should resign if the ‘antisemitism row’ has not been concluded by Christmas.

The issue is Palestine

Support for Israel is a fundamental plank of right wing Atlanticist foreign policy, and the imposition of the IHRA definition is therefore a political victory for the right in and of itself. Not only that, but by attacking support for Palestine and forcing the Labour leadership onto the wrong side of the issue, the right have attempted – not without success – to drive a wedge between grass roots support for Corbyn both within Labour and, crucially, the extra parliamentary movements and campaigns such as the anti-war and pro-Palestine movements.

There will now be increased pressure for the Labour leadership, with the added weight of party rules, to distance themselves from such movements and campaigns. It is the people of Palestine who could suffer most greatly from this retreat.

The thinking within some sectors of the left is that the Palestine issue, and indeed foreign policy as a whole, is secondary to internal efforts within Labour to open the party up for democratic re-selection of MPs. In this light, some even claim the summer as a success of tactical judgement. This is mistaken, however, as it fails precisely to recognise that positions on such foreign policy issues were central to Corbyn’s successes from 2015 through to the General Election last year.

Combativity, not concessions

However, it must be said that early signs of combative action from rank and file members at CLP level in tackling the right wing MPs lodged in their constituencies, are encouraging and should be applauded.

Notably Joan Ryan, the MP responsible for the false framing of a Labour member for antisemitism, lost a vote of no confidence within her constituency and right wing zealot Frank Field resigned in the knowledge that his seat was under threat.

These developments have elicited predictable howls of rage from the Labour right, with Chuka Umunna labelling his own party members ‘dogs’ and later publicly accusing the party of institutional racism in the wake of the summer’s events. These crass and insulting interventions that should put to bed any notions that by conceding over the IHRA definition Corbyn’s enemies within the PLP will be placated.

Indeed, Margaret Hodge made clear that she will not be happy until Corbyn is removed. Sadly, this is a lesson that too many Labour MPs loyal to Corbyn seem unable to learn; John McDonnell’s plea that there should be no de-selections was a lamentable case in point.

The reality is that the loyalties of many of the PLP are to the establishment before party and for too many left MPs to party ‘unity’ before principle.

Stay in the political struggle

There is also a deeper error in focusing upon internal party political efforts. The broad sweep of the political tide should not be ignored and cannot be contested through behind-the scenes manoeuvres. Instead, we have to win the big political arguments, fight the battles that are brought to us and stay, at all times, combative and rooted in struggle.

Had the leadership of Momentum acted as their name suggests, and other prominent figures on the left of Labour stood up for Corbyn, as few except Jewish Voice for Labour did, we would likely not have suffered the damaging defeat over the IHRA definition. The left, including within Labour, could have been far more advanced in pushing to outflank the right – including on their unpopular foreign policies – and turning maximum fire on Theresa May’s hugely crisis-ridden government.

The narrow focus on ‘clever’ manoeuvres – concessions – to which politics at the top of Corbyn’s Labour has at times been reduced, has opened it up to further attacks on foreign policy, and begun to reduce its purpose for many key activists who have been left disoriented and even demoralised.

Initiative from below

We desperately need to re-capture the ‘momentum’ that won Corbyn the leadership. The battles will only intensify and we cannot afford to concede further ground.

As is often the case it is the mass of rank and file members in Labour and activists beyond that have the most progressive instincts. 

They must take the initiative now to drive up pressure from below for the radical agenda Corbynism was founded on – from anti-austerity, to anti-imperialism, anti-racism and support for Palestine – and in so doing show direction to the leadership.