corbyn in kilburn Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Kilburn, August 2016. Photo: Flickr/Jim Aindow

With Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election almost certain, debate is turning to how a divided Labour Party can move forward. Alex Snowdon considers the next steps for Corbyn and the left

It looks very likely that Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party. Despite the constant media vilification, the exclusion of over 100,000 members from the ballot, and the further purging of many Corbyn-backing members, the left-wing incumbent is still expected to be announced the winner on Saturday.

The leadership election only happened because of the actions of Labour MPs. 172 of them – by far the majority – voted ‘no confidence’ in their leader at the end of June. This was accompanied by 65 front bench resignations, including 20 shadow cabinet members.

From failed coup to leadership election

The purpose of the coup was to force Corbyn to resign. He stood his ground. Hence the leadership challenge from Owen Smith, forcing an election that most party members didn’t want (and, if the latest reports are to be believed, even Owen Smith didn’t want).

These events have provided a powerful illustration of the fundamental source of conflict in today’s Labour Party. A left-leaning membership – with newer members particularly likely to support Corbyn – is massively at odds with a parliamentary party dominated by the right wing. The political gulf between Corbyn and the majority of Labour MPs is huge: they are in fact closer, politically, to the Tories.

Similar right-wingers dominate the Labour Party apparatus too. This right-wing bloc inside the parliamentary group and the apparatus is closely connected to a sympathetic media and other elements of the British establishment. Smith was the fall guy: he agreed to have his name put forward, and he contested the leadership with superficially left-ish rhetoric. But the real movers and shakers are firmly on Labour’s right wing. They have already kept their distance from Smith – after Saturday they will conveniently forget he ever existed.

All of this creates tremendous uncertainty about what happens next. The divisions run so deep that the very existence of a single, unitary Labour Party is seriously in doubt. Many MPs are determined to block Corbyn and reverse the left’s considerable advances over the last year. A breakaway is an option, but its prospects would be poor.

The hostile MPs have already resorted to a range of anti-democratic manoeuvres, together with constant undermining of their leader. There is every reason to believe this will continue – and it could even escalate.

Which way for Labour?

It is in this context that a debate is taking place about how Jeremy Corbyn, and those around him on the Labour left, should build on the expected success in winning the leadership for a second time. Put crudely: should Corbyn’s team focus on conciliation and bridge-building (‘unity at all costs’), wooing the recalcitrant MPs with policy compromises and shadow cabinet positions, or should the left assert itself and appeal to Corbyn’s second mandate as the basis for a serious shift leftwards in the Labour Party?

A lengthy new piece by Owen Jones is the most detailed and cogent expression of the first view, but it is merely one example of the current thinking among a layer of Labour-aligned commentators and activists (seemingly also amongst a layer of senior union officials too). Three major strands to this debate can be discerned: Should the front bench be recomposed on a broad basis? Should there be major policy compromises with the right wing? Should there be a conciliatory approach to the party bureaucracy?

The ‘unity at all costs’ perspective essentially says the following: many of the MPs who previously resigned should be actively encouraged to re-join Labour’s front bench team. There should be compromises on contentious issues, especially in the field of foreign policy, and a stress on lowest common denominator points of broad agreement.

The apparatus, meanwhile, should perhaps be tinkered with, but largely left unchanged (this last point has taken concrete form with deputy leader Tom Watson’s cynical manoeuvres in this week’s national executive meeting, designed to put fresh obstacles in Corbyn’s way).

The alternative case from much of the left – inside and outside the Labour Party – begins by recognising that the bulk of the PLP is resolutely opposed to what Corbyn stands for on political grounds. The hostility is not – contrary to some claims – primarily about ‘leadership’ or ‘competence’ or ‘media strategy’. These lines of attack on Corbyn are proxies for opposition to his politics. With this is mind, the focus should be on further advancing principled left-wing politics rather than obsessing over which anti-Corbyn MPs can be wooed into re-joining the shadow cabinet.

The ‘broad church’ strategy

The fact is that the previous attempt to have a shadow cabinet encompassing the full political range of the PLP ended in failure. Jones, for one, urges a repeat of this effort, but fails to explain why it should prove any more successful than last time. The Commons debate on bombing Syria was a particularly stark illustration. There was a farcical situation when the Leader of the Opposition opened Labour’s contribution to the debate with an anti-war speech, but the shadow foreign secretary closed it with a pro-war speech that drew enthusiastic cheers from the Tory benches.

If Labour is to provide any sort of meaningful or coherent opposition to the government, there must be no return to such a paralysing mess. The current, broadly left-wing, shadow cabinet is fairly politically cohesive and contains figures – like shadow health secretary Diane Abbott and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner – who can offer a serious challenge to the Tories (unlike their deeply underwhelming predecessors, Heidi Alexander and Lucy Powell respectively).

Of course it’s true that there will be a thin layer of MPs – among those who resigned in June – who can plausibly be part of a Labour front bench promoting Corbyn’s left-wing policies. But these are in the minority – and the emphasis should be on them showing remorse for their behaviour, not on the left pleading with them.

But it is fanciful to imagine that most of those hostile MPs can be brought into the tent without them pulling it down from the inside. For example, Jones makes a rather bizarre case for accepting the very right-wing MP Wes Streeting – who earned his stripes in the National Union of Students bureaucracy, spent a year working for Blairite group Progress after graduating from Cambridge, backed Liz Kendall for leader last summer and stoked the attacks on Corbyn over spurious claims of antisemitism.

Such a broad church is unsustainable. If we have learnt anything from the conflicts inside the Labour Party over the last twelve months, it is surely that.

Irreconcilable political differences

The question of front bench personnel is closely tied to the question of compromises on policy. It’s true that the 172 MPs who voted ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn are not a homogeneous bloc. Most of them, however, are hostile to Corbyn’s politics and want substantial policy concessions. The pressure for this will be relentless. It would be naïve to think that there is a high level of agreement, across the PLP, on most domestic political questions.

The area where the differences run deepest, though, is undoubtedly foreign policy. It would be disastrous for Corbyn to capitulate to his right-wing critics in a bid for ‘unity’. The recent parliamentary committee report damning David Cameron for the disastrous military intervention in Libya is yet another vindication for Corbyn and the left.

Foreign policy is a field where Corbyn is stronger than the likes of Jones are prepared to concede. His critics should be instructed to get behind a genuinely refreshing and serious approach to international relations that represents a sharp break from the ‘New Labour’ past. Labour’s leader has been proven right again and again. That provides a credible basis on which to build.

As well as sticking with broadly left-wing personnel and pursuing a coherent and credible left-wing political vision, the Corbyn leadership will need to initiate thoroughgoing democratisation of the Labour Party. Having lost the political argument, the right wing is seeking to use every bureaucratic method at its disposal to weaken and ultimately crush the current left-wing leadership. Tom Watson’s tactics at this week’s Labour NEC meeting indicate that this will continue.

It is clear, therefore, that the left leadership of the Labour Party is at a crossroads. It can pursue compromise after compromise, thus demoralising supporters and weakening opposition to the Tories. Or it can treat the re-election of Corbyn, and the mandate it will bring, as a bridgehead towards far-reaching political transformation. Either way there will be conflict, but the latter approach allows the left to shape the debate and emerge stronger. 

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).

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