Alex Snowdon takes a look at the current conjecture in relation to the Labour leadership contest, and the questions facing the wider movement
At the time of writing, there is a genuine possibility that a court ruling will declare that Jeremy Corbyn must seek MPs' and MEPs' nominations to be a leadership candidate. And it's perfectly possible that the Labour Party's bureaucracy - desperate to defeat Corbyn - will defer to the legal judgement and act accordingly.
If that happens it will generate, immediately, a massive crisis in the Labour Party, and very quickly some sort of split. After all, it is almost certain that Corbyn will not be able to get the required nominations: MPs who nominated him to 'broaden the debate' last summer are unlikely to repeat their mistake, and the determination of many MPs to remove Corbyn has grown.
The idea that a single wealthy party donor – one who despises the democratic will of members – could use the courts to overturn the elected leader’s right to an automatic place on the ballot would generate tremendous shock and anger.
It is more likely, though, that this bid will fail and the leadership election contested by Corbyn and Owen Smith will proceed. But the fact that this can even be a possibility reveals the extreme desperation of Labour's establishment to eliminate Corbyn, their willingness to trample over democracy and fair play, and their common interest with the British state in wishing to defeat the left.
A concerted assault on the left
A vital part of the background to the current turmoil is that most MPs assumed that the double whammy they engineered - of most MPs voting no confidence combined with dozens of front bench resignations - would force Corbyn out. In normal circumstances, a much lower 'no confidence' vote - and a much lower number of resignations - would be sufficient.
But these are not normal circumstances. Corbyn has the backing of a huge number of party members and supporters. The entire future of the Labour Party is at stake – a stark fact that is grasped by those on both sides. So Corbyn stayed - and surprised MPs, who see everything through the prism of pragmatic parliamentary politics, in the process.
The subsequent attacks on Corbyn, and on party democracy, have been less aimed at delivering a knockout punch (although the NEC meeting, where some hoped to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper, was such an attempt), and more about a war of attrition: constantly wearing down and demoralising Corbyn, those around him, and his supporters.
The absurd anti-democratic procedures - from retrospectively removing large numbers of members from the leadership electoral roll, to hiking up the supporters' fee from £3 to £25, to generating a climate of suspicion about supposedly thuggish Corbyn supporters - are partly about rigging the election, but are more profoundly geared towards this war of attrition.
Their hope is that a large layer of Labour members will conclude that - for all their sympathies with Corbyn and his politics - it just isn't worth it. Perhaps they will decide that it’s more important to have a functioning official Opposition and to hold the Labour Party together. The idea is that many of those with a vote in the leadership election will look at the scale and depth of opposition to Corbyn among his own parliamentary colleagues and conclude, very reluctantly, that a Smith victory is necessary if there's going to a fully-staffed front bench Opposition, with the backing of most MPs.
Corbyn vs Smith
It is widely assumed, especially on the left, that Jeremy Corbyn will win. I think that's likely, but I don't regard it as certain. And if he does win there's still a danger that it won't be with a commanding majority.
Labour Party members, affiliated members and registered supporters will be voting at home, in isolation, prey to all the pressures of relentless media vilification of Corbyn. Smith's campaign appears to be well-funded and able to use professional operations to largely compensate for a relative lack of activist enthusiasm (and the inability to replicate Corbyn's mass rallies). All of this can make a difference and we should not underestimate it.
The pitching of Smith as 'soft left' and the constant barrage of smears against the left (for alleged abuse, intimidation etc) both need to be viewed in this context. Nobody seriously believes that Smith is at all left wing, just like nobody really believes the fantastical and baseless claims of abuse and intimidation. The point here is not to actually convince people that something is true.
The point is to disorientate and demoralise. It is to generate confusion and to make the whole leadership contest seem unpleasant and hostile, therefore encouraging people to simply keep out (or keep their distance from supporting Corbyn). It all creates a general sense of chaos and crisis in the Labour Party, which benefits Corbyn's right-wing opponents who style themselves as beacons of stability and a professional approach to politics.
One line of attack is the advocacy of ‘Corbynism without Corbyn’. It is not being suggested that someone from within the Corbynite ranks - like John McDonnell or Diane Abbott - takes over. Perish the thought! The whole point here is that someone who doesn't support Corbyn should replace him. That betrays what it's really about: ditching Corbyn's politics along with the man.
Owen Smith, Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn are not creatures of the 'soft left'. They're firmly on Labour's right wing. They are closer to the Tories than they are to Corbyn and the left, accepting the dominant assumptions of neoliberal politics (held up as an unarguable 'centre ground' of politics, regardless of whether public opinion accords with it).
British politics isn't split, first and foremost, between Tories and Labour. The split goes down Labour's middle, with the majority of its MPs oriented on establishment politics and the ideological and policy assumptions that go with it.
There is something of a precedent here. In the mid-1980s there was talk of 'Bennism without Benn'. It reflected the left's retreat, and the right's ascendancy, after Tony Benn was very narrowly defeated in the 1981 deputy leadership contest. What it really meant was re-orienting Benn's supporters to a shift rightwards under Neil Kinnock. Labour's long march to the right - under Kinnock then later Blair and Brown - gathered pace.
A wider political crisis
One argument doing the rounds is that the big Corbyn rallies are a kind of irrelevant bubble, reflecting nothing about wider society. He is merely preaching to the converted - a small minority - while ignoring everyone else.
I don't find that plausible. This isn't like the early 1980s, when Bennism was largely at odds with a rightwards shift in the working class and in society at large. The tremendous enthusiasm for Corbyn is the main political expression of developments in society that affect many millions of people.
There are different aspects to that wider political crisis, but fundamentally it's about widespread disaffection with several years of austerity policies and decades of neoliberalism, and (crucially) the long-term shift in the Labour Party towards the neoliberal centre.
There is a huge backlash against the dominant elements in the Parliamentary Labour Party because of their complicity in privatisation, cuts, war and scapegoating, first in office and later in extremely meek opposition. The Chilcot report reminded us of the single greatest reason why Tony Blair’s reputation turned to dust, but Iraq was always a lightning rod for a wider set of discontents and disappointments. This is no bubble.
Media commentators and Labour right-wingers are keen to point to polling which suggests that Labour is consistently several points behind the Tories. This is meant to prove Corbyn's unelectability. Yet the miracle is that the gap isn't bigger.
According to conventional political logic, a socialist leading Labour should have led to a collapse in its poll ratings. Combine this with the fact that Corbyn can't get together a full opposition front bench, as he's so isolated inside the PLP, and there's an impression among the public of massive disunity and conflict inside the Labour Party, it's astonishing that Labour's vote is holding up.
It partly reflects the historic resilience of Labour’s vote (in contrast, for example, to the Lib Dems, whose vote share fluctuates far more). But it surely also suggests that – despite massive media hostility and the deep splits in the PLP – Corbyn speaks to (and for) a real constituency of mass support.
We should also treat such polling with caution. Actual election results - whether May's local elections or various Westminster or council by-elections - have provided grounds for tentative hope. There are also a number of unknowns that could potentially strengthen Labour in a real general election. Turnout is one. The existence of a mass membership party, capable of delivering the political message in communities everywhere, is another.
This is not to mention the Tories currently gaining from the novelty of a new prime minister and shadow cabinet. It is likely the Tories will face considerable difficulties ahead, especially if current indications of economic problems turn into a long-term trend. Austerity has considerably less popular legitimacy than a year ago.
Nothing to offer
The right wing of the Labour Party now has nothing to offer. It has no coherent alternative policy offer and no new ideas. A strand of politics that had a certain amount of popular resonance – if never as authentically popular as newspaper columnists liked to proclaim - in the mid-1990s is much less persuasive now.
Owen Smith's campaign is caught between promising (unconvincingly) Continuity Corbynism and differentiating itself from Corbyn's leadership by meekly echoing Tory policies and rhetoric, for example on immigration and Trident. As much as possible, the campaign avoids politics altogether - focusing instead on vague insinuations about Corbyn supporters being guilty of intimidation and on blandly asserting that Corbyn is unelectable. No mention is made, naturally, of the MPs' own role in damaging Labour's electoral standing through its ceaseless plotting and undermining.
There is polling evidence to suggest that a Smith-led Labour Party would do nothing – at least nothing positive – for the party’s vote share. International comparisons are not favourable to the advocates of a rightwards turn either: in many European countries, the traditional parties of the centre left are in crisis precisely due to their role in administering or supporting cuts, privatisation and other neoliberal orthodoxies.
A split now seems very likely, though the time frame and balance of forces (who emerges stronger?) are very unpredictable. If Corbyn prevails in the leadership election, many MPs will be speculating about forming a breakaway parliamentary bloc - one that could, given the scale of opposition to the party's left leadership, be much larger than the SDP split which unfolded between 1981 and 1983.
It would no doubt attract some wealthy donors and much sympathetic media commentary, but such a bloc would lack a mass grassroots party behind it, have almost no trade union support, and (unlike the SDP in the 1983 election), struggle to gain votes.
One possibility is to continue sullenly grumbling on the backbenches, sniping at the leadership and undermining it in whatever ways are available. But this would probably just defer the inevitable split. The issue of deselection after the 2018 boundary changes would certainly come to the fore. It is unlikely that party members would tolerate recalcitrant MPs who they feel are not reflecting and representing their views.
Everything in flux
The long term is therefore unpredictable. The important thing at present is to rise to a number of urgent challenges and use the coming weeks and months to shape the left’s prospects. The first thing to grasp is that the unpredictability, flux and rapid pace of political upheaval means that a 2020 perspective – where all practical questions are shaped by the assumption of a general election in 2020 – is no good.
It may well be that there is no election for nearly four years, but making such an assumption would be foolish. However, even if there is no early election the focus on 2020 is damaging, as it encourages a focus on desperately seeking to patch up differences and maintain the unity of the Labour Party, with a view to fighting a general election on that basis. It allows concessions to Labour’s right wing, which threatens to disrupt and damage the momentum behind Corbyn’s left wing political vision.
It is also, in principle, right for socialists to call for an early general election and for the downfall of the current Tory government after such upheavals as the Leave victory in the EU referendum and the changes in personnel at the centre of government.
The other key point to grasp is that the defence of Corbyn’s leadership is integral to the prospects for left-wing politics in Britain today. This recognition is important for all socialists, whether in the Labour Party or not.
His position as Labour leader has enabled socialist arguments, so long marginalised, a place in mainstream debate. The growth in Labour membership, the campaigning for Corbyn’s re-election and the many public rallies and protests defending him all point to a very welcome renaissance of the left. This is about much more than one man – it’s a question of strengthening the impact of the movements against austerity, racism and war, and of developing a more influential left-wing pole in British politics.
The challenges for socialists
With these points in mind, I suggest there are three key things to keep to the fore when building support for Jeremy Corbyn.
Firstly, the movement around Corbyn is at its most effective when it is radical and uncompromising. Politically this means holding firm to principled positions on issues like immigration and Trident. Some prominent supporters of Corbyn have wrongly given ground on such issues, but this only strengthens the Right as well as being wrong politically. It is far more persuasive to put forward coherent and consistent left-wing policies than to tack and turn according to whether or not you imagine something will be popular.
Secondly, it makes a big difference if the movement supporting Corbyn clearly and publicly articulates left-wing arguments and policies – reaching out to millions of people in doing so - rather than getting stuck in arguments about internal party democracy, allegations of abusive behaviour or the dubious issue of ‘electability’. All of these need to be addressed, but in developing a mass campaign the focus needs to be on political alternatives. The leadership campaign is an opportunity to champion the left-wing ideas that inspired so much hope and enthusiasm last summer. This is where we on the left are at our strongest.
Finally, it’s also important to have a sharp focus on popular mobilisation – like protests and rallies - not merely treating this as an internal Labour Party battle. It’s bigger than that. Such mobilisations facilitate mass participation in the Corbyn campaign. They also provide a link between the campaign and broader grassroots social movements, feeding a two-way relationship between Labour’s left-wing leadership and the role of popular movements.
Ultimately, the social change we on the left want to see will come, above all, through mass activity in protest movements and trade unions, not simply (or even primarily) through the field of parliamentary politics. A victory for Corbyn will embolden the movements. It will, for example, give encouragement and hope to everyone building the national anti-austerity demonstration outside Tory Conference on 2 October, to teachers and junior doctors contemplating strike action in the autumn, and to anti-racists campaigning against Islamophobia or in defence of migrant rights or refugees.
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.
More articles from this author
- The British State: A Warning - book review
- Election 2019: the chance for a green industrial revolution
- With friends like this: John McDonnell’s flirtation with the right is damaging and inexcusable
- Class, Party, Revolution: A Socialist Register Reader - book review
- Steer left to beat Johnson's phoney populism
- Tory crisis: does Boris Johnson have a way out?
- Power to the People