If Labour can reinvent itself it can end its perpetual internal war and reinvigorate the whole of progressive politics, argues John Rees
The defection of nine Labour MPs this week – and they won’t be the last – raises the question of what sort of party Labour should be. As importantly, Tom Watson’s intervention makes it absolutely clear that there is a sustained and coordinated operation against Jeremy Corbyn which is jointly organised with those that remain in the party.
What is threatened is a perpetual war in which Corbyn faces more defections unless he changes course or, more likely, relinquishes the leadership of the Labour Party.
It’s a strategy which is having some effect. John McDonnell and Paul Mason immediately and publicly supported Tom Watson’s call for Jeremy Corbyn to “listen more” to the right-wing MPs. Barry Gardiner, usually one of the most effective communicators of the front bench, made a grovelling apology to defector Luciana Berger.
Jeremy Corbyn himself took a different line. He robustly pointed out that he has mass support, publicly contradicted Tom Watson, and took the fight to the new Independent Group, supporting canvassing in their constituencies.
But that won’t end the right wing offensive. In fact the blackmail is a permanent fact of life in the Labour Party as it is currently constituted. It won’t end even if Labour wins the next general election, a victory which the Labour rebels will do everything in their power to prevent.
A Labour government will be subject to exactly the same blackmail from its right wing as the party is in opposition. Its most radical measures will risk being vetoed, and its very existence will be threatened by its internal opposition who will constantly threaten to vote against its programme or defect to the Independent Group.
There are only three things you need to know to understand this situation:
1The Labour right wing are more loyal to the political establishment than they are to the Labour Party.
2The Labour left are more loyal to the idea of party unity than they are committed to fighting the right.
3Result: the left always compromises with the right and won’t fight them to the finish.
The Corbyn left has the support and the potential to break this logic. It needs to find the strategy to do so.
The opportunity to do so is opening up before us. As the two main parties fray at the edges Labour could make a bold move which would enormously strengthen the Corbyn project. The left leadership could dispense with the ‘broad church’, traditional, Labour model and recast the Corbyn project as a left reformist socialist party.
Of course such a move would immediately raise the objection that Labour must be a broad church in order to appeal to a wide enough electorate to win the general election.
But is this old, time-worn, adage actually true at the moment?
After all, Labour won 13 million votes, and so almost won the general election, with the most left-wing manifesto the party has adopted since the 1970s, and with the most left-wing leader the party has ever had.
The problem at the last election was not that the electorate would not vote for a left-wing party, it was that most of the MPs in that party didn’t believe that this was the case. They were astonished that Labour did so well, and amazed that the Corbyn leadership actually increased their own majorities practically without exception.
In fact, there is a strong case that it was the existence of this right-wing fifth column within the Labour Party which damaged its standing with the electorate both before and during the election campaign.
The truth is that, as Tony Benn often observed in his final years, the electorate is to the left of the party. The right wing are still unable to come to terms with this. Their guru, Tony Blair, has publicly admitted that he doesn’t understand the current political situation in which ‘left populists” gain the support of the electorate. He has also said, and this is crucial, that he would not want to win on a left programme. They long for the return of the centre ground. But that is not coming back any time soon, especially if the coming recession proves to be as catastrophic as it looks.
Of course much would have to change for Labour to be an effective socialist party. The right would have to go to their natural home in the Independent Group. But the party that remained would have to be a much more campaigning organisation than the current Labour Party. It would have to make much more effective use of the mass, activist base that exists, and which could engage those who rarely or never vote. Its radicalism will have to attract those who are so bitterly disappointed by the political establishment that they have previously voted for UKIP.
Some of this began to happen early in the Corbyn leadership and in the last general election campaign. But it has faded the more institutionalised the leadership has become, and the more that some leading Corbyn supporters have adopted the traditional broad church approach in order, as they see it, to maintain the all-important unity of the party. The trouble is the right wing don’t have the same concern with unity, as this week’s defections make absolutely clear.
A clear declaration that Labour wants to build a new socialist party would enthuse hundreds of thousands of activists, recapture the dynamism of the early Corbyn leadership campaigns, re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class, and open up the path to election victory.
Moreover, and this is crucial, such a party would be much more capable of defending itself in government that the current Labour Party. It will be free of blackmail by a majority right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party. It would have links with its supporters far stronger than the existing Labour Party. It would have a far greater commitment to extra-parliamentary action. For all these reasons it would be in far better condition to take on the political establishment and corporate vested interest than the current Labour Party.
One thing is for sure: the current set up in the Labour Party isn’t working. If it continues there is a very real chance that Corbynism will be killed off either by a direct assault by the right, or because Corbyn supporters at a leadership level compromise so much with the right in order to maintain party unity that the radicalism of the project dissolves into a more or less standard-issue old Labour operation, disappointing millions in the process.
Becoming a socialist party wouldn’t solve all problems, and an electoral orientation would no doubt reproduce some of the old dilemmas. But it would be a huge step forward for the left, would empower hundreds of thousands of activists, would raise the debate about socialism to centre stage in national politics, and help to isolate the right.
There is a real danger that Corbynism may be broken by a thousand blows, some of which are delivered by the right, some of which are delivered by those on the left who do not know how to fight the right effectively. Whatever the problems of creating a genuine left party, they are hugely preferable to any other option currently available.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.