From the antisemitism smears to the threats of splitting from the party over Brexit, the PLP are still at war with Labour's leadership, argues Alex Snowdon
A number of developments in recent days have highlighted the ongoing conflicts inside the Labour Party. They have served as a reminder of the scale of hostility in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to the left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the political trajectory that Corbyn represents.
Two issues in particular have become totemic for the Labour Right. One is its support for the European Union, which is currently manifested in calls to overturn the outcome of the June 2016 referendum by holding another referendum. The other one is the weaponisation of claims of antisemitism in a bid to damage Corbyn and the left. There has also been criticism of Corbyn’s stance on Venezuela - characterised by respect for democracy and opposition to US interference - based on a wider hostility to the left’s desire to move on from the pro-interventionist politics of the Blair era.
The latest skirmish is over a threatened ‘no confidence’ motion against Labour MP Luciana Berger by members of her constituency party. It has been subsequently withdrawn under pressure. The threat arose in response to Berger’s repeated undermining of her own party, to the extent that she has declined ruling out leaving Labour and helping to form a breakaway party. This has exasperated members of her CLP in Liverpool, many of whom unsurprisingly feel that she doesn’t represent them.
The initial story - about a planned ‘no confidence’ vote - arose in the wake of other stories about Labour MPs losing similar votes or being faced with such a prospect in the near future. But it also dovetailed with a renewal, by the PLP, of efforts to cynically deploy antisemitism claims against the Corbyn leadership. This has led to a deliberate conflation of the two, with ludicrous claims that CLP activists want to deselect Berger because she is Jewish (or, in a more nuanced form, because she has taken a stand against antisemitism).
This is transparently nonsense. The political basis for activists criticising Berger is clear and comprehensive. The antisemitism issue has nothing to do with it. Corbyn’s opponents are desperately reaching for anything to tarnish him, and his supporters, with. Their attacks are politically motivated and part of a longer-term pattern.
The smear has, however, caused confusion and disorientation. The CLP’s climbdown is presumably in response to the backlash from media and right-wing Labour figures. Although this conciliatory position has been supported by some left Labour figures like Owen Jones, this will not halt those opportunistically exploiting the problem of antisemitism or help defend the CLP activists who are fed up with the conduct of MPs intent on undermining Jeremy Corbyn.
Such stories are unfolding in the context of a political crisis - above all for the Tory government - over the UK’s exit from the European Union. Berger represents a wing of the PLP that is deeply hostile to Labour’s championing of a better Brexit deal than that offered by the Tories, instead seeking to overturn the 2016 referendum altogether. This is an issue that has traction due to widespread confusion about the EU in the Labour Party, including among Corbyn supporters.
What underpins much of this is the historic divergence between a PLP still dominated by the Right and a mass membership with majority support for a socialist leader. Labour is a parliamentary party and the parliamentary grouping has considerable weight. Yet the politics of many MPs repeatedly clashes with the aspirations of grassroots members. This conflict is not disappearing, as sometimes claimed, but remains acute.
It is a mistake for elements of the Labour left to cave in to pressure - to withdraw the ‘no confidence’ motions, retreat from the project of proper democratic selection of general election candidates and give credibility to spurious claims of antisemitism. The Labour Right and its establishment cheerleaders will only be emboldened. Instead, the smears and arguments need to be refuted, while insisting on democratic representation and the right to hold MPs to account.
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.
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