Recapturing the Corbyn moment means going beyond the Labour right's fixations with Brexit and antisemitism, argues Lindsey German
The crisis in Labour is the worst that Jeremy Corbyn has had to face. His deputy – who would almost certainly face defeat if he stood for reelection - is in open revolt. He is doing the most damage that he can to the Corbyn leadership, and began this process on the day that seven Labour MPs walked out of the party, to be joined by another the following day as well as three Tories. Watson’s response was essentially to blame the party for losing these MPs. He later claimed that one, Luciana Berger, was driven out by racist bullying. In fact, the very serious antisemitic attacks on her, which resulted in prison sentences for the perpetrators, came from far-right racists, not Labour party members. He also called her leaving the worst day of shame for Labour in its history - clearly forgetting his and his colleagues voting for the murderous Iraq war in 2003.
Part of the latest crisis is about antisemitism, but it is much wider than that. It is the latest and most serious phase of an operation to take down Corbyn and restore Labour to its traditional path and any way from being able to form a left-wing government. The success of Labour’s right in imposing the IHRA definition of antisemitism on the party, which widened it to include criticism of Israel, emboldened them. Those who thought adoption of the definition would bring an end to the matter were wrong, and in the new year, there were mutterings that not enough progress was being made, followed by the departure of the eight, who claimed antisemitism as a major reason for their departure.
This claim must be taken with fistfuls of salt – not just because most of the issues they complain of took place before the new general secretary, Jennie Formby, was fully in charge of the process, but also because their past and present political stances show that there were other issues at play. Most notably, they do not support Corbyn's policies such as public ownership, appear to have the Blair line on intervention and foreign policy, and are perfectly happy to be in the same party as a bunch of Tories who have voted repeatedly for austerity policies.
At issue here is the creation of a new centre party - not as a matter of principle but because Labour is no longer performing the function of a second line party of the ruling class. It’s fair to say that if it were then there would probably be a Labour government by now, given the total incompetence and preservation of self-interest of the rotten Tory government. But Labour under Corbyn can’t be relied on to do this and certainly can’t be relied on to support the foreign policy which has become so willingly followed by politicians on all sides.
The centre party probably won’t succeed electorally but that was never its point - that was to put pressure on the other parties and Labour in particular. In this, it is succeeding. Watson is using the threat of more defections to get his way, trying to enforce changes in the shadow cabinet - a shadow cabinet which is only the composition that it is because so many walked out during the ‘chicken coup’ in 2016. Does anyone seriously think they would behave better the second time around?
Two issues have seen success for the threat of defection - one is Corbyn’s acceptance of a possible second referendum over Brexit; the other is the unwarranted suspension of Chris Williamson for remarks which no objective observer could consider antisemitic. The former is in my opinion catastrophic for Labour and will only end badly - it also appears to have made Theresa May’s deal more acceptable to some of her own party critics.
Watson’s attempt to set himself up as Witchfinder General with his own personal complaints procedure has been slapped down by Formby, but only two days later leaked emails about disciplinary proceedings appeared in the Observer alongside a ridiculous attack on Andrew Murray, one of Corbyn advisers and a leading anti-war campaigner.
This is part and parcel of a range of attacks on his advisers, including one from former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, accusing Seumas Milne of being a security threat.
These levels of attack are not random and shouldn’t be seen in isolation. These will involve elements of the state, as is the case with Dearlove, the media, especially the Murdoch press, and Labour’s right. Their aim is to destroy a left government before it starts.
So we have to treat these attacks with the seriousness they deserve. That means we need to calmly but firmly rebut the charges of institutional antisemitism against Labour, and the similar charges against its leader. These are unjustifiable calumnies. We also have to point out the agenda of those who formed The Independent Group in parliament and those who support them. We also need to assert that Watson does not have the right to behave in the way he is doing - either constitutionally or politically.
Perhaps most importantly the left has to go on the offensive about where these attacks are coming from and what their aim is. Too much of the Labour left has been too defensive and often much too critical of Corbyn with no justification, in particular, Momentum’s Jon Lansman. Indeed, Momentum needs to decide if it is to be a fighting and campaigning organisation over all this.
Politics abhors a vacuum and the left retaking the initiative can fill this vacuum - if not the right will. To do so means going on the attack over austerity and government policy. Only last week major scandals erupted over privatisation of the probation service - total loss to taxpayer near £500 million - and army recruitment. Chris Grayling’s ferry fiasco has just forced him to pay £33m of public money to private company Eurotunnel.
Meanwhile, libraries close, the NHS struggles and a school in Stockport is closing at lunchtime on Fridays because of cuts. This is the agenda which Labour needs to challenge. And Labour should also go on the offensive about racism. Antisemitism is growing across Europe and is fuelled by the far right, not by the left. Islamophobia is rampant, fuelled by governments, politicians and media. Former Tory chair Baroness Warsi has stressed the problems of Islamophobia with the Tories.
None of this is going to be done within the confines of Westminster. Corbyn’s success has been as a movement and as an insurgency. It has to return to that if it is to defeat these attacks and mobilise grassroots support.
Women keep it classy
This Friday 8 March is International Women’s Day. It will be commemorated in many different ways but most of them will not refer to its roots. IWD was established by socialist women at an international conference before the First World War. Its aim was to highlight the need for special work around women and was inspired by the great strikes of garment workers in New York at the same time. When revolution broke out in St Petersburg in February 1917 it began on IWD in the calendar then used in Russia. Women demonstrated for bread and peace and challenged the Cossack troops to attack them.
The women who founded this day understood all too well the class divisions which affected women and that genuine liberation could only be achieved by ending the profit based system which decreed women stayed in the lowest paid jobs while doing the bulk of domestic labour. Remember that on Friday - it’s not about improving our lives within the system, especially at the expense of other women, but of changing the system.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December
- Boris Johnson should worry about his own families: not ours - election briefing 5 December
- The big question: can Trump keep his mouth shut for another 24 hours? – election briefing 4 December
- A low point even for Johnson - election briefing 3 December
- Labour and the warmongers – election briefing 2 December
- Who knew: 52% of the population matter? - election briefing 29 November
- Buckle up, the propaganda war’s about to get a lot rougher - election briefing 28 November