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Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a 'For the Many' gig in 2017. Photo: Jim Aindow

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a 'For the Many' gig in 2017. Photo: Jim Aindow

In the week of the Trump visit, the left held the initiative, and now must keep it, argues John Rees 

The mass demonstrations against Donald Trump’s state visit gave the left the initiative. The US President is so sensitive to any display of disapproval that he instantaneously gives protests more publicity.

And his blunder about including the NHS in any future Anglo-American trade deal was so great that it had to be immediately contradicted both by the government and by Trump himself. Of course the retraction was so painfully insincere that the damage done could not be recovered. 

On the protest in London Jeremy Corbyn gave by common consent his best speech for some time. And because it was delivered on a demo, and not in a face-to-face interview with a hostile mainstream media presenter, it gave him a rare moment where he could address a television audience of millions directly and without interruption.

Two days later, Labour held onto the Peterborough seat in a by-election result which was far from a foregone conclusion. Mass campaigning by a mobilised Labour Party membership was certainly one of the key factors in delivering victory.

Coming in the same week, these two events recalled the kind of insurgent politics which built Corbynism as a phenomena in the first place and can sustain it now. And it will need sustaining because one good week for the left does not mean that the threats from the right-wing have gone away. Indeed, their disappointment at Labour’s success in Peterborough show how desperately they want rid of Corbyn.

There can be little doubt that if Labour had been defeated in Peterborough we would already be in the midst of another attempt to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

From the very beginning of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party his supporters have worried about the possibility of a coup by the Labour right wing. The so-called ‘chicken coup’ proved those concerns were well founded.

The second leadership campaign and the better than expected result of the 2017 general election put a stop to overt, full-scale challenges.

But concerns about a new coup have persisted. Tom Watson and those who support him are permanently on manoeuvres looking for an opportunity to replace Corbyn.

They have perpetually returned to two issues as the most likely way of destabilising the Corbyn leadership. The first of these are accusations of anti-Semitism, the second is that of remaining in the European Union.

The left leadership has retreated on both. Led by Jon Lansman and John McDonnall the NEC opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s own document on anti-Semitism and voted through the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which makes it impossible to make systemic criticism of the state of Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism.

To this day Chris Williamson, the leading backbench supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, remains suspended from the Labour Party over precisely this issue.

But it is the issue of remaining in the European Union and of a second referendum which may prove even more consequential.

The threat arises from the backlash over the European Union election results. Counterintuitively, a poll in which the six-week-old Brexit party took the largest share of the vote has led the Labour right and centre to demand that Corbyn endorses a second referendum.

Despite the fact that the poll actually revealed that the split in the country is almost exactly the same as it was at the time of the referendum, Remain supporting right-wingers seem intent on driving for what would be an even more a poisonous and divisive second vote.

But the danger in this comes less from increasingly discredited figures like Tom Watson and those who support him in this argument such as former revolutionary socialist Paul Mason, who now calls for the sacking of Seamus Milne, Corbyn’s trusted head of communications and strategy.

It comes rather from members of the shadow cabinet who, although they were not part of the original Corbyn left, and although they share little of Corbyn’s radicalism, have been seen as loyal to Corbyn because they have observed the discipline of being Shadow Cabinet members.

That veneer of loyalty was cast aside by Emily Thornberry in the most public way possible on election night when she used a platform on the BBC to break with Labour Party policy and call openly for a second referendum, an intervention which was a barely disguised attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

And although Thornberry was punished by being replaced as Corbyn’s stand-in at Prime Minister’s question time by Rebecca Long Bailey, her call was then taken up by Diane Abbott and by John McDonnell.

So it was that pressure from the Labour right enveloped the centre and then the left itself. 

Just as in the case of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism a storm created by the right has led to an ignominious retreat by the left. Jeeremy Corbyn was left alone to insist on the centrality of the general election in press interviews following the Peterborough result, until Barry Gardiner came to his aid in a bravura performance on the Marr programme.

This is the danger: that the left will undermine itself, disillusion its best supporters, cut itself off from the mass movement that gave it life, and eventually die in a ditch, easy meat for the right, abandoned in disillusionment by some of its best supporters and distrusted even by those who stay loyal despite the compromises.

It might not be this way of course. The decay of the Tory party is extraordinarily well advanced. It may collapse in government and lead to a general election, which in turn could revive the fortunes both of the Labour Party as a whole and of the Corbyn project within it.

But it would be better if the left did not trust its fate to Providence, the turn of events, or even the weakness of its opponents. 

It would be better if Labour did not break faith with working-class Leave voters, and returned to the policy of a People's Brexit, silently and stupidly retired before it had the chance to pull together both those who voted Remain but respected the referendum result and those who voted Leave.

Even more importantly the Labour left needs to take its own heritage seriously. Tony Benn always insisted on a combination of Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary struggle. The existing Labour left leadership still behaves as if they were backbench MPs whose only connection with a mass movement could be turning up to speak on demos. 

But the left now run the Labour Party. Even Michael Foot, as a Labour Party leader, called massive demonstrations against unemployment in 1980 and 1981. 

The Corbyn leadership can call demos and hundreds of thousands of people would respond. 

The Labour Party should do at least this much now, that is the lesson of the week of the Trump demonstrations and the Peterborough result. If Labour did so it could save its own skin, and open up new possibilities for the left, by organising a massive demonstration calling for a general election now.

John Rees

John Rees

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) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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