Lindsey German on the Tom Watson debacle, global climate strike and fresh Egyptian protests
The row about Tom Watson which broke out on the eve of Labour conference sums up part of the problem for the party. Here is a man who only got elected on Corbyn’s coattails, who would lose any democratic deputy leadership contest by a country mile, and who spends all his waking hours plotting how to remove Corbyn from the leadership. The truth is he should have been thrown out of the position years ago, and certainly when Corbyn made big strides in the 2017 election. Instead, he has been allowed to continue unchallenged, openly briefing against Corbyn and plotting to form a party within a party which might well already have left Labour had not its Praetorian Guard of Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger proved such failures in the late and unlamented Change UK.
Jon Lansman’s move against him was not ideal – better to challenge the man electorally than abolish his post – but the former path is not open to Labour left wingers because the Parliamentary Labour Party refuses to allow a contest where a left winger could stand. This is a shameful abrogation of democracy but there is no sign of Labour MPs doing the decent thing and enabling a genuine contest – precisely because they know Watson would lose.
But the right didn’t have to worry because lots of the left of Labour immediately urged unity and denounced Lansman's plan. We now have a classic Labour fudge where the deputy leader’s position will be reviewed and where Jeremy Corbyn is forced to say on camera that he enjoys working with Watson. If anything this has strengthened Watson’s hand, not weakened it. If reports are true, Watson et al threatened to split the party if his post was abolished. Does anyone think capitulating to this blackmail will save the left – or will it be forced to give in every time Watson threatens?
I don’t know who was in on the original Lansman plan and what they thought should happen but – as many have already observed – if you are going to do this sort of thing you have to follow it through and face down the predictable media storm which results – and even the threat of splitting. After all, we have the failed experiment of Change UK to show what happens to these self-important politicians when they do cut loose. Instead, there was a very rapid retreat, which some are claiming is clever tactics but actually is, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. It only demoralises and weakens our side while strengthening theirs.
It is sickening to see serial Corbyn haters like Jess Philips calling for party unity, but this is a gift handed to them by the left. It has damaged the left on the first day of conference and has also seeped into the argument over Brexit, claiming that the animosity on this question is down to Watson’s support for Remain. I would argue that is only one of many reasons why he might be disliked: most important is his serial disloyalty to Corbyn and his repeated praise for those like Berger and Umunna who have set out to destroy Labour.
Incidentally, the view of Channel 4 news that he got a hero’s welcome at Brighton was hardly serious reporting. Looking at the channel’s own film, I would say I’ve had more people welcoming me at Brighton station than Watson.
Brexit is of course a huge issue at conference, with the continuity Remainers determined to avoid any compromise whatever, and Another Europe is Possible working to make labour an unequivocally Remain party. As I’ve often argued, this is a damaging position for Labour since it alienates those in labour seats who supported leave. It is also a denial of the democracy which led to a Leave victory in 2016. Probably the majority of people think that the vote should be respected, even if they disagree with it.
Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer both spoke at a pro-Remain rally which was obviously from its chants anti-Corbyn. Pretty shameful but unsurprising. Behind all this is manoeuvring in the run-up to the election. How much better we would be now if an election were underway. The missed chance is costing Labour and will continue to do so, especially since the party’s polling is poor. Its move towards a stronger Remain position certainly has done nothing to improve this polling.
Jeremy Corbyn has been dogged from day one by the behaviour of his PLP and its numerous allies in the media. Few are confidently certain that Boris Johnson can win an election, hence the ramping up of attacks on Corbyn. Labour’s left needs to face them down, not give in – and it needs to get on the front foot about how only Labour can deliver policies which advance working class interests.
The fresh air we need
The huge strikes over climate change were a breath of fresh air in a Britain bogged down in constitutional wrangles and arguments over Brexit. That they took place across the world is an inspiration. These are the largest protests since those over the Iraq war in 2003. The ones I attended in London were very young, but supported by older activists as well, very female and very radical in understanding that system change was needed to end the threat of climate change.
One of the developments in 21st century politics has been growing direct action from young people in particular. School students held two national strikes against the Iraq war which were huge. We had school students involved in mass protests again as part of the student movement in 2010/11. Now there is a wave of protest over climate action which is not going to go away.
An important question is how much it focuses on individual lifestyle change and how much it focuses on corporate and government policies which exacerbate climate change. And how too it links up with other struggles, especially those of trade unions and campaign groups. The trade unions in this country have long been involved in environmental and social issues, from health and safety at work to reduction in working hours. These issues affect us all, and have been greatly worsened by the latest phase of capitalism which has enforced longer hours and worse conditions. It’s all part of the same fight.
Egypt: the people still demand
Protests have broken out across Egypt as people take to the streets against the dictator president Sisi. Their demands are a mix of economic and democratic demands. Both are desperately needed in Egypt where poverty mixes with a brutal and autocratic regime which has seen the former president Morsi overthrown and imprisoned (only to die in prison earlier this year), where democratic rights are denied and where there is torture of political prisoners.
The Egyptians led the world with the huge protests in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring in 2011. They were brutally defeated by Sisi. Only eight years later they are out fighting again. They deserve the admiration and support of socialists across the world.
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’.
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