Document:The Origins of Labour’s Civil War
The Origins of Labour’s Civil War
As the poisonous and potentially irrevocable conflict inside the Labour Party gathers pace, it seems a useful exercise to try to plot the origins of the animus. This analysis is written from the perspective of an unashamed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn; nonetheless, it is intended to be as factual and objective as possible and to avoid assumptions, speculations and accusations. Much of the heat in the present conflict is undoubtedly generated by the deployment of propaganda. The deconstruction of some of the myths that inform the anger is one of the aims of this essay.
What conventional wisdom would characterise as “a battle for the soul of the party” is nothing new; that it is not new is readily iterated. At its very inception, there was contention about the nature and direction of the Labour movement. To reduce the contention to convenient shorthand, the division may be said to be between Socialism and Social Democracy. The Independent Labour Party and the Labour Party squared up to each other along such lines. Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald took divergent views as to the means by which power might be taken and held. In living memory, Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson and George Brown, Michael Foot and Denis Healey found more ground on which to divide than to unite.
Foot’s defeat of Healey for the party leadership in 1980 represented an unprecedented post-war ascent for that part of the Labour movement whose roots lay in the traditions of non-conformism and dissent: the Levellers, the Owenites, the Chartists, Tom Paine, Robert Tressell and, in that overlapping ground between politics and religious observance, the Presbyterians, the Unitarians and the Baptists. Foot espoused Socialism. Healey, like many in retreat from a more radical youth (Communism in his case), was a Social Democrat.
The history of Labour’s electoral fortunes under Foot’s leadership has been extensively rewritten and requires correction. Until the Falklands War of April 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s government was deeply unpopular. Despite Thatcher being propelled onto the international stage as a war leader and despite a palpable split in the party, Labour was able to take a seat from the Tories at the by-election in Birmingham Northfield six months after the war and eight months before the 1983 general election. What reduced Labour’s appeal to the electorate as the election became imminent was a systematic campaign by the Tory propaganda machine, the media and the Social Democrats within and outside the Labour Party to undermine Foot as – to use a term that has been revived under Corbyn’s leadership – “unelectable”.
The split in the party had come two years before. In March 1981, the Limehouse Declaration heralded the departure from Labour of a number of Labour MPs. Of the so-called Gang of Four who fronted the rebellion, only the least familiar, William Rodgers, was in the shadow cabinet. Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins were both out of the Commons, the former having been defeated in the 1979 general election, the latter having left parliament in 1976 and subsequently been elected (by the European Parliament) President of the European Commission. David Owen, a serial resigner, had declined to serve under Foot because of the latter’s espousal of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a fault line between Socialists and Social Democrats for the last 75 years. But what united those who left the party was the issue of what was then called the European Economic Community. The Gang of Four were convinced “Europeans”, but Owen had changed again to advocacy of leaving the EU by the time of the 2016 referendum.
As for the Conservative Party, so for Labour, membership of the European Union has ever been a divisive issue. In 1975, Harold Wilson instigated a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EEC and permitted a free vote among his MPs, a shrewd move that preserved peace in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Under Foot, Labour’s policy changed to unilateral withdrawal from Europe, while Thatcher, despite subsequent confrontations with Brussels, was communautaire. Sentiment in both major parties has substantially changed. By and large, though, parliamentarians are more enthusiastic about the EU than is the membership of their respective parties outside Westminster.
Given the kind of support in the media that most Labour leaders can only dream of, the new party launched by the Gang of Four, the Social Democratic Party, was initially very successful, in voting booths as well as in terms of media interest. Forming an electoral alliance with the Liberals, the SDP rode the crest of a wave into the 1983 general election and, had it not been for the first-past-the-post system of vote-counting that still obtains in elections to parliament (despite a referendum on the matter in 2011), they would have won a great many more than six seats. The Liberals took 17; before merging, the combined parties fought the 1987 election under the joint leadership of Owen and David Steele, making a net loss of one seat in the process. Later, Owen led a further SDP breakaway from the Liberal Democrats (successors to the Liberal-SDP Alliance) and presently sits in the Lords as a crossbencher. None of the Gang of Four ever again held government office in Britain.
Foot’s successor as leader, Neil Kinnock, positioned himself as a figure of the left, but he found himself at odds with more radical individuals such as Arthur Scargill, the mineworkers’ leader, and Derek Hatton, a City councillor in Liverpool, who had come to Labour from the Revolutionary Socialist League (known to the press as the Militant Tendency). Kinnock was targeting Hatton in one of the most widely quoted speeches of the modern era, made at the party conference in Bournemouth in 1985, when he cited “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle around a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”. It says so much about routine media coverage, about the shaping of history and about the inward-looking nature of Westminster politicians and commentators alike that this passage, from a speech largely devoted to eviscerating the record of the Conservative government, is the one preserved as a sound bite. Politicians need to exercise the discipline of eschewing memorable imagery bestowed on secondary matters in their orations.
Elsewhere, the then Labour leadership accused Hatton and his allies of entryism, a technique used by followers of Leon Trotsky to sway opinion in the Workers’ International of the 1930s in France. Though entryism is certainly an actual strategy, it also becomes an aspersion employed to discredit and bring obloquy upon those who cleave to a different view of the host party. Legitimate recruitment shades into entryism and generates the contradictory stance for a party of wanting to expand its membership but only if it can vet (some of) the recruits. Such is the present embarrassment of the Labour Party. Those it now sees as entryists are followers of the very Socialist ideals that first animated the Labour movement. How can this have happened? It is really quite simple. The Social Democrats have taken over the parliamentary party.
Recording the traffic of the Kinnock years, Tony Benn described the leader’s “plan”, which “enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of the shadow cabinet, the National Executive and the trade union leaders”, as being to “eliminate Socialism as a force in British politics – and they set out to persuade the Party that it was the only way to make it electable. The Party leadership carefully distanced itself from many of the important grassroots campaigns that were mounted against government policy, especially the campaign by miners against pit closures [though Kinnock represented Islwyn, a mining seat], the campaign by the print unions against unfair dismissal and the hugely successful campaign against the Poll Tax which led to its repeal … The NEC (National Executive Committee also embarked upon an internal disciplinary programme, expelling a number of good Socialists and imposing election candidates on constituencies and suspending local parties that took an independent view”.
This of course resonates powerfully against the current angry apprehension felt – whether with any discernible justification or not – among recalcitrant MPs who, some Corbyn supporters have mooted, should be deselected as candidates. But there are many ironies as the wheels of history turn. Neil Kinnock, now in the House of Lords along with his wife, is determined that Corbyn shall be replaced and he unabashedly turns to whatever weapons are to hand. “All Labour people” he told The Guardian “should therefore immediately join in order to vote. I urge everyone who wants to strengthen Labour to do that”. So there you have it: the grotesque chaos of a former Labour leader – a former Labour leader – scuttling about recruiting entryists to undermine one of his elected successors. Is he even aware of the absurdity of the irony?
Had John Smith not died suddenly – his tenure as leader in succession to Kinnock lasted less than two years – some accommodation might have been made between Labour’s Socialists and Social Democrats. Smith had changed the rules for leadership elections to “one member, one vote” (which empowered grassroots membership and ended block voting by trades unions); the Socialists’ standard-bearer, Tony Benn, regarded him with great respect and affection. Smith’s successor, Tony Blair, went much further in driving Socialism (a word he never uttered) off the Party’s agenda. The rebranding of the party as “New Labour” and the public relations talk of a “third way” was just the surface glitter. Much more fundamental was the burial of Clause IV.
At its 1918 Conference, the Labour Party set out a mission statement that contained a clear expression of Socialism. Called ‘Party Objects’, it made up the Party’s constitution, a seven-part code in plain, unambiguous language. Six of the clauses were general and unexceptionable pieties about organisation and cooperation. The Socialist red meat appeared in the fourth clause. This declared that the Party intended “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”. The clause was drafted by Sidney Webb, one of the most formidable intellectuals ever recruited to the Socialist cause. Though Hugh Gaitskell tried unsuccessfully to ditch Clause IV in the early 1960s, it stood as Labour’s dictum for nearly eighty years. And then along came Blair to abolish it.
The 1995 rewrite made the party’s new intent: “a dynamic economy, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and cooperation to produce the wealth the nation needs”. What this signalled was a wholesale capitulation to the revolution that Margaret Thatcher had initiated and, in practice, a willingness to follow that revolution’s logic. Not for nothing did Thatcher reply, when asked to name her greatest achievement, “Tony Blair and New Labour”. She knew her ideology was safe.
Thus, the beginnings of the dismantling of an NHS free to all at the point of use – the so-called Public-Private Partnership – began under Blair. It was the then Prime Minister who unveiled the Cumberland Infirmary, the flagship for a new generation of privately financed hospitals. The catastrophic failure, not only of the Infirmary but of subsequently launched additions to the fleet, was catalogued by George Monbiot.
Nonetheless, private interest in public health care expanded apace, in indiscernible, back-office ways if not in big public gestures. Now former Labour ministers look to retire into the lucrative world of private medicine. Alan Milburn, one of Blair’s Secretaries of State for Health, holds seven-figure-earning directorships in Lloyds Pharmacy and Bridgepoint Capital, both private health care companies, and leads the incursion of the accounting and auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers into the health sector. For many Labour parliamentarians, the most particular and compelling threat that Corbyn represents is to their plans to make money from their connections once they have left the Commons.
The Blair-Brown embrace of aggressive capitalism extended to the deregulation of markets and the handing of power over interest rates to the Bank of England. In another baleful development, the Blair government introduced the tuition fees that have plunged a generation of high-achievers into debt.
And then there is Iraq. Having voted Labour with high hopes in 1997, I switched to the Liberal Democrats in 2001 because I already thought Blair had taken us into too many theatres of war, before the Afghan conflagration and the second Iraqi invasion. With the 1998 assault on Iraq and the participation in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Blair became the most bellicose leader – monarch or prime minister – we had ever had, waging more wars in more different theatres than any other. I didn’t help put him into office for that.
Many forgive Blair his trespasses on the grounds that he is – the argument goes – “the most successful leader Labour ever had”. But even an apologist like historian Anthony Seldon tempers the claim: “No other Labour leader in history ever won three elections and lost none”. That’s because Harold Wilson won four but lost one. But there are aspects of election victories that deserve comment.
In the first place, changes of government habitually come about because the governing party has become exhausted or bereft of ideas, or is widely perceived to be shambolic, out of touch, corrupt, incompetent or some combination of those things. Both Wilson and Blair first came to power (in 1964 and 1997 respectively) in such circumstances, as did Wilson again in 1974, Thatcher in 1979 and David Cameron in 2010. To succeed, the party of opposition ordinarily has to clear a fairly low hurdle of appearing to be passably able and representative of a change in direction.
Staying in office is more challenging. Blair’s three-times-a-winner record is less impressive the more you study the numbers. By the time of his third election victory in 2005, Blair’s government had lost nearly four million of the votes that had been won in 1997 and 63 seats. The long and profound decline in support for Labour in Scotland, a millstone round the necks of his successors, began under Blair. Moreover, Labour Party membership, which was at an 18-year high of 405,000 when Blair became PM, fell by more than 60 percent under Blair, largely but not only because of the Iraq War. The purging of those not considered to be “New Labour” also eroded membership (which, under Corbyn, stands at more than half a million, the highest since the 1970s). Blair made up the income shortfall by seeking wealthy donors and thereby brought upon himself a corruption scandal; he is the only prime minister in history to have been interviewed under caution by the police. The columnist for The Independent and Blair biographer, John Rentoul, professes to be “baffled” by the animadversion aimed at Blair. I hope that I have unbaffled him a little.
The propaganda war within the Labour Party has ratcheted up ever since Jeremy Corbyn’s touch-and-go nomination for the leadership. Several studies have established beyond question that the media bias against him is palpable, sustained and unprecedented. Most of the material used to condemn him is either fictional or subjective or a mixture of the two and the media’s main sources for such material are the office of Lynton Crosby, propaganda chief for the Tories, and members of his own party. In the House, Labour MPs have openly attacked their leader in a manner not seen in two centuries. The ad hominem nature of the attacks is striking and sustained, the contempt heedless of the comfort it proffers to Labour’s rivals. Nobody mentions the word Socialism.
What has been as shocking even to some who doubt Corbyn’s worth to the Party as to the uncommitted, let alone those who support him, has been the naked manipulation of the party regulations by the Labour machine as it sought first to prevent the leader in post from being included on a ballot paper that represented a challenge to his leadership (imagine the Tories trying that when Sir Anthony Meyer challenged Thatcher’s position or even when John Redwood attempted to topple John Major); and then sought to disenfranchise large swathes of Corbyn supporters.
The assault on democracy represented by the NEC’s decision to deny retrospectively a vote in the ballot to any member of fewer than six months’ standing and to limit the permit to vote as a registered supporter to those who (re-)registered during the course of two days in July, raising the fee for this privilege from £3 to £25, was unparalleled in British political history. Worse still, this unprincipled moving of the goalposts was not ordered by the full NEC. The meeting had formally ended and Corbyn and his allies had left when the chair, Paddy Lillis, reopened the meeting to discuss matters that had not been included in Any Other Business, namely the decisions itemised above. Anyone who has ever attended a formal meeting will recognise that this is illicit, irregular, iniquitous and against natural justice.
Nevertheless, the media were not exercised by this astonishing behaviour. Much more to the taste of the Corbyn decriers at the BBC was the unchallenged testimony of NEC member Johanna Baxter, whose evidently emotional account of the meeting was used to attack Corbyn again. “There were a number of threats made,” she alleged, though this turned out to be the presentation of a solicitor’s letter setting out the case for Corbyn’s name to be on the leadership ballot (which argument the NEC accepted). There was discussion as to whether the votes of NEC members should be cast secretly. Baxter’s position was that an open vote made her and others – other women members, presumably – vulnerable to online abuse. She said that her contact details had been published online and that another NEC member who had been stalked had “begged” the meeting to allow a secret vote. Baxter averred that Corbyn opposed a secret vote, which would hardly surprise anyone familiar with his career-long espousal of open democracy and accountable power. Baxter somewhat sabotaged her own argument by declaring that she would herself publish her voting record accumulated at the six-hour meeting.
The Parliamentary Labour Party has ever been riven with groupings, some separated from others by somewhat subtle shadings or accidents of history. Those that plot against Corbyn’s leadership are apt to keep themselves out of the public eye; they include Progress, Labour First, Save Labour, Labour Together, Blue Labour and – this one known around Westminster as “The Resistance” ¬ Labour for the Common Good (which one wag has dubbed The Gang of 4.5, referencing the percentage of the leadership vote secured last September by its heroine Liz Kendall).
A lightning rod for Corbyn’s enemies has been Momentum, the pressure group nominally led by Jon Lansman, which was founded to support Corbyn’s leadership campaign and has continued to defend his position. Momentum has well-honed skills in recruitment and making use of social media. Launching a phone app that Momentum members had devised, the group registered in just the permitted 48 hours more than 180,000 new supporters willing to pay the £25 penance imposed by the NEC on those who were not already party members six months ago, but who wanted to vote in the 2016 leadership contest. That is a staggering number, more than the entire membership of the Tory Party.
Those in the Labour Party who do not share the Socialist principles of Momentum routinely accuse it of bullying, of abuse and of orchestrating disruption in local party meetings. Evidence for such accusations is not offered, for such behaviour does not customarily identify itself with Corbyn or Momentum. For instance, a brick was notoriously thrown through the window of the local office of Angela Eagle who, for a few days, was expected to run against Corbyn for the leadership. No individual was ever identified as the perpetrator. Nonetheless, it was widely taken as read that this act illustrated the villainy of Momentum.
The media, which played up the incident, took it at face value. However, a moment’s reflection registers that the loser from the publicity was Corbyn, suggesting that the brick was very conveniently timed to offer Eagle a certain sympathy. I repeat that nobody knows who threw the brick. The Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy made public statements that assumed a Corbyn supporter was responsible, thereby showing herself to be extremely irresponsible.
The calumny that Momentum is a bunch of bully boys who mean Labour harm has gained traction as the press have taken up this characterisation from those Labour MPs who certainly mean Corbyn harm. Anyone who attends a meeting of a branch of Momentum habitually mingles with a group of friendly, courteous and thoughtful people, most of them over 50, who would hesitate to say boo to a goose. Propaganda frequently distorts reality extremely.
Everyone who uses social media knows that abuse and even menaces are a constant part of the landscape, and no single political position is peculiarly affected by it. A number of women MPs launched an investigation of so-called trolling under the title ‘Reclaim the Internet’ (referencing the feminist campaign of the 1970s, ‘Reclaim the Night’). Anyone can support such an enterprise, until it is used as a stick with which to beat Corbyn. Then it becomes a partisan exercise and is mere propaganda. So Corbyn is told he should have started the campaign himself – though he rarely mentions the death threats he receives – and the implication is spread that Corbyn somehow encourages the trolling through Momentum.
Carole Malone in The Mirror accused “thugs acting in Corbyn’s name” of making death threats to Angela Eagle and to her fellow MP Luciana Berger. Berger promptly responded in a tweet that “the man who sent me those messages has nothing to do with @uklabour”, but Malone issued no correction or apology. The hate that columnists like Malone loudly deplore instead fuels their own carelessly damaging prose.
This all makes for further unbridgeable enmity. Jess Phillips MP flourished 96 pages of abuse, which evidently indicate nothing as to its source, but her senior colleague Yvette Cooper declared that where there is “serious abuse, intimidation or harassment online, members face expulsion from the Party”, so there you have the unsupported presumption that Corbyn-supporting members are responsible. When Phillips then “threatens” to stand down as an MP if Corbyn is re-elected, the pincer movement is complete.
And yet no Labour MP finds it in herself to complain at the headline over another assault on Corbyn by Dan Hodges in The Mail on Sunday: ‘Labour MUST kill vampire Jezza’, this just ten days after the horrific murder of the Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, marking a new low in tabloid propriety.
No distortion perpetrated about Corbyn is off limits. Angela Eagle, as a challenger to Corbyn’s leadership, wrote of “the tepid words and lip service he paid to the Remain campaign”. Just over a month earlier, during the course of the campaign, she told another paper: “Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25 year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult”. Which Eagle should one trust?
The myth that Corbyn somehow did not pull his weight in the referendum campaign has taken root just as surely as did the notion that Labour “crashed the economy” under Gordon Brown. Even as distinguished a commentator as the novelist Ian McEwan declares that “The Jeremy Corbyn Labour party was shamefully, or shamelessly, absent until it was too late”. According to monitoring conducted by the Loughborough University Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, Corbyn made 123 media appearances during the campaign, as against 19 by Alan Johnson (the nominal leader of Labour’s “In” campaign) and 15 by Angela Eagle. This was despite the fact that the media covered shades of opinion within the Tory Party at a rate of 2:1 compared to the coverage of the Labour Party. In the press alone, the Leave campaign enjoyed an 80/20 percent advantage over the Remain campaign.
Immediately following the referendum, it was the action triggered by Eagle and Hilary Benn that precipitated the rapid unravelling of the fragile show of party unity. The action came to be known as the Chicken Coup. The soubriquet was earned largely because, having chosen the weekend of greatest disarray within the government to precipitate even greater disarray in Her Majesty’s Opposition, the plotters seemed not to have a plan. The first rule of regicide, Hilary Benn’s father Tony could have told him, is only to act when you are sure of success (within a week or two, the rule was again ignored in Turkey).
Evidently, the plotters imagined that Corbyn would crumble at the first sign of multiple departures from his shadow cabinet. Instead, he deftly promoted all those backbenchers whom he knew to share his political philosophy, even managing to do so while preserving the slight numerical advantage for women that he had established in his first shadow cabinet. Angela Eagle’s progressively postponed challenge was supposedly predicated on the wish to allow Corbyn to step down “with dignity”. Instead, it made her look increasingly indecisive until the moment when she showed an unimagined naïveté by announcing on a Saturday that she would declare her candidacy on the Monday, leaving everyone to wonder how this was not in fact a declaration on the Saturday.
The notice allowed the Tories to negotiate the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom from the contest for the Tory leadership and time it to upstage Eagle’s formal announcement, leaving her wanly seeking journalists to ask questions: “BBC anyone? … Robert Peston? … Michael Crick? …” – all of them gone to the bigger story. Owen Smith, who decided to put himself forward too, repeated the error, having to postpone his own launch as a result of the more newsworthy massacre in Nice. Of course, no one can control events elsewhere, but flagging up your launch ahead of time does risk a humiliating retreat.
At a party hustings, Smith won the position of challenger to Corbyn. The fact that he is hardly known outside Westminster deprives him of the other of the two great advantages that Eagle could claim over him. He tactlessly described his family arrangements as “normal” (Eagle is in a civil partnership). But his campaign quickly hit choppy water, with social media disclosures that he had worked as a private health care lobbyist (that embarrassment again); that he got a job as a BBC Wales radio producer when, happily for him, his father Dai Smith was Head of Broadcast in Cardiff; and that he set up a fake Facebook account on which to post fictional compliments about himself. His self-description as “an ordinary man of the people” began to look threadbare.
Smith positions himself on the left of the Party, rather in the manner of Neil Kinnock. But he does not deploy the word Socialist. He says he intends to write another version of Clause IV. He strikes a conciliatory tone: as he told Andrew Marr, “If Jeremy wins the leadership, I’ll happily serve under him”. He has made what he imagines is a magnanimous offer to create for Corbyn the post of Party President, clearly a ceremonial sinecure. How innocent he is.
What the mutinous MPs do not “get” – at least, not publicly – is that Corbyn is not defying them for his own sake. In describing him as “vain”, Neil Kinnock judges Corbyn by his own lights. It is plain from the whole of his history in politics that Corbyn is utterly untouched by personal ambition. In no sense has he pursued any issue for any kind of personal gain. He only ran for the party leadership in 2015 because Diane Abbott and John McDonnell had previously done so and it was “his turn” among the Socialist group in the party. In almost every one of his 33 years in parliament, he has claimed less recompense under the cloak of expenses than any other member.
He has risked his life – never mind censure – in meeting terrorists of many persuasions in an attempt to find a means of preparing the ground for some kind of accommodation, of demilitarisation in the future. Without what he and John McDonnell were able to establish with Sinn Féin and the IRA, Tony Blair would never have been able to claim as a high point of his “legacy” the Northern Ireland peace process. For their pains, McDonnell and Corbyn are blackguarded as “friends of the enemies of this country”.
Much is made of the tradition of “service” in politics. Many politicians interpret that notion as “self-service”. Jeremy Corbyn embodies like few others the highest ideals of service, but that service is not primarily on behalf of the Labour Party as an institution. It is on behalf of Socialism. So the present confrontation in Labour, though presented by his foes as about the man, the leader, the manager of the parliamentary, the performer in the Commons, is in reality about his politics, his policies. The membership in the country are not interested in his person-management skills or lack of them.
And Corbyn knows only too well that if he, as the present embodiment of Socialism within the Labour party, is defeated, then Socialism will be dead as a force in Labour for generations to come and perhaps for ever. Tom Watson has called the present confrontation “an existential crisis for the Labour Party” but he, like so many, is putting the means before the end in privileging the crusade “to save the party we love”. Rather, this is an existential crisis for Socialism, which is precisely why any notion that Corbyn will back down or negotiate some manner of dignified exit is wholly fanciful.
So how will all this pan out? If Corbyn were to be deposed, one way or another, I have no doubt that the Labour Party would haemorrhage members in unimagined numbers. I hope that he and his 40-odd supporting MPs would immediately resign the Labour whip, set themselves up as a new party – the Democratic Socialists, perhaps – and call 40-odd simultaneous by-elections under the new colours. The remaining Labour party would be hard pressed to meet the challenge of finding suitable candidates for all those contests while simultaneously regrouping; as it happens, most of the Corbynite MPs have majorities above 10,000. A new grouping of 35-40 Socialist MPs, five times larger than the Liberal Democrats, would be a useful base from which to fight the general election.
If Corbyn trounces Smith, he will surely again attempt to embrace all wings of the party in forming a shadow team. Whether the mutineers will play is for them. That they are Social Democrats who have no regard for democracy will be a difficult hand to continue to play. Mass defections to the Liberal Democrats or the Tories may well follow, especially if they believe that local parties will start to move against them.
Re-selection will anyway affect dozens of MPs before the next election because of the changes that will be announced by the Boundaries Commission in September. More than 40 seats will be abolished altogether in England and Wales. Among those whose seats will disappear or be altered in such a way as to change their complexion radically are Benn, Watson, Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna, Stella Creasy, Lillian Greenwood, Liam Byrne, Emma Reynolds, Frank Field, Tristram Hunt, Vernon Coaker, Mike Gapes and Alison McGovern, chair of the Blairite pressure group Progress. Anyone seeking either to protect or avenge Corbyn on such critics as these will have an opportunity without trying to contrive one.
But perhaps the most bewildering conundrum for the mutineers will be if Corbyn continues to defy the conventional wisdom that he is “unelectable”. Labour MPs and the media continually cite opinion polls to support their case, heedless that opinion polling has been found so unreliable in the recent past. What they fail to note is that Labour’s record under Corbyn’s leadership has been spectacularly good, always confounding prediction. The Oldham West and Royton by-election, which was supposed to be won by UKIP, was held by more than 10,000 votes with an increased share. The local elections, at which Labour were expected to lose 150 seats, confined the losses to 18 from a very high base, whereas the Tories, from a very low base, shed another 49. Labour picked up all the mayoral seats it contested too. The Tooting by-election, thought to be safe but by a much-reduced margin, saw a doubling of the majority on a low turnout, with a 14.5 percent swing. And just the other day at a council by-election in Wibsey, Bradford, Labour increased its share by nine per cent to take more than half the votes in a four-way field.
The greatest difficulty that the anti-Corbyn MPs, the media and the Tories all share is a fact that they simply cannot stomach: Jeremy Corbyn is the most popular politician in Britain.
“Perhaps the hardest thing for politicians to understand,” wrote Tony Benn, “is that government no longer rotates entirely around parliament and the old cycle of inner-party policy formulation – intense electoral propaganda, voters’ mandate and legislative implementation – important as they are. Winning an election without winning the argument may well frustrate at least a part of your purpose; and conversely winning an argument may be sufficient to solve certain problems by creating an atmosphere favourable to the achievement of your objectives. This is because most democratic countries, including Britain, are what they are because of the structure of values of those who live in them and are not just monuments to the skill of the statesmen who have governed them, or the legislation that has been enacted. Anyone aspiring to political leadership who really wishes to shape the society in which he lives has now got to devote a part, and probably a majority, of his time and skill and effort to persuading people, and listening in return to what is said to him”.
- 1. For an analysis of the whole speech, see the British Political Speech website: speech=191
- 2. The End of an Era: Diaries 1980-1990 by Tony Benn: Foreword [Arrow 1994]
- 3. Saturday Interview, The Guardian July 9th 2016
- 4. ‘Private Affluence, Public Rip-Off’ by George Monbiot [The Spectator March 10th 2002]
- 5. ‘Why is Tony Blair So Unpopular?’ by Sir Anthony Seldon [BBC News website August 11th 2015]
- 6. Tom Swarbrick [LBC Radio July 17th 2016]
- 7. The World at One [BBC Radio 4, July 13th 2016]
- 8. July 16th 2016
- 9. ‘Jess Phillips Submitted 96 Pages of Abuse to Labour Investigation” by Martha Gill [Huffington Post July 18th 2016]
- 10. Channel 4 News [July 20th 2016]
- 11. The Mail on Sunday [June 26th 2016]. Somebody at the paper must have had second thoughts about the headline, for the online version changed the word “kill” to “dump”
- 12. ‘Opinion’ by Angela Eagle [The i July 17th 2016]
- 13. The Guardian [June 13th 2016]
- 14. 'Opinion', The Guardian [July 9th 2016]
- 15. The CRCC monitored weekday coverage on the five television channels that carry regular news bulletins and in ten national newspapers from May 3rd to Referendum Day
- 16. As a meme pithily pointed out: “Jeremy did win. In 2015”
- 17. op cit
- 18. "Arguments for Socialism" by Tony Benn [p 111 Penguin edition 1980]