By: NY Brit Expat
Can I begin by saying how much I have enjoyed the Labour party leadership elections? I was set not to when I saw the original candidates for the post. It was downright dispiriting. Then Jeremy Corbyn declares his candidacy, we have the nail-biting nominations process, he gets through, the Unions start coming on board, the Constituency Labour parties supporting him hands down, the purges by Labour of those that “do not share its aims and values”, now Corbyn as the frontrunner of an election which will be declared next week. This has not only been exciting, it has been a breath of fresh air and it is a conversation that Labour has needed to have for quite a while. I have enjoyed it thoroughly, now we just need to hope that the grandees of the Labour party do not pull a fast one and he is expected to win. Yes, win!
In many senses, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has shaken the political landscape in Britain. There are a number of things that have led us to this place (among these are the Scottish referendum and the collapse of Scottish Labour, and the general election result which the Tories won), but I think the straw that broke the camel’s back actually was the decision of Labour’s grandees to abstain on the Welfare Bill enabling a vicious attack on women, the disabled and the working class to pass with opposition coming from the Scottish National Party, the Greens and Plaid Cymru. It became evident that while Labour claimed to be the opposition in Parliament that they had proved themselves to be enablers of the Tories rather than an opposition. Jeremy Corbyn is set to win the Labour leadership election; by August 24th he had moved into the front of the pack with odds of 3/10 of winning.
For those that haven’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn, let me introduce you to a left Social Democrat who is one of the few remaining in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). He is the Member of Parliament from the People’s Republic of Islington representing Islington North. He is a man of integrity and principles and has a long list of defying the Labour party whips more than 238 times at least according to The Sun. Normally, I would never quote The Sun, a right-wing Murdoch spread, but you do need to read this if only to get an idea of how Corbyn is being characterised.
Corbyn is a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the People’s Assembly, is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Amnesty International. He opposed the Iraq War, supports LGBT rights, supports a united Ireland, opposes tuition fees at Universities, opposes the creation of Academies and Free Schools, supports the introduction of a living wage voted against the horrific Welfare Bill (that Labour MPs were supposed to abstain on), has spoken at demonstrations of the People’s Assembly, against the Iraq war, against austerity among many others. He is also a vegetarian, supports animal rights, wears old jumpers and often wears a black cap (yes, it is similar to Lenin’s).
His candidacy differs from Bernie Sanders (and this is not only because he is further to the left of Sanders) as he is not an outsider seeking to be leader; he is a long-term member of the Labour party and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group. He will probably win the Labour leadership contest despite opposition from the right, centre and centre-left of the Party and despite smears in the mainstream media from fellow party members and members and ideologues of the ruling class. Moreover, the momentum behind him does not come as much as from within in the party itself as from those who left or are outside of the Labour party due to its transformation into New Labour which lost them the base of the party.
The Labour Leadership Election
The Labour leadership election came about after Ed Miliband stepped down following the May general election defeat. The election was the Labour party’s to lose and lose it they did; this was a spectacular loss leaving the Tories with a slim majority and no need for a coalition which could hamper their plans for Britain.
On May 18th 2015 when the Labour Leadership election was called, Harriet Harman (deputy leader of the Labour party and now its acting head) said that voters could participate in the Labour leadership elections by paying £3 and declaring their support.
In a speech at Labour HQ in London, Harman said she wanted to “let the public in” to the contest, and said that people who were not party members or affiliated supporters through a union or Labour-linked organisation would be able to vote.
She said: “Anyone – providing they are on the electoral register – can become a registered supporter, pay £3 and have a vote to decide our next leader. This is the first time a political party in this country has opened up its leadership contest in this way and I think there will be a real appetite for it out there.”
Jeremy Corbyn declared for the Labour leadership contest later than the other candidates. I may be wrong, but I honestly do not think that Corbyn thought he would get this far. He was there to raise political points about what Labour should be doing rather than advocate austerity lite; he was there to represent the voice of the Labour left arguing an anti-austerity position. It was not clear until the last day (June 15th), and in fact, the last two minutes of the nominations process whether he would have sufficient nominations from Labour members of Parliament (aka the Parliamentary Labour Party) to actually be able to run in the leadership elections. In order to be able to run, a candidate needed 15% of Parliamentary Labour party support (35 members of Parliament).
In their arrogance, and despite their talk of democracy, those already running for the leadership that had sufficient nominations had called for members of Parliament to give him enough votes to run even if they did not plan on voting for him in the contest itself. At this point, Andy Burnham who describes himself as an “aspirational socialist” and who was positioning himself to the left of the race for leadership of the party was seen to be the future leader of the Labour party, as opposed to Liz Kendall (see here for her policies) representing the Blairites (they call themselves the “modernisers”) and Yvette Cooper (an economist as well as long-term Labour politician) who is closely linked to Gordon Brown’s position in the Labour party. This was an incredible miscalculation.
From left to right, the Labour Party leadership candidates: Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham
On August 1st, Jeremy Corbyn had already won the support of the largest number of Constituency Labour Parties. While not binding or having any say in the final result, this was an indication that the mainstream of the Labour party may have made a poor decision. Even more importantly, Corbyn had picked up the support of two main unions, Unite and Unison (both of whom Andy Burnham was hoping to obtain).
Voting in the Labour Leadership Election
In the past, decisions in Labour leadership elections were made by an electoral college split between the affiliated Trade Unions and societies, the Parliamentary Labour party, and members of the Labour party. Under the new system decided by the 2014 Collins review, put in place under Ed Miliband’s leadership in an attempt to weaken the trade union vote, they moved to a one member-one vote system. In this situation, Tony Blair’s vote counts as much as any other member’s.
More so, only 4000 people at the point that Harman had opened up the vote had registered and paid their £3 to become Labour party members and supporters. This situation changed rapidly.
By May 11th, there is an increase in 20,000 (to 221,247.). By August 12th (the last 24 hours of registration to join the Labour Party either as members or supporters), the electorate has increased to 610,000. Of these, 189,703 affiliated union members, 121,295 registered supporters and 299,755 members. 160,000+ are added in the last 24 hours of registration which crashed their computers forcing them to extend registration a few days.
On August 14th, Corbyn announced his 10 point policy plan:
The “Standing to Deliver”policies include:
• Growth not austerity – with a national investment bank to help create tomorrow’s jobs and reduce the deficit fairly. Fair taxes for all.
• A lower welfare bill through investment and growth
• Action on climate change
• Public ownership of railways and in the energy sector
• Decent homes for all in public and private sectors by 2025 through a big house-building programme and controlling rents.
• A foreign policy that prioritises justice and assistance.
• Fully-funded NHS, integrated with social care, with an end to privatisation in health.
• Protection at work including an end to zero hours contracts
• Equality for all
• A life-long national education service for decent skills and opportunities, universal childcare, the abolition of student fees, restoring grants, and funding adult skills training (http://www.itv.com/news/2015-08-14/jeremy-corbyn-promises-new-kind-of-politics-as-he-unveils-10-point-policy-plan/).”
The attack against Corbyn
As Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign picks up steam, his policies are declared extreme by the right of Labour and the old guard are brought in to tell people not to vote for him; these include Tony Blair who urged Labour not to wrap itself in a left flag (July 22nd), that Labour faces annihilation if Corbyn becomes leader ( August 13th) and accuses Corbyn of living in a fantasy-land like Alice in Wonderland (August 29th). My favourite, and which certainly got Corbyn a number of supporters was Blair’s comment is free piece in The Guardian which has the wonderfully evocative title of “Even if you hate me don’t take Labour over the cliff-edge” from which I quote below:
“So this is directed to longstanding members and those who have joined but without an agenda. They’re still a majority and they have to exercise leadership now to save the party. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left, right or centre of the party, whether you used to support me or hate me. But please understand the danger we are in.
The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below. This is not a moment to refrain from disturbing the serenity of the walk on the basis it causes “disunity”. It is a moment for a rugby tackle if that were possible.”
Other Blairites take up the challenge including Alaistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson who also comes up with a ridiculous idea to get Burnham, Cooper and Kendall to quit so as to call an end to the election process in order to end Corbyn’s bid .
What these people do not realise is how much they are loathed and if they tell people not to do something, guess what, they will. There are so many other wonderful posts, including Gordon Brown telling someone how to win an election, Neil Kinnock talking about non-electability, but really the best laughs I got were from the Blairites.
Attempts to smear Corbyn wash over him; he is stronger than Teflon and quite honestly, he is a decent human being and that makes finding smears stick rather difficult.
These include a Jewish Labour MP and The Jewish Chronicle accusing him of associating with Holocaust deniers and calling him an anti-semite. This leads to a defence of Corbin in The Independent by Yasmin Alibhai Brown and a challenge by Jews against the charge of anti-semitism; since they are labelled as anti-Israel activists, you may have missed the fact that all the signatories are Jews.
The other contenders turn on each other, each fighting over who is best placed to defeat Corbyn who has by now clearly taken the lead. The Labour leadership calls for Cooper and Kendall to step aside as Burnham is seen as the one most able to win against Corbyn. Calls for the others to step down are heard as Burnham and Cooper exchange hostilities and Cooper says that it is sexist that she is asked to step aside. The hope is that one of them can pick up second preference votes to overcome Corbyn who is set to win the contest (the voting is in terms of a preference ordering and if Corbyn does not win in the first round by a clear majority, the second preference votes come into play).
Corbyn’s economic policies are essentially Keynesian; they are concentrated mostly on the consumption side (they could use a little bit more production in the discussion honestly). The accusation from mainstream politicians and economists that his economic policies are dangerous, extreme (this is a general meme, but here is an example) and not credible is countered by economists who come out in support of his policies arguing that his policies are mainstream rather than extreme and that the austerity measures are actually extreme. Economists of the right-wing respond (e.g., here opposing renationalisation and the people’s quantitative easing.
Another bizarre moment is the accusation that Corbyn supports (or will put into effect) separate carriages on trains and the tube for women due to the harassment that they face. The media accuses him of suggesting it, when he actually said that he will consider it after talking to women’s organisations. Google Jeremy Corbyn and women’s only carriages and you will see the distortion in the media which occurs on the television and throughout the press from right to left . As Common Spaces points out:
What the media reported: Corbyn was widely reported last week to be on the verge of introducing a policy to create women-only train carriages – cue uproar.
What he actually said: In reality, what Corbyn said is that harassment of women on public transport should be challenged, and that he would like to speak to women about their experiences and engage with them about possible ways of challenging it.
This is just one more distortion in reporting and one easily disproved; nevertheless it provokes a furore. What he said was completely correct and note that he says he wants to speak to women … that is the only correct answer to this question. I will repeat what he said more fully so that it is clear:
“It is unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport, and in other public places from the park to the supermarket,” he said.
“This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews or avoiding certain means of transport.
“Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women only carriages.
“My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform, to the bus stop to on the mode of transport itself. However, I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/26/women-only-train-carriages-a-possibility-under-jeremy-corbyn).”
How this stands as an endorsement is beyond me, but this was impressive piece of news reporting and as subtle as an elephant.
My favourite accusation is that of “infiltrators” in the Labour Party leadership elections that are behind his success and that the 400,000 new members and supporters do not share the “aims and values” of the Labour party. It starts as worries over Tories signing up to support Corbyn as they think it will make Labour electorally non-viable and moves rapidly to concerns that it is members of the hard left and the Greens that have joined with menace in mind (cue the spectre of “Entryism”). Somehow they have forgotten how many people left the Labour party both before and during the Blair years.
The Labour leadership begins a purge of those who have registered to vote either as affiliated supporters through Trade Unions, those that registered as supporters for £3 and those that joined as members. These include Mark Steel, Brian Eno (former member), Ken Loach (founder of Left Unity who tried to vote as a trade union affiliate member), Mark Serwotka (leader of the PCS trade union), current members of the Labour party and an undetermined number of less famous people who had joined the Greens and the National Health Action Party that were advocating an anti-austerity position, those who had left Labour and wanted to return to support Corbyn, and a tiny group of the hard left, because let’s face it, the hard left is tiny and there is no way that they could be responsible for the number of increased voters. The hashtag #Labour purge which attempts to collect the names of those rejected began trending.
With so many rejected, I am certain that I am not the only one who is wondering what the “aims and values” of the Labour party actually are. They have rejected long-term supporters, members (who can appeal), members of the Green party, and former members wanting to return to the fold. What are those aims and values which they don’t support? The other obvious issue is how are you supposed to build a party if you reject people leaving their old parties or new returnees to the Labour party? Don’t they have to win over members of the public to build the party and even win?!
The purge seems to have had differing impacts depending on which tendency in the party is running which constituency based Labour party. It seems far stronger in the south of London where there are more members of the Progress group than in the North where the labour left is stronger. Perhaps the most unsettling story appears in The Guardian by Tim Dowling whose son is asked to vet two of his classmates as to whether they are real supporters of the Labour party. Several people asked me if they thought this was satire, I didn’t think so. Yes, this gave me a rather creeping feeling as I am wondering whether children will be called on to denounce family members and their neighbours next.
So, what next?
Let’s assume that the bookmakers are right and Corbyn wins (heck, the Labour party has accepted that, so why can’t we?). What happens next? The mainstream (and right) of the Labour party has moved from trying to get rid of him in weeks and not serving in his cabinet to recentlycalling for unity . Even with the purge (which is making their claims of democracy look ridiculous), odds are on Corbyn winning.
However, he comes from a group/tendency in the Labour party that has few numbers in Parliament. He needs to create a shadow cabinet around him. He has far greater support outside the Parliamentary Labour Party than inside.
Those who are Labour Left are hoping that this will lead to major changes a shift in the party back to social democracy as opposed to the neoliberal position that they been taking since Blair, both hard and soft (hey, for this matter, the same could be said of all members of the left both within and outside of the Labour Party). Moreover, new people have joined who support an anti-austerity agenda and a return to Labour actually holding social democratic positions; many of them are young people. The power that newcomers or returnees have to influence things depends upon the nature of the Constituency Labour party in which they will be members; these differ across the country as they are tied to constituencies. Some are more left or right than others, some are completely non-democratic in practice and influence will not be easy or automatic. This will lead to struggles within the party which to me, as a non-member, will be great and long overdue. The neoliberal agenda was pushed down from the top of the party; it is way past time that the members of the party actually have a say in the future of the party. This is a struggle for the heart and future of the party.
The claims that the right in Labour would now serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet clearly are an attempt to try and shift him to the right for “Labour unity.” The question is whether he will be dependent upon their support and how much he would be willing to give up to gain their support. That is a danger.
The talk of a split in which the right-wing packs its bags and forms a new party are debatable; in a first-past-the-post system, the going would be rather difficult and quite honestly they would be to the right of the Liberal Democrats who have shifted left and would be redundant. If they actually join en masse to another party (Tory, Liberal Democrat) that would be held against them by Labour members and would confirm that they were not Labour in their hearts. Moreover, most of them would not be so happy to give up their careers in the Labour party (many of them are careerists after all).
So, it is probable that their plan is to continue to discredit him and drive him from office before the next general election in 2020. They have done this before to other leaders far further to the right than Jeremy Corbin. It starts (as it already has) with him being denounced in the media and this continues to undermine his popularity until they can move to replace him as leader.
The Labour party itself is an incredibly undemocratic organisation in which rank and file members have far too little power, Constituency Labour parties are often controlled by a specific group within the organisation, there have long been accusations of corruption, and are undemocratic in nature and the Parliamentary Labour Party has far too much power (look at the nominating process itself).
In order to democratise the party which Corbyn promises, he will have to get the support of people who are quite happy with the current structures that exist. As such, democratic changes can be blocked by Labour grandees and careerists in the party.
Let’s talk for a bit about the Left both within and outside of the Labour party. Should members of Left-wing electoral groups and the groups themselves (TUSC and Left Unity) pack it in and join Labour?
Not just yet …
There is no guarantee that Corbyn will be successful in shifting the Labour Party left and democratising it; it is a task that will be fought all the way by the centre and the right of the party. On the one-hand, the extra-parliamentary support of the Left and its mobilising to support his programme will be necessary to keep up the fight.
On the other hand, if the mainstream of Labour are successful and able to oust Corbyn from leadership (and I am expecting that), that will lead to new members leaving and being dispirited. The left parties need to exist to give these people an electoral home, so disbanding TUSC or Left Unity is not a great idea. The way forward will be harder but we need to keep fighting it. I do not think that long-term Left Labour party members will be quick to leave as they have stayed there and fought for quite a while already. Tony Benn never left, I doubt Corbyn will nor will members of the Labour Representation Committee and the Socialist Campaign Group … but hey, I may be wrong (it won’t be the first or the last time).
The question of whether an entryist tactic is the correct one at a certain time relates to whether a party is actually a mass party where we of the hard left can actually influence its direction and bring members to the hard left (see Entryism). It is questionable whether this is a correct tactic at this time due to the fact that Labour is not a mass party and whether it is possible to shift it irrespective of a Corbyn victory.
Even if Labour amazingly shifts itself to being a social democratic party and wins in elections (yes, that is a persistent dream of many), this is insufficient as this will be essentially reformist in nature and that will not provide the changes (like elimination of private property) that are needed to eliminate the capitalist system.
So, yes, I understand why members of the hard left have joined the Labour party (I do not know if these are tactical or strategic choices) and I respect their choices (although I do not agree with them) and hope that they win the fight to reform the party and to try and make it a social democratic party. But I am not yet ready to call it quits and join Labour. if it became a mass party … well, we may have to sit down and think about it.