Britain: Two Labour Parties – The right wing is heading for a split
We are living in a period of sharp and sudden changes. The result of the British EU referendum was yet another such sharp and sudden changes. In a further dramatic turn of events yesterday the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party voted by a majority of 14 to 18 to allow Jeremy Corbyn to defend his position as Labour leader without having to seek nomination by Labour MPs.
This was a severe blow to Labour’s right wing that had been manoeuvring to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper. It was greeted with euphoria by the rank-and-file of the Labour Party and the trade unions. Now the road is open for a ferocious battle between left and right that will determine the future of the Labour Party.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected last September by a sweeping majority of 60% of party members, the right-wing Blairite faction that controls the Parliamentary Labour Party has been engaged in a continuing campaign to oust him in defiance of the democratic will of the Party. This gang of careerists consider themselves to be above the Party. They regard the membership with an aristocratic contempt. They have convinced themselves that they are a law unto themselves and can treat the Labour Party as if it were their private property.
The victory of Corbyn was guaranteed by a huge influx of new members into the Party. The right-wing MPs and the bureaucratic clique that controls the Party apparatus were horrified by this development. Far from welcoming the growth of Party membership, they regard it as a threat to their power and privileges. They wish to exclude the members from decision-making and assert their absolute right to control the Party from top to bottom.
Their constant appeals to “democracy” are entirely hypocritical, since they violate the most elementary principles of democracy at every step. The blatant manoeuvre to try to keep Jeremy Corbyn off the ballot paper, while proclaiming loudly their desire to remove him in the interests of “democracy” and “accountability” showed them to be utterly undemocratic, scheming, intriguing swindlers. Now these swindlers will have to defend themselves before the entire Party membership, which must call them to account for their disgraceful actions.
How the coup was organised
The plot to remove Jeremy Corbyn was neither more nor less than a coup. The pretext for this (a coup must always have a pretext) was that the Labour leader did not defend the Remain camp with sufficient enthusiasm in the referendum campaign. Naturally, the Blairite right-wingers defended the European Union with every possible enthusiasm. So enthusiastic were they to defend this rich man’s club of bankers and capitalists that it was impossible to detect the slightest difference between them and Cameron and the Tories.
This is not at all surprising, since Labour’s right wing are essentially the same as the Cameron wing of the Conservative Party. They mostly come from the same class, have the same interests, belong to the same clubs, and all of them without exception have the same ideas, namely the defence of the capitalist system before all else (they call it defending the “national interest”). This complete identity with the Cameron wing of the Conservatives has been underlined by recent events. It is no secret to anybody that the Blairites have been colluding actively with Tories, with a view to preparing a split in the Labour Party in the event of failing to remove Corbyn.
Immediately after the result of the referendum was announced, the Blairites launched an all-out offensive against the Labour leader. Two days after the referendum, shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, told Mr Corbyn he had no faith in his leadership; Mr Corbyn sacked him. That was the signal for a wave of shadow-ministerial resignations. On June 28th a motion of no confidence in Labour’s leader was supported by 172 of the party’s 230 MPs.
There was nothing spontaneous about all this. The whole affair was clearly choreographed and planned well in advance – well before the referendum. Ever since last September, this gang has been constantly attacking Corbyn, insulting him, sabotaging his work, and doing everything in their power to undermine him. They have stooped to the lowest kind of slanders and smears, which were repeated a thousand times by the gutter press and the hired prostitutes of the media.
These nice, respectable ladies and gentlemen have behaved like common hooligans and thugs. The meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party ended in uproar that made the conduct of English football fans in France appear positively genteel by comparison. The intention of this political hooliganism was perfectly clear: to put Jeremy Corbyn under such intolerable pressure that he would be compelled to resign.
While loudly trumpeting their intention to “stand against Corbyn”, these cowards constantly postponed announcing a candidate. Angela Eagle several times had announced that she was going to make an announcement, only to announce that they would be no announcement “until tomorrow”. Tomorrow came and went, but no announcement was forthcoming.
Not content with a howling and baying from the Labour benches, the leader of the Tory Party, Prime Minister David Cameron, having announced his own resignation, demanded in the House of Commons that the Labour leader should follow his example. Here we have a perfect example of the united front that exists between the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party and the Conservatives on the opposite benches.
The reason is perfectly clear. The Labour renegades were hoping that they would wear down the leader of the Party to the point that he would throw in the towel. He was put under the most intolerable pressure to resign. That was their plan. But the plan backfired. Corbyn resisted all the pressure and steadfastly refused to step down.
Enter Tom Watson
From the very beginning it was obvious that Tom Watson had been put at Corbyn’s side in order to stick the knife into him at an appropriate moment. I wrote that at the time:
For all his humble and unimpressive external appearance, our Tom is a man with big ambitions. Given the rift in the parliamentary Labour Party, could he not act the part of a reasonable and moderate mediator? To this end could he not make use of his excellent contacts with the trade union leaders? Furthermore, in the fullness of time, might he not aspire himself to stepping into the shoes of a defunct Labour leader, and even, God and the parliamentary Labour Party willing, could he not aspire to occupy the highest post in the land?
Now at last honest Tom’s moment had arrived. He hurried back from the muddy fields of Glastonbury where he had been enjoying a rock concert to the even muddier fields of Westminster where he hoped to enjoy an even more spiritually elevating experience, although not necessarily a cleaner one.
The trade union leaders, under growing pressure from the rank and file, decided that they had to support Jeremy Corbyn – or at least not support his immediate removal. They were clearly irritated by the premature movement of the right wing in the Parliamentary Labour Party to push in the direction of a split. They condemned the attempted coup against Corbyn and the mass resignations from the shadow cabinet as unacceptable. But on the other hand (for the union leaders there is always an “on the other hand”) they offered to mediate in this unpleasant conflict and work out a compromise solution.
Honest Tom was rubbing his hands. The prospect of a compromise, which would be no compromise at all but merely a clever way of shunting Jeremy Corbyn sideways, filled him with delight. The road to the Leader’s office suddenly opened up before him. In retrospect, this idea appears preposterous. The argument of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged unfitness for office seems like a very funny joke when one considers the possibility of his replacement by an individual who resembles a purveyor of fraudulent insurance policies with all the charm of a tub of rancid lard.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. But Tommy’s dream was not to be. It was precisely the sharpness of the conflict, that he was banking upon to mediate out of existence, that scuppered his plans for mediation, even before they were born. The Blairite hordes having been let off the leash were baying for blood and would not be fobbed off with any compromise that did not include the immediate defenestration of the Party Leader.
The publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war revealed the depth of the split. In the middle of Corbyn’s statement on the Chilcot report, Labour MP Ian Austin, shouted: “Sit down and shut up. You’re a disgrace.” This incident reveals the poisonous atmosphere and hooligan tactics of the right-wing Labour MPs. An unbridgeable divide has opened up between the pro-war Blairites and Corbyn.
The attempts of the deputy leader, to negotiate a compromise together with the trade union leaders predictably came to nothing. Watson made a statement to the effect that the Leader’s stated intention to stay in his role “means there is no realistic prospect of reaching a compromise”. McCluskey accused Watson of being “deeply disingenuous” for suggesting that a settlement including Corbyn’s resignation was ever a possibility. He further warned against any attempt to stop Corbyn standing again by obliging him to obtain nominations from MPs and MEPs. He accused Watson of sabotaging the meeting with the PLP.
In reality, this meeting was doomed in advance. It had no more chance of success than squaring the circle. The reason for this is that it is impossible to reconcile irreconcilable class interests. The rank-and-file of the Labour Party and the trade unions wish to defend the interests of the working class. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party now clearly represents the interests of the bankers and capitalists. There is no fundamental difference between the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party and the “progressive” Cameron wing of the Conservative Party. This fact was glaringly exposed during the referendum campaign.
Since Jeremy refused to resign, Angela Eagle was finally forced to make the long delayed announcement that she would stand against him, claiming she would "explain my vision for the country and the difference a strong Labour Party can make". We are still waiting for that explanation.
Whatever else Ms. Eagle may be accused of, nobody could accuse her of originality in her attacks against Corbyn. With an air of tedious inevitability, she repeats like a monotonous mantra that he is "a leader who has failed to fulfil his first and foremost duty, that is to lead an organised and effective Parliamentary Labour Party that can both hold the Government to account and demonstrate we are ready to form a government in the event of a general election."
Angela Eagle now claims she is a left-winger. The question is: to the left of what precisely? It is well known that she voted for the Iraq war and that she did not oppose the Tory cuts. In other words, her left-wing credentials are about as genuine as the CV of Andrea Leadsom. In a television interview on BBC2 last night, she had the temerity to maintain that her ideas were more or less the same as those of Jeremy Corbyn. The astonished interviewer then asked her why she was standing against him. She seemed unable to answer the question. Nor did she answer an even more interesting question: “Are you sure you’re in the right party?”
This morning we heard the interesting news that yet another Labour MP, Owen Smith, who only last week resigned as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary to give his backing to Tom Watson, announced that he too would stand for the election of Party Leader. This announcement will fill the Blairites with dismay and consternation. They require a single candidate – Angela Eagle – to stand against Jeremy Corbyn.
We do not know much about Mr Smith, but then nobody does. He has been an invisible backroom boy whose only claim to fame was that he supported Tom Watson in his ill-starred attempt to become Labour leader. Now that Tom Watson has been thrown overboard, Owen sees a chance to emerge out of the shadows and into the glorious sunshine of the leadership struggle. He now informs everybody that he is “left-wing”, which is exactly what Angela Eagle says. Curiously, both of these “left-wingers” are trying to remove the only genuine Left who is Jeremy Corbyn.
By putting himself forward as a candidate Owen Smith will very nicely split the vote, boosting Corbyn’s chances even further. Evidently, these ladies and gentlemen all put their personal career prospects before any other strategic consideration. Still, the right wing has not yet given up all hope. Terrified at the huge influx of new members into the Party (about 130,000 in the last week or so) they propose to deprive them of their right to vote (a highly democratic procedure) by restricting voting rights to those who joined before 12 January.
Not satisfied with this, they propose to discourage even those who joined last year by increasing the amount of money they have to pay from £3 to £25. This is directly aimed at poorly paid workers, unemployed people and students who are likely to vote for Corbyn. The monetary restriction would be no problem for better off middle-class and professional people, who are the natural constituency for the Blairites of the PLP. It reminds one of the old restrictions on voting rights in the 19th century, which limited this franchise to property owners. This measure alone exposes the hollowness of their claim to stand for democracy.
The supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have already said that they will fight against these undemocratic manoeuvres. In any case, once the matter is put in the hands of the membership, Jeremy Corbyn has every chance of winning in spite of all the intrigues, manoeuvres and dirty tricks of the PLP and the Labour bureaucratic establishment.
The shenanigans of the Parliamentary Labour Party have provoked fury in the rank-and-file. There has been a huge surge in people joining the Labour Party in the last few weeks. Labour Party membership has risen to over half a million in the past fortnight alone – by far the largest it has ever been in modern times. Although the right wing are also attempting to mobilise support, there can be absolutely no doubt that the big majority of these new members are joining to support Jeremy Corbyn.
Party meetings are being held all over the country, with unprecedentedly large attendance levels. A few days ago at the annual general meeting of Brighton and Hove District Labour Party 800 to 1000 turned up. Since the room could only hold 300 or so they had to hold the meeting in rotation. All candidates elected to all the officers' positions were supporters of the pro-Corbyn movement Momentum. No vote was taken on Corbyn, since all motions had to be adjourned. But the message to the leadership is perfectly clear. [See]
This follows the Bristol West Labour AGM where 700 or 800 turned up and had to be squeezed into two rooms. The chairperson broke all the rules to prevent a motion backing Corbyn from being voted. A show of hands revealed that 90% of those present supported Corbyn. Similar stories are coming in from practically every region.
Angela Eagle herself faces a motion of no confidence in her own local Labour Party. Since June 24 vice-chair of Wallasey CLP Paul Davies said they had seen their membership grow by 367 members to total more than 1,200. A meeting of the full membership will be called on July 22 where the vote of no confidence will be put and almost certainly passed.
In order to divert attention from the fact that Ms. Eagle has lost the support of her local Party, the media is playing up an incident where a brick was apparently thrown through the window of her offices in the early hours of yesterday morning. This is being used to create the impression that poor Labour MPs are being “bullied” and are suffering “harassment”. This is an astonishing accusation, bearing in mind that these ladies and gentlemen have been shamefully bullying and harassing Jeremy Corbyn for months.
Of course, throwing bricks at windows is not the way to deal with these people. It merely gives ammunition to the bourgeois press. Rather what is required is an organised campaign to deselect the renegades who are preparing to split the Labour Party and do the utmost amount of damage before leaving to join the Tories.
The mood in the trade unions is equally angry. At the recent conference of the GMB union there were many resolutions supporting Corbyn and demanding reselection of right-wing Labour MPs. Exactly the same mood was expressed at the conference of Unite. Delegates interviewed on television expressed anger and indignation at the attempts to unseat Corbyn. One delegate told the interviewer: “the only answer is deselection. Deselect all of them – every one of the 172 traitors!”
The gulf separating the Blairite gang in Westminster from Labour’s rank and file has become an unbridgeable abyss. In effect, there are now two Labour Parties that are in a state of open warfare. It is difficult to see any other outcome than a split, which will mean a fundamental realignment of British politics for the first time in 100 years.
The strategy of the ruling class
In reality what the Blairites and the ruling class are afraid of is not that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, but on the contrary, that Labour under Corbyn might very well win the next election. The Tory Party remains deeply split over Europe. That is precisely why they ditched Andrea Leadsom, the candidate of the Brexit anti-European wing of the party, in order to give Theresa May a clear run for the Party leadership.
This manoeuvre, which effectively sidelined the Tory Party rank and file that is overwhelmingly right-wing, xenophobic and anti-European, has temporarily avoided the danger of an immediate split in the Conservative Party. But the new leader will now have to negotiate a deal with Brussels, and cannot expect any favours. Any deal that allows Britain access to the EU market (a fundamental demand of the British ruling class) will have to allow free movement of labour – something that is an anathema to the anti-EU wing of the Tory Party.
The danger of a split has therefore been postponed, but not eliminated. Moreover, since Britain is now fast falling into recession, deep cuts will have to be made by this government, which will become the most hated government in recent times. According to the opinion polls a few months ago, Labour had a slight lead over the Tories, despite all the chaos and confusion caused by the sabotage of the Blairites. The unpopularity of the Tories will grow even greater in the next period. That is why Labour’s right wing is doing its best to sabotage Labour’s prospects and get rid of Jeremy Corbyn while they still have time to do so.
It is now common knowledge that the Blairites and the Cameron wing of the Tory Party are acting in unison, following the dictates of the City of London, big business, and the billionaire press. On June 22 the Financial Times, which nowadays serves the purpose of an internal bulletin of the British ruling class, published an article entitled: “Labour must now act to remove Jeremy Corbyn.”
The article commences with the following words: “Jeremy Corbyn must go”. It continues: “Labour MPs must find a candidate around whom all the anti-Corbyn forces can converge, and who will best address the deep rift at the heart of Labour’s support base.”
How touching that the Financial Times is so concerned about the fate of the Labour Party! How nice of them to give such interesting advice to the ladies and gentlemen of the Parliamentary Labour Party. And with what a pleasant touch it finishes its friendly exhortation:
“What is now at stake is not the political survival of a single individual, but the fate of one of the two main parties that has dominated British politics for the past century. Whatever happens over the next few days, a challenge should be mounted. Having unsheathed the dagger, Labour MPs cannot now draw back.”
What we have here is not so much friendly advice to the Parliamentary Labour Party, but a direct order from the people who really count in Britain, the real electorate to which the Blairite right-wingers address themselves: the bankers and capitalists. And they have followed the orders of their masters to the letter. That is the meaning of the present crisis of the Labour Party.
The Economist on the 9 July published an article in its Bagehot column that spells out the strategy of the ruling class with admirable clarity:
“Polls of Labour’s members show that, although Mr Corbyn lost support during the referendum campaign, he would still beat Ms Eagle, his most popular prospective challenger. If he clings on, or one of his allies runs in his place and wins, some moderate MPs plan to declare independence. They might forfeit the party’s infrastructure, but would not struggle to find funding and, if larger in number than the rump Parliamentary Labour Party, could form the official opposition. (…)
“The coming months will be ugly. They may culminate in centrist MPs abandoning a party that has abandoned them, and at a time when Britain needs a strong, united opposition. Still, the confrontation is welcome. Labour has long been an awkward coalition of anticapitalists and social democrats, undermining and frustrating each other. With the Tories drifting rightward and the centre ground looking sparse, Britain could use a centre-left party capable of holding the government to account and, as Brexit negotiations begin, pressing it to keep the country as open and dynamic as possible. Whether by defeating Mr Corbyn or splintering off, Labour’s moderates now have a chance to create such a force.”
The Observer on Sunday 10 July carried an article entitled “Pro-EU Labour and Tory MPs look at forming a new centrist party”, in which we read:
“Tory and Labour MPs have held informal discussions about establishing a new political party in the event of Andrea Leadsom becoming prime minister and Jeremy Corbyn staying as Labour leader, a cabinet minister has disclosed.
“Senior players in the parties have discussed founding a new centrist grouping in the mould of the Social Democratic party (SDP) should the two main parties polarise, according to the minister. Talks should be taken seriously, though they are still at an early stage, according to the source.”
“A Tory party source said Labour and Conservative MPs who campaigned in favour had become closer during the campaign and increasingly come to regard themselves as ‘a tribe’”.
“A senior Labour party source confirmed that at least one Conservative minister and one of the shadow cabinet ministers who resigned last week had been involved in discussions about such a reshaping of British politics. ‘There is a feeling that there might have to be a new party at the centre of British politics,’ he said. ‘It’s early days, but the conversations are at a pretty high level’.”
What does this mean? For 100 years the British ruling class relied upon the two-party system to underpin the political stability of Britain. Labour and Conservatives took turns in running the government, following policies that in the past had no fundamental difference. In recent decades, the difference between the two parties had virtually ceased to exist. Tony Blair and his followers were Tories in all but name. They enjoyed the complete confidence of the ruling class whose interests they faithfully represented.
As long as the economy was going forward, and certain concessions could be made, this system worked tolerably well from the standpoint of the ruling class. But now everything has been thrown into the melting pot. Years of economic crisis, cuts and austerity, accompanied with extreme inequality, with obscene wealth publicly paraded alongside the growing poverty of millions of people – all this has led to an accumulation of anger, discontent, bitterness and frustration. The victory of Jeremy Corbyn was a reflection of this.
Now the ruling class fears that the Labour Party is slipping out of the hands of their trusted agents in the Parliamentary Labour Party. That explains their insistent campaign to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. But if they fail in this – and all the indications are that they are failing – they will not hesitate to organise a split. As we have seen, they openly talk about the need for a new alignment of British politics, with the creation of a new party of the “centre”. This is now the most likely prospective. But it is an extremely risky strategy from the standpoint of the ruling class.
The new Prime Minister Theresa May will enjoy a honeymoon period, but it will not last long. The rift in the Tory Party is wider than ever. The supporters of Brexit were bitterly disappointed that their candidate was manoeuvred out, and look with suspicion towards Mrs May. They will be watching her every move like hawks. At the slightest indication of what they regard as a betrayal over immigration, the daggers will be out again. Under certain circumstances, the Conservative party can split into its constituent parts.
Under these circumstances, the drawing together of the pro-EU faction of the Conservatives and the right-wing Blairite renegades is a foregone conclusion. Whether that would take the form of an actual fusion or an agreement that could later lead to fusion is a matter of speculation. But the general direction is quite clear.
On the one hand, the anti-European Tory right wing could fuse with Ukip to form a reactionary, chauvinist, xenophobic party like the National Front in France. The Liberals – what is left of them – would collapse into such a party of the centre. The Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams who broke away from Labour in 1981 to form the SDP, says that Labour under Corbyn is in disarray and unable to provide effective opposition as the UK plans for Brexit. She says that, without a cross-party consensus on the final deal, the country could fall apart in bitter post-Brexit division and acrimony.
With the backing of the media and a generous injection of funds from big business, it is probable that such a party or coalition could win a general election, probably with a large majority. The Labour Party would be pushed into opposition. However, it would not be destroyed. In opposition the Labour Party could swing even further to the left, attracting a lot of support, particularly as the so-called government of the Centre would be compelled to carry out a policy of cuts and austerity.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, it will have a decisive effect on the future of British politics for years to come. The scene will be set for a sharp polarisation to the left and the right, opening up new possibilities for the forces of Marxism. The tectonic plates have shifted. Britain has already changed in a fundamental way, and there is no going back.