In the face of the Blairites' and the media's continuing vicious assault on Jeremy Corbyn, socialists - whether inside or outside the Labour Party - have a duty to stand up in defence of the principles on which he won the leadership contest
As the real war in Syria intensifies the metaphorical war on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party continues unabated. The offensive has been led by the now familiar alliance between the liberal media (The Guardian and The Observer) and members of the shadow cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party, with a dishonourable mention in dispatches for the BBC.
After the Oldham by-election in December, which Labour won with an increased share of the vote, headlines might have indicated some respite for Corbyn. But the following weekend the attacks reached hysterical proportions: “Revenge Reshuffle”, “Fear and Loathing in Labour”, “Poison Unleashed by Hard Left”, “Menacing Levels of Abuse” — just a few examples of The Observer’s contribution to balanced debate.
The modus operandi of these papers is to use phrases such as “a senior figure in the party” or “a leading member of the shadow cabinet” when quoting the sources of their anti-Corbyn diatribes. There is no reason to assume they are not reporting conversations accurately because this is the milieu that they inhabit; this is their point of reference.
They take their cue from the right wing of the party (let’s not call them “moderates”) because it is in tune with their editorial prejudices against any challenge to the mainstream. They are prepared to conduct political debate in the margins of difference between the Blairite wing of Labour and the Tories, but anything beyond that is anathema.
It was of course the same media stable that did its utmost to rubbish Corbyn’s chances in Oldham — and whatever the outcome he was damned. If he had lost then he would have failed the “litmus test” and if he managed to “cling on to the seat” it was despite his leadership not because of it.
In a series of reports from the constituency, Rafael Behr and Helen Pidd in The Guardian sought to establish a narrative that portrayed Corbyn at odds with a northern “white working class” electorate. A string of vox-pop interviews had him as a “wimp”, “poncified” and an “idiot”.
UKIP was portrayed as the likely beneficiary of these opinions. This approach is incredibly patronising towards white working class voters — they are stereotypically depicted as unthinking fodder for the likes of UKIP.
For the record Labour increased its share of the vote from 54.8 percent in May to 62.11 percent. It is inconceivable that this does not reflect a significant proportion of white working class voters, since the south Asian population (identified as the reason for the victory) comprises only a fifth of the electorate in the constituency. Attempts to discount the votes of Muslims because they were “rigged” towards Labour were straightforward racism.
The Tory vote was halved and the UKIP challenge failed to materialise. Even the Guardian editorial had to admit “the gas has gone out of the UKIP balloon”.
Interestingly, the day after the vote Corbyn was well-received in the area and the people of Oldham defied the media stereotype. That same evening he arrived back in London to attend a rally outside Finsbury Park mosque, the target of an attempted fire-bombing in the wake of the Paris atrocities. There he reiterated his opposition to war and Islamophobia. Not your typical Westminster politician.
The week hadn’t been going well for him. The day before the by-election was the vote to endorse bombing raids on Syria supported by 66 Labour MPs including senior members of his shadow cabinet. Perhaps if he had not allowed them a free vote some would have felt more constrained, but most ludicrous was the spectacle of Corbyn leading off for Labour against the Tory drive to war in a debate which was wound up for the “opposition” by his shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, cheering it on.
Benn of course was then heralded by all and sundry as the greatest orator of the century and a shoo-in for the Labour leadership should Corbyn be ousted. In the Catholic Church it takes decades of investigations to determine whether anyone should be elevated to sainthood, but Benn was canonised overnight.
Donny Gluckstein examines the historical inaccuracies of his speech elsewhere in this magazine. For my purposes, the most significant aspect of his speech was the fact that it was raucously cheered by the Tory backbenches. Few commentators grasped the fact that they were not cheering his oratory but gleeful that he had embarrassed his leader. The shameful fact is that Cameron would not have been emboldened to push for the vote had he not been confident of the support of a significant number of Labour Party members. They did not disappoint him.
What followed was a predictable media barrage praising the rebels for exercising their consciences and excoriating those of us who argued that they should be held to account. Hence the headlines about “bullying”, “revenge” and “deselection”. Leaving aside the fact that many of these allegations proved to be fictitious, it is worth reflecting on the issue of accountability. If an MP is prepared to vote for a bombing campaign on Syria that will inevitably kill civilians, they should at the very least be prepared to have their actions subjected to robust scrutiny.
The composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party is such that it has increasingly been populated by middle class career politicians, many of whom have had little experience of the ordinary world of work. They see themselves as entitled to their positions and any challenge to the positions they adopt is at best regarded as an impertinence. But the fact is that they not only owe their positions to the votes of their constituents, but their affiliation to and selection by the Labour Party, and that accountability should apply to both constituencies. It is perfectly reasonable, even by the standards of parliamentary politics, for them to be lobbied and argued with. If they are prepared to vote for war they have to answer for it.
The spectre of deselection is raised in the media as if it were some kind of public execution instead of a genuinely democratic process. It is accompanied by a real stench of hypocrisy. The tradition of the Kinnock/Blair/Brown years was that the national Labour Party would vet candidates and promote supporters of the leadership, many of them already operating as special advisers.
Any dissenters were blocked even if, like Liz Davies in Leeds, they had been chosen by constituency members. This process was conducted ruthlessly and without any outcry from the liberal press. It was depicted as “firm leadership” rather than control freakery.
I actually think that few if any of the rebels in the Syria vote will face a reselection process, although the redrawing of electoral boundaries as the Tories try to shift the balance in their favour will mean that there are fewer constituencies and sitting MPs will be jockeying for position.
Imagine the howls of outrage if any of them were actually subjected to a democratic process that deselected them. I don’t believe the Labour leadership has the stomach for it and all the evidence to date from the comments of John McDonnell and Corbyn is that they will not encourage it. Instead it is foregrounded in the media as if it were the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of dissenters.
This presents a real and intractable problem for Corbyn’s leadership. He is hamstrung by the composition of the shadow cabinet, which to some extent is a problem he created for himself, and is confronted by a largely hostile Parliamentary Labour Party. By seeking to be inclusive to these MPs he is making the task of putting his own stamp on the party harder.
His inclusiveness is not reciprocated. It is the residual Blairites who have the ear and the sympathy of the media to whom they provide the juiciest anonymised leaks. Witness the frontbencher who messaged a leading journalist at Channel 4 during the Syria debate: “Jeremy Corbyn delivered a vacuous student rant while Hilary gave a tour de force.” How else can one explain the endless space and airtime given over to the likes of Tristram Hunt?
It is also the case that these people are waiting for their moment to pounce. They thought they may have had an opportunity if Oldham had gone badly, but they were denied it. The problem the opposition has is that if they go for Corbyn now they will lose a subsequent leadership contest and he will emerge stronger.
This to some extent explains the fact that a majority of the PLP and the shadow cabinet backed him in the Syria vote. But don’t imagine that the plotting will stop. Many of them hate Corbyn and the politics he stands for more than they hate the Tories. This is why Corbyn needs to stand firm and do on other issues what he has done with his refusal to back down over his support for the Stop the War Coalition. The attacks on the organisation came not just from the right, with Tristram Hunt calling it “disreputable”, but also from the left, with Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and prominent activist Peter Tatchell distancing themselves from the movement.
Tatchell’s arguments in particular are founded on the abstract notion of moral purity rather than a response to the concrete world of political reality. Jesuitical modes of debate are often good at highlighting contradictions and complexities, but less useful at arriving at a synthesis or a way forward. For Lucas, who has a record of principled positions on a range of issues, it may be that she regards the waves of support for Corbyn among new recruits to Labour as a threat to the electoral ambitions of her Green Party.
As Tariq Ali and Andrew Murray have pointed out, the attacks on the Stop the War Coalition were yet another front in the attack on Corbyn, one of its founders and recent chair. He was portrayed as being guilty by association. In any united front there will be different viewpoints and analyses, but the key issue is unity around a common cause. Stop the War has attempted to fulfil the imperative in its title. It needs to be supported and built now in its opposition to the bombing of Syria just as it was during the invasion of Iraq.
Yet another line of attack on Corbyn has been hostility to the establishment of Momentum. It is depicted as a fifth column in the Labour Party, a conduit for “hard left” entrists to wreak havoc and persecute the “moderates”. There is indeed some confusion about the intention of its founders. Is its main focus the harnessing of the massive influx of the new members to the party to work around voter registration and internal Labour organisation? Or is it a broader based movement that campaigns around anti-austerity, support for refugees, and opposition to war, within which socialists outside Labour are welcome?
It seems clear that if the main focus is the former then the energy and enthusiasm of new recruits will be dissipated in wrestling with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the party instead of engagement in the broader issues that drew them into the “new politics” of Corbyn and McDonnell.
In previous issues of Socialist Review we have argued that it is necessary to build socialist organisation outside the Labour Party. We in the Socialist Workers Party were opposed, for example, to our supporters signing up to vote for Corbyn in the leadership election because we were a distinct organisation with a different political tradition and trajectory. It would be equally wrong and inconsistent to seek to be involved in any internal Labour matters such as arguments for democracy and accountability. That’s a task for their members.
But it is vital that everyone who wants to be involved in the wider political campaigns that reflected the political basis of Corbyn’s election continues to work together. We mustn’t get hung up on specific organisational structures if these campaigns are going to resonate with a wider audience.
In a bizarre article in The Guardian on 12 December Jonathan Freedland called for a “populist left” response to the challenge of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, which is rooted in emotional and gut instincts as well as intellectual analysis.
However, his strategy is straight out of the Blue Labour text book of pandering to reactionary ideas on key issues in order to make progress on others. Ken Livingstone and George Galloway are name checked as examples of muscular responses to issues of law and order because they are “not some bleeding heart pushovers”. He doesn’t even mention Corbyn or his attempts to build a left pole of attraction — no doubt because Freedland has been one of his fiercest critics.
Any genuine movement of the left obviously has to take into consideration existing levels of consciousness, but this does not mean pandering to backward ideas. These ideas are not fixed in peoples’ heads and can change through argument and struggle.
In defending Corbyn from attacks from the right it is also important that we don’t try to dress him up in the borrowed and ill-fitting clothes of a tradition that is distinct from his. He is a left reformist in the best sense of that description and a Labour MP of over 30 years standing. He is not part of a revolutionary tradition. He will face immense and in my view insurmountable problems in trying to shift the Labour Party in his direction, but in unconditionally defending him against attacks from the media and the right we are strengthening the left as a whole.