Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote speech to the Labour Party conference was a defiant response to his critics in the parliamentary party who have been doing their best to undermine him since his re-election as leader at the start of the conference.
On education, arms sales, housing and especially on immigration, he offered a refreshingly radical agenda in complete contrast to that of his deputy and chief tormentor, Tom Watson, the previous day.
The speech was a clear indication that he intends to face down the parliamentary party majority who had staged the failed coup against him. But he will face continuing opposition from them in the months ahead and will only be able to campaign effectively on his policies if he can mobilise a powerful movement outside parliament in every community and union.
Corbyn’s victory was truly astonishing, increasing his percentage of the vote to 62 and winning all three categories of the electorate:
Corbyn 313,209 (61.8%)
Smith 193,229 (38.2%)
Full party members
Corbyn 168,216 (59%) Smith 116,960 (41%)
Corbyn 60,075 (60.2%) Smith 39,670 (39.8%)
Corbyn 84,918 (69.9%) Smith 36,599 (30.1%)
This despite the opposition of the vast majority of the parliamentary party and the purge of members and supporters by the party apparatus. As Gary Younge put it in the Guardian, “The party’s right have thrown everything they’ve got at Corbyn. Not only is he still standing, he’s now standing taller than before.”
However, what needs to be added to that assessment is the fact that almost before the dust of the election had settled the right showed its determination to cut Corbyn down and calls for the divide to be bridged have already fallen on deaf ears. This offensive has taken a number of forms. The most ludicrous, from Vernon Coaker MP, is to advocate a change in membership — recalling Brecht’s poem The Solution with its immortal lines: “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”
More seriously, others in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are pursuing the line touted by deputy leader Tom Watson that Corbyn should show his willingness to compromise by supporting the election of the shadow cabinet by members of the PLP. Were this to happen it would hobble the leader to the point of rendering him impotent.
Tom Baldwin, former director of communications for Ed Miliband, is arguing that those who have refused to sit in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet or have been part of the orchestrated resignations from it should come together in a parallel policy forming group called 2020, in preparation for the next election. Such a group would be directly opposing the policies being pursued by Corbyn.
Others, including Iain McNicol, the witch-hunting general secretary, are arguing for a “Clause One Group” that identifies the Labour Party primarily by its parliamentary function to the detriment of grassroots campaigns and trade union involvement. David Miliband has popped up to tell us that Corbyn is “unelectable” and “undesirable”, an echo of Tony Blair’s view that he would rather see the Labour Party lose the next election if Corbyn were leader. Peter Mandelson weighed in with the view that the best hope for Labour was an early election in which Corbyn would lose and then be deposed.
These and more proposals to undermine the elected leadership have emanated from an increasing number of well-funded right wing pressure groups such as Progress and Labour First. This should come as no surprise to those of us who have been keeping abreast of their plotting and scheming.
In a revealing article in Socialist Worker (13 September) Nick Clark reported on a “Road to Conference” meeting sponsored by these right wingers at which all the usual suspects were lining up to say that, whatever the outcome of the leadership election, “nothing changes” and they would be pursuing their opposition to Corbyn for as long as it takes. So when Jeremy offers them the olive branch they want to beat him over the head with it. And although he may wish to “wipe the slate clean” they intend to continue playing dirty.
This makes the demand from the right (and some like Owen Jones who regard themselves on the left) that there should be no recriminations from Corbyn or McDonnell in the form of deselection of MPs or sacking of the party apparatchiks, a bit rich and reeking of double standards.
It was the right in the PLP that launched the offensive against Corbyn with their vote of no confidence and resignations from his shadow cabinet in a failed attempt to make him resign. It is they who have instigated the spurious allegations of misogyny, anti-Semitism and bullying. It is they who promoted the challenge from the hapless Owen Smith to Corbyn’s leadership. It is they who have colluded with the purge of members and the attempt to undermine Corbyn’s vote. It is they who have maintained a torrent of abuse against him in public.
Now that all of these tactics have failed they are going for a repeat performance. In this endeavour they will continue to have the support of the liberal media, as evidenced by the prominence given to Chuka Umunna in The Observer the day after Corbyn’s re-election.
It is of course true that if the left and Momentum in particular focus on infighting in the party, they will be distracted from campaigning on broader political issues and can easily become demoralised. Getting sucked into the bureaucratic swamp of constituency parties’ procedures could easily undermine the tremendous success Momentum has had thus far in projecting an alternative to the right. It is also true that a divided party at war with itself is hardly appealing to the electorate.
But that does not mean that there should be no accountability for party officials and MPs. Too many of them think they have their position as an entitlement rather than seeing themselves as representatives of their party and constituency. There needs to be a settling of accounts, but it cannot be the main priority.
Underlying the divisions are irreconcilable differences on policy that make any attempt to unite the opposing elements well-nigh impossible. If you take the three main planks of Corbyn’s political record — anti-war, anti-austerity and anti-racism — you find him diametrically opposed by the right. Their support for NATO, Trident and military intervention is on record. Their embrace of neoliberal economics means they have no left alternative to austerity and are reluctant to put the blame on the corporations and the banks, still less demand a fair taxation policy.
On the issue of racism, the speed with which they are moving further to the right is breathtaking. Stephen Kinnock has led the charge calling for “managed” immigration and now Chuka Umunna has called for immigrants to be forced to integrate. This shift is partly the result of their failed analysis of the Brexit vote.
Corbyn was right to highlight the benefits of immigration in his speech and this will be a key battleground in the coming months. It highlights the significance of his speaking at the Stand Up to Racism Conference on 8 October.
In summary, reconciliation is impossible unless key principles are abandoned or fudged.
In this situation the role of the unions is equivocal. Thus far the major unions, Unison and Unite, have stuck with Corbyn, but they will be determined to ensure that he doesn’t stray too far from their own sectional agendas. Trident will be one of those issues, but not the only one. Ironically they may see the upsurge in Labour Party politics as a substitute for their own inactivity in initiating struggle at a national level. They will continue to exercise their influence and control within the Labour machine to constrain the activity of the left.
None of this, however, is inevitable. The wave of enthusiasm for a different kind of politics has led to a dramatic increase in Labour Party membership. Indeed, Corbyn’s vote alone was bigger than the total membership of the Labour Party before this upsurge. This desire for a break with the politics of New Labour and the legacy of Blair can still be harnessed to make a difference in key political campaigns.
For those of us not in the Labour Party this is not a spectator sport. We need to engage with everyone who is prepared to fight, whatever the issue. The importance of a united front in support of refugees and breaking down borders is a vital component in the fight against the growth of racism and the proliferation of racist attacks.
Battles have begun to be won in campaigns against zero hour contracts and low wages. Campaigns against cuts in services caused by underfunding are gaining resonance. They are hampered, however, by the role of Labour councils, as in the Durham Teaching Assistants dispute, where the council is prepared to push through the cuts instead of joining in the resistance.
Although, tragically, the junior doctors’ strikes have been called off, the opposition to the creeping privatisation of the NHS has not been broken. Finally, Corbyn’s rallying call for opposition to segregation in education that is explicit in Theresa May’s plan to increase the number of grammar schools has already struck a chord.
If the new movement in the Labour Party can focus primarily on these political campaigns the Tories can be pushed back and the right in the party sidelined. It’s still all to play for.