The public spat involving Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Labour Party, the media and sections off the Labour right might may seem to be just the latest skirmish in the slow coup that has been underway since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. All the usual elements and players in the drama are present: the allegations of anti-Semitism, the demand by the right for suspensions and expulsions, the lurid media stories about bullying and intimidation – and a rather weak response from the Corbyn leadership in the face of an open attack on the rank-and-file members who support him. So have the events of the last fortnight been any different from the countless other attacks launched by the right and their friends in the media over the last four years?
In the last edition of this paper Carla Roberts explained very well the context for these latest attacks on the Labour left (‘Split – and split now!’, February 7). The growing political challenge to the Blairite rump that still controls the Parliamentary Labour Party; the increasing possibility of successful trigger ballots replacing rightwing MPs with Corbyn- supporting candidates; and the possibility of a snap election – all have concentrated the minds of the Labour right wonderfully, as they contemplate a somewhat uncertain future. Whilst some, undoubtedly, want to hold on to their seats for careerist or personal reasons, others are looking to the future and (for them) the appalling vista of a Corbyn government. They need to keep all the MPs they can to continue their work of sabotage and undermine any hint of radicalism, should Labour be successful at the polls. The capitalists need a reliable fifth column inside our movement and Tom Watson and company are just the ticket. So trigger ballots and the composition of the PLP are crucial issues for them, as well as their friends in the media and the boardrooms.
Another important factor is that the appointment of Jennie Formby has seen some relaxation in Labour’s internal regime. Under the previous general secretary there was a ‘Shoot first and ask questions later’ approach: unfounded allegations against individuals and CLPs were met with summary expulsions and suspensions. Anyone who stuck their neck above the parapet risked disciplinary action, resulting in a reluctance to criticise or engage in debate on contentious issues.
Many on the left counselled caution: ‘Don’t rock the boat; if you do speak out, our CLP will be shut down and members expelled’ was a frequent cry. ‘Keep your heads down and wait for better days, and trust in Jeremy,’ many left comrades advised. Well these are better days and it is now that we should fight back against the right and their rearguard action to hold onto power. For these reasons alone the controversy surrounding Liverpool Wavertree is not just another episode in our four-year civil war. For all sides in the battle the last few days represent a qualitative shift to a new phase.
The sequence and pattern of events in the Wavertree affair now seems clear. Two motions of no confidence in the arch-Blairite MP, Luciana Berger, were tabled by members of the CLP. Although signed by only four members of the party, they reflected widespread oppositiontoherpositiononanumber of important issues, ranging from her support for Israeli actions in Gaza to her uncritical support of the Tory government’s posturing over the
Salisbury poisonings. However, the main thrust of opposition was twofold: one key issue was her refusal to categorically deny persistent media reports that she, along with a number of other Blairites, were preparing to leave Labour and set up a new putative centrist grouping. The second, equally significant issue for members of the CLP was her similar refusal to confirm that she would support a Corbyn- led Labour government. Usually reliable sources in Liverpool suggest that she was asked directly at a CLP meeting whether she would back such a government and, it is alleged, she evaded the question and refused to give a direct answer.
It may seem terribly old-fashioned to the Blairite sophisticates who write Guardianopinion pieces offering advice to our movement, but ordinary members in Wavertree seem to think that it goes without saying that a Labour MP should publicly proclaim their support for a Labour government and should not evade the question, whether it is put by Eddie Mair, Robert Peston or a party member at a CLP meeting.
In terms of this drama, so far, so normal. The next act also had a familiar pattern to it. The motions of no confidence were circulated to members in advance of the all- members meeting by the CLP secretary. Given the importance of the issue and the possibility that Luciana Berger might not be able to attend the scheduled meeting because of parliamentary commitments, the CLP’s executive agreed that these motions would be taken at a special weekend meeting. It was at this point that the familiar chorus walked on to the stage and began their song of woe. Following a leak of the CLP’s internal communications to the media, the local newspaper, The Liverpool Echo, ran a story about the motions.
This was followed by a solo performance on the stage of the House of Commons by that celebrated keeper of the Blairite true faith, Tom Watson. He deliberately and quite inaccurately linked the no-confidence motions to Lucian Berger’s public statements on anti- Semitism, suggesting that a virulent gang of racists in Wavertree CLP was trying to silence her. In a virtuoso performance delivered with all the sincere aplomb of a polished actor, he spoke of a “hateful, bullying culture”, which was not only “threatening towards Luciana personally”, but was “bringing our party into disrepute”. He later wrote to Jennie Formby to “take the necessary steps to suspend Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Labour Party” because of this “intolerable” behaviour. This trope of linking the political criticisms of Berger to anti-Semitism was repeated ad nauseam by media commentators and Labour’s right wing over the next few days. Liverpool Labour mayor Joe Anderson, shadow education spokesperson Angela Rayner and Guardiancolumnist Owen Jones all joined in, as did the usual suspects in the PLP. We were all invited to ‘stand with Luciana’ against the anti-Semites who were trying to bring her down. Once again the drama was following a predictable script.
But a new twist in the tale began to emerge. In response to the furore, John McDonnell made a clear defence of Wavertree CLP’s right to hold its MP to account and denied that anti-Semitism played any part in the tabling of the motions. He argued that it was Berger’s refusal to support a future Corbyn-led Labour government or rule out joining another party that had caused the crisis. Speaking to the BBC, he suggested that all she had to do was publicly deny that she was planning to leave the party and the issue could be swiftly put to bed.
Other left MPs, such as Ian Lavery, also showed support for the CLP. Most significantly, Jennie Formby responded to Watson’s demand for the suspension of Wavertree by rejecting his call, arguing that there were no grounds at all for doing so. This was a new and (for Watson and the right) a most unwelcome development. The other actors in the performance were not following the script at all! Big Tom’s stature was much reduced. Just when it looked as if the action on stage was withdrawn, the movers explaining that they had been under sustained media pressure and harassment since their personal details had been leaked to the media. Again such bullying, undertaken by the media and instigated by the Labour right, was neither unusual nor unexpected. Neither were the attempts by the media to further muddy the waters and attempt to smear the CLP chair, who is Jewish, and other activists with claims of anti-Semitism.
According to sources in Liverpool – confirmed by some media reports – there was another, less expected perhaps, series of pressures on the movers of the no-confidence motions and the CLP. This appeared to come from figures close to the Corbyn- McDonnell leadership, who were urging that the motions be withdrawn. It was also suggested that, whilst leading figures on Labour’s left supported the right of CLPs to hold their MPs to account, now was not the time to move no-confidence motions, especially when such a high-profile opponent as Luciana Berger was in the firing line.
So there the performance seems to have ended. The motions were withdrawn; the media continued digging around on Facebook, Twitter , etc for profiles of anyone in Wavertree whose name had been passed on to them by the Labour right; stories continued to appear, and Wavertree CLP was brought up at a PLP meeting by the Labour right as yet another example of the rampant anti-Semitism they see everywhere.
However, the curtain has not quite come down on this show yet. In fact it will run and run, because the underlying issues that it raises have not gone away. The Labour right and their friends in the media played their part, as expected, but some aspects of the left’s part in this drama need looking at critically. Whilst the support that the Corbyn leadership and the general secretary gave to Wavertree CLP was welcome (and a distinct improvement on previous statements in cases such as Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and Marc Wadsworth), it still left plenty of room for improvement. Put simply, the Labour right launched a pre-emptive strike against Wavertree as a direct challenge to the Corbyn leadership and the whole of the Labour left.
We cannot wish this away by urging caution or restraining members who want to hold Blairite MPs to account. If we do not begin the fightback now, we will have to fight even harder if Labour wins an election and the inevitable sabotage of a Corbyn government begins. If Luciana Berger and her fellow Blairites do not do the job for us by joining a new centrist party, we have to help them on their way by using any new trigger ballot procedures to replace them with socialists committed to the historic goals of our movement.
There is a civil war going on in our party, initiated and vigorously perused by the Labour right – let us recognise that fact and take them on in a fight to the finish. Now is not the time to compromise: now is the time for the Corbyn leadership and the whole of the Labour left to take the fight to the enemy within. In the war against the Labour right, it is time to open the second front.