What does the formation of the so-called Independent Group and the suspension of Chris Williamson tell us about the balance of forces? William Sarsfield gives his view
The Independent Group (TIG) has the potential to grow, despite its initial small numbers, its chaotic launch and the absence of policy. Over the coming weeks and months, we can expect money to flow its way, major news outlets to corral behind it and further defections from the venal majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who have attempted unsuccessfully to thwart and derail the leadership of Corbyn from day one.
TIG currently stands at around 8% in some opinion polls – not huge, but not statistically insignificant either. Moreover, we hear murmurs from Chuka Umunna that up to a third of Labour MPs have expressed some sympathy for the venture. Others may well be in political solidarity in the abstract, but are holding back for fear of the damage a split from Labour may do to their own parliamentary careers.
That said, it is worthwhile underlining just how poor this launch was. Despite the obvious fact that this small splinter from Labour (plus its even smaller Tory cohort) had been quite some time coming, there has been glaring lack of basic spadework. So, despite its relatively long gestation period, there are no books, pamphlets, recruitment videos that let us into the Weltanschauung of these intrepid mould-breakers. Indeed, journalists at the group’s launch reported it was a struggle to find coherent ideas strung together coming from the individual TIGers, let alone the group as a collective.
This underlines that this new organisation has little in the way of political gravitas. It is responsive, short-termist and very much of the political moment – specifically, Brexit; the ‘anti-Semitism contagion’ that apparently continues to rip through Labour’s ranks; and the intensely uncomfortable fact of who the current Labour leader is – his history, links, his ‘unpatriotic’ baggage, etc. For the three Tory TIGers – Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen – the key issue was obviously Brexit, of course.
The response from the Labour leadership has once again been extremely disappointing. Publicly, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have bent over backwards to conciliate – and not just by jumping onto the ‘second referendum’ bandwagon. There has been talk of not enough support offered to Luciana Berger MP – effectively putting two fingers up to the rank and file of her Constituency Labour Party, Wavertree, who were threatened with suspension by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson for having the temerity to discuss two motions of no-confidence in the woman.
It may seem a paradox, but objectively the TIG departure reflects the growing strength of the left in the party. The Labour right views the past three-plus years of Corbyn’s leadership as a disaster. Frustration levels have mounted, as every ploy to get rid of this turbulent priest have come to naught.
Early on, we had the plotting of the unctuous Hilary Benn to organise mass resignations from the shadow cabinet following the EU referendum, which came to nothing. Then the wretched Margaret Hodge and sidekick Ann Coffey (a founding member of TIG, of course) tabled a motion of no confidence in the Labour leader in June 2016 – again over his performance in the EU campaign. It was carried by the PLP by 172 votes to 40, but, when it came to the membership, Corbyn was re-elected with an increased majority.
For Camilla Cavendish – a former advisor to Cameron and now a Financial Times columnist – the establishment of TIG is to be warmly welcomed, primarily as it precipitates the disintegration of the rigid, class-based political architecture of the two-party system. This is regarded as an especially necessary corrective, given what she sees as the appalling rise of runaway ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘bullying’ in today’s Labour Party. Despite this all this, she huffs with an impressive degree of faux incomprehension that Corbyn still has the temerity to make “claims” to have the membership on his side.
Of course, there have also been (partially successful) attempts to tame Corbyn – a stratagem that sporadically ran alongside the ‘anti-Semitism’ provocation. All too frequently, both Corbyn and McDonnell have buckled under this pressure and made important – and totally unprincipled – concessions to the right. The latest example being, of course, the suspension of left Labour MP Chris Williamson. After putting up some token resistance Corbyn caved in to the demands of the Labour Parliamentary Committee (made up of 3 Labour peers, five senior Labour MPs, Tom Watson and John Cryer, chair of the PLP). Meeting on the Wednesday afternoon it unanimously demanded his scalp.
However, the right wing of the PLP will now calculate, correctly, that the real danger emanates not from the leader’s office, but from below, in the form of an overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn left in the CLPs, invested with new powers to hold their MPs to account and challenge their assumed right to a ‘job for life’. Specifically, delegates scored an important, if partial, democratic victory at last year’s Labour conference in Liverpool, which enhanced the ability of members to pursue successful trigger ballots to replace sitting MPs. Constituency parties now have far more leeway to call their recalcitrant rightwing MPs to order and get shot of them if needed. The simplified and more democratic provision of trigger ballots could well turn out to be the biggest recruiting tool for TIG, as more MPs jump before they are pushed.
The threat of deselection was clearly the deciding factor for some of the TIG founders … and it is a nightmare scenario that will be playing on the minds many rightwing MPs still parked on the Labour benches. The hoi-polloi – the chumps who should be content with knocking on doors and handing out the leaflets – now have the potential to put an end to the glittering careers of these professional politicians. The nerve of it!
Inevitably, there are qualifications to this good news. It would not be a shock if the central Labour apparatus – in keeping with the quite wretched conciliatory culture promoted by Corbyn and McDonnell – put pressure on local CLPs to drop trigger ballots aimed at replacing local rightist MPs. According to The Guardian, “Labour could delay the start of deselection battles that party sources fear may prompt further resignations.” After all, “We don’t want to further antagonise” (February 26).
For an indicator of the way the political wind blows on this, we must wait for the appearance of a document outlining how and when the newly reformed trigger ballot provisions can be fired up in local CLPs. General secretary Jennie Formby was commissioned at Labour’s January 22 national executive committee meeting to produce a ‘trigger ballot manual’, with the recommendation that it is produced in short order. NEC member Darren Williams confirmed that this was supposed to be published in February. The delay is worrying.
The overwhelming majority of active Labour Party members are now quite clearly to the left and – although there has been a worrying lack of detail from the central apparatus around Jennie Formby – these new provisions are at least somewhere in the pipeline. Across the country, groups of eager left CLP members are keen to get cracking. So, we anticipate more ‘centrists’ bailing out or being given the heave-ho by their members – either way, fingers crossed that their days are numbered …
The key problem for the Labour left is that this objective strength on the ground has yet to translate into a coherent form as a united, national organisation with an ambitious political programme – not simply to purge the existing pro-capitalist right, but for the root-and-branch remaking of the Labour Party, the abolition of the bans and proscriptions on working class organisations, and the radical refounding of Labour as a genuine party of the working class, influenced by the world view of Marxism.
This fight is still hampered not simply by the left’s lack of vision, but also by the fact that Momentum (for the moment) still ‘squats’ the space where a fighting organisation ought to operate. Undoubtedly, Momentum’s lustre faded pretty damn quick and recent scab comments from the organisation’s CEO – Jon Lansman – will no doubt further disillusion many members, if not the few who rely on the organisation for employment. Disillusionment is not a mobilising force, however. (As numerous comrades have commented, Momentum itself is essentially an online mobilising tool these days, as well as a flag of convenience for Lansman to run up when he wants to spout crap.)
The Labour left needs to build a national organisation which embodies a political independence from the current leadership of our party, not simply forms of organisational autonomy as the vast majority of the existing left organisations in Labour restrict themselves to. Perforce, such an organisation would be an open, multi-tendency alliance. Thus, transparency and democracy would be vital components (as it should be in all working class formations) and this culture would demand an explicit statement of our aims and clear perspectives on how to fight the battle. This would find expression in our attitude to Corbyn, McDonnell and their team – we offer them support to the extent that they fight for the interests of our class as a whole; we would criticise and censure them when they renege on that duty.
As an aside, Labour Party Marxists supporters are putting forward exactly such an amendment to the AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Motion 1 – the “work programme” put forward by CLPD secretary Pete Willsman – states: “Full support to the party leader at all times.” This is a crass and misguided approach that smacks of religion. Instead, we think this should be changed to: “We will defend Jeremy Corbyn from any further coups and acts of sabotage. We will support him where he fights for the thorough democratisation of the Labour Party and wider society. But we will also criticise him when and where necessary – for example, over his silence when it comes to the witch-hunt against his supporters in the Labour Party.”
Meanwhile, and paradoxically, Emily Thornberry has launched the most vociferous attack on TIG, telling a Labour rally that she would “rather die” than leave the party, that the quitters are “cuddling up to the Tories” and if they ever found the courage to stand in a by-election, Labour would “crush” them. This might be little more than an exercise in positioning – a chance for Thornberry, the Zionist, to buff up her left street-fighting credentials, perhaps. We can make educated guesses, but we really do not know ….