Where next for the Labour right? Jim Grant considers the options
What was it Marx said about history repeating itself?
This time last year, the Weekly Worker was already confidently predicting that Jeremy Corbyn would win a crushing victory in the first round of the Labour Party leadership election. It seems odd in hindsight, but many comrades were very much more cautious, despite polling figures the three stooges must surely have viewed as impossible to overcome.
Some on the far left were engaged in spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt in order to save their own perspectives, which were crumbling to nothing before their eyes (Peter ‘Nostradamus’ Taaffe of the Socialist Party springs to mind); others, we fear, had become so utterly accustomed to defeat over the last few decades that they refused to believe it was not some sort of cruel prank.
A year passes, and we are back in the same situation. Corbyn is once again fighting a leadership battle. His opponent, Owen Smith, despite his mendacious self-presentation as a leftwinger, is actually a centre-right hack (although this time there is only one of him). And once more, unless the courts choose a perverse interpretation of the Labour’s rules (more than possible, alas), or some other rabbit is pulled out of a hat, Corbyn is on course to win a crushing victory. Nothing is moving the needle – not the gerrymandering, the fabricated accusations of harassment, nor anything else.
On the assumption – which we stress is hardly a safe one, but anyway – that the courts do not hew to a perverse interpretation of the rulebook and deny Corbyn his candidacy, then, our first goal is to make sure his victory is appropriately demonstrative. Our second, however, is to think more than two months ahead.
After all, we must assume that our enemies are doing just that: the inevitability of Smith’s defeat in anything resembling a fair fight can be more obvious to nobody than Smith himself. We must ask: what is the right’s plan B? At the moment, there are several candidates; all, it must be said, are unattractive.
Version one: the split
There is, first of all, the possibility of some kind of split.
Let us sketch out a scenario: the moment Jeremy Corbyn begins his victory speech at conference in September, the anointed leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s predominant traitor faction declares that the PLP is no longer under the discipline of ‘the Corbyn organisation’, riddled as it is with Trotskyites, anti-Semites and what have you. We will call this leader ‘Owen Smith’, although we doubt he would be suitable for the role, given his mediocrity and the energy with which he is presently pretending to be a leftwinger.
The PLP takes with it a reasonable cache of activists, if not a majority; crucially, in the Commons it dwarfs, in the short term, the official Labour Party, and becomes her majesty’s official opposition. At prime minister’s questions, it is ‘Smith’, not Corbyn, who is called upon to hold Theresa May to account, which he accomplishes by wittering on about his ancestors with a thousand-yard stare.
While attractive in the short term (and if there is one lesson to be drawn from David Cameron’s career, it is that the short term offers a dangerous attraction to today’s bourgeois politicians), the difficulty with this approach to the situation is: what happens when there is an election? To be sure, no split in the PLP has ever taken more than a small minority of it out of the party. Ramsay MacDonald took only 15 with him into the national government in 1931, and the Social Democratic Party 28 in 1981. That 28 became six after the 1983 general election. A traitor organisation of the PLP will have the support of Murdoch, but not of the unions; and it is the latter support that is measured, at the end of the day, in pounds and pence.
Both sides would be likely to suffer; but the traitor side would be likely to suffer worse. And what conclusion would ordinary members draw – that it was Corbyn’s leftism or the Blairites’ sabotage that had led them to defeat? In all likelihood, the split is good for one term only; and, while Theresa May might deny it, one term might not be all that long.
Version two: see you next year!
If an immediate split seems imprudent, our rightists could acknowledge what certainly seems to be the case: that their brave insurrection was, like the Spartacist uprising and the Paris Commune, tragically premature. The solution, then, is to wait until the time is right, and challenge Corbyn then, when he truly gets himself into a pickle. There will still be time to eject him this way before too long, and for a new leader to bed him or herself in for the next election Labour has any chance of winning.
The deficiency of this approach is obvious – if you cannot make a coup against Corbyn now, when will you be able to do so? We on the left can give our rightwing friends a few hard-learned lessons about how long it can take for an enemy to ‘discredit himself’, so long did we wait (for example) for the shine to come off Tony Blair. Insanity, according to an old saying, is characterised by repeating the same action over and over again and expecting different results.
Version three: well grubbed …
So what is left then? Only total inaction and paralysis; waiting for this leftwing fever to usurp itself.
The problem with this approach for the actual individual MPs is that it may bear fruit far too late for them; a promising career will have been mired hopelessly in the wilderness for half a decade or more, maybe. They may well rotate, disillusioned, into sensible jobs in lobbying, PR or high finance, where they will never have to pretend to be leftwing in order to attract the votes of people they truly despise again.
From the point of view of the Labour right as a historic force – the bourgeois pole of this bourgeois workers’ party – things look a little healthier. For, if nothing fundamental changes in the mode of organisation and social basis of the Labour Party, the existence of a pro-capitalist right wing, and its eventual resurgence, is guaranteed.
The Labour left, in its current moment of aberrant ascendancy, has been fortunate, in that its enemies were at first helpful in the shape of the “morons” who agreed to nominate Corbyn. It, also, is a historic force, devilishly hard to kill (it is not like Blair did not try); and a component in Corbyn’s victory and the associated tumult is surely that the right imagined that there was nothing in Labour left of Ed Miliband, and so there was no risk in putting Corbyn on the ballot … before discovering that its own internal cohesion and ability to fight for mass support had withered in the New Labour years of absolute press office diktat.
We cannot imagine that this weakness will last forever, not least because the next generation of Labour rightwingers are going to learn very quickly how to fight effectively for apparatus control, how to lie and smear and exploit the preference of the courts and bourgeois press – an experience denied to the likes of Owen Smith, who had Neil Kinnock, Blair and the rest to do the hard yards for him in advance.
What is necessary then – as this paper has repeatedly argued – is for the left to press its advantage and make war upon the right. Reselections, trigger ballots and expulsions are the order of the day; and the democratic transformation of the party, so that the PLP can be permanently subordinated to the membership. Yet this is not the left’s focus; instead, the obsession is the same as the right’s – with winning the next election. This obsession is the leash by which the left is bound to the right.
Left unchecked, it will destroy the gains made in the last year. Owen Smith will not bring things back into their ‘proper’ order, of course, but – say – Owen Jones might. His press output has been getting wobblier by the week; we read now, on the Guardian website, his idiotic plea to the remaining rump of Bernie Sanders diehards in the States to unite with Hillary Clinton to beat Donald Trump,1 and we wonder whether his real audience is American Democrats after all.
The right is in a bad position to win the coming battles in the Labour Party. But the left is still perfectly capable of giving victory away. Only when our political horizon is no longer circumscribed by an irrational fear of a Tory government – Labour must win at all costs – will real political change become possible; until then, despite their current weakness, we remain the hostages of the coup-makers and their friends in the press l