The Labour plotters are well organised, but weaker than they look. Jim Grant of Labour Party Marxists urges that we take the fight to them
[This article first appeared in Weekly Worker on Thursday July 7 – when Angela Eagle was dithering, hoping to launch her coup attempt with Jeremy Corbyn excluded. Now the Labour leader election is on, and the July 12 NEC meeting has, thankfully, put Corbyn on the ballot paper. Expect a dirty campaign. Will the courts be asked to reverse that decision? If Corbyn wins, expect the PLP rightwing majority to split from the party. Good riddance. We urge all socialists to join Labour, and fight, fight and fight again to democratise the party and transform it into a permanent united front of all sections of the working class.]
Christopher Clark’s extraordinary account of the background to World War I, The sleepwalkers, begins with the story of the violent overthrow of the Serbian king Alexandar in 1903:
Shortly after two o’clock on the morning of June 11 1903, 28 officers of the Serbian army approached the main entrance of the royal palace in Belgrade. After an exchange of fire, the sentries standing guard before the building were arrested and disarmed … Finding the king’s apartments barred by a pair of heavy oaken doors, the conspirators blew them open with a carton of dynamite. The charge was so strong that the doors were torn from their hinges and thrown across the antechamber inside, killing the royal adjutant behind them …
The [royal] couple were cut down in a hail of shots at point-blank range … An orgy of gratuitous violence followed. The corpses were stabbed with swords, torn with a bayonet, partially disembowelled and hacked with an axe, until they were mutilated beyond recognition.1
We bring this to readers’ attention not only to commend the book, which is an illuminating popular introduction to its subject, but to point out some of the essential features of a successful coup. One has to act swiftly and decisively, leaving no room for doubt. The outcome must be spectacular. Superior numbers must be ensured wherever the spilling of blood is likely. And, while coups are often foretold long in advance, it is a good idea to retain the element of surprise.
It is against the 1903 efforts of Dragutin Dimitrijević and his comrades that we must measure the more recent, peaceful coup attempts in British politics. For illustrative purposes, we include Michael Gove’s undoing of Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions; sure, Boris is formally no lower in the world than he was last Wednesday, but he was the Tory heir apparent for, at a conservative estimate, the whole period between last year’s general election and last week. In a few short hours, Gove put paid to that with a truly bewildering and highly effective piece of political chicanery, which has rather left the parliamentary Conservative Party looking like a monstrous conga-line of backstabbers. Who’s next?
Our real focus, of course, is the sustained assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. It at least has some of the features of a successful coup. For a start, the plotters are very well organised. Our minds are cast back to June 26; after Hilary Benn more or less demanded his own sacking, things took on a remarkable rhythm, almost turgid in its regularity; an hour would pass, and another junior shadow minister would resign. Each, individually, had weighed up their options and with an agonising cry of conscience, decided to resign exactly an hour after the previous one. A suspicious mind would suggest that they planned it that way.
The shadow cabinet crisis gave way to the vote of no confidence, which went more or less to plan, and since then the pressure on Corbyn to resign has been intense. The most significant element of this part of the offensive has been the aggressive dissemination of straightforward lies in the press – Corbyn is striking a deal with this person or that; John McDonnell is about to throw him to the wolves … When the outlandish scenarios outlined failed to come to pass, the lie is not admitted – the whole thing is written up as “Jeremy changed his mind at the last minute – doesn’t he know it is not leader-like to dither?”
The whole thing is almost reminiscent of the FBI’s Cointelpro tactics. Indeed, according to a relatively fresh-faced Corbynite news website, The Canary, the whole thing has been engineered by a couple of PR firms on behalf of the Fabian Society. This, on the whole, strikes us as a little too neat, but only inasmuch as the individuals cited can have only the most tenuous connection to Fabianism; we are dealing fundamentally with a well-organised clique.2
This is a detail, of course. The thing about conspiracies is that – contra 9/11 ‘truthers’ and the like – they are blindingly bloody obvious after about five minutes. Thus, the anti-Corbyn conspirators had to act fast, and so they did for about a day and a half.
And then … nothing.
Angela Eagle, who seems to have registered the domain, angela4leader.org, two days before she supposedly lost confidence in the man she seeks to defenestrate, has become suddenly very coy. She was ready to stand – and then she wasn’t; something about Corbyn imminently standing down (one of the aforementioned pieces of made-up nonsense). She is now, magnanimously, giving Jeremy yet “more time” to do the right thing.
Yet it is looking less and less likely by the day. The plotters’ tactics have become stale. They have become so because Corbyn is confident that he will win any leadership election; and (presumably) no ‘private polling’ on the part of the plotters tells them any different. The one thing they cannot do, ironically, is actually challenge him. No doubt his standing is weaker now than it has been in recent history; but so is that of the plotters, suffering from the fact that blatant and deliberate sabotage is not a good look among those with even a homeopathic dose of party loyalty.
Things are worse even than that for the traitors. They are on two strict timetables. The first and more significant is that of Labour’s conferences. At the 2016 annual conference in September, the left will seek to ‘clarify’ the currently ambiguous rules over whether an incumbent leader is automatically on the ballot if challenged. There is a very good chance of success. There is also the small matter of the Chilcot inquiry: we cannot imagine the likes of Benn and Eagle, who voted for the disastrous imperialist adventure, are having a good time of it at the moment. (Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party has proposed this as the main issue.)
The latest rumblings are that there are formal ‘peace talks’ going on; yet the small print is quite clear. There will be no immediate resignation. While Corbyn’s Parliamentary Labour Party enemies declare that broad support in the wider membership is not enough to save him, it is quite clear that the lack of broad support they enjoy in the wider party is enough to leave them in this embarrassing position. It is as if Dimitrijević and his cohorts had paused outside the royal bedchamber, on the brink of their victory, suddenly overcome by doubt – and stayed there for three weeks. I write at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the reader, which is to say, at some remove of time into the past. You may already be coming to terms with Corbyn’s grudging resignation. If you are, there is nothing to blame for it except his own personal weakness. If he is defeated, then defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory.
Because, even if some phoney ‘deal’ is agreed that Corbyn will resign before such and such a date, those he seeks to placate will never be stronger than they are now. For by the time Corbyn is supposed to stand down – whenever that is – there will be one or more Labour Party conferences, at which there is the possibility that the position of the left within the party can become strengthened.
At this point, it is necessary to point out that this advantage is hardly likely to just drop into our laps. The left must first understand that it has a stronger position than the relentless barrage of fabricated media hype attests, and then grasp the opportunity to exploit that position. As usual, neither of these relatively simple tasks is the gimme it ought to be.
What would pressing the advantage look like? Let us imagine, as we said before, the Serbian regicides frozen in fear at the threshold of success. What would actually have become of them? Perhaps not the spectacular disembowelling they, in reality, put upon the king; but it would not have been pretty. That is the most important lesson for all plotters of coups – make sure you win, because, if you do not, a sensible ruler will not leave you the opportunity for a do-over in a year or two.
A sensible ruler; but here we are. Maoists, in the old days, used to talk of ‘two-line struggle’, and there is something similar going on in the Labour Party today: there is the line of conciliation, of peace talks, of ‘uniting against the Tories’ and what have you, and there is the line of war, of giving no quarter to the traitors, of deselection and expulsion for all who have participated in this brazen and cynical attempt to overthrow the democracy of the party. Regular readers will be unsurprised to find Labour Party Marxists in the latter camp, and Corbyn himself in the former.
The important question is where Momentum will fall, and beyond it the Labour left at large. The Momentum line so far seems to be Corbynite in the narrow sense: for abandoning these senseless ‘squabbles’ and getting on with fighting the main enemy; but reports from meetings of the Labour left are encouraging, in that they suggest that there is at least some constituency for more radical measures. The idea that unity is possible between principled socialists and pro-imperialist, pro-capitalist careerists like Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle is risible. Only the capitulation of the socialists, or the defeat of the right, will solve the dilemma.
1. C Clark The sleepwalkers London 2012, pp3-4.