It’s been a week since Corbyn’s re-election as the leader of the Labour Party and the civil war within the party has not abated. Anti-Corbyn MPs have taken to branding fellow MPs as “scabs” for resupporting Corbyn; Jackie Walker, vice chair of Momentum’s national steering committee, has been resuspended on trumped up allegations of anti-Semitism; and the coup plotters have succeeded in wiping out Corbyn’s majority on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC).
One right-wing councillor has even taken the logical next step of abandoning the party for the Tories; many more have torn up their membership cards. Unfortunately, most have remained.
But to look at the reports of high profile left wing commentators such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason you would be forgiven for thinking that this war of attrition was coming to an end. Writing in Thursday’s The Guardian, Jones states:
“There is hope, for what appeared impossible just weeks ago – uniting the party – seems far more achievable…. In the afterglow, sceptical MPs may well feel reassured enough to retake their shadow ministerial posts. There can and should be compromise, for in truth, the ideological divisions are less profound than they were in the 1980s. The bigger concerns, MPs will tell you, are competence, priorities and effective communication.”
In an interview with Sky News on the morning after Corbyn’s re-election, Paul Mason goes still further than Jones:
“There is a very talented group of MPs in parliament… who I think should now be thinking about becoming the next leader. In the last leadership election… I voted Corbyn for leader and Stella Creasy for deputy, who is traditionally seen as on the Blairite wing. I think Stella Creasy would be an excellent next leader. I don’t mind the balance of power in Labour being left one day and right the other, as long as we stick together and understand that our main function in society is to represent the people out there, and to fight the representatives of big business and big finance which are the Conservative Party.”
Either Paul Mason was still drunk from the previous night’s celebrations, or he is wilfully ignoring the events of the last twelve months. This may come as a surprise to Mason, but the Blairites are also “representatives of big business” – it is not for nothing that their main organisation, Progress, is bankrolled by billionaires.
Even a cursory look at Corbyn’s voting record reveals a world of ideological difference with the war mongering, austerity supporting Blairites. With Stella Creasy at the helm, the Labour Party would return to a pale imitation of the Tories.
What’s interesting though is that Jones is not ignorant of these differences. As he noted in his 2011 book Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class:
“New Labour never had any intention of abolishing inherited wealth or private education. It argued for ‘meritocracy’ with a society rigged in favour of the middle class. Meritocracy ends up becoming a rubber stamp for existing inequalities, re-branding them as deserved.”
Jones also rightly suggested where the real commitments of New Labour MPs and councillors lay:
To many former natural Labour supporters, it [Labour] seems to be on the side of the rich and big business.
As for anti-Corbyn MPs’ “concerns” over their leader’s “competence, priorities and effective communication” – this is simply cover for Labour right wingers’ commitment to the political establishment. It is surprising that Jones does not see this. The Blairites understand the political and electoral risks of openly supporting neoliberal policies in the current climate, so they couch their criticisms of Corbyn in terms of his personality rather than his political beliefs. This is why Owen Smith spent the entire leadership election doing a bad impression of a socialist.
Jones has even categorically argued against mandatory reselection as a strategy for dealing with the internal crisis, instead stating that “common ground should be emphasised.” Without abandoning Corbyn’s socialist agenda altogether, it is unclear what this common ground might be.
So why would Jones and Mason be offering such bad advice during this period of crisis? For Jones at least, the answer is in his mistaken belief that the only way for Labour to achieve electoral success in 2020 (or sooner) is to hold together the contradictory tendencies in the Labour Party. Jones, in other words, is committed to preventing a split in the party.
This strategy is a mistake.
Whilst the threat of mandatory reselection would undoubtedly lead to defections from the Labour Party and would result in fewer MPs, the benefits would be a Parliamentary Labour Party that is united in opposing austerity and supporting workers in struggle. Far from being unpopular, such an anti-austerity Labour Party could quickly make electoral gains.
For an example of how rapidly a party can grow when it is opposed to austerity, one could look at Syriza in Greece which grew from a 4% share of the vote in 2009 to the ruling party in just six years. The enormous membership of the current Labour Party (now at over 640,000) would speed up this process immeasurably.
Far from damaging Corbyn’s prospects of electoral success, a split might actually be necessary to ensure his success in 2020. If Labour councils continue to carry out Tory austerity for the next four years, the support base for these councils will be considerably eroded. Will the teaching assistants in Derby and Durham be willing to vote for the very councillors currently destroying their careers? Will the people of Manchester vote for a council that sacked all of the city’s fire workers in a bid to drive down wages? Councils that that vote to close children’s services, homeless shelters, rape crisis centres… that cuts jobs, wages, and rights?
Austerity is not abstract; it is not enough to vent anger at it. Corbyn needs to call on Labour councils to go on the offensive and to refuse to implement Tory cuts. Unfortunately, however, many local councils across the country have made it abundantly clear that they will not support this project.
It is for these reasons that a split would be beneficial; a clean break so that Labour can reconstitute itself as a party for the 99%.