corbyn meeting

Keep Corbyn: 5 Questions Answered for New Members of the Labour Party

60,000 people are said to have joined the Labour Party in the past week. Despite his isolation within the Parliamentary Labour Party, leader Jeremy Corbyn’s support remains strong among members and trade unions. Signs of weariness, however, are appearing in the Party’s grassroots. This indicates that Corbynistas presently lack the political commitment that will be necessary to win elections with Corbyn’s brand of anti-racist, anti-austerity politics.

1. Who wants him gone?

Fundamentally, the attempted coup represents a conflict between two irreconcilable political strategies held together within Labour by Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system. On the right, members of Blairite factions such as Progress hold a pathological contempt for socialists. They believe Labour’s history of defeat in the 1980s on a socialist ticket proves that anything other than an unlimited compromise with banks, corporations and Rupert Murdoch will be unelectable. Added to this is a creeping sense on the right that Labour’s Ukip problem – that it is loosing swathes of voters to Ukip, particularly in the UK’s previous industrial heartlands – can be solved through attacks on migration combined with a large dose of English patriotism.

On the left, Corbyn’s anti-establishment platform represents a rupture with this Blairite status quo; it is anti-austerity, pro-migrant rights and unabashedly challenges to Labour’s bloody foreign policy record. Until last week it seemed these tensions might quietly, awkwardly persist. However, using the referendum as cover, pro-establishment plotters launched a vote of no-confidence in Corbyn’s leadership among Labour MPs, dragging with them the bulk of soft-left MPs, along with several prominent commentators. They won that vote with a clear majority of 172 to 40. In doing so, establishment ideologues have uncovered a fundamental conflict over Labour’s political strategy.

2. Can’t Corbyn just give way?

Only a handful of anti-establishment figures persisted within the Labour Party throughout Blair’s illegal wars and his Party’s systematic asset stripping of the welfare state. As a result, Corbyn presently lacks any viable continuity-candidate to replace him on a similar policy platform. Alternative candidates that have been floated are either inexperienced (such as Cat Smith or Clive Lewis) and so likely to crumble under the immense weight of Labour’s right, or hail from Labour’s confused centre left.

Such a leadership would doubtless suffer the painful fate of Ed Miliband; a man both for and against cuts and restructuring of the NHS, for and against flexible labour contracts, a man who had no clear position on migration but who made some anti-immigration Party merchandise anyway. And let’s be absolutely clear who Angela Eagle represents: Eagle’s record on the Iraq war, tuition fee increases, workfare and devastating welfare reforms puts her firmly on the side of the neoliberal establishment.

3. How can he survive?

Should the right contest Corbyn through a leadership challenge, the question will be whether Corbyn can get on the ballot. This comes down to whether his nomination is automatic or whether he requires the backing of 50 MPs and MEPs. Unsurprisingly, there is no single interpretation of Labour’s rules, and no judicial authority outside the party who can provide a ruling, leaving the decision to Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). Some committee positions are, incidentally, are up for election this year – new members can vote following advice here.

The balance of forces within the NEC is said to be close, and the committee will only take the decision on the rules if and when MPs call for the contest. In the case that Corbyn requires MPs’ nominations, it’s not clear whether he will manage it. If the 40 MPs who voted against no confidence on Tuesday last week also nominate him, he will still require support of 10 MEPs. However, an unknown majority in this group have also turned against Corbyn.

If Corbyn is automatically on the ballot, new members will need to be ready to support his campaign and help turn out the vote. When the time comes to reelect Corbyn, supporters should use the campaign to deepen the sense that our movement represents a fundamental struggle, beginning within the Labour Party and fanning out to confront Tory austerity, racism and the British establishment at large. We should use the campaign to deepen our organisational networks, strengthen our ties with trade unions and provide a platform for activists outside the party to raise their profile and develop leadership skills.

4. What can new members do?

Every Corbynista should do at least two things. First, attend your local Labour Party ward and constituency meetings. Different areas have different cultures and function in different and weird ways; some wards may be dormant, others may be completely stitched up by Labour’s right. Labour Party meetings can be dull, agendas might not be circulated in advance and a range of tactics are often used to lock new members out of the process, including boredom and confusion.

It’s important new members persist, since any campaign depending on local party leverage (such as deselections) will require that the left controls the Party’s basic structures. For instance, in some constituency meetings only ward or union delegates are able speak, never mind vote. Becoming a delegate requires a level of commitment and organisation at the ward level. Becoming a Labour affiliated union delegate can be a much faster route, requiring nomination from your union’s local branch.

Second, join Momentum. Momentum’s potential lies in shaping the political space outside the party, broadening the margins in which Corbyn and the (similarly left-wing) Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell can operate, and organising the left within the party more broadly. In an increasingly precarious society, people are less tied to single workplaces over long periods of time, and as such, unions are less able to play a similar organising role. Ideally, the effect of Momentum would be similar to the relationship between Podemos and the 15M movement in Spain.

In this instance, ‘Indignados’ activists provided the space for a new class of anti-establishment leaders to arise in the field of electoral politics, whilst furnishing left-wing parties with both a political agenda tied to contemporary concerns, and a cadre of activists on the ground to hand out leaflets and knock on doors. Other than this, new members should find friends with whom to talk politics and live through this moment collectively. The left is still weak, especially in terms of leadership. If you feel the need to act, find others and organise. Don’t wait around in the hopes that someone is going to show you the plan, because, as far as I know, there isn’t one.

5. Where is Labour headed? 

In a political climate in which intimidation and bullying are used to try to topple Corbyn (currently to no avail), I see three possible outcomes to the ideological conflict taking place within Labour.

  • One side wins, by means of a leadership election that displaces Corbyn, or one that reinstates him, this latter outcome being quickly followed by a wave of deselections of right wing MPs. If the right win by these means hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members and affiliates will be estranged from the party.
  • The party splits. In this instance, trade union backing, control over the Labour’s “brand” and a cadre of popular MPs will define the success of each faction. In terms of finances, the right has a history of donations from wealthy private individuals, while the left will be more reliant on membership fees and union support. A split will ultimately be costly in keeping out a Tory government, especially if a general election occurs before a clean break can be made. However, once formally divided, the two parties that emerge may be more inclined to form an electoral pact on the basis of installing a proportionally representative electoral system, thus revolutionising British politics. With proportional representation in place, the left would have to drastically raise its game to face the prospect of a Ukip-Tory coalition.
  • The final option is a simply a deferral of the contractions within Labour. Coup protagonists would have to retreat, knowing they lack any candidate able to beat Corbyn in a leadership election. Knives would be stored away, for now, while the scandals and orchestrated criticism from the right would continue to sabotage both Corbyn and the Party, until ultimately the conflict resurfaces.

To all the new members who joined Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn: we must quickly come to terms with the extent to which Corbyn represents a rupture with aspects of the Party’s past. Taking on the austerity and racism will mean taking on the establishment; that is, confronting some of the most powerful aspects of British society. We must be steadfast in our movement.

Photo: Éric Spiridigliozzi/Parti Socialiste/Flickr

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Published 4th July 2016

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