Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has brought to the surface a seemingly insoluble contradiction inside the Labour Party. Corbyn was elected by a quarter of a million people on the basis of his anti-establishment credentials and anti-austerity politics. His election has brought hundreds of thousands of new people, particularly young people, into the Labour Party. Corbyn’s leadership and grassroots support means the promise of a real future in many people’s minds.
But between Corbyn and this rejuvenated Labour membership stands the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the party machine and Labour’s bureaucratic establishment. This layer of people have, in many cases, spent years adapting themselves to working in a Labour Party dominated by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the right-wing of the party. They are the architects of the Tory-lite policies that lost Labour the last general election. These people are a hangover from Labour’s Blairite past and represent everything that is now being rejected by the party’s new members and supporters.
What has become apparent since Corbyn’s election is that the old world is refusing to give way to the new. Rather than accept the democratic decision of the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members and supporters, Blairite MPs have consistently briefed against Corbyn in the press and even undermined him openly in the House of Commons, while the party machine has tried to expel his supporters from Labour.
This leads to an inescapable conclusion: these two wings of the party are irreconcilably divided. Certain things flow from this, the most crucial being that if Corbyn and the new politics that he stands for is to survive inside the Labour Party then we must build a bridge between the membership and the leadership of the party, so that Corbyn is not forced to rely on those people around him who want him gone.
Such a bridge can be built using the basic democratic rights inside the party. One such right is that of the local party members to decide who represents them in Parliament. We have to demand the mandatory reselection of all MPs by their local constituency Labour Party as the only way to secure the accountability of our representatives. That means every local party must hold a full open election to decide who will run on behalf of the party as a parliamentary candidate.
Fight sabotage with democracy
Even before the leadership election results were announced right-wing Labour MPs were talking about launching an immediate coup against Corbyn if he won. The party’s parliamentary representatives took up grossly undemocratic positions that put them at odds with their own members at an early stage, and this set the tone for the civil war that has raged ever since.
A recent poll on Corbyn’s leadership found that 66% of Labour members and supporters think Corbyn is doing a good job. And yet Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, has spent the months since Corbyn’s election attacking his own party’s leader in the Daily Mail and promoting himself as a replacement for Corbyn.
At the Oldham by-election recently, Labour’s first electoral test under Corbyn, the party increased its share of the vote at the expense of the Tories. And yet in the run-up to that election, anonymous shadow cabinet ministers were briefing the press on how badly Labour would do thanks to Corbyn’s leadership.
The national conference of the Labour Party earlier this year voted against bombing Syria, and in the run up to the vote on this question around 75% of Labour members were found to be against the proposed airstrikes. This anti-war position of the membership was defended by Corbyn. But in defiance of the members they are supposed to represent 66 Labour MPs, led by Hilary Benn (the shadow foreign secretary), voted with the Tories to bomb Syria. This was accompanied by a string of Blairites demanding that Corbyn resign from the leadership for failing to adopt the Tories’ position. The icing on the cake was a suggestion from one Labour MP that Hilary Benn should become the leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, while Corbyn should be relegated to leader of the rest of the party.
Elsewhere, Andrew Fisher, a key adviser to Corbyn, was suspended from the Labour Party on spurious grounds by party bureaucrats seeking to strike a blow against the leader. This follows on from the purge of pro-Corbyn members and supporters that began during the leadership campaign and is continuing now. Those in the PLP who publicly and shamelessly attack the Labour Party and its leader are being allowed to conduct themselves freely while rank and file activists who are working to support Corbyn are being expelled from the party in an attempt to undermine his support.
From this behaviour by the right wing of the party it is clear that the Blairite clique will stop at nothing to undermine and remove Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, as they are afraid of the power of the ideas he represents. Under these conditions it is essential that Corbyn’s supporters take action to defend him, including the de-selection of those MPs who are working to undermine the leadership and the party.
We are many and they are few - if we do take such defensive action there will be nothing the right-wing cabal can do to stop us in the fight for a socialist programme. This is the explanation for the howls of protest from the Blairites at even the slightest hint that the party membership is taking steps to defend the leader they elected.
Right-wing hypocrisy: Blairite mafia vs Corbyn’s democracy
When the question of mandatory reselection of MPs has been raised, Blairites such as Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, have openly stated that if any right-winger is deselected then all the Blairites would leave Labour and stand against the party at the next election. For these individuals the party, its principles and the people they are supposed to represent are nothing; maintaining their cushy career as an MP is everything.
The Blairite organisation Progress, a right-wing entrist organisation in the Labour Party, describes the democratic right of mandatory reselection as “a weapon of fear and intimidation” and argues, bizarrely, that Labour MPs for a constituency should not be considered as representatives of their local constituency Labour Party.
The hysteria on the part of the Blairites over this question reeks of hypocrisy. After Tony Blair took over as leader of the Labour Party the New Labour cabal conducted what one advisor at the time, Lewis Minkin, called a “rolling coup” in which safe Labour seats were stitched up in backrooms for Blair’s acolytes. As Peter Mandelson said at the time, this was done with the help of ex-members of the party who split from Labour to form the right-wing SDP, only to return later to bolster the Blairite project (something of which the right-wing now accuses Corbyn, albeit from the other side of the political spectrum). Stitch ups and bureaucratic machinations have been a well-established practice by the right of the party ever since.
As recently as 2010, right-wing TV historian Tristram Hunt, a close personal friend of Lord Mandelson, was parachuted into a safe Labour seat in Stoke Central against the will of the local party, leading to the resignation of the local party secretary. In 2007, Bob Wareing, Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby and member of the Socialist Campaign Group who rebelled against the Blairite leadership in Parliament and demanded an inquiry into the Iraq war, was deselected as the party’s candidate for the seat by a “New Labour mafia” who sought to consolidate the ascendancy of the right-wing.
Despite giving MPs a free vote on the issue, the 66 pro-war Labour MPs accused Corbyn of megalomania for trying to impose the anti-war stance of the party membership on them during the Syria vote. In a nonsensical outburst, one of these warmongers even accused Corbyn of making them terrorist targets through his defence of the views of ordinary Labour members.
Such indignation is laughable given what happened during the first internal party rebellion under Blair when the New Labour government cut lone-parent benefits. According to Alan Simpson, a Labour MP at the time, “many [MPs] had their constituency officials phoned and told to kick their MPs into line. Some had their families phoned and told not to get too comfortable with an MP’s life because they would be thrown out before the next election.”
This is the reality of how the Blairites ran things when they were in charge. As Simpson put it: “In the same way that the Mafia asks you to destroy something precious to demonstrate loyalty, Labour MPs were asked to give a kicking to the most vulnerable in society.” These are the same people who now criticise Corbyn as an undemocratic, bullying tyrant for representing the democratically expressed will of the party.
In a desperate attempt to smear Corbyn with the same kind of disgraceful behaviour for which the Blairites themselves have been responsible in the past, some Labour MPs have resorted to complaining that they are being lobbied over political issues by their constituents. According to these MPs, for whom democratic methods are so alien, expressing an opinion as to which way their own representatives should vote constitutes “bullying” by grassroots Labour members. In reality Corbyn’s ability to engage tens of thousands of new people in Labour’s politics is the direct antithesis of the bullying and mafia-style politics that characterised New Labour for so long. If anything it is people like Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham, who has spoken publicly of her intention to “knife Jeremy Corbyn in the front”, who are guilty of bullying and intimidating behaviour.
What is to be done?
By even the most basic standards of democracy the behaviour of many Labour MPs, particularly the 66 who voted to bomb Syria, is unacceptable. They have demonstrated that they think they’re entitled to a seat in the House of Commons as a Labour representative, regardless of whether or not they reflect the views of the members. These individuals are using their position to attack Corbyn, his ideas and the people who voted for him as Labour leader. Under such circumstances there can be no option other than to defend ourselves using the basic democratic right of mandatory reselection for all MPs by constituency Labour parties.
At present the Labour Party operates a trigger ballot system for selecting its parliamentary representatives, whereby the members and affiliates of the local Labour Party vote in a referendum whether to re-select the current MP or not. Only if the majority of the local party votes against the sitting MP is the contest opened up to a full open selection procedure. This is unsatisfactory because it fails to run the sitting MP against any alternative candidates, meaning members are asked to vote when only one of the options is a known quantity, thus giving the incumbent an enormous advantage.
So far Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, have said that they are opposed both to mandatory reselection and even to the deselection of Blairite MPs via the trigger ballot. This is a potentially fatal mistake, indulging the right-wing in their fantasy that being a Labour MP is a job for life, which will only strengthen the position from which they will try to oust Corbyn.
In time for the 2020 elections, the Tories plan to redraw constituency boundaries to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. This means that the old constituency areas will, in many (if not most) cases, cease to exist, and the question of the selection of MPs will come up in a number of local Labour parties. Corbyn and McDonnell should use this as an opportunity to mobilise their supporters to deselect those right-wingers who are sabotaging the party, a move which can be used as a springboard to re-introduce mandatory reselection into the party before the next general election.
Naturally such moves would attract the wrath of the right-wing of the party and the capitalist media. In 1976, right-winger Reg Prentice was de-selected from the seat of Newham North East by his local Labour Party. The Tories, the media and the right-wing of the Labour Party united in defence of Prentice and launched an almighty assault against the ordinary members who wanted an MP that actually represented them. In the end, the establishment campaign failed and Prentice was successful de-selected. Those who argued that he did not genuinely represent the Labour Party were fully vindicated when, the following year, he joined the Conservative Party and became a minister in Thatcher’s government.
As a democratic socialist party, the Labour Party cannot afford to adapt itself to the opinions of right-wing newspapers and Tory sympathisers. These people will attack Corbyn and his supporters no matter what we do, as the events of the last few months have demonstrated. We need to defend ourselves and build unity around the ideas supported by the vast majority of Labour members, personified by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. As Corbyn’s own election victory proved, even with the entire establishment against us, the defence of clear, bold, socialist political ideas is what appeals to ordinary people.
We owe it to the new world of Corbyn’s Labour to defend ourselves against the sabotage of the Blairites. Mandatory reselection is the only way to do this. On this basis we can genuinely unify the party, defeat the Tories, and fight for socialism.