Britain - The Parliamentary Labour Party versus Corbyn

Summer 2016

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn faced the threat of crucifixion by his own MPs in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. But this was not due to his "lacklustre" pro-remain campaign, as his fellow Remainers and the media claimed.

After all, the 67-year old Labour leader hardly exhibits great "lustre" at the best of times, even over issues close to his heart like Trident. And though he may not have seemed enthusiastic about the referendum, admitting that he was "not a huge fan" of the European Union, but was "70-75% in favour of the UK staying in for the sake of workers' rights and the environment ", the attempt to kick him out as leader of the Labour Party, really had nothing to do with his performance or lack of it during the campaign.

The fact is that most Labour MPs the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) regarded his surprise election last September as a disaster from day one and they have been waiting impatiently for the right moment to replace him with "one of their own". The question is, whether or not this will prove to be the right moment.

Only 75% in favour...

What happened during the referendum campaign even if this was not a factor in the latest attempt to denigrate Corbyn's leadership is instructive. To accuse Corbyn of being responsible for the "Labour vote for Brexit", as some did, flies in the face of reality. It was estimated in polls prior to the referendum, that 56% of those who voted Labour in 2015 were in favour of Remain, with 44% being pro-Brexit. This same poll, which was published on 10 June, two weeks before the vote, found that in comparison, as many as 62% of Tory voters favoured Brexit. So it is clear who pulled the vote in a Brexit direction!

And a post-referendum survey quoted by the Guardian newspaper settled the question. It found that 65% of Labour supporters had actually voted to remain. Only 24% voted to leave, while 9% did not vote at all. So, it was neither Corbyn, nor Labour voters who done it, guv!

In fact, Corbyn came out of this campaign looking much better than most, even if his own MPs today persist in condemning his "lack of leadership potential" and "inability to be a prime minister" apparently based on his performance. He was certainly more honest than all the others. Having campaigned for leaving the EEC, the EU's forerunner, in 1975, and having opposed subsequent treaties like Maastricht in 1992/3, he was obliged to convince his audience this time round that he was genuine in his support for Remain. Which he did, quite competently, without resorting to empty (or potentially poisonous) rhetoric. Although this meant he had to square a circle in order to avoid condoning Cameron's policies. And unlike even his closest allies like John McDonnell, he never hinted that Labour should or would adapt its policies as a result of the anti-immigrant discourse which was kept at the forefront of the debate. In fact he refused consistently to join the anti-migration chorus or give ground to any kind of xenophobia. For this, he deserves credit.

This was not the case for Labour MPs who supported "Remain" and even less so, of course, when it came to the small but very vocal contingent who were for Brexit. The statements from both sides, including from Corbyn, help to expose the true nature of all of these beasts.

This is how Corbyn replied when quizzed by the BBC's Andrew Marr on the Sunday before the vote, over immigration: he said that contrary to Brexit claims, "There is no uncontrolled immigration. There is free movement of people across the EU, which goes both ways... The far-right have been allowed to grasp the agenda. Farage for example puts up that appalling poster, which has a picture of a lot of desperate people fleeing from war saying 'they are coming to threaten us'... (But) we have to play our part in dealing with the refugee crisis. All of us. It is a humanitarian crisis."

He went on to say: "There can be no upper limit on the number of people coming into the UK while there is free movement of labour in the EU." This was stating the obvious, as opposed to the claims made by many from his own party and certainly Tory "Remainers", saying that they could do a deal whereby immigration was limited, while still remaining in the single market.

Corbyn rightly blamed deliberate government policies for the social problems which people are experiencing, rather than "the EU"! He said it was the "failure of our government to provide housing for people and its attacking of school budgets" and that "people should turn their anger towards Conservative austerity instead".

As to leaving the EU, he added that "If we leave as a country, exactly the same arguments are going to be made about housing, about jobs, about social security. All those issues are going to be the same on Friday as they are on Thursday". In other words there was really not much to choose between the two camps which is not wrong!

He continued: "The only thing is it's going to be slightly more difficult or very much more difficult [in the case of Brexit] because the trade arrangements with Europe are now quite deeply embedded.

"A very large number of jobs in Britain do depend on exports to Europe. Now I'm not a catastrophist, but I do say people should think very, very carefully about the direction in which we're going."

Not half-hearted, in fact, just half-realistic. It is also important to mention that Corbyn consistently refused to share a platform with Cameron during the Remain campaign. This is probably one reason why he faced a worse-than-usual barrage of insults from Tory benches and Cameron himself in the Commons after the result. But the same principle was not adhered to by Labour "Leavers"...

Strange fruits

While 10 Labour MPs supported Leave, the "Labour Leave" campaign itself comprised 8 of them. But already in January this year with the launch of the so-called Grassroots Out (GO for short) several pro-leave Labour MPs happily sat aside Tory MP Liam Fox, Nigel Farage from Ukip, Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson among others in a joint platform with George Galloway appearing as well.

As the saying goes "by their friends shall ye know them". Besides, it is worth noting that these rebels were going against the Labour Party's line. Yet it is Corbyn, not they, who came and still come, under fire.

This is how the opportunistic Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, Gisela Stuart, the chair of Labour Leave, played the anti-migrant card: "The In campaign have no answers how we can control immigration if we stay in the EU. They have no plan for how we will fund the NHS so it can cope with the extra pressures that staying in the EU will create. They have no plan for where we will build the extra houses and they have no plan to help people who will see further pressure on their pay packets. The only way to get a fairer immigration policy and bring in an Australian style points-based system is to vote Leave on June 23." What is the difference between this and the arguments of Ukip's Nigel Farage or Tory eurosceptics? For her the problem is excessive migration into Britain and the "EU", not government policies over decades and the system which government policy (and the EU parliament for that matter), seeks to defend, viz., capitalism, which screws the working class.

The Labour Leave group included the bizarre and somewhat crazy libertarian Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, who claimed leaving the "fascist" EU would be a "left-wing" move, (like some British far-left groups). In the end, her constituents begged to differ 78.6% of people in London's Lambeth (the borough to which her constituency belongs) voted to remain in the European Union. The anti-abortion, "social conservative", who was famously also a friend to Mrs Thatcher, Frank Field, said that by backing Remain, Labour was driving working class voters into Ukip's arms. And he and his fellows, by speaking Ukip's language, were apparently persuading workers otherwise?

They were just biding their time

The fact of the matter is that Jeremy Corbyn has never had the political support of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He would never have received the 35 nominations needed last year if hostile MPs like Margaret Beckett and Frank Field had not nominated him "for the sake of the contest" something they now bitterly regret! And he is hated most by the cohort of career politicians who came to the Commons in the slipstream of Tony Blair's electoral success.

It was only a matter of time before these MPs would try to scalp him. Everything about him upset them. From his plain dress, habit of not wearing a tie, his mild, understated ways, to his references to soft, Bennite "socialism". (Never mind that the media calls the poor man "hard" left!).

These traits were (and are) an embarrassment to them, and ironically, especially to Hilary Benn, who was sacked by Corbyn after Benn telephoned him on the 26th June, just after the Brexit vote, to tell him he must resign and make way for someone like Angela Eagle who can "win" an election for Labour...

Hilary Benn is certainly the true son of his father the late Tony Benn, if only in his simplistic chauvinism. For instance, when the vote to bomb Syria took place last December, this ignoramus made an "impassioned speech" comparing the action to confronting Hitler's Nazism in WW2: "We are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight and all of the people we represent. They hold us in contempt.."

According to him, Corbyn was opting for "appeasement" of ISIL, and in fact he almost brought the equally ignorant House down, so delighted were MPs on both sides, with his latter-day jingoism. No matter that this parallel between ISIL a guerilla army which came out of the ruins of a bombed-out and precarious Middle Eastern region and the sophisticated army of Fascist Germany, at the time, the leading European industrial nation, is absurd. In the end, 66 Labour MPs voted to back the bombing, compared to 152 against.

Misfit Corbyn has been a target not only of Cameron, who has consistently tried to humiliate him in the Commons with schoolboy insults, but also by a majority in the PLP. His unexpected (even by him) clear majority win in the leadership election last September thanks to OMOV (One Member, One Vote) was a real blow to them.

It is worth recalling how this works because they could quite possibly try to tinker with it at the next party conference so as to avoid such an aberration in the future.

One Member One Vote was brought in by Ed Miliband the former leader to replace the electoral colleges system of electing the Labour leader. Previously the vote was split three ways: between the party's MPs and MEPs; all party members; and members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies which made up around 2.7 million! Under this electoral college system, the vote of one MP was worth the votes of 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members and the vote of one party member was worth the votes of 21 affiliated members! This says it all about the power wielded by the PLP against the membership.

But Milliband's reform in 2014 was not really about democracy. It was his reaction against being branded as the trade unions' man. It was aimed at diluting the trade union college, by only giving a vote to trade union members from affiliated unions who joined individually as associate members. This associate membership was also extended to the general public creating a new category of registered members, with the idea of even further diluting the trade unionist vote.

Thus, OMOV. The vote of an ordinary member was now equal to that of an MP. The cost of membership being just £3, left-wingers found they could recruit easily promising that Labour could at last be "changed from within" via elections, if someone like Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader. Individual membership of the Labour Party shot up to over 300,000 almost double the 2014 figure and Corbyn was elected by 60% of the vote. Demonstrating, at least, that there was a political vacuum, waiting to be filled, even if these members were going to be disappointed if they put their hopes in change coming so easily, via a ballot paper and from one man.

They go in for the kill, but misfire

All of this only goes to show that the post-EU-referendum no-confidence motion signed by 172 out of 231 Labour MPs on the 28th June, calling on Corbyn to resign forthwith, should, in itself, have been no surprise. That the deed was done the petition having been authored by arch-Blairites Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking and Anne Coffey, MP for Stockport on the 27th June within 4 days of the referendum, was, however, surprising.

In the eyes of Labour's supporters, MPs should surely have been making the most of the mayhem in the Tory party, precipitated by Cameron's sudden resignation and the subsequent fight for leadership between the pro-and anti-EU Tory factions. Instead, the PLP was creating its own, far worse, mayhem. But never mind, political careers certainly take priority over politics for these parliamentarians.

For sure, the anti-Corbyn MPs that is, the majority of the PLP were very nervous that the post-Brexit crisis could trigger an early general election. And while their given reason for this rebellion was that they thought Corbyn was not prime ministerial enough, they were rather afraid that their careers in parliament could be cut short. But ironically many risked de-selection by their constituency parties precisely because of their "no confidence in Corbyn".

Indeed, a general election at this time could have put MPs in big trouble, as exemplified by the decision of Wallasey constituency of Liverpool to petition to get rid of their MP, the right-winger, Angela Eagle, and a prime instigator of the anti-Corbyn coup. She resigned from her shadow cabinet business position and immediately pushed herself forward as the "strong leader" Labour needed!

At the time of writing, Eagle is pursuing her challenge to take the leadership from Corbyn saying he is out of touch with the Labour electorate but of course she really means he is "out of touch" with the PLP. But the one leg she is still standing on could be cut (metaphorically speaking) by her own electorate who is proving she is certainly out of touch with them. Wallasey constituency Labour party's deputy chair explained to the BBC: "Jeremy Corbyn hasn't been given a chance to be a good leader. If you are being stabbed in the back all the time by your own people on the Labour benches it's very hard to get your message across. So yes, I do think he's a good leader." The constituency then promptly passed a motion of support for Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party by an overwhelming majority.

A quick leadership coup was thus needed, in the first instance, to prevent constituency parties from organising support for Corbyn among ordinary members. But it seems the protagonists against Corbyn may already have waited too long. Within two weeks of their no-confidence motion, over 100,000 new members were signed up, pushing Labour Party membership over the 500,000 mark! This time, however, both pro- and anti-Corbyn factions are claiming the new members for their own, even if, in reality, most have rallied in order to protect Corbyn from "the Eagle" and her fellow predators. The only problem is that they cannot vote in a leadership contest until they have been members for 3 months...

A measure of how desperate these Labour MPs are to protect their own seats is the fact that they decided to go as far as risking a split in the party. And naturally, they are using the threat of a split to further blackmail Corbyn into resigning for the sake of "unity" and the "future of the party".

Blood on their hands then and now?

Another factor in this haste to stick the knife in, by the Blairites in particular, was the immanent publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war timed for just after the EU referendum so as not to disturb proceedings beforehand but already extremely late, having been commissioned seven years ago, in 2009.

This report was going to remind everybody of "B" liar Tony Blair's worst legacy and by association, would discredit those who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Among those who supported the Iraq invasion would be Margaret Hodge, Anne Coffey, who was PPS to both Blair and Alastair Campbell, the author of Blair's dodgy dossier on the non-existent WMDs and aspiring-strong-leader, Angela Eagle. The latter stands by her vote for the Iraq war to this day and also voted to drop yet more bombs on Syria. The cynicism of these MPs knows no bounds.

It was quite incredible to see how the Labour machine sprang into action to try to get Corbyn to go as quickly as possible! By the 28th of June, 40 of his frontbench team (the shadow cabinet) had resigned, claiming that he could not possibly win a general election for them. And then a further number among those who were appointed to replace them resigned too, once briefed by Corbyn's would-be assassins. "Resign now" sang the loud chorus and louder whispers were circulated as to his "minders" (like former Guardian columnist Seumas Milne) not allowing anyone to go near him, including Tom Watson, his deputy.

As far as these anti-Corbynites were concerned, Corbyn should under no circumstances be in the Commons on the day Chilcot came out, because he was among the very few politicians whose record on this issue was unblemished and could thus, very credibly, take the high moral ground. Corbyn had been against the Iraq war. He was also against British military intervention in Libya and after becoming leader, in Syria, sticking to his position against the arrogant betrayal of his own shadow cabinet most prominently by Hillary Benn, as mentioned above, whose belligerent support for the bombing of Syria was applauded by all and sundry on both sides of the House, while Corbyn was openly ridiculed.

So Corbyn's contribution over Chilcot, on the contrary, could only increase his political stature, if only by demonstrating his greater consistency and integrity. It would potentially be "his" day. And of course this is precisely what happened. He proceeded to make a very strong, speech against Blair's decision to go to war, against the war itself, and against its consequences, correctly identifying this catastrophe as giving birth to ISIL. In a meeting immediately afterwards attended by victims of this war he apologised for the action of his party and more importantly unlike anyone else emphasised the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead.

He thus fended off the latest attempt to get rid of him. He said he was "not going anywhere" and he has not gone. Yet.

As the pot said to the kettle...

One person who played a big part in this attempt at a coup (mocked in the media as a "chicken coup") against Corbyn, is Neil Kinnock, Labour grandee, now Baron Kinnock, and in the House of Lords since 2005.

Famous for his successful witch-hunt against left-wing entrists in the Labour party in the 1980s which laid the ground for the swing to the right under Blair, he lost two elections as opposition leader. First, in 1987 against Margaret Thatcher after having more or less denounced the miners strike in 1985 and then in 1992 against John Major. In the latter instance he had even begun the victory celebrations on election night, when he had to be informed that he had lost to the mild and colourless Tory rookie.

This miscalculation was a product of his egotism; Kinnock never had much insight as to his own failings and his unpopularity. So objectively, the man was and is, a bit of a buffoon. But of course, his right-wing anti-working class stance and later support for Blair has meant he is often hauled out by the media to comment and to set the tone of debates. This time it seems quite appropriate that the man who the grassroots had no time for at all, should be the one to tell Corbyn, whose grassroots support remains overwhelming, what he should do. After all, the world is upside down.

Accordingly, after the referendum result, Kinnock became the unofficial spokesperson of the coup attempt by pro-Trident Blair admirer, Angela Eagle. She tearfully resigned on 27th June from Corbyn's frontbench, explaining that she really didn't want to, but that Corbyn really should listen to her and others in the PLP and stand down himself, because unlike herself, he just didn't have the right qualities or grassroots support to win the next election for Labour.

That said, for several days various potential new leaders then stuck their heads up, while Kinnock waved the Labour Party rulebook, citing the fact that anyone entering a new leadership race had to have at least 20% of the Labour MPs' and MEPs' support. If only the PLP was taken into account, Corbyn had 23% but on the 29th June, the 20 Labour MEPs apparently supported the letter signed by Glenis Wilmott MEP to say that: "Separate from the referendum issue, it has become clear in recent days that you do not have the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party. We find it hard to see how any Labour leader can continue in that role if they do not have the support of their MPs. So it is with a heavy heart that we urge you, for the sake of the Labour Party and for the people in our country who need a Labour government, to reconsider your position as Labour leader."

Of course, if the polls are right, even if Corbyn heeded their calls and then decided to stand again, he would be likely to win, because he retains the grassroots majority on his side. Even workers who are not enthusiastic about him still support him for lack of anyone better.

Anyway, despite being besieged daily by the media and the PLP, Corbyn has not budged. In the first Prime Minister's Questions after the referendum, he was even told by Cameron who had just stood down himself, to do like him: "for heaven's sake, man, go!"

But Corbyn's grassroots supporters have continued to rally round, staging demonstrations and meetings and telling him to "hang on in there".

That said, many of the activists involved in organising these rallies come from the far-left around groups like the SWP and its Counterfire twin, Peoples' Assembly, Socialist Party, CPB, etc. This is apart from the "party within a party" known as "Momentum" which, according to the media is run by "hard left" Trotskyists and the like. No wonder Baron Kinnock is so upset the entrists who he managed to root out of the Labour Party in the late 1980s are right back inside it!

A New, New Labour?

For the duration of the discussions around Chilcot, the bids for a new leader died down but they are now back. In the meantime, Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite union, decided to intervene. He told the BBC that after all, as a trade union leader he was a professional negotiator and thus would be able to come up with a neat compromise to keep the Labour PLP happy...

That was not how it worked out. The only compromise the PLP spokespersons would accept was Corbyn's resignation. So while Corbyn was away in Durham addressing the annual Miners' Gala, Tom Watson, his always ambivalent and self-serving deputy leader walked out of the talks with McCluskey.

At the time of writing, the situation is back to square one the same counter-bid for leader made by Angela Eagle, who has decided to disregard the no-confidence vote of her constituency party. She has the support (of course!) of at least 20% of Labour MPs. And while Corbyn who has said he will certainly stand for re-election is unlikely to get the signatures of the required 51 MPs (40 supported him against the no-confidence motion) his supporters maintain that he should get onto the ballot automatically, as standing leader.

However, there is a question mark over this: apparently last November after the shock the PLP got when Corbyn became their leader, some MPs sought legal advice, which suggested that a sitting leader would need to receive at least 50 nominations from MPs and MEPs in order to stand again. This happened in 1988, when Neil Kinnock himself was challenged by Tony Benn. Kinnock had to be endorsed by members of the PLP in order to get on the ballot which could set a precedent, even if this is not spelt out in the rulebook.

Angela Eagle may well also capitalise on the fact that Cameron has decided to call for a vote on Trident renewal before the parliamentary summer recess. Given that disarmament, whether multi- or unilateral is an unpopular minority cause in Westminster and in the trade union machineries, it is likely that Corbyn will not come out of this debate well. All the more so, since last year at Labour Party conference he bottled out of insisting upon a decision to amend Labour Party policy to opposing Trident renewal. He has already stated that he will allow a "free vote" on this.

But whatever Labour MPs do in the end, whether they vote for Trident, change the internal party voting system, rewrite the rule book, or whatever, they will not give up until they have purged the party of Corbyn and his supporters. Only time will tell whether this will result in a split in the party, or not. But that is certainly not Corbyn's wish.

On the other hand, if the Corbynistas, as some call them, are really genuine in their belief in "democratic socialism", they hardly belong in such a party. Where is the space for any kind of left reformism in a society in the grip of declining and decrepit capitalism? And given that the political system is a mere reflection of the social and economic system, it too, can only be degenerate. As such, its politicians, have shown time and again, just how degenerate they are empty vessels, which can be filled with any policy or idea which serves the interests of capitalism and moreover, which can change into its opposite just as easily all in aid of a "career". Anyone with an ounce of integrity surely cannot fit comfortably into any of the parties in Westminster, in fact. Corbyn might want to be there, but there is no place for him, except maybe as a backbencher, as before, quietly sticking to his own private hobbies.

As for those who want to see real social and political change, it is time they took a reality check and buckled down to building a party which represents the interests of the only class in society with a future the class that produces all value in the world, but which objectively, has no country. That is, the working class.

Yes, a "disjunct" exists between the "political class" and the exploited working class up north and down south as the clever middle class commentators explain the "perverse" Brexit result. Apparently they have just discovered that there is a class system on which capitalist exploitation depends!

Unfortunately, in the absence of an alternative, Corbyn and his supporters have managed to rebuild illusions in Labour's version of reformism which should have been dispensed with as soon as it became obvious that capitalism had reached the stage where it required the oppression of colonies to grow, and world wars to settle its differences. Objectively speaking, it was already an "unreformable" system by the mid to late 1800s. But even among those who understand that fact, a majority has continued to baulk at the idea of stating openly and truthfully that in the interests of the world's working class and poor, (but ultimately, everyone's interests) capitalism has to be overthrown. And that this requires the building of the kind of organisation which can fight for this aim against the stream in short, a working class revolutionary party. Yet again, workers and particularly the open-minded youth who can see how rotten this society is, are still being led up a blind alley into a Labour party which is committed to reforming, through parliament, an intrinsically rotten system which cannot be reformed. Time to use a revolutionary GPS.

10 July 2016