by Atul Hatwal
Uncut hears that simmering differences in the leader’s team have become deep divisions as they grapple with the looming reshuffle.
At the heart of the split is a long-running tension between two factions of the hard left: Socialist Action and the Labour Representation Committee.
In the corner on the left is Socialist Action – a Trotskyist group most closely associated with Ken Livingstone with several of his advisers from his time as Mayor, either members or supporters. As Livingstone himself said,
“Almost all of my advisers had been involved in Socialist Action,”
“It was the only rational left-wing group you could engage with. They used to produce my socialist economic policies. It was not a secret group.”
Socialist Action’s modus operandi is to achieve a socialist nirvana by boiling the capitalist frog slowly. During their tenure at City Hall, the priority was not to promise wholesale revolutionary change but take incremental steps towards socialism where possible.
In practice this led to bizarre and seemingly random policies such as pursuing the American embassy over parking fines (fair enough) but going easy on the Russian embassy over the same issue (wtf) while happily doing deals with London property developers to underpin the expansion of the City.
Prominent Livingstone City Hall alumni, Simon Fletcher and Neale Coleman, now occupy central roles in Jeremy Corbyn’s office as chief of staff and head of policy and rebuttal while the former Mayor is co-chair of Labour’s defence review.
In the corner even further to the left is the Labour Representation Committee. (LRC) Founded in 2004 (lifting the name of Labour’s original founding committee from 1900) by John McDonnell, the LRC has a more doctrinaire and unbending view of the path to socialism.
Compromise is to be minimised – the frog needs to be dropped into boiling water with the lid clamped tightly shut to prevent escape.
The majority of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner sanctum is drawn either from the LRC or sympathetic to its perspective.
For example, John McDonnell MP remains the LRC chair, Corbyn adviser Andrew Fisher was until recently its Secretary, Jon Lansman, who runs Momentum, is on its national committee and Katy Clark, the former MP and now political secretary to Jeremy Corbyn is a long term supporter.
Until his election as leader, Jeremy Corbyn was one of the most prominent MPs affiliated to the LRC.
In 2004, when the LRC was launched, Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London but no-one from the LRC hierarchy found their way into City Hall.
At a time when the hard left was on its knees and the London Mayoralty represented the one place where there was a chance to enact their agenda, it’s significant that the doors to City Hall remained firmly shut to the LRC.
Something to do, perhaps, with events from 1985 when John McDonnell, then chair of the GLC finance committee, fell-out bitterly with GLC leader, Ken Livingstone, over the latter’s retreat in refusing to set a budget.
Over the years, LRC activists have been disparaging about the Socialist Action coterie around Ken Livingstone. “Plastic socialists” is one insult I’ve heard repeatedly.
For the LRC, the Kennites are too easily seduced by power and preserving their own position.
After all, Simon Fletcher made the seamless transition from being Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff to working in Ed Miliband’s office, advocating economic policies that were, to the LRC cadre, virtually indistinguishable to George Osborne’s.
And Neale Coleman has spent the best part of the last decade, since Ken was ejected from office in 2008, working for Boris Johnson as a senior member of his Olympic Delivery Authority. He even accepted a CBE in 2012.
For the Kennites, the LRC’s abrasive approach will destroy the revolution before it’s had a chance to stabilise. Taking on too many battles, failing to build alliances and losing popular support are the inevitable corollary of refusing to compromise.
It’s a divide that has always plagued the hard left.
In 1903, the Russian communists split along similar lines. The Mensheviks sought compromise with the moderate left parties as a route to revolution while the Bolsheviks viewed confrontation and control of these groups as the only route to success.
Ultimately, for many Mensheviks, the outcome of this split was a Bolshevik bullet in the 1920s.
Now, the ghosts of leftist splits past are haunting the Labour leader’s office over the reshuffle.
The Kennite Mensheviks do not want to rock the boat by sacking Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle and clearing out the whips office.
At a time when the negativity of the press has surprised even Corbyn loyalists, a reshuffle that further antagonises an anti-Corbyn PLP and renews the media focus on Labour’s internal processes is seen as deeply counter-productive and will perpetuate the sense of crisis which engulfs Labour.
However, for the LRC Bolsheviks, unless the shadow cabinet leakers are confronted and control is established, the Corbyn leadership will never break through the current squalls to reach calmer waters.
Whispers from those familiar with the discussions suggest the fate of the whips office is particularly contentious.
Many in the leader’s office view the whips office with deep suspicion following perceived double-dealing over the Syria vote. The role of senior Labour whips in helping the unofficial whipping operation mounted by those in favour of bombing ISIS is a source of deep anger.
The Kennite fear is that breaking all links with the mainstream PLP, by sacking widely respected party managers such as Alan Campbell in the whips office, will lead to a free-for-all among front and backbenchers with bigger and bigger rebellions on three-line whips.
The LRC view is that the newly Corbynised membership will ultimately hold MPs in line, especially with the threat of deselection to the fore in many MPs thoughts, and reasserting control over the whips office is the essential pre-requisite to controlling the PLP.
Based on the media briefings so far, it looks like the Bolsheviks aren’t backing down and have the upper hand. Kennite Mensheviks beware. These divisions will only become deeper and history tells us what happens next.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut