Kennite vs Corbynite split in the leader’s office reruns eternal hard left divisions

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

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14 Responses to “Kennite vs Corbynite split in the leader’s office reruns eternal hard left divisions”

  1. Jeremy Corbyn says:

    I’ve never read such Tory-lite tripe.

  2. Robert says:

    It is clear to me that Corbyn and McDonnell are Mensheviks, although some of their advisers might be Bolsheviks. This division is also similar to the division between Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn in the 1980s. The former also believed in gradual progress towards socialism, which in practice is not very different to social democracy.

  3. …the priority was not to promise wholesale revolutionary change but take incremental steps towards socialism where possible.

    Oh, you mean like social democrats then Atul? Don’t we all believe in that? Surely you do also? I wonder if John McDonnell really doesn’t also, Atul. Maybe it could be the idea that unites us all.

    Did you really just want to write a post about disagreements on the left about a possible reshuffle of the shadow cabinet? I think you could have done that without referencing Russia in 1917.

  4. Mike Stallard says:

    Even if you are in the holiday season, Conservative Home addresses real problems. For instance, people on benefits getting back into work. For instance the Fire Brigade and Police accountability. For instance the Chargossians (of all people!)
    Here and on Labour List and Left Foot Forward, I find crap about infighting. YAWN!!!

    You might like to look on John Redwood’s blog to see what the truth about Tory Cuts to Flooding Defense actually means in practice.

  5. steve says:

    My goodness, how things have changed!

    Not so long ago the Blairites imagined they could make a coherent contribution to LP policy-making.

    Now they have retreated into trading in tittle-tattle and gossip.

    The Blairites are, it appears, nowhere near as clever as they liked to think they were.

  6. james says:

    You really think the ordinary wavering voter in Nuneaton cares about factions of the Labour Party. I’m a political geek yet i’m bored out of my skull reading it.

  7. Richard says:

    Interesting analogy, but completely wrong.

    The Russian communists prior to the split were all openly Marxists, I doubt many in either grouping discussed above are Marxists at all, let alone open about it; both halves of the communist party were revolutionary, they disagreed on methods, I doubt that either grouping discussed above is revolutionary; both halves of the communist party subscribed to a socialism based upon a change of ownership of the means of production, nether of the groupings discussed above are asserting wholesale attacks on capitalist ownership, at best they subscribe to partial public ownership.

    I could go on but the point is clear, the analogy is weak, so why use it? There are many historical analogies of splits or factions in political parties to choose from. A more recent and useful analogy is the split in the greens in Germany between the Realo’s and the Fundies as they debeted on the level of accommodation to industrial production and a modern economy was required rather than how the fundamentals of capitalism needed to be challenged.

    However, our friend Atul reaches for the Bolshevik/Menshevik split and what followed in order to cast a particular shadow over both factions and the leadership. To debase the groupings by borrowing from our consciousness the rightful enmity we have toward the historical excrescence that was Stalinism.

    This is no more than the despicable political tactic of attempting to create an association that does not exist for political ends. This is the nature of those on the right people. So bankrupt are their ideas within the Labour Party that they were swept away in the form of Liz Kendall with a paltry 5% so they don’t challenge the ideas other than through the methods chosen above; through the ‘whispering’ that they made Atul privy to (as if a member of the left would be talking to Atul); through the placement in the stories in the press designed to undermine and sow discord (you can bet it is the right who are briefing about the reshuffling for they have way more to gain).

    Meanwhile the real enemies, the Tories with their current economic methods that are bringing so much misery, are laughing their heads off as the right of the LP feed the press and present the party as divided, despite the huge mandate Corbyn has. Get past your ideological hatred of the left Atul or go and write for the Telegraph where the effort to divide Labour is both welcome and in the correct place.

  8. Peoples Front of Judea says:

    We hate the Judean Peoples front.

  9. Nick Jamieson says:

    I keep hearing about the “threat of deselection” but I’m still unclear why a sensible and pragmatic Labour MP who loathes Corbynism need fear it, unless, that is, the Corbynistas really do want to sabotage the party’s electoral prospects for the foreseeable future.

    After all, our elected representatives at Westminster are not chosen by party leaders and party activists from a list of approved nominees as in some PR-based systems (thank God). Rather, while the parties do get to nominate candidates, it’s the voters in each constituency who decide who becomes the MP by giving one of the candidates a plurality.

    Accordingly sitting MPs have a nuclear deterrent available to them whenever extremist activists out of touch with most ordinary voters start hinting at de-selection on grounds of ideological deviancy: “Fine, but if you de-select me and try to end my political career I shall have no alternative left but with deep regret to resign from the party (it is tantamount to constructive dismissal after all) and stand against the official Labour nominee as an independent candidate”. Indeed, if faced with their career in Parliament and in the Labour Party being snuffed out by fanatical activists, why on earth would a sitting MP not say this and just go along meekly with their own defenestration?

    Even the dimmest Trot entryist should realise that sitting Labour MPs who carried out this counter-threat could cause absolute havoc for the party at the next general election: doubtless Labour would retain plenty of the seats but many others would either be held by those sitting members with good local name-recognition and personal support or else be taken by another party benefiting from the disastrous split in the left-wing vote in those constituencies. It doesn’t take much political foresight to see that concerted de-selections of 100+ current anti-Corbyn MPs, which is what is seemingly being hinted at, would likely result in the Labour Party having even fewer MPs after the 2020 election than before.

    So we’re back again at the key question for the Corbynista movement. Are they even remotely interested in winning in 2020 (or even 2025) if that means diluting the hard Left vision? Or is this just about transforming (what’s left of) the Labour Party into a permanent vehicle for the hard Left in the hope that eventually, some day, the electorate will decide to give them a go?

  10. Anne says:

    How on earth have we allowed The Labour Party to be controlled by this shambles – we, the people deserve better.
    Corbyn now showing his true colours – name calling – what ever happened to this new kinder politics? How long did it last – was it three months.
    Time we had a vote of no confidence. The Labour Party deserves better.

  11. sammy gravano says:

    I’ve tried this whole boiling a frog thing, being a nasty Tory ‘n’all.

    It’s a myth they don’t hop off, they do.

    I didn’t read beyond that, expecting the usual dull but worthy/ worthy but dull LU piece.

    Something to do with spending a lifetime lips firmly glued to the State teat; dulls the mind.

  12. Henrik says:

    This is wonderful stuff, comrades, it’ll keep you all happily occupied until 2025 at this rate. Great group therapy for you guys, of course and hilarious for the spectator, but, just asking, you understand, what about HM Loyal Opposition, were you planning to do any talking to the electorate in the coming years?

  13. JohnB says:

    I agree it’s not a good analogy. A better one is Gramsci’s distinction between a war of movement and a war of position. Are Corbyn’s supporters seeking to capture the castle in one fell swoop, deselections and all, which was OK for Lenin in 1917 but in my view would kill the party electorally and therefore make the whole exercise pointless. Or do they recognise that they are starting from a position of weakness and seek to permeate their ideas through the party and the country in a longer term strategy of constructing hegemony – which is more like what the Thatcherite Right did in and after the 1980s. Labour needs to contest that continuing neoliberal hegemony, but the Blairite/Brownite mainstream has shown little appetite for this, which in my opinion is the main reason why Corbyn won. But it is necessary to preserve the ‘broad church’ character of the party for this strategy to be worth anything: no purges or deselections. Meanwhile, the ‘mainstream’ MPs seem uninterested in putting up an alternative counter-hegemonic strategy, or even to seriously ask why they lost the leadership.

  14. paul barker says:

    Many thanks for this piece which, at a dark time brought me a lukewarm glow of “Ostalgia” for the days of my Communist yoof. Now I want more though. I presume that the LRC are a coalition of actual Marxist sects but which ones ? I am long out of touch with these matters.

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