by Trevor Fisher
Lenin once said that some months only contain a week’s worth of action. While some weeks contain many months of activity. Currently the Labour party is living through years of action in a few weeks, but the last weeks of July saw particularly significant developments.
Firstly, during the 48 hours 18th to 20th June, the NEC devised window for upgrading £3 supporter subs to £25 to buy a place in the leadership ballot passed. Astonishingly, even in the Corbyn era, the Labour party gained 133,000 registered supporters in a matter of hours. One third of the selectorate was now registered supporters. By 28th July the BBC – Shaun Ley – was reporting the figure was 183,500. Where the extra members had come from is part of the current mystery.
We will not know till September who this benefits But it is very clear that a politically savvy cohort of some size now exists, understanding deadlines and able to spend £25 without blinking an eyelid to vote for the leader. And the Labour party has effectively no way of knowing who they might be – even if local parties tried to check the validity of the applications, they do not have enough time to do so. Ley reported that in HQ a mere 15 people are trying to check social media for unacceptable attitudes. But the problems are not about classical entryism.
Labour leadership elections are increasingly randomised, a marked contrast with the Tories who carried out a selection process which secured the choice of the M Ps. Labour’s M Ps have not just lost control of the process – which they did under the Miliband reforms – but have demonstrated this by launching a coup which seems to have relied on Corbyn not being on the ballot paper.
The NEC allowed him on, which lead to Michael Foster, ex- Labour PPC, launching a legal challenge which is the second major development. But before considering this, a few background points on the assumptions going for a dubious revolt, rather than a sensible redrafting of the rules for a mid-term election. This is increasingly necessary as the party fragments and shows the failure of the core theory of New Labour.
Internal party politics under New Labour assumed that the left wing activists could be outflanked by involving the uninvolved grassroots, thought to be more numerous and representative of the voters. Membership democracy was advocated by the Soft Left as a radical measure, but was turned by the leadership to undermine radicalism. And for two decades the theory worked, notably in the 2010 leadership election when hard leftist Diane Abbott came bottom of the five candidates that year.
Miliband then felt safe to create a new class of registered supporter, costing a mere £3, whose sole right was to vote for the leader. Supporters were created by Miliband as a device to make the party more manageable. This move was rooted in the New Labour belief that the activists were still left wing but there was a great mass of people who were in tune with the leadership and these could outflank the activists. The party would, in a phrase attributed to Mandelson, be massive – but passive. Very different from the soft left prescription.
The theory came apart in 2015 when Corbyn won with a New Labour selectorate. Their theory had chose to put Corbyn on the ballot paper. It is futile to blame the Corbynites for mobilising effectively once it had happened. Kevin Meagher has written of ‘£3 trots’, but the registered supporter system did not lead to classic entryism. What it did do was undermine the view, still held by the PLP majority, that the Party members are more right wing than the activists. We will see if this is the case on September 24th. But it is likely this theory is now about to disintegrate.
The new supporters who are attracted to Corbyn appear to be idealists. In a very perceptive article in the current edition of Renewal, ex-LCC chair Paul Thompson quotes a young activist in the Observer of 28th August last who wrote that Corbyn’s electability was not an issue and “please, stop talking about Michael (Foot).”
Both New Labour and The Corbyn surge looks back to the 1980s, but the Corbynites have more in common with the Bevanites of 1951 than with the Bennites of 1981. The grassroots revolt has a long tradition – back to 1931 – and the fourth revolt is following the pattern of the previous three. A long period of Tory dominance followed the previous three rebellions. But the idealists believe, with justice, that the New Labour project failed and a New Politics is needed.
Corbynism is nothing like a New Politics. As Thompson argues Corbyn’s roots are in Vanguardism, the belief that politics is about “building hard left power and ultimately controlling the machine.” Thompson also quotes Ken Spours as arguing Corbynism is a “primitive political bloc.” This is true, and it may fragment. But not while the Parliamentary Labour Party is dominated by the ideas of New Labour, and making damaging mistakes like the legal challenge of Michael Foster.
Foster was trying to remove Corbyn from the ballot paper, which would leave Owen Smith as the only candidate and thus leader. But the move had little legal substance and no political force. This rule is relatively clear, dealing with a challenge when there is no vacancy, and specifies that the challenger has to have parliamentary backing. But when there is no vacancy, the leader does not need to have MP support – he can hardly challenge himself. The judge backed this reading of the rules, stating “The leader would not in that situation (where there is no vacancy) be someone who is a ‘challenger’ for the leadership and accordingly, would require no nominations in order to compete in the ballot to retain his-her position as leader.”
This ruling is eminently sensible. While internal party battles will continue, however, its worth ending on a final point about the politics of those whose detestation of Corbyn is affecting very basic political judgements. One of the great masters of practical politics, Winston Churchill, wrote in The Second World War” (Vol II) that “The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained… If he makes mistakes they must be covered… If he is no good he must be poleaxed. But this last extreme process cannot be carried out every day: and certainly not in the days just after he has been chosen.”
Nine months after Corbyn was elected, his record, did not justify the extreme process, and the risks that the challenge would fail. The PLP and their supporters appear not to understand the practical politics to which Winston Churchill was referring.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007