By Owen Jones
Jun 28, 2016
The country is in a very grave crisis. That’s what we should be talking about, not the internal travails of the Labour Party. The Brexiteers have no plan; they began backtracking on their promises within hours, which may well produce a firestorm of fury in the coming months; we have a lameduck Prime Minister; the economy faces turmoil, as do jobs and people’s living standards; xenophobia and racism have been given renewed legitimacy, and social media abounds with reports of people being told to “go home” (and a lot worse); the country is more bitterly divided (and in so many different ways) than it has been for generations; Scotland is on course to leave and precipitate the break-up of the country, and who can blame them; the Northern Ireland peace process is under threat; the hard right of the Tory Party is on the cusp of power; and the EU — fearful of its future survival — is preparing to offer punitive terms to Britain. We may well be at the beginning of the biggest calamity to befall this country since the end of the war.
Responsibility for this calamity lies with the Conservative Party, not the Labour leadership. Jeremy Corbyn is being blamed for sins principally committed by others. It is remarkable, when you think about it. The left is accustomed to being savaged by the Conservatives for promoting policies that would cause economic chaos and threaten the future of the country. That’s what they claimed against the modest social democratic proposals of Ed Miliband at the last general election. Look at what these people have now done to Britain. History may judge the Tory Brexiteers to be the architects of the most radical, and ruinous, proposition to be offered and (presumably) implemented in Britain since the war.
Launching a coup in the Labour Party at this moment has diverted attention away from those responsible for this national crisis — not least by staggering resignations to ensure Labour’s woes dominate the news cycle for as long as possible. The opposition has a crucial role right now in filling the vacuum and offering leadership and a plan for dealing with the coming turmoil. The nation’s crisis has been deepened as a consequence of this political paralysis. It will now be harder to define the coming crisis as a Tory-created crisis. Choosing this moment to launch a coup — amidst all the grief and fear of the referendum result — will only accentuate the bitter divide that exists between the Labour grassroots and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s most passionate supporters see a uniquely decent and honourable politician who is now under siege. The unfolding civil war between the two sides now threatens the very future existence of the Labour Party. A formal split is being mooted involving the MPs effectively declaring unilateral independence. Mutterings about a leadership election in which Jeremy Corbyn is kept off the ballot paper would also guarantee a split. As far as I can tell, the rebels as things stand don’t seem to have a plan about what happens next. I don’t buy this is properly coordinated: it’s a kneejerk response if anything.
The political leanings of those resigning range from Labour’s right to the soft left. I have argued before that the right of the party lack self-awareness. It wasn’t simply that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election with a huge mandate last year; it was they who lost it. They have, as things stand, shown no vision, no ideas, no inspiring policies. They have often accepted the underlying principles of their opponents. They left a vacuum and they were furious that it was filled, without any reflection or self-awareness about their role in creating it in the first place. Britain is in a period of upheaval and inarguably seething with anti-Establishment sentiment (even if it often doesn’t manifest itself in ways that people like me would like): this is surely not the time for a lacklustre technocratic leader who wants minor tweaks to the status quo (whatever that now is).
So where next? Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest was, to say the least, unexpected — and unintended. He originally stood to put policies on the agenda; when he got on the ballot paper, he told an ally “now make sure I don’t win”; he felt winning between 20% and 25% would have been a success. When Jeremy Corbyn launched his leadership campaign, I wrote that he faced huge odds against him; and I also set out what I thought needed to happen to make the leadership a success against these huge odds. I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth repeating: normally when somebody stands for the leadership, they have years of preparation and ambition; they have a sophisticated professionalised team around them; they have the support of a decent chunk of their Parliamentary party; they have frontline political experience; they have lots of media experience; they have a network of sympathetic journalists. None of this applied to Jeremy Corbyn: it was partly why he won, because he was seen as a clear break from the old order. His leadership was instantly hit by an intense media barrage — being an isolated presence in the mainstream media has not been fun — and by a lack of support from the Parliamentary Labour Party, including deliberate attempts to undermine him. The leadership did not have the means or ability to deal with it. Because of the factors listed previously, the leadership undoubtedly made a series of mistakes which cut through to the electorate, and opportunities were missed too.
A clear narrative of what Labour stands for and the sort of country it would build never cut through: yes, partly because of spending so much time firefighting, partly because of an institutionally hostile media, but these were obstacles that would always have to be confronted. A clear coherent message that would resonate with people who aren’t signed-up left-wing activists, that addressed people’s every day problems and aspirations, has yet to be created — and that’s a collective failure of the left (myself included). And if you do not define yourself, you are defined by your enemies — and my word has the Labour leadership been defined by its enemies. This is self-indulgent, but there is no point me pretending that I have not suffered from intense bouts of frustration (and worse), and often been at a total loss about how to help or be constructive.
A confession. There was a plan that, along with others, I subscribed to. The general election was scheduled to take place in 2020; two years or so before, a younger left-wing member of the new intake would take Jeremy Corbyn’s place. They could learn from the inevitable mistakes of the Labour leadership, and present a fresh message that could resonate with a wider section of the country. A genuine alternative to the status quo can be married to competence, a clear vision, message discipline and optimism. But you cannot dictate terms to history. We have run out of road. A general election is now inevitable, whether it be later in the year or the spring of next year.
I can only emphasise that I’m writing this in good faith: my only interests are the future of the left and the people it exists to represent. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has a passionate layer of support in the Labour membership. We can argue about the reasons why (many reading will blame the undeniable hysterical opposition of the media), but his polling in wider society is bad: on some measures, very bad. The Labour leadership has never achieved the poll lead Ed Miliband (who went on to lose) had at this stage in the cycle, and that can only be partly explained by the loss of Scotland. The Tories — and the country — are in crisis and their prime minister a lameduck, but today a poll gave them a 4 point lead. Yesterday a poll put Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories, but read the smallprint: 53% of people who voted Labour in 2015 want Jeremy Corbyn to resign. The Tories are set to elect Boris Johnson — whether we like it or not, one of the country’s most popular politicians — as their leader, riding a wave of post-referendum euphoria on the part of the majority who voted to leave the European Union. Yes, Labour won mayoral elections in London and Bristol, and I expect it would do relatively well in a general election in major urban centres, particularly among the minority of younger people who can currently be mobilised to vote, not least in diverse communities. Elsewhere looks to be different. In smaller working-class towns, the danger of a re-energised UKIP ‘doing an SNP’ and storming Labour heartlands is a very obviously clear danger. The prospects of winning support in Scotland in a few months are nil.
Maybe it is possible to overcome these obstacles. Maybe Boris Johnson’s shine will wear off as the consequences of Leave come clear; maybe the unfolding national crisis will plunge the Tories into electoral chaos; maybe the Labour leadership can overcome the problems and mistakes of the past and improve Corbyn’s standing with the wider electorate and cut through a deeply hostile media; maybe those sections of the electorate we have failed to galvanise in sufficient numbers — not least younger voters — will change the dynamics. These are all theoretically possible, of course. And yes, Labour’s prospects have been significantly damaged by the timing and nature of this coup attempt. But these are, as anyone rational can surely agree, big ifs and big gambles with more at stake than at any point since 1945.
My fear is this, and this is what has left me with little sleep for the past few days. What happens if I keep all these fears to myself. What happens if an early general election takes place that hands the Conservatives a massive majority and leaves Labour a broken political force, never to recover. The hard right of the Conservatives will be triumphant; a legitimised xenophobia and racism will be at the heart of British politics; the country will break up; there will be an all-out assault on the NHS and workers’ rights which will make David Cameron look like some sort of pinko lefty; Britain (or whatever remains of it) could be transformed into a jingoistic, foreigner-hating free market colony. It is a dystopia. And the left will be blamed for it, and will never recover. If I was to help facilitate that, I might as well be working undercover for the Conservative party to destroy its opponents: to coin a phrase, why don’t I just join the Tories? I would be (however small fry) a gravedigger for the left, for the Labour party and arguably for the country during one of its worst crises in modern history.
I am not claiming to have easy answers to this terrible situation. I can’t see a viable alternative left candidate. I fear the break up of the Labour party under an electoral system that does not allow two left-of-centre parties. I fear a vicious divide opening up on the left that will never heal. I fear the possibility of the hard right of the party taking over (however seemingly unlikely given the current composition of the membership), implementing Blairism Redux and waging a war of vengeance against the left, all while presiding over a Labour defeat. I fear the assumption of power by a lacklustre technocratic leader who will themselves take Labour to a crashing defeat. I fear the destruction of the enthusiasm, particularly among young people, that the Corbyn leadership has helped unleash. For the left, Brexit Britain is a country of competing fears. There are no clear choices. I just know that our country is in crisis and we must all take our own personal decisions about the way forward, and that the judgement of future generations awaits.
One of the great fears is this. Xenophobia and outright racism have been legitimised by the nature of the official Leave campaigns (note I’m talking about the campaigns, not voters). People of colour and immigrants I’m speaking to are genuinely terrified. People are being abused on the streets and now facing bigotry that the instigators (and again I’m taking about the instigators) believe has a democratic mandate. The fear of many is that a replacement to Corbyn will concede ground to this sentiment that will literally threaten communities who already feel embattled (though this is rather complicated by the fact some of the leadership’s current public defenders are demanding Labour commits to opposing freedom of movement). How xenophobia and racism that bigots in Britain now believe has renewed legitimacy is confronted is not only crucial to the future of Labour, but the future existence of this embattled nation. That is why everybody — whatever their position on the Labour leadership — has to come up with a satisfactory answer to this gravely important issue.
I will therefore leave it to your consciences. You have to decide. The turmoil now raging through Labour’s ranks is beyond tragic. How it can be satisfactorily resolved is unclear. If we could arrive at a Labour minority government in a position to introduce proportional representation — so that the conflicting wings of Labour can form their own parties — then the current split could be resolved. For my own part, because of my fear for the future of the country — whether it be the threat posed to workers’ rights or the NHS or the legitimisation of xenophobia and racism — I’d like to play my part in setting up a broad-based campaign to deal with the huge threats we now all face. However difficult things currently are, there is always hope. That seems like a more constructive role to play than throwing myself into Labour’s internecine strife. None of this is easy to write, but again, it is based on my heartfelt assessment of where we are.