Finally, Corbyn has total command – and that’s his problem

John McTernan

John McTernan says that the Labour leader may have to make some hard choices at his party’s annual conference

21 September 2018 19:04

This year’s Labour conference will be the first of the Corbyn ascendancy. His control of the party is total. The mass membership is Corbynite and they have chosen conference delegates in their own image. The elections to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) saw the so called #JC9 – the slate supporting the Leader – elected in a landslide. Even Pete Willsman made the cut, though he had been formally disowned by Momentum, the Corbynite pressure group, after a tape was released in which he attacked British rabbis in a Trumpian rant.

Corbyn has a new General Secretary, Jennie Formby, who is subservient to his office, and the party machine is almost completely purged of the talented, experienced staff whose loyalty to the Leader could not be guaranteed. When the Labour leader gives his speech next week he will look out onto a conference – and a party – over which he has total mastery. And now his troubles begin.

With complete power comes complete responsibility. The decisions are yours to make. And there are some big decisions at this year’s conference. Should Labour back a second referendum on Brexit, a People’s Vote? Should mandatory reselection be introduced – an attempt to purge the party of moderate MPs that would create a civil war in the party?

Leadership means that the victories are yours – but equally the mistakes are yours too. There is no-one left to blame when you have eliminated all your enemies. This has been the truth underlying the row over antisemitism within the Labour Party. It is not merely a question of whether the accusations against Corbyn are fair – though they are well documented and accurate. How those stories were handled gives us insight into the new Labour Party that has completely eliminated all traces of New Labour.

Leadership means that the victories are yours – but equally the mistakes are yours too.

Take antisemitism first. Matt Forde, host of the satirical news show Unspun and stand-up comedian, casts a cold eye on British politics. His current show – ‘Brexit through the gift shop’ – is scathing about the Government’s handling of negotiations with the EU27, but he is equally brutal towards the Labour Party. He points out how nationalistic Labour’s new economic policy ‘Build it in Britain’ is. ‘Nationalism and socialism’, he muses, ‘if only there was some name for that kind of politics.’ Pausing only for the audience to gasp in shock, and recognition, Forde quips, ‘a good thing Corbyn doesn’t have a problem with the Jewish community.’ It’s a great joke – punchy, pointed and painful for any Labour supporter. Painful because it is true.

The row about antisemitism in the Labour Party, which lasted all summer, has finally been settled, with the NEC adopting the internationally recognised definition of antisemitism as part of its rules. There is little merit in going over that row in all its excruciating detail – at one point there was heated debate about the impact on freedom of speech made by using ‘the’ instead of ‘a’ in one sub-clause. It began to feel, at times, as though this was Labour’s own version of the Schleswig-Holstein question, of which Lord Palmerston famously said: ‘[The] question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.’

What is interesting, however, is what it tells us about the transformation that the influx of Corbyn-supporting members has had on Labour. It is truly a new Labour Party. Many of the normal laws of politics appeared to have been suspended at the last General Election. The two-party system was more firmly entrenched than for several decades – with the main parties winning over 80 per cent of the vote the first time since the Seventies. The seats of Kensington & Chelsea and Canterbury fell to Labour for the first time ever. This was almost certainly the consequence of the polarisation caused by the Brexit vote and the unmaking and remaking of traditional loyalties that follow a referendum. For Corbyn’s supporters – particularly the most vocal and active in Momentum – it was a just reward for their activism, particularly on social media, their loyalty and their complete message discipline.

Alastair Campbell reckoned that no news story could dominate the headlines for more than ten days. Corbyn kept the antisemitism row going for ten weeks.

All of this was on show over the summer as the debate about antisemitism raged within the Labour Party. As long as the Leader clearly opposed incorporating the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) code, so did his online army. It was one of Alastair Campbell’s rules of news management that no news story could dominate the headlines for more than ten days – in the end, something would knock it off. That’s another law of politics that Corbyn has managed to break – he kept the row going for ten weeks.

True, the details of the dispute have probably passed the public. But the main thrust won’t have – Labour is firmly established as a divided party, and in politics disunity is death. But more than that it has become the ‘nasty party’ of British politics – outside Labour’s ranks it is not hard to know which is the right side in the fight against antisemitism. Inside, not so much.

What Corbyn’s supporters showed during this row too is that they are not very biddable – even when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell clearly wanted the argument over the IHRA definitions to stop, prominent Corbynites in the media wouldn’t back off. And, even after the NEC decision, they have relentlessly defended their right to free speech to attack Israel in antisemitic ways. This lack of discipline is a sign of tensions within Corbyn’s core support group – and these will exacerbate the most fraught debates at conference.

The two major flashpoints are mandatory reselection and the People’s Vote – and they reveal different rifts. The first is a long-held demand of the Left going back to the Bennite days of the 70s – the insistence that Labour MPs must submit themselves to local party members for reselection before every general election.

It’s an obvious power grab – both an act of revenge by Corbyn supporters against the MPs whom they feel have not supported the Leader, and an attempt to stack the Parliamentary Labour Party with MPs far to the left of the voters. It’s a resurfacing of the Left’s will to purify the party – even at the expense of power.

They don’t care to remember that the rise of the SDP in the 80s was fuelled – in parliamentary terms – by deselections. With all the serious talk of a centre party, a round of deselections would give an immediate boost to any new configuration – providing them with an instant bloc of MPs.

The row also reflects a less obvious rift between Corbynite activists and the trade union movement. The Left often forgets that there is a good reason that Labour has the name that it does, rather than the Socialist Party – it was created by the union movement. As founders and funders, trade unions have never been willing to relinquish their power and influence. They have exploited the discussion of reforming reselection to strengthen their position in the process. To the fury of the Corbynistas, unions have created a role that makes them more important and which protects incumbent MPs. This will be a vicious debate because it is the first open skirmish in the battle between Momentum – who believe member-only decisions give them and Corbynism a decisive advantage – and the unions which will not accept exclusion from decision-making.

This will be a vicious debate because it is the first open skirmish in the battle between Momentum and the unions.

The second row is even more fissile. The case and the campaign for a People’s Vote splits the party in many surprising ways. Just as the 2016 Brexit referendum shifted the tectonic plates, so does the demand for a second vote – creating alliances where you would not expect them. Thus Alison McGovern, who chairs the centrist Progress think tank, set up the Labour Campaign for the Single Market and campaigns alongside the left-wing rail union leader Manuel Cortes who established the Labour for Free Movement. And the common enemy for these pro-EU campaigners? Jeremy Corbyn.

His lethargy during the referendum campaign, and his strategic ambiguity ever since, has failed to dispel the suspicion that he is an unreconstructed opponent of the European Union because it is (in his eyes) a capitalist club. Not only is this a fight where the left can unite with the centre and the right of the Labour Party against the Leader; it is also one that puts Corbyn at odds with one of his key constituencies of support – young people. As DRUGSTORE CULTURE’s YouGov poll earlier this week showed, younger voters overwhelmingly reject Brexit. They also overwhelmingly support Corbyn’s Labour. The intrinsic contradiction has been smoothed over so far – but at constituency Labour Party meetings all across the country the most popular emergency motion for this conference has been one in favour of a People’s Vote.

Leadership is not all about adoring crowds chanting ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’. It’s also inevitably about hard choices. At the 2018 Labour Conference, leadership is about to get real for Jeremy Corbyn.

Follow DRUGSTORE CULTURE (Instagram, Twitter) and John McTernan (Twitter).