The PLP: Labour’s Timid Tendency
In the 1980s, Militant, a disciplined, hard left, Trotskyist organisation, embedded itself in the Labour party. It achieved partial electoral success, with Militant members standing as Labour candidates. It controlled Liverpool City Council and had two members of parliament in Bradford North and Liverpool Broadgreen. In addition, it held the key position of National Youth Officer, with a stranglehold over the Labour party young socialists.
All this was loosely tolerated under Michael Foot’s leadership of the party. But Neil Kinnock, Foot’s successor as party leader, following Labour’s defeat at the 1983 general election, set out to remove Militant from the party. His well-publicised speech at Labour’s 1985 annual conference, where he accused the Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council of hiring taxis to deliver redundancy notices to its employees, was the catalyst for a series of expulsions of key Militant figures. These included Derek Hatton, leader of Liverpool City Council, Ted Grant, Militant guru, as well as their two MPs.
There is no doubt that this period in the 1980s had a negative effect on Labour’s electoral prospects, as shown by heavy defeats in the 1983 and 1987 general elections. (There was also the formation of the Social Democrat Party in 1981 which presented a political alternative to Labour until it vanished into an almost unchanged Liberal Party in 1988). And comparisons are now being made between Militant’s effect on Labour in the 1980s and Momentum’s effect today. A hard left label has been attached to Momentum and accusations made of plotting to take over the Labour party. The comparisons are ludicrous.
Jon Lansman, a founder member and key figure in Momentum is no Ted Grant. And Momentum is not Militant. Militant had a clear Marxist agenda: to turn Labour into a Leninist party. Momentum’s agenda, as far as it has one, is to ensure that the left is well represented in the party. To ensure that Labour has a clear socialist programme for the transformation of the British economy. It has no desire to turn Labour into a Leninist party: most members are not Leninist or even Marxist. It recognises that the demography of Britain has changed substantially over the past 30 years.
The accusations of a Momentum plot to take over the party arise from comments made by Jon Lansman concerning the prospect of the trade union UNITE affiliating to Momentum should Len McCluskey be successful in the forthcoming election for general secretary of UNITE. This prompted Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, for the second time in recent memory, to tar Momentum with a hard left brush and accuse it of surreptitious political manoeuvring. In doing so, Watson attempted to kill two birds with one stone: to undermine Momentum and thus Jeremy Corbyn, and to reduce Len McCluskey’s chances of victory in the UNITE election.
Momentum is not affiliated to Labour, although most of its members belong to the party. It is therefore seen in a different light to affiliated groups such as the Coop party, the Fabian Society, Progress and Tribune. These groups have some influence over the development of policy and the general direction of the party. But unlike Momentum they are not mass membership movements. It is Momentum as a mass membership movement of the left that concerns Tom Watson and the parliamentary party. It is feared that power has shifted from the PLP to the membership. The battle with Momentum is a long-term attempt to return power to the PLP and overturn Corbyn’s leadership election victory.
Momentum is aware of this and is seeking a change in the rules for leadership elections. Its aim is to reduce the proportion of nominations required in order to appear on the ballot paper from 15% to 5% of PLP members. In doing so it hopes to ensure that a candidate of the left will be in the running once Jeremy Corbyn stands down. In the meantime his opponents will cast an eagle eye over his performance as leader.
Corbyn’s major problem as leader derives from his desire to unite the party as much as possible. This is unachievable and he should therefore concentrate on setting out his own views, and also be more firm with shadow cabinet members who step out of line. A point made later with regard to Article 50.
More seriously, not only are the majority of Labour MPs opposed to the new Left direction desired by the membership, so far they have been able to obstruct it by in some cases controlling party Branch machinery. Members are not informed of forthcoming elections, little or no opportunity is provided to familiarise themselves with the different candidates, and they have not been absorbed into the Branch in any real sense. And some members receive no communications at all from their Branch. Door knocking is the only activity they are asked to take part in.
This is where Labour’s National Organiser should step in, establishing direct contact with members through email, informing them of important Branch activity such as elections, where the Branch has failed to do so. In extreme cases, where new members are obstructed from any involvement in Branch life, the National Organiser should hold an emergency meeting to determine the cause and take appropriate steps to rectify the problem.
The latest Guardian/ICM opinion poll shows Labour trailing the Tories by 19 points. Corbyn’s critics suggest this is due entirely to his poor performance in parliament and voters’ perception of him as a future prime minister. A common voter opinion of Corbyn is that he is not a leader. A similar view is held by many of his parliamentary colleagues and the right-wing press.
Although his performance at prime ministers’ questions has improved in recent weeks—how many of his voter critics actually watch PMQs?–he has shown signs of an inability, or unwillingness, to act decisively and ruthlessly when required. The most recent example of this being the rebellion against a 3-line whip by 52 Labour MPs on the invoking of Article 50 to exit the European Union. Corbyn’s unwillingness to act decisively against the rebels allowed the shadow ministers among them to resign, when the proper response would have been to sack them.
Furthermore, Labour failed to call the Tories to account for the budget shambles. It was a handful of Tory MPs who opposed the increase in national insurance contributions of Class 4 self-employed workers. Consequently, the government performed a U-turn, reversing the decision. From which Labour can take no credit. The increase was expected to raise £2 billion, coincidentally matching the £2 billion announced for social care over the next 3 years. A welcome sum but not enough to cover the cut of £4.7 billion since 2010.
The growth in self-employment in recent years is a major factor in the overall growth in employment. About 1 in 6 workers are now self-employed, but many work in the gig economy where pay and conditions compare badly with workers elsewhere. There are numerous examples of employers fining their workers for failing to reach targets, often set at an unreasonable level, and for missing a day’s work.
A review of the UK’s employment market is being carried out for the government by Matthew Taylor, former general secretary of the Labour party. This is the government’s standard reply to Corbyn’s questions on the iniquitous methods of work in the gig economy. In which case, he should have called for all related measures, including the NIC increase, to be shelved until Taylor’s review was published.
Corbyn also faces a stern test over Labour’s attitude to the UK’s future outside the European Union. The triggering of Article 50 on 29 March was a momentous political event. While the Tories hide their difficulties under a veneer of unity, appearing relatively at ease with the decision to leave the EU, the opposition of a significant number of Labour MPs portray a disunited party.
Labour has set out six tests to influence the direction and end result of the negotiations over exiting the EU. Should the negotiations fail to meet any one or all of these tests, it is unclear whether Labour will vote against the final deal, having said all along that it will not block the decision to leave. However, following the triggering of Article 50 the ball moves firmly to the court of Brussels and the other EU countries. Their attitude to the UK’s exit from the EU will determine to a considerable extent, the future of the UK. This is the obstacle the government and opposition now face.
For Corbyn there is the little matter of the 50 or so Labour members who are likely to vote against any deal. If the final deal satisfies most of the parliamentary party, Corbyn should again impose a 3-line whip and deal firmly with any transgressors. It’s time to come out from behind your barricade Jeremy, and act like a leader.