2019 09 – Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier

Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier

Michael Murray

Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower…”

Michael Murray: murraymicha@gmail.com; Facebook: Michael Murray London

That time of year

As an active Labour Party member, I keep getting asked what with all the political mess around Brexit domestically and the world going on fire with climate change and lack of will, or global institutions to deal with it – where do I see us in even a year’s time?  My honest answer?  I don’t know. I don’t have 2020 vision.

One for the school-bag.  It’s that time of year.  A sign that the August holiday break from local branch (ward), constituency meetings and other committee meetings was finally over came to this foot soldier in the form of a letter from the branch secretary. In it, apart from the usual agenda of our September meeting , was a notice that…well, read it for yourselves.

“Dear Member, “The Hackney North & Stoke Newington Constituency Labour Party has commenced the process of the selection of a candidate for a Member of Parliament.”

What? Diane Abbott? With an 11,000 + majority?  But them’s the rules, as decided at last year’s Annual Conference.

The letter goes on: ”The procedure will be determined by ballots received from Labour Party branches and  affiliated organisations. If one third or more of Party branches who indicate a preference, or one third or more of affiliated branches indicate they wish a selection to take place, a selection shall proceed. In such circumstances our sitting MP shall be included in the shortlist of candidates from whom the selection shall be made.” 

There’s no fear of Diane Abbott  in Hackney North.  But Joan Ryan in Enfield North? Or Chuka Umunna of Streatham, to mention but two of the MPs who resigned earlier this year?  Would they have survived?  Had their leaving  anything to do with anticipating this rule change? (I know the truth of that in at least one MP’s case.) Joan Ryan gave as her reason the institutional anti-semitism of the Labour Party. And Chuka? He left on the pretext of a vision of how politics could be done better (another lacking 2020 vision). Nine MPs in total resigned earlier this year and, in truth, haven’t been heard of much since. And, I’d say, their subsequent fate has not been lost on any remaining like-minded MPs, which may explain their panic at this letter going out to all branches and affiliates.

Another item of correspondence was an invitation, from John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor,  to me, as “one of our movements most active members,” to attend his setting out of “Labour’s Approach to the Government’s Autumn Spending Review and Budget.”  Scheduled for tomorrow evening, that event would ordinarily be enough to clear the summer holiday cobwebs. Briefings like this by McDonnell, aimed at the activist layer, the foot soldiers, give one an insight into what’s really happening at the strategic, policy making level not otherwise available to us. And John is a gifted communicator – and motivator – without the need for hyperbole or rhetoric – with the addition of an odd, calculated “indiscretion,”  to give us a flavour of how business is done with Treasury – or City – mandarins.  Or, more to the point, give us an  honest “insider” update on where things stand at this historic moment.  

Now in the light of Boris Johnson’s announcement today (28th August) that he has asked the Queen to suspend parliament for five weeks from the middle of September; the Treasury’s decision to fast forward the spending review; the EU crying “foul” over the suspension of the UK Parliament. this meeting takes on a whole new level of interest for the foot soldier.

Incidentally, John McDonnell, today, in response to these new developments, said: “Nobody is fooled into believing that this is a proper and normal spending review. It’s a one off pre-election panic-driven stunt budget.”(Guardian, 28 September, 2019) “

Game on!  Holiday cobwebs? The memories are already beginning to fade.

Earlier this month, one MP, anonymous of course,  concerning the selection process change, “fumed” to the “Chief Political Correspondent” of the Guardian : “It has absolutely sucked the oxygen and life out of the Labour party and now we have a whole summer and autumn of introspection when we should be laying into the Tories.” (4 August 2019). 

Had that piece been written by one of the many “leftist” journos they would have, likely, for balance, pointed out that the relentless – and merciless – personalised attacks of a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Jeremy Corbyn  has been sucking the life out of the Party ever since he was – not once but twice – elected Leader.  And this without regard to the membership, the bedrock of Labour Party democracy, or, indeed, its impact on the electorate. As an engaged member and activist I’m surprised, mightily relieved actually, to read recently that the labour membership is still above the 500,000 mark.

I’m sure that this one small step for Labour Party democracy, represented by a modest tweaking of the new selection thresholds will have persuaded many to stick with the party, despite all the shite thrown at the party leadership from within the party – when we could have been better occupied “laying into the Tories” and revenging Windrush, Grenfell and all the austerity-imposed open and hidden injuries of class. 

The reason, of course, why Diane Abbott’s status as our MP  is down for decision in early September is that she is a Shadow Cabinet member and the process is starting at that level initially, including the front benchers. That timing is interesting as it cuts into the Annual Conference week. So, this could mean that some MPs  might be participating at Conference while not knowing whether they were going to survive beyond Conference as MPs. Others, according to the Guardian’s “ Chief Political Correspondent” could  have to spend Conference week canvassing member support for their re-selection.  We’re also told by the same source that MPs named by their colleagues are vulnerable – surprise, surprise – are from areas “where leftwing membership is strong.”  Not, mind, where MPs’ performance is piss poor, or their relationship to their local parties leaves a lot to be desired in a democratic socialist party. 

But, help is at hand: Tom Watson, whose day job is supposed to be Deputy Leader, “ has been running private sessions on surviving the deselection process, with training offered to about 160 (160!!) MPs who are part of his democratic socialist ‘Future Britain Group’ in February. (Guardian, cited above)

That is not to say that having to bed in this change is not disruptive – disruptive and, in some cases, predictably, messy. But its time has come, finally, in the Labour Party. And  It will be interesting to see what happens in practice with the selection process rule change around the country. 

The bottom line is that the necessary rule change came from members’ frustration with the Parliamentary Labour Party’s’ relentless attacks on Corbyn instead of fighting the Tories . Foot soldiers were increasingly demoralised, supporters disoriented.  Many feel that a re-selection process should, indeed, be mandatory. That would be my view.