2016 09 Editorial

Labour’s Next Leader?

Jeremy Corbyn’s PLP critics claim that under his leadership Labour is unelectable. Some of these critics are the same people who were responsible for Labour losing the last two general elections. But rather than rally round Corbyn they have placed their faith in Owen Smith, a man with little more than six years experience as a member of parliament. Their aim, they say, is a Labour government. So what guarantees can they offer that, should Smith defeat Corbyn in the leadership election currently being held, Labour will win the next general election?

There is something odd about the choice of Smith. If Corbyn’s critics seriously want Labour to win in 2020, why choose Smith? Whatever happened to the big guns among the PLP? Where are Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, for example? They have been strangely quiet in recent months as if on permanent vacation. Could it be that had either one stood against Corbyn in Labour’s present political atmosphere they would have been soundly defeated?  So why not use Smith as a stalking horse, hoping that in a year or so the euphoria around Corbyn will subside, enabling one or the other to mount a more serious challenge?

But if, as expected, Corbyn defeats Smith, what will his critics do then? For Labour to have any chance of forming a government the Party needs to unite. Divided parties do not normally win general elections. But one cannot have any confidence in a daggerless PLP getting behind Corbyn. In fact if his critics intend to force another leadership election, it is in their interests to be as disruptive as possible. The disruption which began with his election a year ago has continued throughout his leadership.

In recent weeks there appears to have been a carefully orchestrated succession of  Corbyn’s critics running to the media with concocted tales of his inability to lead and accusations of anti-semitism, misogyny and racism within the party for which Corbyn is deemed responsible. It seems however that almost all the abusive comments directed at Labour MPs, including Corbyn himself, have come through social media. How many, one wonders, have been identified as party members?

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has been Corbyn’s most prominent critic. Just days before he launched a blistering attack on Corbyn he said he preferred to stay out of the debate over who should be leader. But he then became a useful tool for Corbyn’s PLP critics and used the Observer (21.08.16) to attack Corbyn for making Labour unelectable; conveniently forgetting that he was elected as Mayor with a huge majority, with Corbyn as party leader. And he accused Corbyn of failing to articulate a case for Remain and being largely responsible for the Brexit vote. Khan needs to get out of London and talk to Labour Brexit voters in the north of England. He would find that not even his idol Tony Blair would have dissuaded them from voting to leave.

Labour’s membership of more than half a million is at a record high with many joining since Corbyn was elected leader. They may be many, as Momentum reminds us, but they are nowhere near enough to guarantee an election victory. Corbyn’s aim is to energise the membership within a social movement that engages directly with voters. If Corbyn wants to engage with the voters what message does he wish to convey? Where is the economic and industrial programme that will win back traditional Labour voters who defected to UKIP or simply stayed at home? Such a programme must address the concerns of Brexit voters, as well as those who voted to remain, over immigration, access to health and housing and insecure, low-paid employment. It seems that Corbyn understands this. He has identified what he believes is wrong with most of these concerns. But has yet to package his policies into a workable whole.

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson claims that the membership has been infiltrated by Trotskyist activists, the evidence for which is in a report he appears to be keeping under wraps. But until it has been published we will just have to assume that his is just another device to undermine Corbyn and his support group Momentum, while claiming to have the best interests of the party at heart. It seems that Watson fears a Militant-type takeover of Labour. But the Militant threat in the 1980s, when Watson was a junior employee at Labour’s headquarters, was exaggerated. Their influence in most constituencies was minimal or non-existent. There have never been more than 10,000 British Trotskyists, at most. The bulk of them did not try to infiltrate Labour.

Smith’s programme for a Labour victory under his leadership pitches him well to the left of the previous leader Ed Miliband. It is clearly aimed at Corbyn supporters, some of whom are reported to be disappointed with his leadership. This opportunistic ploy will not be lost on those who do not recall Smith expressing such radical left views during his time in parliament. His presence as Work and Pensions Secretary in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet was barely noticed. He then resigned following the earlier planned mass exodus of shadow ministers. Smith’s campaign so far is based on dire warnings about Labour’s future if Corbyn wins a second time. His forecast that Labour could “bust apart and disappear” (Guardian. 04.08.16) is scaremongering on a gigantic scale. Appearing to row back a little on this he then claimed he is standing against Corbyn to prevent a split happening. He says that if Corbyn wins he would not serve in the shadow cabinet. But if he (Smith) wins he would invite Corbyn to be party president!

Although Smith’s and Corbyn’s programmes for economic recovery are broadly similar– a case of the former stealing the latter’s clothes– they clash on defence and foreign policy. Smith’s stance on Trident, that he is a “reluctant” supporter is bizarre. Corbyn’s opposition to Trident and his perceived refusal to press the button for a nuclear strike may be out of sorts with voters, but Smith’s “reluctant” support is that of an equivocator. And his calls for a second referendum on EU membership once the terms of a Brexit are known would offend the very people Labour must win back. His call for talks with ISIS also makes no sense and is unlikely to win many votes. So much for Corbyn being unelectable.

The closing date for postal and on-line voting is 12 September, with the result announced at Labour’s conference on 24 September. Based purely on the number of nominations each candidate has received Corbyn looks the overwhelming favourite to win; he has the support of 283 constituencies compared to 53 for Smith. But controversy has surrounded the election. The Court of Appeal has ruled that 130,000 party members who joined after 12 January are ineligible to vote. John MacDonnell called this a “rigged purge”. However, a bizarre decision may have allowed many of them to vote after all. Labour’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee, have agreed that three groups are eligible: members who joined the party before 12 January; members of affiliated unions and  those recent members and non-members who paid £25 to become “registered supporters” following the 18-20 July NEC offer; and 168,000 affiliated supporters who are members of affiliated organisations such as trade unions. Tom Watson’s views on this are unknown. Perhaps he should check how many of these eligible voters are Trotskyist activists.