Internal warfare is damaging Labour’s prospects, but the grassroots organisation is simply following the right’s tactics to take control of the party machine

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Another week, and yet another fierce debate as the battle for the soul of the Labour party continues. Tom Watson has warned of an “entryism threat”, and, for his part, been accused of “a concerted attempt to interfere” in Unite’s general secretary election.

The row follows the publication of a secret recording of a Momentum meeting, which Sunday’s Observer said revealed a “hard-left plot by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn to seize permanent control of the Labour party and consolidate their power by formally joining forces with the super-union Unite”. In the recording, Momentum founder Jon Lansman says Unite and the Communication Workers Union are likely to affiliate to the left faction. He calls on party activists to mobilise to ensure Corbyn supporters are selected as delegates for this year’s party conference – where a controversial rule change that would reduce the threshold of votes needed for leadership nominations from MPs and MEPs could be heard.

The reality is that this is not a secret plot at all, but the natural machinations of an unpleasant but inevitable internal struggle. Labour First, the “traditional right” faction, has avidly fought to win positions at constituency level. Its own admirable organising efforts ahead of last year’s conference ensured that equally controversial changes to weaken Corbyn’s majority on the national executive were carried.

Though we’re now well used to senior Labour figures deploying the “late-night typewriter”, the party’s deputy leader telling a fellow member, “you have to be stopped” on Twitter is still extraordinary. But perhaps it speaks to a desperation that is felt by many Labour MPs at present. Not only is the party led by a faction they thought was dead in the water, but they are completely powerless to stop it. Though they were intending to weaken affiliated unions, party chiefs unwittingly shifted the balance of power from the parliamentary party to the grassroots with the Collins report.

The biggest lesson from Owen Smith’s failed leadership challenge last year is that this shift is now irreversible. MPs’ no-confidence vote proved entirely futile, and an attempted fix to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper also failed. Party operators were successful in denying votes to new members, but this was not enough to change the outcome. Indeed, these moves strengthened Corbyn’s position. Not only did they fuel the “coup” rhetoric of the time, they also alerted new members to the importance of Labour’s arcane, confusing and downright boring party structures.

 

So Momentum’s strategy of mobilising members within these structures is undoubtedly the winning one. Labour MPs may argue that a leader without parliamentary support lacks legitimacy, but they may as well argue, to paraphrase Brecht, to dissolve the Labour membership and elect another. Keeping a left candidate off the ballot paper, which is the essence of opposition to the “McDonnell amendment”, would be the death knell for the party. So-called moderates hope to change the tide by getting Gerard Coyne elected to lead Unite in place of Len McCluskey, but this looks increasingly unlikely.

If Labour’s right wing is to regain control of the party, it will certainly not be thanks to the efforts of MPs. To some extent Labour First and the Blairite faction Progress recognise this, which is why they are investing time and effort in organising in the local lay structures. But in a mass-membership party, they will struggle to carry on winning once the Corbyn-supporting membership wakes up to the importance of process.

Labour’s conference arrangements committee, the body that will decide if the changes to leadership election rules will be heard at the conference, is partially up for election this year. Members are currently represented on this body by the MP Gloria De Piero and former MEP Lord Cashman, who were backed by Labour First and Progress. But they were elected before there was much consciousness in the membership as to the importance of such structures under a left leadership. Given the left’s overwhelming victory in the national executive elections last year, former union leader Billy Hayes and left activist Seema Chandwani could well be on course to unseat them.

Internal warfare is undoubtedly doing damage to Labour’s prospects. But it’s easily forgotten these days that Labour lost two successive general elections before anyone even contemplated Corbyn becoming its leader. Social democracy across Europe is in crisis: the Dutch Labour party lost three-quarters of its seats in last week’s elections. Until MPs see mass membership as an asset rather than a menacing, entryist force, it is hard to foresee reconciliation. If the Labour right or the “soft left” wants to win over members, they must offer a vision of what they stand for that goes beyond Tony Blair’s third way or Ed Miliband’s “responsible capitalism”. And until they do, more importantly, it is hard to believe they are more likely to win a general election than Jeremy Corbyn.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/20/momentum-no-secret-plot-want-fair-say-labour-party

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