Two articles on the state of the Labour Party. This is critical, as Labour attempts to make itself a viable party of government, as well as a descent opposition to the Tories and Boris Johnson.
Labour is at war and Starmer will decide who wins
Defeated, cast into bottomless perdition, and in disarray, Satan and all the forces of Pandemonium determined their strategy:
‘To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe.’
‘War then, war. Open or understood must be resolved…’
Like a pro-Corbyn report author, I’m quoting selectively from Milton’s text to suit my argument, but you get the idea. Corbyn’s supporters have decided to wage war, by any means necessary, against Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party. They are now openly dedicated to his destruction.
The engine of war they’ve chosen is the so-called ‘Labour leaks’ report which is currently under investigation by Martin Forde QC. This is now central to their ‘stab in the back’ myth. It rambles over 800 pages, but the gist is that Corbyn would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids.
The kids in question are members of Labour Party staff who had such awesome power that they could manipulate and determine the outcome of the 2017 general election from their desks. Others have raised the obvious point that Labour did better in 2017 (when the shadowy saboteurs were at work) than in 2019 when Corbyn was in complete control of the party machine, but let’s not let the obvious facts stand in the way of a good conspiracy theory.
Thomas Gardiner, lawyer, Labour councillor, and the man appointed by Corbyn as his Director of Governance and Legal at head office is reported as stating in an email to the then-general secretary Jennie Formby that the ‘report’ should not be circulated because party employees’ emails and WhatsApp messages had been
‘presented selectively and without their true context in order to give a misleading picture’.
Thirty-two of the staff thus maligned are taking legal action, alongside many more members named in the report without their permission, and in some cases then named on neo-nazi websites.
I’m not going to prejudge Mr Forde’s findings. His team includes Larry Whitty, a former general secretary, Debbie Wilcox, the head of the Welsh Local Government Association, and Professor Ruth Lister.
I am certain they will ask if and why a pro-Corbyn member of party staff was ordered by a pro-Corbyn general secretary to author a report absolving Corbyn, and was briefed to pro-Corbyn media outlets, noisily defended by pro-Corbyn politicians, and amplified across pro-Corbyn social media platforms, and has today taken on the status of Holy Writ amongst Corbyn supporters, and perhaps, just perhaps, and bear with me on this, ask the question if there was any kind of agenda at work?
It is almost beyond belief that a party leader should lead his party to defeat twice, alongside lamentable performances in local and European elections, and then blame his own staff. History will be Mr Corbyn’s judge.
We were treated to another salvo in Corbyn’s war against Starmer this week with an article by Mr Joe Ryle on a pro-Corbyn website, under the lurid tabloid headline ‘I saw from the inside how Labour staff worked to prevent a Labour government’. This of course was catnip to the Corbynites and was furiously circulated amongst their followers. It was brought to my attention online by no less a personage than Tariq Ali. So I had a read.
If you haven’t heard of Mr Ryle, that’s because as he says in his piece:
‘I was new to the Labour Party, with a background in climate activism, and mostly unaware of all its different political affiliations and factions’.
He admits that his pro-Corbyn colleagues brought in after 2015 were ‘mostly new to electoral politics’ and the election results they oversaw certainly prove it. And yet he was appointed to a senior role in John McDonnell’s office, which begs a whole new set of questions.
I’m afraid the article then descends into Pooter-esque self-parody. It turns out he didn’t work at head office, but as a researcher in the House of Commons. The opening charge is that ‘there were only half pulled out staples in the walls and bits of blue tack. The desks were without chairs let alone computers and I had to work off my own mobile and laptop.’ This is like Gareth in The Office complaining that Jim had encased his stapler in jelly.
There’s more: ‘It was in these early days that one Corbyn aide aptly renamed the party’s HQ from its official name — Southside — to the ‘Darkside’, a term which quickly caught on — reinforcing a sense of them and us’. Hang on — so the Corbynites were calling party HQ nasty names? I didn’t notice that in the so-called ‘Labour leaks’ report. Perhaps if the Corbynites published all their emails and WhatsApp messages we could get the true picture.
Mr Ryle then concludes with the familiar old ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth:
‘without the actions of this small group of highly experienced saboteurs, I genuinely believe we would now be three years into a Labour government.’
What Mr Ryle ‘genuinely believes’ unfortunately has little bearing on the electoral realities of the 2017 defeat, when Labour won just 262 seats to Theresa May’s 317, and was 758,224 votes behind.
Facts, you see, outweigh faith.
Mr Ryle was afforded a prestigious role at the top of the Labour Party, despite having little relevant experience, contributed to a catastrophic collective failure, and then wrote an article blaming his colleagues for hiding the post-its, or something.
This sort of thing isn’t going to stop. If they don’t like Martin Forde’s findings, they will attack him and his team. When the EHRC reports, they will delegitimise it and its findings. Then the next thing, then the next. Eternal war.
So what should Starmer do about it? He has three broad strategic choices. He can ignore it, and hope it goes away of its own accord. He can seek to marginalise it. Or he can join battle and hope to win outright. Michael Foot tried to ignore it. Foot sought compromise with the hard left factions, up to a point, perhaps wrongly imagining the marxist-leninists were just modern manifestations of his own Bevanite and Tribunite groupings. That approach was a total failure, storing up trouble for the next decade.
Neil Kinnock adopted a blend of options two and three: a decisive victory against Militant Tendency (now ‘ Socialist Party’), which was a bona fide Trotskyist party-within-a-party, unlike Momentum or some of the other pro-Corbyn factions. The high drama of expulsions was coupled with the grindingly slow work of the policy review, controlling the NEC and conference, and generating enough heat, light and excitement around his own political project to draw energy (and key personnel) away from the Bennites.
It worked. When Tony Benn stood against Kinnock for the leadership in 1988 (campaign manager: J. Corbyn) Kinnock won 99% of the trade unions and other affiliates, 80% of the CLPs, and 88% of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
By the time of the 1996 shadow cabinet elections, Jeremy Corbyn came last with 37 votes, a mere 137 votes short of the last-placed winner Harriet Harman. Tony Benn records in his last Diaries that by 2007 the Socialist Campaign Group was in steep decline:
‘very few Labour MPs turn up…and a lot of members are not paying their subs of £30 a month, which is quite a lot actually.’
Benn reports that Diane Abbott ‘who is an officer of the group’ had not turned up for two years.
Once marginalised, Blair’s team could have acted decisively to expunge the hard left. They chose to fight them tooth and nail internally, but not to expel them outright (apart from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, another Trotskyist party). Indeed, the former chief whip Hilary Armstrong recalls that when members of Islington North CLP wanted to deselect their MP for his serial disloyalty to Labour, they were dissuaded by the leadership itself.
She told the BBC Westminster Hour in 2017: ‘I had folk from Jeremy’s constituency come to see me and say, “People are a bit upset with Jeremy always being against the Labour government, what if we try to deselect him?”
She told these members: ‘You’ll get no support from the leadership, don’t bother.’
Armstrong went on: ‘The prime minister [Tony Blair] was very clear about that when Jeremy was a backbench MP.’
Could Gordon Brown, no stranger to bruising political battles, have pressed the trigger? In 2009 Tony Benn records that at the AGM of the Stop the War Coalition (where else?) Jeremy Corbyn
‘whispered to me “I think it’s possible that John McDonnell and I are going to be expelled from the Labour Party for voting against the Government so many times.” He said “Keep it to yourself”, which I will.’
But Brown, like Blair, did not act.
So Starmer has to choose between generating an exciting alternative centre of energy, drawing close the people who don’t want another decade of Tory Government, who want to fight for jobs and health, and marginalising the wreckers.
Or confronting them head-on, making a virtue of a split between the minority Corbyn-continuity faction and the majority ‘let’s at least try to win an election’ grouping. A decisive break with the past that, like Kinnock in 1985, will actually cut through to the electorate. By booting Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet, Starmer has shown he is one tough cookie.
But the next six months, as he faces war by force or guile, will show just how tough he is.
Paul Richards is a writer.
Jeremy Corbyn’s complaint of ‘sabotage’ confirms he was unfit for office
Labour’s former leader claims the party was fewer than 2,500 votes away in key seats from forming a government and blames Blairites for his failure
Jeremy Corbyn and his close associates, having lost two elections, are determined to prove that the British people made the right decision on both occasions. The former Labour leader has put his name to a document that accuses “senior paid employees of the party” of “sabotage” during the 2017 election.
Like most conspiracy theories, it is self-refuting. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is true. Why does Corbyn suppose that Labour staff didn’t want him to be prime minister? Was it simply cosmic malice, or was it for the same reason that Labour MPs tried to get rid of him, namely that they didn’t agree with him? And might the reasons for disagreeing with him not be closely related to the reasons the British people didn’t vote for him?
It is the same with all attempts by Corbyn to blame someone else for his own failure. Yes, a lot of the mainstream media were against him. That is almost the whole point of the Corbyn movement: it was hostile to the establishment, including to the established media, and expected hostility in return, because it saw itself as a challenge to the media’s power. So what was the plan?
It turns out that the plan was to revel in the opposition of the “right-wing media”, and to use it to rouse the radical instincts of the British people. And when that failed, to blame the media for that failure. Which is, in effect, to blame the voters for being dupes.
Same plan for taking on the “Blairites” in the party: call them Tories, and use their opposition to Corbyn as a rallying call for hundreds of thousands of new members to join the party to fight for something that must be “socialism” because the Blairites/Tories/neoliberals were against it; and when that finally failed, blame them for sabotage.
What is surprising, in fact, is how little resistance Labour staff put up to the Corbynite reign of error. The document that Corbyn and his eight top people have signed fails to provide a single example of obstruction. That is because the 2017 campaign was an unusual one. The central fact of that election is that hardly anyone expected Labour to win. Corbyn himself, and Seumas Milne, his chief adviser and a co-signatory of the “sabotage” document, expected to lose.
That made it easier for those Labour Party staff who were uneasy at the prospect of Corbyn as prime minister – and they did exist, Corbyn is right about that – to resolve their dilemma. They were willing to work to try to save as much of the party as possible, the better to rebuild in future. Many Labour MPs made the same calculation.
Thus the 2017 Labour campaign was one of the most united and effective ever fought by the party. Unexpectedly, it came within inches of putting Corbyn in Downing Street. The document complaining of sabotage repeats the absurd statistic that “Labour was less than 2,500 votes in key seats away from forming a government”. That ignores the hundreds of thousands of votes in other seats that would have been needed to make those few votes in the closest seats possible.
But I always go out of my way to be fair to Corbyn, and it is true that if the Conservatives had lost 10 more seats, he would have been prime minister. Once Theresa May had run out of DUP MPs, and perhaps three Labour MPs who would have balked (Ian Austin, John Mann and John Woodcock are now in the House of Lords, having urged people to vote against Corbyn in 2019), a rainbow majority of Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens would have put Corbyn in as prime minister.
So, yes, Corbyn could have won in 2017, but it wasn’t sabotage from his own side that stopped it. The giveaway, as Nick Cohen points out, is that Corbyn complains about 2017, when a lot of Labour staff were “Blairites” and he did better than expected, and not about 2019, when he had total control of the party machine and did worse than at any time since 1935.
The problem with Corbyn was never that he was unelectable, but that he would have been a disaster if he had been elected. With this pitiful whine of the sore loser, he has proved it. He has no judgement, and prefers the warm bath of myth to the harsh reality of responsibility.