The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is currently engaged in an ongoing struggle with its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In a series of exchanges, my colleague, Blake Ewing, and I engage in a debate over whether he should stay or go. Ewing has taken the time to reply to my response to his original piece. There is disagreement between on us on quite a number of fronts, including on our fundamental political commitments. I think the most productive approach, is to summarise what I take to be his three most important arguments and offer my response. So here goes.
Ewing disputes my claim over Corbyn’s support in the Labour Party arguing ‘that 81 per cent of his PLP; not to mention all Labour MEPs, hundreds of Councilors, all living former leaders and all but three MSPs, and as recent polls indicate, an increasing portion of the membership…want to see the back of him.’
A little fact checking is in order here. It is not the case that ‘all Labour MEPs’ have come out against Corbyn. Of the twenty current Labour MEPs, eleven supported the relevant motion, five opposed it, and four were not present for the meeting (as the correction to this Guardian article makes clear).
It is true that 600 Labour councillors were reported to have signed a letter for Corbyn to go, (though it turned out that some on the list actually supported Corbyn); but, we should also bear in mind that, so far, 319 Councillors have signed a letter in support of Corbyn (partly organised by our department’s own tireless and inspiring campaigner and DPhil student Councillor Dan Iley-Williamson). We also know that 45 out of 50 constituency party chiefs contacted by BBC Newsnight, who supported Corbyn last year, have said that they continue to do so. All the major unions, still Labour’s chief source of funding, remain united behind Corbyn. And let us also not forget the 60,000 new members who have joined since the referendum, with strong indication that they have joined to support his leadership.
The picture that emerges, is that though the elites of the party have no doubt turned against Corbyn, his support increases, dramatically, the lower one goes in the party hierarchy. Perhaps the strongest evidence against the idea that his support has slipped (or at least slipped significantly) amongst the membership is that the PLP has so far failed to trigger a leadership election – because they know that they could not win.
But aside from these calculations, the more fundamental point here is about party democracy, and who has and should have sovereignty in the Labour party. The Labour Party’s own constitution is clear that the power to decide who should be the leader of that party rests with the membership and not with the PLP. If members of the PLP want to challenge his leadership, it must be done through an election—anything else lacks democratic legitimacy. If Corbyn were to lose that vote, I and others would of course be immensely disheartened, but we would accept the democratic authority of the party as a whole. That is how it should be in a party that cares about its democratic procedures.
Ewing states that Corbyn ‘could not run a chip shop’, is ‘completely and utterly incompetent’, ‘intellectually lazy’, and ‘rubbish’. He also alludes to ‘things [Corbyn has] said over the years about the IRA, Hamas, Kosovo, Iran, Israel, etc.’ and ‘associating with or at least defending the last vestiges of anti-Western sentiment–the likes of Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, myriad terrorist organizations and other genocidal regimes.’
I am hesitant to respond to the first set of charges, because they focus so entirely on personality at the cost of the issues at hand. I doubt I can convince my colleague to change his personal views on Corbyn, though perhaps he could at least see that it takes some strength to be subjected to a sustained attack by the PLP and the media and still come out fighting–even if he might only deign to call this stubbornness. We should also bear in mind that Corbyn (like Bernie Sanders) is a political survivor, whose character and judgment has been tested over a lifetime.
But, in any case, I think that what we should really focus on, is what Corbyn has achieved as leader of the Labour Party. Labour is now clearly and unambiguously an anti-austerity party that stands up for the rights of migrants and refugees. Membership has also risen to some 450,000 members, a level not seen since 1997, bucking the trend of declining party membership across Europe.
Furthermore, rather than a simple return to the corporatist model of 1970s social democracy, John McDonnell has been impressively leading the way in innovative economic thinking, including on regional development banks, popularly controlled monetary policy, and most intriguingly his consideration of a universal basic income. Jon Trickett, on the other hand, has been tasked with working on a constitutional convention, which, if done correctly, has the opportunity to fundamentally reformBritain’s creaking, semi-feudal, and unrepresentative constitution. This is the beginnings of a progressive platform suited to the twenty-first century. We have Corbyn’s leadership of the party to thank for it.
It is hard to respond to the accusations Ewing makes regarding several unpleasant individuals or regimes that Corbyn has supposedly associated with, because he neither gives specifics, nor provides any evidence. I would be astounded if my colleague could find a single instance of Corbyn defending the regime of Putin or Hussein, let alone a ‘genocidal’ one. Sure, there are plenty of instances of Corbyn (rightly in my view) attacking some Western policies towards these regimes, but that is a world apart from defending the regimes themselves.
My colleague would surely admit that it is entirely possible to think that these are atrocious regimes but also believe that Western policy has been or is mistaken (a position shared not just by those on the left). Moreover, many of the instances Ewing might seem to be referring to, have been debunked.
Lastly, we should also bear in mind those foreign policy issues on which Corbyn has been shown to be entirely correct, from being arrested for his opposition to Apartheid, (while David Cameron opposed sanctions and accepted an all-expenses paid triparound the country), to his denunciation of the Iraq War and of Blair’s lies that led to it (a leader who has, by the way, been happy to consult for a host of autocratic regimes, regimes which my colleague would surely also condemn?).
Ewing argues that my invocation of Clause 4 (i.e. collective control over the means of production, distribution and exchange) shows that the ‘hard left has really never gotten over the fall of Communism’, which was an ‘effort that been proven, across the globe, to be a total failure’.
A blog post is not the best venue to give a thorough defense of socialism and why it is not the same thing as the economic and political system of the Soviet Union. Very briefly, I would remind my colleague that state control is not the same thing as collective control–the Soviet Union achieved the former but not the latter. If the state (or whatever we call the political structure under socialism) is not under collective democratic control, there will be no collective democratic control of the economy.
More to the point however, is that my colleague has, unfortunately, missed the point I tried to make, which is that socialists, like myself, who support Corbyn’s platform have already significantly tempered our demands from what we believe would be a just society. This shows that we do not believe, as Ewing charges, that ‘any compromise is treachery’. We have in fact made a huge compromise in supporting a platform that only begins to make the necessary changes for a better society; with the belief that this might open up the political space for more far-reaching and fundamental change.
My colleague also expresses a curious sentiment when he writes that ‘the hard left only wants to win elections on their terms, regardless of what a majority of the public may desire. The voters must come to them.’ Curious, because that seems to me to be exactly what democratic politics should be about. Parties set out platforms and then try to convince the public of its desirability and feasibility. If we fail, then we try again, until, if and when we manage to win the battle of democracy.
Finally, I leave you with the words from Jeremy Corbyn’s most recent speech: ‘Hatred, xenophobia, racism, violence within our society will not build one house, will not educate one child. Inequality will fail to educate a child, will fail to provide the housing that we need. Build something better, build something stronger and recognise that economic equality will lead to decency and real equality for everyone in our society.’
This uncompromising opposition to the appalling displays of racism and xenophobia witnessed across the country in the last week, is exactly the kind of leadership we need from the head of the Labour Party.