by W Stephen Gilbert
The Labour party is on a perilous path. That it may end in an irrevocable split is the least of our worries. Of greater concern is the prospect of fighting in the streets. The party conference – scheduled for next month in the fissiparous city of Liverpool, but in some doubt because no security has yet been secured – will attract protesters, probably thousands of them. If it goes ahead, it could turn into the notorious Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago, a pitched battle outside the amphitheatre in which police used mace, tear gas and batons, and dozens were hurt including reporters and an observing British MP. Not surprisingly, the subsequent election was won by a Republican, Richard Nixon.
Whence this anger, this prospect of civil disobedience? First, consider a proposition: Jeremy Corbyn is the most popular politician in Britain. That the government and the media and the parliamentary Labour party are all in denial about it does not stop it being so. No leader has ever received a mandate comparable to Corbyn’s a year ago. No leader’s election has ever swelled the membership of any party like Corbyn’s has. No politician draws crowds like Corbyn does. No politician has so many groupings supporting him and promoting him on social media and through traditional word-spreading methods. Ignore the discredited opinion polls – Labour has done better than predicted in every actual electoral test since Corbyn became leader and is frequently gaining more than half the votes in this summer’s local by-elections. The support for Corbyn is unprecedented in modern British politics. Labour should be so lucky to have such a revered leader. Unelectable? Puh-lease.
Now consider the last eighteen months from the viewpoint, not of those in the Westminster bubble whose daily priority is gossiping and plotting, but of the Labour grassroots out in the sticks, where they want nothing more than a government that brings them relief from austerity and PR language and cronyism.
From the get-go, the media has sought to bring down Corbyn. Several academic studies of the coverage have demonstrated that the bias against him is unparalleled. The BBC’s charter-enshrined impartiality has been so lacking that unprecedented petitions were launched against the Corporation and its political editor. Corbyn’s supporters expected this, ruefully predicting headlines of the “Corbyn Punched My Granny” kind.
Less predictable was how comprehensively the parliamentary party would reject the democratic mandate of the membership. A swathe of frontbenchers declined to serve; many of them made the pharisaic gesture of boycotting Corbyn’s address at last year’s conference. Though Corbyn sought to embrace all shades of opinion in his shadow cabinet, the MPs reciprocated only fitfully. Incidentally, despite each of his (to date) three front bench teams being put together in the face of widespread opposition, non-cooperation and blank refusal, Corbyn is the only political leader in British history all of whose teams have featured a majority of women. Yet he is accused of privileging men.
The MPs and the party hierarchy stop at nothing to undermine his authority. Mass resignations and an overwhelming vote of no confidence proved futile because he has more mettle than they had imagined. Constant denigration dents neither his serenity nor his support in the party. Absurdly, he is held uniquely responsible for the failure of the campaign to remain in the EU. Yet he delivered 65 percent of Labour voters as against 39 percent of Tory voters secured by Cameron (Theresa May was largely silent) and 64 percent of the SNP’s voters (Nicola Sturgeon is hailed as a hero). Though the media favoured the Tories over Labour at a rate of 2:1 in the referendum coverage, Corbyn managed 123 media appearances on behalf of Remain, compared with 19 by Alan Johnson, the nominal leader of Labour’s campaign. Johnson could only deliver 33 percent of his own voters to the Remain vote and Owen Smith 47 percent of his. 75 percent of Corbyn’s constituents supported the stay side, the seventh highest rate in Britain. Lukewarm?
A Labour donor went to law to try to get Corbyn as the incumbent struck off the ballot paper in this year’s leadership re-election. The party’s National Executive Committee, flouting the universal understanding of the notion of “any other business” in meetings, hustled through an arbitrary restriction on those who could vote in that re-election. This was challenged in court by representatives of those excluded and found to be a breach of contract, but the appeal court reversed the judgment. Then it emerged that one of the appellate judges is a long-standing professional colleague of Tony Blair.
Such attempts to manipulate the rules strike the unconsulted membership as dishonest, shabby and against natural justice. But at the same time, that membership is insulted and patronised as though its views are somehow illegitimate and certainly not as reliable or significant as those of MPs. The members were dismissed first as naïve youngsters who don’t know the (rewritten) history of the party in the 1980’s, then as bullies and trolls, now as Trotskyite entryists, streaming back from years in the political wilderness and given “the oxygen of publicity” by Tom Watson. Those who left the party in the Blair years – about a quarter-million of them and not only over Iraq – are justly aggrieved to be blackguarded as the “enemy within” in the post-Chilcot party. They remember that Labour under Blair declined by 4 million in the popular vote and that the rot in Scotland began in those years.
Labour toppling Corbyn would create a perfect storm. The party membership has doubled on his watch. If he goes, that support will know that socialism in the Labour party is dead for generations. They won’t take it quietly. Owen Smith presents himself as a man of the left but everyone knows that he is a mere stalking horse for the New Labour programme that Margaret Thatcher herself named as her own greatest achievement. If the fallout is ugly, the parliamentary party will be unable to claim that they have not been warned.