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How Labour's Attempted Leadership Coup Turned the Party Corbynista

Attempts to oust Corbyn have made his position more assured than ever, and made the party come alive.

by Richard Seymour
09 August 2016, 11:35am

(Photo by Gary Knight)

Pity the Labour Right. The high court has ruled that Labour members denied the right to vote in the leadership election must now be permitted to vote. Labour has been granted a right of appeal, but the court is unlikely to reverse its decision. And now, those same members have voted for all six Momentum-backed candidates for the NEC in a clean sweep. If anyone had any doubts that Corbyn was about to win the coming leadership contest, this has surely quelled them.

Arguments in the courts follow their own logic, but if the Labour Right are looking for deeper reasons that they appear to be losing the struggle to regain the leadership, they could do worse than look at their own noisiest champions. For example, after the NEC imposed a ridiculous £25 fee on members wishing to vote in the leadership election, Jess Phillips MP derided those who dutifully stumped up the cash as fat cats. Corbyn's supporters have been berated as sexist bullies, but John McTernan, the former Blair speech-writer, mocked Corbyn as the equivalent in policy intelligence of a Miss World candidate. They decry the new membership and lament the intervention of the "bourgeois courts" in Labour's affairs. They must know that Labour members are listening when they speak.

While much media coverage has focused on individuals who used to support Corbyn but no longer do, there appears to be far more movement in the opposite direction. Many constituency branches that previously supported Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper are now supporting Corbyn. Party activists report that some members have been made into reluctant Corbynites by the behaviour of Labour MPs. And the loathing that the parliamentary Labour Party and its traditional managerial elites have for the membership, which is only compounded by their perplexity when the feeling turns out to be mutual, has a lot to do with this.

But so has the paucity of their analysis. Unable to explain Labour's deep crisis, and evidently expecting everyone else to have the attention span of a stunned goldfish, they blame Corbyn for losing Labour's "traditional" voters. Even if Labour had not gradually improved its position until the coup began, it is astonishing to hear that Corbyn has lost "traditional" voters after New Labour shed five million such voters during their period in office, and after Ed Miliband's leadership lost Scotland. In fact, recovering the core vote (outside Scotland) is one thing that under Corbyn's leadership Labour has been doing comparatively well in by-elections and local elections.

Lacking a plausible analysis of the party's problems, having launched a failed coup attempt, unable to restore their old moral authority, and now stripped of the methods of exclusion and purge, some on the Labour Right have been briefing that they are preparing for a split. The Saving Labour faction has openly vaunted this option. But it is unlikely that such a split has any future. Labour culture is saturated in tribal hatred for the splitters of 1931 and 1983. Its trade union base will not support any split, few members would, and probably only a minority of MPs are ready to defect. Moreover, the idea of a new centre party is counterintuitive in an era when politics is demonstrably polarising and the centre – as Nick Clegg can attest – is shrinking. In all likelihood, the anti-Corbyn wedge will have to content itself with returning to low-level sabotage, diminished in force and numbers after defeat and the return of many softer allies to the front benches. The current gossip is that one of their plans is to "break the whip's office", which most likely means a small number of MPs ignoring discipline and operating as a party-within-a-party.

This is not yet a social movement, but it looks like a party that has come alive.

Labour's future belongs to the Corbynites, and a great deal hangs on what they make of it. Corbyn's goal is to create a social movement at the base of Labour. This stems from a recognition that no left-wing leadership can prevent the mass media and its allies in the political class from orchestrating a campaign of vilification against it. The only way to outflank it is to build resilient networks of support in the streets and workplaces, based on regular personal communication and activity. It is not clear how easy this will be.

According to an analysis by Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London, only 30 percent of the new intake have delivered leaflets and half of that number have gone out canvassing. These figures may not reflect those forms of political activism that go beyond traditional electoral work. It is also not clear how active party members usually are. Were they, in the era of haut Blairism where doorstep conversations were actually scripted, more likely to be active? Setting these questions aside, however, conversations with Labour Party members across the country anecdotally suggest that at least until the coup, many new members assumed that they had elected Corbyn to do the job, so they could stay passive.

The frenetic mobilisations in response to the coup attempt have changed that dynamic. Local meetings that have long been stale and empty are suddenly packed and vibrant. This has demonstrated to activists that they cannot afford to leave everything up to Corbyn. They now know that without their constant organisation and pressure, the political leadership they have fought for will ultimately be left vulnerable to back-stabbing from the back-benches. This is not yet a social movement, but it looks like a party that has come alive.

The Labour Right, then, have fallen prey to some harsh ironies. Having derided members for being inactive, they have goaded them into activity. Having launched a coup attempt on the basis of Corbyn's supposed unelectability, they have made themselves unelectable within the Labour Party. Having tried to "save Labour" as the "moderate" party it has always been, they have increased the chance that it will become, for a time at least, a mass party of the radical left. At some point, amid their self-pitying complaint, they might consider that they have some responsibility for this state of affairs.

@leninology

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