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What the Hell Is Going On in the Labour Party? A Brief Recap

A look back on the carnage that is Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

by Simon Childs
15 July 2016, 3:20pm

(Picture by: Rick Findler / PA Wire)

Woah, since Brexit we've lived through, like, eight years of actually interesting politics. Who would have thought two years ago that one month of the internal workings of the Labour Party would be relevant enough for a round-up, let alone one week? Labour used to take out its dirty laundry with brutal efficiency behind closed doors, Malcolm Tucker-style. It's more messy now, and this week was one of the messiest yet. Or as Jeremy Corbyn would say, "democracy! I'm loving every minute of it."

Labour's weird week started with Angela Eagle announcing that she would run for Labour leadership with her logo being her signature that looks like the word "Argh". Unfortunately for her, Andrea Leadsom announced that she was pulling out of the Conservative leadership race that very morning. Suddenly the Big Story was Theresa May being handed the post of Prime Minister on a plate. Journalists deserted Eagle's press conference, meaning she was left floundering and being forced to confront her own irrelevance: "BBC, anyone? No? OK, Robert Peston, where are you? [silence...] Michael Crick?"

Even though nobody cared about Eagle, the stage was set for a showdown between her and Corbyn, and it seemed JC was a shoe-in, given the number of Momentum fanboys and girls who still love him.

Unless... maybe the party apparatus could stop Corbyn running altogether? That way they could claim the party back from the bumbling geography teacher, and the hundreds of thousands of young supporters who annoyingly and counterproductively started giving a shit about politics. Weirdly, more or less kicking Corbyn out of the race was actually on the cards at the Tuesday meeting of Labour's National Executive Committee.

The idea was that in a new leadership contest, Corbyn should, like all the other candidates, have to gather the support of 51 MPs to stand. He probably wouldn't be able to manage that, since they all hate him.

After a marathon meeting the committee voted 18 votes to 14 that as the current leader, Corbyn should automatically appear on the ballot paper. It seemed that the coup was now completely ruined, given that Corbyn still commands so much grassroots support. A triumphant Jeremy Corbyn left the building.

That exit was an example of the kind of stupidity that is part of the reason the slick Westminster politicos want him gone, because the next item on the agenda gave the NEC the opportunity for one final trick. It agreed to change the rules on who could vote and decided that anyone who joined the party after the 12th January would no longer be allowed to vote. 130,000 people were barred in this way, which is a great way to welcome supporters to any party. But anyone who wants vote in a party that actively and publicly holds their opinion in utter contempt can to pay £25 between 18th and 20th July to do so.

Not sure if it's possible to "overshadow" such a total shitshow but, overshadowing this total shitshow was the stench of some quite nasty bite-back. Let's not blame every Corbynista for the actions of a few people, but Angela Eagle had a brick thrown through the window of her constituency office after launching her bid. There have been death and rape threats. Eagle cancelled an event in Luton after threatening phone calls. The ballot about whether Corbyn should be on the ballot was held in secret over fears for anyone voting against Corbyn getting trolled to shit on Twitter. Which does sound pretty undemocratic – but then listen to how upset this NEC member sounds about the bullying she had received.

Things have apparently got so bad that the party suspended all of its local party meetings to stop MPs getting abused and threatened. All pretty noxious, and it surely raises questions about how to deal with trolls, and how to hold politicians to account without being a complete prick.

That said, as Richard Seymour pointed out, it's pointless to ignore the context:

"The behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, the arbitrary rules revisions, the cancelling of meetings, the attempted purges, the sudden changes to the status of tens of thousands of party members, the leaks and private briefings, the months and months and months of sabotage, the manifest ill will that the party establishment has toward its members, their naked contempt for the things they claim to defend... their open vaunting of a split. All of that is, aside from being brutal and vicious and laced with frequent intimidation and character assassination, exactly the opposite of the climate one would need in order to make a habitable politics."

With the NEC meeting out the way, on Wednesday, Owen Smith announced that he would also be running. You know, Owen Smith? Owen? Smithy? The Big O? The Smith-Meister? He did that... that thing with the... I think he threw up on the dancefloor at the last conference disco? Nah, nobody really knows who he is, except his parliamentary colleagues, who say he has an "ego the size of a planet", "zero judgement" and that "his massive ego dwarfs everything".

Policy wise, he's apparently not far from Corbyn anyway, although he has said there is a "progressive case against freedom of movement", placing him at odds with immigrant loving Corbynistas, cosmopolitan Blairites, and reality.

By Thursday, some of the party grassroots were in open revolt about the new restrictions – holding meetings anyway, passing votes of no confidence in Angela Eagle, calling the £25 rule a "surcharge on democracy" and generally being really pissed off. Thursday also saw Unite members calling for MPs who don't back Corbyn – which is nearly all of them – to face re-selection.

Now it's Friday and Labour has suspended its biggest local party – Brighton – over allegations of abuse, an improper ballot, and Trotskyite entryism. It's kind of like in Peep Show when Jez and Mark are threatening to section each other. My colleague quit the party 14 days after joining, writing a strongly worded email which presumably nobody will have time to read. Over at the Guardian, columnist John Harris is proclaiming "this is the end". Can that really be true of a party that is seeing an unprecedented membership surge? I won't pretend to know but I'm pretty sure this circus/ exercise in democracy/ brutal civil war will carry on for some time to come.

@SimonChilds13

More from VICE:

Talking to Furious New Labour Party Members Who Can No Longer Vote in the Leadership Election

There's Too Much News and I Can't Deal with it Anymore

Corbyn, May and the Week British Democracy Fell Apart

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