As epected and intended, the Copeland and Stoke by-elections were severe setbacks for Labour and for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Whatever the particular reasons for the defeat in the two seats, the campaign and the result shows that an army of activists is no use if you haven’t got a clear altnernative. That Labour, not the Tories are being crucified on Brexit is because of the utterly confused and contradictory line pursued by both Corbyn and John McDonnell. The leadership’s decision to whip Labour MPs into voting for Article 50 – even when it is clear that May is going for a hard Brexit – has demoralised party members and voters who are unimpressed with the lack of will to fight.
But the Corbyn movement’s woes go much deeper than the post-Copeland blues and the climbdown on Brexit and free movement of labour.
The roots of the malaise lie in the strategy of Corbyn and McDonnell, which is above all concerned with avoiding a split within the Labour Party. Far better in their view to lead an impotent party that is split in practice than an effective united party shorn of the dead weight of the Blairite rump. Having promised to democratise the Labour Party, to encourage the new members to take control of policy formation to effect a “Corbyn Revolution”, they did nothing of the sort.
Following two leadership election victories, Corbyn invited his enemies into the shadow cabinet – and then refused to exert any discipline over them whatsoever. This shows a lack of backbone and a lack of respect for the membership. Having guaranteed the security of the PLP by refusing to support mandatory reselection, MPs were given license to abuse the leader, the members and the party with no fear of the consequences. They did next to nothing to combat the purge overseen by Deputy Tom Watson and Chairman Iain McNicol.
They protected cuts-making Labour councils by virtually ordering them to set “legal” i.e. cuts budgets. They made no serious move to democratise the Labour Conference or the method of drafting the next manifesto. John McDonnell decided to keep the balanced books pledge that rules out any really major expansions, re-nationalisations etc. and therefore to support cuts budgets.
Last but not least after correctly supporting a Remain vote in the referendum, they then adopted a “the people have spoken” policy and three-line whipped a vote for triggering Article 50.
Most shameful of all, they abandoned the free movement of labour pledge in the name of placating Labour’s so-called heartlands. In fact around two-thirds of Labour voters in Stoke Central and Copeland supported Remain, in line with national figures. So even here, it is not a question of Labour’s heartlands pushing the leadership to the right, but the PLP right, the billionaire press and the Tory establishment setting the agenda and leading Corbyn by the nose.
Labour’s mass membership is the factor that can make a difference in promoting a real socialist alternative. But it’s no use waiting for instructions from the Leader’s Office – let alone Momentum.
Corbyn was elected to lead the party on the issues that members support – renationalisation, taxation of the rich to invest in jobs and education, combatting oppression and discrimination, a foreign policy based on peace and solidarity.
The best way to ensure we retain a left wing leadership is for the party grassroots to wage an independent struggle to make left wing policies a reality. That will mean confronting councillors making cuts, it will mean trying to replace Blairite MPs; but it will also mean turning local parties into organising centres of resistance to Brexit, to austerity, to the rise of racism and the destruction of the welfare state. By actually drawing in the new members and supporters into a combination of political discussion and applying it to our activity we can create a movement more powerful than individual leaders, and strong enough to overturn the stranglehold of the PLP that is suffocating our movement in its cradle.