By Dave Stockton
Corbyn supporters during the 2017 general election claimed, “Jeremy is playing a blinder!” and indeed this was true, with huge rallies that dwarfed anything Theresa May and the Tories could muster.
However, such claims have been rare since the acute phase of the Brexit crisis began. Yet the term is quite appropriate; only the people he is blindsiding today are his own supporters.
Although he knows all too well that they are overwhelmingly opponents of Brexit – especially of one which ends free movement for mainland European and British workers – he is negotiating just such a deal with May.
Ah – but loyalists will say – this is not for real. It is in fact a clever strategy to throw the blame for a disastrous Brexit onto the shoulders of our enemies and show Labour as the true guardian of the national interest, while at the same time keeping the Leave and Remain wings of the party together.
Only thus – with Brexit out of the way and the Tories in chaos – can we win a general election and carry through a radical manifesto.
An alternate scenario mentioned by some is that is that Corbyn succeeds in forcing the hapless May into supporting Labour’s “soft Brexit” (i.e. a customs union and “all the benefits of the single market”, except free movement) perhaps even with a confirmatory people’s vote attached.
If this produces a major revolt by Tory MPs this could force May to go to the country where Labour could then win a landslide as the party nearest to the wishes of the majority fed up with the whole Brexit nightmare.
There are many pitfalls to either of these scenarios. First Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that at every opportunity he will procrastinate on calling for a people’s vote. He would be even more reluctant to advocate a no-to-Brexit vote in such a referendum.
And the same would apply in a general election manifesto. This is why a European election, which could hardly be about anything else, is such an embarrassment.
Last but not least, three and a half years after becoming leader Labour’s rank and file still has no democratic means to win such policies within the party or oblige Jeremy to voice the wishes of the great majority of the members.
Indeed the biggest problem with all the above strategies – if one can even call them that – is that it leaves the membership entirely out of the picture.
It is an example of the worst expression “the old politics”, where the members remain objects, in fact dupes of the politicians’ manoeuvres. If persisted in it will demoralise and enrage both Remain and Leave voters even more and lay the former open to the appeals of Liberal Democrats and the Greens and the latter to foul demagogues like Nigel Farage –or even UKIP’s Gerard Batten and Tommy Robinson.
This wrong “tactic” began when Jeremy Corbyn was the first to recognise and accept “the will of the people” and to call for the immediate triggering of Article 50, the day after the referendum. In Spring 2017, with May’s snap general election in view, Corbyn announced to the dismay of his closest supporters:
“Clearly free movement ends when we leave the European Union but there will be managed migration and it will be fair.”
This was the cryptic pledge made in Labour’s “brilliant manifesto”, though in campaigning for Labour most activists seem to have hardly noticed it.
While Labour has embroiled itself in battling to retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union, including free movement of goods, services and capital, it has abandoned free movement of people replacing it with “a fair and reasonable management of migration”.
This line is backed by the biggest union baron who supports Jeremy Corbyn – Len McCluskey of Unite.
The shameful results of this line came when Home Secretary Sajid Javid brought forward the Immigration Bill that would replace free movement for EU citizens. To the astonishment of Labour members in parliament and the country Diane Abbott announced:
“The Labour party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends, and we set this out in our 2017 manifesto. I am a slavish devotee of that magnificent document: so on that basis, the frontbench of the Labour party will not be opposing this Bill this evening.”
Evidently a tsunami of social media protests hit the leader’s office and Momentum HQ, such that within 90 minutes the embarrassed Diane, her lifelong reputation as a fighter for immigrants’ rights sullied, had to announce to malicious Tory guffaws that they would now vote against it.
Despite the mid-stream turnaround 78 Labour MPs were absent from the vote because the party had imposed only a one-line whip.
With this “strategy” core socialist principles, like internationalism and working class solidarity, are being treated as so much small change in the game of parliamentary party politics.
For principled socialists the unity of the multinational working class of Europe and Britain should trump such shoddy calculations any day of the week. By fighting together in defence of its jobs, social services and the environment, the European working class can show itself as the only force able to utterly transform the whole system that is undermining these.
Corbyn’s immigration policy flowed inexorably from “respecting” the Brexit decision. There is no question – whatever the so-called Lexiteers say – that this was the key decider in the campaign, which the racist tabloids and politicians, like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, banged on about. It was one which Corbyn and Diane Abbott took up when they defended the invaluable work done by workers from Europe in the NHS, social services, etc.
But immigration enabled the right wing to hijack the question of the EU for a vote targeted, not so much at Polish builders, but at an imaginary “army” of refugees from the Middle East, Africa – and at Britain’s 3.3 million Muslim citizens. Theirs was the real Project Fear.
The reason for Corbyn and Abbott’s support for wanting to leave the EU is, however, more than a vote-catching calculus or just keeping the party together. They believe that it is a necessary pre-condition for a reforming Labour government.
This is not just a matter of harking back to Jeremy’s days as an anti-Common Market campaigner of the 1970s. It is clearly his instinct today. Look at his choice of advisors, the closest of whom are anti-EU former Stalinists, Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne. They see the national state as the instrument for carrying through socialist policies or at least an “alternative economic strategy” of state spending and nationalisation.
It is also due to the lack any serious input – let alone control – from his “grassroots movement”, Momentum, kept strictly “virtual” by Jon Lansman. By a supreme irony, Corbyn has in fact triangulated with his base in the best traditions of Tony Blair and Lord Peter Mandelson. How ironically ring the words of his first speech as Labour leader today:
“I have been given a huge mandate… and I believe it is a huge mandate for change. First and foremost it is a vote for a change in the way we do politics, in the Labour Party and the country. Politics that is kinder, more inclusive, bottom-up and not top-down and in every community and workplace, not just Westminster. Real debate, not necessarily message discipline but above all straight-talking, honest politics.”
The amazing thing today is that despite having the first left wing leader since George Lansbury (1932-1935) the Labour Party democracy movement remains marginal.
Momentum has acted consistently to frustrate moves to reselect MPs or hold local councillors to account or resist the shameful witch hunting by the pro-Israel forces. Corbyn has just used it to run leadership elections, where the members’ job was reduced to packing the rallies, staffing the phone banking sessions, using social media, and… getting out the vote.
Policy – real policy not the utopian reformist stuff discussed at The World Transformed – came from the leader’s office and was a product of unelected advisors like Andrew Fisher or Andrew Murray.
Neither Lansbury, nor Bevan, nor Benn got (or asked for) such “loyalty” from the rank and file. The reason is simple; these leaders emerged from a pluralistic, argumentative opposition to the Labour right. They were engaged in a prolonged attempt to make the party conference not only more left wing but sovereign, and the MPs accountable to their constituents. At the same time there was a rank and file left wing in the trade unions. All in all this deserved the name of a Labour Party democracy movement.
So what can the mass membership in the party and the unions do – the hundreds of thousands who joined to support Corbyn against the Blairite majority of MPs, those who are anti-racist, pro-migrant, and anti-Brexit?
For a national left wing movement
Well first of all WAKE UP! We must break free from the my-Jeremy-right-or-wrong attitude that has rendered us the most powerless left that Labour has ever known.
We must demand as a matter of the utmost urgency a change of line on Brexit. Free movement is the litmus test of internationalism. We must fight for a return to Labour’s pre-2016 line. When – as is clearly already happening – the “majority” once intoxicated by the anti-immigrant propaganda sober up, they will find a party that told them the truth and they will turn to it.
Above all we need a democratically organised left, rooted in the many struggles of rank and file trade unionists, the growing numbers of precariously employed, the young climate change protesters, women and LGBT+ activists, migrants’ rights campaigners and antifascists.
A party of critical thinking, independent and principled activists will not only hold the leadership to account and form a counterweight to the right wing – or those on the left who wish to triangulate and play dishonest games with the working class – but also defend a left Labour government against the sabotage of the bosses, bankers and generals.
Corbyn has often enough said that the Labour Party’s membership is its greatest strength. It is. And it needs to make its voice heard on this issue as on every other major issue. The new deadline of October 2019 provides the leadership with the opportunity to allow members to debate and decide the party’s Brexit strategy in a Special Conference – and in Brighton in September. We demand that it does.