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The joke is that the difference between Corbyn supporters and Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the latter knock on doors, but Momentum could become either a formidable campaign machine or collapse in typical Labour in-fighting, says Tony Greaves.
What is happening to Labour?
Commentators and opponents on the Right just say it’s a take-over by the ‘hard left’ (whatever that means) resulting in a civil war as the ‘moderates’, ‘centrists’ and ‘social democrats’ revolt, people who they used to call dangerous but half-hearted socialists and well-meaning idiots, and but now men and women of deep principle standing for all that is best in the Labour tradition.
To these ‘moderates, centrists and social democrats’ we can add the ‘pragmatic socialists’ who would like to march with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were it not for that dratted nuisance of having to seek election by the British people. Meanwhile the Labour Party had half a million members and supporters voting in its latest leadership election, an astonishing number at a time when parties are supposed to be dying.
The supposedly unelectable Corbyn won 62% of their votes against the pragmatic socialist Owen Smith, with individual members backing him by 168,000 to 117,000. And this after the Labour MPs had passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn by 172 votes to 40. (Labour peers would probably have been unanimous). Plus the disreputable moves by the old Labour fixers to stop scores of thousands of genuine members from voting, to discourage Corbyn voters from buying a vote by increasing the fee from £3 to £25, and to systematically but erratically remove many thousands of names from the lists.
Corbyn and McDonnell have now cobbled together a shadow team but the Parliamentary Labour Party is still dysfunctional. Rebel MPs and their allies are not going to give up. In early August the New Statesman ran a piece by their Labour right wing political editor George Eaton headed “Jeremy Corbyn’s contest with Owen Smith is the start of a struggle with no obvious end”. He quoted an unnamed Labour MP as saying “We only need to get lucky once. He needs to get lucky every time.”
DESPAIR AND ANIMOSITY
And that is how they think. Wander the corridors or tearooms of the Palace of Westminster and spot little groups of miserable looking Labour MPs and peers shaking their heads and muttering in quiet corners. Consumed by what Guardian columnist Zoe Williams called their “despair and animosity”, they are wondering when the next futile chance will come.
We may agree with them that Corbyn, McDonnell and Co. are not good at challenging Mrs May’s awful government or in chasing the polls and winning elections. But what this summer’s failed coup has shown is that when it comes to internal Labour politics the incompetents are people like Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and the promoters of Owen Smith. And the longer the ‘struggle’ goes on, the harder it will be. The Corbynites are relentlessly taking over. If much of this is shrouded from the national commentariat, that is because their vision is distorted by their residence in the Westminster bubble.
So how is it being done? And what are the consequences for Liberal Democrats? In particular what are Labour going to do with all their new members; are they a threat to us locally? Indeed are they really a huge new wave of Trotskyite infiltrators or – as one Liberal Democrat describes them in his town in a West Midlands shire – “in their 20s and early 30s…vaguely left-wing idealists, compassionate, small ‘l’ liberals really…mostly pro EU.” The Channel 4 programme Dispatches went to look for Trots at local Momentum meetings and found a couple of speakers from the Alliance of Workers Liberty (true Trots, originally a splinter from the International Socialists, once called Socialist Organiser, publishers of Solidarity, said to have around 200 members – you get the idea). But Dispatches got it wrong – these people are not infiltrating the Labour Party, they are entryists into Momentum itself. Whatever Momentum may be, it’s not just a gang of Trots.
It’s always a bit daft to try to tag present-day leftwing groups with labels from early 20th century Russia (though some of them are happy enough to bewilder us by doing it themselves). But if Momentum’s strategy has any echoes from those far-off days in distant places, it’s more Leninist than Trotskyite.
Far from being an anti-leadership group stirring up permanent revolution and discord within the party, Jon Lansman and his colleagues in Momentum’s leadership are close associates of Corbyn and McDonnell. Like Lenin’s people in the years before he was struck down poorly, they are setting out to take over their party from the grassroots – not challenging the leadership but working on its behalf. The Corbynite grip on the Labour party nationally is fragile – the NEC is split almost down the middle, and that only after Momentum got its people elected in the last elections for members’ representatives.
But Corbyn, astonishingly, the most unlikely messiah, has mobilised a huge number of new fans. They are enthused by what they see as his honesty, his disdain for the shoddy compromises of real world M 13 politics, his stands against inequality and poverty, war-mongering, capitalist greed, jingoism and racism. For so many of them, saying what is right trumps getting votes. Those of us who try to live daily in the murkier world of grubby compromise without losing either our principles or our seats may shrug our shoulders. But we can’t ignore it.
There’s a joke going round: “What’s the difference between Corbynites and Jehovah’s Witnesses?” The answer – “The Witnesses knock on doors!” Liberal Democrats chuckle about the recent council by-election in Mosborough ward in Sheffield when Momentum held a local meeting on polling day and 50 people spent their time phoning members of the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn. The Liberals spent the day knocking up voters and gained the seat from Labour.
Council by-elections often reflect local circumstances but taken as a series are often revealing – “real votes in real polls” as we used to say. They should show up any big rise in the number of Labour bodies on the streets. In the eight weeks up to 13 October there were 43 contests for principal authorities (excluding a few where Labour either intervened or withdrew).
In these elections the Labour vote was down on average by 4.5% compared with the last time each seat was contested. Labour has more than 350 members in Plasnewydd ward in Cardiff. On 20 September Liberal Democrat Robin Rea gained the ward from Labour in a byelection with a 348 vote majority (1,258 to 910). At the end of September Liberal Democrat Karen Ward won a by-election in the small rural ward of Glaven Valley in North Norfolk. She got 429 votes; Labour got 23. A local Labour blogger estimated “this figure will be very close to the number of people in Glaven Valley who signed up…to vote in the Labour party Leadership election.” I wonder how many of them also voted for Karen.
I know several people who signed up to vote for Corbyn who voted for me in the council election in May. Teignmouth Labour party is reported to be “the only really active branch in the CLP with lots of new members including a lot of ex-Greens” (a pattern from many places, it seems). The recent by-election in Teignmouth Central ward saw a Liberal Democrat win with 491 votes; Labour got 72. We live in strange times and I guess that at the moment a lot of the new Labour members are politically quite promiscuous. Even so, there are reports of very big increases in Labour membership figures in surprising and possibly alarming places (Southport, Winchester (1,000+ members), Cheltenham (850), Portsmouth (1,000+) and in some of them lots of new members are going to meetings. Peter Chegwyn says new Labour members in Gosport will “attend picnics in the park and discussion evenings but no sign of them doing the legwork”. Adrian Sanders reports that in Torbay Labour has over 500 members, very active on social media, keen on protests and marches, less so on electioneering.
In a more traditional Labour stronghold in Lambeth numbers are up from 800 to 2,300, twothirds of them Corbynites. In some stronger Labour areas like Chesterfield the internal thratching is already taking place – in Bristol 200 members and three councillors have been suspended. Particularly in some cities, their ‘new’ members include old-fashioned leftwing returners, well schooled in Labour party infighting. The battles for control of local parties have started.
Yet there is no doubt a lot of the new members are people we would welcome. In many ways they seem to be the 2016 version of the influx of new members to the SDP in 1981 – the so-called ‘credit card’ members. Now it’s the ‘click and like’ generation, paying online and doing their politics on their iPads. I guess it’s true of many of our new members too, and those of the Tories. The trick will be to get them out into the real world. What Corbyn and McDonnell have to do is to get enough of them to annual meetings and candidate selection meetings to secure their leader-inspired bottom-up revolution. The Leninist take-over. And this is where Momentum comes in. They claim to have more than 150 local groups already and a quick look at their website makes it clear that in Labour Party terms they are setting up a ‘party within a party’. But with their leadership backing it seems unlikely they can be proscribed. The bigger they get (over 20,000 members so far) the harder that will be.
Yet their parallel event at the Labour Conference called The World Transformed was perfectly designed to appeal to the new members – more a political fete (“a festival of politics art and culture”) than a traditional political meeting. Whether all these enthusiastic and idealistic but not ideological people can be meshed with the old party fixers to transform local Labour parties into a new Corbynite movement remains to be seen. It will surely be both messy and patchy.
But there are clear and present dangers. Labour’s recent petition and action day against grammar schools was a genuine political campaign of the kind that the Liberal Democrats have forgotten how to do outside elections. A local Labour party in Sussex is reported to have set up a mother and toddler group that has now taken to campaigning against Southern Rail. McDonnell and Momentum are setting up what they call campaign academies to train new members and turn them into political activists.
We may scorn their present reluctance to knock on doors on dark wet evenings. We will write them off at our peril. The brave new Labour party will result in lots of blood on the carpet (they are the Labour party for goodness sake and too many of them hate each other too much!) But in some places we are likely to find they are energised by enthusiastic new campaigners. Let us be ready for them.
Article first appeared in Liberator Magazine