When enough members of the PLP signed the nomination papers to get Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper in 2015, they thought they were just paying lip service to the idea that the Labour Party was still a fairly ‘broad church’ with a few genuine lefties still hanging around. It was a sop to try and keep them in the fold, knowing that Labour needed all the help it could get in recovering from the Milliband calamity. Nobody, myself and, I suspect, Jeremy himself included, thought there was any real prospect of him pulling it off.
What Corbyn’s comprehensive victory revealed was, despite all indications to the contrary in terms of the performance of the vast majority of Labour’s elected representatives at all levels, that the majority of the party’s members were actually still socialists at heart. This was a shock to me, having spent the best part of a decade mixing with Green Party lefties that had abandoned the Labour Party at various points over the last 30 or so years. I had assumed that there were very few left in the Labour Party, given that so few made it through the ranks to prominence at Westminster, in the Senedd and in most local council chambers. It was an even bigger shock to the Blairites and centrists of the PLP.
The totally unexpected nature of the outcome meant that it was inevitable that some sort of shambles would ensue, but alongside the mess created, something beautiful arose from the quagmire. Lo and behold, socialism was seen to be alive and kicking, and even more crucially, the membership of the party saw the opportunity to wrest control of the party away from the unrepresentative cliques that had come to control the party with an iron fist (resembling an iron lady?) from the point at which Blair’s New Labour Project took over. Socialism has been a dirty word in the Labour Party for too long as a result. I’ve heard more members of the Green Party and Plaid Cymru proclaim themselves to be socialists than Labour politicians in the 25 years I have been living in Wales. This is because Tony Blair seemed to prove to them that the only electable Labour Government was a neoliberal-loving, just-left-of the-Tories (no matter how far right they go) party that only ever aspired to be not as bad as the Tories. Sticking to true socialist convictions was untenable in the modern world, or so we were told.
The election of Corbyn, and the now obvious common appeal he has, brought hundreds of thousands of people into the party (a mix of old lefties like me and, more crucially, many first time party members – of any party – under the age of 30) and meant that, from nowhere, Corbyn had a huge mandate to re-assert the Labour Party as the party of the people; a party created by its members for its members; a socialist party that stood tall and proud of everything that this should stand for; everything that had become anathema to the professional politicians that make up a huge chunk of the PLP these days.
Given the circumstances, it was always going to be interesting to see how the PLP took to their new leader and how quickly their new leader would take to the task. In short, the PLP recoiled in horror at what they had done, and Jeremy found himself in a position that he had probably never even dreamt about, let alone planned for. I watched on with initial amusement, but then increasing admiration as Jeremy grew into the job and proved his leadership quality by toughing it out against the predictable forces seeking to undermine him, both within and outside the party. When I decided to join and do what I can to support this resuscitation of the socialist agenda, I knew that the PLP were one of those forces seeking to undermine him. This underlined exactly why I had not been able to go anywhere near Labour on a ballot paper for 30 odd years, but also underlined the importance of rallying behind him to win the battle for the direction of the party. At the point of joining, there as no obvious sign (to me at least) of the treacherous lengths the PLP would go to, just a few days later, with their vote of no confidence in JC.
There is no need to rake over the revolting stinkfist that was the leadership campaign this summer, but on reflection, it may well prove even more of a seminal moment for the party than Corbyn’s initial victory. The measure of Corbyn’s second victory, given the blatant gerrymandering of the floundering NEC in denying me (and something like 200,000 other members) a vote, was effectively a vote of no confidence in the PLP members that had precipitated the whole thing.
The PLP now finds itself between a rock and hard place. They are representatives, put before the electorate by the Labour membership. The views and desires of the membership are now crystal clear. The socialist values of the membership have been revalidated and given new voice and new confidence. This has seen the socialists, lost by the party over the years, returning in droves, and younger generations, that have never witnessed anything but neoliberalism in their lives, suddenly realising that an alternative does actually exist. The sense of excitement, of anticipation, of genuine hope is palpable. So what can we expect from the dissidents in the PLP now?
Some are clearly beginning to smell the coffee and recognising that they have to fall into line for the sake of their careers (the most important thing for some of them). Being the decent man that he is, but also being a bit wiser after the experience of the last year, JC has held out olive branches to those that he feels he can trust to drop the daggers. But it is patently clear that too many still clutch those daggers. Listening to a backbench MP sniping that Corbyn lacks confidence in dealing with the PLP as a group, even when acknowledging that he delivers when addressing mass rallies, makes me shudder. I know I would be more comfortable addressing 10,000 friends than a room of 150+ people holding knives behind their backs. It makes it very hard to see how this vital section of the party can be left as it is. Corbyn holds majority support in every significant section of the party now, bar the PLP. Yet it is the PLP that is the principle face of the party to the general public. Plummeting polls are bad news, of course, but history tells us that nothing discourages voters more than parties washing their dirty linen in public.
It is patently clear that Corbyn has the respect of just about everyone of a serious left-leaning disposition. He has the respect of many, maybe even most, in other parties and groups of the left. I know this is true from my own personal circle of friends and acquaintances in trade unions, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, SWP, Socialist Party, anti-racist groups, LGBTIQ groups, refugee support groups, peace campaigners, human rights organisations, and more no doubt. He is the man that all these people, groups and organisations can work with. If they all can, and in doing so unite all the opposition to the neoliberal hegemony, then the PLP simply cannot be allowed to get in the way.
Listening to my Labour MP, Madeleine Moon, sneeringly state that she would have nothing to do with anything connected to the Communist Party, to the SWP or to Momentum simply underlined the disconnect between what she herself stands for (i.e. Trident and as many jollies as she can extract from the arms industry it seems) and any appreciation of what socialism actually means. Her vicious disdain for Momentum, in particular, suggests there is nothing to build on. She clearly has no idea who Momentum members actually are. That she exhibits such derision and hostility for what Momentum stands for tells us all we need to know. That Momentum is independent, but supportive of, the Labour Party and Labour leadership is, of course, the problem. It cannot be controlled directly by the diehard controlling Blairites/centrists refusing to accept the new reality. They would love to outlaw Momentum members but wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court unless they treated their chums in the Blairite ‘Progress’ group in the same way. That Progress loves purple tells you all you need to know about it mixing plenty of blue in with the true Labour red. We all know where Nick Clegg’s Orange Book took the the Lib Dems. So beware Progress’ Purple book! When asked, Madeleine Moon quite bluntly said she has no problem with ‘Progress’ at all.
It is to be hoped that members of the PLP, like Madeleine Moon, will reflect on what is best for the Party that they try to insist they love. They have had their time and, I guess, served their purpose. However,they have wrecked the dignity of the party over the last year or so by refusing to bow to the will of the members. For the sake of their own personal dignity, they should start thinking about doing the honourable thing so that their ignominious removal does not have to be considered. In Madeleine’s case, she will be 70 by the time of the 2020 General Election; not a reason in itself to go, but an additional factor to surely be considered. Mandatory re-selection should, of course, be part of the constitution of any truly democratic party. I am sure that will come, but it would be a shame if that were to be twisted into some sort of perceived witch hunt or the like. That anybody should fear democratisation of the party simply reflects how undemocratic it has become. That is the only way that the PLP could have become so out-of-touch with the party membership in the first place, I would suggest.
So, it is clear that Jeremy still has his work cut out in dealing with the PLP. He needs to press on, along with the reshaped NEC, with continuing to democratise the party. That way he can relax and let us, the members, deal with shaping a more representative PLP that everybody, including the country at large, can believe in and take into power. But these things need resolving sooner rather than later if we are going to stand any chance of gathering the momentum needed to win in 2020. (And yes, that was a deliberate pun!)
Moon and others probably do have some valid concerns on the efficacy of JC’s team in responding to new situations like Brexit and Syria. It is to be hoped that the new Shadow cabinet steps up to the plate and ensures that this is sorted out. I (and I presume most others that support Corbyn) have faith in him and his team shaping appropriate responses. I have less faith in the rest of the PLP taking on those responses with the conviction that they should, simply because we know they don’t share socialist convictions at all. The biggest danger to all this unravelling is in Corbyn and his team wavering in their convictions.
Hearing Nia Griffiths (anti-Trident but pro-Owen Smith) state in her first serious pronouncement as Shadow Defense Secretary, that the party will not revisit its pro-Trident policy before 2020 was alarming. It was primarily alarming as, in a democratic party, this decision is not her’s (or JC’s) to make. It is a policy created partly via the back door by the 2015 Conference. TU and Constituency delegates at the time kept an anti-Trident motion from being debated. This, for a start, could easily change in the future. But the 2015 Conference actually went much further, but most probably missed it! In a little-noticed vote, it endorsed full renewal. The Britain In The World policy report included a paragraph committing the party to supporting a continuous-at-sea-deterrent, which would entail the replacement of all four submarines. Labour First, the moderate “old right” group, noted in an email to supporters: “If the rules are applied properly, this issue should not be considered by conference again until three years have elapsed!” Well, we know how the Party is a stickler for rules, but three years from 2015 takes us to 2018. It was, therefore, foolhardy and needless for Nia Griffiths, presumably with JC’s backing, to make such an announcement. If it was a sop to the centrists/Blairites, it was a poorly judged one in my opinion. It will probably, though, earn Madeleine Moon some further invites to arm dealer banquets.
So, my message to Corbyn is to stay strong and resolute. Continue the democratisation of the party and continue to have faith in the membership, that has put so much faith in you. The PLP will then either fall into line or face the decision to either jump or be shoved. Sadly, many of them have proven themselves to have little honour or integrity and further unseemliness will probably be inevitable. Ultimately we will not be able to shy away from it.