Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier (February, 2022)
Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower…”
Michael Murray: firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook: Michael Murray London
On 25th January, the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) voted 24 – 13 against a motion calling for the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) Whip to be restored to Jeremy Corbyn.
This has refuelled a slow burning debate from the earliest days of Starmer’s leadership when members watched the “10 policy pledges” of the leadership campaign, that gave him a substantial winning margin, being abandoned one by one. That debate, fed by an acceleration of indefinite suspensions and expulsions, disillusionment and declining membership, was about the desirability of starting out afresh to build a new, separate Socialist party- with or without Jeremy as Leader, but, mostly, favouring Jeremy were he, if approached, prepared to accept the role.
When we say “grassroots” that refers not only to the current membership but, also to “Labour in exile,” as they’re beginning to call themselves. These include:
Those who left in protest at Corbyn’s original suspension and automatic Labour Whip withdrawal on 29 October, 2020.
Those who left following Keir Starmer’s subsequent, petulant and wrongful withdrawal of the Whip from Jeremy, though he had had his party membership restored by a properly constituted NEC panel and, thus, ought to have had the Whip automatically restored. (See: Whip Withdrawal: how the PLP Code of Practice was circumvented, Labour Affairs December 2021, https://labouraffairs.com/2021/12/05/jeremy-corbyn-no-longer-a-labour-mp-one-year-on/)
Those who left, before that and since, disillusioned by Starmer’s perceived betrayal of his “10 Pledges,” which he’d presented– and very effectively – as being in continuity with the 2017/2019 general election manifestos, thus gaining a handsome majority in the party leadership election.
Those who have been indefinitely suspended, undergoing what can only be called out as “punishment by process” – and those who have been expelled, mostly without even a pretence of due process; or “auto-expelled” even, something hard to justify in any circumstances, least of all in a party claiming to be socialist and democratic. (See November Labour Affairs on Heather Mendick, an example of wrongful suspension. https://labouraffairs.com/2021/11/07/the-case-of-heather-mendick-diary/)
And then there are those physically present, paid-up card-carrying, going-through-the motions members, in whom the enthusiasm and hope of being in a vibrant party with a purpose transcending our individuated existence is dissolving by the day. In virtual exile. And we are many.
Rachel Reeves reveals all in the Financial Times
The widespread sense of alienation, or exile, hasn’t been helped by the interview in the Financial Times (George Parker, Jim Pickard, FT, 19 January, 2022) with Labour’s second in command – and touted (I think that’s the appropriate word) as next Labour leader – shadow Chancellor, RachelReeves.
Commenting on the dramatic drop in membership over the period of the post-Corbyn leadership, estimated variously at around 150 to 200 thousand, with a concomitant multi-million pound loss of membership fees, she said it was worth it to shed “unwelcome” supporters and remove the “stain” of anti-semitism.
“Membership in my own constituency is falling,” she said, “and that’s a good thing,” People had left who should never have joined the Labour Party, “They didn’t share our values,” she explained.
That the party’s finances were in a “parlous” state, she said was “another inheritance from the former leadership.”
Never mind her dodgy, stuck in austerity era fiscal rules-led economics which a series of editorials in “Labour Affairs” has addressed in recent months (See for example https://labouraffairs.com/2021/04/02/national-debt-is-an-irrelevant-statistic/). Just reflect on what a dismissive write-off that was, in the pages of the FT, of up to 200,000 members – including her own constituency supporters, who helped her to a 12,000 majority in the tough 2019 General Election?
I wonder how her “team” feels now in Leeds West, reading that? Does she not have even a steem of self-awareness ?
I wonder, too, what the interviewer made of an aspirant to the top job in a large people-centred organisation who admits to being complicit in the loss of that number of members within two short years – and, more to the point, being obliged as a result to make drastic cuts to support staff crucial to effective electioneering – a core activity – at local, regional as well as national levels?
Or, an economist and champion of fiscal rectitude who helped manage to turn a solvent organisation into a near-bankrupt basket case inside two financial years?
Anyway, the FT interviewers didn’t ask any hard questions, nor, I’m sure, were they oblivious to the corporate donations begging bowl being waved under their readers’ noses.
I know I wasn’t alone in how I felt, reading yet another Labour email this morning soliciting a donation towards the upcoming scheduled local elections and the now very real possibility of a snap General Election. It wasn’t generosity.
Is it time for a new socialist party?
Words have consequences beyond the FT’s “Firewall.” For what was occasionally raised in the past is now a clamour: breaking from the Labour Party and forming a new party.
One such proposal typically begins: “After the damage Keir Starmer has done, the left would need decades to rebuild from within the party – and we don’t have decades. The crises facing working people are already urgent.” (Chelley Ryan, Why I’m hoping Corbyn launches a new party, Morning Star) https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/why-im-hoping-corbyn-launches-new-party
“The prospect of building slowly from within the Labour Party is now entirely defunct. We don’t have time for slow movement-building.
The disgraceful treatment of Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing members hasn’t sparked a desire to reclaim the Labour Party. Instead it has sparked a mass exodus.”
“No stirring battle cries from well-paid Labour socialist MPs will inspire financially hard-pressedsocialists to fund a party to which they no longer feel any affinity.”
This article began with a cri de coeur, to which many will relate:
“I’m done with being Ms Negativity. I’m done with 99% of my political activism aimed at attacking rather than promoting.
“For five years we had a vision to fight for. It is devastating emotionally and mentally to go from that to absolutely no hope at all.”
The author believes the Tories are on borrowed time and the anger felt at Starmer’s Remain policy is on the wane. Many will swing back to Labour, whoever is Leader. Though there’s evidence from recent polling to support that, with today’s more fickle electorate, a favourable handover in the Tory leadership, the impact of constituency boundary changes – then a Tory rollover into another term cannot be discounted.
But, going along with the author’s hypothetical scenario, and Starmer remaining in situ, all he has to do is not cock up and his time will come, says Chelley. He will claim it was his purge of Corbynism that won it – and then it will be “business as usual.”
In office, Labour will tweak the status quo a little. Any progressive reforms will be easily reversed when it’s the Tories’ turn.
All leading to, according to Chelley Ryan: “The revolving door of not much changing can only be challenged by a new party. And that new party has to be headed by Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn as leader of a new party?
As recently as January 14th last, Jeremy was asked by the Islington Tribune to comment on growing rumours of his intention to consider forming a new party, as his suspension from the PLP was well into its second year without any prospect of resolution.
He stated categorically that he was looking forward to the restoration of the Labour Whip, and, in the meantime, would be supporting Islington Labour in the forthcoming local elections.
In the same paper, Alison McGarry, Islington North CLP Chair said: “Our activists are absolutely committed to staying in the Labour Party with Jeremy as our MP and campaigning for the policies we put forward in 2019.”
“We have the best MP in the country,” she continued, “and the membership hasn’t left in droves as in other parts of the country. That’s because of Jeremy and the work he’s done”
Two obvious points to be made here.
The first is: although the 2021 Conference-revised Rulebook bestows on CLPs a majority say in the selection of their MPs, that has been ignored in a number of by-elections since (See Labour Affairs October 2021 for Conference Rule changes and their impact on party democracy.)
The second: Jeremy has expressed his disappointment at the NEC decision. But whether he or his CLP are reconsidering their position, we don’t know.
The way things have gone up to now, the likelihood is that Starmer will remain in the corner into which he’s painted himself on this issue – and a candidate will be parachuted into the constituency to represent official Labour.
How will Jeremy react? And how will we react to Jeremy? And Islington North CLP ? Will it accept the official candidate — or oppose them, inviting suspension, thus joining other CLPs in …exile?
At this point, those immortal lines from Brecht’s play “Galileo” come to mind, which I’ve quoted in the Diary previously in a similar context.
Towards the end of the play, Galileo’s loyal foot soldiers are congregated in the town square where they await news of whether Galileo will apologise to the Inquisition for portraying the world and its place in the universe differently from his inquisitors, thus saving his own skin – or – stick to his principles, and face torture and possible death.
When it turns out that he has apologised there’s a collective sigh, then a long, profound silence finally punctuated by a foot soldier who says:
“Pity the land that has no heroes”
To which another foot soldier answers:
“Pity the land that needs heroes.”
We are where we are.
The Labour Party is on an inexorable path of self-destruction – the theme of this month’s Labour Affairs’ Editorial 1: “The strange Death of Labour England, “ a nod to George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic: “The strange Death of Liberal England,” on the decline of the Liberal Party.
Labour’s current position can be personalised as the a lack of leadership, or, as Editorial 2 argues: “The Need for Policies,” and points to Labour’s “threadbare policies” on, for example, social care, energy , transport, youth education and training, housing.
Policies are a function of leadership. In a parliamentary democracy leadership comes from within the parliamentary party, the PLP in the case of Labour, and the members vote on its selection of candidates.
It ought to be a matter of grave concern, therefore, to learn that there has been a split in the SCG, the 30+ group of MPs who are the only ones to self-identify as ‘socialist’ in an avowed ‘democratic socialist’ party.
This has given rise to much speculation – amongst the few on the left who are aware of it, anyway. Of course, the mainstream media is silent for the moment on internal Labour goings on.
The charitable line is that it is an attempt at a “reverse takeover” of the Labour leadership: purporting to be critically supportive of Starmer, instead of openly challenging him – with the aim of nudging him back towards the left. But the price to be paid for that “tactic” has already been demonstrated in one of the most significant recent votes on social policy, on the Tory’s Welfare Cap.
Only one of the new group who bothered to attend the debate (Kim Johnson) voted against the Bill: the rest of them obeyed the Labour whip, including the left’s “heroes” Dawn Butler and Clive Lewis. (They Work for You Division 157 HoC 10 January 2022: Vote on Welfare Cap)
And don’t talk about the war: the entire left group of MPs remained silent, or were absent in the embarrassingly jingoistic HoC debate on the Ukraine – and, it has to be said – not just the new left grouping of Labour MPs.
The only world weary left foot soldier response to the latest twist in the tale of Labour’s continuing decline is that this is merely a professional politicians’ each way bet on future career paths. Expect no socialist leadership from that quarter.
This diary entry began by asking: is it time for a Parliamentary Party of the Left? The answer is yes – and every day that passes throws up more proof of the truth of that.
But where is it going to come from?
In a future diary entry we’ll look at whether any substantial progress is being made towards a new party amongst the burgeoning groupings of Labour in exile which is occurring outside parliament, in the vacuum created by Starmer-led Labour.
In the meantime: Pity the land.