The election of a majority Tory government on an explicit programme of further attacking the working class – through a brutal Brexit, an even more barbaric immigration regime. Further attacks on our scarcely existing trade union rights and much much more, meant that Jeremy Corbyn had no alternative but to resign as Labour leader, writes Veronica Fagan. However his call for a period of reflection has inevitably become an attempt to destroy the positive legacy of his leadership.
It is of course vital that the Labour left makes a clear statement that we are not going anywhere – that we are going to stay and fight, taking forward Corbyn’s New Year’s Eve message for the party to become the resistance to the Tories (or at least at its the centre). Despite the disappointment of the defeat, there is a basis for optimism as stories of big increases in party membership both during the election campaign itself and since abound.
The Labour right is as dedicated as ever to smashing Corbynism and all it stands for. They are convinced that this leadership election gives them the best opportunity they have had to shift political discourse and practice to the right, and to accommodating to the system. They are not necessarily wrong – which means that defeating them and electing those that best represent the gains of Corbynism is an absolutely essential task.
Their right’s key player in the leadership election is Keir Starmer. Nandy and Phillips are openly on the right but stand little chance. They are attack dogs against the left who are opening the door to the real danger.
However much he is emphasising his paper thin left credentials in order to appeal to soft Corbyn supporters, he is in effect the main hope of those that want to take the party back to the days of New Labour. There are a number of useful resources dealing with his record and with that of many of those who are part of his campaign team. The latter includeMatt Pound who has been hired as his deputy “field director”. Pound was the national organiser of Labour First, and described his job there as “defeating the left”. He is close to Luke Akehurst, and one of the people behind the antisemitism attacks.
Key amongst these positions include Starmer’s abstention on the Welfare Bill and his call in 2013 for tougher sentences for those convicted of benefit fraud, stirring the hostile environment against claimants. Then there was his role in forcing the family of Jean-Claude de Menezes to drop their campaign for justice for the murdered young man by the refusal of the DPP to bring charges over his death and also his support for the chicken coup against Corbyn.
It’s clear where Starmer stands on the balance of power within the party. A central part of what has changed under Corbyn has been the partial rebuilding of a mass membership party, and a shift away from the dead hand of the PLP and councillors. Starmer has written to Labour councillors in recent days arguing that “If I am elected leader, I give you my commitment that I will establish a new partnership with local government. I will work with you to strengthen your voice at all levels of the party.” Exactly the direction we don’t need!
Starmer’s campaign is assisted by problems with the electoral system itself. Each candidate for leader and deputy needs the support of 22 MPs or MEPs in order to go forward to the next stage. Then CLPs on the one hand and affiliated organisations on the other get to nominate, and only candidates who also have sufficient backing from this bit of the electoral college will appear on the ballot that individual members will eventually receive. This means that the PLP still gets to veto. So the list that goes forward may well be shorter – with both Thornberry and Lewis looking unlikely to pass that first hurdle.
He also has a head start in stage two given that UNISON is backing him – with no membership involvement. During the two leadership elections in 2015 and 2016 there was an extensive consultation with branches – but this time the National Labour Link meeting, attended by 22 members on January 8 decided to back Starmer and Rayner – with only 4 voting for wider debate within the union. Nevertheless there is an open letter backed by many activists calling for that shameful decision to be overturned.
And even if Momentum as an organisation doesn’t have the same status in the ballot as a trade union like UNISON, its intervention leaves rather a lot to be desired. The organisation had rightly been under pressure from large numbers of supporters that the members should decide, through a ballot, who they would campaign for. But the National Co-Ordinating Group, meeting on January 11, took a problematic decision. They decided to recommend support for two candidates – unanimously for Long-Bailey for leader and by a majority for Rayner for deputy. Much worse, as we understand it, members will only be given an unacceptable choice – to vote yes or no on each choice.
So Paul Mason is treading extremely dangerous ground in arguing that if Clive Lewis doesn’t get through the first stage of the contest (which looks increasingly unlikely) the left should back Starmer. While Mason might be the most high profile person on the left making this argument he is not the only one.
Mason’s New Statesman (January 8 2020) article essentially starts from the same place as I do in this piece – that Rebecca Long-Bailey is the leadership candidate that best reflects continuity Corbynism – and then comes to exactly the opposite conclusion – that that is why she should be rejected. Not only wrong, but in this particular context – very dangerous.
Socialist Resistance hasn’t been backward in criticising Corbyn or the Labour leadership team more generally when we have thought it necessary. On Brexit and on antisemitism in particular we have published many articles doing just that. But at the same time, we have emphasised what Corbyn and Corbynism represent. Now is absolutely not the time to change that overall approach when there is a real possibility that the result of this leadership election could result in a major retreat.
We also face the problem that from a political standpoint Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are irreplaceable as central leaders of the party. They represent more than anyone else the possibilities of going beyond left social democracy on an anti-capitalist trajectory – which is why such levels of vitriol have been poured on their heads. They have been by far the most steadfast when it comes to promoting an anti-austerity, antiwar and largely anti-imperialist agenda. The most promising of the new crop of MPs last time, Laura Pidcock, who might have been persuaded to stand, but lost her seat, putting paid to that idea.
We are therefore talking about candidates that fall short of the standards set by the outgoing leadership but who best represent their overall direction and are best equipped to defend the Corbyn project against the assaults it will now face. In this context, the choice is Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader with Richard Burgon as deputy.
The key word is ‘continuity’, and Long-Bailey best represents this. The left should also not see as a secondary issue the importance of Labour electing a woman leader at long last.
It is true Long-Bailey has compromised herself with her comments on patriotism and on nuclear deterrence, and her record on antisemitism is distinctly problematic. We have made these points in recent articles. But to rule her out on the basis of this in such a choice of candidates and at such a time would not make sense.
The only other candidate we could consider backing is Clive Lewis. though the choice may not be open if he fails to get the requisite number of PLP nominations. On Brexit, on Open Selection – and apparently on Scottish independence his politics are close to or the same as ours. We certainly welcome the fact that his entry to the contest has raised these issues and broadened the political debate and again make the point that it undemocratic that the PLP may veto him being on the ballot. But there are a number of reasons why he would still be a weaker candidate than Rebecca Long-Bailey.
One of Long Bailey’s important strengths is her role in fronting up the development of the Green New Deal/Green industrial revolution. This is critical both because of the intrinsic importance of the issue and because of its appeal, particularly to young people – and potentially if the messaging is right to communities where new jobs are particularly desperately needed. Its true that Lewis also has a strong record on the environment he doesn’t have the same public profile on the question.
And on the questions of defence where we strongly critical of Long Bailey, Lewis’ own record is also problematic. At Labour Party conference in 2016, after a bizarre incident in which his speech was altered on the autocue, he made clear to a fringe meeting that he was against any attempt to change the Party’s pro-Trident position. On the other hand he told the Victoria Derbyshire show recently that he would not press the nuclear button.
But overall even if Lewis is on the final ballot, which he should be, we still advocate a vote for Rebecca Long-Bailey.
In terms of deputy leader, Richard Burgon is clearly the candidate that most closely reflects the Corbyn legacy. He has a strong record on the question of Palestine which would be an important counterbalance to Long-Bailey. His candidacy is being supported by key Corbyn allies John McDonnell and Diane Abbot, by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour CND. He would act to further pull the leadership team to the left. He currently does not yet have the necessary nominations – but there is still time for this to shift. His record is more consistently left than Dawn Butler, though she has done good work at Equalities and has generally been supportive of the Corbyn project. She certainly merits being on the ballot.
The current front runner in terms of nominations is Angela Rayner. She has a poor record at Education in terms of her relationship with the trade unions and her lack of opposition to academies. She has also annoyed many activists in this contest by being seen not only to be hoovering up nominations far beyond the threshold she needs and then blocking people asking her to suggest to potential supporters that they nominate others instead in the interests of the widest possible contest.
So Burgon should be the first choice for deputy leader, Butler second and only third for Rayner– who at least has the merit of not being Ian Murray!