Jeremy Corbyn has thrown his hat into the dispute over the internal Labour party report that revealed the extent of factional activity by senior functionaries that could have cost Labour the 2017 election.
Corbyn and his 2017 election committee have made a submission to the Forde inquiry set up by Keir Starmer to investigate the leaked report, claiming that the diversion of funds under the control of hostile officials could constitute fraud. The report alleges that they set up a “secret operation,” hidden from the leadership, in a separate Westminster office location as part of efforts to shape the election result to favour the rightwing.
The report states that the aim of the operation “appears to have been to funnel additional resources into seats of key figures on the right of the party.” The leadership was pushing for resources to be targeted at key Tory marginals, but instead they were funneled into seats “that would actually – thanks to the ‘Corbyn surge’ – return overwhelming Labour majorities, such as those of Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper. Other key figures from the right of the party in completely safe seats, such as Angela Eagle, Heidi Alexander, Chuka Umuna, Rachel Reeves, also received additional funding, as well as Facebook advertising.”
The Guardian reports that the joint submission said: “If claims in the report of significant sums of money being spent on such actions without authority are correct, then the inquiry must consider ‘whether it may have constituted fraudulent activity’.”
The significance of the report is that it gives context to the motives of the party officials who were promoted as “whistleblowers” in the BBC Panorama programme “Is Labour anti-semitic?” The party pushed back by criticising the partisan nature of the accusations, which prompted lawsuits by the officials involved.
Starmer circumvented the lawsuits with an apology and payment of substantial damages, which undercut the party’s rebuttal of the accusations. He justified his action with the claim that the Corbyn left had been defeated in the 2019 election and it was time to draw a line under the Corbyn era. The party, he said, was now under “new management.” However, the left was not defeated in that election and the party’s manifesto policies remain popular. Labour lost because it was up against a reactionary Tory populism that broke all the election rules to denigrate Corbyn, and because the right-centrists in the party saddled it with the policy of a second referendum.
Starmer was elected as party leader by winning the votes of a large number of Corbyn supporters through promising to respect Labour’s ethical values, end factionalism and win elections. But if we revisit his soft-left election statement from January 2020 it is profoundly ambiguous. His initial sentence states he has “always been motivated by a burning desire to tackle inequality and injustice, to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. That’s my socialism.” Note that he envisages himself as a (literal) knight in shining armour defending the powerless, not as an agent who will enable the powerless and marginalised to stand up for themselves – which was always Corbyn’s perspective. He goes on to say: “Labour’s values are my values: peace, justice, equality and dignity for all.” But these values can only be realised within a common culture of cooperation and equality. In practice, Starmer has not treated party members as equals with equal rights. Instead, he defers to the established social hierarchy.
For example, Starmer has visited a number of constituencies without informing the local party and excluding them from his appearances. In July, he visited the coastal town of Falmouth in Cornwall and called for support for the tourism sector. But Jennifer Forbes, who was the party’s Truro and Falmouth candidate in 2019, and a Momentum supporter, pointed out: “First he failed on courtesy to contact the CLP exec, or myself as ex-PPC. Having worked for 70 hours a week for nearly 2 years. I know a thing or two about what worked in Truro & Falmouth – we learnt, and had some valuable successes. As has been noted elsewhere, his visit was organised along factional lines. So, we were snubbed. Besides the rudeness, there are two significant problems with this. One: he promised unity. I really want him to just try a little to deliver on that. He seems to be doing the opposite & that’s not good enough for the whole party.”
“Secondly and most importantly, he got the policy issues embarrassingly wrong. Twitter picked it up before he even arrived. One of the poorest counties in the UK does not need more of the same [increased tourism]. The polices we put forward to expand the docks and the green industrial revolution were hugely popular because they were based on what the voters want. Tourists might want to protect our tourism industry, but locals want more high quality jobs.”
Starmer also visited Stoke-on-Trent in early August, which Labour lost badly in the election. He met with former MPs Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell, who both lost their seats, but ignored local activists. A Facebook comment read: “Local Labour party activists who have a wealth of knowledge on the community were not invited – nor even informed of his visit. But he invited Blairite rejects Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell to join him …”
He has used the ideological narrative that the Corbyn left were responsible for the election defeat in order to encourage the right to suppress and exclude the left in the constituencies. A clash is likely over party democracy: Starmer’s appointment of rightwinger David Evans as General Secretary, together with hints in the party’s report on the General Election result, point to a downgrading of the party conference in deciding policy. Evans wrote a report for Blair in 1999 that advocated “representative democracy should as far as possible be abolished in the Party.” He proposed that General Committees in local Labour Parties be replaced with a smaller “working Executive” in order to marginalise the left.
The left needs to prepare for a fight to prevent the gains of the Corbyn era from being rolled back. The rightwing narrative about the election defeat must be rejected and confidence restored by bringing together socialists as a group. Writing in Red Pepper, Momentum activist Sabrina Huck proposes: “Rather than taking over Labour in order to win elections and take over the bourgeois democratic state, we should see the party as a platform to agitate and educate from. … For the Labour Party to be a useful instrument we cannot shy away from arguments within the party for the sake of ‘unity’. If the party at present captures the constituency in British society that is most interested in socialist change, then focusing on mobilising them to consolidate a critically minded group must remain our main goal. A focus on internal battles is a distraction from this more important task.
“The Labour Party should be viewed as a catalyst that can equip us with skills, resources and people to work towards building an alternative public sphere and erecting the counter institutions that support it.” In other words, she suggests, the Labour party can function as a temporary scaffolding that can be discarded when counter institutions have been constructed.
Even in the current circumstances where constituency parties are unable to meet, it is still possible for the left to cohere around the Corbyn team’s submission to the Forde inquiry. Moreover, the huge sum raised spontaneously by Labour members for Corbyn’s legal defence against the threat of a libel action by John Ware, the maker of the BBC Panorama programme, shows that his supporters are still a political force.