The Labour ex-staffers who took part in the BBC Panorama programme purporting to show that the party is anti-semitic are threatening to bankrupt it unless the parliamentary whip is withdrawn from Jeremy Corbyn. The party is now caught between the accumulation of financial settlements with a hostile anti-Corbyn faction and the slump in membership dues as Corbyn supporters drop out.
The programme maker, John Ware, is to take Corbyn himself to court for libel because of his criticism of the Panorama settlement. The “whistleblowers” who were interviewed are reportedly “astonished” at the fact that Corbyn is resisting the characterisation of antisemitism; what they have all overlooked is his supporters in the party who have raised over £300,000 in a few days to pay for his legal defence.
Carole Morgan, who organised the defence fund, wrote that she needed to express her support for Corbyn and found that many people felt the same way. “Those of us who have always longed for a better world, one that ensures dignity, security and peace for all humanity found ourselves voiceless after the terrible general election result and the subsequent loss of Jeremy as our democratically elected Leader of the Labour Party. Through Jeremy’s fund we have found our voice again.”
Why are all the agencies of the British establishment so determined to destroy Corbyn politically? After all, Keir Starmer and the right have re-established their firm control over the party and Corbyn himself has been relegated to the back benches. A material factor in the explanation is the extent to which Corbyn shocked and alarmed the political class with Labour’s strong showing in the 2017 election. It was then that accusations of anti-semitism were ramped up, culminating in the Panorama programme shown just six months before the 2019 election.
Corbyn’s firm defence of colonial peoples against state oppression, including that of the Palestinians, breaks from Labour’s traditional alignment with Tory support for the arms trade and overseas wars. If he had become Prime Minister, the balance of European support for countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel would have been tipped in favour of the oppressed.
Should activists leave Labour now? That must be an individual decision based on concrete circumstances, but it is worth considering why the ruling elite are so determined to control the party ideologically – as signalled by the 10 pledges candidates for the Labour leadership were made to sign in exchange for not being witchhunted for anti-semitism. Why is it so important to prevent Labour showing any political opposition to the populist right?
The establishment anticipates mass protests after the economic impact of Brexit and the coronavirus crisis begins to hit the public. They do not want a Corbyn left to legitimise these protests with any recognised presence in Labour, and so far Starmer has acquiesced with this requirement.
Corbyn’s legal stand provides a new focus for clarifying the anti-semitism canard, but it doesn’t have the same popular impact as his leadership campaign in 2015. The problem for the left is its ideological confusion, which centres on contested narratives of the 2019 election loss. Those who supported Corbyn had expected at the very least another hung parliament, if not a small Labour lead, so the 80-seat Tory majority disoriented and demoralised them. It’s not surprising, then, that Keir Starmer’s appeal to “electability” and promises to continue with the party’s radical policies won him support when Labour had to elect a new leader.
But there are different narratives about Labour’s electability. There is what I will term the “sociological” account, made recently by former Corbyn adviser Andrew Murray in Tribune, that points to “class disintegration” in the north and midlands seats where Labour’s vote dropped sharply. No longer does the “entwining of work, community, trade union and party” underpin a cultural affinity to Labour, he says, and so the Brexit politics of identity filled the vacuum created by the collapse of class consciousness. Corbynism was “unable to cut through” in working-class communities with a message of economic solidarity.
The answer for Labour, he suggests, is to find enough political compromises with disaffected voters so as to rebuild its electoral presence in northern communities. But this views these communities as objects to be negotiated with from the outside, as part of a set of coalitions, rather than acting on their own account. Murray can only hope that Starmer will “lead the long march from the security of North London to the battleground industrial hinterlands” – in other words, rebuild Labour’s putative coalition from above.
A different narrative about the election stresses the Johnson government’s populist success in shifting Labour from being the anti-establishment party to being perceived as part of the establishment opposition to fulfilling the Brexit referendum decision. “Class politics,” which Murray seeks to re-establish, is back already from the point of view of the grassroots – because of the attacks of the ideologically vicious Tory government.
Andy Searson, a Labour activist and working-class thinker from South Yorkshire, argues in a guest article for Skwawkbox that working-class communities can only be revived from below. Socialism is “just an abstract idea,” he says, if it’s not tangibly related to people’s everyday experiences. For this reason, “community control of economic frameworks” is needed to create an economic practice of fair-shares equality. He emphases the need to find local leaders, “those who instinctively stand up for their community,” to serve as local election candidates. Rebuilding trust with the voting public depends on “a new generation of authentic, altruistic candidates.”
A new base is needed for the movement that doesn’t rely on the past solidarity of industrial trade unionism. He contends that the answer can be found in the communities already. “There are huge amounts of people already engaged in working for the common good within our communities. Unsung heroes who work tirelessly for no reward other than the feeling that they’ve achieved something positive for someone else. … Nearly always these people are driven by social conscience not personal gain. They’re unwilling to walk by on the other side whilst they [see] suffering or people in need. They see value in the idea of working for the ‘common good’.”
The Labour leadership has no appetite for the radical change that people are demanding. But what about the thousands of members who signed up to the party to support Corbyn? Searson foresees the danger of a “major split” if Labour continues on its present trajectory. “Without the will or commitment for real systemic change, more citizens will become indignant, disenfranchised and without a voice,” he concludes. “In those circumstances, people will find their own voices and organise outside the usual main party structures. That moment may be here sooner than we think – and it will come from the ground up.”