Britain: Labour ranks back fight for Corbyn, democracy

July 17, 2016

Jeremy Corbyn addresses supporters in London.

“Jeremy Corbyn has touched parts of the electorate Labour hasn't reached in a long time.” That is the judgement of Laura Kuenssberg, the Tory propagandist who delivers most of the BBC's political coverage on Labour's socialist leader.

Kuenssberg was reporting on the decision by Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) to allow Corbyn, elected leader by a record margin last September, to appear on the ballot paper in the upcoming leadership election.

It goes a long way to explaining why Corbyn will be in a contest with former Pfizer lobbyist Owen Smith and Blairite MP Angela Eagle — who romped into fourth place with a stonking 17.9% of the vote when she stood for the deputy leadership last year.

It cannot be repeated too often that Corbyn won 59.5% of the vote when he was elected last year.

It was touch and go through most of July 12 if the NEC would let Corbyn on the ballot — right-wing opponents of Corbyn were insisting he needed to gather the support of 51 MPs, the same as any challenger.

In a recent motion by fellow Labour MPs of no confidence against Corbyn, only 40 MPs backed Corbyn, while 172 voted against him. It revealed the big disconnect between the large majority of Labour MPs and the ranks, who enthusiastically back Corbyn. The motion was part of the unfolding right-wing coup against Corbyn — backed by major media outlets.

A ferocious dirty tricks campaign has been rolled out. Corbyn supporters were blamed because a window was broken in Eagle's constituency office. None of the journalists covering the most high-profile broken window in recent years managed to point out that the office is a short distance from three pubs with a long history of low-level anti-social behaviour.

That was typical of the sort of nonsense that the undead Blairite spin doctors were feeding their friends in the press.

Unions crucial

The key to Corbyn's victory at the NEC was the support of the unions. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Britain's biggest union, was on radio and TV for several days insisting: “We have seen a cowardly attack launched against the party's elected leader which has deprived the country of all parliamentary opposition and let the Conservatives off scot-free in their moment of turmoil.”

The reason for his support for Corbyn was simple: “Jeremy Corbyn has always — always — stood by us, stood on the picket lines, joined our campaigns, argued our case in parliament, advocated for workers' rights.”

Unison's Labour Link committee met on July 8 and also strongly supported Corbyn — a message that general secretary Dave Prentis made a special trip to the Durham Miner's Gala to convey in the strongest possible terms the next day.

The head of the general trade union, the GMB, Tim Roache also made a strongly pro-Corbyn speech in Durham, while the Communication Workers' Union's Dave Ward has been consistently speaking out against the anti-Corbyn plotters.

The votes of union representatives were essential to the decision to permit Corbyn to appear on the ballot paper. This is a massive problem for the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which is largely Blairite and overwhelmingly hostile to Corbyn's radical, anti-austerity, outward looking politics. They know that their candidate is going to be humiliated in the new leadership vote.

Eagle's support for Trident and the Iraq War, combined with her reluctance to distance herself from Tony Blair, render laughable her claim to be a candidate of the left. In her media appearances before the NEC result, she never really gave the impression of someone who was convinced she was a serious candidate.

Now that she is going up against the most popular leader of a party British politics has ever known, she has the demeanour of someone who thought they'd bought a ticket to an exhibition of Japanese painting only to find out she'd arrived at an evening class of harikari for beginners.

Now that Smith has also throw his hat into the ring, after talks with Eagle broke, the prospects for both non-Corbyn candidates are even worse.

Right's limited options

The right's options are limited, but explosive. They may chose to split and realign with the Liberal Democrats now that they know they have lost the unions. That will be damaging, because most Labour MPs and councillors are to the right of members and in the current undemocratic electoral system, a divided left and soft left vote ensures a Tory government in the next election.

Or the right might hunker down for a war of attrition, trying to make Corbyn's life unbearable in parliament and the media. However, as they've learned in recent weeks, Corbyn's gentle exterior belies a political toughness.

Corbyn won a big victory at the NEC and it has excited the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined the party to back him. But it was not a total win. The NEC also ruled that Labour members who signed up after January 12 are not eligible to vote.

That means the 100,000 new members the party has joined since the right declared war on Corbyn will be excluded from the process. They may still be able to take part in the vote — if they're willing to stump up a hiked-up £25 “registered supporter” fee (which was just £3 in September).

This was clearly done to target Corbyn supporters who have flooded into the party to defend the socialist leader. According to ITV News political editor Robert Peston on Facebook, the right wing of the NEC waited until “a couple of pro-Corbyn members had left, and Corbyn himself had gone, a vote was taken on a motion not on the agenda, to exclude from the leadership vote anyone who joined the party in the past six months.

“So the 130,000 who signed up since Brexit, most of whom are thought to be Corbyn supporters, will be unable to vote. Now whatever you think of Corbyn, this looks and smells like gerrymandering by his opponents.”

Support for Corbyn

The task for the left is now to mobilise every possible vote for Corbyn.

Hundreds of thousands have poured into the party in the past year, with all the evidence being most of them are pro-Corbyn. Many will be people with little culture or tradition in the party, may not have been to meetings and it may be difficult to organise them.

However, lots of them get their information from social media and other networks, which favours the Corbyn campaign. We are seeing the emergence of social media as an organising tool in British politics.

The NEC predictably tightened up the rules about registered supporters and also introduced an unprecedented waiting time for new members. But that does not mean anyone who was not a full member in January cannot vote.

Members of organisations affiliated to Labour can vote. This includes Unite Community, part of Unite, which unwaged people can join for 50p per week.

Momentum, the grassroots left current set up to mobilise supporters of Corbyn's anti-austerity agenda, may well not be capable of organising all these people. It is the best vehicle available, but it will have to reach out far beyond its existing membership and influence. There are tens of thousands who support Corbyn but do not identify with Momentum.

Many constituency Labour parties (CLPs) have already backed Corbyn — more than 80% of those that have met since the attempted coup. A meeting of all such CLPs and a campaign to get more on board through emergency meetings, along with national unions and well known figures could come together to reach out further perhaps than Momentum could.

While it is important for Corbyn to win by the largest amount possible, Corbyn will carry the membership. In a few months, we could have a Labour Party with hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic members ready to fight the Tories and a leadership that is up to the job. These are exciting times in British politics.

[Abridged from Socialist Resistance.]

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