Britain at its Best

Jeremy Corbyn, with Angela Eagle (L). Prime Minister's Questions, September 2015.

Two weeks after the UK voted to leave the EU, the country is still reeling from the impact. The economy is in disarray, as the pound has crashed and the financial markets have taken a $2 trillion hit. Reports of racist violence are surging to new heights. Infighting has ensued across the political echelon, and the government itself is paralysed. Fear and anger can be detected almost everywhere. This is Britain at its best.

The opposition has declared war on itself. The Blairites have moved to oust Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing Labour leader in the party’s history, rather than allow him to face-off the government at its weakest moment. Crises are an opportunity for the Left, not just the Right. It looks like the Blairites were plotting for a long time, and may have waited another year or so, to launch the coup. The Brexit vote just hit the accelerator.

No doubt, the bid to overthrow Corbyn took months of planning. Hilary Benn’s challenge and mass resignations were planned on WhatsApp. Reportedly, the plotters typed to each other as part of  the ‘Birthday Group’. This may explain why the resignations were not all in one go, but staggered across two days to guarantee maximum press coverage.

How to botch a coup

It looks like the putsch is dead, but it’s worth asking why it failed. We know a coup was being planned in which Margaret Hodge would fire the first shot, The Telegraph reported in May. Notably, Hodge initiated the no-confidence motion against Corbyn. The plan was clearly drawn with conventional politics in mind: If your entire cabinet resigns, and you lose a no-confidence motion, you are supposed to step down!

Bristling with overconfidence, the Labour Right moved to deliver the first and final blow. The domain name for Angela Eagle’s leadership bid was already bought. The Right would recapture the leadership and begin the process of purging the inconvenient members. Once done, the party could get back to business as usual. But the plotters completely misread the situation. They moved too quickly, and missed their target.

It soon became apparent that the plan had a fatal flaw, it relied on Corbyn willfully resigning. The no-confidence motion was technically an extra-constitutional measure, as Labour (unlike the Conservatives and the Liberals) was formed by trade unions and grass-roots members. Officially, the party is governed by conference, not by its elected representatives. Jeremy Corbyn could just dig his heels in.

Some would argue the 172 Labour MPs have a greater mandate than Jeremy Corbyn because they were elected by millions of people. But it is worth asking, where were these “millions” of enthusiastic supporters of Blairism? If New Labour was such a success story, why couldn’t they get their “millions” of supporters to swamp the election? The argument does not stand up to scrutiny, even if it were not unconstitutional.

Of course, if these people really believed they had the support, they would allow Labour supporters to take part in the no-confidence motion. Likewise, the Blairites would launch a new leadership election, or they would put themselves up for re-election to affirm their position. Yet there are no such efforts. Instead what we have is a media coup without the means of a serious political wager. It was doomed, even if it were to succeed.

Not only was the no-confidence not legally binding, the resignations just cleared the shadow cabinet of opponents. At the same time, the Blairites had no real alternative to Corbyn and they know they will lose an open election with the leader on the ballot. Right-winger Peter Mandelson wanted to use Angela Eagle as a front to reintroduce the New Labour agenda. The soft-left were on board with the coup, but they didn’t care much for the candidate.

People began clambering over one another to find an alternative. Heads turned to Tom Watson, but he ruled himself out. Owen Smith became the great hope, and we still don’t know who he is or what he looks like. People continued to fantasise about Keir Starmer, or David Miliband being flown into a parliamentary seat over night. In short, the anti-Corbyn faction wanted to bring down the leader, but could not agree on anything else.

Angela Eagle was left making absurd statements. Jeremy Corbyn still has time to do the right thing,” one of her inner-circle told the BBC. Officially, Eagle was giving Corbyn more time to resign. Of course, the hesitancy to launch the leadership bid revealed that the Blairites knew the candidacy would fail with the incumbent in the race. By this point, 60,000 new members had rushed into the party ranks.

This figure would soon climb to 100,000. The total membership may be set to reach 600,000 people – far higher than the halcyon days of New Labour platitudes. This is just as all other political parties are shrinking rapidly. The tension is between the party base and the leadership on one side, the elected representatives and the entire political and media class on the other.

Where next?

There has been talk of a split in the Labour Party between Blairites and Corbynistas. The problem with this view is that there is no obvious form it would take. The lack of leadership would still hold the project back. It’s also likely that there are less than 50 MPs – maybe as few as 20 – who would actually go ahead with it. This doesn’t mean the so-called ‘big hitters’, like Tom Watson, would defect.

Some of the Blairites have been looking into legal claims to the Labour brand because they understand they are nothing without it. But a split would be a radical change in itself. You could imagine the Conservatives breaking up into a hard-right eurosceptic wing and a pragmatic neoliberal wing. It’s conceivable that the Blairites could find common cause with market liberals across the isle.

However, the worse case scenario may not be the prospect of a split, or even the putsch itself, but the continued unity with New Labour apparatchiks. People like Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson may not be able to engage in political trench warfare, yet they still have a great deal of influence in mass-media. The Blairites could just bunker down and cause havoc to prevent the Left from making any gains.

Despite appearances, the Left has some advantages over its right-wing opponents in the party. The membership is energised and the trade unions are on side (that’s 50% of the party’s funding). Even in terms of political talent and innovation, the Blairites are much weaker at this point, the extreme centre lacks credibility and a strong base. This could well be the death of the party as we’ve known it.

The failures of the coup should embolden the Left. Members should capture the party infrastructure and embed themselves in committees, councils and prepare to put forward left-wing candidates for Parliament. This is the only way to reinvent the Labour Party. Corbyn represents the start of a shift towards class politics. Pasokification is still on the cards, and a left turn is necessary to save the party.

Screenshot courtesy of David Holt. Published under a Creative Commons license.