Corbyn’s War

British police struggle with anti-Ocupatio posers. London, July 2015.

The coup against Jeremy Corbyn has now fully transmuted into a leadership election. But the key challengers are unlikely to win over the membership: whether it is lacklustre Angela Eagle, or the mediocre Owen Smith. Corbyn is officially on the ballot, albeit with new barriers to his supporters. Sadly, the contest may take until September to conclude, while the Conservative government is busy regrouping.

Things are moving very quickly. Not long ago, there was a great deal of anxiety over the NEC vote on whether or not to allow Corbyn to remain on the ballot paper. Many feared Labour would deny the incumbent the right to defend his position from Angela Eagle. The Blairites are cynical enough to take this decision. It would have been a transparent move to overthrow the leader and close the democratic opening within the party. But we shouldn’t forget this almost happened.

Much like the no-confidence motion, the NEC held the ballot in secret. The point being to embolden the anti-Corbyn vote, as it had done with the no-confidence motion. This same method allowed 80% of the PLP to fall into line with the Blairite coup. Yet even with the secret ballot, the Corbyn camp won the NEC vote by a modest margin (18:14) and now NEC elections may see the balance of votes turn in the Left’s favour.

However, the NEC rammed through new measures, once Corbyn and his allies were out of the room, to deny the vote to the 128,000 people who joined the party after January 12 and suspend all branch meetings until after the election. This should not surprise anyone. The Labour Party has a long tradition of rigging its internal contests for the sake of ‘unity’ and ‘stability’. Democracy and contestation is a threat to this Tammany Hall system.

The enemy revealed

First, Angela Eagle emerged to take on Corbyn, but now Owen Smith has entered the field. Smith represents a division in the anti-Corbyn faction, where Eagle is not seen as necessarily the best candidate to take on the leader. He is now positioning himself to be the single challenger to face Jeremy Corbyn. He has called for a second EU referendum, appealing to the liberal europhiles so easily disenchanted with Corbynism. It’s an appeal to the muesli belt.

Overall, the Smith campaign looks like a serious bid for power. The Pontypridd MP vows to refocus efforts on inequality. He has proposed a £200 billion investment programme to build housing, colleges, hospitals and improve existing infrastructure. Smith was self-aware enough to outmatch Stephen Crabb’s call for a £100 billion plan. He’s even pledged to bring in a war powers act to ensure no future government can take the country to war without parliamentary support.

This coming from a man, who was not in Parliament to vote for the Iraq war, surely strengthens his bid for the leadership. But it’s not entirely accurate to say Smith is anti-war. In the past, Owen Smith has expressed support for the occupation of Iraq on Eustonite grounds – going as far as to compare the conflict to the Spanish civil war. This was long before Hilary Benn used the same analogy to support the invasion of Syria.

Meanwhile the Eagle campaign has been markedly lukewarm. So far Angela Eagle has succeeded in winning over sympathy with questionable claims of intimidation by leftists. Her debut was spoiled by Theresa May’s victory after Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the Tory leadership race. The journalists rushed out of the room to cover the real news. But even when Eagle gets airtime, she fails to inspire. It looks like a kamikaze candidacy.

The aim is victory through destruction. The Blairites and the ‘soft left’ are trying to use Angela Eagle as a front to slam the Labour leadership. The election will be dragged out over the summer to guarantee maximum damage. The Labour Right would prefer to see Corbyn fail than see him challenge the Tory government. This is just as the government is largely rudderless. A united opposition could have serious impact right now.

Perilous terrain

Faced with Smith, the Corbyn camp has returned to its populist take on quantitative easing. John McDonnell has laid out plans for a national investment bank and £500 billion programme for infrastructure. It would be coupled with regional banks to increase the level of investment to the North and the Midlands. This not only tops Smith’s position, it is a return to Corbynomics – a radical mix of heterodox Keynesian and post-socialist economic policies.

If Corbyn combines a well thought out platform with a social media strategy and grass-roots organising, the leader should be able to win with a landslide. Victory has to be total here, or it will embolden the anti-Corbyn faction to draw their knives later. It’s not just a matter of having the right ideas and decency. The extreme centrists want to recapture the party leadership, and they are willing to ruin its electoral chances to do so.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn has fallen back on tried and tested social media networks. This allows Corbyn to connect with his base in a much more direct way than his competitors. It does have limits, though it is the best option. The real battle is how Corbyn can assert influence in the media and reach a mass audience. He recently gave a pretty relaxed interview to the BBC in Finsbury Park. But the press is still overwhelmingly hostile to the Left.

The main problem is not the right-wing press, but the lack of a left-wing press. The Guardian, The Indepndent and The New Statesman have led the herd of independent minds. This herd includes liberals and leftists who take issue with Corbyn’s idealism. Even The Daily Mirror, the only Labour red-top newspaper, called for Corbyn to let the coup plotters win. So there is no progressive commentariat backing the Labour leader.

The Corbyn leadership faces the difficulty of getting the word out in a hostile media environment. At the same time, the party is locked into a crisis which predates the last nine months and goes back to the compromises of Blairism and even before. The redistribution of power and wealth was always offset to secure gains within the system. Now there is the real struggle to transform the party in order to change the country.

Photograph courtesy of the Weekly Bull. Published under a Creative Commons license