Discussion with senior Labour figures confirms thatby / September 26, 2016 / Leave a comment
John McDonnell has said that “unity” is the watchword of this year’s Labour conference, and he’s right. Many here in Liverpool are hoping that after a bruising clash between the party’s left and right, MPs can put their differences aside and focus fire on the Conservatives. But I have spoken to some of Labour’s most senior figures—and dozens of its members—and one thing is clear: that unity is a mile off. The left is emboldened by Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader and intends to plough on—even up the ante—despite his personal approval rating being 71 points lower than Theresa May’s. But Corbyn is not for turning. The seriousness of this cannot be overstated. With the government clueless on Brexit, the country needs a functioning opposition now more than at any time for a generation—but Corbyn’s team continues to care more about putting the left’s stamp on Labour than anything else. The chances of unity emerging from such a mess are very slim indeed.
Corbyn’s inner circle is determined that things are looking up. Diane Abbott, Shadow Health Secretary and one of Corbyn’s longest-standing political allies, told me: “the party membership is looking for MPs to unite behind the newly-elected leader. The party in the country is not divided in any serious way, and there’s a real unity around all sorts of policy issues.”
I also spoke to Dennis Skinner, the 84 year old MP for Bolsover, who told me: “I think Labour will unite. It’s got no other alternative really. Because even if some of them want to wander away, some of the ultra-right MPs, the truth is they’re not gonna make much of an impact. The last lot [The “Gang of Four” who left Labour in the 1980s to form the Social Democratic Party] tried it, many years ago when Michael Foot was around, and it failed miserably.”
MPs from the Smith camp, too, have declared that unity is now vital. Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, wrote in Prospect today that “It’s time for us to start fighting the Tories. We can only do that if all wings of the party come together.” Ed Miliband has said that MPs must fall in behind Corbyn.
The thinking is clear. While Labour’s slide in the polls—it is currently 11 points behind the Conservatives—has several potential explanations, one is definitely “division in the party.” For some MPs unity, even around a lacklustre leader, makes Labour more likely to win the next general election than the alternative,. For others, unity will not mean a win in 2020—but will mean the party avoids disintegration. Labour’s pieces can be put back together at a later date.
But some MPs have no intention of supporting Corbyn—that much is already clear.
At a rally yesterday Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke-on-Trent, said: “We’re in Liverpool, where Labour was once-upon-a-time held hostage by a far left faction that sent it spiralling towards electoral defeat, but I’m glad that’s all in the past.”
Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham and former Shadow Business Secretary, told me that the Labour Party can come together, but “there’s a way of doing it… You can’t bring about unity through threats, through online thuggery and through demand. It comes from understanding, dialogue, and a degree of solidarity.” Umunna’s target was, presumably, Corbyn’s supporters on Twitter, who have been accused of making violent and sexist threats against Labour MPs they disagree with.
It has been suggested that Corbyn-sceptics, rather than actively opposing their leader, may simply fill their time with other activities. Andy Burnham, for instance, has gone off to be Mayor of Manchester for a while. But in June, 173 MPs signed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn. It is hard to imagine all of them sitting silently for the next four years. For many, anti-Corbynism is in their DNA. As MPs in an Opposition, their instinct is to pursue power—hard. If they feel their leader is getting in the way of this, they are likely to snap at him. Another leadership election is entirely possible—as is a split in the Party. What’s certain is that there will be more public feuds.
And if Labour’s right can’t be depended upon to keep the feuds going, Labour’s left can.
This year, alongside the Party’s official conference, a sort of “sister conference” is being held. The pro-Corbyn group Momentum, which started up after his victory and now boasts over 12,000 members, is running its own event in Liverpool at the same time as the main show. Called “The World Transformed,” its guests include McDonnell, Abbot and Clive Lewis, along with journalists Owen Jones and Paul Mason.
The organisation has come in for criticism over recent weeks, with its members being accused of intimidating Labour figures they disagree with. Its decision to host a kind of “parallel conference” seemed deliberately antagonistic. A literal version of Labour’s “two camps.”
The event was held in a large town hall-like building called “The Black E,” with a grand facade but a dilapidated interior—as though it were decaying from the inside. In the main hall, dozens of banners hung from the ceiling. They said things like “Social Justice Now” and “End Casual Labour.” There were dozens of stalls—one for left-wing newspaper The Morning Star, one selling t-shirts. The woman I was with said it looked like a school fête. It was very busy.
Attendees reflecting how Momentum is portrayed in the press—violent, sexist—were hard to come by. And some I spoke to were, while very left-wing, fairly considered in their views. One young man told me: “We need to recognise that not everyone thinks like us, and we need to persuade them, but also to take account of their views. That way, we can evolve from a party and a social movement into a government.”
But there was little real appetite for compromise when it came to the left, rather than the right, making concessions. Tucked in one corner of the room I found Piers Corbyn—Jeremy’s older brother. I asked him whether, in the name of unity, both sides of the party should make some changes. “I don’t know what concessions there are for the left of the party to make. Jeremy’s victory is pretty straightforward!” MPs “have to act according to their consciences.”
Another attendee, asked whether the left had a responsibility to offer the right an olive branch, said: “But Jeremy’s mandate is just so large!” One woman argued that “As Jeremy’s mandate was so overwhelming, the Labour MPs who opposed him will recognise it, or decide they’ve had enough and go elsewhere.”
Some in attendance went further still in their distaste for Labour’s right. One man in his 50s, asked if troublesome MPs should face de-selection, replied: “Oh, definitely!” He is not alone in this view. Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of huge trade union Unite, said in his speech to the Labour conference today: “I say to the merchants of doom, in the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V, if you have no stomach for this fight depart the battlefields.” Corbyn himself has done little to dispel fears on this: today he said that the “vast majority” of MPs should not fear de-selection. The implication being that some should.
Another particular point of contention over the coming days will be on the matter of an elected shadow cabinet. MPs on both wings of the Party are in favour of this—but in radically different forms. Centrists hope that Corbyn will give MPs a say over who is in it. Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon and son of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, told me: “There’s a real sense that we’ve got to pull together now. But of course that means give and take on both sides… And I’m hoping that Jeremy will lead that by example, by confirming that the shadow cabinet will be PLP-elected—at least a substantial proportion of it.”
The left-wing of the party also want the shadow cabinet to be elected—but by party members, not MPs. Jon Trickett, Shadow Business Secretary, made comments to me in clear contrast with Kinnock’s: “We want to democritise our party more and more. There are now 600,000 odd members altogether. I think we’ve got to make sure they’ve got an input into it.” Many I spoke to at Momentum’s conference were on Trickett’s side.
All this raises the question of what “unity” really means. Everyone in the party says they want it, but over the last couple of days it has felt as though they actually mean: “I want everyone to decide they agree with me.” MPs will find it much harder to pull together than to talk about doing so. MPs who care about—and understand—power will continue to have their buttons pushed by MPs who do not, and vice versa.
The issue of unity came to a head earlier today when it was reported that Seamus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Communications, edited mentions of Trident out of Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis’ speech. We may already have seen the first post-election clash.
There’s a chance, of course, that Corbyn will announce some conciliatory measure in his own speech on Wednesday which really does calm everyone down. But I wouldn’t count on it.