But crucially, his critics within the Labour Party have every right to fight backby Peter Kellner / July 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Some of Labour’s finest MPs have been targeted for deselection. They include Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree, who has also had to endure anti-Semitic abuse), Thangham Debbonaire (who more than doubled her vote last month in Bristol West to 47,000), Peter Kyle (who has already seen off one attempt by Momentum to oust him in Hove), Stella Creasy (Walthamstow’s heroine of various causes including the regulation of loan sharks and the rights of Northern Irish women seeking abortions), Margaret Hodge (Barking’s fiercely effective scrutineer of government waste as chair of the Public Accounts Committee), Chuka Umunna (the Streatham MP who should be discussed as a future party leader, not a potential victim of deselection) and Ben Bradshaw (who survived a nasty homophobic campaign to gain Exeter in 1997 and now has a new kind of nastiness to contend with).
These are among 49 MPs identified by a Momentum group in South Tyneside. Their list has since been disowned, and shadow ministers close to the leadership have been downplaying suggestions that good constituency MPs should be deselected. In practical terms, the leadership would be mad to purge the parliamentary party just now. A new general election could be called at any time, and Labour could win it—but not if it ousts some of its most talented MPs.
However, the activists on Tyneside have a point. There is a fundamental divide between the ideology espoused for much of their adults lives by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and their most enthusiastic followers—and the form of social democracy espoused by most Labour MPs, including those on the Tyneside hit-list. If you believe that Britain needs to renationalise public transport, the banks and the major utilities, that the private sector should play no role in education or health-care, and that taxes should rise sharply to pay for much better-funded public services, including free university education—then it makes sense to fight to remove MPs who think that is all nonsense, even if the short-term effect of dividing the party is to reduce its chances of winning an early election.
The real question is: are Corbyn and McDonnell, and the people around them, still fundamental socialists as they used to be (and many of their grassroots followers still are)—or have they changed? At present, the answer is not clear. Until three or four years ago, Corbyn and McDonnell spoke regularly and, to be fair, consistently about their hostility to capitalism and their wish to replace it. Last month’s election manifesto contained measures to slim the private sector and expand the public sector, but not to bring the whole of “the means of production, exchange and distribution” into common ownership.
“The real question is: are Corbyn and McDonnell, and the people around them, still fundamental socialists?”
On the other hand, I have never—and I mean never: not once—heard or read Corbyn or McDonnell say that they now believe that a competitive market economy, sensibly regulated to prevent monopolistic and other abuses, is the best way to provide most goods and services. We can be reasonably sure that many of their supporters, in the grassroots, in some trade union branches and in the offices of the Morning Star, believe no such thing.
The moderates’ real problem with Momentum’s South Tyneside branch is not their tactics but their ideology. Supporters of Berger, Debbonaire, Kyle, Creasy, Hodge, Umunna, Bradshaw and the others want them to keep their seats not just because they are fine constituency MPs but because they can be relied on to prevent the levers of power at Westminster falling into the hands of the far left.
For that very reason, Labour’s moderates cannot in logic complain when the far left seeks to select parliamentary candidates who back their view of socialism. Fundamental socialists believe the 49 MPs on their hit-list block their path to the kind of Britain they wish to build. They are right.
Or are they? There is another way to view Labour’s ideological evolution. Perhaps Corbyn et al have stopped believing in fundamental socialism. Maybe their recent silence about their basic ideology conceals a recognition that capitalism should be preserved, not as a short-term tactic but as a long-term ambition. Perhaps they are willing to settle for a public sector that consumes around 40 per cent of gross domestic product. Perhaps they are willing to take tough decisions on welfare costs, on the benefits showered on better-off elderly folk like me, on the structure of the NHS and, yes, on student finance. (Why is it regarded as a badge of progressive honour to want manual workers who left school at 16 to subsidise members of the Bullingdon Club?)
If Labour’s leadership is now willing to embrace all these propositions, then there is no political case for any deselections. Labour can come together—though, we should hope, on a more coherent and economically more literate manifesto than last month’s. All Corbyn and McDonnell need to do is to declare unambiguously that they have lost their war against capitalism, and that the overall burden of taxation should not rise much higher than its present level.
But if that is not what they think, and they have not abandoned the dreams they described so vividly until fairly recently, then they have every right to encourage their supporters to fight those who stand in their way. And Labour’s social democrats have every right, and an urgent need, to fight back.