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Proletarian issue 77 (April 2017)
Stoke and Copeland byelections deepen Labour’s disarray
Infighting in the party, led by the old guard, continues to undermine electoral support.
The Labour party continues to be in crisis following February’s byelections in Stoke and Copeland. In Copeland, Conservative Trudy Harrison won with 13,748 votes to Gillian Troughton of Labour’s 11,601. The scale of this failure is reinforced by the fact that sitting governments rarely win seats at byelections. More importantly, Copeland has been a Labour-held seat since its creation as a parliamentary constituency in 1983. Even more alarming for Labour, Copeland’s predecessor constituency of Whitehaven had been held by the party since 1935.

The success story for Labour came in Stoke as Gareth Snell held the seat with 7,853 votes against hapless Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, who received 5,233 votes. Despite holding the seat, the result will still be of concern to Jeremy Corbyn’s team and ammunition to his enemies within his party, since Labour’s share of the vote fell from 39.3 to 37.1 percent. This shows that Corbyn’s leadership has been unable to reverse the steady erosion of support for Labour in Stoke. Historically, vote share in Stoke Central has typically been around 60 percent for Labour. It was 66.2 percent in 1997, 60.7 percent in 2001 and feel to 52.9 percent in 2005. This slowly falling trend was massively accelerated in the 2010 general election when Tristram Hunt received just 38.8 percent of the vote.

Going into the byelection, Corbyn had been presented with a fine opportunity to reverse Labour’s decline in the city. Whilst the media narrative was of Stoke as the ‘Brexit capital’ of Britain, just waiting to fall into the hands of Ukip, the reality is that, given the standard of opposition that Ukip managed to muster, Labour ought to have been able to secure a crushing victory.

With every gaffe by Ukip’s hapless leader, Paul Nuttall, Labour could have been expected to extend its lead. And with the gaffes coming thick and fast, this ought to have put the Little Englanders out of sight. In the run-up to the byelection, the crass Nuttall was revealed to have lied not only about having close friends die in the Hillsborough disaster, but also about holding a PhD in history, about playing football for Tranmere Rovers and about serving on the board of the North West Training Council!

This gift from God to the Corbyn team meant that all Labour needed to do was to defeat a thoroughly exposed personification of the old cliché that you can tell he is lying because his lips are moving. In the end, though, this proved way more difficult than it ever should have. Somehow, Labour almost conspired to defeat itself.

Corbyn has faced an onslaught in recent times. His opponents do not even move clandestinely. He has faced a host of resignations, parliamentary rebellions, and party critics briefing and meeting with media, including two former party leaders. These troubles have been covered in the recent Lalkar article ‘Labour in crisis’, and the trend has continued. Hot on the heels of Tony Blair’s call for people to “rise up” against Brexit, came the intervention of the notorious Peter Mandelson (infamous as Blair’s spin doctor and one of the architects of new Labour, nicknamed the ‘Prince of Darkness’).

With just three days until polling, the Guardian reported him as follows: “The problem with Jeremy is not that he is a sort of maniac – it’s not as though he is a nasty person. It’s that he literally has no idea in the 21st century how to conduct himself as a leader of a party putting itself forward in a democratic election to become the government of our country.

“Why do you want to just walk away and pass the title deeds of this great party over to someone like Jeremy Corbyn? I don’t want to, I resent it, and I work every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of his tenure in office.

“Something, however small it may be – an email, a phone call or a meeting I convene – every day I try to do something to save the Labour party from his leadership.”

In response, a Labour source hit back at the peer, suggesting Mandelson was part of the establishment: “The idea of Jeremy Corbyn being prime minister and implementing policies that actually benefit the people terrifies the establishment, so it’s no surprise Peter Mandelson has found time in his busy schedule of spending time on oligarchs’ yachts to attempt to undermine him,” the source said. (Peter Mandelson: I try to undermine Jeremy Corbyn ‘every single day’ by Rowena Mason and Jessica Elgot, Guardian, 21 February 2017)

As was the case with Blair, Mandelson is rightly a much reviled figure (amongst the working class, at least) whom most would like to simply see go away or be imprisoned. However, again like Blair, Mandelson is, if nothing else, resilient and, no doubt as a result of having showed his dedication to serving the interests of his imperialist masters no matter how often they hang him out to dry as a fall guy, has maintained a strong influence within the party. Clearly, he should only be ignored at one’s own peril. The current leadership should probably consider Mandelson’s (and Blair’s) words as a declaration of war and a call to arms by a significant section of the bourgeoisie.

Jeremy Corbyn is undoubtedly the man a majority of his party members wish to lead them. However, among those with any actual power and influence he has the support of only a small minority. If Blair and Mandelson can entice those who haven’t already to join them in working to end Corbyn’s leadership, then said leadership will be irretrievably undermined. The hostile briefings would continue, grow and intensify. Parliamentary rebellions like that over the triggering of Article 50 to begin the process of leaving the European Union would become the norm. Even more resignations would come. Finally, Corbyn would be forced to resign.

Yet, far from treating this as a call to arms, Corbyn remains in his own words “a very lenient person”. Hence the shadow chancellor John McDonnell offering an olive branch to Mandelson and Blair. Indeed, the most robust statement against Mandelson has come from the unnamed ‘source’ in the above quoted Guardian article. McDonnell himself has stepped back from any such confrontational approach.

“Speaking at London’s Southbank Centre, he told the Mirror: ‘Now is the time for us to unite.

“‘We all need to learn lessons and that includes me. I know I have got a pugnacious approach, I need to learn a few lessons ...’

“The frontbench’s latest strategy to unite Labour’s factions would involve ‘holding out hands from my wing of the party – the Momentum we established – ... to those people in Progress’, the centrist wing, Mr McDonnell said.

“‘And yes, Peter Mandelson – having a constructive relationship for the future. You heard it here first. I will be inviting him to come and have a cup of tea and discuss issues around common concern.’” (John McDonnell invites Peter Mandelson round for tea in bid to quell Labour civil war by Ben Glaze, Mirror, 2 March 2017)

Since assuming the role of leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced wave after wave of attack. Any astute observer knew he would have to purge the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) or face continued civil war. Whilst this would have done nothing to make Labour a genuine socialist or revolutionary party, it would have allowed Corbyn to create a party more in his own image, thereby making it more coherent and manageable.

Instead, he has tried to be a man of consensus in a conflict situation. The countless provocations against his leadership have presented him ample opportunity to justly crush his opponents. Mandelson and Blair would certainly not have looked such gift horses in the mouth. But, rather than take a golden opportunity to strengthen his leadership and his party, he has wavered, thus weakening his leadership by allowing hostile forces to undermine him.

Clarity on this is given in the form of the language used between the two camps. McDonnell has continued with the conciliatory tone: “People like me ... we’ve looked over the cliff edge of Copeland and looked at what’s down below, and said that isn’t where we’re going to go. Let’s start talking to one another again, and let’s start uniting. Me, everybody, we’ve got to start talking to one another again, because we’ve all looked over that cliff edge. We’ve all looked over and thought that’s not where we want to go. We’ve pulled back from that now.”

In contrast, Richard Angell of ‘centrist’ pressure group Progress said: “‘This is a critical time for the party so of course we’re keen to talk with people. But John McDonnell doesn’t always play nicely. This is someone who went on the telly and said Progress members are Tories and members of the ‘hard right’, which is a term we reserve for fascists ...

“He’s made up this spurious nonsense about the ‘soft coup’ taking place to give the sense that they’re under siege. So that they can get back to this internal strife that they seem to enjoy in the party.” (Labour caught in struggle to survive media attacks says John McDonnell by Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart, Guardian, 3 March 2017)

Clearly, no matter how much Corbyn and McDonnell bend over backwards to accommodate the PLP and party bureaucracy, they are simply attempting to achieve the impossible.

In the aftermath of the Stoke and Copeland byelections, opinion polls have provided further misery for Team Corbyn. A YouGov poll asking how people would vote if there was an immediate general election showed support for the government at 44 percent, with Labour trailing 19 points behind on 25 percent..

Whilst the public are seen to be largely sympathetic to Corbyn’s stated policies of greater equality, less austerity and war etc, they are less so towards the Labour party as a whole, which has long shown itself to be a vehicle for precisely the opposite of these stated aims. Mr Corbyn’s ability to bridge (or at last seem to bridge) this contradiction will be integral to his short to medium-term survival. So far, things have not looked promising on this front, as the defeat in Copeland and continued decline in Stoke underline. He has many enemies to overcome.

Meanwhile, although John McDonnell was conciliatory to his leader’s enemies within the party, he was far more robust with enemies without – specifically, in the media: “Jeremy Corbyn is trying to transform our society so that it is radically more equal, radically more fair, radically more democratic. The whole media establishment [is] owned by people whose power is entrenched. They are trying to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people. That is their job to do. The oligarchs are protecting their power base.” (Guardian, 3 March 2017)

Whilst it would be more productive to go on the attack against Progress, Blair, Mandelson and co, this statement does contain much truth. And much falsehood. It is true that Corbyn gets disproportionately difficult media coverage. It is also true that these media conglomerates have a job to do in protecting bourgeois interests. We should welcome a leading figure in a bourgeois party making such a point.

That is where the truth ends though. For we know that, in reality, Corbyn is not some dangerous radical who will spark revolutionary change in Britain. He is, in fact, a mild social democrat. But the fact that the bourgeois media have gone after him so vigorously is a reminder of the massive power they wield. It is also a reminder that, in a time of crisis, even the mildest calls for reform and fairness will be ruthlessly opposed.

Moreover, that the imperialist media have gone after Corbyn in this fashion allows us to comprehend, to some extent, just how much greater will be the venom with which they will attack any genuinely revolutionary political force. As our own party continues to grow and the crisis continues to deepen, this will become all the more evident.
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