25 July 2017

Will Corbyn show mercy to his enemies? Don’t bet on it


There was something faintly pathetic about Hilary Armstrong’s appeal to Jeremy Corbyn’s better nature this weekend, amid reports that Labour’s general secretary, deputy leader and many of its moderate MPs could be in the firing line.

Tony Blair had, she revealed, kyboshed attempts within Islington to deselect for serially voting against the government. Can Corbyn not bring himself to do the same?

On The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Labour’s current leader batted away the question with a smile that was simultaneously pacific and sinister: “The whole point of democracy is that the people decide,” he said.

But which people? Corbyn’s chief lieutenant, John McDonnell, came of age as part of the Ken Livingstone regime on the Greater London Council – the same regime that gained power by pushing out the Labour moderates people thought they were voting for while the ink on the ballot papers was still wet.

In 1985 – after falling out with Livingstone because of Red Ken’s disgraceful willingness to compromise with reality – McDonnell stood for Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee on a platform of unilateral withdrawal from Northern Ireland and “democratically controlling and planning our economy on the basis of social need rather than the pursuit of profit”.

But his manifesto contained another, equally striking proposal: “The NEC must seek to enforce socialist discipline on the next Labour government. Labour in government will only adhere to a socialist programme if there is a substantial increase in accountability of the PLP to the Party.” So “when Labour is in power, the Cabinet and the NEC should be fused to provide the government’s overall policy body”.

In other words, Labour MPs are not to be trusted. They need to be supervised, as in Soviet Russia, by political commissars – answerable to a higher power, and higher cause.

That quote, of course, is 30 years old – plenty of time for McDonnell to have changed his tune. But the perversely admirable thing about McDonnell and Corbyn is that they never have changed their tune: they fixed themselves at a particular ideological point back in the 1970s, and have been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Indeed, as George Eaton points out at the New Statesman, there is quote after quote suggesting that McDonnell sees the Labour Party not as a cause in itself but a means to a wider end. He has spoken of the “very pragmatic reasons” why it was “important to work within” the party. He is a fan of Gramsci, who urged the hard Left to make the “long march” through the institutions of party and state.

In a 2006 interview with the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, now deleted from its site, he explained why he was standing against Gordon Brown for leader: “We’re trying to win hegemony within both the party and the country. And then, use that battle of ideas to make sure we can reflect that in the battle of organisation within the movement overall.”

The hard Left, in other words, has always had a deep understanding of power. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, John McDonnell gotta seek to control the institutions of the Labour Party.

To be fair, McDonnell himself would have another analysis. During the Blair years and beyond, he complained bitterly about the fact that his party had been taken from him by those who represented everything he thought Labour should oppose. In that 2006 interview, for example, he explained the fact that Labour’s body of MPs had become “degenerate” via “Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy”: “The leadership replaces the central committee, the central committee replaces the membership. And that’s what’s happened here. That coup has allowed the ruthless use of patronage to isolate the PLP from any democracy or accountability within the party itself.”

But, of course, McDonnell’s version of democracy is a very particular thing. The Labour Herald, the newspaper he co-edited and in which that manifesto appeared, was simultaneously campaigning for the abolition of the secret ballot for union elections, a detested Thatcherite innovation. Democracy, they argued, should take place in the open – where the henchmen and leg-breakers could see it.

The fact that this first long march of the hard Left was thwarted – by the narrowest of margins – is something Britain can be truly grateful for. Grateful to Labour politicians of genuine courage and genuine stature: Denis Healey, yes, but also Neil Kinnock and many others who preferred social democracy to outright socialism.

But the hard Left did not go away. Like Mao’s guerrillas, they spent years hiding in the countryside (well, sitting in a small angry cluster on the Labour backbenches). And now, like Mao, they have achieved a victory so complete as to surprise even themselves.

And as with Mao, that victory owes much to the weakness of Corbyn’s opponents. The ideological heirs to Healey, Kinnock and Blair effectively sat out the election in June, partly because they did not want to be accused of “sabotaging” Jeremy by his band of loyal acolytes, and partly because they believed Theresa May would do their work for them.

There was a report in June that a putsch had been planned within Labour HQ for election night, only to be aborted after the exit poll appeared – too late to prevent McDonnell and others from suddenly finding themselves with security passes that no longer worked.

In the wake of that election surprise, the crawling and truckling has been a thing to behold. Just like the #NeverTrump movement, the #NeverCorbyn brigade have been shredded, reduced (like Armstrong) to placating their foe or even (like Gloria de Piero) to crawling back to the front bench. All the talk is of party harmony, of socking it to the Tories. Just leave us alone, the logic goes, and you’ll find it much easier to become PM – and then just imagine what you can do.

It won’t help. As the quotes above illustrate, those around Corbyn – in particular John McDonnell, but also operators such as the hideous Andrew Murray – have spent decades planning this, campaigning for this, longing for this. Now they have their foes at their mercy, are they really going to be moved by their desperate pleas for clemency?

In a different world, the Labour rebels would play the role of the Spartans at Thermopylae – doing their best to stall the Corbynite armada until their party, and the country, can come to its senses. But Chuka Umunna is no King Leonidas, nor much of a Denis Healey.

Their one slim hope, at the moment, is that Corbyn’s position is so strong he can draw things out – that he and those around him calculate that it is better to maintain the façade of unity in order to keep the pressure on the Tories, rather than fighting a war on two fronts.

But the end state is clear: the realisation of that dream long cherished by McDonnell and others, of a Labour Party dominated by its membership, as filtered through the commissars. The choice facing Labour moderates, in other words, is not between honour and survival. Unless something drastic changes, it is between a quick political death and a slow one.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX