The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is experiencing very powerful forces of attraction and repulsion.
On the one hand, the influx of new members continues. Party membership is now 380,000, close to the recent peak of 400,000 in 1997. Moreover, sections of the radical left outside Labour are reconsidering their position.
Left Unity was founded a couple of years ago to offer an alternative to Labour. It decided last weekend to remain an independent organisation, but not to run candidates against Labour while Corbyn is leader.
On Friday of this week the Fire Brigades Union will decide whether or not to reaffiliate to the Labour Party.
On the other hand, the backlash from the right wing party establishment Corbyn has inherited from the New Labour era is getting stronger. We have a steady trickle of well-publicised resignations by business donors, comics and columnists.
Much more serious, however, is the offensive against Corbyn being mounted by the Labour right that dominates the shadow cabinet and the parliamentary Labour Party.
Not a day passes without an act of defiance of the party leader by some parliamentarian that would have earned instant withdrawal of the whip, if not expulsion, in the era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The Paris attacks have led to a step change in the ferocity of the assault on Corbyn. Clearly the Labour right now scents blood. They feel they have an issue on which they can—with the Tories’ help—break him.
The Blairites’ behaviour is contemptible. The old monsters—David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid—have started crawling out of their lairs. Someone should tell them that, as cabinet ministers under Blair, they share responsibility for the deaths in terrorist attacks that are a direct, predictable consequence of the invasion of Iraq.
Corbyn makes more or less this point himself. In Bristol last Saturday he said, “For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East.
“They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security.”
But overall his approach has been much too equivocal. This is evident not only in his ducking and diving over shoot-to-kill. More fundamentally, Corbyn has said “any military response” to Paris must have “not only consent, but support of the international community and, crucially, legality from the United Nations”.
This is not the position that he, along with Tony Benn, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Socialist Workers Party, took over the 1991 Gulf War. We all opposed the military action, even though it was authorised by a UN Security Council Resolution 678 in November 1990.
The anti-war movement in Britain has consistently argued that UN “legality” can’t make a bad war good. We oppose continuing the cycle of military intervention and terrorist atrocity that drags us into worse and worse disasters.
The UN Security Council on Friday of last week passed a resolution calling on member states “to take all necessary measures” against Isis. This pulls the rug from under Corbyn.
This muddle points to the danger that his concessions to the right can weaken the left as a whole.
Of course, we all want to support Corbyn’s struggle to change Labour. This, presumably, is why Left Unity took the decision that they did. But this can’t mean simply defending his hesitations.
Corbyn’s strength remains his popular support. The New Statesman conceded that, because of Blairite resignations, “the party has moved leftwards since the Labour leadership election. Were Corbyn to be challenged and defend his position, many believe he would win an even larger victory.”
Instead of manoeuvring to appease the unappeasable right, Corbyn should start laying down the law to them.
His current strategy seems to be to transform Labour into a socialist party with the agreement of the Blairite holdovers. This is an inner-party version of the reformist project of changing society with the consent of the ruling class.
It doesn’t work on the larger scale and it won’t work within Labour.