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Labour—a party of conflict

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Nick Clark argues that tensions inside Labour aren’t a result of Corbynism, but of fundemental differences within a party that tries to both maintain and challenge the state
Issue 2643
Why are Labour MPs leaving the party to join up with Tories?
Why are Labour MPs leaving the party to join up with Tories?

Good riddance. Now what?

Some of Labour’s most hated MPs have left the party. They include people such as Mike Gapes who hankers after Labour’s warmongering past and Chris Leslie who raves about the dangers of Marxism. Joan Ryan, who defends Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, has also jumped ship.

They won’t be missed by ordinary Labour members.

So maybe that means there’s fewer right wing MPs left to cause trouble in the Labour Party for Jeremy Corbyn.

But they could still cause big problems.

What happens if polls start to show the new Independent Group making inroads into Labour’s vote? A YouGov poll last Wednesday showed that within days of forming, the group had 14 percent support.

It took support from Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Labour & the state’s war drive
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But Labour suffered the biggest knock—mostly apparently from people who said they “don’t know” how they would vote if the Independent Group was on the ballot paper.

Whatever you think about their reliability, polls have great influence on a party where everything is geared towards winning elections.

The argument will be that the independents are sapping votes from Labour and stopping it from winning.

So the leadership will be told it has to show it is listening to those voters—and that means effectively giving in to the right’s demands.

That’s linked to a second problem—the right wing MPs still left inside Labour. The split has strengthened their hand.

Within hours of the split, deputy leader Tom Watson argued that Corbyn had to “address the reasons why good colleagues might want to leave.”

Several right wing MPs echoed Watson. It’s really a threat—do what we want or we’ll cause more splits and more divisions.

Many at the same time talked of Labour’s “broad church”—the idea that the party can accommodate left and right. That veils another threat, this time to say the left has to tolerate the right in the party.

But it does refer to a real fact—that there has always been a split between left and right in Labour. And for most of Labour’s history, it’s the right who have called the shots.

Labour’s left and right represent two faces of the party. But the fact that they are both Labour is an important one.

Ever since Labour was formed it has tried to appease both the left and the right. It has a base of members and voters who look to it to deliver progressive change, or even a socialist society. And it has at least a tenuous connection to the working class struggle for reforms through its relationship with the leaders of trade unions.

But it also has to deal with a pull in an entirely different direction.

For a start, getting elected means having to appeal to a wide spread of votes—in practice this means dropping some more radical rhetoric.

Labour MPs often claim they’re in parliament to represent views across society, not the working class or the left.That’s why they talk about representing their constituents, not party members.

And then what happens when Labour gets elected? Now it has to take care of the state, the vehicle for delivering the reforms it promises.

But when taking care of the state means going to war to protect “Britain’s interests abroad,” or implementing austerity to keep the economy profitable for the bosses, Labour has always done so.

That pressure begins before Labour even enters office.

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Right wing MPs accuse Corbyn of being a threat to national security, or making impossible promises.

What they really mean is that the promises he makes don’t fit precisely with the interests of capitalism and the British state.

This contradiction is what causes the split between left and right in Labour.

Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein wrote about this in their history of the Labour Party.

“Labour voices working class aspirations but only to the extent that they can be fitted into the workings of the national state,” they said.

“The balance between the two factors is represented in the split between Labour’s left and right—each side representing one aspect of the common reformist whole.”

Labour’s left and right represent two faces of the party. But the fact that they are both Labour is an important one.

However close Labour MPs might be to the Tories—and however distant they are to their members—they are not simply Tories in the wrong party.

They’re a product of the contradiction inside Labour and its orientation on parliament, the state and elections.

Tony Benn joins hands with figures from Labours left and right at the partys 1985 conference
Tony Benn joins hands with figures from Labour’s left and right at the party’s 1985 conference (Pic: John Sturrock)

What’s more, this focus tips the balance of power inside the party in their favour.

For Labour, the most important activity is that done by a relatively small group of people in parliament.

So a few hundred MPs have a level of power and influence inside Labour proportionately greater than the hundreds of thousands of its ordinary members.

Once MPs are elected it’s very difficult for members to hold them to account.

At the same time, it’s very easy for MPs to cause huge disruption—by rebelling for instance, or threatening to split. The threat of electoral disaster that this brings is usually enough for the right to blackmail the left into giving in.

A look at how Labour MPs have behaved ever since Corbyn was elected leader should be enough to show how effective that can be. One of his first defeats at the hands of the right was over Syria in 2015.

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The threat of rebellion forced the lifelong opponent of war and former president of the Stop the War Coalition into allowing Labour MPs to vote in favour of bombing.

But it’s not the only example. Labour’s history is full of times the left has tried to “reclaim” the party from the right, only to be tamed by them. Take what happened to the movement behind Tony Benn in the 1980s.

In 1979, right wing Labour prime minister James Callaghan—who had enforced years of pay attacks on workers—took the party into an election on a right wing manifesto and lost.

He was replaced by Michael Foot, an MP from the soft left. Benn came close to being elected deputy leader in 1981.

Left wing members began fighting for democratic measures such as being allowed to re-select MPs.

They also won rule changes that gave members more say over who could be elected leader.

For some on the right this was too much. A group of four right wing MPs broke from Labour in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

It posed a challenge to the Labour Party, almost defeating it in by elections in some seats previously considered “safe”.

Benn was told by the right that the left threatened to disrupt party unity and could cause Labour defeats. So he agreed not to stand for deputy leader again.

There is an alternative to the right—and one that can see off challenges such as the Independent Group. But it lies outside the Labour Party.

What followed was the election of Neil Kinnock as Labour leader, and a witch hunt of the left. The shift to the right was completed by Tony Blair.

Under Blair, the right finally thought they could get rid of the problem of the members completely.

The election of Corbyn—and the attempts to hold MPs to account—are quite rightly an attempt by the membership to claw all that back.

But the idea that this is all that is needed can lead good activists down a dead end.

For years activists have tried to transform Labour by getting rid of the “Red Tories” at the top.

In practice this has meant getting locked into an endless battle for a party whose entire structure and orientation gives the right the controlling hand.

Thousands of students strike across Britain to demand action on climate change
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Rather than breaking from the right, you end up strapped to them inside the same organisation.

This isn’t a message of despair. There is an alternative to the right—and one that can see off challenges such as the Independent Group.

But it lies outside the Labour Party. For as long as politics is focused on Labour splits or interminable Brexit wrangling via opaque parliamentary procedure, the right can make the running.

It’s their natural terrain—and the only pressure on Corbyn is the one that pulls him to the right. When there’s action by ordinary people outside of parliament, suddenly there’s an alternative.

The walkouts by thousands of school students earlier this month were a breakthrough not just because the people involved were young and energetic. They also showed politics can be different—and that there’s another way to change society.

Action like that really can make people such as Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger insignificant.

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