The debate in the Labour leadership contest reflects tensions at the heart of the party.
Leadership challenger Owen Smith has pitched himself as the “radical, credible” alternative to left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Smith and his supporters paint Corbyn as unelectable.
But the size of Corbyn’s rallies show huge support for him among Labour members and supporters.
Thousands of people turned out to hear Corbyn speak in Swansea and Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales last week, as well as Heartlands in Cornwall.
Corbyn had received official backing from 120 local Labour Party branches as Socialist Worker went to press. Smith had just 24.
Corbyn’s popularity has forced Labour’s right to tack left to try and win back his supporters. This was clear at the first leadership hustings in Cardiff last Thursday.
Smith took positions that would have been unthinkable for any Labour leader in the past two decades. He constantly talked about how he agreed with Corbyn.
But he insisted that Labour can’t win a general election with Corbyn as leader. “Without being able to win I don’t see how we can do anything other than protest,” he told the audience.
This is partly about reassuring the Labour right and MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
But it’s also aimed at appealing to ordinary Labour members and any wavering Corbyn supporters.
Young Labour members who back Smith told Socialist Worker they worried that Corbyn wouldn’t accommodate to the right.
One said, “I supported Corbyn last year. But I’ve grown disillusioned with him and his inability and almost refusal to use mainstream media, which is so important to winning elections.”
Another said, “If we’re going to help people we have to be in power and we have to win elections—we have to be credible.
“Jeremy has a lot of good things to say. But Owen has some fantastic socialist policies that I feel he can deliver on.
“And he’ll have the backing of MPs, which is so important.”
During the Cardiff hustings Corbyn showed signs of trying to accommodate to the pressure to prove himself “electable” and “credible”. He mirrored Smith’s explanation that being anti-austerity was all about being “financially responsible”.
And he came dangerously close to agreeing with Smith on immigration controls. Smith had said immigration “causes problems” in some areas of the country.
But Corbyn challenged the idea that winning elections meant being more right wing. “In the last general election we were not an anti-austerity party,” he said.
“We lost because we failed to offer an alternative. We can win a general election and we’ve been winning elections all this year.”
Labour member Mary Fletcher was at the Cornwall rally.
She said, “I have been a member for a very long time, except during the Iraq war. It is the first time we have had a leader and I’ve thought, yes.
“I am really full of joy to see him saying the things I think Labour should stand for.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has accused supporters of Owen Smith of threatening to split the party. The possibility of a split stems from a real division in Labour.
Most members see the party as a vehicle for radical change—and overwhelmingly back Jeremy Corbyn.
But the pressure to get elected means Labour MPs want the party to appeal to right wing voters.
The vote of no confidence by 172 MPs in Corbyn show they will refuse to accept him as leader. McDonnell said, “There is no way I am ever going to allow this party to split.”
But keeping Labour together can mean accommodating to the right. The Labour left should refuse to give in to blackmail from the right.
A high Court ruling on Monday of this week said that some 130,000 Labour Party members had been wrongly prevented from voting in the party’s leadership election.
The party’s national executive committee (NEC) decided last month on who would be eligible to vote. It said that anyone who had joined Labour since 12 January would not be allowed to vote.
This meant that new members would have to pay £25 to sign up as registered supporters if they wanted to vote.
But a judge agreed with the five new members who brought the case to the high court. They pointed out that Labour’s website had promised party members a right to vote in elections.
More than 130,000 people have joined Labour this year so far—and many did so to support Corbyn.
The Labour right had hoped to use the NEC decision to damage Corbyn’s vote.
Labour was set to appeal the ruling on Thursday of this week.
But the judge, Mr Justice Hickinbottom, warned the party against “false hope”. He added that it was his “firm judgement” that the party’s rules did not allow the NEC to impose a six-month cut off.
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