The long Labour summer has been drawn-out and frustrating. No more so than for Owen Smith who trudged around the country making his case to the Labour party membership, significant proportions of which believe either Labour can win under Jeremy Corbyn or do not care about Labour winning. The Corbyn project moves Labour away from being a party of public service – about what has been and can be done for others – to a party of affirmation – I believe it so it must be true and my views as a paying Labour member are more important than the voting public.
Smith was by no means a ‘Progress candidate’ – this fight was led by the ‘soft left’. The theory goes: if we show how much in common we all have with Corbyn’s politics the membership will overturn its hard left idol and join with us in the task of getting more votes than the Tories. That theory has been tested to destruction. When Corbyn the man is popular and his coterie are not, and his ideas are either unknown or unworkable, the only way to beat Corbyn is to expose what lies behind the façade and win the battle of ideas. Rejecting the man but embracing the ideas has not worked, and will not do so in future.
Corbyn was able to run as both insurgent and incumbent. With his £5m of Short money to spend and a majority on the National Executive Committee the restricting factors of his leadership will be his ability to bring others with him and be successful in the eyes of the public. Expect more briefing against Labour party staff, who have no right of reply.
When Corbyn announced (very weak) plans to tackle abuse in the party, Smith should have taken out his phone and held it out to him, to call John McDonnell (shadow chancellor), Mark Serwotka (general secretary, PCS) and Dave Ward (general secretary, CWU). The seniormost people who swear, shout and abuse Labour figures not just in his name but at his events. Women in particular should not have had to wait until Corbyn is re-elected – or whenever he gets round to it – to see this situation change. He is currently, and was all summer, leader of the party with a place on the NEC and the ability to call anyone in the party to a meeting. But despite his majority on Labour’s governing body, he and his supporters make out they are victims of the processes behind the leadership race, not the curators of it. It is no one else’s fault if Corbyn cannot stay seated for long enough to make the decisions he agrees with. His victim mentality position has been indulged when it should have been exposed.
The best part of the leadership election is what one Corbyn aide advised on the Vice News documentary about the leader’s office: ‘Let him fail on his own terms’. ‘Traingate’ showed that for Corbyn and his team truth is as disposable as being electable in pursuit of the control of Labour. It may not have registered with his own supporters yet, but in this one failed stunt, the seeds of destruction were sown. ‘Straight-talking, honest politics’ rings pretty hollow here on in.
But the summer exposed something more fundamental for the non-Corbyn forces. None of us came to this contest with sufficient ideas, organisation and supporters.
This is our task now. The soft left, moderates and modernisers need to have a deeper understand of Britain and an analysis of Britain’s problem that is more than ‘the Tories are making it worse’. We must use this understanding to work out specifically where indeed the Tories are making it worse. But we must have lines of attack in parliament that not just oppose their actions but show that Labour has plans that prove, out of the clutches of the hard left, that it is a party that could replace Theresa May’s government. We must be exciting and insightful. Profound and principled. Practical and pronounced about how it would mean better lives for previous and would-be Labour voters. It will need to be consistent and compelling. If we get this right, with a lot of hard graft, the organisation and supporters will fall into place.
It will not be easy – if it were, it would have been done already – but the alternative is to concede over 110 years of history, and the potential to do good once again, to a cabal more at home on a march with the Alliance of Workers’ Liberty than on doorsteps across the land. This is our party and we are going nowhere.
Smith’s campaign still has the opportunity to play a vital role in the struggle to regain Labour. A legacy grouping must be created to give the Tribune group in parliament a supporter base in the membership. Many soft-left constituency officers and councillors pinned their colours to Smith’s mast – they cannot be left high and dry. While those behind McDonnell hate the modernisers in the party for ameliorating capitalism (as they see it) they hate the soft left – personified by Neil Kinnock – the most. For it is this grouping that halts their advance to their real aim: control of the party machine. Those who did the right thing cannot be left alone in the face of local Momentum bullies.
The summer might have set us back, but some progress was made. If a soft-left grouping emerges, that will be one good thing. Equally, Saving Labour proved that hard-working Labour members with some very clever technology friends can also recruit new members. How Progress, Labour First, members of parliament, councillors and party volunteers jumped on board proved what is possible. Not in the same numbers, yet. But it is a huge leap forward.
In the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s Labour was pulled away from its true path by syndicalist social movements. At its founding, the party’s intention was clearly spelled out for the world to see in the very first paragraph of the constitution: to ‘maintain in parliament … a political Labour Party’. If we stay, if we fight, and if our ideas and organisation improve, ‘Clause One socialists’ will win the day.
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