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The Faux Scandal Over Unite And Momentum Shows Why Labour Must be Reformed

24/03/2017 18:10

The Observer's coverage of Jon Lansman's talk to Richmond Momentum, and Tom Watson's absurd attacks on Momentum in the aftermath, have revealed a lot about how distorted political debate in the Labour Party has become. Firstly, the Observer's decision to mis-portray a public meeting as a secret in order to imply that something underhand was going on reveals that even one of Britain's most professional newspapers lacks any serious desire to scrutinise politics in any remotely serious way.

Second, the whole treatment of even the prospect of a relationship between Britain's largest trade union and a left-wing campaigning organisation speaks to a deeper malaise at the heart of the British media, proving that they have learned precisely nothing from the surprising election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. In a country where organised labour has been relentlessly attacked for 35 years through restrictive trade union laws, deindustrialisation, massive inequality and dependency on The City, it's not as if there is a shortage of avenues for journalists to explore to understand why a Momentum organiser might speculatively discuss an alliance with Unite. Despite this, the response has been to trundle out hacked-out tropes of 'hard-left plots' to 'seize control' of Labour, in keeping with the enduring tendency for what passes for political commentary on the Labour Party to portray any left-wing activity as inherently malign. This clichéd approach overlooks the actual reality of the current balance of power inside the Labour Party, which reveals a very different picture.

In fact, any honest and informed observer of the Labour Party in the last year and a half would be struck by fact that virtually all the coordinated, ruthless and frankly unpleasant factional organising has been undertaken by the right of the Party. Key tactics have included purges of left-wing candidates the imposition of absurd freeze dates to shut new members out of councillor selections, the withholding of data to prevent any effective engagement with new members, the establishment of parallel systems to undermine any left-wing officers in CLPs, bullying and intimidation. By contrast, the response of the left has been relatively uncoordinated and in some cases naive, as new activists have struggled to get to grips with Labour's labyrinthine structures and hostile political culture.

The opposition of the established Labour hierarchy to new activists and to the left in general give lie to the familiar claim that opposition to Corbyn is borne out of reasonable, politically neutral criticism of his lack of 'electability' or alleged incompetence. Intriguingly, the Corbyn era has been marked by a remarkable lack of any substantial debate whatsoever over the political and economic direction that Britain would need to take under any future Labour government. The key ideas underpinning Corbynite politics, such as renationalisation of the railways, cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance, the rebalancing of the economy in favour of green jobs, the reversal of privatisation of Britain's public services, investment in public housing and rent controls, have passed virtually almost unopposed and under the radar. For what it's worth, most of the British public actually finds them quite appealing, but has no idea that they are currently Labour Party policy. And within the Labour Party, only the most overtly factional elements of the right have honestly spelled out their root-and-branch opposition to left-wing policies.

This raises the question of why a potential rule change to reduce the threshold of nominations for candidates in future leadership campaigns (misleadingly labelled the 'McDonnell amendment') is generating such hostility. If criticism of Corbyn is apolitical, and his policies are quite popular, why oppose a rule change that does nothing more than give a left-wing candidates a fair fight in a future campaigns? The answer lies in the transformations of the party from the 1980s onwards, when the party was progressively restructured to neuter it a countervailing power in British society. Since then, the power of both party activists and trade unions have been systematically undermined, giving the party elite the freedom to convert Labour from being a social democratic party, to being ideologically and intellectually hollowed to the benefit of market economics and big business. Despite the shock arrival of Corbyn as leader in 2015, this unbalanced and undemocratic structure has survived virtually untouched, allowing hostile elements within the PLP and Labour HQ to work assiduously to undermine him.

With Labour polling 19 points behind the Conservatives, nobody on the left can afford to have illusions of happy days within the foreseeable future, but the response to that is not to get despondent, to give up, or fixate obsessively on left-on-left sectarianism. Rather, activists need to focus on organising systematically to rebalance the party in favour of members, in order to embed progressive politics in the structures of Labour. Passing the 5% amendment at the Labour Conference this year would not achieve that on its own, but it would start to force the PLP to reconcile itself with a left-wing majority amongst the party's members, and that would be a major step in the long march of the British left towards the transformation of both the Labour Party and society.

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