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Can Corbyn Surprise Us By Uniting Labour?

21/09/2016 17:03
Yui Mok/PA Wire

Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to reunite the Labour Party after the leadership election, but how can he do that? And what might be the terms on which unity is achieved?

The wounds in the Labour Party run deep. There is talk of de-selecting MPs, sacking headquarters staff, gossip about a new party and proposals for shadow cabinet positions to be being elected by MPs or by party members. This feels like a civil war, which means that a spirit of compromise essential for unity will be hard for both sides to find.

Voters know that a party fussing about its constitutional structure has turned inwards. Winning elections requires politicians to face outwards and talk about the problems of the people. Corbyn can never be Prime Minister if he leads a divided party.

As a leader Jeremy Corbyn has many strengths. He is tough, principled, unspun and authentic. He has inspired the idealism of many young people and has helped to create the largest party membership ever. But there are weaknesses too. He has never articulated a clear vision for the party and he has lost the confidence of 82% of Labour MPs. Rebel MPs claim Corbyn is uncommunicative, makes policy announcements without consulting shadow Ministers and that he hides behind a praetorian guard of advisers. Perhaps, the most personally hurtful allegation is that he is more out of touch with his fellow MPs than Tony Blair ever was.

Winning the leadership election will not deal with these concerns. And, as a past rebel, Jeremy Corbyn knows that relying on the power of the whips or the threat of de-selection does not secure loyalty. Corbyn needs the active support of the Parliamentary Party from here until the next election if he is to be Prime Minister. Threatening de-selection or, even worse doing it, will create more enemies.

Despite these problems Corbyn retains the capacity to surprise. Few expected him to be elected leader in 2015 and few believed he could survive a vote of no confidence by four out of five MPs. Reuniting Labour will be a tough challenge, but he might surprise people again. It is likely that for a month or so after the election he will have a window of opportunity to spell out the terms on which he will seek party unity. It remains to be seen whether that period will be about building bridges to unity or not.

Party policy matters in the search for unity. Like Kinnock, Smith and Blair, Jeremy Corbyn will need to set out his policy priorities. It can take years to convince the party and the voters about just one or two big policy changes and trying to change too much in one go will make party unity impossible. Leaders have to negotiate their agenda with MPs, with party members and, most importantly, with the voters. Dictats from the leaders office just provoke unnecessary rows and going over the heads of MPs to appeal to party members sows the seeds of future problems.

To unite the party Corbyn has to bring around his MPs. He can start doing that by talking to his colleagues and particularly spending time in the tearoom where MP's gather for meals and a cup of tea before votes. Even Blair and Brown turned up in the tearoom when things got tough. Listening and talking to people enables criticism to be absorbed and managed. It's worth remembering that earlier this year, when Hilary Clinton wanted to address doubts about her role in the deaths in Benghazi, she offered a Republican dominated Congressional Committee an open ended question session to absorb the flak. And it worked.

Times are tough for Corbyn. If he wants change, he needs to better engage with colleagues, let them get their doubts off their chest; he can absorb their pain and also let them know he cares about them as people. It requires patience, humility and time, but it is a political skill that gets results.

Corbyn also needs to spend time developing a clear vision of what the Labour Party stands for in the post New Labour era. The failure to have a serious debate after 2010 was a major error, committed in the name of party unity. The world has changed since 1997, but the party has never really addressed the question, what is the purpose of a modern socialist party in the era of the global market? This is not about what Jeremy Corbyn stands for as a leader. The question is 'what is the party here for?' This debate could be Corbyn's opportunity. It is a debate that can easily embrace and energise both Blairites and Corbynistas. Many issues are neither right wing nor left wing, but they matter.

The coming months could be a seminal moment for the party, determining its direction of travel on equality, globalization, climate change, foreign policy, Brexit, the Internet, porous national borders, Muslim religious revival, the neglect of the North of England and the management of global financial services.

So Corbyn should take this opportunity to reach out as leader. But Labour MPs must also recognise that unity is a two way street and they must respond to any olive branch. Corbyn was elected to bring policy change, which means that MP's schooled in the New Labour shibboleths must be ready to reassess them.

One issue on which Corbyn appears to want change is Trident. This really is a difficult issue for many Labour MPs and some unions. Yet Tony Blair in his biography revealed that he and Gordon Brown discussed scrapping it. It seems Blair and Brown decided not to do it primarily on political rather than military grounds. The military arguments were finely balanced, but they decided that the political price was just too high.

The only serious military argument for an independent nuclear deterrent is the 'rogue state thesis'. What if North Korea or Iran tell us to obey - or else? But the weakness of the argument is that Trident is not completely independent anyway. The Americans supply the kit, so they would have to give us permission to threaten others with it.

Some military voices say Britain would be safer spending the money on its armed services. But the real argument on Trident that persuaded Blair was the political one. For fifty years voters have bought into the notion that "our bomb" is an insurance policy and it would be risky to give it up. Convincing voters to change their mind on Trident could take years. Corbyn will need to work hard to convince his MPs that this really is the priority policy change we need now.

Trident is an unsurprising priority for Corbyn because he has always had a keen interest in peace and foreign affairs. His vision of Britain's role in the world is different to that of Tony Blair. He looks more to the Scandinavian model, than an Atlanticist one.

Norwegian foreign policy involves being a member of NATO, but using diplomacy, military clout and wealth to create a global role as a trusted arbitrator by resolving wars, providing peacekeepers and taking the long view on international issues. Notably, it was Norway that managed the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine. When Blair later tried Middle East peace negotiations, he made little progress. Yet, interestingly, Norway is seen by the USA as a close friend and also an international asset on the world stage. So there is nothing ignoble about Corbyn learning lessons from the Scandinavian model. Of course it would mark a change from New Labour, but it is not unprecedented for the Labour Party. It refers back to the 'ethical foreign policy' of Robin Cook, but also to the international ambitions of early leaders like Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and even Ramsey McDonald. Corbyn's views therefore have roots in Labour history, so they cannot be dismissed.

His attitude also combines internationalism and, surprisingly, nationalism. It sees a new role for Britain on the world stage but it also enables him to keep our servicemen safe by avoiding foreign wars such as Libya, Syria and Iraq.

But ethical policies can cause dilemmas. After all, the interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo undeniably saved lives and the most shameful foreign policy of the last thirty years was arguably the UK refusal to do anything to stop the Rwanda massacres.

Israel is another dilemma for Corbyn. As an MP he could easily side with the Palestinians; but as party leader he has to come to terms with the fact that Labour is a Zionist party; that is, if Zionism is defined as supporting the existence of the state of Israel. Of course, Labour has opposed settlements and supported Israel based on the pre-1967 boundaries. In the recently published book "The Left's Jewish Problem", the author David Rich argues that Corbyn's speeches reveal that he has tended to see Israel through the prism of Western colonialism. This perspective really annoys British Jews. But it is easy to deal with. Corbyn could pledge unequivocally to support a democratic Israel, at least within the 1967 borders, and a negotiated settlement over Jerusalem. He should also support and recognise Palestine. In the final analysis, Britain has a massive interest in a peace settlement in Middle East and Labour leaders must not be partisans for one side or the other, but should be advocates for a fair and just peace settlement.

Thankfully Corbyn now seems to be acknowledging that anti Semitism is a unique type of racism. His speeches in the past tended to use the phrase, "anti Semitism and other kinds of racism", lumping it all together. Racists see others as of lesser worth, but historically, anti-Semitism has presented the Jews as a threat due to their supposed wealth and power. These are different kinds of prejudice. They need to be condemned for what they are. British Jews suspect Corbyn doesn't get that. He should be able to reassure people that he does now understand it.

Labour's greatest weakness has always been the economy. Gordon Brown convinced people he would be prudent with their money; in other words that he could say "no". Sadly, Ed Balls didn't convince people. The weakness of John McDonnell as Chancellor is not his economic views, which are actually conventionally Keynesian and much influenced by the American Nobel prize winners, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. McDonnell probably frightens the City less than he thinks he does. Rather the problem is that having a sense of humour, which borders at times on the flippant, does not fit with controlling money. McDonnell needs to learn lessons from Brown about acting like a dour, humourless, boring banker.

One problem for Corbyn is that McDonnell is a strong media performer and this has led to him being used too often to firefight minor flare ups in Labour's civil war. As Shadow Chancellor he ought to be seen as singularly focused on the most important task for Labour, restoring its credibility on the economy. When he gives a speech it should be a serious event. Corbyn trusts McDonnell, but a move to the post of Shadow Employment Secretary might allow him to have a more flexible media profile, whilst retaining influence on economic policy. It could also help Corbyn to mend fences with the MPs by appointing a new Shadow Chancellor, such as Ed Miliband.

Another area where Corbyn needs to develop his policy is on immigration. Workers voted for Brexit because they wanted the government to manage the numbers coming into the UK. There is nothing socialist about the free movement of labour. It benefits the bosses not the workers. A socialist should want a planned immigration policy that is neither racist nor xenophobic. Corbyn tends to see immigration though the prism of racism, but he ought to be calling for a planned socialist management of our borders. That must be in the interest of working people.

But does Corbyn really want a united party? The answer is that he wants unity on his own terms.

There will be policy changes and compromise is going to be difficult for someone whose unique selling point is that he is a man of principle.

Corbyn also faces pressure from those who would like to split the party. Some of his supporters in Momentum are instinctive sectarians who lack a history in the Labour Party. They distain Blairites and believe that because their captain has the helm, all Blairites should be thrown overboard.

Momentum acts as Corbyn shock troops in the constituency parties. They have struck fear into the hearts of many loyal party members who have canvassed for Labour for years. Some in Momentum have never canvassed for Labour and some may have canvassed against Labour. Whilst pretending that the fringe hard left parties control Momentum is wrong, it is also undeniable that the hard left is infiltrating and trying to get control of it.

Factional organisations do not foster unity. Corbyn needs to curb the growing intimidation in the party. It would be a good step toward unity if Corbyn said Momentum activists must all be Labour Party members.

Labour has always been a coalition of the working class, the unions and the left, so it can include socialists, liberals and sometimes religious social conservatives. In the 1980's it looked like the forward march of Labour had been halted as the decrease in the numbers in the working class. Tony Blair, from the right of the party, rebuilt the crumbling Labour coalition by charisma, guts and skill. Miliband later tried to do it from the soft left, but lacked the charisma to do it.

Today, to the surprise of many of us who have known him for decades, Jeremy Corbyn seems to have emerged from obscurity with that indefinable something people call charisma. It has enabled him to spring surprise after surprise. His next big surprise must be to show he can unite the Labour Party, including the Parliamentary Party, behind him. But nothing can better unite a party like a charismatic leader who looks like he can win. Corbyn has got to start looking and thinking like the man who could be Prime Minister.

After all, getting the leadership of the Labour Party is merely the qualifying race to get to the starting line for the race to become Prime Minister. It is the moral duty of the Labour leader to win that race and only a united party can win a general election.

So the qualifying race has just finished and the next race against Teresa May is about to begin.

Mike O'Brien QC served under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as a Minister in the Home Office, Foreign Office, as a law officer and Health Minister 1997-2010. He left Parliament and now practices law.

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