Just a few days ago the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The outcome of Thursday’s referendum is by all accounts a seismic development, one that has forced the Prime Minister to resign and set in train a highly uncertain process of political and economic upheaval. Brexit has unleashed chaos not just in the corridors of Whitehall, but in the financial markets and on the streets of Britain. But the UK’s departure from Europe has as quick as a wink been relegated to the status of a sideshow, thanks to the treacherous machinations of the centre-right Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Jeremy Corbyn has the strongest personal mandate of any party political leader in British history. The quarter of a million people who voted for him last year did so in order to register their contempt for and fury towards the Blairites responsible for Labour’s rightwards march and the party’s concomitant abandonment of its traditional working class base.
Instead of accepting the democratically expressed will of Labour Party members and supporters, those Blairites and their descendants — who by virtue of a lax selection process constitute most of the PLP — have worked hand in glove with the Tories and the corporate media to undermine Corbyn’s leadership from the very beginning. It was only a matter of time before a formal coup was attempted.
The PLP has chosen in transparently cynical fashion to exploit the chaos and confusion produced by the referendum result to try and wrest back control of a party whose grassroots now despise it. First came a co-ordinated series of resignations from the shadow cabinet, ostensibly in response to Corbyn’s sacking of the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn. It is a testament to Corbyn’s conciliatory nature and his commitment to pluralism that he included the Blairite Benn in his cabinet at all, and it is a wonder that Benn managed to retain his post for as long as he did after delivering a meretricious speech on the necessity of bombing Syria late last year. At any rate, such is Benn’s standing among the right wing of the PLP that a string of non-entities felt moved to resign from the front benches upon his dismissal. They did so one by one, in a performance co-ordinated and calculated for maximum dramatic effect, and the gleeful corporate media predictably lapped it all up.
As soon as it became apparent to Corbyn’s opponents within the PLP that the rash of resignations would have no effect on the determination of their leader to remain, a vote of no confidence was called and subsequently passed. This latest development, as Corbyn himself rightly said, had no ‘constitutional legitimacy’ whatsoever and therefore amounted to nothing more than a distracting and thoroughly vindictive piece of political theatre.
Corbyn’s conduct in the eye of this manufactured storm has been characteristically beyond reproach. In refusing to capitulate to the PLP he has demonstrated the resoluteness of his commitment to the social movement which propelled him to the leadership last September. On Monday evening, thousands upon thousands of members of that movement attended a rally in Parliament Square more or less spontaneously to reaffirm their support for Corbyn. It was an authentic and overwhelming display of confidence that none of the 172 MPs who desire Corbyn’s resignation could but dream of inspiring.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, many of those scores of MPs had sought absurdly to pin the blame for Brexit on their leader rather than on David Cameron and his gamble, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, Nigel Farage’s UKIP or the intellectually empty Leave campaign. Never mind that approximately two thirds of Labour voters elected to remain, or that Angela Eagle of all people remarked on June 13 that ‘Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired’. In defiance of logic the Labour Right seemed to feel that Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner against racism, was more culpable for the outcome of the referendum than xenophobia and the media corporations which foment it, or destructive neoliberal economic policies and the institutions which administer and gain from them. At precisely the time when it should have united with Corbyn to attack a government in disarray, the majority of the PLP chose instead to show its disregard not only for the people and the process that brought about the democratic election of their leader, but for the outcome of Thursday’s referendum and those who are affected negatively by it. Their shameful cynicism has moreover led them repeatedly and nonsensically to declare that Corbyn rather than their own flagrant treachery is destroying the Labour Party.
As the days wear on, the right-wing faction’s expressions of opposition to Corbyn are becoming more desperate and more purely malicious. One refrain stands rock-like amid the churning flood of venom, namely that ‘Jeremy Corbyn makes the Labour Party unelectable‘. Let us recognise the fact that repetition of this shibboleth creates a positive feedback loop in which public opinion — and concomitantly the electoral chances — of the left-wing politician in question take a hit each time the word and its derivatives are used. Let us also acknowledge that to describe a party leader as ‘unelectable’ is — as we have seen over the last few months — a craven and disingenuous way of avoiding substantive engagement with their (often rather popular) positions. Of course, the real function of the word ‘unelectable’ when used in this context is to express the belief that a party leader’s policy proposals and/or image are incapable of attracting the support required to win a general election.
As far as Jeremy Corbyn is concerned, if those in the PLP who oppose him are of the opinion — and one suspects they must be — that the policy proposals which took him to the leadership are somehow misguided and not worth pursuing, then one must ask what on Earth they are doing in the Labour Party at all. Nobody in the PLP who is to the right of Corbyn can truly say that their values are in accord with those of the party as it was originally conceived. Indeed, what is most infuriating about this whole affair is the fact that Corbyn is almost unique in the PLP for actually being on the Left and so not totally acquiescent in the neoliberal order. How farcical — how tragic — that the MPs of a party founded in the name of social and economic justice are attacking the most progressive leader in its history with more vigour than even the Tories.
If on the other hand the PLP insists that it is concerned about Corbyn’s image and Corbyn’s image alone — and this is not convincing, for even Corbyn’s critics laud his decency and integrity — then it is, in its vapid obsession with personality politics, demonstrating precisely what the public has come to loathe about the Westminster bubble, where principles mean nothing next to advancing careers and obtaining power by any means necessary.
In any case, the PLP would do very well indeed to reflect on its own image and that of the etiolated New Labour creed it mostly represents. Is its lack of self-awareness so absolute and so profound that it fails to detect even a hint of the contempt in which it is held by the grassroots of the party and society more generally? Or are we to interpret its disturbing hatred of Corbyn as the death rattle — the last existential wails — of necrotic New Labour, a regrettably long-lived neo-Thatcherite cadre that betrayed the people it was supposed to serve in return for all the trappings of elite approval?
At any rate, it has been confirmed in the last hour that a leadership contest is now likely to take place, with Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP having thrown their support squarely behind Angela Eagle. Some polls have suggested that as many as 95 per cent of those who voted for Corbyn last time round will do so again. As a result it is tempting to suggest that Corbyn will sweep to victory once more.
Such a victory would surely leave the right-wing faction of the PLP with little choice but to formally secede from the party. It is true that Labour governments have over the years participated as actively as their Tory counterparts in all the multifarious horrors of imperialist capitalism. But the party still has a certain cachet in working class communities from which the anti-Corbyn, anti-socialist faction of the existing PLP cannot be allowed to profit, either morally or electorally. Perhaps, then, that grouping ought to defect in its entirety to the Tories — from whose ruling centre-right faction it is indistinguishable except by minor differences in rhetoric — or even the Liberal Democrats.
For now however, it is incumbent on those of us who are on the Left not to engage in stream-of-consciousness soul-searching about the plight of Labour, but simply to ensure that Corbyn’s unprecedentedly strong mandate is renewed.