Labour coups are good for the left

Losing the election will mean a rebrand, but the cleansing process has already begun

It is a common narrative on the right that once Labour loses the next election there will be great bloodletting within the party. Labour will stumble around in the wilderness for years while failing to land any punches on the Conservatives.

But such a view fails to recognise the nature of dividing lines within the party. And, paradoxically, the recent attempted coups against Gordon Brown make such civil war even less likely.

The conventional thinking says that following defeat, the left and centrist factions within Labour will fight a bloody battle for years. Groups such as Compass will fight for a leftward shift, while the centrists from Progress will advocate staying moderate to attract independent and Tory voters. Loud civil war will ensue.

While there will be discord, various factors mitigate the risk that the party will tear itself apart. First, the biggest unspoken dividing line between the left and Labour is not economic issues, but the Iraq war. This continues to haunt Brown and still defines the party and cabinet ministers around him. It is the single biggest issue that keeps lefties away from Labour.

And so the purge of cabinet ministers through failed coups is a positive move because it has ejected those tainted by the war as well as the expenses scandal: Geoff Hoon, James Purnell, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty and Patricia Hewitt. Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Prescott are no longer at the helm either.

Second, the big beasts of the centre left (Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband) are intelligent enough to recognise that the core Labour base alone won't win them elections. Cruddas has stated this repeatedly, even to Compass members, which has not endeared him to many socialists. But the hard left, for now, remains too divided and powerless to exercise excessive influence over the party's direction.

Third, one of New Labour's distinguishing characteristics has been to avoid the mistakes of the past (industrial militancy, lack of discipline) in almost paranoid fashion. This generation knows that the longer it pursues infighting after the election, the longer it will be out in the wilderness. Once the leadership contest is out of the way, it's very likely the party will be quick to turn its fire on the Tories again.

It is also likely that new media will play a role in ensuring a degree of discipline. When Blears and Purnell resigned in June last year, and when Hoon and Hewitt made their move, there was a swift and loud backlash by Labour members and lefties online. And on both occasions there were no visible signs of support for the coups.

Once Labour is out of power, party members and the broader left alike will want to see unity pretty quickly, so that anger can be directed at the Tories. The web will play its part in ensuring this happens.

That isn't to say that economic issues are irrelevant. Labour will have to move leftwards in opposition, to differentiate itself from the Conservatives, sound more populist and accept the need for a motivated base that delivers leaflets and fights for the party. But that does not necessarily mean electoral wilderness, given that the economic crisis has, in any case, made Britons less accepting of the City's largesse.

If Labour loses the election, a new leader will have no choice but to overhaul the Labour brand and admit to mistakes of the past. That will have to include saying sorry for the Iraq war to help mend bridges with many disillusioned lefties. Helpfully, the cleansing process has already begun.

Sunny Hundal is editor of the left-wing blog Liberal Conspiracy.

This article appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.

 

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Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage