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Why have Labour's internal battles re-erupted?

The parliamentary Labour party's vow of silence over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership took a battering last night. Here's why.

After a period of silence, Labour’s internal woes have erupted into noisy life once again. Yesterday’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party was the most openly antagonistic since Jeremy Corbyn’s second landslide victory among party members.

What’s happening? After Corbyn’s second victory, Corbynsceptics came to a unified conclusion more or less organically: that sniping against the leadership had helped, rather than hurt the party leadership and that their best approach was to go quiet and let the leader’s office run aground of its own accord.

But that Corbyn has started to be mentioned more “on the doorstep” has MPs nervous, and that, according to two YouGov polls of the membership, the dimunition in Corbyn’s popularity looks to be smaller than many Labour MPs had hoped has frustrated others. Add that to a performance by the Labour leader that was “dire” in the words of one Corbynsceptic and “subdued” in the words of one Corbynite at this week’s parliamentary Labour party meeting and the ingredients for a ruck were all present.

The unanswerable question is what the temporary resumption of hostilities does for the ongoing battle for the party’s structures at a grassroots level. One reason why the vote over the so-called “McDonnell amendment”, the attempt to lower the nomination threshold to just five per cent of MPs, has a difficult path to being approved by Labour party conference is that the left is struggling to turn its people out without a loud enemy at Westminster to motivate them. The centre-left is doing a better job on the whole of keeping hold of the organisational structures of the party at a grassroots level.

The difficulty for Corbynsceptics is that while party members are less supportive of Jeremy Corbyn than this time last year, they have neither a “candidate [n]or a project” as one Corbynite frontbencher put it. That means that disillusioned supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are either staying at home and letting their memberships lapse or joining the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. They are not bolstering the ranks of Corbynsceptic activists, who are also letting their membership’s lapse or joining the Liberal Democrats. (But not the Greens, surprisingly enough.)

It may be that even a brief outbreak of red-on-red fighting at Westminster is the spur the Corbynites need to reclaim momentum in the internal battles in the country that will decide the party’s longterm direction. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia