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22 March 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s critics aren’t messing around. Time to get nasty

Trying to build a big tent within the Labour party is doomed to failure, argues Michael Chessum. 

By Michael Chessum

To whoever was planning it, last week’s coded leadership announcement from Dan Jarvis might have seemed like a smooth operation. From the outside, it was the news story that fell out of the boring tree and hit every branch on the way down. The main revelation from Jarvis’s speech at the Demos thinktank was the fact that he didn’t like inequality, although his no doubt controversial liking for community, prosperity and family was also striking. Only in the intellectually impovrished world of the post-crash Labour right could Jarvis’s raw, contentless political positioning be hailed as visionary. 

But the most troubling aspect of the episode what not the fact of Jarvis’s announcement, or the speech itself. It was the timing of it: with less than two months to go until a crucial set of regional and national elections, the first electoral test for a new leadership which has the overwhelming support of party members. After May, Jarvis and other opponents of the leadership will have nearly three fallow years with no major elections in which to lay out an alternative to Jeremy Corbyn’s platform.

To do it now, in the full glare of the press and with virtually no hope of toppling Corbyn in the immediate term, is a sign of something deeper. For some on the centrist wing of the party, the appearance of discord is not the honest manifestation of political differences; it is a tactic which is being used to destabilise the leadership, with either a total disregard for Labour’s electoral performance or an active nod to undermining it. For active party members and observant pundits, it is possible to delineate motivations and differing ideas – but to the outside world, the constant stream of briefings is becoming a chaotic, unelectable fog.

The determination of some sections of the parliamentary party to fight a war of attrition with the party membership is a problem for Corbyn. The leadership’s current internal strategy does have outriders, as well as the occasional moment of clarity from the likes of John McDonnell consciously naming Labour’s “hard right”. But by and large, the strategy has been one of compromise and accommodation: from the composition of the Shadow Cabinet, to opposing illegal budgets in local government, to respectable posturing on the deficit, to ducking and diving on issues like the Investigatory Powers Bill. The plan has been to ensure that Corbyn is not totally isolated, and to soften and mainstream his image.

Increasingly, however, the real danger for Corbyn is not isolation within the PLP or an image as a scary agitator – neither of which are necessarily bad looks in the era of insurgent populism. It is the fact that the Labour Party is viewed as terminally undisciplined, with a leadership helpless in the face of the storm. The people who are really driving this agenda from the inside cannot be appeased with triangulation or inclusion, because their main political project is to oust Corbyn and the left, even at the expense of Labour’s electoral performance. 

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 Corbyn and the new Labour left seem scary because they are scary. To the party establishment, they threaten to undo decades of work and, if they are successful, to overturn every premise that underpinned Labour centrism. To much of the mainstream media, they are a threat to boundaries of acceptable opinion. To the wider British ruling class, they are the force that could curtail privilege and end the neo-liberal economic moment that has brought so much wealth to the very top of society. Momentum, the organisation aiming to provide the activist base for the Corbyn project, frequently competes with bubonic plague and zombies to be the number one most scary news story of 2016. None of this is avoidable, because what Corbyn represents is a direct threat to the status quo. The establishment knows this, and no amount of clever footwork is going to deceive them.

During and after the current round of elections, the Labour leadership must turn these problems on their head. The era of expanding the tent and placating the right of the party should now be over. What is needed is a strategy that pushes Corbyn, and the whole focus of the party’s campaigning efforts, away from the constant firefighting of the Westminster bubble, and out across the country – rallying supporters and connecting directly with the electorate. Corbyn is only credible when he is unapologetically left wing and when policy announcements explicitly relate to a grander plan for society. With enough of an insurgent campaign, the new Labour left can afford to be dangerous and radical in the public eye; what we cannot afford is to be branded a shambles.