In a recent interview, Angela Eagle accused Jeremy Corbyn of being too focused on the politics of protest rather than the politics of power. She said the Labour leader promoted a form of political engagement where activists simply “turn up, wave a few banners, sell a few newspaper and then disappear.” This theme is a favourite of the anti-Corbyn forces within the Labour party and builds on the attempt to undermine his supporters as blind, foolish members of the Corbyn cult.
There is perhaps some truth to Eagle’s claim that the politics of protest are in the ascendancy. But looking at the Labour party today, it isn’t Corbyn’s supporters promoting dissent. Instead, it is the parliamentary wing of the Labour party that has embroiled itself with a futile protest against the democratically elected leader of their party.
The membership has not rebelled or refused to serve. Indeed, many are disappointed that local constituency Labour party meetings have been suspended and that they are barred from taking the fight to the Tories in their local communities until this contest is over. It is the Labour party establishment in Westminster that is staging a demonstration and waving banners for a cause that they know they are destined to lose. They dismiss Jeremy’s mass meetings and rallies as fruitless forms of political engagement while simultaneously organising their own self-defeating protests.
The parliamentary Labour party’s protest organiser is none other than Owen Smith, Corbyn’s opponent in the upcoming leadership contest. Smith has reinforced Eagle’s claim by making the theme of putting principle into power his flagship-rallying cry. Smith recently accused Corbyn of turning the Labour party into a “laughing stock.” Again, in all fairness it is hard to disagree with him. Take one look at the headlines and it is hard not to put your head in your hands and despair.
But while Smith may see everybody laughing, he appears to have misunderstood the joke. Yes, the Labour party is a laughing stock. But Corbyn isn’t the comedian topping the bill. It’s the backroom Labour establishment that has been centre stage this past week and it has certainly been some performance. The show culminated in the court of appeal last week, where five claimants found their early victory in their pursuit of suffrage overturned.
The Labour establishment may have won its case in the court of appeal on Friday, but celebrating the exclusion of 130,000 paid up members certainly isn’t a good look. To then ask five ordinary members – one of the claimants is a teenager – to pay the party’s legal fees demonstrates that somewhere along the line, the people’s party has lost its way.
Indeed, this victory seems to signal the death of Labour’s establishment rather than its resurrection. While no scientific analysis, the reaction on social media was almost entirely negative. Even those hostile to Corbyn were dismayed by the disrespect shown to the democratic process. While the smaller electorate may buoy Smith’s campaign, it’s hardly an enthusiastic message to take to the party at large.
The Labour establishment finds itself in the weird position of distancing themselves from the politics of protest while enacting a damaging rebellion at the same time. Whether in the courts or the dusty backrooms of Parliament, it is the PLP that seems to be most engaged with the politics of protest.