After the storm: what should Corbynism 2.0 look like?

Labour should promise a second Brexit referendum, make a radical devolution offer to Scotland and revitalise the shadow cabinet. 

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At The World Transformed, a Momentum-led festival at Labour’s conference in September, they are apparently planning to wargame a scenario based on Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup. In it, players representing three factions of the Labour Party – hard left, soft left and old right – will have to react as the “deep state” tries to take down a left-wing Labour administration. I am sure it will be fun, but it’s pointless.

If there is one upside to 30 years of free market economics in Britain, it is the strengthening of the rule of law. Britain has not only the Human Rights Act and a Supreme Court, but a state which operates consciously within legal checks and balances. From the audio recorders in police interview rooms to the legal hotline for drone pilots at RAF Waddington, there is pervasive legal supervision.

The shenanigans of the 1970s, when MI5 “bugged and burgled” the Wilson government; or in the 1980s, when the Association of Chief Police Officers co-ordinated the systematic denial of freedom of movement to striking miners, would be much harder to get away with today. As for Chinooks circling Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment on polling day (echoing the scenario in the Mullin novel), it is the stuff of fantasy.

If a section of Britain’s elite wanted to prevent a radical Labour government from implementing its policy, the “coup” would have to take place before the election, not after.

It would consist of destabilising the Labour Party so that it could not rely on its own MPs to get laws through the incoming parliament, creating a 24-hour atmosphere of crisis in the media, plus daily dollops of fake news and stark warnings from foreign political leaders.

Sadly, there is no need to wargame that kind of coup. The technical rehearsals for it have been taking place all summer.

That the Labour leader’s office has handled the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) controversy badly is beyond doubt. It treated a political problem as a legal problem. As a result of the furore it is now likely that Labour’s National Executive Committee will pass the IHRA definition in full. I would welcome that. Its flaws and ambiguities – as identified by legal thinkers like Stephen Sedley and Geoffrey Bindman QC - should be addressed through clear legal guidance and active engagement with the IHRA itself.

By contrast, Corbyn and his team have handled “wreathgate” and the intervention of Benjamin Netanyahu with aplomb. Less than two hours separated the Israeli Prime Minister’s attempt to smear Corbyn and the Labour press team hitting back, citing “the killing of over 160 Palestinian demonstrators since March” in response.

The wreath story is a rehashed montage of harmless truth and pulp fiction – and while it has tipped some otherwise fair-minded liberal journalists into mouth-frothing hostility to Corbyn, it has achieved zero cut-through with the public and, to date, failed to prevent Labour taking a two-point lead over the Tories in the polls.

When Sky News looked outside the bubble of outrage and contempt, and interviewed people queuing round the block to see the Labour leader in Stoke, they found 100 per cent backing for Corbyn. I suspect that they would find the same response among most of the 40 per cent of voters who currently back Labour in the polls.

In fact, the danger for the London-based punditry corps is that they begin to suffer from severe cognitive dissonance. From the Today programme to LBC to the Mail, Economist and Guardian, key journalists had convinced themselves that the Tunisia smear was going to destroy Corbyn. It didn’t happen.

Once they get to the Labour conference, and see the thousands of ordinary people who will flock to Merseyside for the fringe events, the cognitive dissonance is going to increase to psychologically harmful levels. If you want a preview, watch the video of the Boardmasters silent disco, where 18,000 people sang Corbyn’s name, and imagine John Humphrys having to stand in the corner with a microphone.

If Corbyn cannot be taken out by smear and scandal, those who think a left Labour government would destroy the country have only one other option, and that is to promote a split in the party. That would be easy to start. Streatham MP Chuka Umunna has warned in an Independent article that he and other MPs are at “breaking point”.

If the break occurs, the indications are that any Labour MPs who went with it would try to reverse engineer themselves into the Lib Dems. Vince Cable would have to convince his members that having people associated with illegal war, torture and rendition fronting up the party of Asquith, Gladstone and Lloyd George was a good idea. But with the Lib Dems, as tuition fees show, everything is possible.

Since the MPs named as likely to join the split have been amply promoted by the broadcasters over the past two years, publicity should be no problem. Simon Franks’ off-the-shelf United for Change party would add £50m to the pot. BBC political correspondent Peter Henley has even started making suggestions about how the new party could operate.

The problem is, beyond the groupthink of PPE-educated journalists, the British social and business elite does not necessarily want to destroy Labour. A small section wants a no-deal Brexit and is getting ready for the Armageddon that would come with food shortages and the breakdown of peace in Northern Ireland. A much larger section wants to stop Brexit, kickstart investment and productivity and solidify the Irish peace process.

With the Tories imploding rightwards, the only game in town is a Labour government – albeit one with a slightly different position to the one Corbyn’s shadow cabinet currently holds.

In a parliamentary system, with first-past-the post at constituency level, and a social democratic party that refuses to collapse, conjuring a Macron type figure from nowhere just doesn’t have the same effect. In addition, a resurgent Lib Dem 2.0 party, even if given time to organise itself, might fail to dislodge many Labour MPs but quite easily dislodge some Tories.

What might look good in Streatham does not necessarily look good in places like Luton, Merseyside and West Glamorgan. In many of the would-be splitters’ constituencies there is no “centrist world” – but there is a strong labour movement culture and some long memories.

A further complication for the new centrist party would be timing. If May’s administration collapses, and there’s a snap election, only rule-bending on a massive scale by bosses at the BBC, Channel 4, Sky and ITN would allow the new party airtime – especially if it were still formally separate from the Lib Dems.

So, paradoxically, after weeks of media battering, Corbyn and Corbynism still look strong. But, as I’ve argued here before, the project needs to evolve.

As Rafael Behr noted in the Guardian, the Labour leadership’s position on Brexit is softening. Momentum, of which I am a member, is unlikely to block a vote and discussion on Brexit at conference. Meanwhile, up to 150 CLPs are discussing a motion calling on Labour to defeat the Chequers plan in parliament and offer a second vote as part of its election manifesto.

Labour’s number one objective has to be to form a government radical in social and economic policy. For that, I think it should be prepared – as I saw Alexis Tsipras do in January 2015 – to put radicalism in foreign policy on the back burner and seek a de facto progressive coalition to push through lasting constitutional change, even if the party has secured a Commons majority on its own.

There are three new things Labour can offer the electorate going into the autumn. One is to promise a second referendum. Tactically, it would reconnect Labour with some centrist Remain voters; strategically it offers a route to reuniting a divided country, as the illusion of a hard break with Europe shatters.

The second is a radical devolution offer to Scotland, amounting to the creation of a federal UK, whose aim should be to attract thousands of left-wing independence supporters back to Labour.

The third is a more collective and revitalised shadow cabinet, armed with a short but inspiring programme for Labour’s first Queen’s Speech.

If the government falls over Brexit in the autumn or the spring, a snap election campaign will be brutal for Labour. Not because there is cabal of officers, gentlemen and grandees plotting its overthrow, as in A Very British Coup. Rather, because the groupthink inculcated at Oxbridge, on the Fulbright programme and in think-tank world, has created a media and political class that can only imagine the downsides of a radical Labour government and not its upsides.

But as this summer’s onslaught shows, brutality can be overcome. If you have spent decades creating an electorate that is disengaged, and destroyed the credibility of the broadcast media through persistent bias and dumbing down, then running around with jazz hands shouting “Czech spy, IRA terrorist” into the cameras at the last minute might not work.

The objectives of a “Corbynism 2.0” should be clear: reconnect with the centrist electorate through a second referendum, reconnect with the left of Scottish civil society with a radical offer on devolution, and reconnect with the PLP. The vast majority of Labour MPs are revolted by the prospect of a split, and mainly just want to be listened to, see their talents recognised, and be armed with policies they can go onto the doorstep and sell.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?