Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Corbyn Coup: Jeremy Fights Back!

The coup against Jeremy Corbyn has now fully transmuted into a leadership election. But the key challengers are unlikely to win over the membership: whether it is lacklustre Angela Eagle, or the mediocre Owen Smith. Corbyn is officially on the ballot, albeit with new barriers to his supporters. Sadly the contest may take until September to conclude, while the Conservative government is busy regrouping.

Things are moving very quickly. Not long ago, there was a great deal of anxiety over the NEC vote on whether or not to allow Corbyn to remain on the ballot paper. Many feared Labour would deny the incumbent the right to defend his position from Angela Eagle. The Blairites are cynical enough to take this decision. It would have been a transparent move to overthrow the leader and close the democratic opening within the party. But we shouldn't forget this almost happened.

Much like the no-confidence motion, the NEC held the ballot in secret. The point being to embolden the anti-Corbyn vote, as it had done with the no-confidence motion. This same method allowed 80% of the PLP to fall into line with the Blairite coup. Yet even with the secret ballot, the Corbyn camp won the NEC vote by a modest margin (18:14) and now NEC elections may see the balance of votes turn in the Left's favour.

However, the NEC rammed through new measures, once Corbyn and his allies were out of the room, to deny 128,000 members the right to vote and suspend all branch meetings until after the election. This should not surprise anyone. The Labour Party has a long tradition of rigging its internal contests for the sake of 'unity' and 'stability'. Democracy and contestation is a threat to this Tammany Hall system.

The enemy revealed

First, Angela Eagle emerged to take on Corbyn, but now Owen Smith has entered the field. Smith represents a division in the anti-Corbyn faction, where Eagle is not seen as necessarily the best candidate to take on the leader. He is now positioning himself to be the single challenger to face Jeremy Corbyn. He has called for a second EU referendum, appealing to the liberal europhiles so easily disenchanted with Corbynism. It's an appeal to the muesli belt.

Overall, the Smith campaign looks like a serious bid for power. The Pontypridd MP vows to refocus efforts on inequality. He has proposed a £200 billion investment programme to build housing, colleges, hospitals and improve existing infrastructure. Smith was self-aware enough to outmatch Stephen Crabb's call for a £100 billion plan. He's even pledged to bring in a war powers act to ensure no future government can take the country to war without parliamentary support.

This coming from a man, who was not in Parliament to vote for the Iraq war, surely strengthens his bid for the leadership. But it's not entirely accurate to say Smith is anti-war. In the past, Owen Smith has expressed support for the occupation of Iraq on Eustonite grounds – going as far as to compare the conflict to the Spanish civil war. This was long before Hilary Benn used the same analogy to support the invasion of Syria.

Meanwhile the Eagle campaign has been markedly lukewarm. So far Angela Eagle has succeeded in winning over sympathy with questionable claims of intimidation by leftists. Her debut was spoiled by Theresa May's victory after Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the Tory leadership race. The journalists rushed out of the room to cover the real news. But even when Eagle gets airtime, she fails to inspire. It looks like a kamikaze candidacy.

The aim is victory through destruction. The Blairites and the 'soft left' are trying to use Angela Eagle as a front to slam the Labour leadership. The election will be dragged out over the summer to guarantee maximum damage. The Labour Right would prefer to see Corbyn fail than see him challenge the Tory government. This is just as the government is largely rudderless. A united opposition could have serious impact right now.

Perilous terrain

Faced with Smith, the Corbyn camp has returned to its own take on quantitative easing. John McDonnell has laid out plans for a national investment bank and £500 billion programme for infrastructure. It would be coupled with regional banks to increase the level of investment to the North and the Midlands. This not only tops Smith's position, it is a return to Corbynomics – a radical mix of heterodox Keynesian and post-socialist economic policies.

If Corbyn combines a well thought out platform with a social media strategy and grass-roots organising, the leader should be able to win with a landslide. Victory has to be total here, or it will embolden the anti-Corbyn faction to draw their knives later. It's not just a matter of having the right ideas and decency. The extreme centrists want to recapture the party leadership, and they are willing to ruin its electoral chances to do so.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn has fallen back on tried and tested social media networks. This allows Corbyn to connect with his base in a much more direct way than his competitors. It does have limits, though it is the best option. The real battle is how Corbyn can assert influence in the media and reach a mass audience. He recently gave a pretty relaxed interview to the BBC in Finsbury Park. But the press is still overwhelmingly hostile to the Left.

The main problem is not the right-wing press, but the lack of a left-wing press. The Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the New Statesman have led the herd of independent minds. This herd includes liberals and leftists who take issue with Corbyn's idealism. Even the Daily Mirror, the only Labour red-top newspaper, called for Corbyn to let the coup plotters win. So there is no progressive commentariat backing the Labour leader.

The Corbyn leadership faces the difficulty of getting the word out in a hostile media environment. At the same time, the party is locked into a crisis which predates the last nine months and goes back to the compromises of Blairism and even before. The redistribution of power and wealth was always offset to secure gains within the system. Now there is the real struggle to transform the party in order to change the country.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Thatcher 2.0

So, the heir to Blair is gone, Theresa May has come to power, George Osborne has been replaced with Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson is now in charge of MI6. It's plausible that the Tory Party may be returning to its wilderness period in opposition to New Labour. Cameron's Blair-style of leadership is now over. All that's left is the mess of party politics before Cameron took over in 2005: fools, creeps, lightweights and nobodies.

Yet inevitably, the new British prime minister will be compared to Margaret Thatcher. Not that May has a substantive political agenda. If Andrea was going to play Thatcher 2.0, she would have faired no better than Theresa. Love her or loathe her, Thatcher was a seizmic figure in UK politics. She redefined the conversation and changed society in a little over a decade. We have remained on the same track ever since, while the political class has changed in style and tactics.

The truth is the Conservatives never got over Thatcher. The Iron Lady's fall from power left behind a vacuum, which has never really been closed. John Major and David Cameron are passing, managerial figures. Unusually for a Conservative, Thatcher was a formidable ideologue. But let's pull back for a moment. It's worth reflecting on the events of recent weeks. Despite appearances the Conservative establishment was hit hard by the Brexit shockwave. The dust has yet to settle.

Electorus interruptus

Once Brexit hit, David Cameron was forced to resign – a decision which clearly stung. By contrast, George Osborne disappeared into the shadows for the weekend. He finally resurfaced to provide reassurances to the business community, after three days in hiding. The look of complete devastation on Osborne's face must have been very reassuring. Both men – a duo of the major league – were physically shaken by defeat. The Cameron legacy died on June 23, and Osborne's hopes of taking over died with it.

The Tory government has been rudderless since the leadership contest ensued. At first, everyone thought that the favourite candidate, Boris Johnson, would easily swoop in and become prime minister. Then Johnson committed electorus interruptus with no warning. The Boris campaign was dead before the man could even announce his candidacy. Michael Gove delivered the fatal blow and quickly usurped the candidacy.

This was great drama for political junkies. Boris has been lurking on the sidelines for years – clearly in preparation of a bid for the premiership. He wanted his birthright. Far from a conviction politician, or even a responsible human being, Johnson bet everything on the Leave vote. In actuality, the former London mayor was hoping for a slight Remain vote, which would create the pre-conditions for a hard-right Tory revolt against Cameron. Such a situation would be favourable for a prominent (and opportunistic) figure to seize power.

The chancer got exactly what he didn't want. Johnson was quick to cleave to the centre-ground in the hope of salvaging a position as a 'unifying figure'. But this strategy was doomed to fail. The parliamentarians would want a Remain candidate, whereas the members might prefer a Leave campaigner. Boris was seen as a gamble. He had himself stabbed Cameron in the back over the EU debate, giving him just 10 minutes to adjust before he announced his support for Leave.

It was obvious, for some of us from the start. The favourite candidate has lost every Conservative leadership election in the last 60 years. In other words, the commentators get it wrong regularly. The real battle for the ruling party is to reproduce itself as the establishment. If the next leader tries to backtrack from EU withdrawal, the party could well split. It's even possible that the negotiations could lead to a bloody schism.

The death of the centre

Theresa May was clearly the strongest contender from the outset. Soon she was the last candidate standing, and then the last woman standing. May has a tough reputation on immigration, which plays to her advantage right now. However, it is also clear May is a pragmatist and a centre-right politician more than anything else. She is, no doubt, favoured by establishment figures because she is seen as a "safe pair of hands". Quietly pro-Remain, May is inoffensive to the party loyalists, but she's also capable of difficult policies – e.g. the reform of the police.

The problem for Prime Minister May will be walking the thin line necessary to keep both wings of the Conservative Party contented. The eurosceptics will be looking for any sign of compromise, any whiff of retreat or hesitation in the negotiating room. At the same time, there are still strong europhiles in the Tory hierarchy. The former will want red meat on immigration, the latter will recognise the practicalities of free movement.

The UK has had freedom of movement with Ireland on and off since the 1920s. If the new administration wants to control EU migration, the Irish border will have to be patrolled and the symbolism of British troops on the Irish border should not be taken lightly. Likewise, there are over 2 million British emigrants in EU countries. Meanwhile the UK economy has a structural need for migrant labour, and this goes to the heart of the matter.

If it is to reproduce itself, British capitalism has to be reinvigorated. Right-wing eurosceptics want to revitalise the system by tipping further towards the American empire, while turning to the former colonies for trade, as an alternative to the continental European bloc. The centre basically want to extend the current system as it is – propped up by finance and hocked up with debt. But the Left could also push for a new social democratic turn.

Coming out with 'One Nation' rhetoric, May hopes she can differentiate herself from the Cameron era. She acknowledged disparities of race, class and gender in her first speech. But the 'One Nation' has a nasty side – namely cultural nationalism. This is somewhat different to so-called 'compassionate' conservatism popularised by George W Bush. May will look to forge unity by exclusion. It's just a question of who gets excluded.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Corbyn Coup: Britain At Its Best

Two weeks after the UK voted to leave the EU and the country is still reeling from the impact. Economic disarray, as the pound has crashed and the financial markets have taken a $2 trillion hit. Reports of racist violence are surging to new heights. Infighting has ensued across the political class, and the government itself is paralysed. Fear and anger can be detected almost everywhere. This is Britain at its best.

The opposition has declared war on itself. The Blairites have moved to oust Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing Labour leader in the party's history, rather than allow him to face-off the government at its weakest moment. Crises are an opportunity for the Left, not just the Right. It looks like the Blairites were plotting for a long time, and may have waited another year or so, to launch the coup. The Brexit vote just hit the accelerator.

No doubt, the bid to overthrow Corbyn took months of planning. Hilary Benn's challenge and mass resignations were planned on WhatsApp. Reportedly, the plotters typed to each other as part of 'the Birthday Group'. This may explain why the resignations were not all in one go, but staggered across two days to guarantee maximum press coverage. Beyond media stunts, however, the Blairites had little plan.

How to botch a coup

It looks like the putsch is dead, but it's worth asking why it failed. We know a coup was being planned in which Margaret Hodge would fire the first shot, the Telegraph reported in May. Notably, Hodge initiated the no-confidence motion against Corbyn. The plan was clearly drawn with conventional politics in mind: If your entire cabinet resigns, and you lose a no-confidence motion, you are supposed to step down!

Bristled with overconfidence, the Labour Right moved to deliver the first and final blow. The domain name for Angela Eagle's leadership bid was already bought. The Right would recapture the leadership and begin the process of purging the inconvenient members. Once done, the party could get back to business as usual. But the plotters completely misread the situation. They moved too quickly, and missed their target.

It soon became apparent that the plan had a fatal flaw, it relied on Corbyn willfully resigning. The no-confidence motion was technically an extra-constitutional measure, as Labour (unlike the Conservatives and the Liberals) was formed by trade unions and grass-roots members. Officially, the party is governed by conference, not by its elected representatives. Jeremy Corbyn could just dig his heels in.

Some would argue the 172 Labour MPs have a greater mandate than Jeremy Corbyn because they were elected by millions of people. But it is worth asking, where were these "millions" of enthusiastic supporters of Blairism? If New Labour was such a success story, why couldn't they get their "millions" of supporters to swamp the election? The argument does not stand up to scrutiny, even if it were not unconstitutional.

Of course, if these people really believed they had the support they would allow Labour supporters to take part in the no-confidence motion. Likewise, the Blairites would launch a new leadership election, or they would put themselves up for re-election to affirm their position. Yet there are no such efforts. Instead what we have is a media coup without the means of a serious political wager. It was doomed, even if it were to succeed.

Not only was the no-confidence not legally binding, the resignations just cleared the shadow cabinet of opponents. At the same time, the Blairites had no real alternative to Corbyn and they know they will lose an open election with the leader on the ballot. Right-winger Peter Mandelson wanted to use Angela Eagle as a front to reintroduce the New Labour agenda. The soft-left were on board with the coup, but they didn't care much for the candidate.

People began clambering over one another to find an alternative. Heads turned to Tom Watson, but he ruled himself out. Owen Smith became the great hope, and we still don't know who he is or what he looks like. People continued to fantasise about Keir Starmer, or David Miliband being flown into a parliamentary seat over night. In short, the anti-Corbyn faction wanted to bring down the leader, but could not agree on anything else.

Angela Eagle was left making absurd statements. "Jeremy Corbyn still has time to do the right thing," one of her inner-circle told the BBC. Officially, Eagle was giving Corbyn more time to resign. Of course, the hesitancy to launch the leadership bid revealed that the Blairites knew the candidacy would fail with the incumbent in the race. By this point, 60,000 new members had rushed into the party ranks.

This figure would soon climb to 100,000. The total membership may be set to reach 600,000 peoplefar higher than the halcyon days of New Labour platitudes. This is just as all other political parties are shrinking rapidly. The tension is between the party base and the leadership on one side, the elected representatives and the entire political and media class on the other.

Where next?

There has been talk of a split in the Labour Party between Blairites and Corbynistas. The problem with this view is that there is no obvious form it would take. The lack of leadership would still hold the project back. It's also likely that there are less than 50 MPs – maybe as few as 20 – who would actually go ahead with it. This doesn't mean the so-called 'big hitters', like Tom Watson, would defect.

Some of the Blairites have been looking into legal claims to the Labour brand because they understand they are nothing without it. But a split would be a radical change in itself. You could imagine the Conservatives breaking up into a hard-right eurosceptic wing and a pragmatic neoliberal wing. It's conceivable that the Blairites could find common cause with market liberals across the isle.

However, the worse case scenario may not be the prospect of a split, or even the putsch itself, but the continued unity with New Labour apparatchiks. People like Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson may not be able to engage in political trench warfare, yet they still have a great deal of influence in mass-media. The Blairites could just bunker down and cause havoc to prevent the Left from making any gains.

Despite appearances, the Left has some advantages over its right-wing opponents in the party. The membership is energised and the trade unions are on side (that's 50% of the party's funding). Even in terms of political talent and innovation, the Blairites are much weaker at this point, the extreme centre lacks credibility and a strong base. This could well be the death of the party as we've known it.

The failures of the coup should embolden the Left. Members should capture the party infrastructure and embed themselves in committees, councils and prepare to put forward left-wing candidates for Parliament. This is the only way to reinvent the Labour Party. Corbyn represents the start of a shift towards class politics. Pasokification is still on the cards, and a left turn is necessary to save the party.

This article was originally published at Souciant.