We must liberate Corbyn from his PLP prison, argues Michael Calderbank, Brent Central CLP
Tens of thousands of new affiliated and registered supporters have flocked to the Party to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. They were joined, significantly, by overwhelming numbers of party members to give him a colossal democratic mandate. This puts his opponents in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – and they are legion – on the back foot, at least for the time being. Even vocal critics like John Mann accept there is no mood for an immediate coup, and are biding their time in the belief that a radical left leadership will soon prove its un-electability.
Outright Corbynites form only a small fraction of the PLP, perhaps just 20 or so from 232. These are outweighed by his open critics made up of maverick malcontents like Simon Danczuk, ideologically committed Blairites and traditional right wing fixers. But a majority of the PLP belong to neither camp, with an attitude that is pragmatic, cautious and sceptical but prepared to give a fair wind to the wider Party’s clear choice – at least for the time being. The fact that Jeremy’s first Shadow Cabinet includes the likes of Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and Chris Bryant – even opening out to Lord Falconer, Gloria Del Peiro and Luciana Berger – shows that Corbyn has managed to reach out to a surprising range of forces in the immediate wake of his victory.
But it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see serious challenges looming. The media assault has been sustained. Deputy Leader Tom Watson gave early indications that he would not fall into line with Corbyn’s position on NATO or non-renewal of Trident while new Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle has also previously backed Trident replacement. Hilary Benn is pushing for an unequivocal Yes position on the EU referendum, irrespective of what Cameron negotiates. It is rumoured that Cameron believes a significant Labour rebellion could allow him to force through a vote on attacking Syria and undermine Corbyn in the process. And despite promoting a record number of women to his Shadow Cabinet, critics still pointed out that the five ‘top’ posts were occupied by white men, while others picked on trivial issues like the wearing of a white poppy to the Cenotaph.
There is a danger that even some of those close to Jeremy’s office will suggest taking the line of least resistance, advising he should informally let it be known that he sees himself as a transitional figure, demonstrate an inclusive and emollient approach, strive for maximum unity and limit the extent to which he expects colleagues to accept his most radical positions. This is on the basis he can make some structural changes to democratise policy making over two or three years, and at least establish a basis for members to have an active say over policy making going forward. This would give him enough cover within the PLP to operate with a degree of comfort, but would necessarily limit what could be achieved under his leadership, and would do little to fulfil the expectations of his supporters.
One very positive sign that Jeremy might have something bolder in mind is his preparedness to face down those voices – including from within the union movement – insisting that he gave the position of Shadow Chancellor to someone other than John McDonnell. Economy policy is absolutely crucial to the whole political direction of the Corbyn leadership, since any retreat on the clear anti-austerity commitments on which he was elected would be fatal in weakening and demoralising his supporters. However, McDonnell is likely to face resistance from a large section of the PLP for whom ‘economic credibility’ as defined by the markets is critical to electability.
Even many mainstream economists like Paul Krugman and David Blanchflower argue that, even from within the perspective of capitalism itself, austerity is self-defeating. McDonnell can utilise these arguments to contest Osborne’s claims but the left can and must go further. As New Economics Foundation economist James Meadway has argued, “Keynesianism is not enough…. Any programme seeking to end austerity in the UK has to push beyond the point of demand management or some macroeconomic tinkering, and seek to transform the finance-led economy we all now inhabit. It will not be enough just pull the levers in a different way. The machine needs to be rebuilt”. Such a thoroughgoing transformation would be far more threatening to the institutional interests of the City of London and meet with a ferocious resistance which would require a political response of an altogether more radical nature than the safety-first “inclusive” approach would allow.
McDonnell’s position will be vulnerable unless there is a significant counterweight to all the establishment opposition in the shape of a mass movement against austerity – a grassroots mobilisation of all those forces in society with a stake in fighting back. Local Labour Parties must immediately reach out, both in terms of a drive to recruit new party members, and also to connect and work alongside local trade union branches, community groups and social movements – like DPAC, housing groups, and climate activists. A network should be established – drawing together members, affiliated/registered supporters and these wider supportive groups.. This would have the effect of immediately turning the Party’s structures outwards to involve a much wider spectrum of people, and encourage links being developed way beyond the existing ways of working.
It could be objected that attempts to create such structures already exist, such as under the People’s Assembly (PA) umbrella? Given the existing links between the Corbyn campaign and the PA it would be superficially attractive just to base it under their auspices. Nevertheless, it would be fundamentally important for the new structures to be democratic, grassroots-led bodies based on practical organising and genuine deliberation on practical policy making, rather than “stage armies” manipulated by remote top-down bureaucracies specialising in mobilising for set-piece rallies/demos but offering little in between. Any new organisation of Corbyn supporters would need to embody the desire for a new kind of politics, not one dominated and controlled from the centre by people who assume they know best.
Alongside this, Corbyn needs to move quickly on democratic reform of party structures. One important signal could be given if the new leadership team were to quickly to work with General Secretary Ian McNichol and the NEC to shake up the Annual Conference agenda – in order to allow more time for democratic debates of contemporary/emergency resolutions, more real voices (personal experience of benefit sanctions, Bedroom Tax, disability cuts, zero-hours contracts etc) and fewer tedious set-piece speeches from politicians. People voted for a political revolution in the way Labour ‘does politics’. We now have to turn this promise into a reality.