Ioan Marc Jones: Labour has become a protest movement - against itself
Many Labour members, including myself, will struggle to forgive plotting MPs.
It started when I received a text from Momentum. They were calling on activists to join a protest in support of Jeremy Corbyn outside the Houses of Parliament. An organisation supporting the Labour leader was ostensibly asking me, a card-carrying Labour member, to protest the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Perhaps I have been clinging on for some time, but it appears obvious that there is no positive outcome for a Corbyn-led Labour Party. I am not against Corbyn. I am, however, against the current situation. The conflict between the pro-Corbyn movement and the PLP is too chaotic and too nasty. And, to be honest, I don’t know where to turn.
Corbyn was the first leading politician to make me feel genuinely enthusiastic about the future. Fairness and decency were at the front and centre of his campaign. Corbyn spoke out against issues other mainstream politicians routinely ignore: xenophobia, mental illness and homelessness. He spoke with an earnest passion for social justice. And he put forward progressive policies that offered a counter-narrative to austerity. Corbyn was the Labour leader I had always desired.
During the leadership election, I attended marches alongside other supporters and listened intently to debates within the movement. I cheered Corbyn’s name on the streets of London and wrote articles supporting his campaign. I felt part of something inclusive, something big. It became evident that Corbyn would secure the leadership. In a time of political desperation, it seems nothing is more attractive to Labour members than hope.
But the movement that beguiled so many idealistic supporters has become increasingly sour. The kinder politics has become nasty. A picture from the demonstration at Parliament Square – ostensibly against the PLP – seems emblematic of this shift. An elderly woman stands between two young Labour supporters wearing a t-shirt that reads: ‘Eradicate the Right Wing Blairite Vermin’.
This regressive use of the term Blairite is tiresome. Blairite was once a term used to describe those associated with the right of the Labour Party – not necessarily in a pejorative sense. Now, anyone who dares challenge Corbyn – even folks sympathetic to the cause – is rendered a Blairite – and always in the pejorative sense.
On social media and increasingly at the once-joyous rallies, Blairites are considered ‘scum’ and ‘traitors’. This rhetoric is not rational or progressive, and it’s often offensive. And what purpose does it serve? Such rhetoric ostracises, demeans and belittles people – people often associated with the Labour movement. It is a binary assumption about multifaceted political beings that conjures up notions of us versus them, Corbynistas versus Blairites.
Above all else, the Labour Party supports decency and fairness, and yet certain members have reverted to calling Labour MPs traitors and scum. Such attacks are apparently justified because MPs have failed to hold the Tories to account. Parts of the pro-Corbyn movement now ostensibly protest Labour MPs, not Tories, because those MPs apparently fail to protest Tories. This contradiction is seemingly lost on some supporters of the once-optimistic movement.
Anti-Corbyn members similarly abuse Corbyn supporters and Corbyn supporters reciprocate the abuse. This cyclical pattern continues as the actual opposition – remember them? – laugh at us.
If MPs were trying to topple the leadership – and that certainly seems the case – they have been successful. Not because they’re evil geniuses – far from it – but because the movement fell into their trap. With plenty of our help, MPs have made the movement scornful and divisive. Thus even if he wins the second leadership election, Corbyn’s movement is empty and the party in its entirety is left in disarray. This is the grand achievement of those MPs. And many Labour members, including myself, will struggle to forgive them.
Owen Smith is challenging Corbyn. Smith’s platform, felicitously yet disingenuously left-of-centre, suffers from the much-maligned politics as usual. Members sigh in disbelief as Smith rolls out anti-austerity policies straight from the Corbyn playbook. There are policies that members essentially crave, but apparently amount to little emanating from Smith. It seems members’ trust in the implementation of these policies, absurdly, relies solely with Corbyn.
For members, therefore, Smith, hardly the prototypical establishment figure, has come to represent the dishonest heart of the establishment. And Smith’s past complicates matters further. Labour members will struggle to support an individual with a history of lobbyism and corporatism. That, if nothing else, is Corbyn’s victory.
By every measurable poll, Corbyn will win again. This raises the prospect of a split. It seems this prospect fails to detract plenty of members. Some members indeed welcome a split. Some believe the left needs to redefine itself and Corbyn’s victory will hasten such a redefinition. Moreover, the potential wave of Schadenfreude has enticed others to welcome the split, as they hope to watch their much-reviled enemies – the so-called Blairites – fall from grace.
The current Labour Party is not a protest movement against the right anymore, as critics used to suggest. It has descended into a Hobbesian war of all versus all: members against MPs, MPs against the leadership, and the leadership against MPs. The upcoming election will indeed be nasty and brutal, but, unfortunately, it will not be short. And all this antagonism comes from the party that preaches the merits of collective endeavour, unity and solidarity. Something, anything, has to change. The Labour Party at present is little more than a protest movement against itself.