Published in Southern Highlands Newsletter, No. 243, July-September 2021, pp. 68-72
There were two periods in recent British Labour history where leaving the party was a more than usually troubling question for a lifelong supporter to consider.
Forty years ago, with the Bennite left seemingly sweeping all before them in the Party, the Social Democrats breaking away, was one moment of reckoning.
These past four years, with the ostensibly unassailable position of the Corbyn forces in British Labour, there was another juncture.
I personally knew a few in the early 1980s who left, including an MP, Bryan Magee (1930-2019), a philosopher and public television personality, and a union leader, Frank Chapple (1921-2004), head of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) who quit the party after retirement, when ennobled in 1985 as a member of the House of Lords. Magee joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP); Lord Chapple sat on the cross benches.
This time round, I knew some of the Labour MPs who resigned before the 2019 election, including Ian Austin (now a member of the Lords), Joan Ryan, and Louise Ellman. Those three cited antisemitism as the key factor. Austin is the adopted son of Czech Jewish refugees who fled to England from the Nazis. Ryan and Ellman (who is Jewish) were past Presidents of UK Labour Friends of Israel.
In both periods, in the early 1980s and the last four years, outside mad left forces, previously foreign to mainstream Labour, were extraordinarily strong. But those who feared the “inevitable” – permanent change in the complexion of the party – were apparently proved wrong. Time will talk about the state of play in UK Labour today and its future. The situation is far from ideal. But under Sir Keir Starmer QC, the Leader of the Opposition since 2020, calamity is less likely.
The last issue of this Newsletter, the review by Brian Dale of the seminal book on the Corbyn period, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn (Bodley Head 2021), is a reminder of the darkest periods when Corbyn was Labour Leader, from 2015 to 2020. Though I am not sure if most Australian Labor Party members realise how foul Corbyn’s politics were and are.
Dale’s review prompts me to reflect on then and now, the early 1980s and recent years, the differences and the issues about staying in. For me, if I was a member of the UK Labour Party, both times I would have stayed to fight. But the moral dilemma in 2018/19 was qualitatively different.
In September 2018, I took time out from a flying business trip to London to spend a week to think about, read, meet old friends and new acquaintances, and discuss the future of the British Labour Party.
I knew that much of Jeremy Corbyn’s record in the years before he ascended to the leadership of the Labour Party would give cause for concern in the Jewish community. In 2012 Corbyn protested the removal of a mural in east London that depicted hook-nosed financiers playing Monopoly on the backs of poor people. In a 2013 speech, he claimed that British Zionists are incapable of understanding English irony. The distinguished moral philosopher and theologian, former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, described Corbyn’s “English irony” remarks as the most offensive by a British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech. In 2014 Corbyn laid a wreath at the graves of Black September terrorists who had murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
It was depressing to discuss the state of UK Labour. People I knew were reckoning with a dilemma: “how could you stay inside a party led by a pro-IRA, friend of terrorists Leader, who had never been serious about gaining power or thinking about how Labour might govern, who had aligned with Trotskyist, communist, and far left types, who stained the Labour Party with antisemitism?” Corbyn was well to the Left of Tony Benn (1925-2014), the former far left champion within the British Labour movement, who was narrowly defeated in 1981 by Denis Healey (1917-2015) as UK Labour Deputy. With Corbyn, you got dollops of dogmatic gusto, principle of a kind, a steady, mousy voice, but none of the wit and intelligence of Benn.
My first visit to the UK was in January 1982, as a guest of the Right-wing Labour aligned EETPU, when Marxists were taking over swathes of London, Liverpool, and other UK Labour branches. Supporters of Benn and the Militant Tendency (a Trot-aligned party-within-a-party grouping) were apparently close to taking control. I met demoralised right wingers in Tower Hamlets, Croydon, and other parts, in London.
The Social Democrat Party was formed in 1981, with four impressive (and flawed) Labour right wingers leading the walkout from Labour — Roy Jenkins (a former Deputy Leader & Chancellor of the Exchequer), Shirley Williams (a much-loved across the Labour spectrum former Secretary for Education), Bill Rodgers (a former Transport Secretary), and David Owen (the former Labour Foreign Minister). In January 1982, Bryan Magee told me that he had also, reluctantly, decided to take the SDP whip. Their conclusion was that a great party was being taken over. (I had in 1981 republished in Labor Leader an article Magee wrote ‘The Case for Staying On’, which warned that British Labour moderates had a duty never to surrender the party to the Left, and to try to win back influence.) But now he too had given up.
The only good news I heard on that trip was over a beer in the Strangers Bar at the House of Commons, when Michael Cocks (1929-2001), the Chief Labour Whip, told me confidentially that in a redistribution of electorates underway, Benn’s seat in Bristol would become more marginal and Benn might lose. Cocks, being stronger on the ground with local party members, was favoured to win preselection for the safer seat for Labour in the area. Benn was defeated by the Conservative candidate in Bristol South East in the 1983 election (as was Magee, though in his case to a Labour candidate.) Ironically, in 1987 Cocks was deselected in favour of a militant Left candidate who won the seat and later morphed into a New Labourite.
What happened after the 1983 election defeat was that a non-Marxist, sensible Left Leader, who identified with the Tribune Left grouping in UK Labour, Neil Kinnock (Labour Leader, 1983-92), decided to take on the crazies, including the “entrists” from far-left political parties and grouplets.
As UK Labour Leader, Kinnock paved the way for John Smith (1938-94; Leader, 1992-94) and then Tony Blair (Leader, 1994-2008) as effective, reformist UK Labour Leaders, and the emergence of New Labour (a topic for another day).
The perspective of forty years is this: It is possible to turn a political party around.
But what surprised me on my visit to the UK in 2018 was the absence, except for the Shop Assistants’ Union, of any large Right-wing Labour unions in the UK. The EEPTU and the Engineers, two moderate manufacturing and skilled workers’ unions had been vacuumed up into the 1.4 million members’ Unite union, then and now ruled by Corbyn’s strongest allies.
I caught up with Dr David Hirsh, Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London, the author of Contemporary Left anti-Semitism (Routledge, 2018); John McTernan, former political adviser to Prime Ministers Blair, Brown, and Gillard; I attended a one-day seminar of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an affiliate of the Labour Party, which featured former PM Gordon Brown endorsing the wording and definitions of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) on antisemitism, which Corbyn had been opposing. I also met others: Professor Ronnie Fraser, President, Academic Friends of Israel, about antisemitism in the universities; Stephen Scott, Director, Trade Union Friends of Israel; members of the Labour First organisation, the Right-wing Labour organisation; John Bowers QC, industrial barrister, about the complexion of the unions; Jennifer Gerber and Michael Rubin, UK Labour Friends of Israel.
I wanted to know whether the Labour Party could be taken back by prudent people.
The Union Obstacle
Before I arrived in the UK, I mistakenly thought that if a few of the big unions swung back to more centrist position, this would be the most likely means to chip away at far-Left dominance.
My thinking was rooted in confidence in the common sense of working people, and an understanding that self-interest would get union members to vote for credible leadership. Plus, I thought fair and free elections would promote sound leadership in the unions.
It was useful to discover from legal advice, however, how light the law is in the UK in regulating union election campaigns, and unions generally, compared to Australia.
“Could a turnaround of key unions shift the UK Labour electoral college in favour of moderates?” was the question to investigate.
The Gerard Coyne experience in 2017 in the Unite union was salutary. Coyne narrowly lost election to Len McCluskey as General-Secretary, then was sacked as the union’s West Midlands regional secretary, and expelled, before being reinstated as a union member by the Courts. In that ballot, only 12% of members voted. This made me think that if only more of the vote was gotten out, he might have won. And therefore, that greater deployment of resources in union elections by motivated, rank-and-file moderates could make a material difference to outcomes.
That still might be true, but I made a rookie error. I had assumed that the electoral college that saw Ed Miliband’s narrow win (with 50.65% of the electoral college, defeating his brother, David, by 1.3%) as UK Labour Leader in 2010 still applied. It did not. The electoral college that elected Miliband was composed of a third each to the MPs, the unions, and the rank-and-file membership. If the strongly middle-of-the-road MPs and Left inclined constituency membership cancelled each other out, then the unions would be the place where victory could be secured. Most key unions, Left-inclined of various stripes, in 2018 supported the IHRA wording on antisemitism and called on Corbyn to relent. That struck me as a sign of hope.
Yet opposed to that position was Momentum, a Left-wing political grouping within UK Labour. Under its banner, various Marxist-influenced radicals have coalesced to influence the formulation of Labour policy and try to preselect Labour MPs. Momentum describes itself as “a people-powered, vibrant movement. We aim to transform the Labour Party, our communities and Britain in the interests of the many, not the few.” It recruited members to support the election and re-election of Corbyn as party Leader.
Relevantly, the party rules were changed in 2015 to the “one member one vote” formula so that each MP’s vote is of the same value as each party member, including each newly recruited Momentum supporter who had joined UK Labour. I had not understood the implications in abandoning the electoral college.
Another of Ed Miliband’s foolish reforms, it might be said. In fairness, though, in the early 1980s, the catchcry of much of the UK Labour Right was “one member one vote” as a means of breaking the then near-ascendant Bennite forces. And with unions required to ballot their members on leadership issues, this seemed democratic, and a way of keeping the influence of unrepresentative forces in check. The £3.00 fee to become a member “reform”, also introduced by Miliband, enabled a massive influx of members, doubling party membership to 400,000 in 2015, which helped tip the scales in favour of Jeremy Corbyn’s decisive party membership election win in September 2015 and, even more so, in the contest decided in September 2016 where the party membership, swelled by even more active Momentum recruitment, was decisive.
(Some history is useful. In 2013, in reaction to a membership stacking scandal in Falkirk in Scotland, Miliband successfully proposed new rules such that each of the rank-and-file Labour Party members got a single vote in choosing the Leader and Deputy Leader. Additionally, a new class of so-called associate members, who pay a membership fee of £3 a year, were entitled to vote, on an equal basis with party members. The unions can affiliate their members as affiliate members, with the right to opt out.)
Regardless of all the implications of how the rules evolved, the plain fact is that the days where the unions’ block vote could “save the day”, or decisively shape outcomes, were gone.
A Movement Without a Leader
It also struck me that the fightback in UK Labour against the Corbyn forces lacked leadership. Labour First is rooted in the nostalgia of a past Labour party. But at least many of them are seasoned campaigners, capable of being at least part of the solution. “Progress”, a New Labour think tank, is courageous in developing ideas, possibly too rarefied to be vitally effective, and tainted by the love that dare not speak its name — Blairism.
As the UK has changed and the Labour support base also, any winning combination of talents needs to reflect the diversity of modern Britain.
I do not know of any political movement that prospers without a clear, rallying-to-the-cause leader. In the early 1980s, arguably, there was a hiatus when Foot was Labour Leader (1980-83), as there was no obvious compelling Leader from the Right. The moderates soldiered on (but with the SDP defections.) In that era, the far Left of the party had not taken over Head Office, the Bennites had not captured any of the Leadership positions, there were tough Right-wing union leaders, and a lot of the apparatus of the party, including most of its membership, ranged against the far Left.
This time round, however, the barbarians were inside the gates and operating the drawbridges to let more of their kind inside. In 2018, the situation was decidedly worse than 1982.
All the potential leaders of a fightback had flaws and drawbacks. The most prominent being Tom Watson, the Deputy Labour Leader. He had flashes of brave brilliance in word and deed.
Allegations of antisemitism in 2018/19 roiled the party. Watson rallied dispirited troops. In July 2019, his face knotted in quiet fury, he said on a doorstop to television crews:
I am not going to turn a blind eye to anti-Jewish racism, I’m going to call it out day in day out until action is taken. And that might cause very great difficulty for my colleagues in the shadow cabinet, who are also collectively responsible for this. But until we’ve dealt with it, until we’ve actually changed our rules, until we’ve actually attacked the culture at its root cause then I’m not going to resile.
Powerful words, that were scoffed at by Corbyn supporters in denial about their significance. In many parts of the UK, it seemed hopeless to the decent people left in the party, those not drummed out or who had resigned or let their membership lapse for feeling the situation unendurable, to continue not knowing why or how the position could be turned around. This, especially applied to those party members concerned about antisemitic abuse.
Without Watson picking up the ball to lead, was all lost?
Watson, manic depressive as he appeared from afar, was clearly no Blairite, cosy-with-the-establishment caricature. He came from the Left. He fiercely supported Brown against Blair. Watson’s speeches on antisemitism were among the most inspiring given by anyone anywhere from within the Left. He was one ray of hope, who sometimes shone like a spotlight.
Reasons for Optimism
I took notes in 2018 on reasons to be cheerful: Most of the Labour Party membership is still mainstream. The Momentum forces are largely absent from a significant presence in most local Councils (unlike in the 1980s when Militant Tendency and Bennite forces captured many Council administrations.) Of the Labour MPs, 80% were opposed to Corbyn. Most UK unions supported the IHRA definition of antisemitism. A few unions were either still solidly led and/or had key officials keen to avoid assisted suicide under Corbyn/Momentum care.
As Labour slipped significantly behind the Conservatives in many electorates, particularly in southern England, that were won under Blair and are needed by Labour to win government, surely, as a party dedicated to winning, UK Labour would be pulled away from Corbynista extremism.
Reasons for Pessimism
I also noted reasons to be apprehensive.
Corbyn appeared unassailable as UK Labour Leader. The Labour Party organisation, from General Secretary down, were Momentum supporters, co-operators, or sympathisers.
Most of the large, conglomerate union structures are hard to capture. Many are staffed by Momentum activists.
Labour MPs seen as not ideologically in alignment with their local members were being deselected or threatened with deselection. As they should be in some cases. But in others, particularly where extremists flooded the branches and membership lists, it was a different story. As MPs retired their replacements were increasingly likely to be Momentum activists or aligned supporters.
Conventional wisdom is that an unrepresentative party is bound to be trounced at a General Election. But because the Tories were so hopeless and divided in the years leading to Brexit, Labour looked to be in the hunt for political success, either just ahead or in striking distance in most of the polls immediately prior to and post the Brexit vote.
Questions Without Answers
That was my thinking three years ago. I also dreamt of reasons to hope.
Someone could emerge from the non-Momentum Left, who had supported Corbyn to date, who would see the errors of their enchantment, and become a formidable force for good.
There were no obvious cut-through solutions, however. The questions to consider are: Is the UK Labour Party able to be saved? Can the penetration and dominance of Momentum be reversed? How significant are the unions in turning this around?
What could be a possible road map to reset the direction of contemporary Labour? What resources are needed?
What was lacking, however, was effective counter-leadership; without that, there was little hope.
The 2019 Trouncing
Brian Dale covered the calamity for British Labour of the December 2019 British General Election in these pages in the last issue. The collapse of working class “Red Wall” seats in the north of England being just one aspect of the folly of Labour being led by a Marxist clown.
Worth also noting were the mad months before defeat. In September 2019, without notice, the National Executive considered a resolution from one of its members, Momentum founder Jon Lansman, to abolish the position of Deputy Leader. The matter was adjourned that night for further discussion. Watson slammed the move telling BBC Radio:
It’s a sort of sleight-of-hand constitutional change to do a drive-by shooting of someone you disagree with on the issue of the day… These kinds of things happen in Venezuela, they shouldn’t be happening in the United Kingdom. I was taken by surprise by it, because it wasn’t on the agenda of the meeting, there were no papers tabled. There was no warning.
They were devastating words not least because they were true and appealed to principles of fair play. They doomed Corbyn’s leadership. Momentum and Corbyn had gone too far. The idea of abolishing the Deputy Leader’s position was dropped. For health and stamina reasons, Watson did not want to challenge Corbyn for the leadership. He preferred to see the Leader fail. But he also played a crucial role in 2018/19 in stemming resignations and defections of Labour MPs.
But some MPs did quit the party, stating that in good conscience they could not stomach Corbyn and his supporters’ vile antisemitism. Besides Austin, Ellman, and Ryan, one of Labour’s Liverpool MPs, Luciana Berger, a grandniece of Atlee Government Minister Manny Shinwell MP, resigned in protest.
They were vindicated by the October 2020 Report on the Investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission which found that Labour had persistently violated components of equality laws in addressing, and often failing to address, repeated and numerous incidents of antisemitism. Corbyn’s office was found to have interfered in the investigation of antisemitism complaints to such an extent that it was unlawful.
It is here where I think the moral arguments about staying in the party are so complex. It might have depended on where you lived if the local Labour candidate was part of the solution or part of the problem. I have great sympathy for many of those who quit in 2019 though not much for those who did so in 1981/82. If only the SDP quitters had devoted as much energy to saving the Labour Party as they put into the new party they formed, which in 1988 merged with the Liberals, forming the Liberal Democrats.
In 2018/19, dozens of MPs made a choice; some retired; some quit Labour, some hoped from the ashes of defeat that the party could be rebuilt. Whether Labour could repair itself from the blight of antisemitism was one factor that weighed in the balance.
Starmer’s election as Leader in 2021 was remarkable. He ran as a human rights advocate, a man of the Left, without a Marxist bone in his body. He won because of his striking personal qualities, the recognition that Corbynism had failed, exhaustion with the Momentum experiment, and because most party members saw Starmer as appealing to the centre ground and the wider British public, rather than the narrow bounds of what Labour had become. Starmer immediately repented Labour sins and fired officials at Labour headquarters. Upon becoming Labour Leader and Leader of the Opposition in April 2020 he said: “I apologise to the Jewish community – rebuilding your trust starts now.” He explicitly made personal his apology, addressing his remarks: “To Jewish people, our Jewish members, our long-standing Jewish affiliate, JLM, to the people driven out of our Party, the Jewish Members driven out of Parliament, including Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger.” Finally, he went on to say: “The principle of what I want to achieve is clear: if you are anti-Semitic, you cannot and should not be in the Labour Party. No ifs, no buts.” That he had to say those words epitomised how far the party had fallen in the last years of the Corbyn cult.