By Jeremy Dewar
Labour suffered its first split in 38 years on 18 February, when Chuka Umunna and six other MPs resigned the Labour Party whip to form the Independent Group, TIG. They were soon joined by Joan Ryan MP and three Tories, including Anna Soubry, thereby revealing the coordinated, cross-party basis for the new group.
This split is not to be regretted at all; it is long overdue. The calibre of its members is pitiful.
Chuka has had more flip-flops over Brexit than a seaside beach store: supporting a Remain vote, declaring straight after the referendum his support for a harder Brexit, allowing for more immigration controls, before adopting his current position for a second referendum to remain. His only guiding principle is to return Labour to its former Blairite days or, as now seems to be the case, to build a new party with disgruntled Tories.
Angela Smith, the TIG’s transport, local government, housing, energy and environment spokesperson (!), disgraced herself immediately, referring to Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people having a “funny tinge”. Her only previous impact on parliament was to put a motion against revealing parliamentary expenses. She lost. It was later revealed she had asked the taxpayer to pay for four new beds in her one-bedroom flat.
The only immediate downside is that the traitors, who don’t even have the guts to put themselves up for a vote in a by-election, now represent eight Labour constituencies.
The danger the TIG poses is not that it will, as it stands, gain a significant number of MPs – and an election is not even within sight – but that it could grow with a second split. The Parliamentary Labour Party, PLP, is not exactly short of candidates and a YouGov poll put the TIG on 18 percent and Labour on 23 percent, so that danger is smouldering, not extinguished.
The aim of the remaining rightists in the Labour Party, led by deputy leader Tom Watson, is to continually press for concessions from the Corbyn leadership. They have openly declared their sympathy for the splitters, even giving them an ovation at the subsequent PLP meeting.
Watson almost immediately declared a Social Democratic Faction to co-ordinate the rebellion, presumably with a view to challenging Corbyn in a leadership election in the summer. His chief demand has been for a front bench reshuffle to allow right wingers who resigned to return, presumably on their own terms, thereby creating dual power in the shadow cabinet.
Their timing, when the Tory government is falling apart and Brexit is at its crucial stage, is deliberate. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell provided them with ammo when he declared the party needed to undergo a “mammoth listening exercise”. We can be sure he meant listening to the disloyal MPs, not the rank and file members, who again are left voiceless.
The right’s chosen weapon is the charge of antisemitism. Luciana Berger is one of the most high-profile of the defectors and has suffered some horrific online abuse, which has led to the jailing of two members of the far right. Her claim that the Labour Party is “institutionally antisemitic”, however, is not backed up by any evidence and is way off the mark.
Indeed, General Secretary Jennie Formby had reported on 11 February on progress in investigating 1,136 accusations of antisemitism in the past 10 months. She found that 433 of them were not about party members, 220 of them lacked any evidence, 93 led to suspensions and 12 to expulsions. Out of 500,000 members. Hardly institutional, however worrying they certainly are.
However, the scorn poured on Jennie was vitriolic. Berger and three other MPs immediately wrote to Corbyn, demanding more – more what? Expulsions? When Berger subsequently resigned, Watson referred to her demands approvingly, calling it “the most shameful day” in Labour’s history.
Again Corbyn caved in, proposing Tony Blair’s old mentor Lord Falconer (yet to take up the offer) to oversee Formby’s investigation. Again, Watson called for more, inviting all Labour Party members to copy him in when sending in their complaints on this issue, which, as Jennie Formby pointed out, would put the party in jeopardy of GDPR regulations but had the (desired) effect of casting discredit on her team.
Then Chris Williamson MP finally snapped. The Derby North MP told a Sheffield Momentum meeting, in reference to the demonisation of Labour as a racist party,
“I have got to say I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that, because in my opinion… we have backed off too much, we have given too much ground, we have been too apologetic.”
For this, 38 MPs demanded his suspension … which was duly granted, again.
Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such words in these febrile times, two things can be said. It is not, and Chris Williamson is not, antisemitic. And insofar as Williamson is referring to a systematic weakness in the party’s leadership being its continual backsliding on policy – because it’s not antisemitism that concerns the right, they were quite happy to cheer the departing racist Frank Field when that rat jumped ship, but Corbyn’s opposition to neoliberalism and war, he is spot on.
The left in the Labour Party is visibly dividing on the issue. Unelected Director of Momentum and NEC member Jon Lansman expressed “regret, sadness and some shame” at the alleged level of antisemitism in the party and welcomed the idea of right wingers coming back into shadow office. With no internal democratic mechanism and no agreed policy, Momentum is dead for reform.
Meanwhile Sean Matgamna, leading member of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, has written an open letter to Corbyn, claiming “the Corbyn surge was also an antisemitic purge” and that all those advocating a one-state solution including “[e]ncoded versions of that policy – via “right of return” for example – should not be tolerated in the labour movement” should be expelled from the party and labour movement.
In this, Matgamna is a willing pawn in the right wing offensive against Corbyn and the Left of the Labour Party and if the membership of the AWL do not insist on their organisation condemning his actions then they are complicit in that offensive.
The surfacing of another online open letter, supported by Momentum national office, exposes the danger. Over 1,000 party members signed the #socialists4change letter, which claims the party has been “too slow”, “too tolerant”, “too dismissive” to address antisemitism which is “wreaking havoc in the labour movement”. It goes on:
“[W]e call on all members of the Labour movement to seek an end to bunker mentality, demonstrate maturity and prove why, as a party awaiting government, we can be trusted to face up to the challenges we encounter in bringing about significant change both within and outside of the movement.”
It is this argument, that a left Labour government is only possible if the right wing can be persuaded to stay on board and, therefore, we must tolerate their lies and false accusations, that has persuaded much of the Labour left to keep their heads down. That is a potentially fatal mistake.
Like the triangulation over Brexit, giving in to unjust suspensions and giving credence to overblown criticism, and letting disloyal right wingers run their own shadow cabinet will only weaken the chances of a Corbyn government. It is time to take a stand.
We demand an emergency special conference to debate and decide on Brexit policy, the party’s policy on antisemitism and the democratic right to select and deselect sitting MPs. Starting with coordination of attempts to defend Chris Williamson, the internationalist left must come together and form a national platform that supports Jeremy’s leadership against the right, but is prepared to oppose him when he concedes to unjust demands or disregards the membership.