As I write this it still seems likely that Jeremy Corbyn will emerge as the new leader of the Labour Party. The only scenario where that won’t happen depends entirely on Andy Burnham not being eliminated from the preference rounds prior to a final head to head with Corbyn. The reason for this is the assumption that sufficient numbers putting Burnham as their first preference have put Corbyn as their second preference, at least sufficient numbers to tip Corbyn past Yvette Cooper if those two were to be in the final head to head.
This says much about the Burnham strategy throughout this campaign. When Corbyn was the rank outsider Burnham’s camp specifically targeted Corbyn’s second preferences, expecting to need them to counter the transfer of votes from Liz Kendall to Cooper. As the contest progressed and Corbyn moved into the lead Burnham was stuck. He couldn’t risk losing those second preferences or he’d have had no chance of winning. However his failure to seriously critique Corbyn’s policies, or his dubious associations, has meant that he has lost face amongst those within the party who agree with Cooper and Kendall’s analysis of what a Corbyn victory would mean for the Labour Party and the country.
So far so (I think) obvious. My contention is that, as a consequence, whether Burnham or Corbyn wins the election is now almost irrelevant. In his desire, unless desperation is a better word, to shore up his second preference support from Corbyn in order to beat Corbyn, Burnham has all but handed over the Labour Party to Corbyn, and his supporters, to set the agenda.
That agenda is a simple one – to move the Labour Party further to the left. There are two ways to achieve this. The first is simply to adopt more left-wing policies. The second is remove or neuter MPs and activists who resist the first one.
The policies are already written. Some have been written for years, untarnished by real world events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the electoral popularity and successes of New Labour. Anti-Americanism drives the foreign policy, Marxism underpins economic policy and the pursuit of electoral success is treachery to fabled principles. Burnham’s commitment to bring Corbyn on board if he wins is the beginning of the end for his leadership. He won’t be able to control Corbyn or his supporters – they’re absolutists – and Burnham will spend his entire leadership defending himself from the left within his own camp instead of reaching out to the centre of the country.
What will also be written is a hit list of MPs, activists, groups such as Progress and Labour First and the public figures such John McTernan who appear in the media. While talk of a Militant Tendency-style purge is certainly premature it will be on the agenda of some of Corbyn’s backers, as seen in the public statements of some union leaders both within and outside the party. More likely to start with is a coordinated influx of new party members into targeted constituency Labour parties (CLPs) in order to take over and put pressure upon MPs who are not sympathetic to the Corbynite agenda. This will include MPs who support Burnham – that won’t afford any protection. What will drive this hit list is where the Corbynites have the numbers.
It is also inevitable that some Labour Party activists will be inclined to retreat from activism when faced with hostility from the new and newly emboldened people in their CLP meetings. The shouting down of opposition is a tried and trusted tactic amongst the far left and there’s only so much hassle that people want from their voluntary work. All the old far left tricks will be used: arranging meetings when only they can make it; dragging meetings out so that the key business occurs when their opponents have gone home; excluding opponents from any decision-making or communications, effectively “disappearing” them from the process.
So what should those of us unwilling to see the Labour Party hijacked do about this? I don’t think any of what I’ll suggest is revelatory. However this is a different situation to the one the party found itself in during the 1980s with Militant Tendency. That playbook won’t help us now. However the central principle then, as now, has to be unity in the face of ugly, aggressive tactics.
The first step must be to organise within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). A small number of MPs will be instantly targeted as the Corbyn camp seeks to guarantee the support of a core of MPs, either to have a functioning Shadow Cabinet or to build for another contest for leader. If Corbyn wins he won’t need the 35 nominations as sitting leader. But if he loses it will be by the narrowest of margins and the pressure from the Corbynites for another contest will be relentless. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Labour Party is in this position not through malevolent outside forces but because some MPs forgot, or ignored, their key leadership role in the process. The Corbyn camp knows that they can not rely upon MPs making the same mistake twice so they will need to add a dozen to 15 MPs to their cause. That means that some MPs will be threatened with deselection by their CLPs (see below) unless they cooperate and the ones that are targeted will need the support and solidarity of their PLP colleagues.
The second key battleground will be the CLPs, as I’ve indicated. Not every CLP will see strife – the Corbynites are noisier than they are numerous – but in the ones that do the existing activists will need support. Those of us, and I include myself here, who haven’t been active enough at CLP level will need to step up if we are serious about protecting the party. Sitting MPs will be important, as will any popular but unsuccessful 2015 General Election candidates in marginal constituencies. Most important though will be the party machinery, the best mechanism for ensuring that the unconstitutional methods adopted by the Corbynites are exposed, prevented and overturned where they occur. Key to this will be the new Deputy Leader and the two frontrunners for the post, Tom Watson and Caroline Flint, both have the necessary determination to stand firm. But again they can’t do that without support.
Thirdly the self-organised groups, such as Progress and Labour First, will need to find common ground to match their common cause and work together in a more coordinated fashion. Every policy debate and selection meeting will be crucial.
Finally us ordinary members will need to hold our nerve and not forget why we are in the party. We know that the reason why the Labour Party exists is to get into government, not posture from the sidelines. We know that to do that we must reach out to voters who regard themselves as apolitical, not petulantly insist that they come to us. We know that the Labour Party is the party of work, of success, of growth, of modernity, of equality and of international democracy. Those are Labour values and our natural home is as a party of Europe and ally of the United States and the values that underpin both. We must not allow ourselves to be bullied into acquiescence, silence or resignation because the next Labour government will be delivered through our efforts, not by the Corbynites.