Corbyn, Labour and Brexit

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The latest confirmation of Corbyn’s deep-seated hatred of the EU (see “Jeremy Corbyn under fire over refusal to attend cross-party meeting on staying in single market”, Independent, Guardian, Reuters earlier today) has highlighted yet further trouble ahead. Because, horrifying as it is to see the Labour Party being recklessly led by a leaver, things are about to get worse. Moves are afoot to ensure that only fantasy EU-hating marxists can control this once great Party and the hopes of millions of pro-EU Labour voters hang in the balance.

From today’s Guardian:

Booming democracy or ‘mob rule’? Battle for Labour is about to begin

“Labour meetings here used to be sedentary affairs,” says party member Tariq Persaud Parkes, as we sit down in the Havelock pub in the centre of Hastings. “Now it’s the opposite. These days we need a bigger venue every time. Everyone is putting their hand up to ask questions. People are taking part again.”

Parkes has arranged to meet the Observer, with two other members of the Hastings branch, after work. But within 10 minutes, nine more have arrived. Several like him have been Labour members for some time and have, in the past, voted for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Younger ones, including Reuben Ramsay, an NHS support worker, now the social media organiser of the local branch of Momentum, joined because of Jeremy Corbyn.

They all want to speak. Chris Kingsland, who runs his own business, feels he has to admit to the others at the outset that he used to support the Lib Dems. He says he switched because he likes Corbyn and wants the state to have a bigger role in running public services. “I would say I am soft-left socialist,” he declares. Ramsay says he joined because he wants the party to return to its socialist roots.

Rosie Brocklehurst, who used to work at Labour’s London HQ in the 1980s, believes the mood has transformed for the better under Corbyn. “Now the councillors listen to what the members have to say,” she says. Asked what kind of Labour party she wants, she replies: “I want more power to rest with the membership with due respect to the elected representatives [councillors and MPs].” The others nod.

Hastings Labour, like Labour nationally, and Momentum, is enjoying a membership boom. Numbers have grown from 645 in 2015 to 1,877 today. There is also a buzz locally because the parliamentary seat of Hastings and Rye is now a tight marginal, which the current home secretary and potential future Tory leader Amber Rudd retained in June by just 346 votes over Labour. At the next election the seat could be in the spotlight as much as any, unless Rudd takes fright and tries to stand in a safer Tory berth.

If the mood in the Havelock was replicated across all local Labour parties, Corbyn’s stated wish to create a mass-membership party would be progressing without controversy. But everyone knows that isn’t the case. There are pockets across the country where the mood is ugly, as driven leftwing elements within the enlarged local memberships and in Momentum have targeted elected councillors or MPs whom they view as insufficiently Corbynist. Comparisons have been drawn with Militant and the “entryism” of the 1980s. “It is not everywhere, but dark forces are at work,” says one MP who fears being deselected by a resurgent membership, dominated, he says, by new hard-left members.

He says a group within Momentum (which he accepts is largely made up of well-meaning activists) has already seized control of key officer posts in his constituency party and in local branches that will decide his future and seems intent on forcing him out. “I resort to gallows humour these days, it’s so awful. These aren’t people I want anything to do with.”

Among MPs in trouble, as Momentum circles, are the member for Wallasey, Angela Eagle, who declared her intention to stand against Corbyn in 2016 but withdrew in favour of Owen Smith. Chris Leslie, seen by the left as an arch “Blairite”, is fighting what looks like an unequal battle to hold Nottingham East. Stella Creasy has been subjected to what her supporters say has been a bullying campaign in Walthamstow, east London.

This week will be an important staging post on Corbyn’s journey towards his ideal of a member-run party. On Friday voting closes in a ballot of the full membership that will elect three more members to the ruling national executive committee, so members are better represented. All three positions are expected to be taken by Corbyn supporters, with one almost certain to go to Momentum’s founder, Jon Lansman. A clean sweep for the left will give Corbyn a decisive majority on the NEC, helping him to push through the rule changes he and his supporters want, including to the way future leaders are elected, to make it easier for leftwingers to take over when he goes.

Also on Friday, the first phase of the party’s democracy review, chaired by former MP Katy Clark, now Corbyn’s political secretary, will conclude. It will then move on to more sensitive issues, such as the way the leader is elected, and possibly changes that will make it easier to deselect Labour MPs. MPs who are worried about their futures do not want to speak publicly about the process, but one said privately: “What Corbyn and [John] McDonnell want is to change the constitution to ensure the left have control of the party in the long run and that a Corbyn supporter takes over from Jeremy. They will drive this through because they know this is their moment.”

But Corbyn must get any rule changes through party conference in the autumn and many of the unions are suspicious. They do not want to see a member-led party which ditches the tradition of collectivism on which the party was founded and on which their influence rests. While the biggest union, Unite, might back Corbyn, all that could change if its general secretary, Len McCluskey, is forced to rerun the election he won last year to stay in charge of Unite, and then loses. Complaints about how McCluskey won last year, submitted by his defeated challenger Gerard Coyne, are the subject of an official investigation by the certification, officer who has referred them on to a retired judge, Jeffrey Burke QC. “If Unite elects a more moderate leader, the hard left would no longer have the votes on the NEC and at conference to push through rule changes,” says Luke Akehurst, secretary of Labour First, the network of Labour moderates. Momentum is not, anyway, succeeding everywhere, even where its activists are trying hardest. “They’ve only won three of the 16 parliamentary selections contested so far,” adds Akehurst.

Back in Hastings, the newly enthused Labour members are mostly also local members of Momentum. They insist they are not interested in purges, in ousting moderates from the local council, or in installing a hard-left parliamentary candidate. They just want an orderly return to “socialist” values. “Why is Momentum portrayed as all hard left?” asks Brocklehurst. “It is not like that.”

The process of party reform presents Corbyn with a dilemma. Will he want to try to drive through divisive rule changes which will split his party as he stands, potentially, on the brink of becoming prime minister? One Labour MP says to do so would be a huge mistake for the leader and the party. “Compared with the toxic atmosphere of 2015 and early 2016, the parliamentary party is now pretty united, at least around policy. That is to Jeremy’s credit. But divisive attempts to change the rule book will disrupt that unity and look pretty ugly to the country. United parties win, disunited ones don’t.”