It wasn’t just Alistair Campbell types, Blairites, who defected from Labour to the Lib Dems or the Greens in the 23 May Euro-elections. Many left-wing Labour supporters defected too, or didn’t vote, disgusted by Labour’s equivocation on Brexit.
In July we will get a new Tory leader and prime minister, almost certainly a hard-Brexiter. How they will negotiate the difficulty, which destroyed May, of getting a parliamentary majority for any Brexit formula at all, we don’t know. They will be under pressure to steer a course capable of drawing back millions of Tory voters who on 23 May went for Nigel Farage’s pop-up Brexit Party.
Labour’s equivocation, triangulation, and blurring on Brexit is shameful. To say anything serious about politics at all, you have to speak clearly on central issues. Whether we want to push through and build on capitalist economic and social integration and border lowering, or retreat to a more walled-off national economy and society. Whether we support free movement, or see migrant rights as to be trimmed and tailored according to what is best for “business”. Whether we want to keep the border within Ireland almost invisible, or see a new hard border rebuilt. The lines of “speaking for both Remain or Leave”, or that “we should talk about other issues”, are evasions. And they aren’t working even on the low-level “vote-catching” level of politics designed for.
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan and a leading Labour pro-Brexiter, has highlighted the 23 May result from Wigan, an area which voted 64% Leave in 2016. There, the Brexit Party got 41%. Labour’s vote went down 19.7%. But the Lib Dems, Greens, and Change UK between them gained 16.4%. Probably even there most of Labour’s loss went to pro-Remain parties. Most of the Brexit Party’s gain can be correlated to losses by Ukip (26.5% of the vote) and the Tories (8.4%). The minority of Labour voters who went to Farage will not be drawn back by a mealy-mouthed, hedge-your-bets argument. They will be drawn back only by polemic, education, argument — by dealing with them as intelligent people, not as pawns to be manipulated.
According to Stephen Bush of the New Statesman — and insider reports from Labour’s top circles give the same picture — “[Jeremy] Corbyn relies on [Seamus] Milne heavily — in meetings with the other opposition parties, the Labour leader tends to give a brief preamble and to leave the detail to his aide”.
Back in 2015, we pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn had won the Labour leadership from a widespread atomised anti-austerity, generically-left sentiment, not from an organised Labour left with a life of its own. Consequently Corbyn had not much of a “team”. John Moloney, the recently-elected left-wing Assistant General Secretary of the PCS union, emphasises that “I’m grounded in a rank-and-file organisation [in the union] and happy to be so. I recognise that I’m part of a collective”. Corbyn had nothing similar. As we pointed out way back then: “The staff of Corbyn’s... ‘Leader’s Office’, were mostly scraped together from the left margins of the politico-media-sphere and from networks at the top of bourgeois society”.
Seamus Milne, long a chief journalist at the Guardian, was one of them. Andrew Murray, chief of staff of the Unite union, and previously a journalist on the Morning Star, became another. Karie Murphy, who had previously worked in Tom Watson’s office, a third. The three Ms. Milne and Murray are “top-down”, manipulative politicians by training and career, and Stalinists by ideology. That explains their line on Brexit.
No real Labour left organisation has developed since 2015. Momentum, which promised to fill that gap, was subjected to a “coup” in early 2017, and now functions mostly as a big email list and text-messaging operation to get out votes in internal Labour Party elections. It has no internal political debates other than presumably in its office. Meanwhile, and probably in large part because the “Leader’s Office” sees no need for change, Labour’s undemocratic structures handed down from Blair have remained largely unchanged. The 2017-8 “Democracy Review” was mostly shelved. The cumulative result is that the unelected “Leader’s Office” has “captured” the top of the Labour Party. Vote Corbyn, get Milne. Paul Mason, a well-known Corbynite journalist, has now called for the three Ms to be sacked. He is right.
Possibly the Labour right will use the Peterborough by-election on 6 June, where Labour is likely to do badly, to try to force a new Labour leader challenge on the model of 2016. That would be a step back, a step towards pushing Labour back onto its lifeless pre-2015 direction. But Labour needs to change. Labour needs to challenge the new Tory leader to an early General Election. It’s possible the new Tory leader will go for that anyway.
Labour needs to go beyond Jeremy Corbyn’s recent mumbled more-or-less support for a new public vote on Brexit. Labour should say plainly that it wants another referendum, on the basis of the fresh information and the now-known choices, and it will campaign for Remain in that referendum. It needs a “Remain and Transform” perspective on Europe, not just a “stay with the status quo” line.
Especially given the possibility of a General Election before the regular Labour conference in September, Labour should call an urgent special conference to revise policy democratically. The red waters of Corbynism are running into the sand, dissipating, leaving the tint on the sand’s beige colour weaker and weaker. The potential to reverse that drift remains, among Labour’s 500,000-plus members, among the young people who rebel against climate change and rightly see Labour as their best hope for government action, and in the working class more generally.
Labour for a Socialist Europe distributed 47,000 pro-Labour, pro-socialist, anti-Brexit leaflets in the European election campaign, and made new contacts and connections. The job now is to draw them into a campaigning network.