My comrade in the National Union of Journalists Jeremy Corbyn was deserted on Monday by seven of his own Labour MPs. A new party is in the offing. There is much talk of issues, and there are plenty of them. But this is less a split than a splintering.
It is as much about the constriction of political choice by Britain’s first-past-the-post system than any demand for a new party.
In significant measure, Corbyn’s unexpected surge into the Labour leadership was the reflux of that electoral system. Brexit is too.
The first-past-the-post system almost always presents binary choices. It artificially creates great parties that ideologically are unnaturally large coalitions. It enables centralised control of a highly nationalised debate while neutering the local dynamic, which is of such acute importance here.
You could be Tory or Labour, and what sort of party either was depended on who controlled it at the top. Hence Corbyn spent most of his political life in internal exile within New Labour. That went to seed to the extent that dilettante MPs signed Corbyn’s nomination papers to enable him stand for leader, to create a choice they never imagined would be accepted. The leadership was his by a landslide, because of the support of unions, principally Unite, and a surge of new members organised by Momentum.
New members, formerly disaffected from New Labour, found a home again in an old established party, within a system where they couldn’t realistically create a new party to the left of New Labour.
Brexit, to state the obvious, was a referendum. But this is a recent, novel and, as predicted, ultimately destructive phenomenon, within the previously unitary British system which enabled it. History will show it wasn’t the European Union or its Court of Justice but the aberration of referenda that, in the second half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, disunited the polity she was crowned head of. It is the referendum, ironically offering binary choice, that enabled firstly the UK and then its constituent parts slip off the previously snug noose of Tory versus Labour, operating in the framework of a once firmly-UK.
Unless Jeremy’s seven deserters are joined by more, it is unlikely they can break a mould which is essentially unbroken in England and Wales, but has fractured around the arrival in-scale of a moderately nationalist and left party in Scotland. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s scale is facilitated by the platform of a national assembly.
What Brexit also facilitates is the further discombobulation of the Tory versus Labour narrative, and leaves it more confused instead. It is as an emblem of that confusion, in the slipstream of slow but cumulating disintegration, that the disaffection of the seven may ultimately be most expressive.
Within the hothouse that is the Left, and British Labour especially, they are specific issues. One of them — antisemitism — was forcibly called out on Monday.
There is a Europe-wide resurgence of hate against Jews, and it has a context. Antisemitism isn’t new; it’s ancient. Its modern context, however, is that the state of Israel is deemed to provide all-purpose legitimisation. In turn, there is a gathering de-legitimisation of Israel itself. Zionism, which is simply support of an Israeli state, is turned into a hate word. It becomes an abusive charge, good for any Jew anywhere, and a demanded credential on the left, including Corbyn’s Labour.
This derives from an apparently admirable affinity for the Palestinian people, but pointedly refuses any examination of the context of how Israel ended up in the West Bank and Gaza. It demands withdrawal — but won’t answer for the consequences of withdrawal already from Gaza, and southern Lebanon. It wants territory and power handed over where the obvious beneficiaries would be Hamas or Hezbollah. It has no sense of the Israeli bind — of only “least bad” choices. And that is only to speak to the facts of the issue. Context is trumped by polemic.
In the longer 40-year sweep of the Benn–Corbyn tradition, and Tony Benn [British MP and hard Left politician, 1925-2014] is the forebear of this, Israel is the emblem of America, and now the prime object of an old anti-imperialist tradition.
Neither Benn now Corbyn are anti-Semites, but they travelled so long with those who are, and become so dependent on that cause, euphemistically called anti-Zionism, that the cause and effect crystallised horribly in Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.
Culturally and intellectually, this is a world, until recently far removed from either power or responsibility, where a black and white narrative, dependent on the demonisation of enemies was an unedited normal. It is only recently, when it oxidised under a wider public spotlight, it became a political embarrassment.
And, anyway, how can there be room for a specifically Jewish state within the Marxist paradigm of class struggle?
No application of this corollary is forthcoming for others who don’t also qualify for inclusion on an anti-imperialist blacklist. Happy days for Hezbollah.
A bulwark of Corbyn’s election and support was the trade union Unite. This provides a specifically Irish context. It is powerful here, and increasingly political, as distinct from industrial.
The union’s senior officer in the Republic is Brendan Ogle, who is close to Len McCluskey.
There is certainly a similar political pattern to be traced. Right2Water, Right2Change and the occupation of Apollo House are all causes the union associated with. Right2Change was a platform at the last election, which, whatever its intention, centred Sinn Féin and arguably benefited it most.
People Before Profit were included. Solidarity declined, arguing that after enlarging, Sinn Féin’s move would be coalition with one of the larger establishment party’s. This is the conundrum of Corbynism.
He is the inheritor of an anti-EEC Bennite position, but he is also bent on power. His strategic aim, in defiance of his own party conference position, is to enable a Tory Brexit, the consequences of which will enable him become prime minister in a Britain, out of the EU, where he can implement policies he could not attempt if the UK remained in the union.
He doesn’t want a second referendum, and this is the point of rupture with the seven because he must keep his grand coalition intact. He has no ground to lose, so he must attempt masterly inactivity. As Talleyrand remarked, ‘most things are done by not being done’.
There may be much froth about seven defections, and there was before when a handful of Labour MPs defected to create the SDP. It’s funny now, but in 1981, when ex-Tory chancellor Geoffrey Howe stayed in Washington with British ambassador Nicholas Henderson, the latter’s friend Roy Jenkins was staying too. Henderson gave a dinner for Jenkins the SDP leader, but arranged for the Howes to have dinner in their room. Jenkins may have been fabulously good company, but it was a spectacular misreading of events. Politics is about facts on the ground.
His strategic aim, in defiance of his own party conference position, is to enable a Tory Brexit