Labour’s Shadow Cabinet: collaborating with the enemy

Goethe famously said “All theory, dear friend, is grey, but the tree of life springs ever green.” Life sometimes throws up the unimaginable or the seemingly impossible. Even when Jeremy Corbyn miraculously got on the ballot paper for Labour leader nobody imagined that he might actually win the contest. Late in the day it was decided that he should stand in order that the views of the Labour left could be aired, otherwise the grey ones would have been left to bore everybody to death, and put forward their variants of New Labourism. However, once he was on the ballot paper there was a large scale influx of new members into the Labour Party (some of them returners), ‘affiliated supporters’ through the unions, and those who paid £3 to be able to participate in the election. This marked an attempt to shake the Party loose from its Blairite, New Labour moorings, and to strive for a government which breaks with the economic and political consensus which gave us the great crash of 2007/8. (Download a PDF here afterwinning or read on below)

Once the debate began the sterility of the other three candidates, positioning themselves according to perceived electoral advantage was all too obvious. The enthusiasm which Corbyn’s campaign developed combined a layer of people who had left Labour in disgust at the Blair leadership and a new generation who heard for the first time a politician, and a potential party leader, who said what he thought devoid of spin.

It has been said that Jeremy has a strong mandate given his near 60% vote and just under 50% amongst members. Whilst that may be true the fact is that the apparatus of the Labour Party as ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’, especially the Parliamentary Party, remains an entrenched obstacle to any break with the past. This apparatus is attempting to neutralise Corbyn and McDonnell to prevent them from fundamentally shifting the Party’s policies, which still rest on New Labour ground.

The outrage of much of the media at the election of a Leader who does not accept the cosy Westminster consensus is no surprise. The deluge of propaganda, subtle and crude, some outright absurd, true or false no matter, has already begun. His latest ‘crime’ is not attending England’s opening match at the Rugby World Cup. No honeymoon period here. There will be a ruthless campaign designed  to undermine and to destroy him as quickly as possible. More important than the inevitable fire from the Tory media is the behaviour of Shadow Cabinet members. The morning after Jeremy’s victory (it was a big mistake to allow Tom Watson to go on the Andrew Marr show) his deputy said that he would attempt to convince JC of the ‘good sense’ of spending tens of billions of pounds on Trident. A day later, another Shadow Cabinet Minister, Kate Green, on the very morning of Corbyn’s first Prime Minister’s Question Time, criticised him for his silence at the Battle of Britain ceremony. She said that she thought he should have sung the national anthem because people would be offended by the fact he didn’t. Kerry McCarthy, another Shadow Cabinet member assured us that on such occasions she sings the national anthem. She apparently likes singing to the Establishment’s tune. We now hear that one Shadow Cabinet member told the Independent that they were originally going to give Corbyn two years but now its only one!

This exemplifies the problem which Corbyn faces: the chasm between his politics and those of his supporters and that of the large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Despite JC’s conciliatory speech when elected the PLP majority does not accept the mandate he received. They see it as a kind of collective madness, an emotional spasm at the general election defeat. They will not be stupid enough to try to organise the quick coup that some spoke of before the election result. However, they will do everything possible to undermine him, not because they are sulking but because they are fundamentally opposed to a break with the politics of New Labour that Corbyn’s supporters clearly want.

A marriage of incompatibles

The weakness of Jeremy’s position is reflected by the fact that he has had to invite into his Shadow Cabinet people who have in no sense broken with New Labour’s politics.  Out of 30 people in the Shadow Cabinet he has only three supporters. His opponents have wasted no time in declaring in the public domain their disagreements with him. As well as Tom Watson’s Trident comments, the Shadow Foreign Secretary then tried to tie him to a position of supporting a Yes vote in a referendum on the European Union, “in all circumstances”. Judging by Jeremy’s recent interview he has managed to do this. Others have lined up to tell the media every disagreement they have with him in order to try and block any changes.

Jeremy has been quoted as saying that his Shadow Cabinet “combines continuity with change”. Yet the majority are completely hostile to the changes that he raised in his campaign. This is a marriage of incompatibles which cannot last. The discussion on policy is not just a rational debate. It requires a political struggle in which the resistance of the majority of the Shadow Cabinet and PLP can only be overcome by mobilising the movement which emerged around the leadership campaign, and breaking the grip of the conservative apparatus. You cannot have unity between positions in favour of renewing Trident and ditching it.

Jeremy and John are in fact surrounded by political opponents. Undoubtedly they find themselves in a difficult situation, under immense pressure from the media and the Shadow Cabinet. The British Establishment and its minions are utterly ruthless. They have never played by the Queensbury Rules. If they don’t stand their ground against this propaganda war, then they will simply become prisoners of the Shadow Cabinet and the Labour apparatus. Clearly JC cannot act like Tony Blair. He has to have a democratic mandate. That requires utilising the Party conference to overcome the resistance of the PLP and Cabinet majority. However, if there are no significant changes in policy then the movement around Corbyn will melt away. The people who have joined and become supporters are unlikely to go along with slight changes to a Blairite template.

Singing the Establishment’s song

The dangers were illustrated on the recent Question Time where John McDonnell was in the hot seat. Unfortunately he was not only defensive but he was doing the very opposite to the conduct of the election campaign. He was saying things which he patently does not believe. I know John and have much respect for him. I must confess I was stunned to hear his response on the question of the national anthem. He said that he had spoken to Jeremy after the ceremony and he was told that “he normally sings it” but was moved by the ceremony and didn’t. John said the national anthem “is not just for monarchists it’s for all of us”! It’s certainly not for me. It’s difficult to believe that this is what John thinks. All he had to say was that it is known that Jeremy is an atheist and a republican. It would have been hypocritical for him to have called on a God he doesn’t believe in to save a Queen he doesn’t believe in.

He also said we are not proposing to leave NATO instead of declaring that this is an issue which will have to be discussed. He told the audience that Jeremy is trying to make him a nicer person as if he shouldn’t say nasty things about a government which he full well knows is carrying out a class war. If people are sick to death of PMQs because of the ritual Punch and Judy quality of it that doesn’t mean we want Jeremy to be polite to Cameron. We want him to put him on the spot and expose the nature of his war against the poor and the consequences.

If Shadow members can tell the media they disagree with JC and John then why can they not do the same? Clearly there needs to be a debate to determine these differences. Conciliation with Cabinet members who are working to remove Corbyn can only encourage their efforts.

If the fundamental policies on which JC stood are abandoned one by one then what was the point of standing? To drive through an anti-austerity agenda and to develop a governmental programme at odds with the politics of New Labour, requires nothing less than a political struggle, both inside the Shadow Cabinet and the Party supported by the movement outside. It has to be borne in mind that the existing structures of the Party do not reflect the balance of forces expressed in the election. Corbyn has to negotiate the Party Executive Committee, the Policy Forum, and the annual conference. He has to use the annual conference to change existing policies such as the renewal of Trident. He will face a battle with some of the trades unions over Trident and renewal of nuclear energy. He cannot persuade people with New Labour’s politics to abandon them.

His supporters will not be too critical for the time being given the obvious difficulties he faces. But he needs not acolytes and cheer-leaders, but critical friends. There needs to be a counter-weight to the ferocious propaganda of the media its collaborators in the Shadow Cabinet.

Just as in Greece it would be a disaster, if, like Syriza, Corbyn ends up with the opposite of the programme that he wants (even before he’s in government). There is no way that he can achieve a break with the neo-liberal consensus by way of politics as usual. Jeremy has described the Labour Party as “a democratic socialist party”. He should know, as his good friend Tony Benn always said, that Labour has never been a socialist party. Kissing the Queens hand and uttering an oath of allegiance which originates from the time of Elizabeth 1st, is politics as usual. Certainly, the Labour Party is not a Republican Party. But the struggle for a through-going democracy must include a challenge to the medieval paraphernalia. It is fundamentally undemocratic for MPs who are neither religious nor monarchists to be forced to pledge their loyalty to the Queen, without which they cannot take their seats. It should not be forgotten that we are currently subjects of Her Royal Majesty rather than citizens.

Two mutinies for the price of one

We have now heard of two threats of ‘mutinies’. A senior serving general (there are apparently 100 of them in the British army) has contacted the Sunday Times and warned that

“The general staff will not allow a Prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.”

He added, “There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which effectively would be a mutiny”.

This is no small matter when a ‘senior source’ threatens that military ‘top brass’ will not accept the outcome of a general election. Unfortunately a spokesperson for Corbyn said we don’t comment on “unattributed quotes”. This is a mistake. They should have demanded that the government not only condemn such statements but investigate who it was and make it plain that if they find out then this ‘senior source’ would be very quickly thrown out of the army. As for the ‘top brass’ they should be told in no uncertain terms to condemn this statement and make it plain that they will, of course, accept the decision of the electorate.

In fact even the Ministry of Defence said it was unacceptable for a serving officer to make political comments about a potential “future government”.  However, they ruled out a leak enquiry on the grounds that “it would be almost impossible to identify the culprit”. One government source told the Independent that while the General’s remarks may have been “unwise” it did reflect broader concern about the direction that Corbyn might take the Labour Party. “It does show a level of concern in the armed forces which  in itself is alarming.” In other words they are going to do nothing about since it’s a useful part of their campaign to destabilise Corbyn in the hope that the PLP will remove him.

Meanwhile, news of another potential ‘mutiny’ emerged over the possible bombing of Syria. It has been said that at least half the Cabinet is in favour. Hilary Benn told Andrew Marr that Labour would consider proposals by the Tories. An unnamed Shadow Cabinet member told the Sunday Times  there “there is a majority in the House of Commons for air strikes in Syria if Cameron has a proper plan for targeting ISIS”. You would, apparently “get half the cabinet supporting it.” If the official position is supporting the government then it’s difficult to see how Jeremy can remain as Leader.

Collaborating with the enemy

We are barely more than a week into the leadership of JC and Shadow Cabinet members are freely attacking him in the media. They are collaborating with the very newspapers which are engaged in a propaganda war designed to bring Corbyn down. In doing this they are showing their contempt for the decision of Labour members and supporters. These are people who were happy to allow Blair to operate an undemocratic regime ran by him and his clique of unelected ‘advisers’. They are holding possible resignations over the head of JC like the sword of Damocles, on the assumption that he will do nothing about it. Most of them are working to make him capitulate to their policies or else to go.

Those of us who are sceptical of the prospect of breaking Labour from the politics of New Labour, nevertheless should support Corbyn against the New Labour collaborators with the British Establishment who are seeking to either bring him down or to get him to, so to speak, ‘do a Tsipras’; that is to end up supporting a political programme which is the opposite of the one on which he campaigned.

What is being tested is whether working class people can get Labour to act in their interests. This is certainly the ‘last chance saloon’, for if those hundreds of thousands of people who supported Corbyn’s campaign see a retrenchment of the politics of New Labour then they will have no choice but to seek a political alternative to break with the neo-liberal politics which gave us the 2007/8 crash.

Making the Labour Party safe for the Establishment

Nobody imagined that JC could become Labour leader. That’s why there was no serious preparation for such an eventuality. In the circumstances that was inevitable. But now the impossible has happened, all the pressure of the situation, the propaganda war from the Establishment media and the dirty deeds of the Shadow Cabinet members, are directed at one end: making sure that the Labour Party is no threat to the power and privileges of the Establishment. It will either be done by domesticating Corbyn and McDonnell or by seeking to remove them. In this struggle socialists (regardless of their opinion on the Labour Party) should be on the side of these two against all those forces seeking to ensure that Labour remains a party which does not challenge their privileges and power.

During the campaign Jeremy sought feedback from his supporters. We should continue to give this to him. The message should be that of critical friends, aimed at giving them them strength to stand their ground against the sabotage of the miserable collection of Blairites and their collaboration with the media onslaught against them. Whilst he may be forced to make all manner of tactical accommodations, given the balance of forces, if he cannot drive through his key policies, then he will be, one way or another, finished. Only a political break from the politics of New Labour can secure his position.

Martin Wicks

September 22nd

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