Labour’s “soft coup”: Corbyn must throw caution to the wind

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and veteran of the Labour Left, has warned of a "soft coup" being orchestrated to undermine Corbyn's Labour leadership. Owen Jones, meanwhile, has called on Corbyn to stand down and "do a deal" with the Blairites in order to pass on the baton to a left successor. The only way forward for the Left, however, is to boldly go on the offensive.

“We have to alert party members and supporters that the soft coup is underway. It’s planned, co-ordinated and fully resourced. It is being perpetrated by an alliance between elements in the Labour Party and the Murdoch media empire, both intent on destroying Jeremy Corbyn and all that he stands for.

“The coup is not being waged up front in public but strictly behind the scenes. Having learned the lesson of the last coup attempt - that a direct attack on Jeremy and his policies will provoke a backlash from many party members - the coup perpetrators are this time round pursuing a covert strategy.

“The aim of these covert coup plotters is to undermine the support Jeremy has secured among Labour Party members, and also importantly to undermine support from Labour voters. Undermining support for Jeremy from Labour voters is important to the plotters because their objective is to ensure Jeremy trails in the polls and can’t win elections. In this way they can destroy morale among party members and their confidence in him.”

These words above are those of John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and veteran of the Labour Left, writing in the March 2017 issue of the Labour Briefing.

The assertions put forward by McDonnell are 100% correct. It is clear to all that the (twice) democratically elected leader has been undermined and sabotaged from day one. Having failed to oust Corbyn in last summer’s coup, the Blairite wing of the Labour Party – who control the bureaucratic machinery of the Party and have a majority in the PLP – are now actively and vigorously carrying out “Project Anaconda”: an organised campaign to isolate the left-wing Labour leader and slowly suffocate the Corbyn movement.

Open civil war has been replaced by a war of attrition – to gradually wear out and demoralise Corbyn and his supporters to the point where they give up and accept defeat. The hysterical attacks and cacophony of calls for Corbyn’s resignation following last week’s by-elections are, in this respect, only the latest episode in a series of battles aimed to destroy the Left in the Party and restore unrivalled control to the hands of the Blairite Establishment.

Needless to say, the Shadow Chancellor’s comments did not go down well with Labour’s most vocal right-wingers, who quickly pounced on McDonnell and mocked his suggestion that a “soft coup is underway”.

Interestingly, however, more sober-headed commentators in the mainstream media did not immediately dismiss the idea. Writing a feature for BBC News, for example, Iain Watson highlighted the attempts to depose Len McCluskey, one of Corbyn’s most influential backers, from his position as general secretary of Unite, a heavyweight trade union that has played a key role in supporting Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns. It is an open fact that McCluskey’s opponent in the upcoming Unite leadership election, Gerard Coyne, is being promoted by the so-called “moderates” in the Labour Party, with Blairite figures such as Tom Watson backing Coyne and his demand for Unite the Union to cease its role as “puppet-master” and “kingmaker” in relation to the Labour Party.

Utopian unity

The most vociferous critic of McDonnell’s “soft coup” remarks, however, was none other than McDonnell himself, who quickly backtracked on his earlier statement. A spokesperson for the Shadow Chancellor swiftly assured Labour’s right wing and their friends in the capitalist press that McDonnell’s comments were out of “frustration” towards key New Labour architects, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, and their attacks on Corbyn in the week leading up to the Copeland by-election defeat.

Attempting to soothe any tensions, McDonnell and his team reasserted their commitment to “party unity”, stating that they would “reach out in the coming days to those across all sections of the party”. “Now is the time for us to unite”, McDonnell reiterated in a speech earlier this week. “We all need to learn lessons, and that includes me. I know I've got a pugnacious approach, I need to learn a few lessons.”

“We need to unite now and listen to one another, make sure that we work together to secure the best we can for the country on Brexit, and then lead into the next general election.”

As evidence for his desire for unity, McDonnell even claimed that he was willing to meet with Mandelson himself “for a cup of tea” in order to hear what pearls of wisdom and advice the Prince of Darkness could bestow upon the current Labour leadership.

Such suggestions by McDonnell are either dangerously naïve or needlessly sarcastic. Only last week, Peter Mandelson spoke on behalf of all the Blairites when he openly declared in the House of Lords that, “I work every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of his tenure in office”.

Mandelson’s bold statement to his peers is not the outburst of an isolated renegade or loose cannon, but the clear and articulated expression of a reliable representative of the Party Establishment; the unspoken thoughts of the entire Labour right wing stated matter-of-factly in plain English. Nor is he the first to let the mask slip – lest we forget, for example, the comments by Labour MP Jess Philips, who proudly announced that she would be willing to “knife” Corbyn “in the front, not the back”.

Remarks such as these display the real intentions of the Blairites within the PLP and Labour Establishment, who have no desire for “unity” with the Corbyn movement. The only unity they are willing to accept is that of the horse rider and the horse – that is, complete control over the party at all levels; a unity of the grave that will only be achieved over the dead bodies of Corbyn and his supporters.

Dodgy deals

GoodbyeBlairitesAmidst all this drama, enter stage “left” Owen Jones, our esteemed Guardian journalist. Writing this week in his regular column for the newspaper, Jones reiterated his deep concerns about the future of Labour and the Left under its current leadership. The gist of Jones’ latest missive is to regurgitate the line he has been hammering since the beginning: Corbyn is a nice man with nice policies, but he’s not a competent or electable leader; if he stays, the Labour Party will be battered in the next general election, the Left will be blamed, and the movement will be shattered for a generation. “It is soul-destroying,” our hopeless pessimist laments, “to watch great ideals and policies being dragged down, not by their own merits, but through a lack of strategy and basic competence.”

But don’t worry everyone – our brave and noble writer has a cunning plan! Corbyn should do the honourable thing by stepping down and passing the baton onto a left-wing successor (the much-groomed Clive Lewis, anyone?). But with Labour’s leadership contest rules stacked against the Left, how could such a fresh and dynamic candidate gain the necessary support from other MPs in order to get on the ballot? By doing a deal with the Labour right wing, of course!

“Both he [Corbyn] and his team have to think hard,” Jones solemnly informs his audience.

“If Corbyn decides he is unable to confront the multiple existential crises enveloping Labour, then an agreement should be struck where he can stand down in exchange for the guarantee of an MP from the new generation on the ballot paper who is committed to the policies that inspired Corbyn’s supporters in the first place. It is up to both Corbyn and the parliamentary Labour party. They should both be aware that history is a savage judge.”

The “solution”, then, is apparently not to mobilise grassroots members in defence of the anti-austerity, anti-war programme that Corbyn was twice elected on, but to engage in dodgy horse-trading with the Blairite mafia in the shadowy corridors of Westminster.

Again, like McDonnell, Jones is either hopelessly gullible or consciously dishonest and deceitful. Our acclaimed author has been around in the labour movement long enough to know the score when it comes to the internal dynamics of party politics. Indeed, he even wrote the book on “the Establishment” and their intrigues and manoeuvres. And yet he sincerely claims to believe that “an agreement” is possible between the Left and the representatives of big business inside the Labour Party.

Unfortunately for Owen Jones, everyone else can see the reality of the situation: the vicious and consistent attacks on Corbyn are not down to his individual competence or “electability” – they represent the political chasm that exists within the Party between the mutually antagonistic interests of rank-and-file members, on one side, and the Establishment careerists in the PLP, on the other.

As Stephen Bush highlights in the New Statesmen:

“For a significant chunk of the party membership, the deal [of a new, younger Left Labour leader] is attractive. But it appeals to neither Corbynsceptic MPs or to the leader’s office. Why not?

“For those MPs who are opposed to Corbyn’s politics, either through ideological difference or because they believe his platform cannot prevail at a general election, trying Corbynism again with a fresher face wouldn’t change the central problem.

“…They have no interest in facilitating a handover of power to any side of the party other than their own.

“Others feel that the last two years have shown that a leader who cannot command at least a significant plurality in the PLP cannot lead effectively. They would be loathe to repeat the experience of a hopelessly divided leader and MPs.”

Throw caution to the wind

Sometimes, however, it takes a more astute representative of the ruling class – rather than the confused utopian “lefts” – to point out the way forward for the labour movement. As we often say, the more far-sighted bourgeois often draw the same conclusions as the Marxists, albeit with a lag and from the opposite class perspective. Hence the interesting remarks by Daniel Finkelstein – Associate Editor of The Times and former political advisor to leading Conservative figures such as Prime Minister John Major and Tory party leader William Hague – in his column this week (no apologies for quoting at length):

“Here is the argument for a left-wing leadership: New Labour may have won three elections but its appeal had faded and cannot be renewed. This is not just because core Labour voters had begun to lose faith in it. It is also because it depended for success on a strong economy. This allows spending increases and redistribution without higher taxes on the well-off. After the banking crisis this was no longer possible.

“So a more radical position was needed after both the Blairite and then Brownite versions of New Labour ran out of steam. The party can’t repeat what Ed Miliband did, nor return to the politics of Tony Blair.

“All over the world, this argument contends, centrists are being overthrown by radicals. The idea that you can only win elections by bunching in the middle has been disproven. Voters are fed-up with the mainstream offerings. They want an outsider, someone who isn’t just another cookie-cutter pol, but an anti-politician. Labour needs to try something new, a bold radical departure. It can win on the left.

“Instead of a traditional party centred on parliament, Labour should be a grassroots campaign, built through social media and attracting radical parties and pressure groups which can bring energy to the cause. The economy is going to hit a rough patch, the Tories will get tired and a vigorous extra-parliamentary campaign can run them ragged.

“…What astonishes me is the lack of faith Corbyn himself shows in what is the only argument for his leadership.

“…Of course we didn’t win Copeland, he would say. The old party hierarchy is determined to stop me winning. They are still presenting a traditional Labour Party to voters, and we know the electorate won’t buy it. I am trying to give voters something different, he would protest. I want to offer a changed and radical Labour, but I am meeting resistance.

“…Of course we lost. And we will go on losing until the party establishment lets me, Jeremy Corbyn, bring the same excitement to our politics that I brought to my leadership campaign.

“…He can’t possibly think the party is going to unite behind him and that there is any future for him in trying to be a conventional leader. His only hope must be as a subversive challenger, relentlessly organising to take over the party and talking about his efforts to do so. He should come out with huge, earth-shaking radical left-wing policies and not care that Yvette Cooper and I both think that they are bonkers. He should skip prime minister’s questions in order to attend protest rallies. He should organise to deselect critics and win selection contests for his people.

“If he doesn’t do that, then what’s the point? Isn’t that why his supporters chose him? If he’s going to go down, for goodness sake go down fighting. I mean, this? This is pathetic. Jeremy Corbyn can’t expect anyone else to believe in him if he doesn’t believe in himself.”

Rather than making utopian calls for “unity” with Blair, Mandelson, and their acolytes in the PLP, Corbyn and McDonnell and the other leaders of the Labour Left should take the advice of Mr Finkelstein and throw caution to the wind. In the words of the revolutionary Mexican leader, Emiliano Zapata, it is better to die standing than to live forever on your knees.

Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the position of President of the USA has provided Corbyn and the Left with a valuable lesson: you can take on the grandees in your own party; challenge the Establishment and the mainstream media; and provide a lightning rod for the anger against the failed status quo that exists everywhere in society. But the prerequisite for such success is that you must have conviction, audacity, and militancy.

There is no hope for the Corbyn movement along the road of compromise. This path has been trodden many times before, only ever leading to disillusionment and disappointment. The only way out of the current quagmire is for Corbyn and the other leaders of anti-austerity movement to go on the offensive; to mobilise the grassroots to deselect the Blairites and transform the Labour Party from root to branch; and to build a mass political movement with a bold socialist alternative, capable of kicking out the Tories and putting an end to the misery of the rotten capitalism system.

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