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Don’t let Labour’s Right do any more wrecking – Steve Howell

” A genuine socialist like Corbyn does, of course, expect media hostility, resistance from the rich & scaremongering about national security by former intelligence chiefs. All of that goes with the territory. But it was outrageous that people employed by the party used their positions to work against their own party.”

Steve Howell

Steve Howell gives an insider’s view of why the establishment and their Blairite allies were – and still are – so desperate to bring Jeremy Corbyn down.

Recent weeks have seen a centrist chorus of calls for Jeremy Corbyn and those who supported him to be hounded out of the Labour party. Some commentators openly urge the orchestration of a purge or split, others seem to prefer decapitation through the whip being withdrawn from Corbyn, presumably to demoralise members on the Left.

The latest attack came from David Miliband, who displayed an astonishing lack of self-awareness in accusing Corbyn of ‘wrecking tactics’ for making a submission to an inquiry set up to look into, well, actual wrecking tactics. Presumably, the former foreign secretary had forgotten his own contribution to the attacks Corbyn had to endure from within the party during his time as leader.

A genuine socialist like Corbyn does, of course, expect media hostility, resistance from the rich and scaremongering about national security by former intelligence chiefs. All of that goes with the territory. But it was outrageous that people employed by the party – paid from members’ money – used their positions to work against their own party and, in the process, aid the Tories in staying in power.

We knew that this was happening. A lot of it was in plain view. But the report leaked in April gave us a shocking insight into the rotten culture in the party machine as well as evidence of members’ money being channelled into a factional campaign to support favoured candidates in the 2017 general election.

Now that an inquiry has been set up to look into these issues, making a submission to it can hardly be described as ‘wrecking’. The truth of what happened needs to be established. And it says a lot about Miliband that he doesn’t recognise the inherent importance of that.

The party’s constitution is clear: it’s the leader who directs election campaigns through a national campaign committee (NCC) established for that purpose. The main issue at stake in the Forde Inquiry is therefore governance – officials have no right to spend money that hasn’t been sanctioned by the NCC. So, what happened in 2017?

When the snap election was called, the NCC adopted a ‘campaign to win’ strategy, believing that the polls were understating support for an end to austerity and the radical alternative Labour’s manifesto would offer.

We met fierce resistance to this from party officials. And, at first, the argument was academic because funds were limited. Only £4m was available, a third of what had been spent in 2015. However, by the middle of the campaign things had changed: Unite had donated £2.25m, other unions had come through with cash and the money coming in from supporters online was well ahead of expectations. On the strength of this, on May 11, 2017, the NCC insisted on expanding the target list to include 93 offensive seats, enough for a majority. These were all to be targeted for digital advertising and some for direct mail and Corbyn visits.

However, it now appears that, shortly after the target list was expanded, more than £135,000 was siphoned off – along with some staff – into a rogue operation at London Labour’s offices at Ergon House to support a small group of MPs, the selection of which – if the names mentioned are correct – can’t have been anything to do with the vulnerability of their seats and could only have been because they were favoured right wingers. Who the beneficiaries were is, however, secondary: the point is that the spending was unauthorised and, therefore, unconstitutional.

So, what effect did this have? Would we have prevented May from forming a government if the whole party machine had been working wholeheartedly for the NCC’s decisions?

There are a great many intangibles, but let’s take the specific question of how that £135,000 would have been spent had we had it available. Think back to May 31, 2017, the day Corbyn took a late decision to take part in the BBC TV debate. Behind the scenes, it was also the print deadline for the final Get Out The Vote direct mailer. In the original budget, funds had been allocated to vulnerable Labour-held seats for it. But, from an extra £250,000 donated by Unite, we had just £50,000 to spare for offensive seats – only enough to add 12 constituencies, with each benefiting from the mailer going to up to 15,000 voters.

Had we had the £135,000 that had apparently gone to the Ergon House operation, we could have added further 35 seats to the list for that final mailing.  

Would it have made a difference? As it turned out, of the 12 seats we did add, we won eight (two-thirds) and of the 35 seats we couldn’t afford to add, we won 14 anyway (two-fifths). But we missed out on a further seven of those 35 seats by narrow margins – an average of only 451 votes. Any marketeer will tell you that a direct mail campaign normally has a success rate of 3% to 5% – and 3% of a mailing to 15,000 voters is 450.

If the GOTV direct mailer was worth doing – and there was no disagreement about its merits – it was because it would boost the Labour vote. So, it would be dishonest for the officials who recommended the GOTV mailing to argue it would not have had an effect. And it’s probable it would have lifted turnout enough to win the seven seats needed to prevent the Tories from clinging to power through a deal with the DUP.

But, in saying that, I don’t want to detract from what we achieved in 2017, against the odds. The vast majority of the money from supporters and affiliates was properly spent on a campaign that shifted opinion on an unprecedented scale. We achieved our biggest vote for 20 years; gained enough seats – a net increase of 30 – to deny the Tories a majority; and millions benefited immediately from the Tories dropping their plans to scrap the triple lock on pensions and introduce a dementia tax and means testing of winter fuel payments.

Without doubt, nearly 13 million voting for radical manifesto shook the establishment. Whatever Jeremy’s detractors inside the party may say, it was not lost on the elite that we had broken the neo-liberal consensus and shown that a socialist alternative could win. Shortly after the election, in a note to its rich clients, the US investment bank, Morgan Stanley, said:

“For much of the past 30 years and more, a change of government ultimately had a relatively limited impact on the UK equity market, as policy settings didn’t change too dramatically. However, this may not be the case if we see a Labour government take power under its current leadership, given its very different policy approach.”

Morgan Stanley was worried another election could come soon, and it told its clients that a Corbyn-led government was now a bigger risk than Brexit.

The establishment didn’t waste time in responding to this threat, deploying a combination of carrot, stick and split.

Firstly, the carrot: the Tories realised that they had to make concessions on policy – or appear to do so – to buy off a proportion of Labour’s support. In October, 2018, May disingenuously announced that austerity was over. When Boris Johnson became PM, he promised to build new hospitals, restore police cuts and invest in infrastructure. And it wasn’t just politicians who saw the danger and made concessions. One of my favourite headlines from this period was ‘Water bills cut as Corbyn threat looms’ (The Times, 12.4.19). The intro to the piece said:

Under threat of nationalisation from a Corbyn-led government, Britain’s three listed water companies have agreed to the largest cuts in customer bills since privatisation by Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago.

Clearly, the mere ‘threat’ of a Corbyn government was enough to put money in people’s pockets.

Secondly, there was the stick in the form of anescalation in 2018 of the attacks on Corbyn personally. Massive resources were invested in trawling through his 40-plus years of campaigning to find anything they could to use. If he’d been in the vicinity of, for example, leaders of Hamas, it didn’t matter that Jimmy Carter had also met them. If anti-semitism cases were not being dealt with fast enough, it wasn’t mentioned that a Labour leader has literally no powers when it comes to disciplinary matters. Facts and balance were abandoned to vilify Corbyn in ways that were often hard to answer and bound to sap some support.

And then, thirdly, there was divide and rule: the fomenting of a split in the Corbyn camp around the question of Brexit. This would, in my view, prove to be the most damaging. Our enemies were sharp enough to see that it was our Achilles heel, that most Labour members – including many Corbyn supporters – were Remainers and had only very reluctantly accepted the result of the 2016 referendum. The Labour Right swiftly abandoned their distaste for the politics of protest to mobilise through the so-called People’s Vote campaign to secure a change in Labour policy.

By the spring of 2019, the pressure for a second referendum was such that a majority of the shadow cabinet had come round to the idea, despite strong opposition from those – especially in northern seats – who wanted to stick to the 2017 policy.

Like the Blairites, theTories were not slow to see their chance. They called the bluff of the opposition parties on a general election, knowing Labour would be vulnerable in Leave areas. And Nigel Farage did his bit by transforming the Brexit party from a threat to the Tories into their auxiliary force, standing only in Labour seats and serving as a repository for the votes of disgruntled Labour supporters who would be reluctant to vote Tory.

Personally, I had wanted to stick to the 2017 manifesto. But I accept that it was a difficult situation and that leading people in the Corbyn camp changed their mind about a second referendum in good faith, believing it was the best way to both resolve the Brexit deadlock and win the election.

The result itself tells you how that calculation turned out. Of the 54 we lost in England and Wales, 52 were in leave voting areas. Whatever other factors were involved, it stretches credulity to argue that a defeat in which the Labour vote largely held up in Remain areas but collapsed – often dramatically – in Leave areas was not mainly a result of our U turn on Brexit.

The irony is that the principal architect of this calamity was one of its main beneficiaries: Starmer – more than anyone – had steered us towards supporting a second referendum, yet from the wreckage of that result he was elected leader.

To win the election, Starmer stood on a platform of continuity, making ten pledges embodying the key Corbyn policies. However, it was clear to anyone looking closely that Blairite muscle and money was very much behind him. And after he was elected, it didn’t take long for their influence to surface in the selection of a shadow cabinet. Right wingers were installed in key posts. Where there were exceptions, the principals were often surrounded by people to keep an eye on them. In the pivotal Treasury team, the shadow chancellor, Annaliese Dodds, has three ministers – Bridget Phillipson, Pat McFadden and Wes Streeting – who are implacably opposed to the core transformative economic policy of the Corbyn period.

In the past, the Labour Right has accused the left of being ‘ideological’ and described themselves as the ‘pragmatists’, saying they wanted socialism but the public would never vote for it. What is now different is that the Right is explicit in its ideological commitment to defending private ownership – even to the extent of calling public ownership ‘confiscation’, as McFadden did after the last election.

Their entrenchment in the Treasury team is therefore a real cause for concern: they now control the potential purse strings of a future Labour government. But, not content with that, they want to rid the party of socialists altogether.

Several of their leading lights have called for this. In July, for example, Philip Collins – the former chief speech writer to Tony Blair – argued in The Times for Corbyn to be expelled as part of a move to split the Labour party. He said:

“The party contains two ideological groups who ought not to be glued together – the social democrats and the socialists. A split would be traumatic but, in the end, cathartic.”

For anyone who thinks this is just about Corbyn, there’s your answer. It’s much more fundamental – it’s about whether ‘socialism’ has any place at all in the Labour party.

So, let’s talk about socialism. It’s time we talked about it more. We often use the word, but what do we mean by it?

The Bennite and Marxist left define it mainly in terms of ownership, in some form, of the means of production – the Clause IV approach, if you like. Others define themselves as socialists on the basis of wanting to redistribute wealth through the tax system and expanded public services. And then there are those who, in talking about socialism, place the emphasis on outcomes.

Actor turned activist Cynthia Nixon said when she stood for Governor of the state of New York:

“If being a democratic socialist means that you believe healthcare, housing, education and the things we need to thrive should be a basic right, not a privilege, then count me in.”

Outcomes were also emphasised by Andrew Murray in his recent book The Fall and Rise of the British Left in which he argues for what – in a bit of a mouthful – he called “the decommodification of necessity”. He said:

“The extension of the principle of the NHS to all the basic necessities of a decent life is a goal worth shooting for.”

There are many views on this; but, whether you emphasise outcomes or public ownership or progressive taxation and public services, the common ground is a belief that neo-liberalism – the worship of profit-driven market forces – has failed to meet countless basic needs and created huge inequality, a climate crisis and a dangerous escalation of the arms race.

That common ground is not owned by people calling themselves socialists. Social democrats, people who defines their politics in all kinds of ways and people who don’t like labels at all share that common ground, or much of it.

Phil Collins is being sectarian and simplistic and his purge of ‘Corbyn supporters’ would be catastrophic rather than cathartic for Labour.

The party isn’t anybody’s ideological toy. It isn’t even like a continental social democratic party. It’s a mass organisation, based on the trade unions, that fights for people to have a better life. And it doesn’t matter whether we call ourselves a socialist, a social democrat or anything else because, whatever terms we use, nearly all of us have joined the party to fight for a society that works for the many not the few.

That’s what unites us. And the reason some people are so obsessively hostile to Jeremy Corbyn – in an almost cultish way – is that, in 2017, he led a campaign that showed how popular that vision could be.

  • Steve Howell was Labour’s Deputy Director of Strategy and Communication in 2017 is the and author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics. You can follow him on Twitter here.
  • Steve was amongst the speakers at our recent event on In Attacking Corbyn the Establishment is Waging War on Socialism – you can watch the event at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXI_qcoJtLY

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