The Gospels of Luke and Jon
Jeremy Corbyn is in a pickle. He was elected by a landslide on a radical left-wing platform, but many of his trademark policies, including nuclear disarmament, have been blocked by MPs convinced they’re electoral suicide.
When respected parliamentarians like Ben Bradshaw openly describe Corbyn’s party management as “a total fucking shambles”, it’s pretty clear that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) isn’t going to practice the new politics anytime soon.
Without the support of his MPs, Corbyn can’t achieve much, and the slightest glance at his past career will tell you he’s not going to adopt the sort of moderate positions the PLP want. However, his huge mandate means his position as leader is impregnable for the immediate future. Both sides need something to change.
Corbyn’s best (and possibly only) hope of prevailing is to organise his grassroots followers to pressurise Labour MPs into supporting him. The MPs are well aware of this, and will need to do some organising of their own to counter it. All this organisation will require talented organisers, and two gifted men are currently squaring up.
In the Corbynite red corner is Jon Lansman, director of Momentum and veteran of Tony Benn’s Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the early 80’s. That campaign was about the mandatory reselection of MPs before every election, making their seats dependent on pleasing their constituency party. Since the decision was made by a small panel of easily placed party members, this was a fixers dream. Lansman successfully got this policy adopted by the party in 1981 but Neil Kinnock dropped it in 1990.
A watered down version of mandatory re-selection still exists in the form of “trigger ballots”. These are harder to rig because all the constituency members, plus members of affiliated trade unions get an equal vote — you can’t just put six hard left activists on a selection panel and get rid of a troublesome MP.
Fortunately for modern day fixers, the government is re-drawing the constituency boundaries this parliament, and abolishing fifty of them. This means there will be plenty of selection meetings for a dedicated organiser to turn their attention to, and Lansman is nothing if not a dedicated organiser — indeed he was the brains behind Corbyn’s leadership campaign.
The Corbyn campaign mobilised a vast surge of support, and built up a huge database of the contact details of their supporters. That database has now been transferred to the Momentum organisation, of which Lansman is a director. Lansman’s website states that Momentum will “campaign inside the Labour Party to change it into the campaigning organisation we need”. You can see why moderate Labour MPs view it with intense suspicion.
With the Corbyn for Leader database Lansman has the tool, but does he have the talent? The most successful/notorious (delete according to taste) fixer in the history of the Labour Party, John Golding, described Lansman’s skills as “superb” — there is no higher endorsement than that.
In the other red corner is Luke Akehurst. This is a man who knows the Labour Party rulebook like the back of his hand, has a vast knowledge of the trade union movement and watches every appointment like a hawk. His “Labour First” network is the closest organisation moderate MPs have to Momentum.
Sometimes incorrectly called a Blairite by the hard left, Akehurst is a proud member of Unite, and supported Ed Miliband for leader in 2010. He describes himself as “old Labour right”, which connoisseurs of Labour’s internal disputes instantly recognise as the faction of the aforementioned John Golding.
Despite the lack of grassroots support for the moderates, Akehurst has been able to secure some successes in the Corbyn era. Conference voted to renew Trident, mostly because the major unions were not willing to put their members out of work by calling for it to be scrapped. At a Labour First fringe event organised by Akehurst an impressive range of speakers pledged their support for moderation, including Yvette Cooper, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Vernon Coaker, and most intriguingly Deputy Leader Tom Watson.
Both Akehurst and Lansman sincerely believe that the future of the party depends on their side prevailing. For Lansman, this is about re-establishing Labour as an alternative to the Tories — he saw the Blair era as a surrender to Conservative principles. For Akehurst the very existence of Labour as a party capable of being elected is at stake.
As things stand, Momentum and Labour First are warily circling each other. Corbyn has said he has “absolutely no intention” of deselecting MPs, but his options for imposing discipline on his party are pretty limited otherwise, and his leadership could just fizzle out if he doesn’t do something. If the uneasy peace turns into a factional war, Labour will tear itself apart in the most bitter and public way imaginable.