The sound of Blairite silence
Owen Smith has become the willing dupe of the Labour right
No matter how hard you listen it’s impossible to hear the Blairite wing of Labour. They have shut up shop. The Progress website looks like it’s being maintained by interns, while there are no official Progress events being held until the day after the leadership election (Angela Eagle and a venture capitalist, since you ask).
During their attempt to stop Corbyn getting on the ballot paper, the right launched Saving Labour — there’s no information about where it gets its money, who its officers are, what it’s statues are. It organised a day of street stalls, issued three press releases and went quiet on 28 July.
It’s been superseded by “Labour Tomorrow” — a private company with a reported £250,000 war chest to fight Jeremy Corbyn once he wins. This money will be distributed only to “moderate centre left organisations”. No other other information provided on its website apart from a single blog post by David Blunkett and Cold War union rightwinger Brenda Dean. No explanation of what “centre left” means, again no indication of where the money’s coming from.
The purpose of this Blairite* dumb-show is to foist the entire job of keeping Labour under the control of the neoliberal elite onto the soft left around Owen Smith.
The aim, clearly, is to reduce the ballot to: which face would you like to see at PMQs? Perky, untested, bland, technocratic Owen, or gnarled, unpredictable Jeremy? The massive differences in policy, strategy and class orientation signalled by the emergence of Labour Tomorrow are not to be allowed to surface in the actual election itself.
Thus, Smith’s campaign has been designed as Jeremy Lite. Nearly as left wing as Corbyn, only competent at playing the parliamentary game. Close to Corbyn, but a bit “more patriotic” and less “metropolitan”.
To facilitate the illusion that this is about two left wingers with marginal disagreements, something else had to go quiet: the tabloid media. There has been almost no right-wing criticism of Smith’s faux-left programme in the papers.
Normally, if a Labour figure stood up and, from thin air, plucked a £200bn spending pledge based on a wealth tax, the Sun, the Mail and the Telegraph would have reporters going through his bin-bags.
It’s the same 0ver Smith’s call for a second referendum. The pr0-Brexit tabloids would normally be eviscerating any Labour figure who called, effectively, for people to be made to “vote until they vote the right way”. But they’re silent over this.
Revealingly, the second referendum call is the kind of gestural trick that you can only pull off if you’ve no chance of winning. What if people vote for Brexit again? — Smith has no answer and is never asked. But coping with the actual Brexit process, as actual Leader of the Opposition, is the practical question Corbyn has to deal with now. It involves consultation, juggling the various Labour interest groups: Scotland, the unions, northern MPs etc.
Smith has named no putative shadow cabinet. He has made no attempt to define his future relationship with the Blairites, or the Brown-era veterans such as Yvette Cooper who stood down last Summer. There’s no plan because the Owen campaign does not believe Owen himself would ever be allowed to call the shots. If Corbyn is defeated it will be Peter Mandelson, Brenda Dean and David Blunkett calling the shots. And behind them millionaires like Michael Foster who called Corbyn’s supporters “sturm abteilung”.
This summer of Labour right omertà reached its nadir yesterday when Smith inadvertently blurted out that he wanted Britain to negotiate “round the table” with ISIS.
Corbyn immediately and clearly rejected the idea. If Corbyn had said it though, the right would have screamed blue murder. It was quietly put to bed by Fleet Street, with a retraction. Instead the headlines were about Corbyn failing to recognise a picture of B-list celebrities Ant and Dec, with the New Statesman rushing out an immediate condemnation of Corbyn’s alleged “disrespect for popular culture”.
Smith is part of a whole generation of Labour MPs who sounded left wing, but you could never quite place what was left about them. They have willingly shouldered the task of keeping Labour under the influence of big pharma, big finance and big war. And they are losing.
Neither Smith, nor his backer Ed Miliband, nor any of those around them, have bothered to give an account of why Labour failed in 2015. But the right have. For the Blairites the failure of 2015 happened because Miliband was too left wing. Because he failed to reach out to the mythical “centre” of politics. Plus — and remember these are the supposed ultra-Europeanists of Labour — they want tougher rhetoric against immigration.
Since key Blairite nabobs were seen running Angela Eagle’s office during her short-lived leadership bid, and since Eagle has given way to Smith as a “unity candidate”, it would be logical to ask: what does Owen Smith think of the Blairite right and its project. What’s Owen’s relationship to Progress, Saving Labour and Labour Tomorrow?
But nobody asks it. Not the media. Not the TV anchors, because they’re too busy spitting the word “Trotskyist” and “antisemite” into the faces of pro-Corbyn interviewees.
At the Gateshead hustings, and even more so at the Nottingham one televised by the BBC, something that should have been obvious about Smith finally emerged. He doesn’t seem to believe in anything.
Sure, he has “policies”. But they are, in general, whatever Jeremy says only less. And he’s a patriot. And he has a “normal family”.
Smith’s conversion to Jeremy Lite socialism is so shallow and recent that there is no backstory to it. With Tony Benn you understood how he moved from the centre to the left; the same with Ed Miliband, who had to be dissuaded by his minders from visiting the student occupation of UCL in 2010.
With Owen Smith it is never clear where, on the road from BBC Wales, via Pfizer, via the years as a special adviser in Belfast surrounded by all those nice members of MI5, via losing Blaenau Gwent to an independent because he was too identified with Blair… at what point did Owen become converted to Jeremy Lite left radical socialism?
This combination — of high personal ambition and the lack of a permanent belief system — is exactly the right attribute for someone whose purpose is to be a placeholder for the Blairite counter-revolution. Who can forget, after all, that Angela Eagle — the original placeholder — launched her campaign without a single policy.
Smith is there to remove the grip of Corbyn, and Corbynism on those few parts of the Labour machine it controls. After that the money amassed by Saving Labour, Progress and Labour Tomorrow will be used to fund the party’s re-conversion to a safe tool of the global elite. It will be back to normal.
At every stage, the pro-1% Labour machine has tried to suppress democracy: it tried to force Corbyn off the ballot paper; it tried to debar new, pro-Corbyn members from voting; it tried to produce a new Labour leader without a vote; it imposed an arbitrary cut-off date for new members voting.
At the same time the Labour right is promoting an series of largely unfounded victim narratives: that “Corbyn is antisemitic” (backed up with a defamatory attack on Shami Chakrabarti). It’s promoted the narrative of misogyny, of physical threats, of “Trotskyist entrism”, of Corbyn “sabotaging” the Remain campaign.
We must anticipate the outcome of this — on the principle that Chekov outlined in theatre: if a gun appears in Act I, by the end of Act III someone is going to get shot.
Every signal from the Labour right appears to point towards a second coup against Corbyn, once he wins the leadership election, which will make Owen Smith’s current effort look like a sideshow.
The plan was spelled out in the Bagehot column of the Economist two weeks ago: declare yourselves “True Labour” in parliament; claim the legal role of HM Opposition; attempt to take unions and CLPs with you — if necessary by bureaucratic declarations; fight for the party’s name and assets in the courts on the grounds that it is you — the breakaway group — which truly represents Labour’s social democratic heritage. Bagehot advises the Labour coup-plotters:
“True Labour’s role would then not be to compete amicably with Mr Corbyn’s “Labour” but to marginalise or, ideally, destroy it by appropriating the Labour mantle through sheer weight, dynamism and persuasiveness. I see few reasons to believe that such a party would lack the talent, prominence, funding potential and organisational ability to do so.”
You may ask: what does the Bagehot column in the perennially neoliberal Economist know? Well its author is Jeremy Cliffe, formerly intern at the Party of European Socialists in Brussels, aide to Chuka Umunna and activist in the Ed Miliband for Leader campaign. He’s written a perceptive policy paper on the cosmopolitanisation of British politics and is probably one of the best informed UK journalists in the sphere of Labour and European social democracy.
So join the dots. The fact that the Court of Appeal judges took seriously Labour HQ’s fears of “entryism”, when they OK-d the retrospective disenfranchisement of 130k Labour members, tells you where this is going.
The whole “violence, anti-semitism, misogyny and Trotskyism” scare is designed to end up as the small print of an Appeal Court — or Supreme Court — judgment, once Bagehot’s plan is put into action.
That, if you are mystified, is why they are pushing it so assiduously; why when one scare dies out they promote another, no matter how ludicrous or unfounded. And why — apart from the victim narrative — senior Blairite politicians are saying nothing political in public, appearing nowhere alongside Smith, and suppressing the very real criticisms they have in private of Owen’s dire hustings performance, and his Jeremy-Lite left socialism.
In all this, Smith and his backers have a choice to make. Are they going to be the willing accomplices of the real coup, which lies ahead? Right now they acting like willing dupes: like the Auguste clown at the circus, who stands there pretending he doesn’t know the Whiteface clown has a custard pie behind his back. But that can’t go on.
Smith has held a spate of risibly small street rallies, whose low-point was the “ice cream van” rally in Liverpool (pictured) and whose high point has yet to be reached. His campaign is foundering.
But it is having one tangible effect: to tank Labour in the polls. A whole new genre of polling has been invented designed to show that Labour voters prefer the Theresa May to Corbyn. Soon, on the basis of these polls, some obliging person in Labour HQ will draw up a list of seats Labour expects to lose in the next election. Then the list will be leaked.
But Labour activists should, for now, ignore the polls and the projections. After Brexit we are no longer in an electoral “cycle”. UKIP’s collapse — to 6% in one poll — is fuelling the Tories and the Labour infighting is doing the rest.
The polls that matter will be those that register: a) the impact of Corbyn as Labour leader and the effect of any Labour unity initiative that happens when he wins; b) the potential crack-up of UKIP and which way its voters break c) how people feel once the Tory Brexit begins sucking the life out of the economy, combined with a Boris-led fiasco in the exit negotiations.
But the “bad polling narrative” is important for what the right is planning next. If we turn the Bagheot plan into a timeline it goes like this.
On 22 August the voting starts. By 5 September when parliament returns for two weeks it will be clear Smith has no chance of winning. There is one final opportunity for Labour rebels to try and destroy Corbyn using parliamentary sabotage. We will see the same humiliation and bullying techniques they’ve deployed, from the back benches — with comrade Owen smiling his approval from beside the Speaker’s chair, never joining in of course, and “deploring intimidation”.
Once that fails, the next phase will begin just before the 24 September special conference. This will be the phase of splits, legal actions, High Court rulings and attempts at the physical seizure of the party’s assets. That’s what these ominous one-page websites of Saving Labour and Labour Tomorrow are preparations for.
It won’t be led by Owen Smith. Like Angela Eagle before him, he will be squeezed out like a tube of toothpaste and discarded. But at that point Smith and the soft left MPs around him have to decide what they’re going to do.
Right now, they understand Jeremy-Lite is not working. There’s an argument inside the Smith team between those who want him to set out policy alternatives to Corbyn; and those who want simply to up the tempo of personal attacks on Corbyn, over competence, security etc.
Logically, the only way to make the “attack Corbyn” tactic work would be to drag up his record as an anti-imperialist (or as the Tories put it “a security risk”). If Smith goes for the latter, he is effectively signalling the end of any attempt to win over the pro-Corbyn left.
Meanwhile the Blairites could not give a shit whether Owen Smith backs talks with ISIS, favours a mild fiscal stimulus or ending the public sector pay freeze; or whether Corbyn supported a united Ireland. They do not intend to be in the same party as Jeremy Corbyn’s 300,000+ supporters come Christmas and they are deeply relaxed about whether Owen Smith and his mates will come along for the ride.
With every Labour hustings that does not bring meltdown for Corbyn, Smith and his supporters face a looming choice. Are they going to go on playing the willing dupe to Blairism, or — when the time comes — fight Blairism in alliacne with Corbyn’s supporters?
Sadly for Smith’s camp, the sequences overlap. On 5 September parliament will be back and Owen is either with Corbyn against the #BagehotCoup, or agin him. By 24 September, it will be a straight fight for the body and soul of Labour, against people who believe MPs like Nandy, Malhotra etc crossed the line of acceptability when they agreed even to be in Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet.
Smith should end his leadership challenge now. If he can’t, theres still a way of de-weap0nising it for the right. Smith’s aides could indicate they will refuse to join a split; they could pledge — now not later — to respect the legal right of the winner of the race to run the Labour Party; and pledge to collaborate in the work of opposing the Tories in parliament.
The price for Corbyn should be — again, now not later — to offer them specific posts in a unity shadow cabinet, clear input into the leader’s office and the HQ, and a Labour policy agenda that compromises between what Corbyn’s supporters want, and what Smith’s want. The result would be to negate Blairism and speed its exit from the party.
* Throughout this article I use the term Blairite and Blairism as a political category, not a term of abuse.
- I corrected a few typos – thanks for pointing them out