A Vow of Silence? A Chronicle of Internal Attempts to Sabotage the Labour Election Campaign

Forgive, Don’t Forget

Speaking on the BBC’s election night special, both Yvette Cooper and Jack Straw claimed that the Labour Party had been united behind Jeremy Corbyn during the election campaign. This is a lie. It is a lie motivated by the sudden, unexpected reality that the election result further secured Corbyn’s position. The only questions about this lie are whether it matters, and whether we should forget, for the sake of unity, the actual behaviour of senior Labour party figures during our campaign. We believe that it does, and we cannot and should not.

Throughout the election campaign, New Socialist kept a record of these irresponsible criticisms, and what we argue amounted to attempts at sabotage of the Labour Party’s election campaign. This criticism and attempted sabotage came from what we would describe as a party within a party, composed of elements of the Labour Party establishment.

In the wake of Labour’s fine result and the positive atmosphere in response to this, we considered whether to publish our detailed account and our analysis of this: ultimately, we decided that publishing remained worthwhile. The examples of behaviour referenced here are only a small sample of what we collected. We publish this not in order to single out individuals for blame, despite our conviction that a Labour government may well now be in place were it not for what we document here. While we welcome those who admit they were wrong about Corbyn and the prospects for a left-driven manifesto and election campaign, we publish this in order to argue that the events of the election campaign show all the more that it is necessary to implement widespread democratic reform of the Party, so as to ensure that those people who should be instruments of our movement, whether MPs or party bureaucrats, are made accountable to this movement.

While we would hope not to require use of the tools created by the democratisation we demand, we believe that these tools are necessary to ensure that elements within the Party do not act independently of, and instead respect, the expressed will of the Party membership. Indeed, when writing of mandatory reselection in the 1980s, Hilary Wainwright notes that its actual use was rare, and that the rules actually, “improved the relation between CLPs and their MPs."[1]

A Party Within a Party

The result on June 8th represented substantial progress both for Corbynism and Labour itself, as well as a total vindication of both the leadership and the party base who have doggedly, often in the face of widespread contempt from both the media and PLP, struggled in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and what it represents. Led by Corbyn, with significant support from most of the shadow cabinet and some MPs, Labour’s campaign was remarkably successful. The manifesto offered a serious programme for beginning to transform the UK and, thanks to its ability to relate to the needs of ordinary people across the country – significantly, across the Brexit/Remain divide – it brought many people into an enthusiastic engagement with electoral politics for the first time. Across the country, grassroots members both old and new, and even some non-members, went out to campaign for a Labour victory. Not all of these were people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in either leadership election, but nevertheless they struggled for a Labour government.

Very public disunity has been a constant under Corbyn’s leadership despite the claim, often repeated by a servile and incurious press, that the PLP had taken a “vow of silence” to allow Corbyn to fail on his own accord. That this disunity notably discouraged people from voting Labour was a claim tweeted out, gloatingly and disgustingly, by a number of Labour MPs. What is worse, many MPs were incapable of keeping quiet even once the election was called and this self-indulgent indiscipline – while tens of thousands of activists were giving up their free time to help get a Labour government elected and secure sitting MPs’ jobs – is our focus here. The popularity of Labour’s programme, coupled with the strong campaign and Corbyn’s obvious attractiveness as a potential Prime Minister when given fair media coverage and considerable unmediated exposure, could have won us the election. Unfortunately, the actions of a narrow set of people made this impossible. It is notable how many candidates from other parties covered their leaflets with quotes from Labour MPs attacking Corbyn, clearly feeling that signal-boosting these ostentatious displays of disunity would boost their electoral chances.

What we see here are the actions of a party within a party, comprising large parts of the PLP, many of the more senior bureaucrats at Labour HQ in Southside, senior figures in the Scottish and Welsh Parties, a large number of Labour councillors, and organisations including Progress and Labour First. This party within a party is smoothly integrated and (at least where convenient) ideologically coherent, though not homogenous. There are, most notably, meaningful differences between Progress’s ever more ludicrous efforts to reanimate Blairism, and the old-fashioned, nostalgic mode of class politics of Labour First. What is more, this grouping includes figures who are commonly identified with the “soft left”. What, ultimately, provides the basis for its coherence is primarily, and most immediately, its animus for any transformative idea of politics, and also its bureaucratism and view of Party members as essentially irresponsible and good for nothing but door-knocking.

Since Corbyn was elected party leader, their desire, even if it required a heavy election defeat, was for party members to be taught a lesson and to be forced into a return to placidity - abandoning real politics for minor disagreements between themselves over how benign a technocratic offer to make to the public and quite how far to go to indulge (that is produce, reproduce and intensify) “legitimate concerns” regarding immigration. What this will mean, however, is a situation where, “the bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up become anachronistic and at moments of crisis it is voided of all social content and left as though suspended in mid-air”.[2] It is important to note too that this faction of the party is smoothly integrated -- through a mixture of shared class interests, mutually beneficial leaks and social ties -- with the gossip peddlers who masquerade as political journalists in the Westminster lobby. This provides a basis for unaccountable, often anonymous leaks and slurs to be made, which cumulatively harmed the party’s prospects considerably.

What we document here demonstrates how far this party within a party will go in order to prevent Labour winning on a left programme. Moreover, even if the Party standing on such a platform was able to gain a majority, such an intransigent faction would prove a major impediment to the exercise of real power, and to that programme’s implementation. This faction will, we argue, always aim to constitute itself as a compact body, autonomous from this membership. If we want to win an election and to rule on the basis of a left programme, it is imperative that MPs, the bureaucracy at HQ, the Scottish and Welsh parties, and Labour councillors be brought fully under the control of the membership, and that those who actively seek to hinder our chances in elections be removed from positions that enable them to do so.

A Note on internal Opposition and Disloyalty

Some will argue that Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott have been serial rebels, and that the behaviour of the PLP-level party within a party towards them is merely the same. However, Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott’s opposition was serious and rooted in moral principle. It is not just that they were right (although they were) but that their opposition was serious – there is a difference between opposing the Iraq War, foundation hospitals and tuition fees and making “who ate all the pies?” jokes about a member of the shadow cabinet (Ian Austin and Neil Coyle, it appears the tweets have been deleted). Moreover, their opposition on the majority of substantive issues represented the expression of the will of the Party’s membership, in opposition to this (then-more powerful) faction’s attempts to stymie it. We believe that there are possible disagreements on points of principle and strategy that could be discussed seriously and in ways that would allow learning and becoming a more successful Party. What we document here is not such useful, comradely disagreement, indeed even when the most serious points of principle are at stake, but their integration into what Joe Kennedy has called “non-linear borefare”, an apparatus of constant triviality, where “rhetorics not of deceit but of cumulative irritation” means such discussion is debased and trivialised.

Immediately after the Election was Called

In the immediate wake of the election being called, John Woodcock, produced a video, promising were he elected and Labour won a majority he would not back Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. While ordinary party members rightly reacted with bafflement and fury to such a promise of material sabotage of the Party should it be elected to government, it was reported that the Labour NEC specifically endorsed Woodcock’s candidacy, with Tom Watson and Kezia Dugdale phoning in to the meeting especially to do so. Woodcock continued this line throughout the campaign, and similar but less clear positions were taken up by a number of candidates including Wes Streeting and Neil Coyle, both of whom argued that Corbyn was a dangerous liability.

“Legitimate Concerns”

A further theme throughout the campaign, particularly at its infancy, and perhaps the one that has been most comprehensively refuted by the result, was the Blue Labour-type claim that Corbyn was out of touch with ordinary working class voters on immigration. This argument was notably made by Michael Dugher in a fawning, valedictory interview with the lesser NS, and also proceeded through various #LabourDoorstep anecdotes and leaks from “senior Party sources” particularly in the North and Midlands. The sorry apotheosis of this tendency was Stephen Kinnock’s laying of the groundwork for a post-election leadership bid with a slogan borrowed - doubtless unknowingly, but nevertheless alarmingly - from Vichy France.

NATO Nia

Whilst most of the shadow cabinet, even those who had had disagreements with the leadership, behaved decently or better during the campaign, one exception was Nia Griffith, who had been appointed Shadow Defence Secretary following her apparent active opposition to nuclear weapons. Griffith, in a clearly unhelpful way, undermined Corbyn by publicly stating her enthusiasm not only for their retention but for their use. It was unsurprising, therefore, to see The Guardian speculate shortly after the election that her removal from her shadow cabinet post could be imminent.

The Scottish and Welsh Labour Parties

Other parts of the party aiming for autonomy from the leadership and the membership, to better integrate itself into the dominant social organisation, were the Scottish and Welsh Labour Parties. It is standard practice for Scottish and Welsh Labour to publish their own manifestos, partly in recognition of the different political contexts and varying degrees of devolved powers in each nation. However, what was disappointing is to see was the consistent emphasis of their difference from the Corbyn-led Party and programme from the Welsh Labour leadership. Indeed, one key Plaid Cymru attack has been “There are 3 different Labour manifestos each promising different things”. Moreover, Kezia Dugdale actually advocated tactical voting for the Tories in some Scottish seats.

Labour HQ

The attempts to restrict as much power as possible to an autonomous bureaucracy, using the membership only for door-knocking, unsurprisingly extended to senior party staff at their Southside HQ. The disruptive role of Southside has already been detailed by Corbyn’s former spokesman Matt Zarb-Cousin, and continued into the campaign, with unnamed members of party staff threatening a strike if Corbyn stayed on as leader post-election. It’s worth addressing the function of this, the strike threat was not only a threat to inconvenience practically but, through the chummy integration with the press, to generate a ludicrous story about Corbyn being anti-worker. We are also aware of a number of cases where inept behaviour from HQ and absurd allocation of resources seriously damaged vital campaigns and organisation: in many such cases it was only the independent efforts of Momentum activists that rescued the situation. Such a situation further bolsters the demand that the General Secretary of the Labour Party be elected by the membership as part of bringing the party bureaucracy under democratic control, and New Socialist wholeheartedly endorses such a demand.

Progress

The joint Labour First/Progress ‘3 Seats Challenge’ road trip series studiously avoided directing activists to seats held by left and Corbyn-supporting MPs. Most egregiously, the Wales and the North West leg took in Progress Chair Alison McGovern’s Wirral South (majority 4,559), whilst avoiding neighbouring Wirral West held by Corbyn supporter Margaret Greenwood (majority of just 416). Questions also need to be asked here about the role of regional offices, in this case North-West regional office, whose priorities often smoothly aligned with those of Progress in allocating campaign resources, including in the case of these two Wirral seats.

This is in stark contrast to the efforts of Momentum’s “rabble” during the campaign. Their My Nearest Marginal tool, which despite receiving criticism for an initially partial launch, directed users to all marginal constituencies regardless of the politics of the Labour candidate. More to the point, Momentum organised a number of campaign visits to seats with moderate candidates and even some where the candidate has been openly hostile to Corbyn. The Croydon Central candidate Sarah Jones (a Liz Kendall supporter in 2015) told the lesser NS that “absolutely tonnes” of Momentum volunteers had contributed to her campaign.

Progress’s director Richard Angell, meanwhile, engaged in very public misrepresentation of and hostility towards party policy throughout the campaign -- misrepresentation and hostility that clearly could only harm the electoral chances of the Party. Early in the campaign, Angell’s bizarre insistence that less NHS care would be provided as a result of abolishing hospital car parking charges (and his attendant repeated incantation of “CARE NOT CAR PARKS”), represented unhelpful opposition to a policy that was feasible, clear, and likely to be popular with broad swathes of the electorate. Five days before election day, Angell took to twitter to denounce the manifesto as “more fantasy and less responsibility/affordability” (sic) than that of the Party in 2015. The low point of Progress’ campaign of carping and undermining, however, was possibly Angell’s denunciation of Corbyn’s post Manchester attack speech, published just minutes before a poll demonstrating significant public support for Corbyn’s position was released.

This open campaign of hostility which, assuming anyone outside Progress’s bubble of SpAds still even bothers listening to this rump Blairite holdout, could only harm the Party at an election that was a matter of days away. We believe that the time to take seriously the proscription of Progress is long overdue, and that the evidence required to support such a proposal is now considerable.

Diane Abbott

A theme throughout the election was attacks on Diane Abbott. Whilst a feature of the most disgusting parts of the gutter press and Tory attack ads, the environment in which these attacks could take place was nourished by reprehensible behaviour from Labour MPs, behaviour made all the more reprehensible by the fact that such people could reasonably be hoped to behave in a spirit of solidarity, decency and respect that would not be expected of more gutter elements.

MPs such as Jim Fitzpatrick, as well as Labour insiders, gloated about Abbott’s rather minor TV interview mistakes. In a chummy “Blind Date” with Tory John Whittingdale, Jess Phillips further mocked such errors. Most despicably of all, one MP – sharply demonstrating the integration of a certain laddish, white male section of the PLP with their friends in the media – texted Tim “Shippers” Shipman, the repulsive line "Making Diane Abbott Home Secretary would be like making Jimmy Savile the children's commissioner".

It is important to note the function of this abuse, and Abbott herself has written significantly on it. Her words are worth quoting at length:

I went into politics to create space for women and other groups who have historically been treated unfairly. Once, the pushback was against the actual arguments for equality and social justice. Now the pushback is the politics of personal destruction. This is doubly effective for opponents of social progress. Not only does it tend to marginalise the female “offender”, but other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly, let alone getting involved in political activity.

The gloating and “banter” by people ten thousand times less significant that Diane Abbott, who will be quite rightly forgotten the moment they step down, is not innocent. The abuse of such a trailblazer, whose presence and determination have vastly improved Britain, is functional: its function is to exclude from public life women of colour, and particularly women of colour who challenge oppression as much as Diane Abbott so proudly has throughout her political career.

Local Campaigns: Defeatist Talk

The omission of Corbyn from campaign literature is perhaps unsurprising if frustrating. What is more disappointing is the absence of incredibly popular manifesto commitments from moderate candidates’ campaigns.

Some candidates, including Ben Bradshaw and Wes Streeting, sprinkled their campaign literature with the word “independent”, distanced themselves entirely from Corbyn, and even offering up a meagre alternative in the form of a “personal manifesto” instead of associating themselves with Labour’s official (and very popular) policies.

Others such as Vernon Coaker went as far as to shun Labour colours for their campaign literature, posters and garden signs.

It is also worth adding that many members of the PLP made strong attacks on Theresa May and the Conservatives without ever positively advocating for Labour’s programme (the most notable of these figures was Yvette Cooper, see below), particularly while emphasising, as with Bradshaw, the dangers of a landslide Tory majority.

This strategy is a rather deliberate one - in emphasising their independence and personal achievements any victory can be attributed to those factors and those factors alone. In de-emphasising the role of Corbyn and his manifesto, should they lose they can then point to its deleterious effect upon their ‘personal’ vote. This strategy also served to repeat the anti-Corbyn arguments about the need for a “strong opposition”, attempting to limit politics to a frame that was defensive and purely Westminster focused, which would cut the project from its great strength - its ability to generate new values and link to popular needs and struggles.

Defeatist talk, and separating from Corbyn continued right up to the end, including from Streeting, Peter Kyle and Neil Coyle in this long, remarkably tedious and hilariously inaccurate “long-read” from Jason Cowley.

Split Talk and the French Election

The French election, coming at the time when Labour were beginning to gather momentum in the polls, produced a whole set of odd fantasies, and bizarre statements. Most of these involved talk of a formal split of the party, but perhaps most reprehensible was Pat Glass’s odd argument that Marine Le Pen and Corbyn were essentially identical. More typical, and widely leaked to the political journalists whose world is smoothly integrated with that of the party within a party, were various fantasies about a new centrist party, led by a British Macron. Such reports claimed that as many as 100 MPs including Dan Jarvis wished to form a breakaway Party should Corbyn remain leader after the election. A more developed version of a split plan was outlined by Frank Field.

Manifesto

As with the claim that the PLP was united during the campaign, there has been considerable revisionism from many around the manifesto. Now it has been proved to be a popular, even inspiring document, many wish to retrocast themselves as having always supported it. This is, of course, a lie. In sabotage around the manifesto, the story begins with its leak from HQ, further showing how far the party bureaucracy were prepared to go to sabotage the campaign. In the wake of its leak, a number of MPs, attacked the manifesto. Frank Field described it as “childish”, Ben Bradshaw also distanced himself, other MPs attacked the manifesto’s lack of attacks on migrants, one anonymous MP described it as reading like “a 10-year old’s letter to Santa Claus” and a further anonymous MP claimed it paid too much attention to the “feckless poor”.

On the day the manifesto was launched, our research into the PLP’s social media activity shows that only roughly a quarter of those who tweeted that day even acknowledged the manifesto. Moreover, many of those who praised it did so only to highlight more conventional individual policies – often good ones nonetheless, such as ending burial fees for children – rather than the transformative nature of the the manifesto as a whole. On the day of the manifesto launch, MPs did have time, however, to tweet criticism of other parties’ manifestos without mentioning Labour (Christina Rees), retweet a crudely made sign praising his experience (Alan Whitehead), or tweet various pictures of themselves with dogs (Kevan Jones).

Yvette Cooper’s Leadership Campaign

Throughout the election campaign, if one had only studied the twitter accounts of the PLP, it would have appeared that Labour were being led by Yvette Cooper, and that the main plank of Labour’s policy programme was to increase sentences for those convicted of attacking police officers. The point here is not just that this is a bad policy, but that it is a trivial one if one is thinking about the issues the country faces, and the issues that were likely to be salient with the lived experience of voters. On the day of the manifesto launch, substantially more MPs (including Ian Austin and Jack Dromey) tweeted praise for Cooper. All of this distancing from Corbyn and treating Cooper as if she were already Labour leader was clearly in preparation for an attempt to install Cooper by the PLP, and attempting to break entirely from the democratic control of the people whose hard work secured their seats.

On election night itself, it was notable that the likes of Charles Clarke, Alan Johnson, and Jack Straw were placed and timed to appear with Grid-like efficiency across TV studios -- presumably to call for such a change in the immediate aftermath of the exit poll's announcement and of declarations in bellwether seats.

Manchester

In the wake of the Manchester terrorist attacks, many leading Labour figures attacked Corbyn for being an apologist for terrorism. In some instances, bleakly comically, for example with Andy Burnham, the attack involved a misrepresentation of Corbyn’s position, followed by stating a rather ineptly articulated version of a similar position to Corbyn’s as his own. Neil Coyle, Wes Streeting, Mike Gapes offered various pieces of snide condemnation too, as did various other anonymous MPs and candidates.

Conclusions: Where Now?

At this point party unity is necessary, and this requires a certain amount, and certain type, of forgiveness from the left. However, this party unity, while unquestionably necessary, cannot be on the typical terms, which entails the left who, as this campaign has further proved care more about the good of the Party than the right, at least in the PLP, being prepared to compromise first.

Only if it can be satisfactorily demonstrated that compromise on the part of the Party’s right is genuine and permanent should it be forgiven. We are concerned that, despite the odd show of contrition from those involved in the sabotage we have detailed, the right in both the PLP and senior sections of the party bureaucracy will be unlikely to accept, permanently, compromise with both the membership and the leadership. We are concerned that the necessary push to remake the Party, to make use of all the talents and capacities of the membership will be resisted by this faction precisely because it undermines so strongly their conception of what the Party should be. This is not only a question of the form the Party should take, but of how its democratisation would entail taking policy-making out of the backrooms and onto – even beyond – the conference floor. This will further undermine their unaccountable power and class interests, as well as their function of representing these ruling class interests within the Labour Party.

Furthermore, it remains necessary to push for the democratisation of candidate selection, including for mandatory reselection, and for the subjecting of the party bureaucracy to the membership, beginning with the election of its General Secretary. This would ensure that a reached compromise could be enforced, that the capacities and skills of those who worked tirelessly for a Labour victory are foregrounded, and that those who continue to disrupt our prospects and aim to disconnect from the Party’s base can be removed. The outcome of the election has clearly demonstrated the appetite for the policies promoted by the movement around Jeremy Corbyn. It is now more crucial than ever that revanchist elements within the Labour Party, whose hostility both has been ostentatiously displayed and has already proven damaging, must not be allowed to sabotage its future electoral progress.


  1. Hilary Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth, 1987, p. 33. ↩︎

  2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1973, p. 211. ↩︎


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