Whatever happened to the People’s Assembly? This was the “grassroots” campaign founded by a host of what Alan Partridge would no doubt dismiss as “that lot”: Owen Jones, Mark Steel, Ken Loach. Oh, and Jeremy Corbyn, naturally.
You get the picture.
The assembly’s manifesto, published just before this year’s general election, stated: “There is no need for ANY cuts to public spending; no need to decimate public services, no need for unemployment or pay and pension cuts; no need for ‘Austerity’ and privatisation. There IS an alternative.”
Bear those rousing words in mind; we’ll come back to them.
Journalists and commentators love to relive and recreate political history. There’s nothing quite like speculation on the fact that X happened in the 1980s, therefore X may well happen again. So with the MP for Islington North seemingly coasting to victory in the Labour leadership election, journalists are fascinated by the prospect of an SDP-style split within Labour. Will those MPs and members who simply cannot tolerate Mr Corbyn’s hard left, campus-style socialism pack up and move to another party? Or even form a new one of their own?
Political forecasting over the past decade or so has become a devalued currency, so let’s make no hard and fast predictions here. But I strongly suspect the answer is no. Aside from the bear trap of an electoral system that threatens to strangle all minor parties at birth, there is a definite air of “Why should we move out? It was our party first” among the seemingly small proportion of Labour members who believe winning elections should be their party’s priority.
Such resistance as will exist within the party, particularly the Parliamentary Labour Party, will have to consider how to remove Comrade Corbyn in enough time to limit the party’s losses at the 2020 election. For surely few can doubt that, having voluntarily put itself in this absurd position, Labour has already, consciously and deliberately, conceded the next decade to the Conservatives, irrespective of who leads either party into battle in four and half years’ time.
The assumption that Labour MPs will conspire to remove even a leader as catastrophically ill-suited to leadership as Corbyn is a huge one; the body once described as “the most sophisticated electorate in the world” has a poor track record of acting to safeguard its own survival. For reasons of sentimentality and a misplaced, romantic notion of loyalty, it has, in the past, not just tolerated, but protected, leaders on whom the polls and the people have already given up.
It would be a brave commentator who predicted with any certainty that things will be different this time. The temptation for Labour MPs to follow past practice, to opt for a quiet life, to persuade themselves, unconvincingly, that the party would do even worse if it was exposed as disunited, is great. Especially when their local parties are now dominated by newly-recruited ‘three quid revolutionaries”.
But it’s quite possible that this time, things will be different. Corbyn doesn’t have the power to unify that MPs mistakenly accredited to Michael Foot. He doesn’t have the status of Prime Minister or the record in providing public service funding that prevented MPs from dispatching Gordon Brown. And unlike under Miliband, the polls will offer no comfort that a 35 per cent strategy might yet deliver a Labour-led coalition.
But as we consider the very real prospect of an anti-Corbyn coup, with all the obstacles to success such action would face (or, in LabourSpeak, “excuses for inaction”), we should not forget his supporters.
Those people, largely, but not exclusively, younger activists, will have witnessed the removal of someone who, to them at least, was the last great hope for socialism in our time. If you’ve spent the last five years taking part in sit-down protests in the City of London or even the Brighton branch of Top Shop to express your anger at billionaires’ tax avoidance, then Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was the answer to your dreams. Will you settle for Third-Time-Lucky Burnham as a replacement?
Many Corbyn supporters are conditional Labour supporters, prepared to campaign for the party only if Corbyn is elected. If he goes, they go.
Which brings us back to the People’s Assembly. Every faction of the hard left is involved: the Greens, Unite, the RMT, the Communist Party, Left Unity, Tariq Ali and, inevitably, John Pilger. It has a nationwide organisational structure that is well funded by, among others, the trade unions – some of which have already fallen out with Labour and have disaffiliated.
Having toured the TV studios to denounce the “traitors” who removed Corbyn, how else could the Assembly’s colourful array of spokespersons satisfy the aspirations of their bereft adherents, except by walking away from, and campaigning against, the Labour Party?
The People’s Assembly is ideally placed to provide the Limehouse Declaration of the 21st century, except with more guitars.
History does repeat itself, but rarely with exactly the same plot.
This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on 17 August 2015.