Notes from the front of 13-10-16
Following his re-election as Labour Leader in September, Jeremy Corbyn has reshuffled his front bench team, and is again pushing the government on to the back foot.
Corbyn increased his vote share in the leadership election from last year, by 2.4 per cent to 61.8 per cent, securing a majority in all categories of Labour’s electorate; Members, Registered Supporters and Affiliated Supporters.
So whilst this summer’s coup attempt failed to oust Corbyn, it did however significantly take the pressure off the Tories, precisely at the time when Cameron’s foolhardy referendum precipitated the current Brexit crisis. Instead of the Tories being under attack for creating Brexit chaos and imposing a new Prime Minister on the country, the Tory media and Labour’s right wing intensified the offensive against Corbyn. Labour was plunged into a pointless leadership election, which clearly damaged its standing in the polls.
Corbyn has again put together a politically inclusive front bench. At the time of writing, the front bench team includes 25 of the 63 MPs who resigned in June’s attempt to topple him. The key new appointment is that of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary. Corbyn is opposed to the Tories pushing through a hard Brexit and set out his defence of freedom of movement of people in his Labour Conference speech. In her new role Abbott will be responsible for immigration policy and will put up a determined opposition to the Tories’ xenophobic proposals. As a result she is under frenzied attack from the Tory media.
The decision to replace Rosie Winterton as Chief Whip was entirely correct. For the past year there has been little evidence of discipline being imposed on Labour MPs. The whipping operation has tolerated and, according to some reports, coordinated public attacks on the party leadership. Any Labour Leader would expect to have the key organiser in the whips’ office acting for them, and not against. Similarly any Labour Leader is entitled to have front bench representatives on Labour’s NEC that support their agenda, so it was also correct to replace Jonathan Ashworth with Kate Osamor.
A Labour opposition, whoever is party leader, needs a front bench team that works together on opposing the government. In the current situation the leadership is best placed to assemble such a front bench. If the Shadow Cabinet was elected by Labour MPs it would be used by the right wing as a base for attacking the leadership rather than opposing the Tories. So the discussions that started in the summer about Shadow Cabinet elections would best be abandoned.
The reshuffled Labour front bench is the most effective team that can be put together at present. It is already making the running on grammar schools and Brexit. On the latter issue Labour has demanded the government answer 170 questions about its approach and Corbyn is correctly blaming the Tories for the current economic and political chaos.
Now that the leadership election is out of the way, the majority of Labour’s members want the party to pull together, focus on attacking the government and set out Labour’s alternative policies.
However a determined hard core on Labour’s right wing remains focussed on ousting the Leader. It is already planning for another leadership election and has little interest in Corbyn inflicting damage on the Tories. So recent meetings of the parliamentary party continue to be used for making highly publicised attacks on the Leader. Meanwhile leading Blairites are feeding the Tory press with their repeated claims that Labour is unelectable whilst Corbyn is Leader. David Blunkett has even told Daily Mail readers that Labour is now the ‘nasty party’. These efforts clearly undermine the electoral standing of the party. The aim is to grind down the resolve of party members over their choice of leader in advance of the next leadership contest.
In relation to Labour’s internal struggle attention will now focus on the parliamentary party, the front bench and Labour’s NEC. At forthcoming NEC meetings the right will be seeking to build on their advance at Labour conference. There it was agreed to add two additional places for representatives of the Scottish and Welsh Labour Leaders, effectively creating two new seats for Labour’s right wing. The left needs to act as determinedly as its opponents and be prepared for this continuing offensive.
Most important for Labour is that it addresses the current economic and political crisis, so fights against the Tories’ Brexit agenda. The Tories remain weak and are likely to become increasingly divided as May pushes forward for a hard Brexit. The population would be worse off outside the EU so Labour should continue the fight to remain in. As part of that, it should fight to stay in the single market, with of course the free movement of people. But if you are in that market you ought also to be in the EU, as it is important to have a say in the decisions governing the market. Labour should support the call for the exit terms the Tories negotiate with the EU to be voted on, either by the population in an exit terms referendum or in parliament. The priority must be to defend the interests of the population.
The Labour left has some time before the next local elections to prepare some policy proposals that people can clearly see would make them better off under a Labour government. Announcing such policies before May 2017 would help win over more Labour support.
Women in Poland have scored a significant victory by defeating a bill to issue a complete ban on abortion in the country. Huge demonstrations were organised throughout the country, which were joined by many solidarity protests around the world. This led to the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) withdrawing its support for the bill, representing a significant political retreat by the conservative government.
Poland has moved sharply to the right since PiS came into power last year. The new government has attempted to gain control of the levers of the state, such as the Constitutional Court and Media. Also, it has taken one of the most reactionary stances in Europe on refugees and applied a policy of historical revisionism that involves a new programme of ‘decommunisation’. PiS have also informally allied with the organisations of the far-right that have grown in confidence and activity in recent months.
At the end of September two citizens’ bills were presented to parliament on abortion. PiS had previously claimed that it would allow a vote in parliament on any citizens’ bill presented to parliament (these require the collection of at least 100,000 signatures). However, the vast majority of its MPs subsequently helped to throw out the bill on liberalising the abortion law, whilst allowing the one on further restricting abortion to go forward to a vote in parliament. This bill would have outlawed abortion in all cases – including when the pregnancy is the result of rape; a woman’s life or health is threatened and the health of the baby is under threat. It included the proposal that women could even be jailed if they have an abortion. The bill was extremely unpopular, with only around 10 per cent of society supporting it.
There was an immediate reaction, as women’s organisations and the left intensified their protests. This escalated into the ‘black protest’, as women dressed in black to express their opposition to the bill; and on Monday 3 October a national strike of women was called. What was remarkable about this day is that protests were held not only in large cities, but also spontaneously around the country. Protests were organised in around 140 different localities, reflecting the huge breadth of opposition to this bill. These differed from the ‘pro-democracy’ demonstrations that have taken place over the past year, which although large in size have tended to be restricted to a few large cities. In contrast these pro-choice protests spread throughout the country and were organised by many who had never been politically active before.
Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Despite the government’s decision to vote down this bill in parliament, it is possible that it will decide in the future to return with a ‘compromise’ bill, that will place some new, although less harsh, restrictions on abortion in Poland. A new social movement has been born in the country, but it is yet to be seen whether it will be able to consolidate and push for the further liberalisation of the country’s abortion law. The Polish left remains weak and divided. However, this success shows that it is possible to force the back government when enough pressure is placed upon it.