By Alex Miller
The defection of nine Labour MPs, of whom eight were immediately joined by three Tory defectors in the Independent Group, marks a new phase in the ruling class offensive to attempt to prevent a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party winning the next general election.
The splitters themselves do not really believe they have the possibility to make a serious attempt to create a new party that could challenge Labour, they are primarily engaged in simple manoeuvre to stop a Corbyn led Labour Party winning sufficient seats to form a government. The Labour splitters aim is at a minimum to do sufficient damage to the Labour vote to deprive it of the gains in Labour-Tory marginals that it needs to win an election. The core of the group have no intention of making a serious fight to return to parliament as MPs for a new party. Luciana Berger, one of the most high profile, had already said she probably won’t stand again. The real aim of the splitters is to impose a defeat on Labour at the next election with the strategic aim that this would lead to the Labour right retaking control of Labour. There is therefore no fundamental difference in aim between the splitters and the Labour right – there is simply a difference in tactics.
The ‘Independent Group’s split is even more cynical, than the ‘Gang of Four’s’ split in 1981.
The aim of the 1981 Labour split was a serious attempt to replace Labour by building a new centrist party that brought together the Liberals with the Labour right – conceived of as reversing the historic split with the Liberals that had seen the birth of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century. The defectors set up the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and constructed a political alliance (the SDP-Liberal Alliance) with the Liberal Party in advance of the 1983 general election. At that election the share of the vote for this alliance fell short of Labour’s by just 2.5 per cent. Labour secured 27.9 per cent and the new alliance 25.4 per cent of the vote.
The first-past-the-post system and the distribution of the SDP’s vote geographically meant the alliance only secured 23 seats itself and failed to threaten Labour’s position as one of the two main parties. But it did achieve a significant shift in parliamentary seats from Labour to the Tories, aiding the Tories in gaining 38 seats in the 1983 election, from 359 to 397 (compared to 1979), despite the Tories losing a 1.5 per cent share of the vote. The SDP inflicted damage on Labour, the latter lost 52 seats, from 261 to 209, and its vote share fell 9.3 per cent.
The main aim of the 1981 split failed and no new centrist party emerged that could destroy Labour. And therefore the only effective outcome of Labour’s 1981 split was it kept the Tories in government, and they remained in office for the following 16 years. Those 16 years of course did huge damage to the population of Britain.
The only purpose of Labour’s defections this February is to try to keep the Tories in office at the next general election – and, as a result, to try to create the conditions for the right wing to retake control of the Labour party. This is not even dressed up as a real attempt to build a new Party – although the media continues to hype this possibility.
Since the election of Corbyn as Labour Leader in 2015 the main contradiction in British politics has become ‘for’ or ‘against’ Corbyn, with capital categorically ‘against’. Despite the ceaseless propaganda campaign against Corbyn, up till the defections, opinion polls indicated Labour maintaining a similar level of support to the Tories and the experience of 2017 showing Labour could advance from this in a general election campaign. The split is just a new mechanism for attacking Labour – as clearly the propaganda campaigns against Corbyn had not worked so far. It is a reminder of the power of the capitalist class – which has many more lines of defence than simply its open cheer leaders in the Tory Party.
Brexit and antisemitism
Having tried many failed lines of attack against Corbyn since he was elected Labour leader, capital has found that the two most successful in the last year were antisemitism and Brexit. These are therefore naturally issues that the defectors have taken as their excuse for leaving.
On Brexit the Independent Group hopes to weaken Corbyn’s support amongst his base, which has a large majority for Remain, a large minority for a soft Brexit – but who would prefer Remain to a No Deal Brexit or May’s Brexit deal, and a small minority for Leave under any circumstances. Labour has been systematically applying its agreed policy adopted at its last conference, supported by Jeremy Corbyn, and the Independent Group cynically attempt to use the impatience of some Corbyn supporters who favour Remain to attempt to undermine support for Corbyn – when in reality it is clear the Independent’s Group’s priority is to stop Corbyn not to stop Brexit. It is precisely because the Independent Group’s real goal is so transparent that the defectors attacks are seen as disingenuous even among some anti-Corbyn supporters of Remain, whose real priority is to stop Brexit not to stop Corbyn.
On the issue of antisemitism, there has been a campaign, including lies and exaggerations, since Corbyn became Labour leader. Antisemitism is a vile ideology which existed for centuries in Europe even before its ultimate culmination in the Holocaust. Antisemitism is opposed to every form of human progress and must be totally fought against. Labour has more than half a million members, amongst which there are a relatively small number of real antisemites who definitely need to be removed from the party – as do antisemites in all political parties. However this is not the reason for the campaign of exaggerations. That is being organised because of Corbyn’s support for the Palestinians. Corbyn has fought against racism for his entire political career and is not remotely a closet antisemite. His criticisms of Israel and support for Palestinian human rights are not antisemitic. He is resolute that the few real antisemites who have joined Labour should be dealt with immediately, entirely and excluded from the Labour Party.
The defectors have stepped up the vilification of Labour, with deliberately exaggerated claims of anti-Jewish prejudice inside Labour. Labour is correctly rebutting this exaggeration. Its General Secretary has released figures indicating such bigotry is confined to a tiny minority of Labour members while the party as a whole, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, is resolutely against any form of racism. However, the party is still failing to explain adequately why these dishonest attacks are made on Labour and Corbyn. This wrong handling of the attacks has enabled some damage to be inflicted. The correct way to handle this was put forward by Corbyn last September at Labour’s NEC.
In truth a Labour government led by Corbyn would be a powerful force combating the current rise of bigotry and all forms of racism, not just in Britain, but across Europe. The value of Corbyn to this struggle has been pointed out by 200 Jewish people in a recent letter to the Guardian.
Down with the splitters
Labour’s defectors do not have the power to replace the Labour Party, but their aim, most openly shown with their declared aim of running in marginal constituencies, is to deny Labour seats to the benefit of the Tories. Their principal objective is to stop Labour securing a majority or becoming the largest party in parliament at the next general election. The split could significantly harm Labour if the defectors are not thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the voters. That requires, in addition to rebutting the false charges levelled at it, that Labour thoroughly denounce these MPs for their real positions. They are entirely fake democrats, unwilling to let their constituents decide which party represents them, by calling by-elections. They are showing utter contempt for voters. They have abandoned Labour’s anti-austerity programme and its agenda to raise people’s living standards. They are open and explicit allies of the Tories – pledging to support the Tories in confidence votes in Parliament.
Challenging the reactionary politics of the defectors, discrediting them, and showing people who chose such a path will end their political careers, is the best strategic methods to deter defections.
The right wing wants to take advantage of the defectors’ attacks on the Labour leadership from outside the party, to increase the attacks from within. A current is being organised to work in alliance with the defectors. That is the purpose of Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson proposal for a ‘social democratic’ group of Labour MPs. That is also why the right wing opposes political attacks on the defectors and insists that Labour should ‘reach out’ and give credence to the defectors’ myths about Labour.
The majority within the Labour Party, who wish to see a Labour government, need to take the opposite approach to the right wing. The split should be denounced for what it is – merely an attempt to keep the Tories in government.