In trying to avoid splits over Brexit, Labour's conference has become hopelessly inward-looking, and created divisions regardless

Brexit makes Corbyn’s activist supporters feel uncomfortable, either because they share his opposition to the capitalist EU or because they don’t and are worried that he still does

John Rentoul
Saturday 22 September 2018 19:55
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Jeremy Corbyn arrives at Labour party conference in Liverpool

As the nation is about to enter the most fateful few months in its relationship with the rest of Europe for a generation, the Labour Party is about to talk about itself. Clement Attlee, venerated by Corbynites as John the Baptist to Jeremy Corbyn, warned the faithful about this kind of thing.

“There is a danger that a party may be so concerned about its own health,” Attlee wrote in 1937, “that it becomes ... incapable of taking an active part in affairs. It may discuss its own internal condition to such an extent that it disgusts all those with whom it comes in contact.”

Talk about historical ironies. That passage was quoted by Tony Blair, the 29-year-old would-be MP, when he wrote to Michael Foot in 1982. Former leader quoted by future leader to try to impress current leader. The other irony being that Attlee, founder of Nato, builder – in secret – of Britain’s atomic bomb; author of austerity, is idolised by the people who now control his party and for whom he would have had no time whatsoever.

Still, the Labour Party is assembling in Liverpool for its annual conference, where the leadership will try to put the debate about Brexit to one side so that delegates can devote themselves to the serious business of discussing the party’s rule book.

The grassroots campaign for the party to endorse a second referendum on the terms of our departure from the EU will be diverted into the antique procedure called compositing. Dozens of motions submitted by local parties will be merged into a single text that will keep open the option of another referendum without committing the party to it.

Brexit makes Corbyn’s activist supporters feel uncomfortable, either because they share his longstanding opposition to the capitalist EU or because they don’t and are worried that he still does. So next week they will be happier debating the things on which they think all true socialists must agree.

These are: one, the need to clear out Blairite MPs who are constantly undermining their leader; two, the need to ensure that Corbyn will be succeeded as leader by another Corbynite. On both fronts, the Corbynites have hit unexpected internal opposition. Hence the nine-hour session of the party’s ruling National Executive on Tuesday, which reconvenes today.

It is always dangerous to make predictions in politics, but particularly so while a meeting is in session, so I will merely try to explain the background. Momentum, the Corbyn leadership supporters’ club, wants “open selection” of parliamentary candidates. This means that sitting MPs would face a ballot of all local party members if they want to stand at the next election.

This sounds perfectly democratic, but non-Corbynites don’t like it because they think it would lead to ideological purity tests, taking the party further from the voters. But the surprise is that Corbyn-supporting trade unions don’t like it either, because it would dilute their power.

At the moment, deselection of a sitting MP starts with a trigger ballot of branches, including union branches, affiliated to a local party. This gives unions leverage over Labour MPs and in the selection of candidates.

A similar thing happened with changing the rules for future leadership elections. Momentum wanted to cut the power of MPs in nominating candidates, and to give nominating rights to local parties. I don’t see the point of this, because they had already cut the MPs and MEPs’ threshold to 10 per cent, which means they need only 27 of them to nominate. So they had already ensured that a Corbynite candidate could get on the ballot paper (there are about 35 core-group Corbynite MPs and MEPs). But now the unions are kicking up and say that if local parties get nominating rights so should they. They even tried to push a rule change that would give the big five unions control of all the nominations.

This is all a tragic diversion of political creativity. There is a strong strain in the Corbyn leadership of settling old scores. What was known as “mandatory reselection” was a demand of the Bennites in the 1980s: now they want to do it just because they can. Even though they also know they cannot afford to try to get rid of the MPs who don’t support Corbyn, because it would rip the party apart for years.

All this energy devoted to trying to strengthen the Corbynite grip on the party machine is also counterproductive, forcing wider the cracks in Momentum’s unity. It tries to avoid one divisive subject – Brexit – and ends up dividing Corbyn’s support base among trade union leaders. What was most instructive this week was that the National Executive, with its gerrymandered pro-Corbyn majority, still managed to split down the middle in a series of close votes on the various rule changes.

For those who want to see the Labour Party move on from Corbyn’s backward-looking politics and engage with the voters, these are hopeful signs. But it will take years and years for them to get their party back.

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