This is a battle about the future of the Labour party. The right is trying to regain control, with the support of the whole establishment.
Some people, including the Shadow Chancellor, have speculated that a Corbyn-led government would face concerted opposition from all wings of the establishment should it ever make it to office. As if to confirm these worries, the security services initially refused to meet Corbyn.
Soon after he became Labour leader a general was quoted anonymously in the Observer threatening a mutiny if Corbyn became prime minister. The Financial Times has reported that city opinion ranks Corbyn as a much greater threat than Brexit, and Corbyn-supporting economic experts have long worried about the possibility of non-co-operation from the financial sector in the event of a Labour victory.
But it is now clear that the soft coup has started before Corbyn could make it to number 10. After the announcement that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has taken the first step in the process of investigating the Labour Party over claims of antisemitism, it is no longer plausible to see the events of the last few weeks as a series of accidents.
Consider the sequence of events. First, following antisemitic attacks on Luciana Berger by right-wingers there was a media storm about unconnected no confidence resolutions in her constituency. Shortly afterwards a group of Labour MPs left to set up The Independent Group. They famously had no policies but focused their public pronouncements on attacking Corbyn’s leadership, particularly over Europe and antisemitism, but dwelling as well on what they regarded as Corbyn’s ‘problematic’ attitude to foreign policy and security. The attacks included suggestions that he was not fit to be leader.
They immediately received the support of Tony Blair but more seriously, they were backed by Tom Watson, whose video, released the same day, threatened further defections if Labour did not change course. In the media firestorm that followed, Watson too suggested that Corbyn’s antisemitism disqualified him for Labour’s leadership. That weekend the Mail on Sunday carried an attack on Seumas Milne, one of Corbyn’s key advisors, written by the former head of the security services, Richard Dearlove. The following week begun with an onslaught on Corbyn ally Chris Williamson who had been filmed making a speech saying that Labour had been too defensive about the attacks over antisemitism.
Emboldened by the retreat over the second referendum and the suspension of Chris Williamson MP, the right have stepped up their attacks. Last weekend the Observer targeted another Corbyn advisor, Andrew Murray. On Monday, Aberavon MP Stephen Kinnock, a long term Corbyn opponent, suggested disciplinary action against Welsh NEC member Darren Williams for merely circulating an email arguing that Chris Williamson’s remarks had been wrongly interpreted.
The hysteria around antisemitism is such that commentators and an MP have felt able to claim that anti-capitalism is antisemitism. Now Tom Watson is openly setting up a centrist organisation within the party.
All the claims against Corbyn have been enthusiastically taken up by the whole of the media, not just the usual right-wing suspects, but perhaps most vociferously by the BBC and the Guardian, two outlets with big influence in liberal and left politics.
Their bias has been breathtaking. You can disagree with him, you can quibble with his use of words, but it is a simple fact that nothing Chris Williamson said in the ‘offending’ video clip is anti-semitic. And yet the spurious claims against him were reported as proven by most of the media from the start. The absurd coverage of Darren William’s complaint about the treatment of Chris Williamson have forced statements like ‘there is no place for anti-Semitism in Welsh Labour or in Wales’ from the Welsh Labour leadership.
This is one of the remarkable things about this whole sequence of events. There have apparently been few, if any, new cases of antisemitic incidents in Labour over the period. Any level of antisemitism is unacceptable and needs to be dealt with decisively, but the facts show that while antisemitism in wider society is growing, in Labour it has gone down since Corbyn was elected, and that it is significantly higher in the Tory Party than in Labour.
Meanwhile, as James O’Brien brilliantly explained on his radio show, the furore can’t really be about racism in politics, because the proven and public racism of some Tory Party leaders and commentators is so much more serious and blatant than anything Labour members are even accused of.
The crisis then is fundamentally artificial. It has been generated by relentless attacks from current and former members of the Labour right with the backing of Blair and his ‘team’, aided and abetted by the media and encouraged by Tories. The involvement of the EHRC marks a significant escalation of operations intended to give the extra authority of a ‘neutral’ apparently liberal wing of the state to the case against Corbyn.
This is not to claim some special conspiracy. Different parts of the state and the wider ruling class co-operate in various undertakings to defend their interests as a matter of course. This is why the state exists. Establishment hostility to Corbyn as the most left-wing leader of Labour has ever had is both understandable and on record.
Plans for a breakaway from Labour have been being discussed semi-publicly for some time. Discontent amongst some members over Corbyn’s opposition to a second referendum and claims of antisemitism presumably provided the pretext that overcame hesitation. Maybe the organisers felt they couldn’t wait any longer given the proximity of Brexit. Whatever the reasons for the timing, when it happened it was almost inevitable that it would be siezed on by the media, the rest of the Labour right and other elements of the establishment as the moment to create a crisis for Corbyn.
This is how soft coups happen, through the manoeuvring and collusion of different establishment forces inside and outside the state. This one can of course be resisted. Thousands of activists and Labour supporters know what is going on. Millions of people will struggle to believe the bizarre claim that Corbyn is an antisemite. But the problem is that so far the Labour leadership has responded by making concessions and much of the left seems in a state of denial, accepting all the claims of anti-semitism for example to be in good faith. Few have been clear enough about what is going on and how high the stakes are. The left urgently needs to get organised and address this situation.
First we have to be much more robust in our defence of those being attacked. There is no way that Chris Williamson’s comments warranted suspension. Giving in to hysterical and unsupported demands contravenes natural justice and implies guilt where there is none, so encouraging the offensive against the left. We must also be much more combative against the plotters.
How is it that Tony Blair for example can still be a member of the Labour Party when he has publicly supported colleagues who have left Labour and joined with Tories in setting up a new party? Why is Tom Watson being allowed to voice support for defectors and organise a party within the party without challenge?
And we need to go onto the offensive ideologically. This means making the incontrovertible case that Jeremy Corbyn’s record on fighting racism in general and antisemitism in particular is second to none and that all forms of racism including anti-semitism are mainly problems of the right.
But it also means being open and honest about the fact that we are involved in a battle about the future of the Labour party. The right is trying to regain control. With the support of the whole establishment they are trying to destroy any possibility of a Corbyn-led Labour government.
The majority of the membership and millions of voters want to see such a government come to office. This support from both inside and outside the Labour Party now needs to be mobilised in rallies and mass meetings up and down the country just like it was against the ‘Chicken Coup’ of 2016 and during the general election the following year. Only an open fight against the right can do this and the fight has to start now.