On Brexit, the Labour Party, With Its Blundering and Pointless Coup, Lost Its Best Opportunity Ever to Attack the Tories


A placard on the huge march in support of refugees in London on September 12, 2015, the same day that Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party (Photo: Andy Worthington).I find it hard to express sufficiently my contempt for the Labour MPs who, on the day the EU referendum result was announced, squandered one of the greatest opportunities in the Labour Party’s history for attacking the Tories by, instead, launching a pathetic coup against their democratically elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

With half the country reeling in shock, the economy in freefall, and David Cameron announcing his resignation, it should have been child’s play to point out that Cameron had called a referendum he didn’t want for the most narrow and cowardly of political reasons (to appease Eurosceptic members of his own party, and UKIP), and that Boris Johnson, who had won it, had also done so for narrow political reasons, to advance his own career, and, moreover, didn’t even believe in the cause for which he had been campaigning.

Instead, a coup that had been planned for months, but that was not initially intended to take place straight after the referendum, was brought forward, and enacted with a drip-feed of resignations that focused the media’s attention almost exclusively on Labour’s meltdown. As a result, criticism of the referendum, and of its result, evaporated.

Time will tell if one reason for the coup being brought forward, as has been suggested, was to compel Jeremy Corbyn to resign before the Chilcot report was issued, so that he could not publicly condemn Tony Blair. That seemed like a plausible suggestion to me (although in the end his response was more measured than critics suggested), but it may be that, as publicly stated, it was because of frustration with the referendum result, and with Corbyn’s perceived lacklustre role in campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU.

On this, the rebels seemed — superficially, at least — to have a point. Corbyn had generally appeared unenthusiastic about supporting the EU, in common with so many on the Left, and to my mind had sounded unconvincing when speaking about it. However, I had taken away the message that the EU helped to protect workers’ rights, and that, on  balance, we should remain and try to reform it from within, and, to be honest, it also seemed clear that Corbyn’s lack of gung-ho enthusiasm for the EU reflected what many people — myself included — were thinking. Moreover, polls indicate that 65% of Labour supporters voted Remain, comparable to the Lib Dems’ 68%. And yet, while Tim Farron immediately positioned the Lib Dems as the party supporting European reintegration, Corbyn immediately faced a coup, despite a comparable performance. In addition, the rebels’ hypocrisy becomes ever more starkly illustrated when you look at how many places rebel MPs couldn’t persuade their own constituents to vote Remain, and when you realise, as I did, that the Parliamentary Labour Party are, in general, so afraid of expressing opinions that might upset some potential voters that it is difficult to imagine them formulating a coherent view on the referendum result, for fear of alienating those who voted Leave.

For many people who voted Remain, the EU was the lesser of two evils: a flawed gargantuan that, on the one hand, has genuinely created a sense of a European community, conceived from the ashes of war, and born in a spirit of breaking down dangerous barriers of nationalism and xenophobia, and that has, importantly, stood up for a raft of our rights against successive British governments who are much less inclined to protect them.

In contrast, another part of the EU’s role is to function as an easy conduit for transnational neo-liberalism, which consistently places corporate greed above the needs of the people, and its weaknesses have also become apparent in recent years through the slow murder of Greece for having borrowed beyond its means when lent to by richer countries who should never have been lending to it in the first place, and through a collective inability to deal adequately with the current and unprecedented refugee crisis.

In addition, Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived silence is always worth looking at before rushing to judgment, because, uniquely in modern British history, he is generally silenced by the mainstream media, which, after his surprising election as the Labour Party leader last September, subjected him to a squalid and disgraceful campaign of sustained character assassination. This spells out clearly how much the political status quo has drifted to the right in the last three decades. Corbyn, a socialist, is treated as a pariah, his very thoughts an existential threat, because, as the establishment has made clear, socialism was supposed to have been destroyed in the UK by Thatcher and Major, and their work was continued by Tony Blair, who was supposed to have made sure it was dead once and for all.

Ironically, of course, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the leader of the Labour Party because a majority of the party’s members were fed up with its rightward drift, and its inability to portray itself as anything other than a slightly less nasty version of the Conservative Party. That failure had been abundantly evident in the 2015 General Election, when it had been difficult to ascertain what, if anything, the party actually stood for. When the leadership election came around, it was suddenly the right time for an alternative, on the Left, to gain serious support, surprising Corbyn and his longtime ally, John McDonnell, who had stood in previous leadership elections just to provide a voice for the Left, but not with any realistic hope of winning.

By last summer, though, there was a hunger for an alternative to the identikit politics of the Westminster elite — with the Tories, the Lib Dems and Labour all having essentially positioned themselves on the side of big business and the banks and against the interests of the people. As well as being a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn was perceived as being honest, and honesty was — correctly, I believe — perceived as being a profound rarity in politics. In addition, his opponents either lacked conviction (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper) or were clearly right-wing (Liz Kendall).

The debacle of the leadership contest for anyone who was not genuinely on the Left of the party should have persuaded any would-be rebels that, if they were inclined to look in the mirror and see themselves as leaders, that self-regard was not reflected in reality. Burnham, who had been a minister, secured just 19% of the vote, Yvette Cooper, married to Ed Balls (the former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, who lost his seat at the General Election), secured just 17%, and Kendall limped home on 4.5%, while Corbyn secured a whopping 59.5% of the votes.

And yet, when the coup began, and shadow ministers began resigning in droves, no one seemed to have learnt the lesson from last summer — that there is no one who can stand against Corbyn and have a chance of persuading party members to vote for them, just as there is no obvious candidate who can do a better job than Corbyn of persuading the wider public to vote for them in a General Election. The coup’s leaders obviously presumed that an election may be forthcoming quite soon, as it seems frankly ridiculous that Cameron’s successor, tasked with presiding over our departure from the EU, can fairly be anointed by just 150,000 Conservative Party members without the rest of the voting population being asked their opinion.

Ridiculously, the fact that there is no obvious replacement for Corbyn only seemed to reluctantly dawn on the coup leaders when it came to putting someone — anyone — forward. Angela Eagle has now stepped forward to take on that role, and Owen Smith is expected to follow, but it seems to me that, within the party, their self-regard is delusional, and with the wider public their hopes will only be greeted, as people are shown their photos in the street, with cries, of “Angela who?” and “Owen who?”

Eagle, the former shadow business secretary, had occasionally made her presence felt over the last nine months, sometimes even standing in for Corbyn, but I wouldn’t say she has leadership potential, while Smith, the former shadow welfare secretary until his coup-induced resignation, hadn’t even registered on my radar, and I’m reasonably well-informed about Westminster politics.

In the meantime, Labour Party membership has swelled enormously since the coup began, with over 100,000 new members joining, taking the party membership to 515,000, far more than the 415,000 members it had under Tony Blair in 1997, before the New Labour project began haemorrhaging grass-roots support. It is not known how many of these new members support Corbyn, but around half filled in a box marked “‘why I joined,” and 80% of those said they had joined to support Jeremy Corbyn.

As the rebels’ suicidal soap opera continues, in its doomed little London bubble, it’s worth noting that, with the Chilcot Report published, and with the rebels having failed to persuade Jeremy Corbyn to stand down, he has finally had the breathing space to criticise the government over the referendum and to argue for Labour’s involvement in any negotiations regarding our departure from the EU. An article, “We can’t leave the negotiations with Europe to the Tories,” was — ironically — published in the almost entirely back-stabbing Guardian on Friday, and I’m cross-posting it below because it represents the position taken by the leader of the largest party in opposition to the Tories, and also to drive home the point that this is what should have happened two weeks ago, when the rebels were, instead, consumed with unforgivable self-obsession.

It’s an important article. Although Corbyn states his belief that “[w]e must respect the democratic decision of the British people” — whereas I maintain that it is the job of Parliament to refuse to implement the wishes of a slim majority of voters because of the unprecedented damage it will cause to our economy and our standing in the world — he immediately clarifies that this means we must “negotiate a new relationship with the EU: one that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights – and also ensures we have the freedom to reshape a 21st century economy for all our people.”

And if we cannot do this — if, for example, the EU insists that we must lose all the benefits of EU membership, including access to the single market, unless we continue to accept freedom of movement — then I would hope that the Labour Party will acknowledge that it is too big a price to pay for a perceived problem — immigration — that will not, in any case, go away, regardless of whether some immigration from within the EU is stemmed. Half our recent immigrants, remember, have come from outside the EU.

Corbyn is also, as I would expect, very good on sympathising with those whose communities have been diminished or destroyed by decades of political failure, often dating back to the Thatcher years, but furthered in the last 20 years by New Labour and the Tories’ obsession with a globalised neo-liberal economic model that, like a virulent weed, unremittingly strangles communities in the West, where labour is more expensive than in the developing world. And if his message can get out to the people — if the biased media allows it — it is, I think, Labour’s only hope for bringing back lost voters and enticing new people to vote.

All the other would-be leaders, lest we forget, cannot talk honestly about the failures of our current capitalist model, and also cannot shake off their appearance as members of an out-of-touch Westminster elite, whereas I believe Jeremy Corbyn can, and that he should only be replaced if someone younger comes along who absolutely, 100%, shares his convictions that the only way out of the neo-liberal hellhole we are in is to start thinking once more about solidarity and the common good, and not pandering to the rich and the super-rich. I also think that this can only be done on three fronts simultaneously — domestically, globally and within Europe — hence my continued call for Parliament to refuse to approve Britain’s self-inflicted suicide.

We can’t leave the negotiations with Europe to the Tories
By Jeremy Corbyn, the Guardian, July 8, 2016

Britain is divided and insecure. Years of destructive austerity and a broken economic model have delivered a country of job insecurity, shortages of affordable housing, agency working, wage undercutting and gaping inequalities.

Since voters decided to leave the European Union, those divisions have grown wider. There has been a spike in racist and xenophobic incidents. Many remain voters feel shellshocked and alienated from those who backed leave. The country now faces economic and political crisis. The government is in disarray. As Labour demanded, George Osborne has had to drop his plan for a job-destroying budget surplus. But none of those seeking to replace David Cameron has any kind of exit plan. Instead, once again, they are planning to make working people pay, with yet more spending cuts and tax rises.

What’s needed instead is leadership and a clear strategy. We must respect the democratic decision of the British people – and negotiate a new relationship with the EU: one that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights – and also ensures we have the freedom to reshape a 21st century economy for all our people.

To bring the country back together, we have to understand what lay behind the narrow majority to leave. Part of it was clearly about the impact of immigration on a deregulated jobs market and investment-starved housing and public services.

But leave voters were also concentrated in former industrial areas hit hardest by low pay, job insecurity and economic stagnation. In fact, Labour-supporting cities that voted remain, such as London, Bristol and Manchester, have far higher migrant populations than many that backed leave.

The difference is that the latter are areas that have benefited least from a lopsided economic recovery. This was a vote by the people of left-behind Britain against a political establishment that has failed them.

Labour campaigned to “remain and reform” the European Union, and two-thirds of Labour supporters voted remain. That gives us a strong basis to bring together voters from both sides – and set a progressive agenda for negotiations that reflect the needs of the majority. The starting point has to be the red lines laid out by Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell: including the maintenance of existing employment and social rights, freedom of trade with Europe, and protection of work and residency rights for both EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in Europe.

This week Labour overwhelmingly won a vote in the Commons, led by our shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, calling on the government to commit to giving EU nationals in the UK the right to remain.

But we need to go further. During the referendum campaign, we argued for an end to EU-enforced liberalisation and privatisation of public services – and for freedom for public enterprise and public investment, now restricted by EU treaties. Those freedoms need to be part of the coming negotiations. Labour also campaigned for tougher regulation of the jobs market and of the exploitation of migrant labour to undercut pay and conditions, as the best way to protect jobs and living standards in the EU.

The same goes for Britain outside the EU. If freedom of movement means the freedom to exploit cheap labour in a race to the bottom, it will never be accepted in any future relationship with Europe. But the reality is that we have allies in that cause across Europe, as on many other issues that will be at the heart of the negotiations ahead. Those negotiations cannot be left to a Tory government that does not speak for the country.

That’s why I am meeting fellow European socialist leaders in Paris this week to discuss the refugee crisis and Europe’s future after Britain’s vote to leave. The increasing momentum to reform the EU will strengthen the Labour case.

Politics has changed for good. After years of disastrous wars, ballooning inequality and a failing political elite, there can be no more business as usual. The damning verdict of the Chilcot report on the Iraq war confirmed that while the political establishment got it disastrously wrong, the majority of our people called it right. This political sea-change is also what led to my own election nine months ago, by 60% of Labour members and supporters.

During that time, we have repeatedly forced the government to drop damaging policies, won every by-election, and beaten the Tories in the local elections. I have made clear I am ready to reach out to Labour MPs who oppose my leadership – and work with the whole party to provide the alternative the country needs. That’s why I am pleased that trade union leaders are exploring ways to bridge the gap and work together more effectively. But MPs also need to respect the democracy of our party and the views of Labour’s membership, which has increased by more than 100,000 to over half a million in the past fortnight alone – by far the largest it has ever been in modern times.

Our priority must now be to mobilise this astonishing new force in politics, and ensure people in Britain have a real political alternative. Those who want to challenge my leadership are free to do so in a democratic contest, in which I will be a candidate.

But the responsibility of our whole party is to stand up in united opposition to the Tory government. If we come together, we can take them on and win.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    My latest article, damning the Parliamentary Labour Party for launching an inept coup against Jeremy Corbyn at the very moment when all Labour MPs should have come together to take advantage of the best opportunity for attacking the Tories in living memory. Cameron loses a referendum he should never have called, and Boros Johnson wins it despite not even believing in it, and what do Labour’s idiotic MPs do? Blame Jeremy Corbyn. How the Tories must have been laughing!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hmm, posted this just before the football (the European Championship Final – France v. Portugal). Probably not the best time …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Shoubhik Bose wrote:

    Well articulated Andy!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Shoubhik. It’s such a mess right now in the UK, all certainties suddenly overturned as a result of the referendum result, which appears to be a massive self-inflicted wound undertaken for no good reason whatsoever …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Powerful story in the New York Times from immigrants in Boston, Lincolnshire, scared at the post-Brexit racism directed towards them: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/world/europe/brexit-immigrants-great-britain-eu.html
    So depressing that this is happening in my country.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s a reputable newspaper, Shoubhik, even though it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, so I would imagine so. I can’t comment in any detail, though, because, apart from the opening paragraphs, it’s hidden behind a pay wall. These are the first three paragraphs:

    Towns that voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU are among the first victims of post-Brexit manufacturing job losses.

    Last week Forterra, one of Britain’s biggest brick makers, said it would mothball plants in Accrington and Claughton, both in Lancashire, ahead of a potential downturn in construction. The towns are in boroughs that voted 66% and 63%, respectively, for Brexit.

    Lush Cosmetics, a maker of soaps and lotions, has offered to shift workers from its factory in Poole after the Dorset town voted 58% to leave the EU. Co-founder Mark Constantine said last week that the poll had shown…

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Very good read 🙂 you’re making sense.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Tashi. I’m just trying to hold a line between the various lies and distortions – and there is so much of that in the mainstream media!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    Is Lush thinking of leaving the UK, or shifting to somewhere more open minded?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, moving European operations to Germany, while keeping UK production in Poole, Neil. From the Metro:

    Lush is moving a large part of its production to Germany because of Brexit.
    Mark Constantine, founder and chief executive of the cosmetics chain, confirmed the move to Bournemouth Daily Echo.
    Lush employs some 1,400 people in Poole, and around a third of those do not have British citizenship.
    Constantine said the referendum result had signalled to staff from overseas that they’re ‘not welcome and not wanted in Poole’, where 58% of people voted to leave the EU.
    Those staff, he said, spend around £4.6million locally on food, leisure and housing, including £700,000 on council tax.
    ‘Now all those people have been told they’re not welcome and not wanted by people in Poole, because Poole voted against it,’ he said.
    Employees will be given the option of moving to Dusseldorf if they wish.
    Goods produced for the UK market will continue to be made in Poole, while those for the global market will be produced in Germany.
    Constantine said the move may not mean a loss of jobs in Poole, but the town would no longer benefit from the company’s rapid global expansion.
    ‘We have considerable growth,’ he said. ‘We can move the European production to Europe and still be as busy as we were last Christmas.
    ‘It’s not a question of cutting local production, it’s a question that the growth is going there.’
    Lush currently produces around half of its global output in Poole.

    See: http://metro.co.uk/2016/07/10/lush-cosmetics-moves-to-germany-because-of-brexit-5998494/

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, you can bet this will be repeated up and down the country by firm after firm… So much for Boris’s “golden opportunity.”

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Drip, drip, David. If the stories build, can politicians really ignore them? Who do they serve? The interests of the country, or the wishes of a slim majority in a referendum where politicians and the media were hugely responsible for spreading damaging lies or not challenging them?

  14. damo says...

    And the dominos fall what a mess its clear that apart from a handfull of mps most members of parlument in this country do not serve the interests of the peoples only there own ….there not fit for office now is the time for labour to rid itself of the blaireites …sack them,get rid…..this country is going down the toilet …..we need leadership. Fast

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    We do indeed need leadership, Damo, and not just from the Labour Party, but from the Tories too, who got us into this mess, and who have left the country leaderless for two months, in economic turmoil, while we supposedly allow 150,000 Conservative Party members to vote for one version or another of Thatcher Mk. II, who, in turn, will take over the top job without a mandate from the people, to implement a referendum result that may well be akin to signing one’s own death warrant.
    The country has already gone down the toilet, I suspect, Damo, and is stuck in the U-bend.

  16. damo says...

    Lol i though we were a floater,lol

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha, very funny, Damo.

  18. Tony Litwinko says...

    I have just posted this on my FaceBook page. Thanks very much for writing it. It puts the situation in a light that is not, absolutely not, presented by any of the mainstream American press. I see a real parallel in what happened to the Labour Party and the abandonment of the working class and the poor overworking class by the Democratic Party here–a story told by Thomas Frank in Listen Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?–a Democratic party which in its recent platform debates also showed its true colors. Thanks again.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Tony. I’m very glad to hear from you, and delighted to have provided coverage that you’re not finding elsewhere. We are so often subjected to such dreadful failures in the mainstream media these days.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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