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The War for the British Labour Party: Re-selecting Socialism

Following the controversial vote to extend bombing in the Middle East that was rushed through parliament earlier this month, people across the UK have taken to the streets to voice their opposition. In recent years, British foreign policy has visited death and destruction upon Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – all under the guise of the War on Terror. The result? The deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, with many more being forced to flee the region, and the rise of the merciless death cult ISIS.

The plan to bring peace by extending bombing into Syria quite simply beggars belief.

In 2003, the illegal invasion of Iraq led to massive school and university walkouts and the largest march that the UK had even seen, when over 2 million protestors marched through London. If this movement had been built upon, with the trade unions calling out workers on strike for 24 hours, Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war could have been stopped.

Today, the prospects for stopping the war are much greater. For a start, the Tories were elected by fewer than 37% of voters. Only 24% of those eligible backed the Conservatives – and that’s not counting the unregistered. As Clive Heemskerk of the Socialist Party writes:

“No majority Tory government since the introduction of universal (male) suffrage in 1918 has achieved its position with the support of a lower share of the total electorate than Cameron has (the next lowest was Bonar Law’s short-lived government of 1922-23).”

In addition to this, the former chair of the Stop the War Coalition – one of the key organizations in mobilizing opposition to the war in Iraq – has been elected as the leader of the Labour Party. This man is Jeremy Corbyn.

The possibilities that this presents for a successful fightback against the Tories are immense. However, one of the principal obstacles that stands in front of such a fightback is the parliamentary rump which persists, indeed even dominates, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and Labour councils.

Removing the Labour Right

Over the past few weeks, Socialists have been supporting calls for mandatory re-selection of Labour war mongers. Mandatory re-selection means that for each election that takes place, candidates must be democratically decided by party members. Without re-selection there is no way to ensure that the 50% surge in membership (from 187,000 to 370,658) which followed Corbyn’s campaign is reflected in the party’s elected representatives.

Corbyn’s principled stand against war and austerity during the leadership elections earlier this year was an inspiration to many disillusioned voters, especially in lieu of the weak-tea politics that characterized Labour’s earlier General Election campaign. Unfortunately, however, these principles are not held by the overwhelming majority of the PLP: the majority of Labour councils continue to dole out Tory austerity with minimal (if any) resistance and 66 Labour MPs even voted for the bombing of Syria, against the wishes of their leader and in violation of policy established at the Labour Party Conference earlier this year.

However, despite its undeniably democratic nature, re-selection has been subject to gross but calculated misrepresentation over recent months, and Momentum, the organizational expression of the new Labour membership, has been described variously as a “rabble” and a “mob” by the very people that are supposed to be their representatives.

This visceral reaction is hardly surprising given the threat that an active party base would pose to right wing MPs, who coasted into parliament under the tyranny of Tony Blair. The authority of the Labour Right has for a long time depended upon the absence of democratic participation from party members, and it is precisely this lack of participation that has allowed the Labour Right to de-select MPs and councillors who oppose their will.

And therein lies the hypocrisy. The truth is that re-selection is fine when it covertly carried out by the Blairites, but when socialists make this demand openly they are treated as a threat to democracy.

Liverpool West Derby MP Bob Wareing is a case in point. Following 24 years serving as a member of parliament and 60 years as a member of the party, Wareing was finally de-selected in 2007 because of his continued opposition to Britain’s illegal war in Iraq. Wareing states:

“My deselection…in a seriously flawed reselection process brings to an end a concerted effort to remove me by the New Labour Mafia.

“The Party leadership (under Blair and Brown) have regarded me as a thorn in their side as I rebelled against their betrayal of the basic principles of the Labour Party.”

More recently, earlier this year ten Redcar and Cleveland Labour councillors resigned in support of seven other councillors who were deselected from the Labour Party. Playing a central role in this process was local Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) and soon-to-be elected Anna Turley (Redcar). Explaining the reasons for the deselections, they were emphatic:

“it was time for change. We are building a fresh, exciting and committed new team.”

Blenkinsop and Turley are both are members of Labour’s Progress faction, which represents the business-class over the working class, and both voted in favour of bombing Syria.

The attempt to utilize re-selection to enforce a right wing political agenda can also be seen in Scotland, where new pro-Corbyn Labour members have been denied the right to select candidates ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliamentary Election. Despite suffering a humiliating defeat in Scotland at the 2015 General Election – losing 39 of their 40 seats to the Scottish National Party – the Labour old guard insists on a minimum of 6 months’ party membership before being allowed to vote for potential candidates. By excluding an estimated 3,400 new members from the selection process, the Scottish Labour Party has enabled the (now unelectable) Labour Right to continue their Highland death march. This will, of course, only serve to entrench more deeply Scottish hostilities toward Labour, who are remembered principally for their collusion with the Tories in the fight against Scottish independence last year.

Corbyn and co. must come out fighting against the Labour Right, and mandatory re-selection will be a valuable weapon in this process. If the Labour Party is to be saved from the purveyors of war, the new membership must be allowed to hold their elected leaders to account.

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Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker

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