The Corbyn No-Confidence Vote and the Bleeding of the Labour Party
Political scientist Leo Panitch says the mass support for keeping Jeremy Corbyn in leadership might split the Labour Party, which could lead to a renewed progressive class revolt that goes beyond social democracy
SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Following the Brexit vote last week, the head of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbin, suffered a heavy no confidence vote from his party MPs on Tuesday. 172 MPs said they had no confidence in Corbyn while 40 voted for him. Four ballots, papers were [spoiled] and 13 MPs abstained. Corbyn refuses to resign, as he says he has the support of over 60 percent of labor and he is the democratically elected leader. What are we to make of all of this?
To discuss this we are joined by Leo Panitch. Leo is the author of “Making of Global Capitalism.” It is the book on the political economy of the American empire. It won the UK Deutscher book prize. He is also the author of “End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labor.” Good to have you back, Leo.
LEO PANITCH: Hi, Sharmini. Exciting day.
PERIES: Leo, so what are we to make of this vote, and what’s to become of Jeremy Corbin?
PANITCH: Well, what has come to a head here–It’s interesting that it’s a constitutional crisis in the British state that brings it to a head–is the deep division in the Labour Party between people who are socialists who are in the Labour Party because they want to change the world, get out of capitalism to a democratic socialism, and those people who are professional political representatives who made their career as parliamentarians, and who’ve been trained in waiting to be, trained at Oxbridge, et cetera, to become professional representatives.
You know, those are generally more progressive professional representatives in the sense that Hillary Clinton is more progressive than a Republican candidate, but it’s a fundamental division and through the history of the Labour Party that has always been there, a great tension between the parliamentary party and its activist membership which has been socialist.
What’s happening now is that the defeat of those who tried to turn the Labour Party into a socialist party through a long battle in the 1970s during the time of the crisis of the Keynesian welfare state, led by Tony Benn–people will remember that name–that was ultimately defeated in the wake of Thatcherism when it became clear that a divided party couldn’t win elections and a lot of the Bennite supporters walked away from them, and union leadership walked away from him.
Corbyn was part of that. He resurfaced last year with this overwhelming vote, now that there’s a new procedure for electing a Labour Party leader in which members and supporters, as well as unions and parliamentarians, have an equal say. And he attracted 300 thousand people to the Labour Party in doing so. This has now come to a head.
It partly comes to a head because Corbyn is not your typical politician, and the media and the permanent, professional representatives don’t think he has the ability to win the media over in a general election and therefore that he will lose a general election. That’s conceivable, and he is not the most charismatic of figure. He is not Tony Benn as a speaker. On the other hand, part of his attraction, and this is one of the things that’s happening everywhere now, is that he doesn’t look like a politician, that he’s not articulate in that sense, that he’s not glib in that sense, and that gives him a certain appeal.
So the big question is, are these people in the parliamentary party voting against him because they think he can’t win an election now that the Tory party is in crisis, and to give them a chance to form a government, or are they voting against him because they’re afraid he can win and election and that would mean that there would be a socialist in Number 10 Downing Street.
PERIES: So, describe the camp that is voting against him, which seems to be overwhelming as far as this vote [crosstalk] is concerned.
PANITCH: [interceding] Well, it is beginning, you have to see it as the Blairites, as those who fully embrace the financial capital of the city of London, who said, we are very unconcerned about economic inequality so long as we have growth and it makes the pie bigger, those who led Britain into Bush’s attack on Iraq and the mess that has been created in the whole of the Middle East. That group was rejected by the party when it had elected Ed Miliband in the wake of the 2010 election defeat. Miliband wasn’t part of that.
But those who weren’t part of that who would be seen as centrist or soft left, more of the Ed Miliband variety himself, have also now come to the conclusion that they can’t win with Corbyn. Some of them are, you know, they’re, they define themselves in terms of alliance with the European Union, you know, that liberal position that this is a more human rights-oriented outfit than the British state, and they feel that Corbyn ran a lackluster campaign against the European Union, as he did, because he thinks it is, as a, you know, carapace, an institutional carapace for neoliberalism, by no means a good thing. So they’re very angry with him at that, but they also may feel that he can’t win an election.
But that makes up the vast majority of the parliamentarians. That’s very interesting.
PERIES: Yeah, and, but not the party membership or its supporters [crosstalk] or the unions, so where are they at on this [inaud.–
PANITCH: [interceding]–But not the party membership [inaud.] Well, I think as I mentioned to you yesterday–
–Over 200 thousand of them have signed a petition saying that Jeremy Corbyn should continue as leader. What is most significant is that the largest union in Britain, and other unions alongside it, Unite, its leader, McCluskey, came out with a very, very sober and intelligent statement over the weekend saying that they have no right to overthrow the democratically-elected leader of the Labour Party and that he would stand behind him, and those that were tending to overthrow him, overthrow Corbyn, that they would be prepared to encourage constituency parties to have contests for who ought to be their MP again, that a sitting MP should not automatically be reselected. Nothing frightens a professional parliamentarian more than that.
Now, it’s very interesting that despite that threat they decided to do this, but you can see the kind of blood letting that this is going to lead to. There will be now an election. Corbyn getting 40 votes in his favor guarantees that he has enough nominations from the parliamentary party to stand as a candidate in the election that will now happen, and in any case he probably could have stood just as the incumbent leader.
But this is a very fundamental division and it may lead to, for the first time in history, the Labour Party remaining in the hands of the left and the labor movement while the professional representatives, who really see themselves as part of the British state more than anything else, go off and join some other political alignment.
This happened in a small way at the height of the Bennite insurgency in the Labour Party in 1981 when some of the leading former members of the Labour cabinet, Shirley Williams and David Owen and so on went off and formed the Social Democratic Party. It didn’t go anywhere and they got absorbed into the Liberal Party.
It happened in 1931 when a Labour government imposed, as Syriza has now been forced to do in Greece, imposed austerity on the poorest people in Britain during the beginning of the Great Depression and the Labour Party wouldn’t support it. So the leadership then went off and joined the Tory Party, joined the Tory government, but the rest of the party remained unified.
PERIES: Now, [crosstalk] Leo–
PANITCH: [interceding]–Basically that is happening now.
PERIES: Leo, the members of the shadow cabinet that resigned, including Tony Benn’s son there, where are they at in this crisis?
PANITCH: Well they are, they’ve led this insurgency. They’ve led this attack on Corbyn and people are following their lead. You know, Corbyn appointed them because he was trying to hold the parliamentary party together. For the most part, they are people who were not Blairites but, you know, had supported Blair but, you know, didn’t see themselves quite as that embracing neoliberalism as Blair did.
Nevertheless, they were never comfortable with Corbyn. They have been, since he was elected, leaking into the public urinal of the media against him and, as you may remember, Hilary Benn made an impassioned speech in favor of the invasion of Syria against Corbyn’s position. So, you know, this was, you know, a few months ago.
So, this has been going on for a while. Some of it is absolute treachery. Corbyn is against rebuilding the nuclear submarine that Britain has, the Trident. He’s argued it’s completely dysfunctional apart from being against nuclear weapons, and he’s right about that. When he said that one day on the BBC, his defense secretary, Maria Eagle, immediately went on herself and said she disagreed with her leader. Well, I mean, obviously you can’t function this way.
So, what is coming to a head here is whether the left will in fact take over the Labour Party and its apparatus. Many, many will go. A divided party probably can’t win the next election. But, you know, for your American viewers this may be something like what eventually may happen from the insurgency, the Sanders-led insurgency in the Democratic Party, except in that case it’ll be most unlikely that the insurgents, the Sanders people, will be able to take with them the Democratic Party apparatus.
In the Labour Party case, because it’s much more rooted as a social democratic, working class party with direct institutional links with the trade unions, this may finally be happening. We’ll have to see. And it’s going to be a political mess, and I do think that the effect of this, tragically and really in the most irresponsible way, is that it guarantees that, given what the media is doing with this, that people will feel they can’t vote for a divided party, that the effect of it, whether intended or not by all these Labour MPs, will be to guarantee that Corbyn cannot become prime minister.
PERIES: All right, Leo. Good for now, but we’ll be back to you very soon as we–
PERIES: –Get a better picture on what’s going to evolve in terms of the leadership convention.
PANITCH: Okay, Sharmini, Always good to talk to you.
PERIES: And good to talk to you, Leo. Thanks for joining us on the Real News Network.
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