The battle for Labour: MPs must surrender to Corbyn or leave

Jeremy Corbyn and his deputy, Tom Watson, are at loggerheads. PA/Gareth Fuller

Labour party representatives have been accusing the hard left of “entryism” in the run up to the leadership election next month.

The party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson says he has evidence that members of the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are signing up as Labour members. Watson claims that these groups – previously known as Militant and Socialist Organiser – are using the methods used by Militant in the 1980s to take control of local constituency Labour parties (CLPs).

Militant’s tactics were to take over moribund constituency parties by the simple expedient of joining the party, getting themselves elected to local committees and then boring and antagonising more moderate members into resigning. This so-called “entryism” was how local parties fell under Militant control.

The story of Labour in the 1980s is the story of how the hard left was beaten back in the party apparatus at both the local and national level. The hard left was defeated back then with the support of right-wing trade unionists, who manoeuvred within party committees to “fix” votes – most notably in the ruling NEC. Militant was then proscribed and its members gradually expelled.

“Moderates” on the soft left and right of the party are looking back to this time for lessons in how to drive out the “entryist” hard left today. But they shouldn’t get their hopes up. Labour today is not the party it was in the 1980s.

For one thing, the unions have changed. Surprisingly few (just 14) are affiliated to Labour – and many are of only minor importance because of their size. Anyway, the leaderships of the two largest and most powerful unions, though they may have some reservations, are backing Corbyn.

The process for electing a leader is different too. In 1983, leader Neil Kinnock was elected by an electoral college in which the unions (wielding their “fixable” block votes) accounted for 40% of the overall vote. The membership made up 30% and the Parliamentary Labour Party 30% (although it also controlled the nominations process). That, to the disappointment of the hard left, put the membership very much in the back seat.

The electoral college was swept away in 2014 to be replaced by a one-member-one-vote system. Power in the leadership election now resides entirely with the party members. There were 515,000 in July but there are now estimated to be around 600,000 paid-up supporters. It’s not clear how many will be entitled to vote this time, but more than 100,000 people are reported to have paid £3 to join and vote for Corbyn in 2015. Union members also get a vote but, on past experience, we can expect fewer than 100,000 and perhaps as few as 70,000 to vote.

This has dramatically limited the power of the PLP, which now only really controls the initial nomination process. That was why the PLP cared so much about the recent ruling that the leader automatically goes on the ballot. The influence of the unions has been diminished in the leadership election process as well (although they are still powerful in the NEC) and their only real power now lies in the influence that their nomination of a candidate has on the votes of their members.

So even though our only survey of the contest so far (we expect a new survey in a few days) indicated that just one-third of the members of Unite, Unison and GMB thought Corbyn was doing a good job, that lack of support is highly unlikely to be reflected in actual voting on the day. Many of that large majority will not vote and of those who do, it is worth noting that in the last two leadership elections they have voted for candidates not supported by the majority of the PLP.

Grassroots growth

Moderate MPs complaining about hard-left entryism should also recognise that many local parties were ripe for “take over”. A large number were small (in 2012, the last year for which we have data, more than one-third had less than 200 members, only 9% had over 500) and engagement with party democracy was generally low. Moderates in the party had themselves to blame for that state of affairs.

Local parties don’t often turn out to vote. Labour party data, Author provided

Since the 2015 general election the situation has been transformed – the high turnout and shift to the left within this month’s membership votes for the NEC plainly show that. An energetic mass membership has been reinvented.

Labour has always had a large amount of churn in the membership but the recent influx of new members is enormous. So many new members have joined the party that it throws the accusation of entryism into doubt.

Plainly some people far to the left of “traditional” Labour have joined the party. Plainly they are active and vocal – as anyone on Twitter will be only too aware. Plainly, too, they hope to use their membership as a lever to shift the party to the far left. But the fact is that the party membership had already moved left by 2015, and it has continued to do so as new members have joined in large numbers.

Though the leadership’s lacklustre performance on the EU referendum campaign trail annoyed many new members, support for Corbyn amongst members was at 55% in mid-July, nearly a month after the result. With a membership of more than half a million, it is hard to see that as the product of “entryism” (at least in the traditional sense of that word).

How the far left wins

Though Corbyn’s polling is diabolical and the likelihood of Labour winning an election under his leadership is slim, that does not mean Smith will defeat him in the leadership election.

Few think Corbyn would make a good PM. YouGov, Author provided

If Corbyn does win, hopes among “moderates” that they can still manoeuvre within the party machine (and particularly in its NEC) on the model of the 1980s to drive back the left are then likely to founder because the party is so changed. Corbyn’s supporters will quickly seek to strengthen their position within the party apparatus at national and local level. And they will have a great deal of support within the membership.

In handing the leadership of the party to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 the “moderate” element of the PLP made a catastrophic mistake that almost certainly secured the party for the Corbynite left for the foreseeable future. That leaves MPs with little option but to surrender or leave.