After nearly two weeks of announcements and ultimatums, Angela Eagle has formally announced her formal bid to become Labour leader. Unable to force Corbyn to step down, those responsible for the attempted Blairite coup are preparing to face the membership – the one thing they had hoped to avoid.
The Eagle has landed. After nearly two weeks of announcements and ultimatums, Angela Eagle has formally announced her formal bid to become Labour leader. Unable to force Corbyn to step down, those responsible for what the Financial Times has called “the biggest Parliamentary coup in modern history” are preparing to face the membership – the one thing they had hoped to avoid – and they have chosen the formidable Ms Eagle as their champion.
Knowing that they are unlikely to win in a head-to-head race against Corbyn, the Blairites are now throwing all their hopes on keeping Corbyn off the ballot through bureaucratic manoeuvres. But the Labour grassroots will not stomach such shenanigans, leading to an even greater intensification of the civil war inside the Labour Party that has erupted out into the open.
Speaking yesterday, Eagle claimed she “can provide the leadership that Corbyn can’t”. What this means is open to interpretation. Presumably Eagle was demonstrating her leadership abilities when she took part in the “squalid coup” (in Len McCluskey’s words) which has paralysed the Labour Party. Or perhaps the embarrassing way in which she prevaricated over her leadership challenge in the hope that Corbyn would save her the job was meant to showcase her bold and decisive character.
In any event, Angela Eagle is not the first person you’d expect to be challenging for the party leadership. She is “hardly a household name” as The Independent puts it – she won only 1 per cent of support in a previous poll over potential leadership successors. Nor does she command much support amongst the party membership – she came fourth in the race for Deputy Leader last year; her own CLP in Wallasey, meanwhile, recently passed a motion of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and it will vote on a motion of no confidence in Eagle at its next meeting. Already, her campaign has been shrouded in farce: from an embarrassing official press launch, to a bombardment of pro-Corbyn comments on her social media posts. She is the candidate the right-wing deserves, rather than the one it needs.
It is precisely because she is such a non-entity that Eagle has emerged as the right-wing’s pretender to the throne. Unashamedly Blairite candidates such as Liz Kendall, despite their claims of Corbyn’s unelectability are like kryptonite to ordinary party members and affiliated trade unionists. What was required was a ‘decent sort’ who could at least try to claim some form of allegiance to Corbyn’s ideas whilst also enjoying the support of his/her colleagues in Parliament. That Eagle was the best person they could find only shows how desperate and shambolic this “Chicken Coup” has been from start to finish.
In reality, Eagle isn’t even the leader of her own campaign. Whilst claiming to be her “own woman”, Eagle is the chosen candidate of the Blairites, the Sun and the City of London. This is what “real leadership” means for Corbyn’s opponents.
Eagle, a self-styled “practical socialist” has claimed she is the candidate to “save” the Labour Party and make it “relevant again”, as opposed to Corbyn, who has apparently failed to “hold the government to account”.
It is worth asking what exactly an effective, Eagle-led opposition would look like. Unfortunately, Eagle herself has offered very little in terms of actual ideas and has played down talk of policy differences. Instead she has confirmed, “I have got life experience and values. I’m a woman from the working class North – I understand metropolitan things too”, which sounds more like an application for the Apprentice than for the leadership of the largest political party in Britain.
Eagle’s past voting record gives a much clearer picture of what kind of values she would impart to a Labour Party under her leadership: Having voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, she consistently voted against proposals for an investigation into the war in 2003, 2006 and 2007; she supported the introduction of university tuition fees and again supported increasing them to £3,000 per year in 2004; she supported the Blair government’s defeated proposal to allow people to be detained for up to 90 days without charge; she has consistently voted against motions for the UK’s nuclear deterrent to be scrapped; and in a clear demonstration of her values, abstained on the Tories’ infamous Welfare Bill in July 2015 under the leadership of renowned Blairite, Harriet Harman. It is difficult to see the “left” in all this, soft or otherwise.
No wonder then that Diane Abbott described Eagle as the “Empire Strikes Back candidate” on Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday. Blairite or not, Eagle’s candidacy represents a last ditch attempt, after months of murmuring and manoeuvring, to restore business as usual to the Labour Party. Both in government and in opposition, Eagle has voted with the Blairite, pro-business, imperialist wing of the party, and has often failed to provide any opposition to the Tories as they have tried to slash benefits for the unemployed, disabled and working poor.
Corbyn on the other hand has been vindicated on Iraq by the very investigation Eagle never wanted to happen; he has consistently opposed tuition fees and as party leader launched a campaign to abolish them in May; he consistently opposed Blair’s Orwellian anti-terror legislation; along with a majority of the British public, according to polls, he is in favour of scrapping Trident; and he voted against the Tories’ Welfare Bill before being elected leader with an overwhelming mandate. With Corbyn as leader, Labour has successfully campaigned against Tory cuts to tax credits and disability benefits, as well as the government’s discriminatory “Tampon tax”.
Ultimately, this has nothing to do with the individual strengths and weaknesses of either candidate – it is the grim expression of the enormous and widening gulf between the base of the party and a significant proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The choice is clear. It remains to be seen whether party members will be allowed to make it or not.
According to her “angela4labourleader” website, Eagle’s campaign has been launched to provide unity for the party. During her campaign launch, Eagle also stressed her desire to “bring people together”. Whilst speaking to a crowd of thousands at the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday, Corbyn also called for party unity. The question is: unity on what basis?
Corbyn and his supporters want the Labour Party to unify around the overwhelming mandate given him by members, supporters and affiliated trade unionists only 10 months ago. Eagle and those responsible for the coup want the party to unify around a group of MPs and party ‘grandees’ who have already shown tremendous disloyalty and nothing short of contempt toward the membership. Behind one stands a movement of hundreds of thousands; behind the other stand the conscious agents of British capitalism. The two cannot comfortably co-exist, as we are seeing today.
The struggle between the pro-worker and pro-business wings of the party has reached the point of no return. The plotters had desperately sought to avoid a leadership contest, and now it appears they will try to keep Corbyn off the ballot, because they know they will lose if his name is on it. But if they are successful, and Corbyn is deposed without the members being given a choice it will provoke an even bigger reaction from the Labour grassroots. The only option the right wing would have is to purge the party of its own members, something they already attempted with their “Operation Ice-pick” a year ago and have continued ever since.
However, if Corbyn is automatically placed on the ballot and is re-elected – which is perfectly possible, particularly given the huge surge in Labour’s membership over the past few weeks – there is no way all 172 of the PLP rebels will meekly accept defeat and loyally serve in a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Indeed, many of them will immediately begin preparing a new rebellion and may even split the party in a repeat performance of the SDP split in 1981, but on a much larger scale. There can be no unity on this basis – either the MPs must submit to the membership or the membership must submit to the MPs. There is no third way.
For those of us who want to see a democratic Labour Party with an engaged and active membership, fighting the Tories on the basis of socialist policies, the tasks are clear: we must fight to make sure that Corbyn can defend his leadership in a fair contest; we must support Corbyn’s campaign to ensure that he gets an even bigger mandate this time around; and it is imperative that we campaign for the democratic reselection of MPs so that our parliamentary candidates actually represent our party and the interests of the working class.
Defend Corbyn! Fight for Socialism!