Whoever wins in a month, the struggle will go on
Power struggles are the nature of politics. Usually, the public gets to glimpse only a fraction of the battles waged behind closed doors in what were once smoke-filled rooms. Outsiders end up having to engage in their own form of Kremlinology to work out what’s really going on: piecing together patterns in offhand comments, unattributed press briefings and articles, planted Commons questions or unruly (or unusually quiet) supporters.
The proliferation of such evidence in Labour’s current infighting might have suggested that it’s different there this time; that the battles are much more out in the open. Yes and no. There is much more public hostility but we got a glimpse yesterday of how much worse they are behind the scenes.
That Labour’s conference might have been cancelled due to the lack of an adequate security presence is testament to both the organisational chaos within the party and the depth of the schisms between its factions (the two being closely related). Now that OCS have been appointed to deliver the security arrangements, some will no doubt argue that the conference was never seriously in doubt. Don’t believe it. Labour would not have gone to G4S earlier were they not panicking about an essential aspect of the planning, almost as time ran out.
The brinkmanship involved in having pushed the decision so late won’t have come from the senior party staff; they’d have wanted matters sorted months ago. Far more likely is that sorting conference security in a timely manner was just another casualty in Labour’s ongoing and multifaceted civil war.
Winning control of the leadership is hugely important in the factional battle but it’s far from the only one. Gaining an upper hand in the party’s governing NEC is almost as important. Both at the moment are up for grabs.
In contracting OCS, the party’s General Secretary, the embattled Iain McNicol, has again bought himself time but there’s no doubt that he is in the firing line of people like John McDonnell and Len McClusky. A LabourList article yesterday laid bare the extent to which untrusted staff are under attack from Labour’s left. It hinted at much more.
If, as it suggests, McClusky was a prime mover in the decision to boycott G4S but was sanguine about Labour contracting with Showsec (who are in dispute with the GMB), then he must have been well aware that he was setting up a position where either the conference was cancelled altogether or where it was picketed by the GMB and descended into farce as many delegates – and quite probably the leader – refused to cross the picket lines.
That there can even be the suspicion that the biggest union boss might have been willing to sacrifice conference in order to force out McNicol – the piece quotes McClusky as saying blame for the conference planning lies with the General Secretary – is indicative of how deep the divisions run. Corbyn and MacDonnell being unwilling or unable to restrain him is equally telling.
My money would be on the former: Corbyn has no reason to regard McNicol as a friend and the opportunity to install his own man as General Secretary (or the best man that he could get through the NEC) might well be worth almost any price. Another angle to both the conference and the leadership fights is that McNicol is a former GMB officer and the GMB has backed Owen Smith). Corbyn does of course have the small matter of winning his election first but these games are almost independent of that: if he fails there then all is lost; if he wins then best to have the ground prepared.
But it’s only one aspect. Beyond Unite v GMB, and Corbyn’s proxies v McNicol, Labour has any number of other divisions: PLP v leadership, Momentum v mainstream, and Corbynite ‘pure’ left v Owen Smith’s ‘pragmatic’ left to name three (and that’s before thinking about the wider picture of, for example Europhile membership v Eurosceptic voters). It’s true that all parties have divisions but what Labour is going through is well beyond the normal debates about policy and the jockeying for position that’s the daily diet of politics-as-normal.
Labour’s divisions matter for two big reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s rendering them impotent as a party of opposition. It’s almost impossible for Labour to oppose the Conservatives when they’re spending so much time fighting themselves – and when they do take the argument to the Tories, they don’t do so in an organised way.
Secondly, and even more importantly, it means that Labour won’t split. Not yet anyway. With no one group in control, the battle is very much still on and until one group does gain a firm hand on all the party’s machinery, there is no reason for anyone to walk into the wilderness. Each side’s belief that they can prevail is what’s keeping them going; the belief that the other side/s might – and the understanding of how high the stakes are whoever does – is what’s driving the intensity of the fight.
But there also lies real risk. When Labour’s self-inflicted civil war is over – and that won’t be this year whether it’s Corbyn or Smith who’s crowned on September 24 – who knows whether what’s left at the end of it is worth winning.