As Labour has become embroiled in allegations of anti-semitism, intimidation and more, we should ask ourselves whose interests do these smears serve, writes LIZ DAVIES
THE majority of Tory MPs and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party share a distrust of their own party members.
The most likely explanation for Andrea Leadsom’s sudden withdrawal from the Tory leadership contest is that Tory MPs realised that she might not be competent to be prime minister, but that, as the only Leave candidate on the ballot paper, the bulk of Tory Party members would probably vote for her.
Result: the classic Tory manoeuvre of quietly explaining to their own candidate why she should withdraw.
It’s a cliche that Tory MPs are far more ruthless than their Labour counterparts. We’ve seen the majority of the PLP show that they can be ruthless and simultaneously incompetent. Underpinning everything is their fear of the members.
Labour MPs started with the most personal assault on their leader ever seen in British politics, in the hope that Jeremy Corbyn would resign. A lesser person would have done but Corbyn really does have nerves of steel.
Had he resigned, my guess is that we wouldn’t have had a leadership contest. The PLP would have ensured that only one candidate obtained the requisite number of nominations. There would have been a coronation.
Since Corbyn didn’t buckle, we moved on to the next stage. Which was to try and keep him off the ballot paper. Lawyers flocked to advise. The rules looked pretty obvious to me: since they referred to a threshold required for a “challenger” and not at all to an incumbent, the correct interpretation is that the incumbent doesn’t need nominations.
But the decision was for the NEC and was always going to be political. The decision that Corbyn was automatically on the ballot put the choice of leader back into the hands of party members.
Had the decision gone the other way, there might have been only be one candidate coming forward with nominations and again, we might have seen a coronation, not an election.
We now face a wealthy donor threatening court proceedings against the NEC. All to take away the opportunity for party members to vote for Corbyn.
Meanwhile, the party engages in gerrymandering that Chicago mayor Richard Daley would have been proud of.
Labour has grown hugely under Corbyn — 292,000 members in August 2015, 515,000 in July 2016 — and the guess is that most of those new members are Corbyn supporters.
So the NEC picked an arbitrary cut-off point of membership by January 12 2016 in order to qualify to vote for the leader.
New members disqualified from voting for leader can still vote for NEC candidates. The Centre Left Grassroots Alliance is standing a slate of six and they should all be supported.
The previous arrangement of £3 supporters has turned into £25 supporters, so long as they registered in a 48-hour window this week. And local parties can’t meet, presumably for fear that party members might talk to each other.
All of these insults to the membership are likely to incense party members, so that even more of those permitted will vote for Corbyn.
Forty-nine per cent of existing members voted for him as their first preference last year. If he gets the same vote this time round, he’s almost certain to win.
Not only are party members not trusted with decision-making, they are smeared as well. Just two months ago, the media consensus, whipped up by anti-Corbyn propagandists, was that the Labour Party had a major problem with anti-semitism.
Labour Party members said “of course the party has a problem” while admitting that they had never witnessed anti-semitic comments themselves.
It became a self-evident truth, now debunked by Shami Chakrabarti, who found “the Labour Party is not overrun by anti-semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism … However, as with wider society, there is too much clear evidence (going back some years) of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours.” Such offensive words or behaviour are occasional.
Now, the media consensus is that public representatives, particularly women, who do not support Corbyn are subject to intimidation.
Obviously we all live in the shadows of Jo Cox MP’s horrific murder, by a far-right activist. The brick through Angela Eagle’s constituency office building window was a dramatic recent example, although nobody knows who was responsible or whether they were targeting her in particular.
Some of the allegations are exaggerated. Some are untrue (the Luton hotel booked by Eagle for a leadership event cancelled the booking because it had been “unaware of the nature of the meeting,” not as a result of intimidation, as claimed).
And in today’s world of social media, some are undoubtedly true and completely unacceptable. All public representatives face dreadful abuse and threats on social media, and the tone of that abuse is much worse if the recipient is female or from an ethnic minority or disabled.
But the idea that the left is systematically engaging in this behaviour is just nonsense, and a smear intended to deprive Corbyn and his supporters of legitimacy.
If a smear is repeated often enough, as we saw in the referendum campaign, it rapidly becomes a self-evident truth.
Just as the accusation of anti-semitism rapidly turned into a witch-hunt of the left and arbitrary suspensions from membership, so accusations of intimidation have been levelled out of the blue.
Brighton and Hove Labour Party is suspended having elected a slate of left-wing officers. There are vague accusations of “abusive behaviour,” denied by those who were at the meeting.
South Shields members have been told that they could be disciplined for rolling their eyes and the local party is suspended. And Constituency Labour Parties generally are forbidden from meeting until after the leadership election is concluded.
Why? There is no clear answer. But socials, fundraising events and leadership hustings are permitted. It is hard to understand why, if there is such a pernicious culture of intimidation, those events would be free of abuse.
None of these arbitrary actions make any rational sense. They are legally offensive: the Labour Party took £45 from each new member who joined after January 12 2016 and didn’t tell them that they would not receive a benefit of membership: ie the opportunity to vote.
They offend against principles of retrospective legislation and attempts by one party to a contract to vary the terms unilaterally.
Preventing existing members from voting while simultaneously allowing people to pay £25 for a vote makes no sense (unless you calculate that Corbynistas will be less able to afford £25).
The only sense to be made of it is political. Each arbitrary measure reduces Corbyn’s potential voters.
The PLP majority never wanted the decision to be made by Labour Party members. Now they want to select which members can be trusted to make the decision.
Meanwhile Corbyn remains hugely popular. The attacks on him — that he has lost the confidence of colleagues, that he was lacklustre during the referendum campaign, that he is not electable — don’t stand up and aren’t believed.
Under Corbyn, the Labour Party has retained four parliamentary seats, won four mayors in England and exceeded expectations in England and Wales.
Scotland, of course, involves a long-term struggle to rebuild the Labour vote.
And his stance on the referendum — that the EU needed reform — was the one most likely to appeal to wavering Leave-Remain voters. They were not going to be swayed by a passionate defence of the EU in its current form.
Even more extraordinarily, despite the last weeks of receiving some of the most personal and vicious abuse ever seen directed against a politician, Corbyn remains relaxed.
On July 15, he was in conversation with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall. He displayed a passion for books, art and music. He is widely read and reads for pleasure (unlike most politicians).
He had charm, grace and humour. He praised Joseph Conrad, Mike Marqusee (my late partner), Robert Tressell, Oscar Wilde and Ama Ata Aidoo.
One of the qualities of leadership is the ability to remain calm, and think strategically, at times of crisis.
Corbyn’s nerves of steel in these last weeks have proved his qualities as a leader. We were right to elect him last year; and we will be right to re-elect him this time round.
- Liz Davies is a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is a member of the Labour Party, having rejoined in 2015. She was an elected member of the party’s national executive committee between 1998 and 2000. This article was written before Angela Eagle withdrew from the leadership contest.