By Mike Phipps
Could Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have won the 2017 general election, had it not been for the sabotage of Labour Party Head Office staff? The short answer is: we can never know.
The hypothetical question arose after Jeremy Corbyn and former senior colleagues raised the issue in their submission to the Forde Inquiry. Martin Forde QC heads a panel which is looking into the allegations contained in Labour’s leaked report, originally earmarked as a submission to the EHRC investigation into antisemitism within Labour, entitled The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019.
The submission to the Forde Inquiry emphasised the narrow result in 2017 and concluded: “It’s not impossible that Jeremy Corbyn might now be in his third year as a Labour prime minister were it not for the unauthorised, unilateral action taken by a handful of senior party officials.”
According to the Guardian, “The narrative is vehemently opposed by the officials concerned, one of whom called it ‘a mythical “stab in the back” conspiracy theory to absolve themselves’.”
Others went further. The Independent’s John Rentoul echoed the “conspiracy theory” allegation and said Corbyn’s submission to the Forde Panel was the “pitiful whine of the sore loser”.
Then there is David Miliband, once the darling of the Labour right and former Foreign Secretary until he lost the leadership election in 2010 and left UK politics to become head of a US-based NGO with a salary today of just under US $1 million. He claims the submission is a “pure wrecking tactic from Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbynites”, directed against Keir Starmer’s leadership. Sorry?
It’s a topsy-turvy world the Labour right and their media friends inhabit, where if you call out wrecking, you are yourself labelled the wrecker. But facts are stubborn things and we should remind ourselves of the sheer abundance of evidence amassed in the 860 page dossier that catalogued this wrecking.
The leaked report documents the failure of the Party’s Governance and Legal Unit before 2018 to develop any consistent system of logging, tracking the progress of, and decision-making on complaints, including those on racism and antisemitism. The report is clear that the inertia was deliberately aimed at undermining Corbyn’s leadership.
The dossier sets out how party resources were used in a factional manner against the left, and recruitment decisions were based on factional loyalty. Factional behaviour was so intense that sexist and racist comments abounded in the hostility directed against Corbyn’s team.
The right’s defence of this behaviour is quite pathetic. Apparently confidentiality was breached – a legalistic defence that ignores the substance of the claims made in the report. Whatsapp messages were “presented selectively and without their true context in order to give a misleading picture,” according to Thomas Gardiner, the former director of Labour’s Governance and Legal Unit. But what possible context can there be for calling someone a “bitch face cow”, or a “pube head”?
But the aforementioned John Rentoul lets the cat out of the bag in his ‘think-piece’ on this. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, he says, that the allegations of sabotage by Party staffers are true. “Why does Corbyn suppose that Labour staff didn’t want him to be prime minister? Was it simply cosmic malice, or was it for the same reason that Labour MPs tried to get rid of him, namely that they didn’t agree with him?”
So again in this weirdly amoral media bubble, the unelected functionaries of a Party whose salaries are paid by the ordinary rank and file members, who overwhelmingly supported Jeremy Corbyn in both his leadership contests, are entitled to behave in this way, and to complain about it is to whine like a loser? Not in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of members who worked flat out for a general election victory and were incredulous to later read that the staff of their own organisation had been working to prevent this very possibility.
But there is a broader, unanswerable question: was this activity alone the reason why Jeremy Corbyn lost in 2017? To this I would answer: probably not.
Firstly, it wasn’t just Labour’s unelected staff that worked to undermine Corbyn. As we know, from the outset, many in the parliamentary party did everything they could to publicly thwart the wishes of the membership and make Corbyn’s life difficult. Owen Smith’s leadership bid in 2016, for example, was a complete distraction from the necessity of building a unified force capable of defeating the Tories.
It’s been pointed out that Labour was just 2,227 votes away from winning in 2017. If Labour had won seven seats narrowly taken by the Conservatives, it would have had the opportunity to form a “progressive alliance” with other smaller parties and keep the Tories out.
There is no doubt that in 2017 the leadership and the Party HQ were working to different strategies. The leadership wanted to take the offensive, but the Party machine was cautious, keen to safeguard seats that seemed to be under pressure if most opinion polls were accurate. They weren’t.
This defensive approach was also underpinned by factionalism. Central resources were poured into seats held by right wing Labour MPs, who it transpired were not greatly under threat after all, while vulnerable Tory seats were ignored, like Amber Rudd’s Hastings constituency, which Labour missed taking by a handful of votes. There is excellent documentation of this clash of strategies in Alex Nunns’ book The Candidate.
So Labour was just a couple of thousand votes from winning, and the Party staff stopped it happening, right? This is comforting for some, but there are some big ifs here. Firstly, statisticians may come up with such figures but they are rather meaningless. It might also be pointed out that if just 50 votes in key constituencies had gone to the Conservatives, they could probably have formed a majority government, instead of having to deal with the DUP.
Moving votes around in this hypothetical way just shows up the flaws of our first past the post system. Labour did well in 2017, but it still trailed the Tories by three quarters of a million votes.
The prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being able to form some kind of government in 2017 would have been intriguing. Would the smaller parties whose support he would have needed have allowed him to do this, or would some have colluded with sections of the Labour right to keep him from power? If he had formed a government, how much of Labour’s radical manifesto would he have been allowed to carry out by his parliamentary colleagues? We will never know.
But our focus on how close we came to winning in 2017 may have left us less prepared for the challenges in 2019, when we did have control of the Party machine and were more fully in control. There were important takeaways from the 2017 result that may have been downplayed. The “red wall”, as in previous elections, was already looking vulnerable for a host of reasons. The hope by some to see 2019 in terms of ‘one more heave’ was clearly misplaced.
The radical nature of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme meant that a big win was critical if we were going to get the opportunity to implement it – not only because it would have been intolerable for the leadership to have been held to ransom by a group of malcontents in the right wing of the parliamentary party. A big win would also express the building of a mass movement beyond the Labour Party that would support the radical transformation of Britain visualised in our manifesto – a vital force to challenge the inevitable sabotage that delivering these radical proposals would face – from the state, the markets and beyond.
To win big, the Corbyn leadership needed to hegemonise every area of policy and broaden its appeal to far wider layers, giving them a stake in a Corbyn victory. Central to this would have been a line on Europe that could have more effectively brought people together and transcended the polarisation in Britain that the Tories so effectively exploited in the 2019 election.
In short, success, measured in terms of transforming Britain for the better, was always going to be about much more than fractional electoral arithmetic.
As for David Miliband, former advisor to Tony Blair, MP for South Shields, part of that neglected ‘red wall”, and supporter of the Iraq War on the grounds that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction – it didn’t – well, Miliband has once again not ruled out a return to UK politics. The question is: can he afford the salary cut?