From local branches right up to the ruling national executive committee, splits on the left are defining the future of the Labour Party. The real battle, when all NEC ballots are counted, is not whether the Momentum or Progress slate will win – we already know, whether Peter Willsman or Ann Black takes the final place, that nine Corbynites will win by a considerable margin. That’s never been the story. Beyond these elections, beyond this current crisis, the real question is what the nature of the Corbynite left will be. And the answer will determine whether our party succumbs to its current crisis or rises above it.
Momentum, as a national body, have been swift and effective. There was a delay in the decision to drop Willsman from their slate, but the line at the top has since been clear: we will not tolerate antisemitism or bigotry that has become the apparent priority of the ‘crank’ left. In doing so, the Momentum National Coordinating Group (NCG) has aligned with the ‘Lansmanites’ who rightly draw the line at the likes of Jackie Walker. But local parties and local Momentum groups have seen rebellion and dissent. This has manifested itself online in organised ‘Twitterstorms’, the replies of Momentum’s Twitter account, and most amusingly in the replies of loyalists such as former Jeremy Corbyn spokesman Matt Zarb-Cousin. These activists, now #JC9-branded, have made it known this is still a hill they want to die on. On the left, the split hasn’t only just emerged – but it’s become too difficult to ignore.
Cranks versus Lansmanites is a fight that has existed since Corbyn won his first leadership election. We’ve seen it in our Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and how they compare to Young Labour or other groups. Demographics present obvious patterns: older, more beleaguered activists who have always organised on a marginalised left, who may have rejoined the party for Corbyn or stuck it out through their wilderness years and for whom a bunker mentality allows for obsessive bigotry; and the younger activists attracted to radical ideas around dismantling neoliberalism and the fight against an economic system that doesn’t work for them. It makes local politics depressing for that second group, many of whom will sit through three-hour meetings and decide never to come back. We may get involved in national bodies or campaigns, but the grassroots have been taken over by cranks – those rebels who come out for #JC9 even when the NCG says otherwise.
It’s difficult to know where the majority now lies. Many of us younger members spend more of our time at Young Labour events than organising local meetings, so we feel isolated. Just when you think that Momentum’s NCG move to drop Willsman means he cannot win, you are reminded that amongst the grassroots support for him thrives – along with the nasty implications. Just when you see bright and prolific activists say antisemitism is a problem, their replies reveal hundreds of eggs who disagree. Even when Corbyn says those who deny antisemitism has surfaced within the party are “clearly actually wrong and contributing to the problem”, again replies reveal #JC9 activists are begging the Labour leader not to ‘give in’ to Jewish groups. Corbyn is urged by his supporters not to let the ‘smears’ prevent this apparently all-important fight against enemies such as Margaret Hodge.
Whether Willsman is reelected or not will be the summer’s turning point for reaching a conclusion as to where we are as a party. It will be a tragedy if he does win an NEC place. Tricky decisions would have to be made promptly; questions will be asked. Do we as Labour, and does the left within it, confront the poison in our grassroots? And if so, how?
These discussions are already being held in Momentum, in CLPs and perhaps in the leader’s office. But the decisions made at the end of those talks clearly differ. Corbyn’s office must stop hesitating, face up to its responsibilities more swiftly, play a proper role in defeating that antisemitic poison and match the efficiency that has been displayed by Momentum.
Elsewhere, the pragmatic solution it seems disenchanted left-wing activists must embrace is to organise locally – even in our deeply painful three-hour meetings going through procedural motions. The Corbynite left isn’t going away, and power is in the hands of the Lansmanite left and of young Corbyn-supporting activists more broadly. It is our responsibility to match the effectiveness of national counterparts at the grassroots. To define the Corbynite left.
As with any CLP, battles for executive committees between the left and the right will continue. But the Lansmanite left will have to stay vigilant, organise as best they can, pick candidates without histories of bigotry, and not let the cranks define what it means to be left-wing in the Labour Party and at its grassroots. The grassroots will determine the outcome of the split, and the outcome of the split will determine the future of our party.
Jade Azim is a blogger and founder of Women in Political Data.