The UK shadow chancellor has asserted that attempts by MPs to remove Jeremy Corbyn are undemocratic. But this requires a very specific understanding of democracy.
In a crisis everything moves quickly. The conflict between the politics of nationalism and the politics of Corbynism has deepened as Britain’s unwritten constitution continues to crumble. The stakes for Labour voters in the coming leadership election couldn’t be higher.
Nicola Sturgeon made a call for an independence referendum last week and then jetted off to Brussels. Jean-Claude Juncker granted her an audience yesterday. The EU commission has stated that it will not talk to the government of the United Kingdom until Article 50 is invoked. Juncker has now confirmed that the United Kingdom, from the point of view of the EU, has dissolved. Scotland has not had an independent foreign policy since 1707.
In Belfast, negotiations for the summer’s marching season have broken down over the last few days. Sinn Fein have repeated their call for a border poll. In a speech to a large crowd in Dublin yesterday Gerry Adams called for the Irish Government and the Fianna Fáil to respect the referendum result and demanded a vote on a united Ireland.
The Conservatives are in open warfare. As much as the leadership contest is a chance for them to set the coming parliamentary agenda for a generation, the crisis of executive government is already being fought out in the Cabinet Office.
In an interview before Brexit on 30th May, Oliver Letwin claimed that Britain would have the “best of both worlds” if it stayed in the EU. The UK would get access to the single market but avoid the political and economic union that would be inevitable within the Eurozone.
Boris Johnson’s extraordinary post-referendum statement in the Telegraph reveals that he is on Letwin’s side. Johnson’s momentary decision to stand and his spectacular fall within hours shows that, Brexit or no Brexit, the Tory patricians are pushing for access to the single market and freedom of movement.
Letwin’s bluff was called on Tuesday in the Treasury Select Committee when former Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull stressed that a Brexiter must lead the EU Policy Unit. If Michael Gove wins the Tory leadership Turnbull may get his way. Dominic Cummings must be a likely candidate. Both the Tory ‘soft Brexit’ and ‘hard Brexit’ tickets will seek to co-opt languages of nationalism against UKIP on their right flank. This puts them at odds with the SNP who will call for a split whatever the policy that comes out of number 10 over the coming months.
The implications of the nationalist crisis continues to roll through the Labour party despite Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to stay put. When everything else has moved, those who stay in place have, in fact, shifted, no matter how much they have dug in.
Corbyn has aligned Labour politics with the nationalists against the state. Since the weekend, the contradictions of his position with regard to parliament have become clear.
The Labour shadow cabinet have made a series of remarkable statements since the PLP’s vote of no confidence. In a New Statesman article with the headline “Jeremy Corbyn is not standing down – 172 Labour MPs cannot drown out democracy” the depths of the constitutional crisis in the party are now on stark display.
John McDonnell asserts that the mandate from party members trumps the mandate won by MPs in their constituencies. His casting of MPs as private persons foregrounds their role as representatives of 300,000 party members rather than their role as representatives of the 9,000,000 voters who decided to vote for the Labour party and all of those in their constituencies who did not.
As a Marxist theorist, beloved of some leftists, once wrote, “in political, ideological and philosophical struggle, words are also weapons, explosives, tranquillizers and poisons.” The concept of democracy is now one such weapon. Taking responsibility for destabilising such an important component of national life is a grave decision.
Corbyn's decision reveals that he would rather entrench his leadership in the party than Labour’s role in opposition. There are two sources of legitimacy now in play within Labour. Declaring the MP’s move a ‘putsch’, rather than calling Corbyn’s decision to stay a ‘coup’, depends on competing ideas of democracy. One is representative, the other is not.
This decision is not fight between "old" and "new" Labour. All Labour's previous leaders acted on the assumption that their policies could only ever be implemented by capturing the machinery of the state. They did not think, in the words of another famous Marxist, of "removing the 'parasite' and replacing it with something new". Parliament’s Leveller legacy, so beloved of Tony Benn, is being torn to shreds in a fit of dialectics.
Corbyn may not know what he is doing. Whether he understands the implications of his decision doesn’t matter now. What matters is that Labour members understand what he has done. All of the major positions since the crisis began are now staked out: Corbyn’s, the Parliamentary Labour Party’s, Sinn Fein’s, the SNP’s, the Tory Brexiters’, the Tory Remainers’, Nigel Farage’s.
Farage’s comments in the EU Parliament, Marine Le Pen's article in the New York Times yesterday, and the wave of racist attacks across the country reveal the clear and present danger of Labour’s decision. By breaking with the institutions at the centre, Corbyn’s great gamble is to declare that a socialist language of politics can defeat Farage’s and Le Pen’s.
The gamble is that extra-parliamentary socialism will win amidst the current crisis of nationalist resurgence. It is now for Labour’s members to decide whether these are tolerable odds for them to stand or whether a reassertion of parliamentary primacy is the only option that can shift the stakes. This is the judgment facing all of those on the left. Labour's members must decide whether Corbyn can win without parliament.