Rightwing scheming as well as John McDonnell’s withdrawal has ensured there will be a left candidate for the Labour leadership after all, writes Peter Manson
Diane Abbott’s successful bid to secure enough nominations for the Labour leadership contest resulted from the momentary convergence of interests of the John McDonnell-led left, a handful of black MPs from across the Labour political spectrum and elements within the rightwing leadership keen on demonstrating that the party is a ‘diverse and vibrant force’, appealing to all sections of society.
So, unlike 2007, when the New Labour leadership succeeded in arranging Gordon Brown’s coronation by ensuring that no-one else won enough nominations, this time around it has positively encouraged a contested election with the aim of stimulating what acting leader Harriet Harman dubbed an “open, engaging and energising” campaign. Harman publicly announced that she was nominating Abbott to help ensure a black woman was on the ballot paper and, true to his word, front runner David Miliband also added his signature (he had promised to do so to achieve a more broadly contested poll should any candidate end up one nomination short of the necessary 33 Labour MPs). Ed Balls also hinted that his supporters might as well sign up for Diane when he said there was no point in adding their names to his total, now he had passed the minimum so comfortably.
Another leading rightwinger to nominate her was Jack Straw – former home secretary, foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, and one of only three people to have been a cabinet member continuously from 1997 to 2010, so complete is his loyalty to the Blair-Brown right. Then there is Phil Woolas, ex-minister for borders and immigration, who is hated by all genuine internationalists for his role in overseeing deportations, the detention of children and virginity tests.
So Abbott is backed by the former ‘immigration tsar’, but at least the current ‘poverty tsar’ did not nominate her. Frank Field – a Labour minister for ‘welfare reform’ under Blair, now given the task of deciding how best to hammer welfare recipients by David Cameron – may, for whatever reason, have originally nominated John McDonnell, but he is one of the few who did not switch to Abbott when McDonnell pulled out.
Most of those who did take McDonnell’s advice – duly transferring their nominations when he withdrew at the last moment on June 9 – are, of course, Labour left MPs. McDonnell said: “It is now clear that I am unlikely to secure enough nominations and so I am withdrawing in the hope that we can at least secure a woman on the ballot paper.” The previous day he had warned of his intentions in the same terms. While he said there was still a chance they could both get through, “I’ve also said, if it comes down to it, if it’s a choice of me standing and not getting on and me pulling out and getting a woman on the ballot paper, that’s exactly what I’ll do because I think it’s important we actually reflect modern society.”
It seems that comrade McDonnell was deliberately playing down his and Abbott’s leftwing credentials in order to fit in with the multiculturalist ‘diversity’ agenda of the Labour right. His own slim chances of getting enough nominations were dealt a fatal blow when Abbott announced she was standing. It looked for all the world that her move, by ensuring that the votes of the tiny contingent of Labour left MPs would be split, had finally scuppered the possibility of any left candidate getting on the ballot paper.
There was more than a hint of suspicion that Abbott had been put up as a wrecking candidate by elements of the soft left, in an attempt to prevent McDonnell acting as a ‘spoiler’ for David Miliband, taking away votes from one of the mainstream candidates with a chance of beating him. Ken Livingstone came out openly for Ed Balls, while Tony Benn made it plain he would eventually back Ed Miliband – in both cases as the lesser evil. If McDonnell had got on the ballot paper he would undoubtedly have won over a much greater proportion of rank and file Labour and union members than the level of his support in the Commons. But, for the likes of Livingstone, that would only have played into the hands of David Miliband.
The problem now for the soft left is that Abbott could play exactly the same role. Yes, McDonnell has been prevented from acting as a ‘spoiler’ and letting David Miliband win, but the chances of ‘realistic’ ‘leftwing’ Ed Balls could still be damaged by Abbott. Not exactly what the soft left had in mind when they egged her on. And David Miliband and the other rightwingers were hardly unaware of this when they added their names to her nomination papers.
As for McDonnell, despite criticisms that he had unnecessarily accommodated to the right both by his apparent willingness to sign up Field and other rightwing mavericks like Kate Hoey, and in the manner of his withdrawal, there is no doubt that he did the right thing in stepping down in favour of Abbott. There was in the end definitely no chance of getting on the ballot paper himself. Even if Abbott had withdrawn (which she most certainly would not have done), the assortment of rightwing and black MPs that ended up nominating her would not have transferred their nominations to him.
Comrade McDonnell, for all his reformist illusions, is the most determinedly and consistently pro-working class, and therefore the most principled, Labour MP by a long chalk. Abbott, though, is regarded as safe enough by the Labour establishment. What is more, she has the advantage of being both black and female.
On the other hand, the fact she is on the ballot paper does provide working class partisans with an opportunity. Now at least there is the chance of a genuine debate rather than stage-managed talking shops involving candidates whose anti-working class agenda differs only in nuance. Abbott is unlikely to abandon altogether her previous opposition (however wavering and opportunist) to cuts in public services and imperialist wars. Even if she does, we may still be able to publicly challenge her. Harman’s talk of involving up to four million people in the Labour leadership debate is not just hype, and the presence of a candidate likely to challenge the Labour establishment consensus opens up the potential for a more effective pro-working class intervention.
It goes without saying that it would have been far better if comrade McDonnell had been the left candidate who succeeded in getting on the ballot paper. Before Abbott came along that had been a possibility, if a remote one. She showed a cavalier disregard for this fact by announcing her candidacy against the established leftwing contender so late in the day and apparently without consultation (certainly without any common agreement).
That is why comrade Chris Strafford’s argument was so misplaced (Letters, June 3). We should have welcomed her candidature as McDonnell did, he said, instead of condemning her splitting manoeuvre, and concentrated on the demand that both of them should have been allowed to stand. Yes, as a good diplomat, McDonnell publicly pronounced himself pleased that she was joining in the debate, but I suspect that what he said in private might have been a little different.
Nor is there a contradiction between demanding the scrapping of the undemocratic, anti-left restrictions on leadership contenders and opposition to Abbott’s splitting tactics (even though in the end – to everyone’s surprise, including, I suspect, her own – they did result in a leftwinger getting on the ballot). The left cannot rely on sections of the right tactically deciding to offer support for their own ends and there should have been a single left candidate from the beginning. Clearly it was John McDonnell who was best qualified both in terms of support from Labour left MPs (before he withdrew he had 16 nominations to Abbott’s 11) and political consistency and working class principle.
The correct position was to call for a single left candidate, while simultaneously demanding the right of all those with real support to be able to contest. Why should the right to nominate be restricted to MPs, most of whom were hand-picked by the Blairites? That right should be opened up to all Labour Party bodies and affiliated organisations, not least the unions. Comrade McDonnell himself said he had made a last-ditch attempt to get the threshold for nominations reduced before he decided to withdraw. He knew many Labour activists and trade unionists would be “disappointed that their candidate will not be on the ballot”, but urged them to continue to fight for “democracy within the party”.
And that is very much needed. Only through democracy can the ascendancy of the right be challenged. Not only are the four main leadership candidates (in addition to Ed Balls and the Milibands, Andy Burnham also won sufficient nominations) unambiguously pro-cuts and pro-war: they have all jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon.
Balls has made great play of how he had tried to talk Gordon Brown into adopting an even tougher anti-migrant approach. He said: “Free movement of goods and services works to our mutual advantage. But the free movement of labour is another matter entirely.” Which is why he favours “transitional arrangements” across the European Union when new states apply to join – as should have been the case “for a sustained period” when Poland and other A8 countries acceded in 2004. As a result “British workers” have had to accept lower pay and worse conditions, says Balls. You could not wish for a clearer example of nationalistic, pro-capital politics being dressed up as pro-worker.
Balls thinks that Gillian Duffy, the pensioner whom Brown labelled a “bigot” for challenging him over immigration, was merely expressing “the kind of things being said by Labour supporters”. This type of ‘I’m not racist, but …’ anti-migrant prejudice is voiced as “look what it’s doing to my community, to my child’s job prospects, our housing queues”, said Balls.
It is, of course, understandable that the Gillian Duffys of this world, encouraged by the gutter press, should react in that way. But for politicians like Balls, who claim to be on the left of Labour, it is inexcusable. Diane Abbott has stated her opposition, as the daughter of migrants, to the anti-immigration hysteria. The question is, will she have the principled, internationalist, working class arguments to back up her own gut sentiment?