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Losing Momentum – can Jeremy Corbyn Survive a Split from his Base?

The unprecedented, unpunished rebellion of shadow cabinet members against a three-line whip raises the question: is Jeremy Corbyn only the ‘spiritual leader’ of the Labour party?

The unprecedented, unpunished rebellion of shadow cabinet members against a three-line whip raises the question: is Corbyn merely the ‘spiritual leader’ of the Labour party?

“It was inevitable,” one Labour adviser remarked after shadow cabinet members openly defied a three-line whip to abstain on a crucial indicative vote on a second referendum last week. “The left always eats itself. It’s no surprise discipline has broken down.”

Byline Times has interviewed more than half a dozen senior Labour party figures and advisers in the wake of the unprecedented frontbench rebellion by the party chairman Ian Lavery and shadow leader of the house John Trickett. These sources have spoken on condition of anonymity as Labour strives to preserve party unity. Most are on the left of the party or from the grassroots Momentum movement.

One Labour official predicted “open rebellion”… Another left wing adviser observed that, if no people’s vote was included, “we are finished”.

All conceded that discipline had broken down, and most blamed the role of unelected advisers.

For those on the left, there is a distinct sense that the promise which swept Corbyn to power in the party in 2015, and helped destroy Theresa May’s parliamentary majority in the 2017 general election, is now being betrayed.

‘Love Corbyn – Hate Brexit’

It started off as an appeal to a more participatory party that wanted to widen participation and membership. Within a year of taking over the party, the ‘Corbyn Project’ had increased party membership to over half a million. But, three years on, as T-shirts circulated last summer with the logo ‘Love Corbyn – Hate Brexit’, the coalition that had brought Jeremy Corbyn to power was beginning to crack.

The issue of the second referendum cuts across inner party lines, but particularly hits those on the left inspired by the mass protests of 2003 against the Iraq invasion, which drew over a million people to march in central London.

A close adviser noted the irony that Corbyn, who gave a “rousing speech” about the “biggest ever political demonstration in the history of the country” at that protest was ignoring an even larger march last month in favour of a second Brexit vote.

Just like the Conservative Party, the fractious issue in Labour is Britain’s departure from the EU and whether to put the final deal to a second public vote.

According to a survey of Labour party members, 83% of Labour members voted Remain in 2016. 72% of Labour members (compared to 57% of current Labour voters and 61% of 2017 Labour voters) want Corbyn to fully support a new referendum.

To some, Corbyn is a “spiritual leader” with little executive control of the party…. “Traitors everywhere,” is how one Corbyn loyalist described the mess.

“It was always a coalition between anti-imperialists, civil rights lawyers, and grass-roots movements,” said an aide of Corbyn’s base. But, like another prominent figures on the left, the aide suggested Corbyn seemed to be allying on the Brexit issue with his head of strategy and communications and once a senior figure in the ‘Stop the War’ coalition: Seumas Milne.

Milne, a former Guardian commentator, is a natural touchstone for dissent as the main figure behind Labour’s lobby briefings. Son of the former director general of the BBC, Milne was educated at the exclusive Winchester college and is described as an ‘aristocratic entryist’ by some on the left, who are particularly critical of his stance on Russian intervention in Ukraine as a “champagne and caviar socialist.”

Director of Strategy and Communications Seumas Milne

Others, who like Milne personally and think his background is irrelevant, still say he now has too much influence over Corbyn when it comes to foreign policy, especially on the divisive Brexit issue.

Some Labour figures go so far as to suggest that, amid signs of a split with Momentum, Milne and other loyal Corbyn advisers have adopted a “bunker mentality” over Brexit. All regret the fact that an ‘unelected official’ like Milne could have such power over the Corbyn Project, especially since it promised to break the New Labour reputation for spin and backroom briefings.

Under a Spell

For over three years there has been a recurrent internet meme comparing the influence on Corbyn to that of Grima Wormtongue over Theoden, King of Rohan, in Lord of the Rings. The notion that the head of communications and strategy was bending the leader’s ear and exerting undue influence has now been taken up by disillusioned Momentum supporters who claim that he has “blinded the king and removed him from his army”.

Of course, Milne’s policy over Brexit and the second vote could well be a reflection of Corbyn’s real position rather than vice-versa. But, this lack of clarity and openness is estranging the Labour Leader from old close allies such as John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry. Thornberry herself has openly disputed lobby briefings in recent weeks while Abbott remarked to the shadow cabinet that, while she had openly defied the three-line whip in the past, she always did so on the expectation that she would enjoy a long sojourn on the back benches.

Byline Times has asked the Labour Party press office to comment on these accounts, and is still awaiting a reply. However, all the senior figures we spoke to agreed that Corbyn was looking tired and strained, and that the stresses of Brexit were putting pressure on Labour almost as much as the Conservatives.

To some, Corbyn is a “spiritual leader” with little executive control of the party these days. On the left, the impasse is said to be “sapping energy” from the base. “Traitors everywhere,” is how one Corbyn loyalist described the mess.

Time is running out. With the looming threat of a ‘no deal’ crash-out of the EU this Friday and Corbyn’s ongoing talks with Prime Minister Theresa May, all of those this newspaper spoke to confirmed that the party is at breaking point. One Labour official predicted “open rebellion” across the party if there were no reference to a ‘final say’ in any agreement between the two party leaders. Another left-wing adviser observed that, if no people’s vote was included, “we are finished”.

If so, the split between Corbyn and the movement that has sustained him, could make him Brexit’s next victim.

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