Hammer and Fickle: far-left battle exposes splits in Corbyn’s power base

This week's row over slates exposes far-left split between young and old – here’s why it matters.

For a week now, the far-left has been brawling over its slate of candidates for an obscure Labour disciplinary committee.

It is easy to dismiss it as a vintage hard-left bust-up, where personal vendettas and power politics are as important as matters of policy, and where every faction goes by a baffling acronym.

It certainly fits that description – but it is also the latest battle in a longer and deepening war that could set the direction of the party under Jeremy Corbyn and beyond, between a new far-left and the old.

The new, young far-left has coalesced around Jon Lansman’s Momentum supported by new media outlets like Novara Media. Apparently threatened by this new grouping’s growing influence, older far-left institutions like Peter Willsman’s Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) are clubbing together, with the backing of aggressive far-left bloggers like Skwawkbox.

One organ of the old far-left could already be a casualty – the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA). The CLGA has existed since 1998 to organise the small and disparate groups populating Labour’s far-left, but its key role is brokering agreement on a far-left slate of candidates for each of the party’s internal elections.

That coordinating role could now be at an end as factions on both sides of this week’s breakdown in CLGA negotiations release their own slates and suggest that the current system is broken.

But while the far-left is agreed that the process must be “more democratic”, it is deeply split on what that means. For Momentum backers it appears to mean selecting a slate through direct democracy, with activists casting votes online. In their view, this is the only way to address the present system of backroom deals that gives as much power to Momentum’s 40,000 members as to CLPD’s few hundred.

Indeed they can point to CLPD’s outsize influence as one reason why it was able to bring this week’s slate negotiations to a halt – and why CLPD chief Peter Willsman was allowed to cling to his NEC seat even after his taped rant about the Jewish community.

But for CLPD and its allies, “more democratic” means giving each individual far-left group an equal say regardless of how small or large they are. They blame Jon Lansman for the breakdown in discussions, and regard humbling Momentum as the remedy.

In a barely concealed attack on Lansman, CLPD ally Red Labour said “it is not for any one person, no matter what position they have, to veto someone”, and demanded instead that “socialist members from right across the Labour left should be involved an represented”.

Here the old far-left is harking back to a Leninist tendency that prefers to place trust only in absolutely loyal and time-proven members chosen from their own vanguard. This was neatly encapsulated in a statement from veteran far-left activist Christine Shawcroft, herself both a director of Momentum and a member of CLPD’s national executive, who defended the right of established far-left organisations to pick and choose a slate with a bizarre warning that Momentum was promoting “right wingers”.

Whether by coincidence or design, this week’s splits were mirrored in the emergence of two new far-left media outlets: Labour Hub, a new far-left blog platform promoted by Momentum’s Jon Lansman; and Grassroots Labour, ostensibly an extension of the CLGA group which is aggressively promoting a CLPD-style line on party matters.

It’s another sign that the coalition of far-left groups which propelled Corbyn into the leadership and sustained him ever since is under real strain. But moderates have little reason to celebrate – a darker and more stifling party culture is the most likely outcome in the absence of an alternative vision.

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