Abi Wilkinson: It's a dangerous game to dismiss Jeremy Corbyn's supporters as Trots
Most Corbyn supporters are neither cunning Trotskyites nor hapless fools - and the leader's opponents should try to take their concerns seriously.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, was recently accused of “peddling conspiracy theories” after he claimed “Trotskyite entryists” were attempting to affect the party’s leadership contest.
However, given that Corbyn is the most left-wing leader Labour has had in decades, it seems more implausible to think that hard left organisations wouldn’t seize this opportunity to try and influence mainstream politics. Trotskyist groups have been out in the wilderness since Militant was expelled from the Labour party in the 1980s, why wouldn’t they support a leader who is comparatively sympathetic to their cause.
Far less convincing is the second part of Watson’s claim: that such entryists “twisting the arms” of young members and significantly boosting Corbyn’s support.
The fact is, there just aren’t actually very many Trotskyists in the UK. Though it’s true that a relatively small number of people can have outsize political influence if they deploy certain tactics — even at their peak, Militant only numbered around 8,000 — but Corbyn has the backing of hundreds of thousands of Labour members, many of whom have no history of radicalism. The idea they’ve simply been manipulated by hard left infiltrators is patronising and unconvincing, and ignores the actual circumstances of Corbyn’s selection as leader.
Despite this, many self-described Labour moderates seem keen on this narrative of a hostile, hard left takeover. Perhaps because it’s easier than acknowledging their own responsibility for the party’s current troubles. Most of the Corbyn supporters I’ve spoken to are neither cunning Trotskyites nor hapless fools, they’re ordinary people who believe that the Labour party should consistently stand for certain values. Namely, they think it should defend the welfare state and oppose spending cuts that are likely to have a serious, negative impact on vulnerable social groups.
Last year, Corbyn’s support soared after caretaker leader Harriet Harman instructed Labour MPs to abstain from voting against the Conservative’s welfare bill at the second reading. Instead, an amendment was tabled that opposed some parts of the bill but supported other aspects, such as the proposed £20,000 household benefit cap.
The justification for this was pragmatic: polling showed that three quarters of voters supported the cap so opposing it would be electorally unwise. For many members, however, it represented a moral hard line. They argue that Labour has a duty to try and actively change public opinion, not simply reflect it, particularly when a widely supported policy will inflict severe hardship on thousands of families.
It’s easy to dismiss such a position as naive, or to argue that proponents are prioritising moral purity over gaining the political power that would allow them to actually make a difference to people’s lives. The fact is, though, most of us do have similar hard limits. Many of those who claim to be baffled by some Labour members’ unwillingness to compromise on welfare wouldn’t give way on other policies that might prove electorally popular. Bringing back capital punishment, for example. Or seizing the assets of refugees.
Though leadership challenger Owen Smith is standing on an anti-austerity platform, many party members fear that Labour will pivot rightwards if he’s selected. For all of Corbyn’s weaknesses, they see him as the only candidate who can be trusted to oppose harsh welfare cuts. Dismissing such people as Trots and idiots signals that their concerns are not taken seriously by other factions within the party.
As such, it simply encourages them to double down in their support of the current leader. If Corbyn’s opponents want to change the minds of his supporters, they must start by listening to what they’ve actually got to say.
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