Sunday, February 25, 2007

Meacher debacle boosts John4Leader campaign

Firstly, I want to apologise for being so rubbish at updating this blog. The past month or so has been ridiculously busy for both me and Marsha (as it has been for most people on the Labour left recently) - but hey, we'll try and make up for it in the coming months.

Thursday was a bit of a shock for many in the labour movement. Former New Labour minister Michael Meacher announced his intention to stand for Labour leader on Thursday - and explicitly stated his intention to force John McDonnell out of the contest.

As everyone who has been remotely connected with the John4Leader campaign will know, Meacher's campaign was not, in fact, launched last week. It has been rumbling along for months. During this time, John has been rushing up and down the country, addressing packed public meetings, actively re-engaging with trade unionists and party members, and winning the support of numerous Labour party and trade union grassroots organisations across the country. In stark contrast, Meacher has focused all of its efforts on winning support in the Westminster Bubble - meeting MPs for cups of teas and inviting them for dinner in an effort to win their support.

The John4Leader campaign has always been open and honest about its tactics from the very beginning. The focus is on winning support from the rank-and-file of the labour movement. In the view of everyone involved, we will get the required 44 nominations if we win a groundswell of support - and prove that there is an appetite for a genuine contest. Our campaign is restoring the PLP's original intended role - that is, to serve as the political wing of the labour movement.

Firstly, I want to explain why Meacher chose this week to announce. His attempt to win support in the PLP - by ignoring activists in the grassroots - has failed disastrously. Last week, Alan Simpson (his campaign manager) gave Meacher a massive vote of confidence by announcing that he's standing down and doubting Meacher's chances of getting the 44. McDonnell had won the support of all the grassroots organisations of the Labour left, all the main trade union broad lefts, and most recently ASLEF. It was now or never for Meacher.

As we all now know, Meacher's campaign launch was a disaster. Only two MPs turned up - Kelvin Hopkins and Ian Gibson. Ian Gibson (who chaired the press conference) then let it be known that he was not backing Meacher for leader, adding: "He has asked some people if we would respect his decision to run, but that doesn't mean we will vote for him." Peter Soulsby was alleged by Tom Watson to be another prominent backer - and quickly wrote on Watson's blog making clear that he was not backing Meacher and had written to him to say so. Meacher is an easy target, and the media have had a field day - ridiculing his lack of support, his "vainglorious" campaign, and the number of houses he owns (estimates range from 7 to 11).

Meacher has no support base in the labour movement. He was a New Labour minister who voted for all of Blair's reactionary policies - whether that be tuition fees or Foundation Hospitals. He stayed in Government to vote for the war - unlike, say, Robin Cook, who (credit where credit's due) had the guts to resign on a point of principle. Only when he was sacked from the Government in June 2003 did he decide to perform a spectacular u-turn, suddenly opposing all the policies he had voted for - including the war in Iraq. Support for Meacher is non-existent in the trade unions. The only 'Meacherites' out there are a handful of 9/11 conspiracy theorists and anti-GM food activists. Unfortunately for Meacher, neither have a slice of Labour's electoral college.

However - ironically - Meacher's campaign has provided a huge boost to the John4Leader campaign. All of a sudden, the media blackout was broken - and John was all over the news. Meacher was bombarded with messages from angry Labour party members and trade unionists demanding that he step down. The John4Leader office was overwhelmed with messages from supporters promising to increase their involvement. Tony Benn, Christine Shawcroft (Labour party NEC), Elaine Smith MSP and a range of leading trade unionists and Labour councillors wrote a letter to the Guardian demanding that he support John's campaign. A number of MPs have indicated since Thursday that they will nominate McDonnell - flushed out by Meacher's catastrophic launch. The Westminster Bubble was full of a mixture of ridicule, pity and frustration.

Crucially, John is now on the map as the only possible credible left candidate. Some of those who identify with the "soft left" have been reluctant to support our campaign on the basis that they have reservations about the level of support John would win. True, many of these have already been won over by the level of support that John has achieved since last July. However, Meacher's launch has now shown beyond reasonable doubt that there is no "credible" left alternative to John. As if to drive this point home, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (whose leading parliamentary representative is Kelvin Hopkins, one of the sole Meacherite MPs) backed John's campaign by a margin of 4-1 just two days after Meacher's launch.

It is undeniably true that Meacher's launch was an attempted coup against the labour movement. A left candidate has already been backed by the grassroots of the Labour and trade union left. Thursday's events represented an attempt to impose a candidate against the will of trade union and Labour party activists by a handful of parliamentarians. Meacher's message was thus: "You may well support John McDonnell, but you're never going to get the chance to vote for him. Therefore, you will have to support me whether you like it or not." Unfortunately, his claim that he had 30 supportive MPs has been exposed as tragic wishful thinking. In actual fact, Meacher has the support of between 5 and 7 MPs. In contrast, John McDonnell has 22 signed up - and a previous 15 or so who have indicated they are likely to support him. This has been achieved solely because of the grassroots campaign.

Nonetheless, we need to bare in mind the slightly sinister side of recent developments. Two weeks ago, the Independent on Sunday wrote that Gordon Brown much preferred to "crush" Meacher rather than McDonnell. On the day of the launch, Brownite MP Tom Watson claimed that Meacher had more parliamentary support than McDonnell. For those who can't remember, Watson led last September's attempted Brownite coup against Blair. Watson is extremely close to Brown - and indeed visited Brown just a day before the September putsch. The Evening Standard suggested: "Speculation is mounting at Westminster that allies of Mr Brown have encouraged Mr Meacher to stand in order to split the vote on the left of the party." The Torygraph suggested that "Brown gets leadership opponent he wants", adding: "Do not be surprised if a number of presumed Brown loyalists appear on Mr Meacher's ballot paper."

It is clear that New Labour would prefer Meacher over McDonnell. Meacher is a representative of Labour's distant past; he is compromised by his support for New Labour's policies prior to his sacking; he has no base in the labour movement. McDonnell has a consistent political record; he is a solid and growing base in the labour movement; he is one of the most articulate, convincing members of the PLP. New Labour know that he would wipe the floor with Brown in any public debate. They recognise that a successful McDonnell campaign will put the Left back on the map and threaten to completely unravel New Labour's grip on the party.

Our task ahead is clear. We need to renew our commitment to building a successful campaign. We should ignore the Meacher campaign which, frankly, has no chance of gaining any grassroots support. Let's keep getting people in the party, giving out John4Leader leaflets, encouraging MPs to sign John's nomination papers. Ironic as it may seem, but the chances of our campaign succeeded have now considerably increased. Let's no waste the opportunity before us.