Earlier this week, the desperation to oust Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Labour by the right wing faction of the party went from sheer political opportunism to outright Joseph McCarthy, ‘Red Scare’ style paranoia. This started with a Guardian interview where deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, alleged that trots have come back to the party’ going on to accuse them of ‘twisting young arms in the process’. He followed this utter show of scaremongering up by sending a dossier to the press, which claims to reveal the extent of the ‘infiltration’. This is hardly surprising. Like many of the attacks waged on Corbyn by the Blairites, this line has been used before, most effectively by the Tory’s. I hardly need to point out that it is obviously a completely dishonest line of argument. It should be clear to everyone, regardless of their political positions, that Corbyn and most of his supporters are obviously not Trotskyists. What gives Watsons allegations greater weight however, is not their substance but their implications. In conjuring the idea of a Trotskyist conspiracy behind the Corbyn movement, his aims are greater than misrepresenting the views of thousands of Labour supporters. Watson’s statement also feigns concern for the young, who have supposedly been deceived by Corbyn and his allies. If left unchallenged, Watsons McCarthyism will pave the way for greater attacks on party democracy and for greater policing of political opinion.
How valid are Watson's Trotskyism Allegations?
It is obvious that there have long been some Trotskyists in the Labour Party and outside Trotskyist organisations have always made pronouncements about internal Labour matters. Given this, some will have joined the party since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader. As the dominant opposition to the Conservatives in the UK, there are plenty of reasons for the far left to relate to Labour. So far, Watson’s argument bears a little bit of substance.
So how significant is this? To get a sense of this, we need to consider the numbers involved. Reliable estimates would put the total active membership of the two largest Trotskyist Party’s in the UK, The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party, at a little over three thousand combined. Smaller organisations count their members in hundreds or dozens. In total, British Trotskyist organisations have somewhere between five and ten thousand members. By contrast, under Corbyns leadership, the Labour Party has increased its rolls from two hundred thousand at the end of Ed Milibands leadership, to about six hundred thousand today. Even if we charitably accept that one thousand Trotskyists have escaped the clutches of the compliance unit and joined (even though this guess is far too high anyway), that would mean that 0.25 percent of new members were hard left entryists. Of course, Watson does not care about analysing the actual facts, when he and his friends in the Parliamentary Labour Party, can simply spin a false propaganda narrative, about the nasty ‘Reds’ infiltrating the Party.
Who Are the Labour Party ‘Infiltrators’?
What about Watsons other allegations that the Trotskyists in the Labour Party are ‘twisting young arms’ and leading them astray. Aside from this being a completely fallacious appeal to emotion, in his dossier, Watson provides no evidence whatsoever of Trotskyists in positions of influence in the Labour Party. Instead, he focuses solely on people attending local meetings, Phonebanking, and organising in affiliated trade unions. These king of activities do not even come close to the kind of ‘arm twisting’ that Watson implies. Indeed, the closest Watson actually gets to providing us with any kind of analysis that backs up his point, is his mention of pro Corbyn campaign group Momentum. So who are the dangerous infiltrators leading this campaign? Its chair John Lansman is certainly an experienced organised, but he is not a Trotskyist. Rather, he is currently recovering from a lambasting in the press for having previously supported more right wing political parties. This is far from the only inaccuracy in Watsons claims. For example, one of the five points in his dossier refers to an alleged SWP ‘training course to infiltrate Labour’. However, if you actually read the document from the SWP, it makes clear that they ‘are not members of the Labour Party’ and that they consider membership of Labour to be at odds with Socialist ideals.
This kind of error is hardly surprising, considering that the labour right have described Corbyn as both an Anarchist and a Marxist in recent weeks. I would not be surprised if the Conservatives have a better grasp on left wing political philosophy! However when you dig a little deeper into Watsons sources, it becomes clear why he gets so much wrong. At the end of his dossier he claims to quote a book from Michael Crick about a manual from Militant Tendency. Except that is not what he quotes at all. The quote he uses comes from a review of that book by the Blairite pressure group Progress. Considering that Watson is trying to complain about parties within a party, this seems like an extremely hypocritical source to use on Watsons part. Indeed, at the same time that this controversy erupted, leading Progress supporter John Mcteran was using his column in the Daily Telegraph to call for the Tory government to crush the rail unions. This same party member has previously called for the National Health Service to be privatised, for public libraries to close and even for Iraq to be reinvaded. Despite this, John Mcteran is an almost daily presence in the mainstream media, defending the Labour right. No questions have been raised about his Labour membership or his political views. Clearly, right wing positions are not treated with the same scrutiny or paranoia.
All this shows that Tom Watsons attacks have very little basis in reality. Jeremy Corbyn is not leading a revolutionary movement. He is fighting to revive the Labour Party around a moderate Social Democratic program. So why is Watson associating Corbyn and his supporters with Trotskyism? Part of the reason is probably the reputation British Trotskyist parties have earned for sectarian behaviour in the Labour movement. If Corbyn could be painted as soft on them, it might discourage a layer of his supporters. Given the fact the Corbyns challenger, Owen Smith, is pretending to be left wing, this can be seen as an effort to convert some of the less hardcore supporters of Corbyn to support Smith.
Noticed the glaring hypocrisy yet? Watson’s faction of the Labour Party have been engaging in some of the most sectarian behaviour imaginable. If you want conspiracies, you would struggle to find one more obvious than the recent Party coup, which was not only planned weeks beforehand, but coordinated so resignations occurred on the hour, every hour in the national press. It also ended with a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, for which there was no basis in the party’s own rules. Also, what can be more anti-democratic than banning local party meetings for months and the suspension of entire constituency branches, on the basis of unjustifiable claims of harassment? What about purges, has any Trotskyist organisation ever removed 130,000 members from its voting rolls? Or increased the fee to vote overnight? It should be obvious from this which wing of the Labour Party poses the greater threat to Labour democracy and electability. Watson himself has made his aims clear. In the same interview with the Guardian he said that he wants to change the mechanism for electing the party leader and to drastically reduce the input of the membership. What better way to achieve this, than to engage in a Red Scare?
This Kind of McCarthyism is nothing new, it has a history in the Labour Party. 1960 saw Hugh Gaitskell used his speech at the Labour Party conference to brand opponents of nuclear weapons ‘fellow travellers of the Soviet Union’. In the decades that followed numerous MP’s were subject to allegations of spying for the USSR. One was even driven to suicide by the campaign. None of the allegations were true. This is what political bullying looks like.
When Watson Talks about being ‘reliably informed’ about nefarious behaviour, and provides dossiers and interviews in order to weed out political opponents in his party, it should provide a chilling reminder of those days. It is clear, without a fraction of a doubt, that the Labour right are disrespecting their members by gathering information on their political enemies. As with the Red Scare and Trotskyists, that just distracts from the climate of fear within the Labour party that the Blairites are fostering. It is no coincidence that this is happening while millions are supporting a left wing candidate and polls are showing stronger support for Socialism than Capitalism. That, not the labour party becoming unelectable, is what Tom Watson is afraid of.