They had to bring extra chairs in from the garden – not bad for a meeting that wasn’t supposed to be happening. It was a far cry from the last Labour branch meeting I attended. Then, six people had sat round a table and very politely shared the various officerships between them. Now we had twenty people crammed into the branch chair’s front room.
I had never seen such a large and engaged membership. But I joined Labour in 2008, at the start of the post-Blair comedown. Despondency had been the default for much of my time in the party.
But who were all these people? Where had they come from and what did they want?
‘I left after Iraq,’ said a typical new face, ‘but I rejoined to support Corbyn.’ That was the common theme as we discussed the impending leadership contest. The new member had joined – or rejoined – because they thought the party was getting back on track after losing its way under Blair.
Indeed, for the louder new members, Blair was the chief hate figure, a closet Tory sellout who had lied us into an illegal war. He was closely followed by the 172 Labour MPs who had voted no confidence in Corbyn. All of them were ‘Blairites’ on the party’s right wing. They were also all careerists and crypto-Tories who neither trust nor respect the membership.
Corbyn, on the other hand, is the party’s saviour. He will lead us to victory, if only the ‘turncoats’ would ‘form their own party and let us get on with it,’ as one rejoined put it. Any reservations that the older members expressed were turned into virtues. To the suggestion that Corbyn had failed to lead, one rejoiner said ‘It’s a new style of leadership, it’s leading from the bottom. You just want someone at the top telling us what to do.’ The claim that his presentation and rhetoric weren’t good enough drew a comparison with Clement Attlee.
Finally, the rejoinders play their trump card – Labour is now the largest left-wing party in Europe, with a membership closing in on 500,000. Half a million Corbyn fans can’t be wrong.
In the end, there was a vote. Fifteen hands were raised for Corbyn, Owen Smith got one tentative vote. Four of us abstained. But the vote revealed the real division within the party, between the established members, and the new ones drawn by Corbyn. It is Old Labour vs New Labour again, but with the roles reversed and archetypal Old Labour Jeremy Corbyn the standard bearer of the new New Labour.
The battlelines are now drawn, but it is an old battle over Blair and Iraq. The rejoiners- the new New Labour – still feel betrayed by Blair, especially over Iraq. They see now as the opportunity to right the wrongs of the Blair years. Hence the obsession with Iraq – a 13-year-old inter-party battle that most of the electorate seem to have moved on from to focus on the economic crisis. Hence also the refusal to do anything that looks like compromising with Tory policy. These were Blair’s sins and it is time for the party to atone.
This explains the intimidating atmosphere that the meeting took place in. In raised and passionate voices, members condemned what they saw as a Blairite plot to gerrymander the election away from Corbyn through NEC votes and a ban on party meetings. They feel like they’ve only just got their party back, and they’re not going to let it go without a fight.
If this meeting was anything to go by, Labour will be refighting its old battles for some time to come. The question is, are these the right ones? Do their subjects – Blair and above all Iraq – reflect the needs and interests of the wider electorate, or are we just talking to ourselves?