Jeremy Corbyn is deliberately seeking to divide the Labour party in a way that will destroy its electability, Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister has said in his most strident warning yet on the political direction of the party under its new leadership.
He also suggests Corbyn’s critics in the party cannot wait indefinitely because the leader is working with groups inside and outside Labour to tighten his grip by the time of next autumn’s party conference.
With reports circulating that Corbyn’s aides are advising the Labour leader to reshuffle his shadow cabinet to extend his control over foreign and defence policy, Lord Mandelson writes in an article for the Guardian: “We have a leader who is revealing himself to be an intentionally divisive figure, abetted by organisations outside the party’s democratic structures and intent on splitting the party between the hard left and its centre ground.
“For Corbyn, pursuing his own far-left agenda and risking Labour civil war is a higher priority than taking on the Tories.”
He adds: “Whether or not the much-vaunted ‘revenge’ reshuffle happens – and I hope for the sake of the party Corbyn drops his plans – allowing two weeks of speculation when he could easily have killed it was clearly designed to remind his colleagues of their vulnerability.”
He asserts: “Through him, the hard left is beginning to exert a more suffocating grip on our party.”
He continues: “Party staff are becoming infused with people who will do his bidding and owe more loyalty to those outside the party than inside it. Come the party conference, Corbyn’s circle are drawing up new rules designed to keep him in power and which will enable him to use his army of supporters to back his desired policy changes, particularly affecting security, defence and disarmament.”
Mandelson says Corbyn is behaving differently to other Labour leaders in history, saying: “The reason many Labour parliamentarians are worried now is because Jeremy Corbyn’s actions are suggesting that he does not understand or respect the fact that Labour is a broad church and that seeking to impose a hard-left blueprint on the party will end up disqualifying Labour from office.”
Corbyn’s defenders will say that he allowed a free vote on Syria, and has permitted his shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, and shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, repeatedly to dissent by adopting different policy stances.
But Mandelson claims: “Corbyn’s key instrument of power is unique in the party’s history – a whole new membership and set of registered supporters who are massively outnumbering longstanding members in very many constituencies.”
He welcomes the recent new recruits to the party, saying that most are principled and idealistic, and will strengthen Labour’s campaigning base.
But he adds: “The reason why the leader’s hardcore supporters are backing him so strongly is precisely why he is a problem for the party: it’s not just his loyalty to far-left ideology and organisation that puts him outside the party’s historical mainstream but his devotion to the simple purity of opposition rather than coming to terms with the complex challenge of government means he does not look like a credible would-be prime minister to ordinary voters.”
Mandelson suggests the party can still be won back from the grip of its current leadership if alternative leaders present themselves.
He says: “But also potentially on Labour’s side are many ordinary members of the public who do not want to see Britain becoming a one-party state, who yearn for a centre-left alternative they can vote for and who, if asked, will rally to alternative Labour leaders who truly represent what they believe in.”
But he suggests if a new membership does not join the party, Corbyn will be able to use grassroots organisations to marginalise centre-ground MPs. He warns: “To secure his support base and grip on the party, Corbyn and his associates have created Momentum, a trade union-funded organisation run in conjunction with hard-left networks outside the party.”
Mandelson says Momentum will “hold Labour MPs’ feet to the fire through the threat of de-selection as we saw [it] doing in the Commons Syria vote, claiming credit for minimising the number voting according to their conscience”.
Momentum has repeatedly said it is not interested in forcing reselections on MPs, but instead on strengthening the link between the party and other leftwing forces in society.
Mandelson also asserts some working in Corbyn’s office come from “far-left entities” – Socialist Action and the Labour Representation Committee. Some staff have admitted to being members of Socialist Action in the past and the LRC claims it is an open leftwing pressure group that has worked within the party for many years.
Mandelson claims: “A leader who started by saying he wanted to open up debate now wants to silence it. A habitual rebel now wants to crush rebellion. Straight talking is only allowed if it echoes the slogans and doctrines of the far-left fellow travellers who now sit in the opposition leader’s office. And as far as the public are concerned, they are not interested in their views but in telling them what to think.”
He says Labour MPs face a dilemma in the new year. “If they make a stand against what is happening they stand accused of disloyalty by Corbyn’s supporters; but if they go along with it, they are complicit in Labour’s likely disintegration when voters realise the party has been taken over by people they can never vote for.”
He adds: “When in the 1980s, Corbyn, McDonnell, Diane Abbott et al first started organising under the far left’s banner, the legitimate left led by Neil Kinnock realised they had no alternative but to fight for the party’s future. It will be harder this time because, then, Kinnock was leader and had the structures of the party through which to fight back. This time these structures are in hard-left hands.
“While the trade unions can no longer be relied upon to rescue the party as they helped Kinnock do it would be a mistake to disregard them entirely or that of Labour’s legions in local government, who are a bigger force for sense and moderation in the party than at any time in the recent past.”
Mandelson insists the party can be won back “when there are enough people in the country who remain in tune with Labour’s traditional values of equality and internationalism and who staunchly refuse to believe that the Conservatives can or should rule Britain indefinitely. But from now on, with every year that passes, Labour unsaved will be harder to retrieve.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, for theguardian.com on Thursday 31st December 2015 11.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010