LONDON (Reuters) - In the 1970s, a trio of socialists joined a battle to steer Britain’s Labour Party to the left. Within a few years, two of them had seized control of the council that governed London, running the capital for half a decade.
Almost 40 years on, the same three men, led by new party chief Jeremy Corbyn, are closer than ever to their goal of pushing the opposition party to the hard left. But in doing so, they have set off an internal war which could end its chances of winning an election for years.
Two months after 66-year-old Corbyn was elected leader on a wave of enthusiasm for change, some Labour lawmakers closer to the centre are rebelling openly over his stand on vexed questions such as how to tackle terrorism and whether Britain should bomb Syria.
With slurs and accusations flying on both sides, the battle for the soul of the Labour Party is turning nasty.
Alongside Corbyn stand two old friends and colleagues who form the rest of the trio: Labour’s finance spokesman in parliament, John McDonnell, and Ken Livingstone, who led the now-defunct Greater London Council (GLC) and later served as the capital’s mayor.
Livingstone says he has seen it all before, not least when he became GLC leader in 1981. “I am watching what is happening to Jeremy and it reminds me of what I went through in ‘81. I was depicted as a pro-terrorist, an agent of the Soviet Union,” said the 70-year-old, nicknamed “Red Ken” at the time.
“But like me, Jeremy’s not giving in to this and he’s not changing his policies because of these lies,” he told Reuters at his terraced house in northwest London. “It is very nasty, but he’s got four-and-a-half years before the next election to turn this around and I think he will.”
Corbyn may not get that long - rumours of plots to oust him are rife - but Livingstone and McDonnell are battling to protect him.
The three have worked together since the early 1970s, “usually on the same side on virtually every issue”, said Livingstone. In the mid ‘70s, he said, they set up campaigns to get more socialists onto local councils.
While Livingstone led the GLC, McDonnell was the council’s finance chief, although their rule ended in 1986 when the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher abolished the body. Corbyn, meanwhile, headed to parliament, campaigning from the left while voters consigned Labour to opposition for almost two decades.
In 1997, Tony Blair finally won a landslide election victory for “New Labour”, but only after steering the party away from its trade union roots. There was now little room for the three leftists.
Blair even expelled Livingstone from the party for running for mayor of London as an independent in 2000, an election he won. Blair deemed him too left wing to represent Labour, although he was eventually let back into the party.
Now the pendulum has swung again; Corbyn and his supporters have moved quickly to break what they call the top-down tyranny of New Labour to return “democracy” to the party. While no longer a lawmaker, Livingstone has been appointed by Corbyn as the joint head of a committee reviewing party policy on renewing the submarines which carry Britain’s nuclear weapons.
The trio are “old-school” campaigners; Livingstone describes finding a leaflet while “shuffling through papers” from 1980 when he and Corbyn were the speakers at a rally intended to help make the GLC socialist.
Livingstone admires what he calls Corbyn’s honesty, one of the reasons cited by many of the mainly young new Labour members and supporters who backed his leadership campaign. Many also saw him as the only alternative to the party “establishment”.
But others, including many of Corbyn’s own lawmakers, see his refusal to compromise on his socialist principles as a problem and do not trust his closest allies.
Corbyn was elected on Sept. 12 after former leader Ed Miliband’s attempt to fuse centrism with a more left-wing doctrine failed to convince voters in last May’s election. Many did not trust Labour to run the economy well, while the legacy of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, backed by Blair’s government, also weighed heavily.
The party was already split when some lawmakers reluctantly nominated Corbyn for the leadership after facing what one senior Labour member described as an awful selection of candidates.
Starting as a rank outsider, Corbyn not only won the votes of the leftist old guard but captured the mood of younger members with his opposition to the Conservative government’s austerity measures to eliminate a large budget deficit.
Some senior party members refused to work with Corbyn but others decided to give him a chance when he brought moderates as well as more natural allies into his shadow cabinet, whose members hold portfolios mirroring those of the government.
But Corbyn then moved to tighten his control over the party by bringing in new advisers, endorsing a campaign to get leftists onto local councils and sticking closely to his principles, including an anti-war stance. Some more mainstream Labour lawmakers, wary of public opinion, became increasingly critical.
Social media has become the forum for often vicious spats, and the Labour Party seems at war with itself.
Following the Paris bloodbath on Nov. 13 claimed by Islamic State, Corbyn questioned the “shoot-to-kill” policy of British police in tackling such attacks. One lawmaker who criticized his comments was told to “get behind the leader or kindly go”.
It is not an isolated case.
Several lawmakers said they have had to distance themselves from his stance on the “shoot-to-kill” policy, his opposition to joining air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and his statement that if prime minister he would never use nuclear weapons. This, they said, was to persuade voters that Labour would keep the country safe.
Some were branded Tories, or Conservatives. Others feared they would be hounded out of their jobs.
McDonnell, 64, has also ruffled feathers among centrists, notably when he brandished a copy of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book - a collection of the Chinese communist leader’s thoughts - in parliament.
Livingstone himself prompted outrage when he responded to a lawmaker’s criticism of his appointment to the defence review by suggesting he needed “psychiatric help”. The lawmaker had a history of depression and Livingstone was forced to apologise.
Richard Angell, director of Progress, a group of Labour “modernisers” which has been touring the country to gauge public feeling, says Corbyn has alienated centrist members by surrounding himself with leftists. “His controversial appointments are of individuals more enthusiastic about his leadership than even he might be,” Angell told Reuters.
Livingstone points out that Corbyn has strong support among party members who now number more than 380,000, up from about 270,000 in August and close to the more than 400,000 figure when Blair was elected in 1997.
He condemns the attacks on Corbyn as disloyal and blames a hostile media owned by “corrupt, tax-dodging billionaires” for demonising the Labour leader.
With control over much of the party’s apparatus, the leftists are also trying to boost their wider appeal through a group called Momentum.
Some Labour lawmakers say Momentum is “a party within the party” and portray it as little more than a lynch mob to get rid of moderate parliamentarians. Momentum denies this.
Its aim is “to open up the Labour Party to make it more like a social movement” developing what one organizer, 28-year-old James Schneider, calls “a more democratic and equal society”.
An opinion poll this month by YouGov research group for the Times newspaper showed 66 percent of Labour members believed Corbyn was doing well. However, a ComRes poll showed the general public was now more than twice as likely to say they have an unfavourable view of Corbyn as favourable.
For John Mills, a Labour donor and businessman, there needs to be “some sort of synthesis” of the idealism of Corbyn and “the pragmatism and experience” of the Labour right to take the party forward and end the Conservatives’ grip on power.
“In the end the Labour Party will reorganize itself,” he said. “No, I don’t think it’s dead.”
editing by David Stamp