A claim which has been made repeatedly by critics and opponents of Jeremy Corbyn is that his leadership of the Labour Party has resulted in it being deluged with entryism, by people affiliated with far-left political parties. Only recently, the Labour Deputy Leader contended that “Trotsky entryists” were “caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure” on young supporters of Labour; supposedly leaving the party itself prone to a ‘hard-left’ takeover.
However, the same allegation has been made repeatedly ever since Corbyn became the front-runner in the initial leadership contest; and during the months immediately after he had been elected to lead the party.
So does the evidence support or contradict this claim? On the basis of numbers alone, it’s impossible to conclude that the claim is accurate. Moreover, the individual examples cited by various media publications fail to support the overall allegation.
Firstly, let’s look at the actual data. The articles writing about this supposed phenomenon cite three main sources of entryism into Labour – the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party (which is the modern permutation of the group Militant), and the Communist Party of Britain. The number of votes cast for these three parties indicates plainly how many people support them.
Both of the two socialist parties currently contest elections as part of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. At the last General Election, in May 2015, they gained a total of 36,368 votes.
There are in fact several communist parties in Britain. At the same General Election in 2015, the party simply entitled ‘Communist’ gained the most support with 555 votes. The Communist Party of Britain received 275. The Communist League had 174 votes. The Scottish Communist Party received 136.
Let’s rest on the basis that all of these people joined Labour in the wake of Corbyn’s election; and add that to the number of people who voted for the TUSC in the General Election of 2015. The total number of people who supported these particular far-left parties in 2015 was therefore 37,508.
The current total membership of the Labour party, in August 2016, is 515,000 people. So, on the off-chance that every single last voter for the TUSC and the various communist parties have joined Labour, ‘Trotsky Entryists’ would now comprise c. 7% of the Labour Party’s membership. Needless to say, even if the entire quotient of these voters have joined Labour, it could barely be deemed significant.
Let’s test this thoroughly, however. Given the paucity of voters who support the communist parties, they can be left aside here. 36,368 people voted for the TUSC in May 2015. So are there signs that this support has reduced significantly since Corbyn was elected to lead the Labour party – which would indicate their supporters defecting to Labour? No – in fact, quite the contrary. The TUSC contested the local council elections, in May 2016 – although the turnout for these was not the same as during the General Election, it would nonetheless indicate whether every single TUSC voter had switched their allegiance to Labour. So how many people voted for TUSC in 2016? According to the TUSC themselves:
“Overall TUSC candidates won a total of 43,309 votes in these elections, comprised of 3,540 votes in Scotland, 2,040 votes in Wales, 6,826 votes in the two mayoral contests, and 30,903 in the English council elections.”
Leaving aside the mayoral contests, this is almost the exact same number as voted for them the previous year: 36,483. So, it’s reasonable to conclude that any possible decamping of these voters to the Labour Party has been minimal, to non-existent.
In fact, the idea that this group of voters has joined Labour is actually defied by the very increase in Labour’s membership, since May 2015. The number of Labour Party members began to rise immediately, following the General Election of 2015. As reported in the Mirror Newspaper, during August 2015:
“Figures shown to Mirror Online suggest there are now around 270,000 fully-fledged Labour members – up more than a third from 194,000 before the General Election. The numbers do not include another 70,000 or so people who’ve signed up to vote for Labour’s next leader without joining the party itself”.
So, an increase of 76,000 members after May 2015, and before Corbyn was elected to lead Labour in September 2015. As of October 2015, however, a further 50,000 people had joined the Labour party. By December 2015, it had 388,000 members. During a 48 hour period, in July 2016, 183,000 people joined the Labour party. As noted, its membership currently stands at 515,000. Suffice to say, these numbers simply cannot be explained by supporters – let alone members – of the socialist/communist parties joining Labour. It is a physical impossibility.
Has there been any entryism at all, then? There was evidently some, during the Labour Party’s leadership contest in 2015. As Michael Crick noted, 1,200 people had been removed from the leadership ballot by the Labour Party:
“Of the 1,200, almost 300 people have been identified as people who’ve stood in the recent past as candidates for other parties. Labour tell me this includes 214 Green candidates in recent elections, 37 people who stood for the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), 13 Conservatives, 7 Ukip candidates, and one BNP. Oh, and a man who stood at some election or other for the Morecambe Bay Independents.”
Needless to say, perhaps, but these people were all removed; and the scale of their attempted entryism was evidently minimal. However, Crick also demurred presciently that “the various Trots and Greens would like you to believe they made a crucial difference. And journalists love it as a story too.” Indeed.
As a narrative, the claims about Trotskyite entryism clearly aren’t based on numerical evidence. However, do the reports of sinister incidents involving supposed entryists withstand more scrutiny? Not really. If anything, what seems to emerge is a distinct narrative being applied; which exaggerates matters quite considerably.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Owen Bennett makes a number of claims on this theme, which are contradicted by the actual evidence. In response to Tom Watson’s allegation of entryism, Bennett contends:
“Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hit back at the claims, accusing Watson of “patronising members and peddling baseless conspiracy theories”. But just last week The Socialist Party – known as Militant in the 1980s – was boasting of receiving a round of applause at a meeting of Labour supporters when it called for the deselection of MPs”.
As it happens, it wasn’t Corbyn who said this; but rather a member of his leadership campaign team. However, Bennett’s second claim would appear to be accurate. Is it quite what it seems from Bennett’s write-up, though? No. What appears to have happened is that among the hundreds of Labour Party members reputedly attending the meeting, one Socialist Party member supposedly stood up and called “for the deselection of all Blairite politicians, including cuts-making councillors”, and “received strong applause” in response. While this would indicate that a Socialist Party member had attended an unofficial meeting of Labour supporters, it evidently does not provide evidence of anything widespread – let alone particularly untoward – occurring. It is one person attending a public gathering. That’s if their own claims are actually true to begin with. Nothing seems to corroborate them.
Moreover, the constituency Labour party had been banned from holding an official meeting in the wake of the Parliamentary coup; on the pretext that Angela Eagle had received threats – ostensibly from Labour supporters. People were obviously unhappy enough about this situation to attend a conference protesting against it. Presupposing that the Socialist Party’s fairly self-serving claim is accurate, it is obviously far from consequential.
One person standing up in a meeting of hundreds, being applauded in the present circumstances for objecting to problematic MPs and Councillors, is a trifling incident, to say the very least. If they really did gain applause from those present, it was surely for nothing more than voicing an opinion many of the Labour supporters already held of their own accord. To suggest as one of Bennett’s own – predictably anonymous – sources does that this is evidence of infiltration, subverting the local Labour party, is implausible. By all accounts, the person in question had not become a member of the Labour Party – but simply attended one of its membership’s meetings.
The Guardian newspaper followed much the same suit – contending that the “Leader of expelled leftwing group Militant expects readmission to Labour”. As it outlines:
“Peter Taaffe, the veteran leader of Militant – the hard-left group pushed out of Labour in the 1980s and now renamed the Socialist party – expects to be readmitted to Labour if Jeremy Corbyn wins September’s leadership election”.
Suffice to say, Taaffe cannot join Labour, because he is a member of a different political party: the aforementioned Socialist Party. Moreover, he and his cohort have had a year to join the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected to lead it; and have evidently not done so. The suggestion that they could, or will, join Labour in the event of Corbyn winning the current leadership contest therefore seems to be completely baseless. It also flatly disproves the claim that the Momentum group is somehow coterminous with Militant; as has been suggested, previously. How could that be the case, when the bona fide Militant are openly acknowledging that they do not currently occupy any place within the Labour Party?
The figure currently at the centre of these claims, of course, is Tom Watson. Following the furore which erupted in the aftermath of his initial claims, Watson addressed a public letter to Jeremy Corbyn; supposedly compiling proof of his allegations. So how does this evidence measure up against his accusations?
The allegations themselves were made in the Guardian. Namely that:
“There are Trots that have come back to the party, and they certainly don’t have the best interests of the Labour party at heart. They see the Labour party as a vehicle for revolutionary socialism, and they’re not remotely interested in winning elections, and that’s a problem. But I don’t think the vast majority of people that have joined the Labour party and have been mobilised by the people that are in Momentum are all Trots and Bolsheviks.
Some of these people are deeply interested in political change, in building a more equal society, and are just on a journey in politics that they’re new to, and I don’t want them to feel that I’m labelling them because I’m not. But there are some old hands twisting young arms in this process, and I’m under no illusions about what’s going on. They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that’s how Trotsky entryists operate”.
In the public letter he has written, however – published in the Huffington Post– Watson changes his claims slightly. Firstly, he writes that “there is no denying that tightly organised factions are also organising within Momentum and the party”. He then states: “there has been an increase in members of proscribed organisations attempting to join the party”.
These are two quite different statements. Unsuccessfully attempting to join the party is not the same as doing so, undetected. In fact, Watson then refers to people who have been “excluded from the party” – and mentions attaching a document, “drawn up using publicly available information” which shows that members of proscribed organisations “are joining Labour”.
To what extent are these slightly contradictory claims true? In his dossier, Watson cites five categories of entryism. The first of these is under the heading ‘organising within Momentum branches to influence local Labour branches’. While on the surface the three examples he cites appear to support his case, they prompt more questions than answers. To take the initial one, Watson refers to an organisation called Red Flag, derived from a previous “Trotskyist group” called Worker’s Power. According to Watson, Red Flag “is encouraging organising within Momentum branches and CLPs – urging supporters to pass a model motion against the PLP”. Well, this is not quite accurate to begin with – the motion in question is quite specific in referring to “rebels in the PLP” who “have organised a vote of no confidence and a leadership contest to overthrow Jeremy Corbyn”.
However, regardless of its goal, how influential is this likely to have proven? It’s difficult to say, because the URL Watson provides simply contains the template for a motion, intended to be handed-out at Momentum meetings. Was it actually distributed? It’s not possible to answer without evidence; and Watson provides none. That said, it appears not to have been shared by anybody online, to judge by the five share-icons at the right-hand side of the webpage; all of which currently read zero. More to the point, perhaps, but how widespread is membership of Red Flag? It’s a fairly tenuous indicator, but at the present-time of writing, the Red Flag organisation has 64 followers on Twitter. It’s Facebook account is no more popular. It seems fair to conclude that if this group really has engaged in entryism, it is on an extremely limited scale.
This is no less true of the second example Watson cites – whereby a group called Labour Party Marxists supposedly encouraged “supporters to pass a model motion at Momentum branches calling for mandatory reselection of MPs”. The URL Watson provides is a PDF file:
which seems to no longer exist. In fact, the group itself appears to have been no more popular than Red Flag, to judge by its Facebook account. Given its recent lack of notices, it’s questionable whether it is even still active.
However, the third example Watson gives is the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty. This is a larger group than either of the previous two. So, has it engaged in large-scale entryism? As far as the public record shows, almost certainly not. The Guardian published an article in October 2015, noting that four members of Labour had been expelled on the grounds of previous involvement in the Alliance For Worker’s Liberty. A further former member of the AWL was expelled from Labour in February 2016. At the time of writing, this seems to be the sum total of AWL ‘entryists’ into the Labour Party. If anything, this would undermine the notion of entryism being a significant problem, given that these five people were disbarred from Labour.
More to the point, perhaps, but the examples from the AWL website don’t quite support what Watson alleges. Rather than discussing entryism into Labour, the first actually seems to encourage entryism into Momentum:
“This time we must use the new upsurge around and influx into Momentum groups to put our organisation on a stronger footing (etc)”
This is even more apparent in the second example Watson gives:
” Join Momentum and get involved with it’s campaigning. Set up constituency left caucuses and discuss the politics on which to fight for a Corbyn vote: free movement of labour; rebuild the NHS; fight the cuts and a new, renewed right-wing Tory government.”
So, the issue herein is not entryism into the Labour Party; but entryism into Momentum. This evidently poses a different problem. It remains impossible to say whether any of this has actually happened or not, however. Has it? Watson doesn’t say.
Other incidents Watson cites follow much the same suit. Under the heading ‘far-left entryism’, he provides three excerpts from Socialist Party webpages. Watson prefaces one quote with a reference to the Socialist Party organising meetings “to ‘defy’ Labour’s NEC”. However, the passage itself simply states that:
“Local parties should defy these edicts and continue meeting, or #Keep Corbyn meetings should be organised independently, including by trade union branches – and involving Corbyn supporters inside and outside the Labour Party”.
As the webpage it comes from notes, this was in response to the moratorium on local Labour Party meetings. This does not comprise entryism. It doesn’t seem to amount to anything at all, beyond a vague suggestion being made.
The other two examples are more discernible. In the first case, Momentum supposedly colluded with the Socialist Party to organise a demonstration in support of Jeremy Corbyn, in the wake of the Labour Coup:
“Around 250 people gathered at short notice to demonstrate their support for Jeremy Corbyn in Leeds. The demonstration was called by Momentum after discussion with the Socialist Party and others from trade unions and campaigning groups around Leeds.”
There is no evidence to support this suggestion of cooperation, however. In fact, it is rendered unlikely – as the author notes: “it is regrettable that the Socialist Party was not permitted a speaker at the demonstration despite our support and help initiating it”. So, even if they did help organise this demonstration, they evidently were not an altogether welcome presence. This is reaffirmed by a further reference to another demonstration; noting that “disappointingly, Momentum once again refused to allow Socialist Party members to speak”.
This is also in evidence in the second example Watson cites here. He quotes the following in his dossier:
“Socialist Party member Iain Dalton was also able to address the rally, unlike recent ones in nearby Leeds (*see footnote).
Footnote: This sentence was amended online on 15.7.16 to remove an inaccurate reference to Socialist Party members not being able to address previous Momentum meetings in York; the participation of Socialist Party members has in fact been welcomed in York Momentum”.
This was an impromptu rally, held in York. However, the same webpage includes references which expressly note that at other Momentum rallies, Socialist Party members were a unwanted guests:
“At a meeting of Tower Hamlets Momentum a few months ago, Jon Lansman made it clear that I and other Socialist Party members would not be welcome to participate”.
“It was disappointing therefore that Momentum Plymouth members attempted to prevent Socialist Party members from handing out leaflets”.
If anything, these indicate that Socialist Party members have tried to participate in Momentum initiatives; without very much success.
The rest of Watson’s examples are of a piece, really – nebulous aspersions, which rest upon taking the unreliable boasts of a self-promoting fringe political group at face-value. Some do not even meet that standard. For instance, Watson alludes to “Momentum campaign sessions for Corbyn open to anyone outside of party”; but provides as proof a Momentum advert which states “the meeting/session is open to members of Momentum, volunteers and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn”. So what does that indicate? It was simply an advert for a phone-bank session, organised by Momentum. In fact, the advert itself indicates that Watson has omitted a key word. It states plainly (and in full):
“The meeting/session is open to members of Momentum, volunteers and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn only. Local trade unions will also be invited”.
More concrete is Watson’s reference to Jill Mountford – one of the five former AWL members -who was expelled from Labour in February 2016; “running phonebanks for Corbyn”. Watson then provides a copy of Mountford’s comment to that effect on Twitter: “Created logins for 60 Lewisham @PeoplesMomentum supporters to do phone bank work for JC whenever & wherever fitting around work & kids etc”. Not to put too fine a point on matters, but this clearly does not amount to entryism. Mountford was banned from the Labour Party – but there’s nothing to say she can’t organise phonebanks for Momentum.
All told, Watson’s claims of entryism are very nebulous; and the examples he provides are – at best – petty incidents. They seem not to centre on the Labour Party itself, for the most part; but revolve around the Momentum group instead. What evidence is publicly available fails to support Watson’s case that anything untoward is happening on any significant scale, however. There is certainly nothing to support Watson’s original claim that ‘arm-twisting’ of any kind has taken place. If anything, the examples he himself compiled indicate how ineffectual efforts at ‘entryism’ have proven – not least of all when Socialist Party members found themselves unwelcome at Momentum events.
Moreover, at least one claim Watson makes in his letter is – to say the least – implausible. He finishes his missive, by noting “I have attached a document that I am reliably informed is being shared between Momentum members with links to far-left parties”. In reality, the quotation in question turns out to be a blogpost, written by the Labour group, Progress; reviewing Michael Crick’s book Militant. It seems unlikely that far-left operatives have infiltrated the Labour Party, with sufficient stealth to avoid any detection; in order to circulate copies of a book review.
In fact, the actual political agenda behind Watson’s claims have been generally overlooked, in favour of the furore surrounding his reference to Trotsky entryism. In the Guardian interview which quoted his initial allegation, Watson went on to explain his intention to reintroduce the electoral-college system for electing Labour party leaders; which would end the one-member, one-vote system introduced by Ed Miliband; consequently granting a disproportionate level of influence to Parliamentary MPs and Unions in choosing a leader. This represents a far more troubling prospect for internal party democracy, than an extremely minimal number of left-wing political activists attempting – and on the basis of all presently-available evidence, failing – to influence another group of left-wing political activists.
As a final note, it would be remiss not to point out that these ‘Trotsky Entryists’ all reputedly joined the Labour party immediately after Corbyn was elected to lead it in September 2015; and yet, according to the very same sources, they apparently didn’t join it after all – but will only do so from now on.