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Review: Labour – The Summer That Changed Everything

By Dave Reid

Today it all appears to be sweetness and light in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The daily Blairite attacks on Corbyn appear to have receded and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell seem to be believe that the PLP is behind them.

But David Modell’s fly-on-the wall documentary that followed four candidates through the general election campaign earlier this year should act as a reminder at just how deep-seated the Blairite opposition to Corbyn is.  During the election they all expect Corbyn-led Labour to get hammered and for Theresa May to be put in an unassailable position and some are fervently hoping she succeeds.

One of the most dramatic moments of TV this year was the climax of the film when we witness their reaction to the dramatic exit poll on election night that correctly predicted gains for Labour and losses for the Tories.

In particular, Stephen Kinnock MP for Aberafon and latest product of the millionaire Kinnock dynasty, looks aghast, his eyes frozen in horror and amazement as the implications of this huge moral victory for Corbyn sink in. You need to remind yourself that he is not a Tory, but a Labour MP and he has been re-elected with an increased majority, courtesy of the Corbyn surge.

The disappointed shock in Stephen Kinnock’s eyes as he learnt that Labour had not been hammered in the election is the most eloquent description of how Labour is two parties in one. His party, New Labour, wanted the Tories to win the election so Corbyn-Labour can be defeated. The narrator gets it right “He is thinking that the Corbyn-free future he has been dreaming of might never actually come.” That moment is a timely reminder that Corbyn’s back-stabbers cannot suddenly have become back-slappers.

This programme graphically captures the intense opposition to Jeremy Corbyn amongst the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and how determined they were to hope that Labour did not win the election. It demonstrates the chasm between Corbyn’s supporters and Labour MPs and exposes the utopian idea that the Blairites can ever be won over to supporting Corbyn or his policies.

Stephen Kinnock, is standing in a safe Labour seat, but instead of helping out in nearby marginals, he is campaigning to pile up extra votes to add to his majority in Aberafon. Through the entire film you get a sense of this arch Blairite confidently waiting for Corbyn to get hammered so the right wing can step in and successfully carry through the coup that failed in 2016. He has undoubtedly calculated that if he can build his majority it will put him in a stronger position in the post-Corbyn era.

Kinnock and most of the PLP clearly wants Labour to get hammered. As the exit poll is revealed on TV he turns to his wife (former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt) and while not a word is spoken the look exchanged between them eloquently expresses the massively unwelcome shock that Labour has gained and things are not going to plan. Later Kinnock is starting to do a round of TV interviews before Thorning-Scmidt steps in and warns him to stop until it is clear what the results are and they can recover from the shock. At Labour Party conference in Brighton he explains to camera that “every blow [Labour’s gains in the election!] that doesn’t break us, strengthens us”.

But the film also shows how the right wing have got over the shock and have re-grouped. In the immediate aftermath of the election many of the Corbyn back-stabbers have recovered their poise and apparently turned into Corbyn back-slappers. Tom Watson, author of the famous Anaconda strategy (designed to squeeze the life out of Corbyn’s leadership), wraps his arms around a surprised Jeremy Corbyn in an apparently joyous hug. But that hug is a metaphor for the right wing trying to wrap Corbyn up for now and preparing to strike late. At Labour Party conference left journalist Owen Jones, who had made Cassandra-like prophecies of doom if Corbyn continued as leader, is back on the stage at Momentum’s World Transformed event.

Unfortunately the Momentum leadership and Corbyn’s advisors have apparently been seduced by the PLP’s apparent surrender. This programme was a useful reminder of just how deep the opposition to Corbyn goes within the PLP and unless Corbyn’s supporters press home their advantage to demand the democratic reselection of Labour MPs they will strike back.

This excellent film did however miss some important issues. It never showed, for example, the turning point in the election which was the launch of the manifesto with radical policies that marked a break from the old politics as usual. Until then the press campaign, unanswered until that point, had had an effect in turning some working class supporters against Corbyn. But the radical manifesto promising important reforms and partially rolling back austerity cut through much of the poison in the press (and from the PLP) and turned around Corbyn’s fortunes.

Nevertheless, this was an important testament to the real tensions in the Labour Party, effectively two parties in one.

Labour: The Summer That Changed Everything Broadcast on BBC on Tuesday 21st November BBC2 (available on iPlayer)