11 Aug 2015

Why entrism is such a small part of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise

Jeremy Corbyn And Ken Livingstone Attend A Labour Leadership Rally

Labour may be the victim of entrism – infiltration by members and supporters of other parties – but it’s only a very small explanation of Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary success.

I like to think I know a thing or two about entrism, sometimes spelt “entryism”.

Thirty years ago I wrote a book about Militant, the Trotskyist party which “entered” the Labour Party, and caused considerable problems for successive Labour leaders.  The book followed on from several reports and films I’d made for ITN, and for the early Channel 4 News.  Militant was an extraordinary successful phenomenon, a secretive Marxist party (known internally as the Revolutionary Socialist League) though they always denied being a party or an organisation.  They were just a group of people who read the Militant newspaper, they claimed.  Rubbish.

At their peak in the mid-1980s Militant had around 8,000 members, all of whom belonged to the Labour Party as well.  They operated clandestinely inside the Labour Party as a way of recruiting people to their ranks and to their ideas, and they even managed to get three Labour MPs – Pat Wall, Terry Fields and Dave Nellist.  Eventually most of Militant leaders were expelled by Labour, and Militant left the party.  After a split or two, and the odd witch-hunt of leading figures (such as Ted Grant), it now operates as the Socialist Party, part of the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition, led by Dave Nellist.

We may be seeing entrism once again, but its on a far smaller scale than Labour experienced in the 1980s.  “It’s tiny, really, really small,” says John Callaghan of Salford University, one of Britain’s foremost academic experts on British Trotskyism.

Watch Michael Crick’s 1982 report on the Militant Tendency

The Labour Party have just told me that they have now purged 1,200 people from the lists of voters in the leadership ballot, though the process continues.  48 staff are working on registering voters – and purging them – at their administrative HQ in Newcastle, and another 30 at their national base in London.

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.

If groups like TUSC are that organised why hasn’t Labour identified all 137 candidates TUSC fielded (against Labour) at the general election?  Maybe Labour is too inefficient to spot them, but it shouldn’t be that difficult.  Maybe, and more likely, most TUSC candidates haven’t signed up for the leadership ballot.  And the purging process  will continue, I’m told, right up to the moment the results are declared on 12 September.  It will be possible to exclude people from the ballot even after they’ve voted, Labour tell me.

Anyway, this entrism is pretty small beer compared with the overall numbers.  Far left and hard left parties these days are nothing like as big as they were in the 1980s, and Militant’s heyday.  I’d estimate at most somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 entrists from the Left, including Greens, in this Labour ballot, and no more than 5,000 from the Right.  15,000 in all, and that’s probably a gross over-estimate.

Yet almost 400,000 people could be registered to vote in the leadership ballot, and today’s YouGov poll suggests Jeremy Corbyn will win pretty handsomely.  And with the first email ballots going out on Friday morning, there’s not much time for his opponents to make up ground, especially when many voters are likely to cast their ballots as soon as they get them, either by email or post.  As things are going, the entrists probably won’t make a difference.  Corbyn could well win without them.

Entrism may play a very small role in Jeremy Corbyn popularity, but it’s only a tiny explanation for what’s going on, and a pretty lame excuse for backers of other candidates to explain why their man or woman isn’t winning.  And, of course, the various Trots and Greens would like you to believe they made a crucial difference.  And journalists love it as a story too.

Corbynmania is a far, far bigger phenomenon than entrism.  Nobody fully understands what’s going on.  It’s a fascinating development in public opinion, linked to the rise of the Greens, the SNP and even Ukip.  But if you concentrate on entrism, you’re missing the much bigger picture, and a quite extraordinary story.