Corbyn challenge shows political upheaval in Britain
As the Labour Party prepares to send out ballot papers to the over 610,000 people registered to vote in its leadership contest, “The Socialist” asked Socialist Party (Sister party of the Socialist Party in England & Wales) executive committee member Judy Beishon some questions on the Socialist Party’s view of Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge so far.
Why has Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge in the Labour leadership contest been so popular?
The Labour Party’s right-wing leaders have been astonished and horrified at the over-flowing rallies for Jeremy Corbyn around the UK over the last few weeks. Those careerist, staunch defenders of austerity can only dream about attracting such large, enthusiastic and young audiences.
Jeremy Corbyn, with his rejection of austerity, has become a lightning rod for an impressive display of mass anger at declining living standards and the plight of young people faced with poverty wages and the lack of affordable housing. His bold stand rapidly became an outlet for the pent up anger and frustration at the years of cuts, privatisation and wage restraint that have been suffered.
The more venom and dire warnings that “Anyone But Corbyn” politicians and the capitalist media have flung towards Corbyn’s campaign – including the prospect of Labour’s “oblivion” and “electoral annihilation” – the more his support has risen, such is the level of disillusionment in capitalist politics and desire for an alternative.
It also graphically reflects the point that the SocialistParty has long argued – that the population is significantly to the left of the present Labour leaders, as indicated by the polls that have showed majority support for public ownership of rail, energy and post.
John Cruddas MP used his own ’research’ to try to argue the opposite: that the electorate rejects an anti-austerity position and the Corbynites are out of touch with reality. But the survey responses he received didn’t back this up. According to his polling, 58% of voters think “we must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority”. This doesn’t mean, however, that they think the 99% should have to pay to reduce the deficit, while the richest 1% become ever richer!
Labour didn’t lose the general election in May because Ed Miliband was ’too left-wing’ as the right-wing media chorused, but because he was barely distinguishable from the Tories in policy. He was fully signed up to the pro-austerity mantra. Many voters in the Labour leadership contest are clearly drawing that conclusion – a YouGov poll for the Times put the most right-wing candidate, Liz Kendall, on just 8%.
Corbyn’s detractors are also repeatedly arguing that the 1983 general election defeat of then Labour leader Michael Foot was due to a left manifesto. But in reality other factors were to blame, including the political sabotage of right-wing leaders like Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan, the 1981 split from Labour to form the SDP and the aftermath of the Falklands war which enabled Margaret Thatcher to create a patriotic wave.
As well as his condemnation of austerity, Jeremy Corbyn is attracting support on a range of other issues, including his call for free education, for trade union rights, and his anti-war and anti-nuclear positions. Also, he has awakened hopes in a different type of parliamentary politics, not being a ’career politician’ full of spin, soundbites and deception, but willing to debate ideas in an honest fashion and refusing to make personal attacks on opponents.
As he himself pointed out, it’s the mood of Greece, Spain and the US coming to Britain, following the surge of support in those countries for Syriza, Podemos and Bernie Sanders respectively. It is also the anti-austerity mood that surfaced during the independence referendum in Scotland.
Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected entry into the Labour contest has become a very welcome upheaval in British politics, but there are still a number of different possible eventual outcomes. A straight-line process from it towards genuine political representation for working class people is unfortunately not at all assured, as the experiences so far in Greece, Spain and the US also demonstrate.
To fund his policies of ending austerity, free education, council house-building, etc, Jeremy calls for tax justice, Quantitative Easing for public services rather than the banks and the establishment of a National Investment Bank to support infrastructure projects. What does the Socialist Party think of these ideas?
Firstly, the Corbyn-backing Labour MP Michael Meacher rightly said: “the Blairites have made the absolutely fundamental error of demanding that the way to reduce the deficit was by harsh and persistent cuts in benefits and public expenditure … And it’s not as though their policy, the same as the Tories’ policy, is actually working … the deficit today is still stuck at a massive £90 billion and has hardly reduced at all after five years of Osborne austerity”.
Meacher went on to say that Jeremy Corbyn “uniquely stands for making a clean break with Tory policies, above all by advocating growth as the way to pay down the deficit, not austerity”.
Left-wing MP John McDonnell elaborated in a Guardian article that a Corbyn-led government wouldn’t make cuts to “middle-and low-income earners and certainly not to the poor” but would target tax avoidance and “the subsidies paid to landlords milking the housing benefit system, to the £93 billion in subsidies to corporations, and to employers exploiting workers with low wages and leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab”.
These policies and measures, including those mentioned in the question above, would all significantly help in a left government’s programme to improve the living standards of the majority of people and would be hugely popular – bailing out public services rather than banks!
The Socialist Party believes that in addition it will be necessary for the workers’ movement to pursue the path that Jeremy Corbyn has touched on in his welcome comments on re-nationalising rail and energy companies and bringing back some form of Clause 4, part 4 of theLabour Party constitution, which was abolished by Tony Blair. That clause called for the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.
It would be necessary to take into public ownership the main corporations and banks that dominate the economy and place them under democratic workers’ control and management, to begin to transform society along socialist lines. The capitalist system, due to its inbuilt contradictions and today’s level of crisis, is incapable of delivering a sustained increase in living standards for all. Nor can it end the environmental degradation it is inflicting.
How can Jeremy’s campaign help defeat austerity?
His campaign is already aiding the fight against austerity by prominently putting forward an anti-austerity position – rarely seen before now in the big-business owned media. It is also very significant that the two largest trade unions in the country, Unison and Unite, along with other unions, have backed Corbyn’s position, indicating the powerful forces that could be mobilised in national anti-austerity industrial action.
And action is precisely what’s needed! Vital services are being slashed and privatised, Working Tax Credits will be drastically reduced, along with a myriad of other attacks on working class and middle class people, who can’t sit back for another five years while the Tories push on with their brutal onslaught.
In the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn, the union leaders have a glimpse of the wide layer in society – especially in this case young people – who would enthusiastically support coordinated trade union action against austerity if it were called.
The Tory government is in reality very weak, elected by less than a quarter of the electorate. Many workers’ disputes have already broken out around the country since the general election, including by the London tube workers. A one-day general strike, with further action if necessary, would attract massive support which could bring about a halt to the cuts agenda and an early general election.
This action would be taking place with the certainty that there are developments on the political front leading in the direction of the creation of a new mass workers’ party.
450 councillors have signed up to support Jeremy – what does the Socialist Party say to them?
There are 7,087 Labour councillors in Britain, so only 6% of them – 450 – have backed Jeremy Corbyn. The number of Labour councillors in Labour-led councils who have refused to vote to pass on the government’s savage cuts is still barely more than a handful. So the 450 backing Jeremy Corbyn are mainly Labour councillors in councils led by other parties and those in Labour-led councils who ’oppose’ cuts but argue they have ’no choice’ but to pass them on.
Some of the platform speakers at ’Jeremy for Leader’ rallies have been councillors who are in that latter category. For example, during the London rally on 3 August, Haringey councillor Emine Ibrahim said that councillors like herself “didn’t want to be … dragged into council chambers across the country to implement the cuts that we are forced to by the Tory government”.
But no one is forcing councillors to impose cuts and they can’t be fined for doing so. The Socialist Party calls on them to take a real stand of resistance to austerity by refusing to vote for cuts and by helping to build a mass campaign in their area in defence of jobs and services. Notwithstanding the change of Labour’s leader, TUSC will still need to stand candidates in next May’s local elections against Labour councillors who are making cuts.
What should Jeremy do as Labour’s leader?
The number of people registered to vote in the Labour leadership contest reached over 610,000, with polls indicating that Corbyn could win decisively. Over a quarter of those voting signed up to the list in the final 24 hours before the registration deadline, in a dramatic end surge.
It appears that the right-wing dominated Labour Party machine will try to weight the result against Corbyn by voiding the votes of anyone they deem as ’infiltrators’, but this is unlikely to alter the outcome decisively. Even the Electoral Reform Society waded in and called for a delay in the ballots being issued.
The media is also making last-ditch attempts to influence the result, including the Daily Mirror urging a first preference vote for Andy Burnham and second for Yvette Cooper.
A Corbyn victory would be very welcome. He will face immediate testing challenges, as he’ll be surrounded in Labour’s parliamentary party and HQ by hostile, pro-big business politicians – only a small minority of them are left-wing. They will put up strong opposition; a number of Labour MPs and leaders are already plotting how they could remove him from office.
For example, Simon Danczuk MP declared: “Am I going to put up with some crazy left-wing policies that he is putting forward and traipse through the voting lobby to support him? It’s not going to happen, is it? So I would give him about 12 months if he does become leader”.
Tony Blair, whose latest desperate plea was to say that even those who hate him (ie Blair) should not vote for Corbyn, gave a glimpse of the underhand methods the right will go to against the left when he said: “The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched over the cliff’s edge …. This is not a moment to refrain from disturbing the serenity of the walk …. It is a moment for a rugby tackle, if that were possible.”
However, Labour’s right may feel forced to tolerate Corbyn for a period of time if he wins the leadership ballot by a very high margin – while plotting a hundred ways to undermine him and manoeuvre towards a new leadership election and a “moderate” leader.
Jeremy Corbyn rightly would like to head a party that acts on the basis of rank and file democracy and involvement in decision-making; he has stated that party policy should be decided on that basis.
But the Labour Party has had much of its democratic structure destroyed; for instance the annual conference was turned into a showpiece for the media and big business rather than being maintained as a forum for genuine discussion and democratic decision-making. The character of the party as a political voice of the organised working class in the trade union movement was also stripped away.
So Corbyn would face massive obstacles in trying to lead the party for any length of time in a left-wing direction, not just from within the party but also from the senior ranks of the civil service, the pro-capitalist media and from virtually the entire ruling class of Britain.
To counter these pressures he would need organised back-up from the working class in the trade union movement, anti-cuts campaigns and left organisations. He would need to call an open conference of this support base – including of those who voted for him – to discuss how his left programme can be delivered and developed further.
Could a Corbyn-led Labour Party be transformed back into a party that stands primarily for workers’ interests?
It’s not impossible that the right-wing could decide to leave to form a new party and the Labour Party could then as a whole turn leftwards. It would effectively need to become a new party itself in many ways, as a result of the changes that would be needed to democratise it and attract new young people and trade unionists into activity in its ranks. Corbyn has adopted an open approach by ’welcoming back’ members who have returned to the party and he has spoken of the need to welcome back unions that have disaffiliated from Labour.
However, if the road to such a transformation is blocked by those in the party hierarchy who are not willing to be part of a turn to the left, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters shouldn’t return to being prisoners of that situation but should help build a new mass workers’ party outside of Labour. They could draw on the support of the many thousands who have been enthused by the Jeremy for Leader campaign and come together with the thousands of socialist and trade union activists outside Labour, including those in TUSC.
Meanwhile Labour would continue to implement Tory policies and the process of it being increasingly dismissed by working class people would continue.
Learning from the experiences and lessons of the new left formations in countries like Greece, Spain, Brazil and Germany, a new party in Britain could quickly take on flesh as a combative force acting in workers’ interests, both electorally and in campaigns and struggles. In whatever way the scenario inside Labour develops, great opportunities will open up in this country for the development of workers’ political representation.