Britain: The Corbyn insurgency 2.0
By Hannah Sell, Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales)
The civil war in the Labour Party is reaching a new level of intensity. The anti-Corbyn majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and Labour machine is conducting a desperate and dirty campaign to try and regain control of the situation. They face a movement of working-class and young people who have entered the scene of history and are making their voices heard. The ’Westminster bubble’, which has spent decades complacently accepting cuts, austerity and privatisation, is suddenly feeling threatened by the ’barbarians at the gate’. First the whole capitalist establishment was shaken by the Brexit vote, and now the attempts to ’Get Corbyn’ are being stymied by a huge wave of support for the Labour leader which has burst out of the normal confines of politics.
The biggest left rallies in decades have taken place in Liverpool, Hull, Leeds, Bristol and many other cities. Of the 275 local Labour Party meetings to nominate candidates, so far 234 have nominated Corbyn, many with hundreds attending. This ’second wave’ that has come to the defence of Corbyn is even larger than the first. It also includes bigger numbers of workers alongside the important layer of young, radicalised ’professionals’ who dominated the first wave.
Attempting to defeat the movement behind Corbyn are all the forces of the capitalist establishment, within Labour and without. The Court of Appeal decision to back the NEC’s ruling that the 130,000 new members who joined Labour after 12 January cannot vote in the contest is just the latest example of the support the capitalist establishment is prepared to give to the undemocratic manoeuvring of the Labour right. Nor are the attempts at gerrymandering over. An incredible 183,000 people paid £25 in just 48 hours to become registered Labour supporters. It has been reported, however, that more than 40,000 of them are going to be excluded from voting. Reasons apparently include having had the temerity to describe Blairite MPs as ’traitors’ on social media. All local Labour Party meetings except nomination meetings have been banned. A number of Corbyn supporting constituency parties have been closed down on spurious grounds.
Given how far the right are prepared to go to try and win, it would be wrong for anyone to be complacent about the outcome of the election. The capitalist media is running a virtually uncritical election campaign for the anti-Corbyn challenger, Owen Smith. In a desperate attempt to appeal to radicalised Corbyn supporters he has tacked markedly to the left in tone, even claiming to stand for a ’socialist revolution’. This has been combined with a blatant appeal to ’remainers’ to support him with his call for a second EU referendum. The central thrust of his campaign, however, is that Corbyn is ’unelectable’ and has divided the Labour Party, so the route to a Labour government is via voting Smith. A more passive layer might be affected by the media onslaught.
Nonetheless, so far the right do not seem to have found any means with which they are likely to prevent Jeremy’s re-election. His victory, especially by a wide margin, would rightly delight the hundreds of thousands who have joined the battle against the Blairites. But it will be the beginning, not the end, of that struggle. There is no possibility of the right accepting Jeremy Corbyn as leader, as they themselves have made very plain. The former advisor to Blair, John McTernan, put it bluntly: “Revolutions are inevitably bloody and, make no mistake, taking back the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell requires a ¬revolution”. The likes of McTernan are the real ’entryists’ in the Labour Party, standing not for revolution but counter-revolution. This is the man who has recently called on the Tories to “crush the rail unions once and for all” (Telegraph 10 August). He should have no place in a party founded by the trade unions in order to further the interests of the working class majority.
The essence of the struggle taking place in the Labour Party is about which classes’ interests it is going to act in – the working class majority in society and the middle class with no hope for the future, or the capitalist 1%? The right will use whatever means necessary in order to return Labour into a reliable tool for the capitalists’ interests. However, at the moment no means they can think of seems to have much chance of success. They are feeling their way, while reeling under the shock of a radicalised working class daring to interfere in ’their’ party and to threaten their careers.
An indication of how desperate they think the situation is came in an article in the Financial Times (24 July) by Jon Cruddas MP, arguing that the “closest historical parallel… lies not in Westminster but in Berlin in 1918”, that is the German revolution. He compares the anti-Corbyn MPs to “Friedrich Ebert [who] led the Social Democratic party (SPD)” and the movement in support of Jeremy Corbyn to the revolutionary “Spartacists, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky, [who] claimed their [legitimacy] from the workers’ movement, the factory committees and works councils”. He adds that “Ebert ultimately unleashed the Freikorps against the leaders of the insurrection”, resulting in the murder of both Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. While he does not propose murder as a way out of the situation in the Labour Party he is clearly in a state of despair.
A right-wing split?
One possibility is that the right will split away and form a new party in the aftermath of the leadership election. Smith himself said, “I think there is every likelihood that the party will split if Jeremy wins this election”. Of course, at this stage no-one will admit to planning to split. But that is always the case in a war situation – all sides keep talking peace until the moment they declare war.
Given that, it is striking how openly Labour’s right is considering the possibility of a split. Stephen Kinnock is reported to be at the centre of a discussion on 150 MPs breaking away and founding a new party. Such a party, regardless of whether it managed to lay claim to the Labour name, would be able to apply to become the official opposition, and therefore take around £4 million a year in parliamentary ’Short money’. Kinnock is considering a fast split because it might give them the chance to establish a new ’centre-left’ – that is pro-capitalist – party before a general election.
However, it also possible that the right will hesitate and cling on hoping to overthrow Corbyn at some future point, or that some will split while others remain. As George Eaton put it in the New Statesman: “Many now believe that is only through a general election that the party’s internal struggle will be resolved”. What they mean by this is that Teresa May will call an early election, defeat Corbyn, and thereby hopefully force him to resign!
This is a forlorn hope. It is not possible to gauge if May will call an early election. While she is unlikely to last until 2020, given the extreme weakness of her government and the deep divisions in the Tory Party which she has only been able to temporarily paper over, there are important reasons for her to hesitate before going for an immediate election. Primary in this is the Brexit vote. The capitalists’ current strategy is to drag out the process as much as possible and hope that opportunities arise to ’step back’ the Brexit vote. This is not a slogan under which May could fight a general election, however!
The other problem is – notwithstanding current opinion polls putting the Tories ahead – is that, if he fought it on a clear pro-working class programme, Jeremy Corbyn could win a general election. This is a nightmare scenario for the capitalist class, particularly against the background of a deepening economic crisis, as it could awaken the appetite of the working class for an alternative to austerity. As a result, such a government could be pressurised to take radical measures which would threaten the capitalist system.
No compromise with the right
Even if the right do temporarily hang on and wait for something to turn up, that would not mean a return even to the armed truce that existed a year ago. A civil war has begun and must now be fought to a conclusion, almost regardless of the wishes of the individual protagonists. The Labour Party deputy leader, Tom Watson, has outlined the kind of measures the right would fight for, including Labour MPs electing the shadow cabinet (which would leave Jeremy Corbyn isolated, surrounded by a right-wing team) and the return to the previous ’electoral college’ system for electing the leader which, by giving one third of the vote to Labour MPs and MEPs, made it much easier for the right to keep control. They face enormous difficulties in implementing such a programme, given the changed balance of forces in the Labour Party. They are also terrified that they could be picked off one by one by a process of deselection. The right can therefore be pushed by events down the road of splitting away, despite their fear that their new pro-capitalist party would have a limited social base.
What is essential is that this time, unlike after Jeremy’s first victory, there are no attempts by the left to compromise with the Blairites. Instead the movement in support of Corbyn needs to be organised and built upon in order to consolidate and extend the gains that have been made. A clear anti-austerity programme should be adopted, which Labour MPs have to accept as a condition of being allowed the Labour whip. This should be combined with the introduction of mandatory reselection, to allow local Labour parties a democratic decision about who stands for parliament on their behalf. The UNITE union conference passed a motion, moved by a Socialist Party member, calling for mandatory reselection, which UNITE should now campaign to be passed at the upcoming Labour Party conference.
Those on the left who quail at the right split from the Labour Party that would result have to face up to what preventing a split requires: a complete capitulation to the pro-capitalist elements of the Labour Party. Nothing else will satisfy the right. Only if they are given their own way, their careers protected and, most importantly, the Labour Party confined entirely in the capitalist framework of austerity, privatisation and war, will they condescend to remain in a party with the left.
Some on the left attempt to deny this reality, arguing that Labour has always been a broad church and the ’warring factions’ will somehow find a way to compromise. It is true that for most of its history Labour was a ’broad church’, a capitalist workers’ party. While its leadership acted in the interests of the capitalist class it had a mass predominantly working class membership, which via its democratic structures was able to exert influence on the party. The right wing leadership were reliant for their careers on the mass working class membership and were forced, however reluctantly, to take account of their views. Particularly during the post-war economic upswing there was a material basis for this alliance, as capitalism was forced to grant reforms to the working class.
That period is long gone, however. Even before the onset of the 2008 world economic crisis the past gains of the working class were under systematic attack, including by New Labour in power. The Blairites had succeeded in transforming Labour into a party that reliably acted in the interests of the capitalist class. One example of the changed character of the Labour Party is the difference between the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Labour premier Harold Wilson was unable to send ground troops to back US imperialism in Vietnam, despite wishing to do so. Blair, by contrast, was able to tell George Bush, ’I’ll be with you, whatever’. What is more the Labour Party conference in 2004 was also with Bush, voting overwhelmingly to endorse the occupation of Iraq and impervious to the biggest anti-war demonstration in Britain’s history that had taken place the previous year.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn represents a vital break in the political logjam out of which there is an opportunity to create a mass party of the working class. Whether or not it had the name Labour, this would be a huge step forward. Marxists must do all they can to assist the development of such a force. Such a party, particularly in its early days, would still be a ’broad church’, in the sense that it would inevitably contain groupings with different political approaches. The bottom line, however, would be unity against austerity and in favour of measures to improve the lives of the majority – the working and middle class.
This would be a real ’progressive alliance’. This does not mean, as the left-wing journalist Paul Mason has suggested, forming an alliance with pro-capitalist forces like the Liberal Democrats. Instead it would mean uniting together with all of those who were prepared to sign up to a clear anti-austerity programme. An appeal could be made to the Greens, to socialist organisations including the Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), unaffiliated trade unions and community organisations, to affiliate and come together in an umbrella to contest elections, while maintaining the right to their own identity. This is the ’federal basis’ on which the Labour Party was originally formed. To return to a modern version of it would be a real step forward and could potentially win back many of the almost five million voters, mainly working class, who Labour lost between 1997 and 2010. Many of these stopped voting, others protested by voting for UKIP, the Greens, or in some cases for TUSC, in which the Socialist Party participates.
In the early days of the Labour Party the British Socialist Party (one of the forerunners of the Communist Party) was affiliated to the Labour Party and the famous Scottish Marxist John McLean stood as a parliamentary candidate under the Labour banner in 1918 (he was also Russia’s Scotland Consul at the time!). Until 1925, CP members could hold dual membership. And up until the victory of Blairism there were always significant Marxist and Trotskyist forces in the Labour Party. When the Militant Tendency, now the Socialist Party, was expelled we warned that it would be the thin end of the edge, and that the process would end with the expulsion of the voice of the working class.
It is very positive that Jeremy Corbyn seems to broadly agree with this approach, correctly dismissing Tom Watson’s dodgy dossier in The Observer (14 August) as “nonsense” and declaring: “We can only win a general election by winning people over from either non-voting or voting for another party. If someone has developed their politics to be members of the Labour party, even though they were once members of the Lib Dems, or Greens or something, fine. Welcome aboard”. Asked about the possibility of the Socialist Party affiliating to Labour he added: “I look forward to a conversation with Peter [Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party] at some point”.
However, a refounded Labour Party could not only be a coming together of left political forces, important though that is. It would also be vital for the rights of trade unions within the party to be restored. A central aspect of the destruction of Labour’s democratic structures has been the undermining of the role of the unions. The Labour Party was founded by trade unions in order to create a party specifically for the working class. Today the unions remain the biggest democratic organisations in Britain, involving over six million workers. Collective action by trade unions has been the main means through which working class people have been able to fight austerity. Had the leaders of the TUC been prepared to call coordinated strike action against austerity, starting with a 24-hour general strike, it would have had the power to bring down the government. Yet the trade unions have been without a political voice for decades. Restoring their role would not mean an exact replica of the ’block vote’ of the past, which was sometimes wielding undemocratically by the union tops, but a real democratic collective union voice, with the active involvement of union members. The rebuilding of a mass democratic Labour youth section would also be posed.
Splits have a class basis
Those who rule out a split on class lines in the Labour Party are the real utopians. To imagine, as some in the leadership of Momentum unfortunately do, that it will be possible for Jeremy Corbyn to somehow ’cling on’ to the Labour leadership until 2020, with only muted opposition from the right, are unfortunately deluding themselves. There are precedents for splits in Labour which were, ultimately, designed to protect the interests of the capitalist class. The 1981 split to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) did not do much for the ministerial careers of those that left, but it did play an important role for the capitalist class. By taking 11.5% of the vote in the 1983 general election it contributed, alongside the Falklands War, to ensuring the Labour Party was defeated and Thatcher won a second term.
1931 was a different case – when 15 Labour MPs, led by the Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, split away to form a national government with Liberals and Conservatives, which implemented savage attacks on the working class. It does contain a number of important lessons for today however. Famously Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, was asked to stay with Labour rather than split away with the traitors in order to defend the interests of capitalism within the party. No doubt, even if the big majority of Labour MPs split it will not be a chemically pure division. Some on the right will stick with a Corbyn-led Labour Party for the same reasons as Morrison did. It would still be necessary, therefore, for Corbyn and his supporters to demand of all Labour MPs who stay that they sign up to an anti-austerity programme.
Many Labour supporters will fear a split would fundamentally weaken the Labour Party. In fact the opposite would be the case. True, there would – at least initially – be less Labour MPs in Westminster, but a group of MPs who consistently campaigned against austerity and defended workers in struggle, would do far more to strengthen the fight back against the Tories than 232 ’Labour’ MPs, a majority of whom vote for austerity, privatisation and war.
A re-founded anti-austerity Labour Party could quickly make electoral gains, as was demonstrated by the January 2015 election victory of Syriza in Greece, standing then on an anti-austerity platform, and the growth in support for the left in Spain. It is not an exact comparison but the average swing to Labour in by-elections from 1931 to 1935 was 13.5%. In 1931 Labour’s vote fell by almost two million from two years previously, but by the general election in 1935 it was back to the level it had been in 1929. That, of course, reflected the anger at the great betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald and co. In essence, however, the role of a new ’centre left’ party will be no different to MacDonald’s National Labour group – it would bloc in parliament with a weak Tory government against Corbyn and the working class.
The impact of a left party
One YouGov poll (2 August) has been reported as demonstrating the impossibility of a split but it does nothing of the kind. It suggests that if the right split away and Corbyn keeps the name Labour the left would receive 21% of the vote, whereas a left split away, where the right keep the Labour Party name, would receive 14% of the vote. The relatively small difference between the two figures reflects the undermining of traditional loyalty to Labour over decades, leaving today a very weak ’brand loyalty’. Obviously, 21% is preferable to 14%, but in these circumstances the latter would be a very good beginning for building a new party around an anti-austerity programme.
Such a party could quickly gain electoral ground by offering an alternative to endless cuts, privatisation and misery. By contrast, Brown and Miliband showed that there is a limited appetite for a Labour Party that offers ’austerity-lite’, essentially a watered down version of Tory policies. But even if a right-wing Labour Party was to win power, it is power for what? If it is to implement policies in the interests of the capitalist class then it will not advance the interests of the majority in society.
By contrast, a left-led party, whether or not it had the name Labour, would be able to advance workers’ interests from day one, and make electoral gains as a result of doing so. Owen Smith has drawn the lines between him and Corbyn as being about whether change comes from ’within parliament or outside’, saying: “In the days before we had the franchise… it was fine to shake our fists through the railings. As soon as we had the franchise, it was our job to go around the railings and seize power from within. Maybe some of the reason Jeremy hasn’t worked so hard, in my view, in holding together the Labour Party, is that he doesn’t see that as important. He actually sees building a movement in the country as more important”. (Camden New Journal, 4 August).
Firstly Smith has no evidence whatsoever for his assertion that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t care about elections. But also it is complete ’parliamentary cretinism’ to suggest that no change has been achieved since the introduction of universal suffrage except through parliament. The examples are endless. It was the Ford Dagenham strike which forced the Equal Pay Act through parliament; it was the threat of a general strike which forced the release of jailed dockers in 1972. And it was the 18 million people who refused to pay the poll tax that unseated Margaret Thatcher and forced the John Major government to abolish it.
Summing up their idiocy one of the films by the right-wing ’Saving Labour’ group began by baldly stating that demonstrating never changed anything. The slogan was super-imposed on two demonstrations in Liverpool – one in support of Corbyn, and another of a massive 1984 demonstration in support of Liverpool city council. Yet the Labour council then, in which Militant supporters played a central role, won £60 million from the Tory government and was able to build 5,000 council houses, open six new nurseries, four colleges, six leisure centres and more. It would not have been able to do this just by passing policy in the council chamber. A bold stand in the council chamber, however, combined with massive demonstrations, public sector general strikes, and the miners’ strike taking place at the same time, forced the government to make serious concessions.
The following year Liverpool, along with Lambeth council, was defeated due to the betrayal of Neil Kinnock and the leadership of the Labour Party. Nonetheless its achievements still stand in bricks and mortar. It was a mistake that Jeremy Corbyn, who supported the Liverpool council struggle at the time, did not refer to it when he spoke at the recent mass rally in Liverpool and has not so far taken an unequivocal position of calling on Labour councils to refuse to implement cuts. This is despite the UNITE and GMB union conferences calling for councils to set legal no cuts budgets.
But imagine if, after almost a decade of savage council cuts which have left council budgets an average of 40% smaller than in 2008, a number of councils – even if only a handful – refused to implement cuts and stood firm as Poplar, Liverpool, Lambeth and Clay Cross did before them. And imagine if those councils had the vocal support of Jeremy Corbyn’s party in parliament, whatever its name. Such a struggle – given all the accumulated anger against council cuts – would be enormously popular. Not only could it win, an organised defiance of the Tories could force a general election from which the possibility of Corbyn’s party coming to power could be posed. This is just one example of how a left party in parliament, even if initially with a modest number of MPs, could act as a voice for the working class and anti-austerity movement, thereby shifting the balance of power in society in the direction of the working class.
Taking on capitalism
The Socialist Party trenchantly supports Jeremy Corbyn in his battle against the right, backing every positive step taken. But we also seek to push the movement further to the left and to warn against retreats which can, at a later stage, potentially lead to defeats.
Jeremy’s 2016 election programme raises many positive points that will resonate with workers and are potentially very popular, including his call for a £10 an hour minimum wage, his pledge to build a million homes, half of them council houses, and to introduce rent controls in the private sector. His pledges to renationalise the railways and end health service privatisation will also have widespread appeal. The idea of a national investment bank with £500 billion to spend on public investment to be paid for by increased taxes on “the highest earners” is welcome. In his Observer interview (14 August) Jeremy reiterated support for the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of a student maintenance grant.
At the same time, however, he has retreated on calling for nationalisation of the energy companies, now only arguing for “increased community participation”. Unfortunately, his call for renationalisation of the railways is limited to taking them over as the franchises run out; meaning that, after five years of Labour government, only two thirds of the railways would be in public ownership. Nor has he clearly called for renationalisation of the steel industry, despite the overwhelming need. This reflects an unwillingness to draw all the conclusions about what it is necessary to do to defend the interests of the working class, not to accept but to defy what Jeremy Corbyn’s former economic advisor David Blanchflower has called “the realities of capitalism and modern markets” (The Guardian, 2 August). Blanchflower is now a Smith supporter.
The capitalists will vehemently resist a bigger role for the state and increased taxation. To implement even Corbyn’s modest programme would, therefore, require ’extra-parliamentary action’, that is the mobilisation of the working class in support of the government’s policies.
Jeremy Corbyn’s current programme is a real step forward compared to the pro-capitalist policies of previous Labour leaders. However, it still falls short of a full socialist programme, but the need for such a programme will be posed by events. The experience of Syriza in Greece, where the leadership of an anti-austerity party capitulated to the pressure of big business and is now implementing austerity, shows that defeating austerity is linked to the struggle for socialism. Endless austerity and growing inequality are not accidents; they flow from the needs of capitalism, where the profits of a few have been restored at the expense of the majority. However, the enormous advantage of the creation of a mass workers’ party, which is now on the agenda, is that it would provide a forum in which working class people could discuss and debate how to achieve the ending of capitalism and the development of a democratic socialist society.