Three scenarios to ponder
The left must expect the unexpected after the next general election. Peter Manson reports
Jeremy Corbyn: radical past, uncertain future
The December 3 joint aggregate of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists comrades endorsed an important set of theses on the ‘Prospects of a Corbyn government’. As we will see, these were not so much concerned with the likelihood of Labour defeating the Tories as with the various possibilities that would open up in that event.
Introducing the theses, Jack Conrad of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee admitted that he had previously believed that the chances of a Corbyn government were roughly the same as “a huge meteorite hitting the Earth”. However, the June 8 general election had changed all that. As we know, Theresa May’s campaign badly malfunctioned, on top of which there was the sudden Jeremy Corbyn surge.
In addition there is the small matter of Brexit. The 2016 defeat in the European Union referendum might have been manageable with Hillary Clinton as US president, but with the election of Donald Trump we are now faced with “two huge meteorites”!
Now, of course, we can genuinely talk about the ‘prospects of a Labour government’ - a prospect that is “deeply worrying” for the capitalist class, continued comrade Conrad. According to the Financial Times, a Corbyn government would be more dangerous to business interests than a bad Brexit deal. After the next general election, however, the Parliamentary Labour Party will in all likelihood remain dominated by the right. In the face of press agitation, rightwing Labour MPs could be amongst those urging the monarch to choose someone other than Corbyn as prime minister. We could also see a repeat of 1931 and the formation of a national government.
While such a ‘constitutional coup’ is possible, no-one should discount the possibility of even more drastic action. For example, when Harold Wilson headed Labour and the party won the 1974 general election, there was talk of Britain becoming ungovernable and of the military stepping in. We have, of course, heard the same sort of thing in relation to Corbyn - by and large considered much more problematic for the bourgeoisie than Wilson.
But it is not just about Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell themselves. A government under their leadership might well provoke a “crisis of expectations”, in the belief that they are more radical than they actually are. We could see trade unionists taking strike action and the homeless occupying the palatial houses of the mega-rich.
However, a possibility is that of a Corbyn administration acting like a “normal Labour government”. After all, Corbyn has been keeping his mouth shut over the purging of the Labour left, which actually makes him complicit. He could continue to compromise in the name of ‘keeping the party united’.
But what if the left began to enjoy more and more success - winning the automatic reselection of Labour MPs, and replacing the pro-capitalist right with Corbyn supporters or those more radical? This could bring about the possibility of a genuinely radical Corbyn government, when the possibility of “destabilisation” would be even greater.
Comrade Conrad ended by discussing the reason why the CPGB Provisional Central Committee felt it so important to draw up the theses - it was essential to persuade the left to focus on the period after the next election. Corbyn and McDonnell do not talk about dismantling the secret state and there is, of course, the distinct likelihood that Iain McNicol has “close contacts” with MI5. The threat is real enough.
All this means that the left must urgently take up the need to campaign for a democratic republic. We are against the monarchy, not just the right of the queen to appoint the prime minister. Irrespective of what the formerly leftwing Paul Mason says, the demand to abolish the standing army and the secret state is essential - and it is a demand that is immediately pertinent.
In the debate that followed, Mike Macnair referred to an opinion poll published that day, which gave Labour an 8% lead, and he linked this to the fact that the government is in serious trouble over Brexit. He agreed that a Corbyn administration could provoke a response from the military. There was, of course, no actual coup following Wilson’s election in 1974 - he proved himself safe and put the lid on industrial action. But today there is also the international factor - the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory were symptoms of the mood against the status quo in many countries. Nationalism is on the rise and this might find reflection within the military.
For her part, Yassamine Mather considered the imposition of a non-Corbyn government following his election victory the least likely scenario. It was more probable that, through a combination of threats and enticements, Corbyn would be tamed - or eventually removed. She stressed, however, that some among the bourgeoisie hold out hope that Corbyn could do a better job than the Tories in relation to Brexit - perhaps even reversing it.
But right now, although the ruling class was concerned, there was “no real panic”. Why should there be? We had not yet seen a real move to win reselection, so Corbyn would still be the prisoner of the PLP. And even some opponents of Corbyn are now joining Momentum, she said, so there are many unpredictable factors.
Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists, a recently expelled member of Labour, talked about the possibility of the secret state operating in the workers’ movement. But, in any case, Corbyn seemed to be supporting moves to suppress ‘divisive’ discussions within Labour. However, there was a possibility that the new national executive committee could call a halt to the witch-hunt.
For his part, Ben Carter agreed with comrade Mather that a ‘normal Labour government’ seemed the most likely among the PCC’s three alternative scenarios. He had “reservations” about the type of working class reaction comrade Conrad had talked about leading to a crisis of expectations - who would organise such a mass movement?
In response to this I pointed out that we were talking about a largely spontaneous movement, of a type which in certain circumstances might still be able to win substantial concessions - although obviously the question of leadership would still be posed.
Vernon Price stated that a Corbyn government would still be a “hostage to the right”. But this would create disillusionment and divide the pro-Corbyn movement - we could see the unions being forced to strike against a Corbyn government. He agreed with comrade Conrad that it was important to discuss what happens after the election of a Corbyn government. All that the Labour left seems to be talking about is how to defeat the Tories and win the subsequent election. Paul Demarty agreed with this, and pointed out that Momentum was training its supporters to “worship the man on a white horse” rather than preparing for a totally changed situation following the election.
Sarah Murray was another who thought we should “err on the side of a ‘normal Labour government’”: Corbyn, she said, was “an appeaser” and was therefore likely to capitulate - nevertheless he was still regarded as a threat. She thought that any spontaneous movement would be “short-lived”, but Simon Wells pointed out that many Labour activists are already bypassing official structures - and it only takes “a few committed people to get things going”.
In response to the debate, comrade Conrad stressed once again the possibility of spontaneous action being taken by workers who believe they are simply acting in anticipation and in support of Corbyn’s policies. He pointed to France 1936, when the Parti Communiste Français actually attempted to hold back the spontaneous movement aroused by the election of a Popular Front government. Then there was the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79, when workers took strike action against the wishes of union bureaucrats. But comrade Carter had pointed to the challenge facing comrades both within and outside the Labour Party - how to ensure that a spontaneous movement was won to conscious organisation under a principled leadership.
Comrade Conrad also talked about the possibility of divisions being opened up amongst the Labour left, with some Corbynites ending up in the camp of the party right. But he ended by warning that the ruling class was not relaxed about the situation.
He concluded by stating that the theses were not an attempt at “punditry”: the main point, as comrade Price had said, was to get Labour comrades thinking, ‘What then?’
Despite the various differing emphases the theses were carried unanimously.
The second part of the aggregate - a discussion on the situation in the Middle East - aroused rather less contentious debate. We were fortunate to have two authoritative speakers in the shape of our own Yassamine Mather and comrade Moshé Machover - recently suspended from Labour and then rapidly reinstated following the outrage that caused.
First off was comrade Mather, who talked about the “very turbulent times” exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump. There was also the “previously unheard of” alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, directed mainly against Iran. While the Saudis had recently suffered a setback in Lebanon with the ‘non-resignation’ of Saad Hariri, it has been more successful in Yemen.
For its part, Iran was now a powerful influence in Syria, following the expulsion of Islamic State from its strongholds - although IS is still very much a force to be reckoned with. While the main site of Saudi-Iranian conflict is now in Lebanon, other important areas of instability were Yemen and also Bahrain. “Major changes” were looming on the horizon, predicted comrade Mather.
For his part comrade Machover pointed out that with Israel “there was always the possibility of war”. The strengthening of Hezbollah was unacceptable to it - he reminded comrades that the Israeli invasion in 1982 had resulted in Hezbollah becoming a “formidable guerrilla force”. In addition, the increasing influence of Iran is seen as undermining Israel’s claim to regional hegemony (under US sponsorship).
At this point comrade Machover reminded the meeting that Israel would regard any military conflict, including with Iran, as an opportunity - a “smokescreen” - for the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank through the expulsion of the Palestinians and its full incorporation into Israel proper. A war with Iran would also serve Binyamin Netanyahu well in the short term - embroiled as he is in accusations of corruption.
But the alliance for such a war is currently not secure, he said. While, for example, the Saudis can bomb Yemen, they have no real ground forces. Also Trump, who has his own arrangements with Vladimir Putin, cannot be counted on to support such a war right now.
Comrade Machover concluded by stating that, while an immediate war was unlikely, it was definitely on the cards in the medium term.