It has been a bad week for the left in the Labour Party, says Paul Demarty. But the right will fight
After the party comes the hangover. And, boy, has this been a hangover. Not even the insinuation that David Cameron enjoyed carnal knowledge of an animal carcass has been enough to lighten the mood.
Striking and significant as it was, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn - and the total humiliation of his rightwing opponents - was merely the firing of the starting gun. As expected by anyone who could suppress euphoria for more than five minutes, the onslaught in the rightwing press was immediate and cacophonous. The sniping from Blairites on the back benches commenced with the sort of undue haste Peter Mandelson warned them against.
It would be a considerable understatement to say that Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have not approached things with the fighting spirit we would have liked. Corbyn flip-flopped over the singing of the national anthem. McDonnell, under pressure from the Daily Mail, used his Question time appearance to recycle an old and somewhat implausible excuse for praising the IRA (it was just to keep the peace process on track, apparently). He capped this bizarre line with the classic politician’s non-apology for “giving offence”. Tom Watson demanded a “party debate” on Trident and Nato - but any indication that the leader favoured leaving the one and ditching the other was unceremoniously junked. We shall see if Watson is still in favour of such a ‘debate’ - we certainly are.
The strategy of Corbyn, McDonnell and their immediate advisors seems to be to bet everything on an anti-austerity message. On that front - the need for a ‘strategic state’ to encourage sustainable growth, and all that - it appears that they are on the safest ground. They can quote (selectively, admittedly) the learned opinions of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; meanwhile, more conscientious capitalist commentators from all quarters are concerned about rising inequality, although not so concerned that they want to do anything about it. On this front, the idea goes, George Osborne is the ‘extremist’, pursuing his Thatcherite agenda guided only by ideological fanaticism.
Digging in on this issue could deliver them victory in 2020, or so they believe; but it then becomes necessary to deflect the scurrilous attentions of the rightwing press away from other issues, to defuse policy areas where there is just too much evidence of Corbyn and McDonnell being ‘mad’. Withdrawal from Nato had already been soft-focused by the end of the leadership campaign; it has now been junked, it seems. The ‘loony’ notion that Britain ought not to chuck billions of pounds at refitting weapons of mass destruction has apparently now followed suit; and so on.
I have argued previously (see ‘Pitfalls of Corbynomics’ Weekly Worker September 3) that their alternative is economically implausible, but it is worth pointing out also that it is also incredibly politically vulnerable. This strategy does not amount to fighting Cameron and Osborne where they are weak, but where they are strong; and their strength consists in nothing more than being presently in charge of the treasury. If 2020 approaches, and an anti-austerity Corbyn Labour Party looks threatening, what does Osborne do? Why, he starts throwing concessions around. He ‘steals Labour’s clothes’, as he has before. Will the capitalist class really be moved to complain, given the alternative?
On the other hand, there are not a few policies that we can guarantee will never be pre-empted by a Tory government: for example, withdrawing from Nato, or abolishing the monarchy. It is on these matters that Corbyn can truly ‘say the unsayable’; even the Scottish nationalists cannot pose left here! (Alex Salmond used the same Question time show to rebuke Corbyn for not singing the national anthem.) The Tories and their spokespersons in the press will call him ‘mad’, of course; but they will have to defend their positions. This would be most disruptive to their plans; the monarchy and strategic alliance with the United States make the most sense when they are merely ‘common sense’, and not live political issues and the subject of intense controversy.
Conversely, there is a real danger that such aggressive backtracking on precisely the things that made Corbyn an attractive option with his own base - more or less principled and consistent opposition to imperialism, and more vaguely a sense that, unique among his peers, he stood for what he believed in. Now he is trying to play clever games, which risks alienating many of those who were already alienated by the wonk-pollster nexus that drove the agendas of Blairism and its various successors, and saw Corbyn as a realistic alternative to such technocratic manipulation. Has he changed his mind on Nato or the queen in the space of a week or so? We cannot imagine so: so why, people will justifiably ask is he lying, if not because ‘All politicians are the same’?
The silver lining for us is somewhat paradoxical: it consists in the simple fact that this will not, most likely, be enough for the Labour right. One or two crossings of the benches aside, the time is not ripe for a Gang of Four-type split - the rise of Corbyn on the one hand, and Nigel Farage on the other, indicates that the tendency in many countries for political polarisation has reached these shores. Those who stand in the middle of the road, as the saying goes, are in danger of getting run over: such was the experience of the Liberal Democrats, hewn in half between Labour and the Tories in May.
The right will have to stay in and fight. The stakes are high: ministerial portfolios and, later on, lucrative private-sector directorships are in the balance! While the paucity of rightwing talent in the Labour Party was laid embarrassingly bare in the leadership contest, this is a result of the cronyism of the Blair and Brown years, when bright young things would make it from Oxbridge to a safe seat - in the words of an anonymous former Labour minister, quoted in Private Eye - “without drawing a breath or smelling a fart”. Circumstances have now changed: they will rapidly obtain the skills necessary to fight a dirty war.
None of last week’s retreats are altogether surprising. Conciliation with the right is deep in the Labour left’s DNA (conciliation with the left, of course, is nowhere to be found among the right - making the whole thing somewhat unfair). Even Tony Benn declared that Labour needs two wings to fly - a left wing and a right wing. If a war is inevitable, Corbyn can at least say that he made the most strenuous efforts to prevent it; but we can guarantee the press will not see it that way.
For communists, the main issue is not getting Corbyn elected as prime minister, but cleaning up the labour movement. The Labour Party has throughout its history played the role of subordinating the working class to the bourgeoisie; the monopoly on the ‘commanding heights’ of the party by political careerists and union bureaucrats is merely one of the mechanisms for doing so. We lack the illusion, peddled by today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales and yesterday’s Militant, that Labour was ever straightforwardly a workers’ party.
Bring it on
The upshot is that, while Corbyn plainly does not want a war (the Labour left almost never does), we do. Open conflict with the right will lead either to immediate and ignominious defeat for Corbyn and McDonnell, or to a necessary radicalisation of their positions. It will reduce the utility of the bureaucratic clique immediately around them, counselling caution at every turn, and increase the importance of the mass base Corbyn’s candidacy generated. The young greenhorns who flocked to his banner will likewise learn how to draw a breath and smell a fart. This process could be most educational for all - and if we win we have a chance of transforming the Labour Party into a genuine weapon of the working class.
To win, however, we need to keep up the pressure now - for thorough democratisation of the party, for grassroots organisation, and merely for the understanding that there are more important things in politics than short-term ‘electability’ (decided, in the absence of any alternative, by our enemies in the bourgeois media), and that the immediate need is for an intransigent opposition. The more Corbyn relies on the sage advice of grand viziers like Simon Fletcher, the more likely he is to lose - to win, he needs to rely on the fighting strength of his supporters, not on appearing reasonable to the right (he never will).
His strength is merely that there are 210 of them, and 250,000 of us.