Labour turned upside down
The right’s attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat must not succeed, writes Tony Greenstein
The election of Jeremy Corbyn opens up significant possibilities to advance a socialist agenda in Britain, but it also lays the basis for a possibly terminal defeat in the Labour Party if the wrong strategy is adopted. The danger is that the far left will retreat behind sterile slogans about Labour and the limitations of a reformist or bourgeois workers’ party without analysing the uniqueness of the present situation. That is the method of the Socialist Workers Party, which views everything through the prism of recruiting opportunities.
People need to understand what has happened and the limits of what is possible. Since the general election over 150,000 people have joined the Labour Party. Revolutionaries should also be doing so. The idea of the affiliation of groups in this situation is irrelevant - it bypasses people’s consciousness. The election of Corbyn has taken place in the absence of any significant working class mobilisation or a mass movement against the decimation of the steel industry, local government cuts or the housing crisis. Politically the mass media has embarked on a concerted attack on the new leader and there is a danger of wide-scale demoralisation amongst those who voted for him.
For the first time in over 30 years the far left in Britain has achieved a significant political victory, almost in spite of itself. It has never been very good when it comes to strategy or forward planning. It has been bedevilled by sectarian impotence, the belief that differences between groups are more important than what unites them. Since the 1960s the socialist left has gone backwards, as the working class has suffered successive defeats.
As one of the few people to predict an outright Tory victory in May,1 I suggest that the first thing to do is to understand why Corbyn, who is as near to the far left as any candidate could get in the Labour Party, came from being a 100-1 outsider to winning the leadership with almost 60% first-preference votes. All talk of leftwing infiltrators disappeared with the result. Can the British left for once in its history take advantage of what has happened or will it continue to plough the same furrows of irrelevance?
After its general election defeat, the reaction of New Labour was that Labour had lurched too far to the left.2 Who can forget the distilled wisdom of Tristram Hunt that Labour had to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, the aspirational Waitrose shopper. In fact Labour had actually gained 1.4% of the vote nationally and 3.6% in England, compared to the Tories’ 0.8%.3 New Labour’s ideologues comprehensively misread the popular reaction to the Tory victory and their candidate, Liz Kendall, paid the price.
The nomination of Corbyn by rightwing Labour MPs was not merely fortuitous. Thousands of people, via social media, including my 13-year-old son, bombarded Labour MPs demanding that they lend Corbyn their nomination. Undoubtedly this created an atmosphere in which MPs were pushed into accepting the need for a contest where the left was not excluded.
The primary reasons for Labour losing the election in England were the 16% drop in the Liberal Democrat vote, coupled with the 10.7% increase for the UK Independence Party. In addition the Green Party picked up 3.2%. The Tories gained 21, compared to 15 seats for Labour in England. In Scotland the Scottish National Party took 10 seats from the Lib Dems. It had no effect on whether there would have been a Labour government (assuming an arrangement had been reached with the SNP).
The Ukip vote was comprehensively misunderstood.4 From the first declaration in Sunderland, where Ukip gained around 8,000 votes, it was clear that it would make a heavy inroads into Labour’s northern working class support. The mistake was in writing off such a vote as racist or chauvinist. When people mentioned ‘immigration’ what they were really doing was looking for an explanation for job insecurity, low wages, housing and poverty. In these same northern cities Corbyn was later to speak to meetings of 1,000-plus, but in the general election Ukip’s scapegoating provided an alternative. Many of those who voted Ukip also support rail renationalisation, rent controls and many other radical demands.
They are, of course, not revolutionary demands, but we are not in a revolutionary situation. Nationalisation is a progressive demand because it poses a collective solution to the fragmentation and profiteering of private capitalism. To dispense with transitional demands is to dispense with any notion of how to change society.
Corbyn is in a distinct minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Unfortunately his strategy appears to be one of feeding the lions rather than shooting them. Appeasement is rarely a successful strategy. At best it buys time, but, as soon as sufficient time has elapsed, the Labour right will be going in for the kill.
Far from giving the green light to MPs to rebel over the bombing of Syria, the sole purpose of which is to make it clear that in foreign policy bipartisanship rules, a three-line whip should be issued opposing all military action. Instead it seems that Corbyn is contemplating supporting a ‘safe haven’, which can only be enforced militarily. No serious strategist believes that Britain will succeed where the US has failed in bringing Islamic State to heel. The only American success was in Kobanê, where the Kurds were on the ground.
Appeasing the right can have only one outcome: the removal of Corbyn when the time is right - probably after 18 months at the maximum. If he betrays most of his promises, there will be no-one left to fight for him.
The omni-shambles represented by John McDonnell’s about-turn on supporting George Osborne’s fiscal statement betrays a Labour left that talks anti-austerity, but refuses to adopt, even within capitalism, an economic policy that rejects the framework of reducing the deficit. If one state is in deficit, others may be in surplus. And if the state is in surplus, savings are run down and deflation stalks the land. That by any definition is austerity.
We are seeing a slow-motion replay of Syriza, except that Labour is not even in government. The left inside and outside the Labour Party will pay the price for abdicating its responsibilities. The Labour right would prefer a Tory to a left-Labour government. Tony Blair was quite explicit: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”5 It is the job of the left to draw the appropriate conclusions, but instead Corbyn has adopted a Trappist silence, giving the right confidence.
Whilst Corbyn had little alternative but to appoint members from the right as members of the shadow cabinet, it was a crass political mistake to appoint a supporter of Nato and Trident to the post of shadow defence secretary. True, Corbyn is making a virtue out of necessity in turning the other cheek, he should remember that even Jesus used whips to drive the moneylenders out of the temple. Corbyn’s experiment in the ‘new politics’ is simply postponing the inevitable, whilst the prince of darkness (Mandelson) plots away.
The Achilles’ heel of past Labour governments, even of the reforming kind, has been the bipartisanship over foreign policy, including Britain’s relationship with America. That is the real meaning of Trident. The idea that the ability to incinerate millions of people contributes to Britain’s ‘security’ is self-evidently absurd. Not only is it not independent of the USA, but it makes it that much more likely that Britain would be a primary target in the event of war between Russia and the US.
Having been the subject of the Kinnock purges in the early 1990s and having participated in the Socialist Alliance, Left Unity and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, I am clear that efforts to organise outside the Labour Party have been a failure. Thousands of socialists have now joined the Labour Party and the urgent need is to provide a leadership in the fight with a right determined to save Labour for capitalism.
That means drawing up our own red lines. Trident, the bombing of Syria, rail and utilities nationalisation, rent controls and security of tenure, abolition of the benefits cap, protection of benefits, tuition fees and grants. If that means the resignation of shadow cabinet members, then so be it. Higher corporate taxation and an end to corporate welfare and to tax avoidance by the transnationals, as well as the repeal of the anti-trade union laws, should be part of a minimum programme.
What we are talking about is a left reformist government. Socialism is not on the agenda, but a left Labour government would represent a very distinct advance in the fight for socialism.
The temptation is for Corbyn and MacDonald to continue to appease the right. Having promised to abolish tuition fees and reinstate grants, Corbyn is now backing down on this. In the face of steel closures, the SNP has called for nationalisation. Labour has said nothing.
A major factor in Corbyn’s election was housing, rent levels and security of tenure. Tory policies of using housing price inflation to stimulate the economy are leading to a situation where key workers cannot obtain affordable housing. A policy of taking housing out of the market, reducing house prices and rent levels, abolishing the right to buy social housing, coupled with the introduction of the right to buy at a discount in the private sector, would bury the ‘buy to let’ sector.
There is one other question on which socialists need to take a stand: proportional representation. To have a political system that accords just one seat to a party that won over four million votes is grotesque.
When it comes to Labour itself, reform of internal party structures is crucial. The abolition of the national policy forum and the reintroduction of conference sovereignty, together with the abolition of the requirement to obtain 15% of MPs as nominees for the leadership is the minimum. The one measure that will put the frighteners on rightwing MPs will be mandatory reselection, coupled with the right of recall. To abjure this is not to strengthen, but to weaken, Corbyn’s position.
The Labour Party has always accepted the British state uncritically. They are literally Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. A refusal by Corbyn to defend his republican beliefs and to pretend they are ones of private conscience is part of the fundamental political weakness of the Labour left. The Tory press fulminated, but the majority of people were unpersuaded by the necessity to doff the cap and sing the anthem. A programme to reform the feudal British state should include ending the royal prerogative and the privy council, and a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy.
MacDonnell’s craven apology for having said that the IRA were brave was not simply embarrassing. Did he forget the origins of Northern Ireland and its existence as a Protestant supremacist police state for half a century or that, when the RUC and B-Specials invaded Derry’s Bogside in 1969, the IRA stood for ‘I Ran Away’. But McDonnell apologised, emphasising his allegiance to the British security state. Thus we see a Sir Stafford Cripps in the making.
Corbyn has been involved in Palestine solidarity for as long as he has been an MP, yet he is now retreating to a position of ‘dialogue’, which conveniently omits the question of who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor. Would he have called for dialogue to resolve apartheid in South Africa? Those who possess privilege rarely give it up of their own accord.
Corbyn and McDonnell are prisoners of their own shadow cabinet and our job is to free them. But working in the Labour Party will not be easy - electoralism has its own rhythms. However, the victory of Corbyn gives the socialist left opportunities it has rarely had. The question is whether it will instead allow the right to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
1. http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/the-besting-of-guardians-cif-and-other.html; http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/ed-milibands-third-way-to-electoral.html.
2. Typical was ‘Miliband made “terrible mistake” in ditching New Labour, says Mandelson’ The Guardian May 10 2015.
4. See, for example, New Statesman September 8 2015.