Turn the tables on the right
The coup attempt against Jeremy Corbyn presents the left with both a huge challenge and an historic opportunity. James Marshall, writing for Labour Party Marxists, assesses the balance of forces, and outlines a programme of immediate action and long-term strategic aims
During the EU referendum campaign Labour’s right, Cameron’s Tories and the ‘remain’ media all observed a kind of ceasefire. Attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smearing, ‘Labour is bound to lose’ predictions, etc, were temporarily put on hold. They needed him to bring on board traditional Labour voters and the young. But, once the EU results were announced, Operation Get Jeremy Corbyn was set in motion.
In a late-night phone call Hilary Benn told Corbyn he had “lost confidence” in his leadership. Following Benn’s inevitable sacking, two thirds of the shadow cabinet subsequently resigned, along with dozens of junior shadow ministers and numerous aides and advisors. Operation Get Jeremy Corbyn is, undoubtedly, carefully choreographed. One after the other they resigned and duly lined up to appear on eagerly waiting TV and radio stations. Steve Bassam - Baron Bassam of Brighton, leader of the Labour Party in the House of Lords - played his part too. He formally broke links with Corbyn’s office. Then there was the joint letter of 57 prospective parliamentary candidates, Alan Johnson, Lisa Dugdale, Ed Miliband, etc. All played their pre-planned role in Operation Get Jeremy Corbyn. Crucially, there was, of course, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 172-40 no confidence vote. The main blow. So there will definitely be a leadership contest.
Given this predictable outcome, it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn has been badly advised. From the beginning he had the majority of the PLP profoundly, implacably, irreconcilably set against him. He should have been told that in no uncertain terms. Instead, he had Seamus Milne’s widely over-optimistic spreadsheet. It showed just 85 MPs who could be considered “core group negatives” or “hostile”. Milne was providing misinformation. He put 19 MPs in Corbyn’s “core group”, while 56 were classified as “core group plus” and 71 as “neutral but not hostile”.1 Obviously, the 172-strong right were never reconciled to Corbyn’s stunning leadership victory in September 2015.
And Corbyn still remains hugely popular at a rank-and-file level. Opinion polls show that in no uncertain terms. He has also received the solid backing of Unite, GMB, Unison and other unions. Nevertheless, Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, promises a bruising contest. Here, at least, he is being honest. Expect, therefore, an unremitting anti-Corbyn media barrage. More ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smears. More suspensions. More exclusions. More accusations of intimidation. More so-called revelations about the left.
But will there be a contest? Everyone knows our rule B (ii) is ambiguous. That is why the left has understandably concentrated efforts on ensuring a rule change at this year’s Liverpool conference. Till then, however, doubt remains. Does a sitting leader automatically appear on the ballot paper? Do they have to pass the 20% nomination threshold of MPs and MEPs?
The national executive committee could well decide that Jeremy Corbyn, being the incumbent, should automatically be allowed to stand, if he so wishes. If that happens, then the chances are that the right’s ‘unity’ candidate will be soundly beaten. To prevent such a totally unacceptable outcome expect the right - maybe in the form of general secretary Iain McNicol - to take matters to the courts. Needless to say, the judicial system is no friend of the working class or the left. Remember the Taff Vale judgement (1901), the Osborne judgement (1909), the Viking, Laval, Rüffert and Luxembourg judgements (2007, 2008).
Huffington Post UK reports legal advice from Doughty Street Chambers. It concludes that B (ii) only applies to a “potential challenger”. The right, however, has “two rival legal opinions, suggesting that, because the current rules are ‘silent’ on the explicit need for nominations, he [Corbyn - JM] would indeed need nominations from MPs”.2 The precedent of Neil Kinnock securing the backing of numerous Labour MPs when faced with Tony Benn’s leadership bid in 1988 is frequently cited (Benn was trounced, picking up 11.4% to Kinnock’s 88.6%).
Hence, we can certainly imagine a leadership contest where the right’s ‘unity’ candidate is thrashed by Corbyn. What would the PLP majority do after that? On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that Corbyn fails to secure enough nominations and, thanks to a court judgement, there is only one runner - the ‘unity’ candidate of the right. What would the party’s affiliates, members and supporters then do?
A historic split is clearly on the cards.
Our best-case scenario is that Corbyn soundly beats the right’s ‘unity’ candidate. Maybe then, all the 172 rebel MPs will do us a favour: they go for another Social Democratic Party. Admittedly this is an outside possibility - political suicide is an unattractive prospect for most of the PLP. They remain acutely aware of the sorry fate of the SDP. Moreover, unlike the early 1980s, the political centre is not enjoying a sustained revival.3 At the last general election the Lib Dems were decimated. They remain marginalised and widely despised.
Given the punishing logic of the first-past-the-post election system, it is therefore unlikely that the PLP majority will do us that favour. No, probably the right will rely on the rule-based fact that as sitting MPs they are set to be the official Labour candidate in a November 2016 or February 2017 general election.
Also, well before that, expect the PLP to elect its own, unconstitutional, leader (ie, their leadership candidate). The result: two rival parties. A rightwing Labour Party with by far the biggest parliamentary presence. Then, on the other hand, a leftwing Labour Party with trade union support, but a much smaller number of MPs.
However, there is an obvious problem for the right. The Liverpool conference, or a special conference before that, can be expected to change the rules. Not only B (ii). New rules will surely be introduced subjecting all elected representatives, crucially MPs, to mandatory reselection. A welcome threat now coming from Len McCluskey and Unite, which we have every interest getting into the rule book.
So, on balance, I would guess. the right is probably banking on excluding Corbyn from the ballot. It therefore expects the courts to oblige. With its ‘unity’ candidate elected by default, the right would then do everything within its power to ensure that the trade unions, the left, the majority of members and supporters are driven away. Obviously a high-risk strategy. But it shows just how desperate the right actually is.
The well-timed resignations by members of the shadow cabinet needs to be understood not, as claimed, as a heavy-hearted response to Corbyn’s “weak role” in the EU referendum, lack of “leadership skills”, etc. The right wants to split the Labour Party and establish an out-and-out bourgeois party on its ruins.
What should the left be doing under these unprecedented circumstances? As the right goes in for the kill, we must respond using all our energy and all the weapons at our disposal. Obviously Corbyn must be unconditionally, but critically, defended. Certainly this is no time to faint-heartedly opt out of “Labour’s internecine strife” (Owen Jones).4 Unite’s Len McCluskey has warned the right that a leadership election without Corbyn on the ballot paper will set the Labour Party “on course for a split”.5 However, that split should not come from the left. Instead, we should use our conference majority to change the rules and if necessary rerun the leadership election … with Corbyn on the ballot paper. If the right refuses to accept conference decisions the NEC should swiftly counter with expulsions.
Hence the Labour left has four immediate tasks.
Firstly, we should support demands for a special conference. Change the rules on the leadership election, lower the threshold, confirm that the incumbent is automatically on the ballot paper. Put in place rules stipulating that all elected representatives are subject to mandatory reselection. Abolish the compliance unit. Restore full membership rights to those cynically charged with anti-Semitism. Welcome in those good socialists who have been barred from membership because, mainly out of frustration, they supported the Greens, Left Unity or the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition at the last general election. Meanwhile, take full advantage of our current rules. The ‘trigger’ mechanism allows local party units, including both individual members and affiliated organisations, to “determine whether the constituency holds a full, open selection contest for its next candidate, in which other potential candidates are nominated, or reselects the sitting MP without such a contest”.6
Secondly, Momentum must be given momentum. That can only come about through democracy and the election of and right to recall all Momentum officials. Membership lists must be handed over to the local branches, so as to maximise mobilisation. That will facilitate a renewed drive to win all Corbyn supporters to become full individual Labour Party members. If they want to defend him, if they want to ensure that he stays true to his principles, if they want to transform the Labour Party, then the best thing that they can do is to get themselves a vote - not only when it comes to the leader, but when it comes to the NEC, the selection and re-selection of MPs, MEPs, councillors, etc. Card-carrying members can attend ward and constituency meetings and stand for officer positions.
Thirdly, within the affiliated trade unions we must fight to win many, many more to enrol. Just over 70,000 affiliated supporters voted in the 2015 leadership election. A tiny portion of what could be. There are well over four million who pay the political levy.7 Given that they can sign up to the Labour Party with no more than an online click, we really ought to have a million affiliated supporters as a minimum target figure.
Fourthly, every constituency, branch (ward) and other such basic units must be seized, revived and galvanised by the left. The right has done everything to make them cold, uninviting, bureaucratic and lifeless. The left must convince the sea of young new members, and the elder returnees, to attend meetings … and organise to drive out the right. Elect officers who defend the Corbyn leadership. Our constituencies and branches can then be made into vibrant centres of organisation, education and action. As such they would be well placed to hold wayward councillors and MPs to account.
Whatever the particular scenario, the Labour Party must be reorganised from top to bottom. That should be our overriding aim - as opposed to trying to win the next general election by concocting some rotten compromise with the right.
Organisationally and politically radical change must be put on the agenda. We need a sovereign conference. We need to subordinate MPs to the NEC. We also need to sweep away the undemocratic rules and structures put in place under Blair. The joint policy committee, the national policy forums, the whole horrible rigmarole must go at the earliest possible opportunity. Politically we need a new clause four and a programmatic commitment to working class rule and international socialism.
Labour is rightly proud of being a federal party. Therefore securing new affiliates ought to be a priority. The Fire Brigades Union has reaffiliated. Excellent. But what about Rail, Maritime and Transport union? Let us win RMT militants to drop their misplaced support for Tusc. Instead affiliate to the Labour Party. And what about the National Union of Teachers? Why can’t we win them to affiliate? Surely we can … if we fight for hearts and minds.
Then there is Public and Commercial Services union. Thankfully, Mark Serwotka, its leftwing general secretary, has at last come round to the idea. The main block to affiliation now comes in the form of opposition from the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales. True, PCS affiliation will run up against the Trades Disputes and Trade Union Act (1927), introduced by a vengeful Tory government in the aftermath of the general strike, whereby civil service unions were barred from affiliating to the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress. The Civil and Public Services Association - predecessor of PSC - reaffiliated to the TUC in 1946. Now, surely, it is time for the PCS to reaffiliate to the Labour Party.
True, when we in LPM moved a motion at the February 2015 AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy calling for all trade unions to be encouraged to affiliate, we were met with the objection that for the PCS it would be illegal. However, as NEC member Christine Shawcroft, who was sitting next to me, said: “What does that matter?” Here comrade Shawcroft, a close ally of Corbyn, shows the exact right spirit. Force another change in the law.
Then there are the leftwing groups and parties. They too can be brought under our banner. Labour can become the common home of every socialist organisation, cooperative and trade union - the agreed goal of our founders.8 In other words, the Labour Party can become what Leon Trotsky called a permanent united front of the working class.
Yet, sadly, especially with those outside Labour, there has been a distinct lack of imagination. Instead of a banging on the door, there has been cowardly disengagement. An approach undoubtedly designed to preserve sectarian interests and brittle reputations.
Take the SWP. In an official statement the organisation off-handedly admitted that its much depleted band of followers “did not sign up to vote in the [Labour leadership] election”. Why did the comrades refuse to register as Labour Party supporters? Why did they stand aloof? After all, to have voted for Corbyn cost a mere £3 … and for levy-paying members of affiliated trade unions it was free. So why did the SWP refrain from giving Corbyn voting support? The statement pathetically explained. Corbyn faces “a firestorm of opposition” from the right. There are no more than 20 MPs “who really support Corbyn”. Etc, etc.9
What ought to be a challenge to throw oneself into an historic fight becomes an excuse to stay clear. Yet, having been torn by splits and divisions in the 1970s and then again in the 2010s, the SWP apparatus wants nothing to do with anything that carries even the whiff of factional strife. So there is the call for marches, protests and strikes … as counterposed to the Labour Party, PLP battles and taking sides in a concentrated form of the class war. However, in rejecting any sort of front-line involvement in Labour’s civil war, the SWP stays true to its modern-day version of Bakuninism.
Then we have SPEW. Having categorically dismissed the Labour Party as an out and out capitalist party since the mid-1990s, it has been busily rowing … backwards. The old Militant logo was cosmetically placed on the masthead of The Socialist. Despite that, Peter Taaffe, SPEW’s founder-leader, steadfastly refuses to join the battle in the Labour Party. Instead he clings to Tusc as if it were a comfort blanket. If Tusc stood on something that resembled a Marxist programme, that would still be a strategic mistake. But what passes for Tusc’s programme is barely distinguishable form Corbynism. Yet, whereas Corbyn has a mass base, Tusc is organisationally and electorally a nothing.
Left Unity is essentially no different. As with SPEW and the SWP, members peeled away to join the Labour Party as individuals. Undaunted, LU is determined to carry on as a halfway house project that merely comments on developments in the Labour Party. A platonic form of politics.
We in Labour Party Marxists unapologetically take our programmatic lead from the CPGB. Having been demanding the right to affiliate since its foundation in 1920, today we simply demand that the CPGB ought to be accorded the same rights as the Cooperative Party, the Fabians, Christians on the Left, Scientists for Labour, etc.10 However, we also extend that demand to include the SWP, SPEW, LU and other such organisations.
The PLP rebels are out-and-out opportunists. Once and for all we must put an end to such types exploiting our party for their own narrow purposes. Being an MP ought to be an honour, not a career ladder, not a way for university graduates to secure a lucrative living.
A particularly potent weapon here is the demand that all our elected representatives should take only the average wage of a skilled worker. A principle upheld by the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik revolution. Even the Italian Communist Party under Enrico Berlinguer applied the ‘partymax’ in the 1970s. With the PCI’s huge parliamentary fraction this proved to be a vital source of funds.
Our MPs are on a basic £67,060 annual salary. On top of that they get around £12,000 in expenses and allowances, putting them on £79,060 (yet at present Labour MPs are only obliged to pay the annual £82 parliamentarian’s subscription fee to the party). Moreover, as leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn not only gets his MPs salary: he is entitled to an additional £73,617.11
We in LPM say, let them live on the average skilled workers’ wage - say £40,000 (plus legitimate expenses). Then, however, they should hand the balance over to the party. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Dianne Abbott should take the lead. That would give a considerable boost to our finances. Even if we leave out Labour’s 20 MEPs from the calculation, with 229 MPs it would amount to roughly £900,000 extra. Anyway, whatever our finances, there is the basic principle. Our representatives ought to live like ordinary workers, not pampered members of the middle class. So, yes, let us impose the partymax.
Given the Labour Party’s mass membership, affiliated trade unions and the huge challenges before us, we urgently need to reach out to all those who are disgusted by corrupt career politicians, all those who aspire to a better world, all those who have an objective interest in ending capitalism. Towards that end we must establish our own press, radio and TV. To state the obvious, tweeting and texting have severe limits. They are brilliant mediums for transmitting short, sharp, clear messages. But, when it comes to complex ideas, debating principles and charting political strategies, they are worse than useless.
Relying on the favours of the capitalist press, radio and TV is a fool’s game. True, it worked splendidly for Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. But, as Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband found to their cost, to live by the mainstream media is to die by the mainstream media. No, to set the agenda we need our own full-spectrum alternative. The established media can be used, of course. But, as shown with the anti-Corbyn coup, when things really matter, we get hardly a look in. Indeed the capitalist press, radio and TV are integral to the anti-Corbyn coup. There were, of course, idiot voices to the contrary - those who wanted to court The Guardian, the Mirror, etc.12 But, frankly, we should have anticipated the lies, the bile, the mockery, the implacable opposition.
Once we had the Daily Herald. Now we have not a thing. Well, apart from the deadly-dull trade union house journals, the advertising sheets of the confessional sects and the Morning Star (which in reality is still under the control of unreconstructed Stalinites).
We should aim for an opinion-forming daily paper of the labour movement and seek out trade union, cooperative, crowd and other such sources of funding. And, to succeed, we have to be brave: iconoclastic viewpoints, difficult issues, two-way arguments must be included as a matter of course. The possibility of distributing such a paper free of charge should be considered and, naturally, everything should be put up on the web without pay walls or subscription charges. We should also launch a range of internet-based TV and radio stations. With the abundant riches of dedication, passion and ideas that exist on the left here in Britain and far beyond we can surely better the BBC, Al Jazeera, Russia Today and Sky.
Of course, in the medium to long term we Marxists want the abolition of the Bonapartist post of leader. But these are extraordinary times and require extraordinary measures. Ed Miliband abolished the fleeting practice of having the PLP elect the shadow cabinet and understandably with the election of Corbyn the right touted the idea of a restoration. That would have left Corbyn without John McDonnell and Diane Abbott and utterly isolated in the shadow cabinet. Thankfully Corbyn’s early pronouncements favouring such an outcome were quickly rethought. He wisely opted to keep the dictatorial powers long favoured by past Labour leaders.
Appointing the shadow chancellor was always going to be a litmus test. The more timid members of Corbyn’s inner circle were reportedly urging him to opt for someone from the centre. Instead he chose John McDonnell. Hence the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership. Offering shadow cabinet seats to the likes of Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle, Lucy Powell, Lord Falconer, Chris Bryant, Owen Smith and Lisa Nandy was always going to happen. Corbyn is a natural conciliator. And the fact of the matter is that Seamus Milne’s “core group” of 19 loyalist MPs was too small if all posts were to be filled. Unless, that is, Corbyn went for a pocket-sized shadow cabinet and even drew upon talents from outside parliament (as seen during World War II under Winston Churchill with Ernest Bevin - he was appointed minister of labour in 1940 despite not being an MP). That is what we LPMers advocated.
Nevertheless, equipped with his left-centre-right coalition, Corbyn could claim the moral high ground. He was reaching out to all sections of the party. Now, in terms of internal perceptions, it is the “hostile” and “core negative group” of MPs who, hopefully, will be squarely blamed for undertaking a completely cynical coup attempt against Corbyn, that, whatever the outcome, will surely badly damage Labour’s chances in a widely expected early general election. That plays well with traditional Labour activists. Normally, they do not take kindly to anyone damaging Labour’s chances at the polls. After all, for most of them, the be-all and end-all of politics is getting elected and re-elected … even if the manifesto promises little more than managing capitalism better than the Tories. A misplaced common sense that wide swathes of the Labour left, including Corbyn and McDonnell, have thoroughly internalised.
However, the “hostile” and “core negative group” of Labour MPs have the full backing of the capitalist media, the City of London, the military-industrial complex, special branch, MI5 and their American cousins. Corbyn’s much publicised admiration for Karl Marx, his campaigning against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, opposition to US-led imperialist wars, call to junk Trident and nuclear weapons, his commitment to increase the tax taken from transnational corporations, the banks and the mega rich, his Platonic republicanism, even his timid mumbling of the royal anthem mark him out as completely unacceptable.
Of course, there was always the danger that the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership would have their agenda set for them by their futile attempt to maintain PLP unity. Put another way, in what was a coalition cabinet, it was always the right that set the limits and therefore determined the political programme. Why? Because they were always prepared to walk. That is what Lord Charlie Faulkner made clear over the EU, nuclear weapons, the monarchy, etc. The decision by Corbyn to kiss the hand of Elizabeth Windsor, though not to kneel, in order to gain access to the privy council was therefore highly symbolic.
Staying silent, abandoning principles or putting them on the backburner in an attempt to placate the right was never a good strategy. We saw that with John McDonnell’s pusillanimous statements on Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to defend the victims of the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. Now there is the call from the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership to have a “sensible” discussion on immigration. After the EU referendum McDonnell says we are no longer obliged to defend the principle of the right of people to free movement (he was disgracefully backed by Unite’s genital secretary, Len McCluskey). Such a course may court the working class EU exiters. But it demobilises, demoralises and drains away Corbyn’s mass.
So, the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership faces both an enemy within the PLP and an enemy within their own reformist ideology. They seriously seem to believe that socialism can be brought about piecemeal, through a series of left and ever lefter Labour governments. In reality, though, a Labour government committed to the existing state and the existing constitutional order produces not decisive steps in the direction of socialism, but attacks on the working class … and then the election of a Tory government.
Tactically, Marxists are right to concentrate fire on the 172 “core negative group” of “hostile” MPs. ‘Blairites out’, should be the common slogan on the left. The majority of Labour affiliates, members and supporters still trust the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership. Now, however, they have to be presented with a programme that decisively breaks with their conciliations, compromises and concessions. Everyone on the left will have an instinctive loathing of all those seeking to oust Jeremy Corbyn, who support US imperialism, who follow the lead of Progress, Labour First, etc. Therefore our call is to turn the tables. Purge the right and transform the Labour Party.
Naturally, real Marxists, not fake Marxists, never talk of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party. It has never been ours in the sense of being a “political weapon for the workers’ movement”. No, despite the electoral base and trade union affiliations, our party has been dominated throughout its entire history by career politicians and trade union bureaucrats. A distinct social stratum which in the last analysis serves not the interests of the working class, but the continuation of capitalist exploitation.
Speaking in the context of the need for the newly formed CPGB to affiliate to the Labour Party, Lenin had this to say:
[W]hether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers, but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.
Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns [the executioners of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht].13
An assessment which retains its essential purchase. But the PLP is now two parties. One is a 172-strong bourgeois party. The other is a 40-strong potential workers’ party. However, the potential workers’ party has every chance of keeping the loyalty of the affiliated trade unions, the leftwing mass membership, the working class electoral base, etc. With Corbyn’s election in September came the chance to transform the Labour Party by attacking the right both from below and above. It was never going to be easy and not easy it has proved. But that chance still remains before us. Hence, we must ensure that Corbyn is re-elected and the right is humiliatingly defeated. Then we can regrow the PLP, not as the master, but as the servant of the labour movement. That prospect genuinely send shivers of fear throughout the bourgeois establishment. No wonder the PLP right, the Mirror, the Sun and now David Cameron are united in wanting Jeremy Corbyn to throw in the towel and resign. The last thing they want is a democratic election with Corbyn as a candidate.
1. The Guardian March 23 2016.
3. From a 2.5% historic low point the Liberal Party saw a revival in the 1970s, which saw it win 19.3% of the popular vote in the February 1974 general election.
5. The Guardian June 26 2016.
7. D Pryer Trade union political funds and levy House of Commons briefing paper No00593, August 8 2013, p8.
8. At the 1899 TUC, JH Holmes, a delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, moved this resolution: “That this congress, having regard to its decisions in former years, and with a view to securing a better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons, hereby instructs the parliamentary committee to invite the cooperation of all cooperative, socialistic, trade unions and other working class organisations to jointly cooperate on lines mutually agreed upon, in convening a special congress of representatives from such of the above-named organisations as may be willing to take part to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next parliament” (www.unionhistory.info/timeline/1880_14_Narr_Display.php?Where=NarTitle+contains+%27The+
9. Socialist Worker September 8 2015.
12. Eg, Owen Jones The Guardian September 16 2015.
13. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-58.