How to win
Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph was predictable. So were the olive branches waved about from both sides. However, says James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists, the civil war will continue till one side or the other wins
Well, this time, the pollsters got it exactly right. Comrade Corbyn trounced citizen Smith by a resounding 62%-38% margin. That despite the media, the gerrymandering exclusion of 130,000 newer members and the witch-hunting expulsion or suspension of thousands of others. If they had not been denied their democratic rights, the margin would have been more like 75%-25%.
Inevitably, following the announcement of Corbyn’s predictable victory, we saw the waving of olive branches. But on both sides the olive branches came mixed with thorns. The Parliamentary Labour Party majority generously offered to elect the shadow cabinet. In other words, sack John McDonnell and Diane Abbott and leave Corbyn utterly isolated. No surprise - Corbyn declined that particular ‘peace offering’. Meanwhile Corbyn says come back … on my terms.
Obviously, the national executive committee will be a vital field of struggle. The right seems to have gained a narrow majority. After chair Paddy Lillis rode roughshod over the Liverpool conference, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones can now appoint their own NEC representatives. Of course, Corbyn had his alternative: two more trade union seats, plus a councillor and a Scotland and a Wales NEC seat … elected by the membership. The left would have been expected to win the lot. But Corbyn and the left were outmanoeuvred and for the moment the right has made an important gain.
Then there are the constituencies. Given our numbers, drive and raw enthusiasm, the left ought to dominate every Constituency Labour Party. CLPs are responsible for selecting a new candidate for the next election ... if there is a vacancy. Many in the Corbyn camp seem to imagine that with boundary changes, due to be introduced in 2018, we are presented with a golden opportunity to sweep away traitors from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Probably wishful thinking.
While some 25 Labour seats are to be abolished outright, 200 other Labour seats - more than 85% of our total - are affected by the parliamentary boundaries review. However, things are far from straightforward. The procedure for dealing with reselections after boundary changes has yet to be decided. But let us assume that a right majority on the NEC will base them on the 2011 rule book. A sitting Labour MP will then have the right to seek selection in any seat that contains 40% or more of the electors in their existing constituency.
If an MP’s constituency is divided up so much that no single seat contains 40% of their old electors then they have to apply to the NEC to be given a claim on another seat. If they are the only sitting MP seeking selection they are nominated through the trigger ballot process. If more than one sitting MP seeks the nomination in a new seat there is a ballot to choose between them.
As I understand things, under those circumstances, there will be three options - MP one, MP two, and an option to reject them both and have an open contest. But the open contest must get 50% or more to happen. So if MP one gets 41%, and an open contest gets 45%, MP one will be deemed as officially selected. Obviously, in most cases the left has every interest to argue for an open contest.
However, the trigger ballot process favours the trade union bureaucracy and well connected MPs, not ordinary members. Introduced in the early 1990s, the rules give each trade union branch, party branch and affiliated organisation (Fabians, the Co-op, etc) a single yes/no vote. In other words, rightwing trade unions - eg, GMB and Usdaw - can arrange things so that they affiliate more branches to a CLP than the actual party has. Eg, a CLP with 1,000 individual members might have four local branches, while the GMB affiliates four and Usdaw affiliates three branches. This gives the 1,000 individual members four votes between them and the trade unions seven votes. And, whereas local party branches have to meet and come to a ‘one member, one vote’ decision, a single trade union official - maybe someone who does not live in the constituency - can take the decision on behalf of all their affiliated branches.
That is why we in LPM advocate a one member, one vote (OMOV) mandatory reselection process: Jeremy Corbyn is wrong on this issue; Len McCluskey is right.
Mandatory reselection terrifies the right. It was mandatory reselection, “even more than nuclear disarmament and membership of the European Community, that became the main catalyst for the launch of the breakaway Social Democratic Party”.1 Progress, Lord David Sainsbury’s party within the party, furiously denounces mandatory reselection as “a weapon of fear and intimidation”.2 Yes, mandatory reselection is viewed as an affront by every wrecker, every hireling, every parliamentary bighead. The odious Frank Field urges Labour MPs to leave the party and stand against Labour candidates en masse … if a single rightwinger is deselected. His proposal has been met with a distinct coolness - career suicide does not appeal.
It is worth looking at the background. Interestingly, and with some foundation, we read on the Progress website that mandatory reselection carries “echoes of the Paris Commune, and of the Russian soviets, where delegates were subject to recall if they displeased their local citizenry. It rests on the idea that leaders will always be tempted to sell you out, once they get power.”3 Well, surely, that is what history actually shows.
For decades, sitting Labour MPs, certainly those in safe seats, enjoyed a job for life (or for as long as no better offer came along). They might visit their constituency once or twice a year, deliver a speech to the AGM and write an occasional letter to the local newspaper. Meanwhile they lived a pampered, middle class life, frequented one of London’s various gentlemen’s clubs and spent their weekends in the countryside with Lord this and Lady that. Despite such evident moral corruption they were automatically the candidate for the next election. Unless they were found guilty of an act of gross indecency or had the party whip withdrawn, they could do as they pleased.
With the rise of Bennism, that situation was challenged. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, founded in 1973, committed itself to a range of internal reforms - crucially mandatory reselection of MPs, which was finally agreed by Labour’s 1980 conference. What this saw, however, was not a Labour Party equivalent of the Paris Commune or the Russian soviets. There was no right to instantly recall. Nevertheless, once in each parliament, our MPs had to get the endorsement of their local general management committee. Note, GMCs were made up of delegates elected by local party and trade union branches. They were sizable bodies, typically consisting of 80, 90, 100 or even more.
At the prompting of the bourgeois media and desperately seeking acceptability, Neil Kinnock sought to remove trade unions from the voting process altogether. He failed, but accepted a compromise. A local electoral college for the selection and reselection of candidates was introduced. Ordinary members were given a direct vote for the first time, leaving GMCs with the right to nominate and shortlist only. This electoral college system gave unions and affiliated organisations up to 40% of the vote, with ordinary members having some 60% (the actual balance was different in each seat, depending on party and union membership).
Trigger ballots were a product of the 1990s. Formally honouring conference’s “desire to maintain reselection”, they made it significantly “easier for MPs to defend their positions”.4 Trigger ballots allowed for a sitting MP to be subject to a full-scale ballot of the membership. But only if they lost a trigger ballot.
Of course, the conference arrangements committee voted not to allow a proper debate at the Liverpool conference. A motion on mandatory reselection had been submitted by South Shields CLP (now suspended till January 2017 after the compliance unit supposedly found problems of “bullying and intimidation”5).
The CAC made its ruling using the standard argument that there had been similar motions in recent years. Our rules say that motions cannot be voted on more often than every three years. Supposedly this is to avoid the same topics being discussed repeatedly. In reality it is an undemocratic device introduced by the right. Note, the CAC consists of five trade union delegates plus Gloria De Piero MP and former MEP and TV personality Michael Cashman … both elected by members. That Jon Lansman and Katy Clark failed to get onto the CAC shows that the left is malfunctioning organisationally and failing to engage the new mass membership base in the ongoing structural battle. We should be winning, but, though we are very many and they are far fewer, we aren’t.
Indeed, Liverpool shows that the right is far better organised than the left. As “exclusively” reported in The Independent a group of rightwing Labour officials and MPs worked secretly for months to ensure that it was their people who got elected as delegates. One unnamed MP told the paper that the drive to get rightwing delegates “became more critical as it became clear Mr Corbyn would be re-elected.” The MP also boasted: “It was all pretty well organised. The parliamentary party had an MP who acted as a sort of sergeant major, keeping an eye on the delegates that all the MPs’ constituency parties were choosing to come to conference.”
We discover that for “constituency parties that had no MP, a similar job was done by people within the Labour structure.” Another “party insider” said that stopping the left being elected is “made easier because in many seats, even those experiencing an influx of new Corbyn-supporters, it is still the Labour members who predate the current leader’s reign who are most active.” The same source said: “A fair number of the new-joiners, people in Momentum and so on, are ‘clicktivists’, happier online rather than on the streets knocking on doors or at meetings going through technical stuff.” He added: “Momentum have talked themselves up. It serves the media narrative nicely that there is some sort of unstoppable herd trampling across the political plains, and of course it suits Momentum. But in a lot of places they are being beaten. In others they are being slowed down.”6
There is an important lesson here. The left needs to be better organised than the right ... of course, impossible without democracy.
There has been much wild talk in the media about a PLP split. Frankly, it will not happen, certainly not this side of 2020. True, John Ferrett, former leader of the Labour group on Portsmouth council, has quit the party. This “top councillor” is urging the right to “create a new political party” as a “democratic alternative” to the Corbyn-led Labour Party. He accuses Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell of endangering “national security”.7 But do not expect anyone much to follow this political irrelevancy into an even further political irrelevancy.
Okay, suspend disbelief. Imagine a split. Most traditional Labour voters would be expected to remain loyal to the existing party, not opt for some “new political party”. Premising a major schism, a recent YouGov poll gave a Corbyn-led Labour Party 21% of the total vote and a “Labour right party” just 13% (with the Tories on 40%, Ukip 11% and the Liberal Democrats 6%).8 Doubtless, such crushing statistics explain why Ed Balls, former shadow chancellor, dismisses the idea of a breakaway as “crazy”.9
Moreover, to this day, the right remains haunted by the ghosts of Ramsay MacDonald and the Gang of Four. MacDonald led the National Labour Organisation into a thoroughly unequal coalition with the Tories in 1931. The Gang of Four - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - broke away exactly 50 years later to form the Social Democratic Party. The NLO instantly became a Tory slave, finally dissolving in 1945. As for the SDP, it merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 and shared the same richly deserved fate. From the early 1970s, even till the late 80s, of course, the political centre enjoyed something of a revival.10 No longer. At the last general election the Lib Dems were decimated. They remain to this day marginalised and widely despised.
Given the punishing logic of the first-past-the-post system, we should therefore not expect Tom Watson to play Ramsay MacDonald, Chris Leslie to step in for Philip Snowden or Iain McNicol to make an appearance as Benjamin Musgrave. Conceivably, Corbyn might agree some compromise with the PLP right, so as to secure a return to the shadow cabinet. But the right will fight, fight and fight again. They will use their narrow majority on the NEC, their base in the bureaucratic apparatus, amongst MPs, MEPs, councillors, etc, in perpetual rebellion against the Corbyn leadership.
So we need to put away olive branches. Instead we must take up the weapons of war. The membership must be organised, educated and activated. Not just to defend Corbyn. But organised, educated and activated for the war in the wards, constituencies, committees and conferences. There must be a strategic recognition that the right will never reconcile itself to the Corbyn leadership - let alone the growing influence of the radical, socialist and Marxist left.
Under these circumstances LPM says:
- Fight for rule changes stipulating that all elected Labour representatives must be subject to OMOV mandatory reselection. MPs must be brought under democratic control - from above, by the NEC; from below, by the CLPs.
- We need a sovereign conference once again. The cumbersome, undemocratic and oppressive structures, especially those put in place under the Blair supremacy, must be rolled back. The joint policy committee, the national policy forums, etc, must go.
- Scrap the hated compliance unit “and get back to the situation where people are automatically accepted for membership, unless there is a significant issue that comes up” (John McDonnell).11 The compliance unit operates in the murky shadows, it violates natural justice, it routinely leaks to the capitalist media. Full membership rights must be restored to all those cynically suspended or expelled. More than that, welcome in those good socialists barred from membership, because, mainly out of frustration, they once supported Green, Left Unity or Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition election candidates.
- The stultifying inertia imposed on Momentum must be ended. That can only happen through democracy, trusting the membership and allowing the election of and right to recall all Momentum officials. Neither politically nor organisationally has Jon Lansman proven to be a competent autocrat. He has stopped Momentum meetings, he has blocked Momentum attempts to oppose the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smears, he has done nothing to get Momentum to fight the purge. End the control-freakery. Membership lists and contact details must be handed over to local branches.
- Securing new trade union affiliates ought to be a top priority. The FBU has reaffiliated. Excellent. Matt Wrack at last came to his senses. He took the lead in reversing the disaffiliation policy. But what about the RMT? Let us win RMT militants to drop their support for the thoroughly misconceived Tusc and instead reaffiliate to the Labour Party. And what about the NUT? Why can’t we win it to affiliate? Surely we can … if we fight for hearts and minds. Then there is the PCS. Thankfully, Mark Serwotka, its leftwing general secretary, has at last come round to the idea. The main block to affiliation now being the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Yes, 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 TUC. After the law was changed the Civil and Public Services Association - predecessor of PCS - reaffiliated to the TUC in 1946. Now, surely, it is time for the PCS to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. Force another change in the law.
- Not only should we commit ourselves to securing further trade union affiliates. Within the existing affiliates we must fight to win many, many more members to enrol. Just under 100,000 affiliated supporters voted in the 2016 leadership election. A tiny portion of what could be. There are well over four million who pay the political levy.12 Given that they can sign up to the Labour Party at no more than an online click, we really ought to have a million affiliated supporters as a minimum target figure.
- Every constituency, ward and other such basic unit must be won and rebuilt by the left. Our membership has expanded from 388,000 in January to over 550,000 today. Surely in 2017 we can get to a million. However, the left must convince the sea of new members, and returnees, to attend meetings … and break the stultifying grip of the right. Elect officers who defend the Corbyn leadership. Elect officers who are committed to transforming our wards and constituencies into vibrant centres of socialist organisation, education and action. As such our basic units would be well placed to hold councillors and MPs to account.
- Our goal should be to transform the Labour Party, so that, in the words of Keir Hardie, it can “organise the working class into a great, independent political power to fight for the coming of socialism”.13 Towards that end we need rule changes to once again permit left, communist and revolutionary parties to affiliate. As long as they do not stand against us in elections, this can only but strengthen us as a federal party. Today affiliate organisations include the Fabians, Christians on the Left, the Cooperative Party … and the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Business. Allow the SWP, SPEW, CPGB, the Morning Star’s CPB, etc, to join our ranks.
- 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. 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 about £79,000 (yet at present Labour MPs are only obliged to pay the £82 parliamentarians’ subscription rate). Moreover, as leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn not only gets his MP’s salary. He is entitled to an additional £73,617.14
Let them keep 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 and Diane Abbott ought to take the lead in this.
- 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 simple, short and sharp messages. But, when it comes to complex ideas, debating history and charting political strategies, they are worse than useless. Relying on the favours of the capitalist press, radio and TV is a game for fools. True, it worked splendidly for Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. But, as Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband found to their cost, to live by the mainstream media is to die by the mainstream media.
- Programmatically, we should consider a new clause four. Not a return to the old, 1918, version, but a commitment to working class rule and a society which aims for a stateless, classless, moneyless society, embodying the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. That is what socialism is all about. Not a measly £10 per hour “living wage”, shifting the tax balance and state intervention. No, re-establishing socialism in the mainstream of politics means committing the Labour Party to achieving a “democratic republic”. The standing army, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the state sponsorship of the Church of England must go. We should support a single-chamber parliament, proportional representation and annual elections. All of that ought to be included in our new clause four.15
Organisations such as SPEW, the SWP, LU and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain are having a hard time of things with Corbyn’s success. Not only are they haemorrhaging members: there is profound political disorientation.
Having dismissed the Labour Party as nothing more than a British version of the US Democrat Party, having fought for trade unions to disaffiliate, SPEW general secretary Peter Taaffe is busily rowing backwards. But if he wants his perfectly correct call for the Labour Party to be opened up once again to affiliation by socialist organisations to be treated seriously, it is obvious what he must do. Immediately put an end to the farcical Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Peter, close it down.
However, comrade Taaffe is a towering genius compared with Robert Griffiths, the CPB’s general secretary. When not promising to shop “entryists” to our witch-finder general, Iain McNicol, he adopts a completely detached attitude towards Labour’s civil war. Yes, he wants to “create the conditions” for a Tory defeat. But how is comrade Griffiths proposing to achieve that? He has a plan ... but it is not much of a plan. Specifically, he calls for “full support” for the People’s Assembly demonstration at the Tory Party conference on October 2, the Battle of Cable Street anniversary march and demonstration on October 9, and “for junior doctors, postal staff, railway workers, council employees and other trade unionists striking to defend jobs, services, pay and conditions”.
Morning Star editor Ben Chacko is even sillier. He sees “a task far bigger than the Labour Party”. Fighting for a mass revolutionary party? No. Forging the links necessary for establishing a new workers’ international? No. What comrade Chacko, laughably, wants is “organising at a local level in groups such as the People’s Assembly, Keep Our NHS Public, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts and many more”.16
Where we in LPM strive to elevate local struggles to the national and the international level, comrade Chacko’s sights are set on “saving an A&E or a youth club”. That he does so in the name of Marxist politics and creating a mass movement on the scale of the Chartists shows an inability to grasp even the A in the ABC of communism.
Having rejected any active involvement in the Labour Party at its last conference, what remains of Left Unity is also reduced to issuing its own thoroughly routinist list: Another Europe, Stand Up to Racism, People’s Assembly demo, etc. No wonder its entire London membership now meets in the snug little space provided by Housmans Bookshop in London’s Pentonville Road.
Then there is Charlie Kimber. Showing the SWP’s crisis of leadership, he is now joint national secretary and editor of Socialist Worker. Anyway, as might be expected, comrade Kimber claimed to “stand shoulder to shoulder with all those seeking Corbyn’s re-election”.17 But, as with Peter Taaffe and SPEW, the SWP has likewise dismissed the Labour Party as a trap, promoted Tusc, supported trade union disaffiliation and opposed affiliation.
The more his former members join the fight to transform the Labour Party, the more our Charlie stresses localism, ephemeral demonstrations, economic strikes and fake fronts. In his ‘Letter to a Jeremy Corbyn supporter’, comrade Kimber warns that “there’s a great danger that you could be drawn into endless internal battles”. The “crucial arena” of struggle is not “the long slog” of “endless meetings to (perhaps) get rid of a rightwinger”. No, according to comrade Kimber, “The best way for Jeremy to beat back the right and win the next election is to head up a much higher level of fightback in the workplaces and the streets.”18 Hence his call for Labour members to support the Birmingham demonstration outside the Tory conference and the Stand Up to Racism talking shop conference on October 8.
Comrade Kimber’s claim that what really matters is not changing the Labour Party through the long, hard slog, but the “fightback in the workplaces and the streets” is a Bakuninist, not a Marxist, formulation. For the 19th century anarchist leader, Mikhail Bakunin, strikes and protests were the key to revolution. By contrast, Marxists have always placed their emphasis on programme, political consciousness and deeply rooted mass organisations.
In Marxist terms therefore, because the Labour Party is historically established, because it is a class party, because it involves all big unions, because it has a mass electoral base, because it has drawn in hundreds of thousands of new members, what is now happening in the Labour Party is a far higher form of the class struggle than mere economic strikes, protests which are here today and gone tomorrow, let alone fake front conferences. In point of fact, the civil war raging in the Labour Party is a highly concentrated form of the class struggle.
It is worth noting that Lenin and the Bolsheviks, following in the tradition of Marx and Engels, considered the “fightback in the workplaces” - ie, trade union politics - the lowest, the most elementary form of the class struggle. Bargaining over wages and conditions might be the dawning of class-consciousness, but “taken by itself, is in essence still not social democratic [Marxist] work, but merely trade union work”. Lenin elaborates: “Social democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich.”19
Let us apply comrade Kimber’s derogatory, typically economistic, remarks about the “long slog” and “endless meetings” to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. There was a drawn-out struggle between the Bolshevik and the Menshevik and many other smaller factions beginning in 1903, which encompassed the 1905 revolution, the 1907-12 period of reaction, the 1912 upturn, the 1914 outbreak of imperialist war, the two revolutions of 1917, the civil war, etc. Of course, I am not drawing an equals sign between the Bolsheviks and the Labour Party. Because of its federal structure, it can only become, at best, a permanent united front of the working class in Britain, our version of soviets (not that LPM is calling for ‘All power to the Labour Party’).
That said, it is clear that comrade Kimber exhibits a fundamental disdain for the Marxist perspective of elevating thetrade unionist politics of the working class (which, through error, miseducation or sorry conviction, far too many on the left nowadays take as common sense). Comrade Kimber and the SWP thereby serve to degrade Marxist politics to the level of run of the mill trade union politics.
Would the Bolsheviks have been right in 1917 to direct their main energies towards economic strikes, street protests and building fake fronts? Hardly. In fact, Lenin, having returned from his Swiss exile in April 1917, famously presented a perspective of winning the argument for the Bolshevik programme: sloganistically crystallised as ‘Land, bread and peace’. Progress was, however, judged by the election results provided by the “long slog” and “endless meetings” of the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants.
In the spring of 1917 the Bolsheviks were a minority fraction in the workers’ soviets. By the summer of 1917 they had gained majorities in Petersburg and Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. They could easily have done a multiple Paris Commune. But, having thoroughly internalised that particular lesson of history, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership organised to hold back the proletariat’s instinct for ending the power of capital. The proletariat, in terms of its strategic interests, “needed the backing” of the peasant masses. And, of course, in November 1917 the peasant congress of soviets voted for the entire SR programme of land reform … plus, the vital Bolshevik addition of soviet power. In other words, a government of the Bolsheviks along with their Left Socialist Revolutionary Party allies.
Today we need strategic thinking about the struggle to transform the Labour Party. Not dim-witted economism.
7. Metro September 26 2016.
9. The Daily Telegraph September 1 2016.
10. From a 1951 2.5% historic low point the Liberal Party underwent a revival in the 1970s which saw it win 19.3% of the popular vote in the February 1974 general election. Despite the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, even in the 1979, 1983 and 1987 general elections the Liberal vote stood up at well over 10%. See - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Party_(UK)#Electoral_performance.
12. D Pryer Trade union political funds and levy: House of Commons briefing paper No00593, August 8 2013, p8.
13. Independent Labour Party Report of the 18th annual conference London 1910, p59.
15. Labour Party Marxists July 7 2016.
16. Morning Star September 10-11 2016.
17. Party Notes September 12 20016.
18. Socialist Worker September 20 2016.
19. VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, p400.