The Corbyn phenomenon
It is important to know where we are and where we are going, argues Tony Greenstein
I read the discussion that took place at the June 25 meeting of the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists with interest. Let me declare where I am coming from. I have been an independent Marxist for most of my life, a member of no socialist party since, in my tender youth, I was expelled from the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) for the heinous offence of “being hostile to both the leading and local committees of the group and the IS politics that inform them”. My crime was voting publicly against the IS’s sectarian determination in 1972 to close down the then Anti-Internment League. Despite being relatively new to the socialist movement, I was aware enough to know that building one’s sect at the expense of the movement had nothing to do with socialism.
I am, however, interested in building the maximum possible unity of the left and was a member of Socialist Alliance in the early 2000s until the SWP destroyed it by their sectarianism and the Socialist Party walked out. I then became a supporter of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, but that too went nowhere, as the SP did not wish it to develop into a genuinely living organism. Having joined the Labour Party after the election of Jeremy Corbyn, I was suspended three months later in March 2016 as part of the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt.
As a member of the steering committee of Brighton and Hove Momentum, I am interested in the debates that are taking place on the left, even if they are all too often surrounded by the need to adopt a line or define oneself in opposition to another group. All too often what passes for debate is really an attempt to defend a previous position which has become untenable - even if, as in the case of the Socialist Party, this means pretending that the previous position (that Labour was just another bourgeois party) has not changed and indeed has been vindicated in the light of Corbyn’s election!
I therefore read comrades’ assessments of the general election carefully. I have not read the theses that were put forward by the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB at the meeting, but, assuming the report is a fair one, I have gained a good idea of the main strands of the debate. I have a number of comments and criticisms to make both of the debate and its framework.
The first problem is the context in which the debate was held, as manifested in Jack Conrad’s admission that “Yes ... we thought there would be an increased Tory majority and we were clearly wrong.” But the purpose of making such predictions was “to counter the ensuing demoralisation of those who thought that a Corbyn-led Labour government was the ‘big prize’”.
If I understand this correctly, the reason for making a clearly wrong and mistaken prediction was to insulate Corbyn supporters who believed that they were on the threshold of victory. Jack Conrad was afraid that if he pointed out that Corbyn was likely to do much better than bourgeois pundits had predicted, then the result might demoralise them. Put like this, Conrad’s arguments are nonsensical. They are a non-sequitur.
The real problem is that the CPGB went along with the analysis of charlatans and bourgeois pundits, who predicted that Labour would get hammered. People like Nick Cohen who wrote:
Labour will get around a quarter of the vote ... The Tories have gone easy on Corbyn and his comrades to date for the transparently obvious reason that they want to keep them in charge of Labour … In an election, they would tear them to pieces ... Will there be 150, 125, 100 Labour MPs by the end of the flaying? My advice is to think of a number then halve it.3
Of course, Nick Cohen is not known for his sagacity. A racist and an imperialist, he is obsessed by all things Islamic. Perhaps more typical is Owen Jones, who was also convinced that Corbyn would be heavily defeated. On March 1 Jones penned an article, ‘Jeremy Corbyn says he’s staying. That’s not good enough’.4 On April 18, after the election had been called, Jones wrote: “My suggestion that Corbyn stand down in favour of another candidate was driven by a desire to save his policies - which, as the polling shows, are very popular indeed - from being buried in the rubble of a terrible election defeat.”5
On April 20 I wrote:6
It was Harold Wilson who said that a week is a long time in politics. Seven weeks is a political eternity. Theresa May has taken a gamble that her 21% lead will hold. It is a gamble that she may yet come to regret.
There is only one direction that her lead can go, and that is down. Once her lead falls, then a snowball effect can take over. What is essential is that Labour marks out the key areas on which it is going to base its appeal. The danger is that Corbyn is going to continue with his ‘strategy’ of appeasing the right and appealing to all good men and women. If so that will be a recipe for disaster.
No election is guaranteed to be without its surprises. Theresa May is a cautious conservative. She is literally the product of her background, a conservative vicar’s daughter. Reactionary, parochial and small-minded, she is a bigot for all seasons. What doesn’t help is that she is both wooden and unoriginal. The danger is that Corbyn tries to emulate her.
... Over the past 18 months his performance has been little short of dire. There is little point in pretending otherwise. The question is whether he will rise to the occasion, as he showed glimpses of doing during the leadership election last summer. There has been a conscious strategy of appeasing the right in the hope that they will come to accept Corbyn’s leadership.
I followed this up on June 3 with an article, ‘General election - is Labour on the threshold of victory?’,7 subtitled ‘No-one has been more disappointed with the success of Labour’s campaign than the Labour right and Zionist Jewish Labour Movement’:
It would be a mistake for people to be over-confident at the fact that the Tories made major slip-ups over things like the dementia tax, taking food off children’s tables, etc ...
[However, the] essence of what I wrote was correct. The Tory lead has shrunk. My fears that Corbyn might backtrack have not come to pass in the economic sphere. Labour’s manifesto was unexpectedly radical. But in one particular area - the state and security - Corbyn has retreated from all the things be has believed in in the past.
... I do not have a crystal ball. My initial predictions - that there would or could be a hung parliament - was based on my assessment of the situation. This is still quite possible, as the Tories are widely detested for their attacks on the working poor, people on benefits and the continuous privatisation of the NHS. They are seen as the party of a vicious class rule, which is what austerity is about.
That does not, however, mean that the Tories will necessarily be defeated. People do not vote in line with their class interests ... The Tory press, of course, is doing its best to foster illusions in Strong and Stable. Labour could still become the largest party, but I also sense a vigorous fightback by the right.
It seems that one part of the prediction I made will not come true. The Lib Dems are not going to gain enough seats to prop up another Tory coalition At the moment they are tipped to win just one extra seat. By ruling out any form of pact with Labour under Corbyn, the Lib Dems have guaranteed their own irrelevance.
We could be in for a period of political instability such as we have not known for 40 years. This is one of the hardest elections to call. A Tory government is still possible if it cobbles together a coalition of the Lib Dems and the Ulster Unionists-DUP. Even a majority Tory government cannot be ruled out.
My analysis from the start was that there would be a hung parliament, despite the fact that throughout the campaign the opinion polls gave the Tories a steady, but diminishing, lead.
Why I was right
The real question is why I was right and the CPGB was wrong. I believe the reason lies in that the CPGB has not fully understood the Corbyn phenomenon and what catapulted him into the leadership in the first place.
Throughout the Blair years Labour’s membership was to the right of the trade unions. David Miliband won out in the constituency section in 2010. In Labour Party conferences it was often the membership that voted for the leadership positions over, for example, pensions, when the trade unions opposed Blair. It was this that led the right into believing that ‘one member, one vote’ in the leadership elections would copper-bottom the grip of the right on the party.
What the right had not counted on was the reaction to Ed Miliband’s defeat in 2015. Liz Kendall, Progress and large parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party drew the conclusion that Blair had drawn in advance of the election. He told The Economist that because of the perceived move to the left under Miliband there was now a situation “in which a traditional leftwing party competes with a traditional rightwing party, with the traditional result”. Asked if this meant a Tory win, he replied: “Yes, that is what happens.”8
Tristram Hunt, the old Etonian MP for Stoke on Trent, believed that Labour needed to show they are “also on the side of families who want to shop at John Lewis, go on holiday and get a new extension” - the aspiring middle classes.
What these people did not understand was that there was widespread revulsion and mass disappointment that, on a 36% vote, Cameron had slunk back into power on the back of four million voters for the UK Independence Party and a complete collapse of the Lib Dems. It was this that was translated into the massive growth in membership of the Labour Party.
Of course, the Labour right, being particularly stupid, screamed that they were being subjected to infiltration by the massed ranks of British Trotskyists. Thousands of people who had become registered voters found their ballot papers fished out of the polling booth. What the far left did not understand was that those who newly joined the Labour Party represented much larger forces in society as a whole - forces which could go to the Ukip right and vote to withdraw from the European Union; but equally they could go to the left and vote for Corbyn.
We got an inkling of this at the mass rallies for Corbyn both during his initial leadership bid and during his re-election. The Labour right, however, full of its own sense of self-importance, deluded themselves, as Nick Cohen and others demonstrated, that, when it came to a general election, if Corbyn managed to stay the course, then Labour would go down to a heavy defeat. Joan Ryan, MP for Enfield North and chair of Labour Friends of Israel, was typical. She “encouraged voters to elect her, ‘whatever your misgivings about the Labour leadership’, because she expected Corbyn would not become prime minister”.9
What the bourgeois pundits did not want to believe and what the CPGB did not understand was that those who had first put Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour Party were quite capable of voting for him in the general election. All that Corbyn had to do was to appeal to that layer of the populace - not only the working class, but also wide sections of youth - who were disillusioned by the prospect of five more years of the same Tory government.
Corbyn, unlike Miliband, did stand on a radical manifesto. Those who had been priced out of the housing market, who feared for the privatisation of the NHS, who had lost their grants but ‘gained’ full-cost fees, stood to benefit from Labour’s manifesto. So did public-sector workers, who had seen their standards of living go down, year after year.
It is churlish to compare Labour’s 2017 manifesto with that of Michael Foot in 1983. They are completely different political periods. Thatcher had not yet embarked on the privatisation of utilities, let alone that of rail. At that time we still had the big battalions of the working class in the form of the miners, the dockers, etc.
The promise of renationalisation of the utilities, rail, abolition of tuition fees, uncapping benefits meant that there were genuine reforms that could be voted for. Of course, it was not a revolutionary manifesto. It did not aim to abolish the standing army nor put under workers’ control the main centres of the economy, but from a reformist perspective it was a major advance.
When I predicted what might happen I was conscious of the opinion polls’ received opinion and being seen to be wildly optimistic (and not having egg on my face!). The irony is that, but for Theresa May’s disastrous decision, Jeremy Corbyn would have been unlikely to have made it to a general election in 2020.
Revolutionary socialists and Marxists should have their fingers on the pulse of the class. We saw large sections of what would have been considered the Tory middle class voting for Corbyn. Not only swings of 19% in Brighton, but Leamington Spa, Canterbury and Kensington North went Labour.
The question is how we related to the existing consciousness of those who see in Labour’s manifesto a major advance towards a socialist society. If, as is likely, there is another general election soon and Corbyn is in a position to form a government, I do not see how the CPGB position of not taking office is tenable. Is it seriously suggested that we campaign for a Corbyn government, only to say at the last minute it should go into opposition? That is neither coherent nor credible.
We have to recognise that with a Corbyn government there will be a massive onslaught by the bourgeoisie. That the question of the state will immediately be posed. The opposition that Harold Wilson faced will be as nothing to the deliberate sabotage by state forces of a Corbyn-led government. We need to build a mass movement and Momentum, in all its guises, must be at the centre of this. We will face a renewed onslaught of the pro-imperialist and Zionist forces in alliance with those supporting Nato.
But first we need to understand the situation we are in and where we are going.
1. ‘Bringing out our differences’ Weekly Worker June 29.
2. Letter: Jim Higgins to Tony Greenstein, November 22 1972.
3. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/19/jeremy-corbyn-labour-threat-party-election-support (my emphasis - March 19 2017).
5. ‘Labour is in deep trouble, but it’s our only defence against a Tory landslide’: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/18/labour-jeremy-corbyn-time-to-fight-theresa-may.
6. ‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold - the key issue is poverty and the transfer of wealth’: http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/labour-can-win-if-corbyn-is-bold-key.html.
9.‘Back me despite Corbyn, as May will win, Labour candidate urges voters’: www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/02/back-me-despite-corbyn-as-may-will-win-labour-mp-urges-voters.