Left’s movementist delusions
Neither a million-strong demonstration nor mass strikes would in themselves be likely to bring down the Tories, argues Mike Macnair. But, with the government weak and wobbly, the real question is what happens after a general election. Greece holds plenty of negative lessons
There is no doubt that the outcome of the general election has massively weakened the Tory government. The most recent symptom of this is Theresa May’s talk of ‘national unity’, represented in the press on Tuesday as an “appeal to Corbyn for ideas”. This “May relaunch” has been universally regarded as insignificant by the media, with only traces left behind to be picked up by Googling.1
In what is perhaps a mark of desperation, on July 12 Tory publicity shifted into a “safe spaces for MPs” attack on the left, borrowing smear tactics from the Labour right.2 There may be a more serious project involved; this newspaper has warned repeatedly that the left’s fondness for ‘safe spaces’ policies is potentially a weapon in the hands of the right.3
Given that the government is dependent for its majority on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, and that polls have since the general election been showing significant Labour leads,4 Tory MPs are nervous and coup mutterings continue.5 The Labour leadership told the party last month to continue on an “election footing” and continues to hold this view.6
The fall of this government is, therefore, seriously on the political agenda. The question posed to the left is: what is its role in relation to this agenda item?
Charlie Kimber writes in Socialist Worker:
Corbyn’s election campaign saw huge mobilisations, such as the election rally of 10,000 in Gateshead. Will such mobilisations inspire more struggle now to wipe out Theresa May’s government? Or will it be largely directed towards preparing for the next election?
The Tories are in trouble, but we won’t defeat them just by watching and waiting. Perhaps Tory backbenchers will decide it’s time to send May back to the wheat field. But removing them from government is a bigger task. We need more, and bigger, protests.
One obvious target is the Tory Party conference in Manchester. The People’s Assembly has called a demonstration there on October 1. If Corbyn and the union leaders now call for everyone to go it can be massive.
But the streets cannot be the only site of struggle. The union leaders are now all saying that the public-sector pay cap has to go and that austerity must end. They should be organising strikes to win decent pay and campaigning to make them successful.
The political mood for resistance around Corbyn has to be brought into the workplace.7
The Socialist editorialises after the July 1 demonstration (July 5):
Unfortunately, however, there was less clarity from the platform speakers on the next steps that are needed to actively work to bring down the government, or to build the forces that will be needed to meet the inevitable opposition of the capitalist establishment to a Corbyn government.
The PCS civil servants union general secretary, Mark Serwotka, rightly argued for coordinated public-sector strike action to break the pay cap, but this concrete call was in sharp contrast to other speakers. Trade Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady typically confined herself to vacuous slogans ...
That is not good enough. The TUC, the coordinating body for over six million workers, is a counter-power to the government. If it gave a lead, Theresa May would be gone in months. It was a political mistake by the PA organisers not to use the demonstration to make a firm call on the TUC to act.
The same was true with regard to Labour councils, also a potential counter-power to the government.8
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Solidarity is in broad solidarity with views of this sort. Headlining “Make May resign!”, its July 12 editorial argues (among other things):
The Tories can be forced out. Not just May.
Labour has rightly rejected Theresa May’s call on July 9 for cooperation in working out policies. Labour should move on from that to full-scale, aggressive non-cooperation in parliament, designed to make it impossible for the minority government to continue. For example, Labour should refuse to ‘pair’ absent MPs ...
At the Bakers’ Union conference in mid-June, shadow chancellor John McDonnell rightly said: “What we need now is the TUC mobilised, every union mobilised, to get out on the streets. Just think if the TUC put out that call - that we want a million on the streets of London ...” The Labour Party should not wait for the TUC to do it. The Labour Party itself should officially mobilise for the big demonstration planned at the Tory Party conference in Manchester on October 1, and call its own demonstrations - on the NHS, on public-sector pay, on school cuts - now.
We should not just wait for a big demonstration in October ...9
But is this chorus of direct-action advocacy a good guide to what the left should be doing? There are, in fact, two problems with it: the illusions it promotes both as to the means by which one can get rid of a government, and as to the goal of doing so (the alternative government).
Charlie Kimber proposes not to direct effort towards preparing for a general election in the short term, but rather “more, and bigger protests”; and increasing public-sector strike action round pay. How either will lead to the fall of the government is unclear.
Mass strikes demanding the resignation of the government might, indeed, bring it down; and so might a massively disruptive pay strike in - for example - the power supply industry, if the government was stupid enough to follow Edward Heath’s disastrous tactic in 1974 of calling a general election on the slogan of the defeat of the strike. This is a mistake unlikely to be repeated.
Mass strikes demanding the resignation of the government are not on the present agenda. It is true that the demonstration of July 1 was big, radical and optimistic. However, 100,000 on the streets of London is a large demonstration, but not one on a scale which is an obvious precursor to millions of workers taking illegal, political strike action.
The Socialist’s line is again primarily about strikes. Mark Serwotka’s call for coordinated public-sector strike action is endorsed. The paper alleges that “The TUC, the coordinating body for over six million workers, is a counter-power to the government. If it gave a lead, Theresa May would be gone in months.” Since Theresa May is very likely to be gone in months (by some sort of Tory parliamentary coup if not otherwise), this is a strange claim. It seems, frankly, to display nostalgia for the 1970s, when the TUC organised more like 12 million workers, and the level of actual rank-and-file organisation and militancy was much higher.
The Socialist goes on to say: “The same was true with regard to Labour councils, also a potential counter-power to the government.” This is more obviously unrealistic. Once upon a time local authorities were a real “potential counter-power”, with their own property taxes, tax enforcement, local police, and so on. Even so, there were severe limits to what they could achieve.
In the 1920s Poplar, after an initial success on rate equalisation in 1921, was knocked back by judicial reviews.10 Clay Cross in the 1970s achieved at most a certain political martyrdom, which perhaps assisted the return of a Labour government in 1974. Militant-led Liverpool in the 1980s got some houses built before the comrades were unceremoniously turfed out - thanks, however, to their delaying the confrontation, so that the Tories did not have to fight on two fronts at the height of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
London in its very long history really was a political counter-power, perhaps making its own terms with William the Conqueror in 1066, seeing off the Empress Matilda in 1141, and contributing its own army, the Honourable Artillery Company and London Trained Bands, to the parliamentary side in 1642-43. Interference with the City of London’s constitution was given as one of the grounds for the deposition of James II in 1688. But the Livingstone-led Greater London Council, which endeavoured to act as a “counter-power” in 1981-84, was simply abolished in 1985 by the Thatcher government.11
As with mass strikes, one can imagine circumstances in which local authorities become a real counter-power. As with such mass strikes demanding the resignation of the government, what is required for this effect is that the legitimacy of the parliament, judiciary and monarchy should already be widely rejected in a mass movement so large as to reach into the police and armed forces. In this case, however, the local authorities would somehow have to retain their legitimacy, while parliament lost its, in spite of being part of the same constitution. It is certainly possible: witness the 1871 Paris Commune. But The Socialist’s argument on this front shows a failure to distinguish between mere political difficulties, which could be cured by a general election, and open revolutionary crisis.
Solidarity calls on Labour to embark on parliamentary non-cooperation, forcing the government to block parliamentary trips, bring out sick MPs on stretchers for votes, and so on. This would be a perfectly reasonable parliamentary tactic to try to force an early election - assuming the Parliamentary Labour Party’s right wing does not decide to rebel so often as to blunt it, or the Liberal Democrats do not decide to show ‘responsibility towards the national interest’, having regard to the difficult Brexit negotiations, by adding to the Tories’ majority.
Solidarity goes on to call for ... more demonstrations. This takes us back to Kimber’s demand for “more, and bigger protests”, with the AWL merely “bidding up” Kimber’s proposal.
But, first, Corbyn and McDonnell did call for mass support to the July 1 demonstration and McDonnell proposed it as a means of getting rid of the government. The Tories very publicly denounced them for it.12 What did not happen was the national Labour Party, or local Labour Parties, themselves organising coaches, and so on. This reflects the continued control of the Labour Party apparatus by the right. The result was a big demonstration and an optimistic one; but those attending amounted to, by my calculations, approximately 0.7% of those who voted Tory on June 8. Even if, as John McDonnell proposed, a million had turned out, it would still only have been equivalent to around 7% of Tory voters.
Developing the sort of level of mobilisation which would call into question the legitimacy of the election result by its scale would thus require as a minimum precondition the overthrow of the ‘moderate’ bureaucracies in the Labour Party and the trade unions ...
Second, just calling more demonstrations is in itself unlikely to bring down the government. Large, peaceful demonstrations have been part of the ‘normal course of business’ in British politics since, at the latest, the 1810s-20s agitation for the vote.13 Such demonstrations have never triggered the overthrow of a government in this country, even when it was soldiers striking and demonstrating for demobilisation in 1919.14
Demonstrations can under limited circumstances trigger revolutions. Again, the underlying issue is a mass movement animated by rejection of the constitutional order as such, combined with rigidity on the part of the regime, leading to soldiers actually disobeying orders to fire on demonstrators and a collapse of state authority.
Today’s Trotskyists assume that the immediate trigger of food supply problems in Petrograd in February 1917 was enough to trigger this crisis, but they do so quite mistakenly: the tsarist regime had been understood to be dying for some time, and the women who triggered the revolution struck and demonstrated on International Women’s Day, showing in the process their allegiance to established traditions of the Second International.
It should be obvious that we are not today in such conditions. We have not seen the drumbeat of increasing political strikes and illegal demonstrations, which preceded 1917 and 1905 in Russia and have preceded numerous other revolutionary crises elsewhere. Trade union organisation is at historically weak levels; days lost through industrial action have picked up very slightly, again from historic lows.
The lack of apparent openings for gains through militant trade unionism in today’s Britain is almost certainly an element in what has happened: which is that frustration with the regime has found a partial expression - last year in people joining the Labour Party in order to vote for Corbyn, and this year in larger numbers voting Labour in the general election.
Further mobilisation thus does mean - contrary to SWP and similar authors - at least partly preparing for a general election, which will come about in the near future, not because we turn out on the streets, but because the Tories are in deep political trouble. It also means - again contrary to SWP authors and many others - turning some attention to “internal battles against Labour’s rightwing bureaucracy”.15
My point is not ‘Don’t demonstrate’. To demonstrate is to show solidarity; and against a weak government, it may produce concessions. It is not ‘Don’t strike’. Again, strike action may win concessions. My point is that demonstrations and strikes are unlikely in the immediate period to deliver the fall of the present government. And even if they could, they leave open the question: what will replace it?
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Theresa May’s Conservative government falls in the next few months. The question posed is: what will replace it?
The options are, pretty straightforwardly, either some form of ‘national government’ coalition or there will be a new general election.
A ‘national government’ would be posed ‘in the national interest’ because of the difficulties of the Brexit negotiations. It would also be posed because the parliamentary arithmetic makes a Labour minority government even less likely to survive the first serious test than the current Conservative administration. The difficulty facing such a project is, in essence, that it would depend on persuading the Labour right to cross the floor and join a coalition with the Tories and Lib Dems. But the Tories’ current Brexit commitments pretty much exclude that option in the absence of a radical bouleversement within the Tory Party or a split - which might again produce less than a majority.
This is also the obstacle to the agenda which the Tories and their press have begun to push on July 12 - that is, to attack Corbyn, McDonnell and co as failing to deliver ‘safe spaces’ for MPs and other bureaucratic bullies and for Zionists, and to use the powers of the House of Commons to expel them, thereby making the way safe for the Labour right. Besides the potentially explosive character of such a policy - MPs might really find themselves being lynched - it would not overcome the problem of conflict between the Tories and the Labour right over Brexit.
An early election, under a new Tory leader, which the Labour leadership is probably right to expect, might be ‘turned around’ in the Tories’ favour by the new ‘safe spaces’ campaign which is just beginning. But it might not. And the polls are currently showing Labour significantly ahead of the Tories, most recently (just) far enough ahead for a small majority (Labour needs a 7.4% lead on the Tories to get a majority).16
If Labour was the largest minority, it would prima facie be entitled to try to form a coalition government. Whether it would be able to do so would be open to question and would depend on the parliamentary numbers. It is useless to speculate much further - except to make the point that the Lib Dems, the Scottish National Party and the DUP are all ‘conservative’ on economic issues, in spite of Lib Dem and SNP episodic rhetoric to the contrary. So it is unlikely that a Labour-led coalition would be radical.
Suppose that an autumn election produces a Labour majority. What then? The answer is that we would have elected a Labour government relying on a broadly rightwing PLP, with only a minority which supports the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. We would have done so under conditions where unity-mongering from the Labour left meant that the compliance unit and rightwing control of the apparatus remained intact. And we would have done so on the basis of a Labour manifesto, agreed this spring, which is broadly acceptable to the Labour right.17
People did not vote Labour in large numbers because of the warmed-over Ed Miliband politics of the 2017 manifesto, For the many, not the few. They voted Labour because the campaign to say Jeremy Corbyn was beyond the pale created the appearance that something radically different from recent rightist ‘mainstream’ politics was on offer.
The Heath government in 1974 really was brought down by mass action - the miners’ strike and the powerful secondary action (refusal to cross picket lines, etc) in support of it; though Heath’s own hubristic decision to call a general election on the issue drove the nails into his political coffin. But what then resulted? The answer is the 1974-76 Wilson governments.18
The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions had seen off Barbara Castle’s In place of strife proposals for anti-strike laws in 1969, and the trade union movement had effectively defeated Heath’s Industrial Relations Act. But the Wilson government brought in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 and Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1975. While less transparently biased towards the employer than Heath’s legislation, the TULRA still authorised a regime of legal control of strike action, and the EPCA was carefully designed to undermine the role of shop stewards and local mobilisations by taking victimisation cases into the ‘industrial tribunals’.
Labour’s February and October 1974 manifestos had been a very long way to the left of For the many. And the Labour broad left was a lot stronger in 1974 than the Labour left is today. (Indeed, the non-Labour left was also a great deal stronger.) But the power of patronage of the prime minister’s office and the imperatives of defending a Labour government with a narrow majority led to the trade union and Labour lefts holding the lid down on militancy - until that lid blew off with the autumn 1978 Ford strike and the ‘winter of discontent’.
The background was the early stages of US-led currency manipulation (the US came off the gold standard in 1971; 1973 saw the first ‘oil price shock’). This produced ‘stagflation’ (unemployment and inflation together). The media and Wilson (and his successor, Callaghan) blamed the workers; and the whole process opened the way to the Tory victory in the 1979 general election.
That was, of course, some time ago. But we have a more recent and more immediately pertinent instance of the results that can come from the left ‘going for government’ without considering what sort of government, as long as it is to be ‘anti-austerity’. This is Syriza. The Syriza government was elected on an anti-austerity platform: the result was that the Eurocrats and the International Monetary Fund decided to punish Greece for this temerity, and offered worse terms to keep Greece afloat than they had been prepared to offer the former rightwing New Democracy government. The Syriza government ended up as the agency for implementing these worse terms.
Britain is a massively larger country than Greece. But a Corbyn-led Labour government will again face difficult international economic pressures, as the 1974-79 Wilson and Callaghan governments did with ‘stagflation’ and the 1976 ‘IMF crisis’ (when Britain had to be bailed out); and as Syriza has done. This time the problem is the Brexit negotiations.
And in spite of its size, Britain is seriously vulnerable in these negotiations to the flight of capital. A recent report shows that London generates 30% of UK government regular tax revenue.19 What this means, in substance, is that the UK economy is very strikingly dependent on income from financial-sector operations and the associated overseas sales of legal, accountancy and management consultancy services. This background is precisely what allows the Brexiteers to imagine London floating free as a sort of north Atlantic Singapore with a moderately sized tourism, agriculture and industry attached to it.
But the other side of the coin is that the money is more ‘hot’. Britain is more vulnerable to ‘flight of capital’ than was France, whose economy was significantly damaged when François Hollande’s mildly leftwing rhetoric provoked a small flight of capital. It is more vulnerable than Britain was in the Wilson-Callaghan years in 1974-79. And it is, like Greece under Syriza, facing a poisoned chalice of negotiations, in which the EU and its leading member-states are already disposed to ‘punish’ Britain for Brexit. Adding a Corbyn government, with a large rightist majority in the PLP, to this mix is not terribly likely to produce a military coup. It is likely to produce a government which, like the Syriza government, is forced to attack its own supporters, causing acute disappointment among them.
There may be options among these hard choices which would move us towards the real possible alternative, which is the Europe-wide overthrow of the capitalist regime. To move in this direction, however, requires not so much laying hands on the (limited) advantages of public office, but remaking the Labour Party and labour movement as a whole as instruments through which the membership can actually make the choices. The alternative is a repeat of the experiences of Wilson-Callaghan, of Syriza and of Hollande: the state and party apparatuses dictating to us in the service of ‘the national interest’ - which for Britain means, in reality, the interests of the City.
These issues precisely require “internal battles against Labour’s rightwing bureaucracy”. They demand of the left that it today begins to arm the movement as a whole, not to increase the turnout on demonstrations with the aim of overthrowing the government; nor to prepare to defend an imagined Corbyn-Allende against the likelihood of a coup against a genuinely left government; but to face up to the reality of a Labour Party still controlled by the right, and to the difficult policy choices which would face a Corbyn-Tsipras taking over the Brexit negotiations.
1. A Google search on this tag shows that the speech was seen as more significant before it was delivered than after. If George Osborne’s Evening Standard bothered to comment on it at all, the article has been taken down from Google results. Other media outlets have merely knocked their comments off the lower-level front page links.
2. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40577325; ‘Scale of hard-left bullying revealed’ Daily Mail July 12.
3. M Zurowski, ‘Safe spaces task force’ Weekly Worker September 26 2013; Y Mather, ‘The tyranny of safe spaces’, November 20 2014; P Demarty, ‘A bureaucrat’s tool’, April 7 2016.
4. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/, July 6.
5. ‘Theresa May “quit” stories blamed on “warm prosecco”’: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40547731 (July 9); L Kuenssberg, ‘10 thoughts about the PM’s position’: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40575473 (July 11).
6. https://labourlist.org/2017/06/labour-will-remain-in-permanent-campaign-mode-corbyn-tells-jubilant-mps (June 14); “Labour remains on an election footing, with leader Jeremy Corbyn saying he hopes for a fresh poll in September” - comment in ‘Theresa May urges rival parties to “contribute and not just criticise”’: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40549253 (July 10).
7. Socialist Worker July 11.
8. The Socialist July 5.
9. www.workersliberty.org/node/31265 (uploaded July 12).
10. N Branson Poplarism London 1979; Roberts v Hopwood  AC 578.
11. It should perhaps be noted that the Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority resulted from the ‘modernising’ of the first Wilson government - which it did by implementing Tory plans devised in 1957-63 to break up Labour’s stronghold in the old London County Council.
12. ‘Chris Grayling accuses John McDonnell of fuelling riots to try and “overthrow” the government on the eve of a “Day of Rage” march’ The Sun June 20.
13. J Belchem Orator Hunt: Henry Hunt and English working class radicalism Oxford 1985. Political rioting is considerably older.
14. A Rothstein The soldiers strikes of 1919 London 1980.
15. N Clark, ‘As the Labour right holds its ground, the left has to look beyond the bureaucracy’ Socialist Worker November 22 2016.
16. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk (June 29) on the implications of the boundary review; and July 6 on the latest poll.
17. Discussion in CPGB Theses: http://cpgb.org.uk/pages/news/111/thesis-on-the-general-election-and-after/, points 19-30.
18. ‘Governments’, because, starting as a minority government after the February 1974 election, Labour won a very narrow majority in October of the same year.
19. ‘London pays almost a third of UK tax, report finds’ The Guardian July 7.