Prospects of a Corbyn government


1.Former MI5 director general Stella Rimington told the Cheltenham Literature Festival that those - ie, the “Communist Party of Great Britain and various Trotskyite organisations” - who her spies were “looking at” during the 1980s are now ensconced deep inside the Labour Party. In point of fact, Jeremy Corbyn, who was himself targeted by MI5 - as were other prominent individuals, such as Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Derek Robinson - nowadays not only leads the Labour Party: he is, of course, now widely tipped as the prime minister in waiting.

2. What once constituted a remote possibility has become a real possibility. Why such an amazing about-turn? Ten related reasons: (i) the continuation of austerity, falling living standards and the growth of inequality; (ii) the Brexit vote in June 2016; (iii) the election of Donald Trump in November 2016; (iv) Theresa May’s dreadful June 2017 ‘presidential’ election campaign; (v) the successful Corbyn campaign; (vi) the endemic weaknesses and growing divisions of May’s government; (vii) the impasse of Brexit negotiations; (viii) the hopes and aspirations amongst many Labour voters, which are far to the left of the For the many, not the few election manifesto; (ix) Labour’s mass membership and the Labour Party’s rapid shift to the left; (x) the growth of anti-capitalist sentiments.

3. Opinion polls consistently give Labour a clear lead over the Tories. A Corbyn-led Labour Party gaining the biggest bloc of MPs, or even a House of Commons majority, is therefore palpably real. However, that should not be imagined as automatically translating into putting Jeremy Corbyn into No10 Downing Street and John McDonnell into No11 Downing Street.

4. Under the provisions of the royal prerogative it is the monarch who appoints the prime minister - not the House of Commons and definitely not the membership of this or that party. It might well be a constitutional convention that the monarch calls upon the leader of the biggest party to form a government. It is certainly the case that the new prime minster must be able to command a House of Commons majority and be able to form a cabinet. Yet when the leadership of a party is in doubt the role of the monarch becomes decisive.

5. A couple of notable examples. When in 1894 William Gladstone stepped down, Queen Victoria passed over what were widely considered the superior claims of Sir William Harcourt. She invited Lord Rosebery to become prime minister. Similarly, when the Conservative prime minister, Bonar Law, resigned in 1923, George V opted for Stanley Baldwin, not Lord Curzon, who had previously served as deputy prime minister.

6. More significantly, in terms of relevance to our times, there are the actions of George V in August 1931. The Labour cabinet, which held office thanks to Liberal Party support, faced an unprecedented economic crisis. Not only was there the closure of industrial plants and soaring unemployment: there was a runaway fall in the pound sterling. The banks, treasury officials and international creditors demanded a programme of savage austerity. Specifically reductions in the pay of government employees, including the military, and cuts to the already meagre dole payments made available to the unemployed.

7. The Labour cabinet found itself irretrievably split and agreed that the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, should tender his resignation to the king. MacDonald duly went to the palace. The general expectation was that the Tories under Baldwin would form a government with Liberal support. However, at the suggestion of the Liberal leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, the king invited MacDonald to continue in office, but now as head of a grand coalition with the Tories and Liberals. The new government would, of course, force through the necessary economies and rescue the country.

8. In the Labour cabinet only Philip Snowden and JH Thomas agreed to enter the new government. They and other supporters of MacDonald formed the National Labour Organisation. After initial shilly-shallying the Labour Party itself denounced the whole project, but went on, in the October 1931 general election, to suffer a crushing defeat - the biggest landslide in British history. Parties supporting the national government won 556 seats - a 500 majority. Labour slumped from 287 seats to a mere 52. The lessons for our times are surely obvious.

9. Under conditions of a possible ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit crisis, and maybe even another global financial crisis - a ‘Minsky moment’ is widely predicted - the idea of the British establishment looking to Jeremy Corbyn as a saviour cannot be ruled out. Yet, given his past serial rebellions against draconian laws, his leftwing advisors such as Seumas Milne and Jon Lansman, his support for the Stop the War Coalition, the Palestinian cause, etc, the monarch will perhaps be advised to choose another candidate for prime minister.

10. Obviously it all depends on parliamentary arithmetic, international developments and the class struggle - crucially inside the Labour Party. In terms of prediction things are very uncertain. That said, we can talk about three possible scenarios: scenario one, a ‘normal’ Labour government with Corbyn as prime minister; scenario two, a national government, or a coalition, government, with a programme of ‘saving the nation’; scenario three, a Labour government with Corbyn as prime minister that triggers a crisis of expectations and unconstitutional moves by the deep state.

11. It is quite conceivable that Corbyn would be invited to form a government by the monarch and that his government would proceed to act in the horrible tradition of all previous Labour governments. Scenario one: held prisoner by the Parliamentary Labour Party and the right wing, Corbyn would preside over Trident renewal, continued Nato membership, maintaining the bulk of the Tory anti-trade union laws … and endless austerity. The examples of Syriza in Greece and before that Mitterrand in France should act as a warning of what might happen.

12. There is, though, a good chance that the monarch would pass over the present leader of the Labour Party and instead seek out a prime minister who can command a majority of Labour MPs. Scenario two: today, even after the June 8 2017 general election, Corbyn would be hard-pressed to secure the solid support of 40 Labour MPs. On the other hand, a Sir Kier Starmer, an Emily Thornberry would be much more acceptable as prime minister to the majority of Labour MPs. Conceivably, if the monarch passed over Corbyn and chose another leading figure, that would split the Parliamentary Labour Party and necessitate a coalition, or some kind of national government. Britain could thereby be saved from the Brexit disaster … and - as far as some are concerned, worse - from Corbyn and his “warmed-up version of socialism in one country” (Financial Times).

13. Such outcomes might cause debilitating demoralisation amongst Labour’s rank and file, or it might enrage them, motivate them, propel them further to the left. As far as the CPGB is concerned, the heavy question mark that hangs over the prospect of a Corbyn-led government ought to act as a spur for taking up demands for the automatic reselection of MPs and the thoroughgoing democratisation of the Labour Party, its transformation into a permanent united front of all trade unions and working class organisations. Programmatically, we envisage refounding the Labour Party on the basis of a new, Marxist, clause four.

14. But if Corbyn stays true to his stated beliefs, if he spurns those siren voices calling upon him to save capitalism from itself, if he attempts to implement a “warmed-up version of socialism in one country”, then we can be sure that the forces of the deep state would put their already well rehearsed contingency plans into operation: scenario three.

15. Imagine that, having deselected the vast majority of sitting Labour MPs, having replaced them with good left reformists - and even a few communists - Corbyn wins a resounding general election majority in 2020 (it is, note, conceivable that Theresa May, or a replacement, hangs on till then). Because of the Human Rights Act, the creation of a supreme court and the armed forces and security services being “acutely aware” of the “constraints on their activities” imposed by the rule of law, are we really expected to believe that there is “zero chance of an extra-judicial reaction” (Paul Mason)?

16. Any such suggestion amounts to the purest parliamentary cretinism - a disease that infects reformists of every stripe with the debilitating conviction that the main thing in politics is parliamentary votes.

17. By 2020 a Corbyn-led Labour Party - if Marxists have scored any substantive successes - will be fully committed to immediately making up for the loss of income caused by the Osborne-Hammond austerity regime, immediately sweeping away all the anti-trade union laws, immediately renationalising all privatised industries and concerns, immediately ending British involvement with Nato, immediately decommissioning Trident, immediately abolishing the standing army and immediately establishing a citizen militia.

18. Even without such a bold programme of reform, we can certainly imagine a crisis of expectations. The prospect of a Labour government, certainly the actual election of a Labour government, could quite conceivably - probably would - set workers into motion as a class force.

19. Through their own collective efforts they would seek to put into practice what they think a Corbyn-led government really stands for: defy the hated anti-trade union laws and win substantial pay increases; withhold rent payments to grasping landlords; prevent water, electricity and gas companies cutting off supplies; occupy empty properties and solve the housing crisis at a stroke; march into the giant supermarket chains in order to feed the hungry; arm themselves with rudimentary weapons to prevent police attacks.

20. Any such a scenario would inevitably provoke a frothing reaction. It is not so much that the ruling class cannot tolerate a Corbyn-led government and its present-day programme of renationalising the rails when franchises run out, reviewing PFI contracts, introducing some form of rent controls, repealing the latest, 2016 round of Tory anti-trade union legislation and establishing a people’s investment bank. Tinkering, safe and, in fact, amongst Keynesian economists perfectly reasonable.

21. No, it is the enthusiastic reception of Marxist ideas, the rejection of capitalism by Labour members, the recently established dominant position of the left in Labour Party branch and constituency organisations, along with the distinct possibility of a yanking further shift to the left and consequent mass self-activity, that causes ruling class fears. And, have no doubt, fearful they are.

22. Put together failed negotiations with the EU 27, a no-deal Brexit and, consequently, a severe economic downturn … and a Corbyn-led government. Such is the stuff that bourgeois nightmares are made of. Under such circumstances, we should expect other - illegal or semi-legal - methods to come to the fore. Fake news, artificially generated scandals, a US-organised run on the pound, civil service sabotage, bomb outrages aided and abetted by the secret state, even a coup of some kind.

23. If a Corbyn-led government stupidly decides to leave MI5, MI6, the police and the standing army intact, that would present an open door for a British version of general Augusto Pinochet.

24. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were tortured, were killed, and who knows how many, including US citizens, disappeared. The September 11 1973 army coup overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende, That despite its studiedly moderate programme and repeated concessions to the right. CIA fingerprints were, of course, all over the Pinochet coup.

25. Note: already Tony Blair denounces the idea of a Corbyn government as “a dangerous experiment”. Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, condemns Corbyn as a “danger to this nation” who “wouldn’t clear the security vetting”. The Financial Times ominously warns that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”. The Economist lambasts Corbyn as a member of the “loony left” and “dangerous” to Britain. Sir Nicholas Houghton, outgoing chief of the defence staff, publicly “worried” on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government. There were carefully placed accompanying press rumours of unnamed members of the army high command being prepared to take “direct action”.

26. The armed forces are, of course, an agent of counterrevolution, almost by definition. Failure to understand that elementary fact represents a failure to understand the lessons of history. Legally, culturally, structurally, the British army relies on inculcating an “unthinking obedience” amongst the lower ranks. And it is run and directed, as we all know, by an officer caste, which is trained from birth to hand out orders to the state school grunts.

27. Of course, the British army no longer has vexatious conscripts to deal with. Instead recruits join voluntarily seeking “travel and adventure” - followed by “pay and benefit, with job security”. Yet, because they live on bases, frequently move and stick closely together socially, members of the armed forces are unhealthily cut off from the wider civilian population and the recent growth of progressive and socialist ideas. Indeed far-right views appear to be all too common - eg, see Army Rumour Service comments about that “anti-British, not very educated, ageing communist-agitating class war zealot”, Jeremy Corbyn.

28. Still the best known exponent of deploying the army against internal “subversives” is brigadier Frank Kitson in his Low intensity operations (1971). The left, trade unionists and strikers - they are “the enemy”, even if their actions are intended to back up an elected government. Legally, the “perfect vehicle for such an intervention” would be an order in council. After consulting the unelected privy council the monarch would call a state of emergency and invite the army to restore law and order.

29. Remember, army personnel swear an oath that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”, and that they will “defend Her Majesty ... against all enemies”. And, as made crystal clear by Michael Clarke, director of the United Services Institute, this is no mere feudal relic. “The armed forces don’t belong to the government - they belong to the monarch,” he insists. “And they take this very seriously. When [the Tory] Liam Fox was defence secretary a few years ago, for his first couple of weeks he referred to ‘my forces’ rather than Her Majesty’s forces - as a joke, I think. It really ruffled the military behind the scenes. I heard it from senior people in the army. They told me, ‘We don’t work for him. We work for the Queen.’”

30. If Corbyn actually makes it into Number 10, there is every reason to believe that threats of “direct action” coming from the high command will take material form. That is why we say, put no trust in the thoroughly authoritarian standing army. No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” (second amendment to the US constitution).