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Editorial of Socialist Today, June 2017, issue 209
Socialism Today issue 209
Britain's election and the coming battle for Labour
The only certain outcome of the general election - two weeks away as Socialism Today went press - is that none of the contradictions besetting the political and social relations that sustain British capitalism will be resolved by the 8 June result. The crisis of capitalist political representation signalled by continuing Tory divisions; the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit negotiations; the battle around a new Scottish independence referendum... almost all the conceivable electoral scenarios will bring them into sharper relief. Only the form will differ, depending on the exact parliamentary arithmetic.
Most acute of these contradictions is the unfinished war between the 'two parties in one' within the Labour Party, with daily briefings against Jeremy Corbyn from the Blairites even during the election. This battle will reach a new level of intensity after 8 June. And all this against the backdrop of a world economy that, almost ten years on, has been unable to break out from the era of stagnation into which it was plunged by the financial crisis of 2007-08. With the resultant underlying mood of seething discontent and anger looking for an outlet, this is a watershed moment.
Not strong and stable
No result will be able to disguise the dysfunctionality of the Tory party from the point of view of the majority of the British ruling class. It is true that a Tory landslide, not impossible in seats even on a slight increase in the popular vote, might buy some time for prime minister Theresa May in the Brexit negotiations. Deutsche Bank analysts attributed the financial markets' upbeat reaction to her early election announcement to the hope that, with a large majority, she would be able to face down her Tory opponents and force through "an orderly (and very lengthy) withdrawal". But this is not at all assured.
That her strategy is for a 'soft Brexit' was confirmed by the leaked reports - not the spin but the actual text - of the infamous dinner with EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that had May presenting Brexit as just another version of previous EU treaty opt-outs. After all, she reportedly said, the British government made a lot of noise under the EU 'protocol 36' procedure when withdrawing from some of the Lisbon treaty provisions but subsequently quietly enacted them. The clash with Juncker was on the political unreality of her succeeding with this approach - Brexit in form but not content - in Europe and among the Tory Brexiters.
No serious representative of big business is positively seeking to leave the EU customs union or to limit British capitalism's participation in the single market. But that is the position of the rabid ranks of the Tory party, probably no more than 150,000 or so strong (the last official figure the Tories dared to publish, in 2014). Despite this shallow social base, that position will find its reflection on the Tory parliamentary benches. Imagine their reaction to whatever level of divorce settlement demands that may be made by the EU27 negotiators before trade deal discussions can even begin - never mind the projected figures of €60-100 billion.
The working class should insist that not a penny is paid for 'commitments' to the EU bosses' club made, not by us, but by Margaret Thatcher (who signed the Single Market Act), John Major, Tony Blair et al. But from the standpoint of the British ruling class, to renege on previously agreed treaty obligations would damage their prestige and reputation internationally - their word would patently not be their bond - with serious implications for future treaty negotiations, trading agreements, the cost of financing government debt, etc.
The developing clashes within the Tory party will be another illustration of how the need for capitalist politicians to rest on the nation state and its ideological trappings to try and divide the working class can cut across the capitalist class's wider interests. They are compelled to do so in order to maintain a system based on the exploitation of the majority by a small minority. How the serious strategists of the ruling class must lament Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership victory in September 2015. While, regrettably, the grip of the capitalist establishment over the Labour Party has not yet been definitively broken, it means that a Labour government is not the safe, interchangeable 'alternative' to a Tory government that it was in the New Labour years of Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband.
A strong and stable Tory government is an unobtainable chimera. But in this election the Tories are a lesser evil for the capitalists compared to what would be unleashed by a Corbyn-led government, with the expectations of the working class rocketing sky-high - and the confidence to struggle to realise them. That is why the capitalist establishment is rallying so decisively behind May, with the venal BBC to the fore.
Despite the onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn a Tory victory is not certain. This is a new era of political fluidity. When John Major won the 1992 general election for the Conservatives with 336 MPs - the last Tory majority before David Cameron - he did so with 14.1 million votes. In contrast, the Tories won 330 MPs in 2015 with just 11.3 million votes, from an electorate that had grown by three million since 1992. This was not a popular upwelling of Conservative support. Only 24.4% of all registered electors (not just those who voted) backed the Tories, the lowest share for a Tory government since the introduction of universal (male) suffrage in 1918.
The received wisdom of media commentators, however, is that - with Brexit allegedly a job done - the 3.9 million UKIP voters from 2015 will break overwhelmingly to the Tories. UKIP is only contesting 377 constituencies this time, reflecting its disarray after the party's projected national share of the vote in May's local elections fell to 5%, down by 8% from the 2015 local elections. The Tories swept up, with all bar one of UKIP's council candidates defeated.
Lord Ashcroft's 2015 election day opinion poll found that, of those who had voted, 40% of UKIP backers then had usually voted Conservative. On the other hand, more had either usually voted Labour (25%) or had 'not voted before or had no usual party' (17%). Moreover, the Ashcroft poll recorded 34% of 2015 UKIP voters agreeing with the statement: 'we don't need another five years of cuts in government spending'. A further 20% agreed that 'austerity was never really needed to fix the national economy, it was just an excuse to cut public services'. That they would inevitably back the Tories this time was and is uncertain. And the most important fact of the 2017 council elections, five weeks before 8 June, was that nearly 70% of the eligible electorate (not all urban areas had elections, including London) did not vote at all.
This highlights the consequences, however, of not consolidating Jeremy Corbyn's leadership victories by carrying through a transformation of the Labour Party into a mass working-class socialist party, politically and organisationally.
By abandoning his longstanding opposition to the capitalist EU in last year's referendum, in a futile attempt to conciliate the Labour right, Corbyn has given 'Remainer May' an unnecessary advantage. It would have been easy to have answered her taunt - 'try to picture Jeremy Corbyn sitting at the negotiating table with the EU' - with shadow chancellor John McDonnell's slogan: 'a Brexit for the people not the bankers'. But only if John and Jeremy had last summer stuck to their past position. (May's husband, Philip, previously worked for Deutsche Bank's asset management arm!)
Another more recent but similar retreat under pressure from the right is helping to prepare a catastrophic result for Labour in Scotland. This was moving away from being prepared to support, to outright opposition to, a 'section 30 order' in Westminster to allow a 'legally-binding' second Scottish independence referendum. Socialists can stand implacably for the unity of the working class across Britain while defending the right of self-determination, and for an independent socialist Scotland.
By not pushing ahead with the democratisation of the Labour Party - the mandatory reselection of MPs, restoring the role of the unions, readmitting expelled socialists such as the Socialist Party - the Blairites have been allowed to maintain their domination of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the party machine. Most of the 172 MPs who triggered last summer's leadership election will be there after 8 June to mount a new coup if the opportunity arises.
Another consequence was to leave unchallenged the right-wing Labour councillors who have passed on Tory cuts to local public services for the 20 months of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. The result has been that the anti-austerity policies of Labour's general election manifesto have not been a lived through experience for working-class voters (and non-voters in particular). The perception that feeds - that politicians promise but don't deliver - cannot be so easily reversed in a short election campaign.
The Blairite Guardian columnist, Martin Kettle, cynically but accurately noted (12 May) the "unity about the manifesto" between the two parties cohabiting under the Labour Party brand. "The Corbynites want to run on a left-wing manifesto", he wrote, "but Jeremy Corbyn's opponents want that too, so that Corbyn can own the defeat they expect on 8 June". The Labour Party has been two parties in one since 2015. Now there are two campaigns in one, with right-wing candidates ignoring the manifesto and blocking Corbyn from visiting their seats.
Yet the Tories could still be defeated. As in 2010, a hung parliament is also possible. Whatever the electoral scenario, however, the defenders of the capitalist establishment within the Labour Party are still in place and what Kettle terms "the sleepless battle for control of the party" will intensify after 8 June.
The Socialist Party, part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), is not standing in this election. TUSC was the sixth-largest presence on ballot papers on 7 May 2015, with its general election and council candidates polling 118,125 votes on that day. This time, the TUSC national steering committee, with the Socialist Party's support, declared that it "will be working all-out to try and get Jeremy Corbyn into Number Ten on June 8".
TUSC has been prepared to contest local elections against right-wing Labour councillors carrying out Tory cuts even in the context of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership, including last May. Local campaigns put pressure on Labour councillors to refuse to implement the government's austerity agenda, raise the need to develop local resistance into a national movement, and counter-pose the national anti-austerity message of the Jeremy Corbyn party-in-formation within the Labour Party to the actions of local Blairite representatives.
A general election is different - this one in particular. It poses the question of how to give governmental form to local struggles, and indeed to the sectional struggles of different components of the working class, and take the whole movement forward. In this election that means striving to put Corbyn in to No10. But, some might question, by seeing Blairite MPs returned to parliament? There are a few independent candidates standing in 'safe seats', including the National Health Action Party targeting health secretary Jeremy Hunt. But generally the objection can be easily answered in this election: after all, how many Tory MPs elected on 8 June would it take to achieve a Corbyn-led government?
Of course, the Blairites will do everything they can to oppose Jeremy Corbyn's ascension to office. In the protracted 2010 hung parliament negotiations, the Liberal Democrats ruled out supporting a minority-Labour or a Lib-Lab government if it was led by Gordon Brown. In a similar situation now they would back a government led by a Keir Starmer or an Yvette Cooper, but not Jeremy Corbyn. They would be urged on in this 'negotiation red line' by the media and a majority of the PLP. Labour MP John Woodcock has already said he will not vote for Jeremy Corbyn as PM - and the left were defeated when they tried to rescind Woodcock's candidature at the 3 May national executive committee. The battle lines are only unclear to those who don't want to see them.
Preparing for battle
The first major parliamentary rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn was over Cameron's decision to bomb Syria in November 2015. Yet, despite predictions that more than half of the PLP would vote with Cameron, after an anti-war mobilisation - including a demonstration outside the offices of the notorious Blairite MP Stella Creasy with the Socialist Party prominent - only 66 MPs defied the protests. That episode was just a foretaste. If May's gamble for a decisive victory fails, even if there were not a Labour majority, it would be seen as a triumph for Jeremy Corbyn. It could stay the hand of the Blairites for a period for fear of the ferocious reaction an early move against him would provoke.
Will the Blairites split away instead? The Daily Telegraph reported (10 May) secret preparations for a new 100-strong 'Progressive' group to be formed in parliament after 8 June, making it "difficult for Mr Corbyn to form a viable opposition". New Labour architect Lord Mandelson was quoted drawing "the simple truth" from Emmanuel Macron's victory in the French presidential election "that he won by leaving his party, not despite doing so".
Earlier this year, on the other hand, the same Mandelson declared that he worked "every single day in some small way" to defeat Corbyn. He was clear that the Blairites would fight to 'reclaim' the Labour Party: "Why do you want to walk away and pass the title deeds of this great party over to Jeremy Corbyn?" (Guardian, 22 February) An election result which maintained the status quo - more or less - showing the enduring pull of the Labour 'brand', may lead the right to stay and challenge Corbyn once again.
In an editorial from 2015 supporting Jeremy Corbyn's initial leadership bid, Socialism Today wrote that if he "now goes on to win on 12 September - and mobilises the necessary mass campaign required to defeat the still dominant organised capitalist forces within the Labour Party - it will be a giant step towards creating a new workers' party out of the dying embers of New Labour". (The Corbyn Insurgency, Socialism Today No.191) "The same opportunity to build a new party exists if he loses", we wrote, "but outside the constraints of the sterilised Labour Party structures". An open and inclusive conference of his supporters, inside and outside the Labour Party, needed to be convened urgently.
But a mass campaign to transform the Labour Party was not organised and the further opportunity that arose after the defeat of last year's summer coup was also squandered. Now a third wave is rising, millions strong. The June result will set the scene for the next act towards the reconstitution of mass working-class political representation after the New Labour era. This time the moment must be seized.