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Editorial of the Socialist, issue 932
Labour's civil war continues - build a mass workers' party
- Corbyn steps up anti-establishment tone
- Momentum's undemocratic turn
Trust in politicians and all sections of the 'establishment' is falling even further. An annual trust survey (by PR firm Edelman) shows that trust in the British government has dropped from a low 36% in January 2016 to just 26% now. Only 18% of respondents said they trust political parties in general to "do what is right".
The surveyors themselves say: "If we thought 2016 was bad, 2017 could be far worse. The virus that has understandably destroyed trust among those who feel let down by the system has now obviously spread. Even those who got richer after the financial crisis exhibit declining trust in the key pillars of society - politicians, business leaders, NGOs and the media."
An inchoate rage against austerity and against the rich and their politicians found expression in the Brexit vote and in the rejection of the 'lesser evil' Hillary Clinton. The incendiary findings of Oxfam that just eight billionaires own the same wealth as 3.7 billion people will add to that mood.
The crisis besetting capitalism is deep - with no way out of an economic quagmire, the rich getting obscenely richer, and a deep political crisis among the main capitalist representatives. As the Tory party openly splits over Brexit, big business finds itself without a party to reliably act in its interests. They fear rebellion.
It is not only in the Tory Party that the erstwhile representatives of capitalism are thrashing around. The Blairite 'project anaconda' to squeeze Corbyn into further retreats continues but they are at this stage unable to remove him due to his popularity.
As part of the right-wing propaganda campaign to slowly crush Corbyn, the Fabian Society predicts that Labour is heading for defeat in the next general election, and could be reduced to fewer than 200 seats.
The "existential angst" and "deep despair" of some Labour MPs facing "crushing defeat" was expressed by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, discussing the resignations of Blairite MPs Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt. He describes Hunt's "general lament that the left, including the centrist left that he represents, have failed to respond to the challenges thrown up by 'social, cultural and economic forces which have rocked mainstream social democratic and socialist parties' across the democratic world." He concludes, "having devoted a lot of time to thinking about how to renew social democracy for the 21st century, [Hunt] had grown increasingly fearful that he hadn't got the answers to Labour's predicament." He is right to despair - his pro-capitalist position offers no way forward for society.
While right-wing forces such as Trump or Ukip can be the beneficiaries of this unrest, it is by no means automatic. What is required is to organise that rage into decisive collective action and for it to find a political expression.
We must fight hard against racism, sexism and all forms of division, but the fundamental need is for a mass working class party - a socialist alternative - as the huge support for Bernie Sanders in the US has shown.
The massive waves of support for Jeremy Corbyn represented a layer of working class and radicalised middle class people seeking their own political voice.
Corbyn's retreats, in a vain attempt to appease the right, have disappointed many, including the capitulation just before Christmas over Tony Blair's role in the Iraq War. It has not gone un-noticed among London RMT members that Corbyn gave welcome support to the Southern Rail strike but appeared lukewarm on the tube strike, so as not to clash with Blairite Labour mayor Sadiq Khan.
But Jeremy Corbyn has 'rebooted'. Apparently trying to do a Trump, appealing over the heads of a hostile media to the anti-establishment mood, he declared that Brexit and the other political earthquakes of 2016 are due to a political elite divorced from the people they govern. Stating that the economic system is rigged against working people, he said "Labour under my leadership stands for a complete break with this rigged system".
His call for a maximum limit on bosses' pay was met with relief from many working class people, who feel that at last Corbyn is voicing their concerns. Those opponents who ridiculed this idea do so, of course, in order to protect the profits of big business.
He attacked Theresa May over the NHS crisis saying: "The fact is, this government have repeatedly failed to put the necessary resources into our health service, while they have cut social care and wasted billions on a top-down reorganisation to accelerate privatisation." He pledged to fund the NHS and to nationalise failing care homes.
Labour's poll ratings increased by two points since the relaunch. Imagine what could be the effect if he boldly fought for the programme on which he ran his election campaigns, and fought the Blairites so that it became Labour's programme. On the basis of offering a real socialist alternative Labour could easily win a general election.
Welcome as this change of tone is, the fight to change the Labour Party is far from over. The Labour Party is still two parties in one - a pro-capitalist, Blairite party and at least the potential beginnings of a party that stands in the interests of working class people. The trickle of resignations could in itself become a method to try to defeat Corbyn, to trigger a series of byelections that the Blairites hope he will lose. A determined fight still needs to be taken to the Blairites.
When Corbyn first won the leadership in 2015, we called for all those forces that supported Corbyn's anti-austerity call, both inside and outside the Labour Party, to be brought together to fight for that programme. The surge in supporters and members was not due to a loyalty to the Labour Party as such - Labour spectacularly failed to defeat the hated Tories in 2015 because they offered only continued cuts and privatisation, 'austerity lite' - but a hope for a party that will finally stand up for them.
That necessarily meant taking on and defeating the right wing in the party, who made it clear from minute one that they would fight tooth and nail to maintain the Labour Party as a safe pro-capitalist party.
We argue for mandatory reselection, a mechanism which would enable the democratic deselection of Blairite MPs. We appealed for 75 expelled and excluded socialists to be readmitted to the Labour Party and call for a structure in which all socialist and anti-austerity forces, including the Socialist Party, can be a part of an anti-austerity federal party. Kick out the Blairites and admit the socialists!
A key part of the Blairite project to keep the Labour Party safe for big business was to strip the unions' power out of the party. Currently, as the RMT's political strategy says, Labour does not have the "structural/constitutional arrangements that would make affiliation in the union's interests." An essential step to changing the Labour Party would be to reestablish a role for trade unions that reflects their importance as the organised, collective voice of millions of workers.
Momentum, had it been established on that basis, could have played a pivotal role. But instead of leading and organising a fight, Momentum has counselled constant appeasement of the right wing. In one poll 69% of Corbyn supporters backed mandatory reselection. Given a lead, many would have fought for it. But Momentum opposed this and instead chose the route of purges and expulsions of the left.
Recently, Momentum leader Jon Lansman shut down all of Momentum's structures and imposed a new constitution, with only a 'take it or resign' option to members and supporters. Overturning the original aim to bring people inside and outside the party together, membership of the Labour Party is now a requirement.
The change is dressed up as 'direct democracy'. The ground was laid by commentators like Owen Jones, presenting this as a battle between new fresh layers of people against "Trotskyist sectarian saboteurs".
'One member one vote' was a tool of the pro-capitalist right wing in the Labour Party to drown out the collective voice of trade unions and to set inactive, passive members against those who participate in meetings, debates and activity. The Momentum leadership are using it for the same purpose. It sounds very democratic, but in reality this 'direct democracy' means individuals clicking answers in response to questions set by the leadership, while the leadership do as they please with no democratic mechanism to hold them in check.
Momentum trailed this method when they decided their position on the EU referendum. An issue of such importance was decided by people individually sat at home under a deluge of capitalist media, with no alternative being put, no discussion or debate, clicking a yes/no answer.
The worst of the many problems with Momentum's new imposed constitution is the total sidelining of the role of the organised working class. Trade unions that affiliate to Momentum are collectively granted just six representatives on the new National Coordinating Group (NCG). Decisions of the NCG will be made by a simple majority. Thus the Fire Brigades Union, a militant, democratically-organised body representing tens of thousands of people, carries no more weight than individuals, and can easily be outvoted.
Contrast that with the consensus method of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which means that representatives of the RMT rail union on the steering committee cannot be bounced into accepting any decision that they believe would not be supported by their members or that contravenes the democratic decisions of their annual general meeting.
But the failure of Momentum does not mean that the process is over. Corbyn supporters could still be mobilised to fight the right. Another attack on Jeremy could trigger another wave of people to get active. Trade union representatives would have a big effect if they were to openly appeal to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to fight together with them for measures such as mandatory reselection, and the re-introduction of democratic structures into the party including the collective trade union voice.
Corbyn's biggest Achilles heel is the Labour councils up and down the country which are implementing Tory cuts. Local government cuts are savage and are only going to get worse. Campaigns are rising up to defend homes, libraries and other services. Just as happened in the 2016 local elections, many working class people who support Corbyn will vote for alternatives to kick their local cutting and privatising Labour-led council. Their support is for Corbyn's anti-austerity stance, not for the Labour Party no matter what. We could see anti-cuts campaigners concluding that they have no choice but to stand in elections themselves if the candidate allegedly representing 'Labour' at the ballot box is just another pro-austerity establishment politician.