Editorial of the Socialist, issue 923
Corbyn movement must seize initiative
– or face defeat
This year will be remembered as a turning point in British history. The vote to exit the EU threw everything into turmoil. Capitalist politics was shaken out of its normal channels and has yet to re-establish any stability. On the contrary, the attempts of the capitalist class to try and create some order from the chaos – by pressuring the Tory party to anoint Theresa May prime minister – achieved no more than a paper-thin veneer over the cracks in the establishment.
Within weeks, the Tories are once again openly at each other’s throats over the EU. May is trying to balance on a tightrope over the chasm between the ‘hard Brexit’ wing of the Tory party, which has wide support among its rank and file, and the desire of the majority of the capitalist class to limit the effects of Brexit. Meanwhile, Ukip’s leadership is in meltdown.
Given the disarray of right-wing, pro-capitalist forces, the Jeremy Corbyn-led leadership of the Labour Party has a golden opportunity to assert the voice of the working class majority in society. Of course, the Labour Party is not a unified force either. However, the huge wave of support for Jeremy Corbyn over the summer led to a crushing defeat for the pro-capitalist forces within the Labour Party – the Blairites. If the Labour leadership acted to consolidate its victory, it would be possible to take decisive advantage of the turmoil in the capitalist class.
Imagine if Jeremy Corbyn was currently campaigning for a socialist Brexit. He could propose a different kind of Repeal Bill to that proposed by Theresa May – one that annulled all EU regulations which go against working class interests, like the rules restricting state aid and nationalisation, or the posted workers’ directive which drives down wages.
Such a bill could repeal anti-trade union legislation, including the Tories’ latest Trade Union Act, and enforce collective agreements. It would mean bringing about real working class control via democratic public ownership. A campaign for Brexit on this basis could transform the political situation in Britain – with the possibility of bringing about the collapse of this very weak Tory government, and Labour winning the resulting general election.
Unfortunately, however, so far there has not been a campaign to consolidate Jeremy’s overwhelming victory. There is a real danger that the possibility of creating a democratic, socialist Labour Party is squandered in a new attempt to conciliate the right. The pro-capitalist elements of the Labour Party have repeatedly demonstrated how determined they remain to isolate and defeat Corbyn. Left-wing constituency Labour Party organisations in Wallasey and Brighton remain suspended on spurious grounds.
Just last week, around 100 Labour MPs failed to turn up for (or abstained on) the Labour parliamentary motion to withdraw UK support for Saudi Arabia in protest at the war it is conducting against Yemen. As a result the motion narrowly fell, leaving British forces training the Saudi Arabian military to enable it to step up devastating airstrikes, including against Yemeni civilians. Even one anti-Corbyn Labour MP expressed disgust that fellow MPs were just “using the issue as a way of trying to beat Jeremy.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornbury expressed her disappointment at the MPs’ behaviour, but as yet they face no disciplinary action. Labour has overwhelmingly elected an anti-austerity, anti-war leadership, yet right-wing Labour MPs remain free to vote for war – or austerity, or privatisation – without facing any consequences. Instead, they should be clearly told that they will lose the Labour whip if they are not prepared to vote for Corbyn’s key policies in parliament.
However, far from calling for this, Momentum – set up to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party – is not even calling for mandatory reselection of MPs, or campaigning to use the existing watered-down ‘trigger ballot’ system to hold them to account.
Mandatory reselection is a basic democratic procedure allowing local Labour Party organisations to choose who stands on their behalf. It was hard fought for by the left in the past, including by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum. Its abolition by the Blairites undoubtedly made it easier for Labour MPs to vote for anti-working class policies without consequence, and, in some cases, to fiddle their expenses. Today the Labour right becomes apoplectic with rage at the idea that any MP should be made accountable to local Labour Party members; all the more reason to campaign for it to happen.
The hundreds of thousands of people who joined the Labour Party in order to defeat the coup will not automatically become active in their local Labour Party organisations. If, however, they are shown that doing so is a route to defeating the right, and creating the kind of anti-austerity Labour Party they joined hoping for, many would be prepared to do so – understanding that, while victory would not be achieved in one act, the road would be opened to the creation of a mass party of the working class from the ashes of New Labour.
Few, however, will be inspired to get active by the Momentum leadership’s current strategy of endless conciliation with the right. This road, if continued down, will ultimately lead to widespread demoralisation and therefore defeat.
We warned of this when, soon after the foundation of Momentum, Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, and Hannah Sell, deputy general secretary, met with Jon Lansman. Even then Lansman argued against fighting for mandatory reselection, believing that many of the MPs could be won over to Corbyn, enabling him to ‘cling on’ until 2020. Our warnings that the right was irreconcilably opposed to Corbyn and an attempted coup was inevitable were dismissed.
The consequences of Momentum’s continued strategy of ‘clinging on’ are currently being demonstrated in the attempts of its unelected leadership to prevent any kind of democratic Momentum conference taking place. They are terrified that a conference might embarrass them by voting to combat the Blairites.
That is why they are proposing the conference be organised on an online voting basis. While online voting can play a useful supplementary role in some circumstances, if it is used to replace meetings and conferences it is always a means to consign the majority to the status of passive observers, whose participation is limited to the occasional click, while central decisions are taken by an unaccountable leadership.
Those who became active in Momentum in order to fight to transform the Labour Party need to draw the necessary conclusions from this miserable experience.
JC4PM, photo Paul Mattsson
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, has now correctly come out in criticism of the leadership of Momentum. This is a step forward. Unfortunately, up until now he and other key supporters of Momentum – like Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS – have not been prepared to clearly oppose the mistaken strategy of the Momentum leadership. This was understood, however, by delegates to the 2016 PCS conference – who voted against affiliating to Momentum, largely due to its lack of democracy. Now Matt and others need to go further.
As the Socialist Party has argued from the beginning, what is needed is an open, democratic, fighting organisation that brings together all who want to fight to transform Labour into an anti-austerity party; whether or not they are currently allowed into the Labour Party by the right-wing machine. Such a force should fight clearly for the transformation of the Labour Party; including the democratisation of its structures – mandatory reselection, restoring trade union rights, readmitting expelled and excluded socialists – see our petition – and allowing socialist organisations to affiliate.
The battle against Labour’s right is not simply a battle between two wings of a party. Behind them are the class interests of the different participants. The right ultimately represents the capitalist elite, which was delighted with the Blairite transformation of Labour into a party that could be relied on to act on their behalf, and is fighting to turn the wheel of history back to that situation. The surge into the Labour Party in support of Corbyn is made up of hundreds of thousands of working class and impoverished middle class people, who want to see a party that stands in their interests.
John McDonnell was right when he said that the attempted coup against Corbyn represented “the 1% telling the 99% to get back in line.” The coup’s defeat gave a glimpse of the power of a mass working class mobilisation to defeat the capitalist elite. If it is built on, Labour can be transformed into a party that stands clearly against austerity – including refusing to implement cuts at local level – where, in many places, Labour is already in power.
Such a party, standing for policies like renationalisation of the NHS and railways, a £10 an hour minimum wage, free education, and mass council house building, would have the potential to win widespread support from working and middle class people. MPs who cannot support such a programme should go! Better to have a Labour Party united against austerity, even if initially with fewer MPs, than the current situation where the majority of Labour MPs support it.
Such a party would also face determined opposition from the capitalist class, whose attempts to stop it from being elected – and, if elected, from implementing its programme – would put the current capitalist campaign against Corbyn into the shade. A glimpse of the intransigence and determination of the capitalist class to defend its own class interests is shown by the refusal to hold an inquiry into Orgreave.
It would be very naive to imagine that the enormous pressure to capitulate and accept austerity which was exerted on the Syriza government in Greece would not be repeated in a different form if a left-led government came to power in Britain. To give in to that pressure, as the leadership of Syriza did, would be a major defeat for the working class in Britain.
It is therefore concerning that, even before facing pressure on that scale, the leadership of Labour has retreated on some issues, probably in the vain hope of pacifying Labour’s right. No statement has been made against Labour councils preparing a new round of budget cuts. Nationalisation of the energy companies, put forward in Jeremy’s first election campaign, has now been dropped. John McDonnell last week also suggested that the “independence” of the Bank of England is “sacrosanct.” Yet it was a right-wing measure, taken under Blair, to effectively privatise the Bank of England by taking it out of government control. A socialist policy would be to nationalise not only the Bank of England, but the whole banking system under democratic control.
There was nothing automatic in the defeat of the working class in Greece. If a left government in Britain was determined, and instead of bending under the pressure of the capitalist class, mobilised a mass working class movement in defence of its policies, the elite would be unable to prevent it implementing its programme, thereby improving the lives of millions. Of course, to effectively defend the government against the inevitable sabotage of the capitalists, it would be necessary to go further – nationalisation, under democratic workers’ control, of the banks and major corporations, in order to form the basis for a socialist plan of production, would be posed.
The root cause of the turmoil in politics is the profound unpopularity of all the capitalist parties – who have nothing but growing hardship to offer the majority. An opportunity now exists to build a mass party that offers an alternative to endless austerity, on the basis of socialist policies. If that opportunity is seized, it will be a major step forward for the working class. The Socialist Party will do all we can to prevent this chance being lost as a result of prevarication and retreat. We appeal to all those who agree to join the Socialist Party.