Editorial of the Socialist, issue 947

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Race against time for May as Corbyn sets out anti-austerity case

A bold socialist stand can beat the Blairites and the Tories

Theresa May is in a race against time on the deteriorating state of the economy. She needs the general election to be over before it worsens more decisively. Economic growth is slowing. Inflation is rising while pay is held down, so real wages are falling. No wonder the Tory prime minister has been minimising her exposure to questioning and debate, as her course of action will be to inflict ongoing brutal austerity – to make working and middle class people pay for British capitalism’s inability to provide sustained and healthy economic growth.

May will also try to make the majority in society pay for whatever hits to the profits of the top corporations result from Brexit. So she and her party, in the service of big business, want five more years without having to face the electorate. More time to continue their agenda of smashing up the welfare state and grinding down the living standards of ordinary people.

The ideology in the government’s agenda was illustrated by a recently published report by the Association for Public Service Excellence. It showed that the massive funding cuts being inflicted on local authorities are not because the spending of those authorities will become a greater burden on the economy. On the contrary, by 2020-21 local government spending as a percentage of economic output is on course to be its lowest level for 60 years. In addition, the biggest cuts in spending on services have been in the most deprived local authority areas.

So desperate are councils for money that many are gambling on the property markets, which even the Financial Times pointed out is highly risky. This reckless way of trying to solve their cash crises amounts to “a gigantic game of Monopoly with taxpayers’ cash” commented investment manager Matthew Oakeshott, with “real echoes here of Northern Rock… and the Icelandic bank scandals.”

Labour’s manifesto

Therefore it’s very welcome that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are speaking out publicly against austerity and for improved services before they engage in the final stage of their battle over the party’s election manifesto with Labour’s right wing.

A Guardian editorial snidely accused Corbyn of overriding party democracy when it suits him because he wants to ensure the manifesto contains the policies he supports rather than those agreed by Labour’s manifesto-deciding committee. That accusation was a deliberate disregard of the reality that the Socialist Party has long pointed out – and that is now widely acknowledged – that the Labour Party is in substance two parties in one.

The manifesto committee consists of Labour’s NEC, shadow cabinet, officers of the backbench MPs and the heads of the National Policy Forum, so doesn’t have a majority in support of Corbyn. Yet Corbyn knows that his policies are supported by the overwhelming majority of the party’s membership. They were the very reason he was propelled twice into the leadership position and why he was also vindicated in the Unite general secretary election – a de facto third leadership contest.

A genuinely democratic party would be one in which its membership would debate and decide the full programme. Election manifestos would be drawn up on the basis of that programme, at the very least by elected, fully accountable and recallable representatives of the membership. But Jeremy Corbyn is at the head of a party that now has no semblance of such democracy, so he is correctly trying to override what are undemocratic, right-wing controlled bodies at the party tops. In doing this he should be urgently backed by pressure from all his supporters across the trade union and labour movement.

Sabotage of Corbyn

Meanwhile, the nature of this battle is shown by the many Labour MPs who are refusing to endorse Corbyn as a future prime minister and want to remove him at the earliest opportunity after the election. Some, like Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw, are saying that as polls indicate a Tory government is ‘certain’, local people can vote for Labour candidates like himself without a Corbyn-led government being the result.

With no reselection contests for Labour MPs who are standing for re-election, and only 13 standing down, there are few opportunities for new Corbynite candidates to enter onto the stage of the safest Labour seats. It’s also the case that in some of the selections held so far for the 13 seats, the victor has not been a pro-Corbyn candidate, for instance in Leigh, near Manchester, and in Hull West and Hessle.

Tony Blair, following his unpersuasive denial that he was suggesting votes for non-Labour candidates if they are softer on Brexit, has made the laughable assertion that a return to the ‘centre ground’ would make Labour electable. Over the three general elections in which he was Labour leader the party lost four million votes, a decline that was clearly brought out in the extract carried in last week’s issue of the Socialist from Peter Taaffe’s new book ‘From Militant to the Socialist Party’. However, although Blair is given a hearing in the capitalist media to turn history on its head, he carries little weight among ordinary people who rightly view him as a war criminal, closet Tory and careerist money-grabber.

It is precisely the toxic legacy of Blairism that is the main obstacle to a Labour victory on 8 June. The Blairites and their successors are the main liability, not those on the left who are trying to divorce the party from a right-wing agenda. But the Corbyn wing faces a major task in getting its policies out over the heads of Labour’s machine and most of its MPs and councillors. Also, as previous Labour governments didn’t carry out policies in the interests of the working class, it faces the task of convincing voters that it could and would carry out its promises.

Not succeeding on these fronts risks an election defeat. After all, Labour’s equivalent in France, the PS, only received 6% of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election. Its equivalent in Greece, Pasok, went from receiving 44% of the vote in 2009 to just 6% in 2015. While Labour is not in power at present, the memory of the Blair years weighs heavy.

But this fate can be averted. Even though many potential Labour voters view Corbyn as disappointingly low-key, his left policies – and the desire of the hundreds of thousands of ‘Corbyn surge’ party members who want to see them implemented – if promoted strongly and convincingly, could reach and inspire enough people to bring down the Tories.

A programme for victory

Some of the vital issues Jeremy Corbyn raises are commented on in other parts of this issue of the Socialist, including the need to increase public sector pay, provide genuinely affordable housing and cap rents, stop education cuts and improve workers’ and trade union rights. Who in the majority in society wouldn’t support these proposals? Only the directors and rich shareholders of big business wouldn’t, together with their representatives in parliament, the media and other capitalist institutions.

Widespread support for such policies shows that there isn’t “an unprecedented swing to the right” as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrongly argued. Rather, the polls, which in any case can’t be relied on, reflect that most of the vehicles transmitting the policies – the capitalist media and institutions, and the Labour right – intentionally distort and discredit them as well as denigrating Corbyn himself.

This is not to say that the left Labour leaders haven’t made mistakes – which are more likely as the influence of rank-and-file trade unionists on the Labour Party has been much reduced, as has been active working class participation in the unions and Labour. This was shown when Jeremy Corbyn, under pressure from the Blairites, advocated the UK staying in the bosses’ EU.

Since that referendum he has made some good demands in workers’ interests regarding Brexit, but he also needs to clearly counter the likes of Keir Starmer, Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Khan who want to serve the interests of the top corporations by seeing Britain remain in the EU single market.

On this issue and others Corbyn and McDonnell need to disassociate from the Labour right and launch a strong offensive against the Tories. There are no shortage of issues to target. How about crushing the Tories’ accusation that Corbyn would mean “very dangerous chaos,” by quoting back Defence Secretary Fallon’s admission that May would be willing to launch a first nuclear strike? This issue would help bring young people to support Corbyn, as would his call for free education.

Already a poll has shown a “strong lead” for Labour among 18 to 24 year olds and “equal pegging with the Conservatives among 25 to 34 year olds”. Those young people need to be inspired enough to register before 22 May to vote – if they haven’t done so yet – as well as to actually cast their vote on election day.

Left of Labour candidates?

The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) that is contesting 80 council seats on 4 May against right-wing Labour councillors who are slashing vital services. However, due to the different circumstances of a general election at this point in time, the Socialist Party is not preparing to stand candidates in it. As TUSC said:

“Our local election campaigns will also lay the groundwork for building the support Jeremy will need against the capitalist establishment, including the Blairites within the Labour Party, if he does win in June.

“But a general election intervention is different to building a campaign against local Blairite councillors, and in a hastily called snap election especially so. So the TUSC steering committee will be discussing… how best we can take forward our founding aim of helping to create a mass vehicle for working class political representation, in the general election itself and, even more importantly, in the new political situation that will present itself after 8 June.”

Whatever the result of the general election, the discussions around Corbyn’s programme that are taking place are raising and spreading an idea of what a socialist alternative could mean. These discussions will inevitably bring up the issue of how much can be gained with left policies under the present system and will lead to welcome debate on the Socialist Party’s call for public ownership of the main banks and corporations that dominate the economy. Discussions will also need to encompass the crucial question of how a socialist programme can be delivered, as TUSC’s statement rightly highlights.