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From The Socialist newspaper, 27 September 2017

Editorial of the Socialist, issue 964

NB: A further article commenting on the Labour Party conference will posted on the Socialist Party website soon, following the end of the conference

Labour's civil war isn't over

Anti-austerity opposition needed to seize on Tories' weakness

Labour Party conference 2017, photo Joanne Harris

Labour Party conference 2017, photo Joanne Harris   (Click to enlarge)

Many will have been pleased to see some of the policy announcements coming out of Labour Party conference. Plans for measures to tackle credit card debt and bring PFI contracts back in-house, for example, are welcome. More disappointing is the lack of any real progress - despite Corbyn's emphasis in his speeches on rank-and-file control and democratisation - on transforming the party.

Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey was quoted as saying: "In my 47 years in the party, I have never seen it so united" and that there is now no "serious opposition to Corbyn from within the PLP" because "suddenly, they have realised that not only was that not the case [that Corbyn would destroy Labour's electoral chances] but they themselves have been reinvigorated."

This idea that the Blairites who dominate the PLP have seen the error of their ways and converted to Corbynism is a mistake. It's true that their open attacks on Corbyn have been more subdued since June's general election, which so clearly asserted his popularity. But that will only be temporary, and has not stopped the right's battle for power, particularly over the issue of Brexit.

They were outraged by their defeat in the vote over which contemporary motions would be voted on at the conference - having wanted Brexit and membership of the Single Market to be a key vote. The selection of topics including housing, the NHS, workers' rights, public sector pay and the Grenfell fire for debate showed the numerically strengthened position of the left at this year's conference - where 70% of delegates are thought to support reforms put forward by the Corbyn-backing group Momentum.

Single Market

The right wing wants to maintain membership of the Single Market mainly because those MPs represent the interests of capitalism within the Labour Party. But they also see it as a way to undermine Corbyn's support from those who voted to stay in the EU out of a sense of internationalism and fear for migrants' rights (both of which are alien to these politicians). Unfortunately past mistakes by Corbyn have contributed to this confusion. His decision to back a Remain vote in last year's referendum means that most of his supporters have never heard the socialist case for leaving the neoliberal EU.

Corbyn said himself on the BBC's Andrew Marr show on 24 September: "At the moment we're part of the single market. That has within it restrictions on state aid and state spending. That has pressures on it through the European Union - for example to privatise rail and other services. I think we have to be quite careful about the powers we need as national governments." He gave the examples of the EU's barriers in the way of nationalising the steel industry and the insistence of brutal austerity in Greece.

But these points are not the ones that have been emphasised in Labour's positon on Brexit, because Corbyn has not put himself and the left-wing, anti-austerity ideas he represents at the forefront of this debate. Instead Blairite Kier Starmer has been left to take the lead - including, for example, by giving the main speech at the conference on the issue.

Starmer's position - of a two year 'transition' after Brexit where Single Market and Customs Union memberships are maintained - has now been adopted by Theresa May. This was an attempt by May to appease Chancellor Phillip Hammond who reportedly wanted a four-year transition (this evidently failed - he refused to say he thinks May should remain in place to see through another general election). Hammond's preference, reflecting the view of the overwhelming majority of big business, seems to have been reduced at the behest of Boris Johnson and the pressure following his 4,000-word Brexit manifesto in the Telegraph. This has highlighted yet again the mess that the Tories are in and that May has no ability to seize control of either her own party or politics more widely.

In this situation, the opportunities for a Labour Party up to the task are immense. The Tories could tear themselves apart, triggering a general election at any time. There is no time to lose in building a party capable of being a mass, anti-austerity, working class opposition.

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