Labour Party conference
Action against capitalist establishment sabotage still needed
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
The mood of confidence and unity at the 2017 Labour Party conference has been widely reported. It is estimated that around 8,000 people attended either the conference or the parallel Momentum event ‘The World Transformed’, the biggest Labour Party conference in many years.
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech covered much of the same positive ground as the general election manifesto. His pledges included bringing the privatised utilities back into public ownership, scrapping the public sector pay cap, and abolishing fees for higher and further education.
On the vital issue of housing he went further than the election manifesto. He railed against the gentrification and social cleansing of cities and pledged that tenants would get a vote on the redevelopment of their social housing and that, where it took place, all existing tenants would be guaranteed homes on the same terms as before. He also promised the introduction of rent controls.
These and other policies in the speech are very popular with millions of people.
Cynical right-wing commentators, such as Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, have suggested that the huge poll lead Labour now has among young people is based on “the biggest bourgeois bribe in British electoral history”: the abolition of tuition fees.
For the generation that have grown up in the age of austerity, a revolt against paying for their education with a lifetime of debt was undoubtedly a factor in the Corbyn surge.
It was far from the only issue however. The huge burdens of completely unaffordable housing, low pay and insecure work are just as important, probably more so.
Failings of capitalism
Corbyn was right when he declared: “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008”, or perhaps more accurately is beginning to.
While Corbyn said his policies were ‘socialism for the 21st century’ May was declaring capitalism to be “unquestionably the best means of increasing the living standards of everyone in a country.”
This is not going to convince the 41% of young women whose pay cheque cannot be made to stretch until the end of the month.
As even the Tory MP George Freeman understood: “Why would you support capitalism if you have no prospect of owning any capital?” By which he meant not shares in a multinational company but somewhere to live!
It is anger at the increased inability of capitalism to meet the needs of the majority – while the richest 1,000 have doubled their wealth since 2010 – which is driving increased electoral support for Corbyn.
It is also this which fills the capitalist class with dread that a Corbyn-led government would massively raise the expectations of workers and young people, who could then push such a government into going much further than Labour’s current, modest programme and threaten the existence of their crisis-ridden capitalist system.
Nonetheless, recognising that a Jeremy Corbyn-led government might be a real possibility, the capitalist class are working to ensure it remains in, from their point of view, safe channels.
The lead article in The Economist on 23 September summed this up, speculating that most of the policies in the manifesto would be bad (from the point of view of the capitalist class), but “would set Britain back years, not decades”. It added that if Labour combined them with a business-friendly approach to Brexit they might even be “less batty” than the Tories.
It goes on, however, to express fear that Corbyn could not be trusted to remain within those constraints, and could react to a new financial crisis as “Act One in the collapse of capitalism”. In other words, take serious socialist measures instead of acting to help rescue capitalism and inflict austerity on the majority as New Labour did.
It is absolutely clear that the capitalist class would do all they could to prevent a Corbyn government implementing serious radical measures in the interests of the majority. So when John McDonnell raised in a conference fringe meeting that the party had to prepare for when ‘they come for us’, he was correct to do so.
The experience of the Syriza government in Greece and the Mitterand government in France in 1981, which retreated from a left programme under the assault of the international markets, are two of many examples of how the capitalist class would behave.
This does not at all mean that socialist policies could not be implemented. With a determined movement of the working class and a clear-sighted leadership, the capitalist class would be unable to prevent a socialist government implementing its policies.
Just as in Greece the outcome could have been entirely different had the leadership of Syriza not capitulated but shown the same determination as the Greek working class and poor.
However, it would urgently pose the need for more thorough-going socialist measures, including nationalising the 100 or so major banks and corporations that dominate Britain’s economy, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need in order to be able to introduce a democratic socialist plan.
This would allow a socialist government to begin to manage the economy in a planned way under democratic workers’ control and management – that really would be “for the many, not the few.”
To succeed in building a society for the many not the few it is necessary to first transform Labour into a party that fights for such a society.
At the moment the capitalist class have a dual approach to Labour, to try to prevent a Corbyn-led government being elected, while simultaneously trying to surround Corbyn and pressurise him to retreat.
And within the Labour Party they have many reliable campaigners in their interests. It was disguised at this year’s conference, as the right felt they had to stay quiet or claim to be converts, but nonetheless Labour remains two parties in one: a new anti-austerity party in formation around Corbyn, and a Blairite pro-capitalist party.
Back in 2016 this was blatantly revealed on the conference floor. Deputy leader Tom Watson’s speech was a clear attack on Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
Praising Tony Blair he warned against the shift left under Corbyn, decrying that the party had “ended up sounding like we are anti-business” and pleading that “capitalism is not the enemy”.
This year he wore a Jeremy Corbyn scarf and led one of the many renditions of “oh Jeremy Corbyn”. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also gone from open attacks on Corbyn to falling over himself to praise him.
At the same time the World Transformed event had become largely incorporated within the party machine, with many Labour MPs – right as well as left – speaking on the platforms.
Rightly desperate to get rid of the Tories and enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s election manifesto, it is inevitable that many people will feel relieved that unity appears to have broken out in the Labour Party.
Hopes will now be raised that the whole of the Labour Party will come behind the election of Corbyn as prime minister and the implementation of a radical programme, in the interests of the many not the few.
However, a surface display of unity, if it leaves the Blairites in their positions of power, will not assist such an outcome but wreck it.
Already, at every stage, they are attempting to dilute any positive policies put forward by Corbyn and McDonnell.
On the conference floor McDonnell put forward the bringing back in-house of PFI contracts – which have allowed private profiteers to make a fortune from the public sector and were massively expanded under New Labour. However, after McDonnell’s speech Labour spokespeople all emphasised that the policy was actually to ‘look at PFI contracts’ as there might be some good ones!
Above all on Brexit, the right are trying to steadily push Labour in the direction of supporting the position of the majority of the capitalist class – remaining in the EU or as close to that as can be achieved.
The dangers of compromise with the right are posed particularly sharply in relation to Labour councils.
Corbyn’s correct call for tenants to be given a vote on any plans to redevelop their homes was immediately opposed by Haringey Labour council that decried a ‘yes/no’ vote! No wonder, it is one of the many London Labour councils that is carrying out major social cleansing in the teeth of massive opposition – it knows full well what the outcome of any vote would be.
But it is not alone: Sadiq Khan has issued guidance to London councils warning against ballots over regeneration.
Council leaders have complained that they have no choice but to carry out these policies due to lack of funds following government cuts.
This is nonsense – but Corbyn could immediately crush this argument, which is used to justify regeneration projects and inflicting massive austerity, by promising that every Labour council that used reserves and borrowed in order to stop cuts and build council housing would be fully refunded by an incoming Labour government.
This should be combined with pledging that a precondition for being selected as a Labour council candidate would be to pledge to oppose cuts.
As Howard Beckett of Unite put it when he spoke to Labour Party conference in support of the Birmingham bin workers, it is “not good enough for Labour councillors to hide behind talk of Tory budgets” and “each councillor, each MP has to say not in my name, not in our name. Austerity will not be carried out in the name of Labour”.
Unfortunately, Howard Beckett’s points were not repeated from the platform. But if austerity continues to be implemented by Labour at local level, Labour’s national opposition to austerity will sound hollow to many workers.
The layer of Corbyn supporters who have become involved actively in the party structures isn’t yet predominantly working class, which will be vital for its future success. As one working class conference delegate put it in a World Transformed meeting: she did not feel welcome, she “walked among you” but was not “part of you”.
Opposing austerity in deeds, and being part of the struggles of working class people to defend their living standards from attack, is essential to achieving this.
There were some measures towards democratising the party agreed by the conference – that only 10% of MPs and MEPs’ nominations are now needed to stand for the leadership, and an increase in the membership of the NEC.
All other issues, however, have been delayed for a review, which it has been reported is not going to consider the vital question of mandatory reselection of MPs.
It is now urgent that Jeremy Corbyn puts his full weight behind a programme to democratise the Labour Party. To go into a general election with the party machine and Parliamentary Labour Party dominated by the right, would be to hand a huge weapon to the capitalist establishment.
He should appeal to the party’s membership and to the working class over the heads of the right wing party machine to ensure that a new democratic constitution is put in place. This would have at its heart mandatory reselection and the replacement of the bureaucratic machine, with power resting in the hands of the membership, not least new members and the trade unions.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 29 September 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.