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From The Socialist newspaper, 13 December 2017

Editorial of the Socialist issue 975

Labour 'purge' furore really just democracy

Momentum leadership not put forward strategy to defeat Blairites

Communities won't take any more excuses from councillors

Lobbying Haringey council, 3.7.17, photo Chris Newby

Lobbying Haringey council, 3.7.17, photo Chris Newby   (Click to enlarge)

Labour's "moderates" are being forced out. "An atmosphere of intimidation" has been created. "Bullying campaigns" are being organised. These are just a few examples of the capitalist media's recent 'reporting' on the activities of the Corbyn-supporting organisation Momentum. The pretence which followed June's general election - that there is 'one united Labour party', as columnist Owen Jones put it in a tweet - has been utterly exposed.

The backdrop to this is the lead-up to the 2018 local elections and the selection process for the candidates who will wear a red rosette. Local government remains a bastion of Labour's right. Labour councillors have dutifully administered brutal Tory austerity. They have closed libraries, sacked staff, cut pay, and privatised services. This has often been in the face of organised opposition from community campaigns and trade unions. The so-called moderates are those who have viciously and remorselessly attacked working class people.

'Moderates' in Birmingham council have recently been defeated by the courageous action of bin workers, fighting off the council's threat of over 100 redundancies and attempts to blackmail workers into accepting 5,000 a year pay cuts. This victory came after a lengthy battle in which the council spent over 6 million trying to break the Unite union - including through the courts. It is difficult to think of a better example of "bullying" than threatening people with the sack unless they are prepared to accept a staggeringly large pay cut.

In Haringey, 'moderates' have been trying to ram through the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) - an unprecedented privatisation of public assets. Under the plans, existing estates housing thousands of families are set to be demolished, with no guarantee residents will be able to return. This is a Labour council consciously hitting the accelerator on gentrification and social cleansing.

In some areas, local Corbyn supporters and anti-austerity campaigners have organised to try to select candidates for the elections who will act differently. This has nothing to do with intimidation. In fact, it is basic democracy. As the Socialist Party has argued consistently, Labour members and trade unions should have the right to decide who represents the party at elections.

Councils can fight

If Labour is to be an anti-austerity party, as Corbyn has argued it should, this needs to apply at all levels - in deeds, not just words. Where the Labour Party is in power in local councils, there exists an opportunity to put 'Corbynism' into practice in the here and now.

Councillors have a choice - they can act as a defence against Tory cuts, or they can be May's little helpers. If they were prepared to use their reserves and borrowing powers, they could resist the cuts onslaught, while building a mass movement that could force the Tories to call an election. Corbyn should pledge now that he would support any councils that do this.

Newcastle Corbyn rally, June 2017, photo E. Brunskill

Newcastle Corbyn rally, June 2017, photo E. Brunskill   (Click to enlarge)

With the government in deep crisis, and with the Labour Party now boasting an anti-austerity leader and a substantial poll lead, this choice has never looked starker. Imagine the effect if Labour councils around the country collectively declared that they would not be prepared to implement cuts. Even if only one council did so, it could act as a lightning conductor for the seething discontent within society.

This is a government on the edge of a cliff - if it faced opposition from local councils, backed up by a mass movement, it could rapidly be pushed off.

But while this approach, long advocated by the Socialist Party, has won support from campaigns and trade unions such as Unite, it has absolutely not been the approach adopted by Momentum's national leadership. While the organisation has been credited with the deselection of the majority of the pro-HDV councillors in Haringey, the truth is this was a campaign by local Labour members who organised vigorously, without any direct involvement by national Momentum. And while there have been a few victories for the left in other areas, the reality is that in the vast majority of cases so far, existing, pro-austerity councillors have been selected.

In fact, far from organising a fightback against the right, the approach of Momentum's leadership has instead been to put a lid on discussion about council cuts. Jon Lansman, the organisation's self-appointed leader, has intervened to shut down democracy within the group, imposing a wholly top-down structure, precisely to ensure that questions like cuts and reselection are taken off the table for discussion.

This has included effectively handing control of Momentum's membership policy to Labour's right-wing compliance unit, by making membership of the party a requirement for involvement. Those excluded and expelled for holding socialist views and activism - including Socialist Party members - are de facto expelled from Momentum.

Two parties in one

This is symptomatic of a wider political strategy, which unfortunately Corbyn also bears some responsibility for. This has been characterised by an attempt to deny that there is a fundamental distinction between the pro-cuts, pro-war, Blairite Labour Party of the past, and the huge influx of working class and young people who joined to back Corbyn. Labour is really 'two parties in one'. On the one hand there is a fledgling anti-austerity party. On the other, there is the Blairite rump that dominates Labour in the parliamentary party and in local government. By and large, it will be this right-wing rump standing in May.

Many people will draw the conclusion that if they weren't removed in the selection process, the Blairite cutters and privatisers should be removed at the ballot box - and that it's much better that anti-cuts Corbyn-supporters stand than that the anger against the Blairites goes to benefit the Lib Dems or even Tories waiting in the wings. Where this is the case, socialists, anti-cuts campaigners and trade unionists will have every right to provide an electoral challenge to them by standing candidates who are willing to say no to austerity: in words, but also in deeds.

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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In The Socialist 13 December 2017:


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