• Editorial of the Socialist issue 1069

Labour Party leadership contest: Fight for a mass anti-austerity, workers’ party with a socialist programme

Tories out! photo Mary Finch, photo Mary Finch

Tories out! photo Mary Finch, photo Mary Finch   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The process to elect a new leader of the Labour Party is underway and poses an essential question. What will happen to the potential, opened up by Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected leadership victory in 2015, to win a mass party in the interests of the working class?

Five candidates have secured enough nominations from MPs and MEPs to make it to the second stage. Next they have to get the nomination of three affiliated bodies, two of which must be trade unions, or 33 constituency parties. The ballot runs from 21 February to 2 April.

Corbyn’s election to the leadership led to a civil war in the Labour Party as it became two parties in one: a pro-capitalist, pro-austerity party, based on the vast majority of MPs and councillors, and the potential for an anti-austerity party around the figure of Corbyn himself.

The Blairites’ Tory-lite policies meant the implementation of savage austerity without a political challenge. Labour councils cried crocodile tears while they passed on terrible cuts to local communities. The historic loyalty to Labour in its so-called ‘red belt’ was eroded when Labour was no longer seen as the party that built homes and created jobs, but instead was the party that sacked, privatised and cut.

Corbyn’s election opened up the possibility of changing this – as long as a serious fight was mounted to take on and defeat the Blairites. But in the four and a half years since then, this fight has not been waged.

The mistaken constant compromises that the Labour leadership made with the Blairites are a central reason for Labour’s defeat in the December general election, above all on Brexit. The idea that ‘unity’ was necessary in order to secure a majority has been proven totally false.

The representatives of capitalism in the Labour Party, abetted by the capitalist press, are now doing their utmost to ensure Corbyn’s successor takes Labour back to a right-wing party.

Public debate

Nonetheless, an achievement of Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme is that the public debate has changed. Even Johnson has been forced to say he is abandoning austerity, although in reality anti-working class policies will continue with a vengeance.

The popularity of Corbyn’s programme, and the lack of social support for Blairism, is illustrated by the fact that all the right-wing defectors to Change UK and the LibDems lost their seats. Also the Labour leadership right-wing candidates avoid directly linking with Blair – desperate to portray themselves as having working-class and radical roots.

So, while Jess Philips is the arch-Blairite in the race, with a record of being, in anti-Corbyn columnist Polly Toynbee’s words, “most fearless in speaking out against Corbyn” – closely followed by Emily Thornberry, and Lisa Nandy who told the Parliamentary Labour Party hustings “if we do not change course we will die” – it is barrister Sir Keir Starmer who is currently seen as the best bet, the right-wing candidate presenting as a unifier.

He couches his campaign in terms of “not going back” from Corbyn’s anti-austerity position, and not “trashing” the last four years, while at the same time not trashing Blair either. He hopes to appeal to a layer of members who might be persuaded that the party needs to move to the ‘centre’ to be electable. But in reality, moving rightward would return Labour to the road of alienating working-class and young people.

Starmer’s campaign video displays his ‘left credentials’, showing how as a lawyer he has represented strikers, anti-poll tax protesters and environmental campaigners. A video Starmer is less likely to promote is one found by the Skwawkbox blog, showing him, in July last year, arguing for the return of arch-Blairite Alistair Campbell to the party, and supporting 5% cuts in public services. As Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, remainer Starmer continuously undermined Corbyn’s position. And he is supported in his leadership bid by Blairite organisations Labour First and Progress.

Rebecca Long-Bailey is seen as the candidate who is most likely to continue Corbynism – though Corbyn himself has not given any lead on what should happen or who to vote for, and has declared he won’t do so.

The Blairite right wingers who moved might and main to ensure a Corbyn defeat, are now campaigning to prevent Long-Bailey from winning. Former right-wing home secretary, Jack Straw, for example, says it will be a “collective suicide note” if the party selects her. The party, he says, needs a Corbynite successor “like a hole in the head”.

“Socialist programme”

Long-Bailey defends Corbyn’s “socialist programme”, talking about “bold transformative solutions to plunging living standards” and “real wealth and power must be returned to the people”. But, unfortunately, her campaign so far is very limited. Her running mate for deputy leader is Angela Raynor, who specifically says she is not a Corbynite, rather than Richard Burgon, the most left of the candidates for deputy – the only one to explicitly support nationalisation.

It doesn’t bode well, particularly given the view of many working-class people that Corbyn wasn’t strong enough, that on Radio 4’s Today programme Long-Bailey allowed herself to be pushed into saying she would be prepared to press the nuclear button. If she can’t stand up to an interviewer, people will ask, how will she stand up to the bosses? And her following the other candidates in accepting the right wing Jewish Board of Deputies demands on anti-semitism has caused uproar in the party.

Long-Bailey argues that the general election loss was because “we struggled to marry our ambitious programme with voters’ fundamental lack of trust in politicians. We had no plan to overhaul a broken political system and voters came to see Labour as part of the problem.”

But that is not surprising when Labour has not led a struggle. Long-Bailey talks about being part of a “courageous movement” but Labour has not mobilised an active movement of working-class people. The masses of young people enthused by Corbyn in 2015 and 2017 have not been organised nor mobilised. There have been no demonstrations called by the Labour leadership, there have been no ‘councils of war’ organised with the trade union leaders to plan action.

Council cuts

And, crucially, no call on Labour councils to stop making the cuts. When all people see Labour do is privatise and cut, why would they believe it would end austerity in government?

The answer to that is not to talk about mending a broken political system, but to refuse to carry out cuts and to mount a fight for the money stolen from local councils. If council cuts continue, then the lofty aims to rebuild trust will come to nothing, and cutting Labour councillors should not be surprised if there are socialist, anti-cuts candidates standing against them.

It isn’t enough to make general statements about socialism. Even Jess Phillips says she is a socialist.

As a minimum it is necessary to maintain and extend the popular policies in Corbyn’s manifesto: scrap universal credit and tuition fees, build council houses, scrap the anti-trade union laws, end privatisation and cuts in the NHS, restore benefits and end cruel sanctions, and so on. It is essential not to backtrack on the commitments to nationalisation in Corbyn’s manifesto but to strengthen them. Yet so far Long-Bailey hasn’t mentioned nationalisation.

The biggest mistake of all is to not learn the lesson that it is necessary to take on the Blairites. Nowhere does Long-Bailey refer to the right wing undermining Corbyn since day one, undermining the policies throughout the election campaign, refusing to have the radical policies in their leaflets.

Instead, she mirrors Starmer’s “ending factionalism and promoting unity” when she says, “we can win again, but first our party must come together. We are strongest when we stand together as a pluralist Labour family”.

She intervened in a Twitter exchange, in which a Corbyn-supporter was blaming Blairites for attacking Corbyn, to say: “Four years of attack and hurt within our party from all sides can’t continue. We will not survive. Be clear on what we believe but everyone MUST be clear we’ve got to do it together and do not attack anyone in our party x”.

But the last four years have demonstrated this is utopian – the only way to achieve unity with the right is to concede to them, and thus betray working-class and young people.

It isn’t simply a continuation of Corbynism that is needed – the lessons must learned. For this leadership election to result in saving what was begun by Corbynism, and the potential it represented, it can no more just be a continuation of the same than it can be a move to the ‘centre’. It will require a fight to transform the Labour Party – a refoundation as a mass anti-austerity, workers’ party with a socialist programme.

It needs to draw in trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and socialists, and mobilise mass struggle against Tory attacks and for socialist policies. A new mass party is urgently needed, if not achieved by this route, another will be necessary.

What should trade union members do?

Before making a nomination, the executive committees of the Labour-affiliated trade unions should question candidates on crucial issues and members should be consulted.

Members should demand discussion, call special meetings, put questions and demands on the candidates, and debate the way forward to build a mass working-class-based party. Trade union members should not be passive observers of this process but should fight to shape it.

  • Will the candidates defend and extend the policies in Corbyn’s manifesto? Are they committed to Corbyn’s nationalisation pledges?
  • Where do candidates stand on the union’s policies. For example, transport workers will want to know, where do the candidates stand on Driver-Only Operation, or on the £1 billion a year cuts to Transport for London, or on nationalisation of the railways?
  • Will the candidates pledge to scrap the anti-trade union laws? Will they join with the RMT to fight Johnson’s threats to ban all-out strikes on rail services?
  • Crucially, will Labour councils continue to carry out cuts? Or will the Labour leadership finally make it clear that Labour councils should stop the nightmare of cuts to jobs, pay and services, and instead mount a fight to win back the billions stolen by Tory and ConDem governments since 2010? Will they support workers who strike to defend their jobs and pay? Will they withdraw party recognition from those councillors who continue to make cuts?
  • Do they support mandatory reselection of parliamentary candidates, enabling members to democratically deselect Blairites? Will they support unions having the right to directly nominate candidates onto party shortlists?