Britain: A political earthquake

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is a political earthquake that transforms the situation in Britain and poses stark questions for how a new mass socialist force can be built.

Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales)

Jeremy Corbyn achieved a spectacular victory in the Labour leadership election with 59% of the total vote, scoring an unprecedented quarter of a million votes, including nearly 50% of full Labour Party members and a magnificent 84% of the £3 registered supporters. This election was a victory for the left, anti-austerity campaign and for working people generally. Yet within days, the hounds of the capitalist media were predictably let loose in a concerted campaign seeking to savage and discredit him.

‘Catastrophe’, ‘unelectable’, ‘disaster’ were just some of the more moderate phrases churned out to describe his election and to write off any future for him, his ideas and the forces which his campaign have aroused. Like former Labour leader Michael Foot before him, his dress sense was ridiculed. As if not wearing a tie was more important to the millions looking for deliverance from Cameron’s capitalist barbarism than his very accurate charge of ‘poverty deniers’ levelled against the Tory government!

A whipped up synthetic fury was generated because he quite correctly refused to sing the ‘national anthem’ – originally an anti-Scottish and pro-imperialist hymn to a relic of feudalism. Despite his well-known anti-monarchist, pro-republican views, and his silent recognition for the victims of war, he was still unreservedly condemned. Corbyn would be absolutely correct not to bow the knee to the monarchy and it would be wrong to now retreat, as some Labour spokespersons have advised, and mouth the words of the national anthem. If he bends under pressure on this issue, then he can retreat on bigger and more fundamental issues. Moreover, he would then be accused of complete hypocrisy! The monarchy is maintained, swallowing up huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, not just for decorative purposes or to help to stupefy the masses. It is a possible political weapon in the future around which capitalist reaction could mobilise at a certain stage against a democratic, left and socialist government, perhaps one led by Jeremy Corbyn himself.

Jeremy Corbyn2

The plotting begins

The defeated right wing of the Labour Party also joined in the campaign of vilification, fuelling the press campaign by effectively going on strike, pursuing ‘non-co-operation’, refusing to collaborate with Corbyn on his frontbench team, with open personal and political criticisms disparaging Corbyn and everything he stands for.

However, even before the leadership election they had been utterly discredited by their pro-big business measures when their leaders – Blair and Brown – were in power. Their candidate Liz Kendall received a meagre 4.5% of the vote. In a pathetic echo of a slogan of Scottish nationalists after the referendum, they lamented ‘We are the 4.5%’! Yet it took less than a week for the visible fault lines of a future possible split within the Labour Party, particularly in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), to be revealed. Despite the scale of Corbyn’s victory – he got a bigger vote than Blair – in reality, while facing the Tory enemy, he has behind him on the Labour parliamentary benches just 15 to 20 MPs who actually voted for him in the leadership contest. The majority of his ‘own side’ are potential political assassins, waiting for the first opportunity to knife him in the back.

Former ‘Labour’ splitters, such as the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who infamously defected to the traitors of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981, recognises with Shirley Williams, one of the original ‘Gang of Four’, that the immediate aftermath of a landslide election for Corbyn is not a propitious time to repeat this. The ground has not yet been fully prepared. Nevertheless, as Robert Peston, the BBC commentator, has revealed, the right is already plotting, with unnamed Labour right-wingers negotiating with the hated Osborne and raising the idea of going over to the Tories at a certain stage. The Evening Standard reported approaches to the Liberal Democrats.

It is not fanciful to envisage that if a right-wing Eurosceptic split takes place in the Tory party in the aftermath of a probable EU referendum next year, those Tory MPs who are left could easily link up with right-wing ‘Labour’ MPs in a new political realignment. After all, they have a shared political position supporting Osborne and Cameron’s brutal defence of capitalism and the savage programme of cuts that flows from this.

A defining moment which profoundly affected the Labour leadership campaign was the spectacle of Labour MPs refusing to vote against the cruel Welfare Bill which will see a halving of welfare payments to millions of families who will not be compensated by an increase in the pitiful minimum wage, as Osborne claims. This involved not just open right wingers but those like Andy Burnham, who was originally touted by some trade union general secretaries as a ‘left’ alternative candidate to Corbyn!

However the ground has to be properly prepared by the right-wing Labour forces for their plots to succeed. When in 1931 Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour traitors who supported him betrayed Labour and organised the National Government together with the Tories, Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, wanted to join him. But he was advised by Macdonald and his supporters to remain within the ‘Labour fold’ in order to protect the rump of the Labour party from falling into the grip of the left.

A similar division of labour was employed by the Labour right who remained within the Labour Party when the SDP was formed in 1981. Roy Hattersley, writing in the Guardian, reveals this. He declares: “There is a real risk of disintegration. There will be no formal split [but] the parliamentary party ought to take control of the political agenda – using the Thursday evening meeting to discuss the line that Labour should take in the House of Commons debates and, where necessary, voting to confirm the decision… As late as 1984, the Shadow Cabinet found that unilateralism was on the agenda. Denis Healey simply announced: ‘We won’t have it’. That is the spirit in which moderates should agree to serve”.

There you have it! The Corbyn surge, the democratic wishes of Labour voters and members, who attended unprecedented mass meetings, the 30,000 and more who joined Labour in the first days after Corbyn’s victory looking for change, should be just swept aside. In its place a parliamentary ‘dictatorship’ of the ‘4.5%’ should rule the roost within the PLP, which should in turn dictate to the mass forces which have gathered behind Corbyn.

After the 1981 split, Hattersley became the deputy leader of the Labour Party under then Labour leader ‘Baron’ Neil Kinnock. He shows breath-taking hypocrisy when he explains how they expelled us, Militant supporters (now the Socialist Party) for allegedly being ‘organised’. Yet he describes in the same article how the right ‘organised’, ineffectually it has to be said, against the left and particularly Militant. He writes: “Labour Solidarity” – the misnamed Labour right-wing organisation – “set up in 1981, kept the details of its operations secret, not because they were sinister, but because they were risible”. In other words, as we pointed out at the time, including in live television debates viewed by millions of workers, we faced expulsion from the Labour Party not because we were ‘organised’ but because we were better organised than the right in fighting for a working class, socialist programme!

Nobody could foresee

Hattersley issues a clarion call to the current diminished forces of right-wing Labour: “The sooner the fightback begins the better”. However, he and the rest of the gaggle of former discredited right-wing Labour leaders who sought to intervene against Corbyn in the leadership election, have already completely failed. Tony Blair admitted that they are at a loss to explain the colossal changes which have taken place in the objective situation between the early 1990s and today: “I don’t understand how this situation could develop”. His denunciation of Corbyn, together with those of Gordon Brown and Kinnock, buttressed by every capitalist paper, had as much effect as a drop of water on a hot stove. Indeed, so discredited were Blair and the three other candidates who stood on the right, that attacks from this quarter on Corbyn enormously reinforced his attraction to millions of young people, workers and even sections of the middle-class. Nevertheless, the suppressed outrage that ‘their’ party seems to have been taken away from them by Corbyn has bubbled to the surface. Such is their anger towards Corbyn that within days of his election victory, the embryo of a future right split is evident.

Equally on the left, in the aftermath of May’s general election, some of the forces to be found around Corbyn now were weighing up the future prospects of the left, in what appeared to be limited possibilities for progress within the Labour Party. Patrick Wintour in the Guardian has revealed that John McDonnell, now the shadow chancellor, spoke “of creating a new political formation, something that came close to advocating a new party”. At the Bakers Union conference, he said: “There are not enough socialists… It is time we started to get together… And let us have one common front against austerity. Let’s start working together and maybe from that we can get an electoral formation that is more effective”. Clearly, just after the election, a new mass workers’ party was in the air, even to those who were to be found later around the Corbyn campaign. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in crystallising this consciousness that a working class political alternative was an urgent imperative, has had an effect on the Corbyn forces.

But nobody could foresee – even John McDonnell – in advance what would be the lightning conductor for the accumulated rage against austerity. In Scotland, it was the pro-independence campaign – and the bitter opposition expressed towards Labour, the ‘red Tories’ – around which young people and workers mobilised in what was really a mass anti-austerity rising. We supported the right of self-determination and the ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. However, there were some alleged ‘Marxists’ who, incredibly, were on the other side of the barricades, shamefully supporting right-wing Labour’s ‘No’ vote. After the referendum, however, they performed an amazing, unprincipled volte face, abandoning without any explanation their ossified position held for decades that ‘work within Labour was the only alternative’. The fact that they never worked within a right-wing empty Labour party was immaterial to the propagandistic sects, which never seek to engage with the real movements of the working class. The ‘traditional organisation’ for them was now the tiny Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) which they duly worked within!

No absolutes

We, on the other hand, as the accompanying article reprinted from Socialism Today indicates, have never had a fetish where parties and political formations are concerned. In 2002 we declared: “There are no absolutes in politics for Marxism, short of the fact that capitalism is incapable of satisfying the needs of the working class and humankind in general. Moreover, Lenin remarked that history knows all kinds of changes. Some of them can be of the most unlikely character. In the early 1990s, we, then Militant, now the Socialist Party, took a decision to work independently from Labour in order to carry on a struggle in defence of working-class rights and conditions, and for socialism. It was no longer possible to do this within the increasingly rightward moving Labour Party”.

But we also explained that while “the further shift to the right under Blair transformed Labour into an open capitalist party… Theoretically, Marxism has never discounted that, under the impact of great historic shocks – a serious economic crisis, mass social upheaval – the ex-social democratic parties could move dramatically towards the left. Marxism is not dogmatic. History demonstrates that mass parties of the working class can move from left to right and back again. Bourgeois parties also, or a section of them, can break away and form the nucleus of new workers’ parties, and former workers’ parties can metamorphose into bourgeois parties”.

Since this was written there have indeed been great ‘historic shocks’: the 2007-08 world economic crisis, massive upheavals in southern Europe, Ireland, etc, and the Corbyn phenomena presages similar upheavals in Britain. In 2002, it was impossible to envisage the precise form which this struggle to build a mass workers’ party would take. In answer to those who envisaged an internal ‘long march’ to reverse the grip of the right wing and ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party, the late Bob Crow quipped: “Reclaim the Labour Party? We can’t even reclaim our flat!” He was referring to the difficulties which his union had encountered in trying to get the then deputy leader of the Labour Party, John Prescott, to end his occupancy of a low-rent flat owned by the RMT.

This position with Labour remained the case right up to the last few months. The Corbyn surge came primarily from fresh forces outside of the Labour Party, with a partial influx of past members – not forgetting four million lost voters in disgust at Blair’s role – who had been utterly repelled and disillusioned by the Iraq war and the pro-privatisation, anti-working class programme of Blair and Brown. Jeremy Corbyn was the catalyst for this development. However, for it to become durable and lasting, the forces gathered around this campaign – the 30,000 who applied for Labour Party membership within days of his victory – must be provided with a perspective, a programme and an organisational structure that can go to the end in a struggle with capitalism and its agents, because that is what they are, on the right wing of the PLP and within the party apparatus at local and national level.

Channelling the surge

How to do this? Firstly, it must recognise that the Corbyn surge has its roots in the same phenomena which resulted in the ‘Green surge’ and the mass movement around the Scottish referendum. It was the deep crisis of capitalism in Britain and worldwide – with its attendant savage cuts in living standards, the housing crisis, etc – that fatally undermined Blairism, right-wing social democracy, not just in Britain but worldwide. This is illustrated clearly in the fresh lessons of Greece. Syriza came to power only in January of this year! But the subsequent betrayal by Tsipras of the Greek workers’ hopes and his acceptance of the savage cuts in living standards by the troika were equivalent to the sell-out of the social democratic leaders on 4 August, 1914, which paved the way for the devastating world war. Capitulation by the Greek government means continuing the civil war against the living standards of the masses of the workers. Not least of the effects of this is the real danger of the right-wing New Democracy winning in this month’s general election alongside the ominous return also of the fascist Golden Dawn.

The Green surge rose rapidly but tended to ebb equally speedily, partly because of the failure of the Greens to politically satisfy these new layers and also because of the potential powerful pull of Corbynism, which has partly occupied their political ground and compelled Green MP Caroline Lucas, for instance, to offer collaboration with Corbyn in the anti-austerity campaign. Another factor is the character of the forces that have been propelled into action. They are fresh, impatient and looking for speedy solutions both politically and organisationally to their problems. Unless a means can be found for harnessing and integrating these forces into a powerful anti-austerity campaign, the danger is that they could be rapidly dissipated. They will not find such an avenue in the ruinous political policies – particularly the cuts agenda of local Labour councils – which still dominate. Then there are the largely moribund structures of the Labour Party which have been reduced in most areas to an unrepresentative rump.

The solution to the conundrum of how to mobilise effectively the forces summoned up by Corbyn, his campaign and his speeches in parliament is mainly political, but also partly organisational. The overriding issue in any anti-austerity campaign is the necessity for implacable opposition to all cuts. This is the defining issue for the labour movement at this stage and in the foreseeable future. Any councillor who intends to vote for cuts, no matter how ‘reluctantly’, should be opposed in elections. The battle against the Tory government’s anti-union laws is also crucial.

Corbyn has correctly called for all Labour councils to stand together against Osborne’s savage agenda for further cuts. If this is to mean anything, it is that they must oppose all cuts, not just ‘some’, at the same time introducing needs budgets linked to a mass campaign of resistance to the Tory government’s agenda. This cannot be organised through the machinery of the Labour Party or through Labour councillors unless they commit themselves to a thoroughgoing anti-cuts programme. Most Labour councillors now constitute a caste, financially rewarded – unlike in the past – and largely cushioned from the day-to-day pressures of ordinary working class people.

The structures of the past have gone. The right succeeded in dissipating the voice of the organised trade union working class within the Labour Party through the Collins Review. Blair welcomed this, stating that he wished he would have done it himself! Ironically, this anti-trade union ‘reform’ was seized upon by the previously inert masses outside the Labour Party to strike a blow against the right and mobilise behind Corbyn attracted by his anti-austerity programme. This is, in effect, a new party in the process of formation.

A new party in formation

This must be built on and deepened. Call a conference of all anti-austerity forces which can elaborate a clear programme of no cuts, and the necessary action at local and national level to implement this! It is also necessary at the same time to create a parallel organised framework around Corbyn, which could organise the campaign to involve all anti-austerity and socialist forces in a new mass movement. The Socialist Party and TUSC will be part of such a movement. The capitalist media has turned on Corbyn, hurled mud in an unprecedented fashion, but such is the mass hostility to capitalism and its parties from the majority of the population, the working class and big sections of the middle-class, who have suffered grievously through the crisis, then this will have little effect if Corbyn sticks to his guns and draws on the considerable political capital which he has gained so far. Tory guru Lord Ashcroft, in a recent poll, found majority support for a ‘radical socialist alternative’. Opinion polls overwhelmingly favour the nationalisation of the railways and other failing industries.

Therefore, the conclusions to draw from Corbyn’s victory should be: no prevarication, no retreats, no bending to the scheming splitters in the right-wing PLP or to the ‘constitutional requirements’ of the current Labour Party structures. Appeal outside the hallowed halls of parliament to the mass of working people who are yearning for change. It is ominous that Corbyn has seemingly, through press briefings of his advisors, already retreated on some issues, including the EU, in which he has hinted he will now campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in next year’s referendum, claiming his support for a mythical ‘social Europe’.

Nobody foresaw clearly in the immediate aftermath of the general election the Corbyn surge, least of all himself and his closest allies like John McDonnell, as they freely admit. It was the growing mass anger, which had been stored up in the whole of the previous period, which led to his victory. This could have found an outlet earlier if the left trade union leaders had acted to form a new party. The mood for this was so powerful that it seized hold of the Corbyn campaign to open a new road in the anti-austerity struggle.

The Labour right-wing’s real political support, even in the 1980s, rested primarily in the apparatus of the Labour party and the right-wing led unions, and was very weak. Witness the great success at that time of the left symbolised in the growth of Militant into a substantial force leading mass movements in Liverpool and against the poll tax, as well as the support for the movement around Tony Benn. Initially, the right were forced to bend to prevailing political winds, adopting a left face, amidst a pronounced swing towards the left, both within the union movement and in the Labour Party itself. They only gained a modicum of support later, through repression and purges, particularly against Militant but of others on the left as well. This was reinforced by the defeats of the working class: the miners’ strike, the battles in Liverpool, etc, (in which, moreover, they, together with right-wing union leaders, were complicit in bringing about), and the ideological setback of the seeming triumph of capitalism following the collapse of Stalinism.

The attacks on Militant, as we pointed out at the time, represented the beginning of the end of the Labour Party as a specifically workers’ party at bottom. Marxists had described it as a bourgeois workers’ party – a pro-capitalist leadership resting on a worker base. However, subsequent events, with the assumption to the Labour leadership of Blair and his implementation of a right-wing political and organisational strategy, prepared the ground for his political ‘counter-revolution’. This resulted over time in completely changing the party’s basic working class character.

It is ironic that the right, during the leadership election, raised the ‘spectre’ of a future ‘purge’ against Blairite MPs, by which they meant mandatory reselection. Therefore they pursued their own pre-emptive ‘purge’ by disqualifying an estimated 50,000 potential voters in the leadership campaign. Even this did not prevent the onward march of Corbyn and the left.

However, this will not deter the right from pursuing a war of attrition against Corbyn and the left, to nullify the wider effects of his victory and also to seek to water down and undermine Corbyn’s more radical policies. At the same time, they have already surrounded him physically and politically in the new shadow cabinet, which is stuffed with open or concealed opponents seeking the first opportunity to return to a Blairite agenda.

Massive counter pressure must be organised against the blackmail and political intimidation of Labour’s right. The fate of working people is at stake here with a great opportunity to create a new mass socialist force which can begin to transform the situation and open up a new socialist road. Similar opportunities have been lost here and in other countries in the past to radically change conditions in favour of working people and their families. We are now presented with a new opportunity which must not be lost!