For decades the Palace of Westminster has been almost completely devoid of serious disagreements. All three of the major establishment parties - the Tories, Labour and the Lib-Dems - have agreed on the central questions such as the supremacy of the ’free market’, support for privatisation and public service cuts, the necessity of austerity and the need to undermine workers’ rights to make Britain more ’competitive’.
Nine members of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, isolated on Labour’s weak left wing, were very often the lone opponents to the endless attacks on the rights of working class people. Despite their best efforts they resembled prisoners occasionally smuggling out a note to the population outside.
But now the world has been turned upside down. The Blairites - who have considered Labour as their possession for decades - are now the 4.5%: the woeful result for the most right-wing Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the most prominent MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group, are the leader of the opposition and the shadow chancellor. The pro-austerity consensus has been smashed with Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party with an overwhelming 59.5% of the vote. The hopes have been raised of millions who want to see a society for the 99% not the 1%. This is a tremendous step forward.
The Socialist Party has long argued that the potential exists in Britain for a mass anti-austerity, workers’ party. We have pointed to the five million mainly working class people who have stopped voting Labour since 1997. Profoundly disillusioned with the establishment parties many have stopped voting altogether, some have voted Green, for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, or even for Ukip in order to protest against the establishment. The austerity-lite of New Labour held no attraction to them.
An outlet for voiceless anger
We have argued that - if it could find an outlet - the up until now voiceless anger at austerity could very quickly become a powerful force. In Scotland it found an outlet in the independence referendum and then in the SNP landslide at the general election. In England and Wales it has now found an unexpected channel in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader. No-one, least of all Jeremy Corbyn - who initially stood because it was ’his turn’ - expected this outcome.
The possibility of building a powerful mass party can be seen from the events of the last few days. We have consistently fought for such a party. We considered it more likely to come into being from forces outside of the Labour Party - as has been the trend in most countries - given the Labour Party’s transformation into a capitalist party.
The lack of democracy in the Labour Party and growing levels of working class alienation from it meant a movement within the Labour Party structures was not the most likely scenario. Nonetheless, we have no fetish about by what route the crisis of working class political representation would be solved and have never excluded the possibility of Labour swinging left. As long ago as 2002 we argued 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" (Socialism Today September 2002).
However, the reality is that the Corbyn surge has mainly not come from within the Labour Party but from ’outside’ - new members and registered supporters who were attracted by the hope of something different. This is a new party in the process of formation which will face relentless attack from the ’old’ pro-capitalist New Labour.
Ironically, it was Ed Miliband’s further decimation of Labour Party democracy which created the conditions for this completely unintended consequence. Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband’s aide, has made it crystal clear that the intention of the Collins Review was to remove the final vestiges of trade union ’influence’ in the Labour Party. In doing so, however, Miliband inadvertently opened the election to hundreds of thousands of people who were enthused by Corbyn.
The registered supporter scheme, where anyone could sign up for the price of a pint, enabled 105,000 people who did not want to commit to joining the Labour Party to vote in the contest. Another 55,000 of them were ’purged’ and prevented from voting - including trade union leader Mark Serwotka - in a desperate bid to prevent Jeremy Corbyn winning.
It made no difference. More than 80% of the £3ers voted for Corbyn. Others - including students who could join the Labour Party for £1 and ex-members returning joined the Labour Party in order to vote for Corbyn. They joined a largely empty party. The turnover in Labour Party membership means that only a minority of those who voted in this election were eligible to vote in the 2010 contest. As a result, although the Blairite candidates combined vote among the full members was higher than Jeremy Corbyn’s he still came top - with 49% of the vote - in the members section as well.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has left the right wing of the Labour Party on the back foot and enthused millions. The question is how best to consolidate and extend on this success. Winning the leadership of Labour is a very long way from transforming the party as a whole. In attempting to do so, Corbyn and his supporters will face the determined opposition of not just the right-wing dominated Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour machine, but also of the capitalist class.
The Financial Times editorial the day after Corbyn’s victory described it as a ’catastrophe’ for ’British politics itself’ despairing that: "it places a maverick far-left figure at the head of a mainstream political party". Thatcher considered Blair and New Labour her greatest success. Labour had been transformed into a party that could be relied on to act in the interests of the 1%. There will now be a huge campaign to try and extinguish the anti-austerity flame that has been lit with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
The right wing of the Labour Party is on the back foot because of the scale of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Their dreams of ’getting rid of him by Christmas’ have had to be dropped. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Labour right will attempt to imprison and undermine Corbyn with the aim of removing him as soon as possible. They will not be reconciled to a Corbyn/McDonnell leadership by calls for unity and attempts to build a ’broad church’. To win requires building on the popular movement against austerity that found a voice in his election campaign. Unity has to be built around clear anti-austerity policies.
The shadow cabinet is a mixed bag. The appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, to the horror of the capitalist class, shows a willingness to oppose austerity. The same cannot be said of all of the appointees. The shadow justice secretary, the Blairite Lord Falconer, has a record of introducing draconian anti-democratic legislation. Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary, has previously supported privatisation and closure of hospitals. Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, showed how right-wing he is at the start of the leadership election campaign, supporting further benefit cuts and opposing the mansion tax as "the politics of envy".
Of course many on the right of the party have refused to serve in the shadow cabinet, but there is an element of a division of labour, with those inside the tent trying to imprison Jeremy Corbyn, and others trying to sabotage from the back benches.
To defeat the onslaught Jeremy Corbyn will face going beyond the constraints of the right-wing dominated Labour Party machine or the niceties of Labour’s constitution, recast by Blair.
As a starting point we would urgently encourage Jeremy Corbyn to organise a conference of all those who have supported him, plus the many trade unions - including non-affiliated unions like the RMT, PCS and FBU - which support a fighting anti-austerity programme. The Socialist Party would participate in such a conference and would encourage all other anti-austerity campaigners to do the same.
A campaign needs to be launched to recreate Labour’s democratic structures. Labour ’moderates’ are already bleating that the left will ’seize the party’s levers of power’ under Corbyn’s leadership. What they mean by this is "giving more control over policy to the annual conference and the National Executive Committee and less influence to the Parliamentary Labour Party" (The Independent 11.09.15). In other words restoring some of the party democracy that existed in the past!
They are also hysterically attacking any attempt to re-select MPs. Yet the right to re-select MPs just means the democratic right of a party’s members to replace an MP that has voted against the party’s policies. That should be uncontroversial. However, it is not a surprise that it upsets Labour MPs who have voted for welfare cuts, austerity and war. A fight needs to be launched to implement every one of the democratic measures which so terrifies Labour’s right wing, including restoring the rights of the organised working class, via the trade unions, within the party, introducing mandatory reselection of MPs and more.
This does not mean simply returning to the party structure which existed thirty years ago. The Labour Party was founded by the trade unions, as part of a struggle by the organised working class to create its own political voice. Nonetheless, from the beginning Labour was a capitalist workers’ party - with a working class base but a pro-capitalist leadership, but the working class was able to influence it via the party’s democratic structures. An essential part of the transformation of the Labour Party into a capitalist party over recent decades was the removal of the trade union vote within the party. This should be restored, but on a more democratic basis; fully accountable to rank-and-file trade union members.
At the same time a Corbyn-led Labour Party needs to reach out to all those opposing austerity, including community campaigns and other political parties. A new constitution could be based on the original, federal constitution of the Labour Party. Even today a few remnants of that federal constitution remain, with some MPs standing on behalf of the Cooperative Party under the Labour Party umbrella. Why couldn’t that be extended to allow anti-austerity parties and campaigns to join with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as affiliates, while maintaining their own independent identity, just as the ILP and John Maclean’s British Socialist Party were able to do in the first twenty years of the party?
Such an approach would be able to reach out to the millions, particularly of young people, who are anti-austerity and enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, but are nervous of any hint of a ’top-down’ party, particularly given their experience of the Labour Party. The dangers of a top-down approach were demonstrated in the early 1990s by the stillbirth of the Arthur Scargill-led Socialist Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn has up until now rightly taken a flexible and welcoming approach to the movement that has sprung up around him, but any insistence by his campaign that the only way to support Jeremy Corbyn is to sign up as a Labour Party member under the existing constitution would be a mistake, which potentially could act to repel potential supporters.
At local level anti-austerity alliances will be needed to bring together all of those who want to fight the cuts. This is urgent. Council services have already been cut by 39% and will face further catastrophic cuts next spring. Jeremy Corbyn has rightly made the call for councils to stand together and refuse to implement government cuts.
Some of Corbyn’s supporters however, like Owen Jones, are now emphasising the importance of him being seen to be ’moderate’ and ’reasonable’ and therefore argue that Labour councils should continue to implement Tory cuts. This would be a terrible mistake. A Corbyn-led Labour Party will be popular if it is prepared to oppose austerity. Miliband showed clearly that implementing it with a sad face will never enthuse potential Labour voters.
It is hoped that many Labour councillors will now heed Jeremy Corbyn’s call and begin to oppose austerity instead of carrying it out. Where they do so the Socialist Party will fully support their stance. But unfortunately given the character of the majority of Labour councillors (only 6% of them backed Jeremy Corbyn) it is likely that many, probably the majority, will continue to implement government cuts.
Where this happens they should be opposed by anti-austerity activists at the ballot box. This will strengthen the hand of Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-austerity movement as a whole. TUSC is already writing to Labour candidates for next May’s election in order to discuss with them their attitude to voting for cuts, with a warning that we will aim to stand against all those who continue to close our libraries, lay off council workers, evict victims of the bedroom tax and all the other cruelties that come with voting for cuts.
On a national basis it is vital that Jeremy Corbyn continues to put forward the very popular policies which won him the leadership election such as nationalisation of rail and the energy companies, a £10 an hour minimum wage, free education, council house building, and repeal of the anti-union laws.
It is nonsense to suggest these are unpopular with the general public. After all 68%, 67% and 66% support renationalisation of the energy companies, the Royal Mail and the railway companies respectively. The latest polling from Lord Ashcroft has been ignored by the capitalist media, because it showed 52% of people agree that a ’radical socialist alternative would be a good thing’.
However, it is also necessary to go beyond the very good demands Jeremy Corbyn puts forward. He has raised the popular idea of ’people’s QE’ but has not drawn all the conclusions about what would be necessary to implement such a policy. He merely calls for ’meaningful regulation of the banking sector’ rather than for nationalisation of the banks under democratic control, for example.
The experience of Syriza in Greece, where the leadership of an anti-austerity party capitulated to the pressure of big business and is now implementing austerity, shows that defeating austerity requires a determined struggle with a clear goal. Endless austerity and growing inequality are not an accident; they flow from the needs of capitalism, where profits of a few have been restored at the expense of the majority.
To permanently end austerity requires a break with capitalism. That means calling for the nationalisation - under democratic working class control - of the major companies and banks that dominate the economy. Only in this way would it be possible to begin to build a democratic socialist society planned to meet the needs of the majority instead of having, as at present, a society driven by maximising the profits of the 1%.
The most important single consequence of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is that these issues - how can inequality be ended and austerity be defeated and, above all, what is socialism and how can it be achieved are now being discussed widely. A new generation is hearing about socialist ideas for the first time. This is a great step forward which must now be built on.
TUSC asks: how far are Labour councillors willing to go?
The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) - an electoral alliance involving the RMT transport union, leading members of other trade unions and other socialist groups and individuals.
In the May parliamentary and council elections TUSC stood 750 people against Labour in 120 towns and cities. On 26 September TUSC is holding its conference - one of the first left wing meetings to discuss the changed situation in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.
Local TUSC groups are also making plans to send the following letter to all Labour candidates in next May’s local elections, asking for a meeting to discuss how far they are willing to go to back their new leader’s anti-austerity stance.
We are writing to you as a local Labour Party councillor to try and arrange a convenient time for you to meet a delegation of trade unionists and anti-austerity activists to discuss how we can build on Jeremy Corbyn’s call for councils to stand together and refuse to implement government cuts.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), co-founded by the late Bob Crow, is determined that working class people should not pay for a crisis that we did not cause, and we are happy to work together with Labour representatives who take the same stance.
We believe that Jeremy Corbyn is right to highlight the potential that councils have to resist austerity. English councils still control budgets totalling £114 billion pounds, over one fifth of all public spending, and have more financial powers than is commonly realised. Even the previous Con-Dem government’s ’localism agenda’, continued by the new Tory government, is dual-edged. Aiming to ’devolve the axe’ to councils to cut local public services, by giving local authorities a ’power of competence’ to do "anything apart from that which is specifically prohibited", the Tories have potentially given councils a greater power to resist - if they use it. TUSC has a core policy platform for local councils which can be found on our website at www.tusc.org.uk
In the last couple of years TUSC has worked with councillors in Southampton, Hull and Leicester to present legally compliant no cuts budgets to the annual budget-making meeting. Based on the use of reserves and councils’ borrowing powers, they were designed in each case to buy time for the council to organise a broad public campaign to compel the government to restore its funding. Unfortunately, on each occasion, the alternative budgets were rejected by the majority Labour groups.
One reason for doing so was that each council Labour group felt itself to be facing the government’s cuts on its own. But surely that wouldn’t be the case now, with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader? TUSC believes that in the new situation opened up by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, there really is no reason why Labour councils should not come together and refuse to implement the Tories’ brutal austerity agenda.
That is why we would like to have a face-to-face meeting with you to discuss the possibilities of joint action against austerity, based on our council joining with others to present no cuts budgets at the budget-making meetings in early 2016.