The fight for a Labour Party for the working class
Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, Merthyr Tydfil. Across Britain the biggest left rallies in a generation are taking place in defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. The Blairites’ attempted coup has mobilised a second wave of support for Corbyn, bigger even than the first one that thrust him into the Labour leadership eleven months ago. What is noticeable is the mood of openness and preparedness for unity and democracy.
Opposing and attempting to defeat the movement behind Jeremy are all the forces of the capitalist establishment, within Labour and without. It would therefore be wrong for anyone to be complacent about the outcome of the election. Nonetheless, so far each attempt by the right to try and gerrymander the election has been met with defiance by the movement and has, at least partially, been thwarte
When the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) demanded that supporters – and members who had joined after 12 January – pay a hefty £25 in just 48 hours in order to be able to vote in the leadership election, an incredible 187,000 people did so. It has been reported, however, that 40,000-50,000 were to be ruled out, in a further desperate attempt to fix the election. Anyone, for example, who has dared to accurately describe as ’traitors’ the 172 MPs who passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn was to be excluded. However, the High Court’s decision that the 130,000 Labour Party members who have joined since 12 January should be allowed to vote, provided it stands at appeal, will partially negate this latest attempt at exclusion and could swing the election decisively in Jeremy Corbyn’s favour. It cannot even be completely ruled out that Smith could pull out, using the difficulties of administering the election following the court’s decision as an excuse.
The capitalist media is doing all it can to promote the previously unknown Owen Smith, brushing his past as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Pfizer under the carpet, and allowing him to falsely pose as a ’socialist’. Smith hopes that this, combined with attempting to appeal to Remain voters by calling for a second referendum and claiming, on no grounds whatsoever, to be more electable than Corbyn, could convince a more passive layer of voters in the leadership contest to support him.
The best answer is for Corbyn to appeal to potential voters on a clear anti-austerity platform – with his programme of last year as a starting point. Some of his recent announcements, including pledging to build 500,000 council homes in his first term, to introduce rent controls, and to end privatisation of the health service, are welcome and have the potential to be enormously popular. Unfortunately, however, there have also been some retreats from the pledges he made in his initial leadership campaign, undoubtedly in the hope of pacifying the right. Nationalising the energy companies is supported by a majority of the population, yet this has been dropped from this year’s election platform. It is also unacceptable that his previous promise of free education – abolishing tuition fees and introducing a living grant – seems now to have been diluted to ’cutting’ student fees by an unspecified amount.
The huge support for Jeremy is because he is seen as representing a break with the pro-capitalist, pro-austerity, pro-war politicians that have dominated parliament for the last 20 years. Far from retreating from his initial programme, he would gain more support by building on it. He should, for example, call unequivocally for nationalising the steel industry. A call on Labour councils not to implement any more cuts to public services, the position agreed at the Unite and GMB conferences, would also be very popular.
One of the biggest rallies in defence of Corbyn was in Liverpool where up to ten thousand people came to hear him speak (see report on page 3). This is not coincidence but is linked to the history of working class struggle in the city, in which Militant – now the Socialist Party – played a key role. It was a mistake that Jeremy Corbyn, even though he supported it at the time, did not refer to the struggle of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, which successfully won £60 million from the Thatcher government.
Economist David Blanchflower has viciously attacked Corbyn’s Labour, alleging it "does not have a credible economic plan" because it fails to "accept the realities of capitalism and modern markets." The most effective way to answer this is to state clearly that Labour defies the ’realities of capitalism’, which mean misery for millions. To fully do so would mean Labour nationalising the major banks and corporations which dominate the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management, in order to begin to build a democratic socialist society, run in the interests of the majority instead of for the profits of a few.
These issues are important, not only for the leadership contest, but for beyond it. Even in the best, most likely scenario of Jeremy again winning with a large majority, it will not resolve the issues. The civil war, now it is out in the open, cannot be simply called off. There is no possibility of the Labour right accepting Jeremy Corbyn as leader, as they themselves have made very plain.
The Blairite MP Wes Streeting declared: "We’ve crossed the Rubicon, there’s no going back. This is irreparable while Jeremy remains leader." Owen Smith himself said: "I think there is every likelihood that the party will split if Jeremy wins this election. I don’t think it’s a risk, I think it’s a likelihood." Of course, at this stage no-one will admit to planning to split. But that is always the case in a war situation – all sides keep talking peace until the moment they declare war.
However, it is not certain that the right will take this path in the short term. It is clear that they themselves are feeling their way, reeling under the shock of a radicalised working class daring to interfere in ’their’ party and to threaten their careers. It is possible that they will all hesitate and cling on, hoping to overthrow Corbyn at some future point, or that some will split while others remain. As George Eaton put it in the New Statesman: "Many [of the PLP] now believe that is only through a general election that the party’s internal struggle will be resolved." What they mean by this is that Theresa May will do their job for them by calling an early election, defeating Corbyn, and they imagine, forcing him to resign.
While the right are in disarray, the tasks of the left are clear. The NEC results show clearly their increased strength within the Labour Party. The slate recommended by the Jeremy Corbyn supporting organisation,Momentum, won all the constituency seats with a much increased electorate. They received an average of around three times as many votes as in 2014, in an important step forward. However, the Momentum-recommended candidates do not all have a consistent left record. Nor, unfortunately, does the leadership of Momentum. At the same time support for the right also increased to around double what they received in 2014. And at this stage the Labour Party’s structure remains extremely undemocratic.
The worst response to Jeremy’s re-election would be to attempt to make peace with the Blairites. Instead a serious campaign is required to consolidate the victory and to transform the Labour Party into a genuinely anti-austerity, socialist party. This means taking on the main bases of establishment Labour, in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the national party apparatus and, locally, the big majority of Labour councillors.
The national structures of the Labour Party would also need to be opened out and democratised. To mobilise the maximum possible support, there should be a return to the founding structures of the Labour Party which involved separate socialist political parties coalescing with the trade unions and social movements like women’s suffrage campaigners and the co-operative movement. That federal approach applied to today would mean allowing political parties that were prepared to sign up to a clear anti-austerity programme to affiliate to Labour as the Co-op Party still does.
A fight should be launched for the immediate introduction of mandatory re-selection which would allow local parties to replace their MPs at the next general election. Unite conference passed a motion calling for this, moved by a Socialist Party member, and Unite should now fight for this at the upcoming Labour Party conference. At the same time more decisive action would need to be taken before to bring the parliamentary party into line. MPs should have the Labour whip only if they agree to accept the renewed mandate for Corbyn and his anti-austerity, anti-war policies.
For the right-wing MPs, who believe in their right to sit in parliament is God-given, this reasonable democratic demand is justification for them to split. George Eaton quotes one of them as saying: "If, however, the hard left pursue deselections then those ejected from power would most likely feel compelled into a separate party option, which really would be a disastrous split."
Let them go! Those on the left that quail at a split in the Labour Party have to face up to what pacifying the right requires; a complete capitulation to the pro-capitalist elements of the Labour Party. Nothing else will satisfy them. Only if they are given their own way, their careers protected and, most importantly, the Labour Party confined entirely in the capitalist framework of austerity, privatisation and war, will they condescend to remain in a party with the left. A return to the socialist MPs within the Labour Party being like prisoners, able to smuggle a few notes out between the bars but nothing more, is the only basis on which the Blairites can live with the left.
Many Labour supporters will fear that a split would weaken the Labour Party. In fact the opposite would be the case. True a Blairite split away would – at least initially – dramatically decrease the number of Labour MPs in Westminster. But a group of 40, or even 20 or 30, MPs who consistently campaigned against austerity and defended workers in struggle, would do far more to strengthen the fightback against the Tories than 232 ’Labour’ MPs, a majority who vote for austerity, privatisation and war.
A re-founded anti-austerity Labour Party could quickly make electoral gains. One YouGov opinion poll estimated that a Corbyn-led Labour Party following a right split would receive 21% of the vote, while if the right successfully kept the Labour name, Corbyn’s party would receive 14% of the vote. Either scenario would give a solid electoral base which could rapidly be built on. Let’s remember that Greek party Syriza, initially on an anti-austerity platform, went from under 5% to winning a general election in just a few years, while Podemos in Spain has gone from not existing to vying for power in an even shorter time.
The movement in support of Corbyn opens up a very important opportunity for working class people in Britain. It creates the possibility of the formation of a new radical workers’ party, able to attract all those workers and youth wanting to fight back against capitalism.