Britain’s earthquake election

Consolidating the Corbyn revolution


In April Theresa May called a snap general election with the Tories 20 points ahead in the polls – expecting to win easily and to rout Labour. Then Jeremy Corbyn defied Labour’s right wing and launched a radical anti-austerity manifesto. Now May hangs by a thread, presiding over a split party in a minority government – reeling from mounting anger at savage cut-backs epitomised by the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire. PETER TAAFFE writes.

Following the failure of Tory prime minister Theresa May’s disastrous gamble to call a general election, which was predicated on the assumption of the ‘inevitable’ crushing of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, the most popular dish in Britain, certainly among bourgeois commentators and right-wing Labour, is humble pie. In fact, there is a danger of a shortage, a run on the shops which sell it!

From the beginning, the Socialist Party said Corbyn could win on the basis of a radical campaign. The Labour right and commentators spent two years vilifying him – including during the election and after Labour’s poor results in council elections on 4 May. They are now falling over themselves to admit they were wrong. We are being treated to the nauseating spectacle of hypocritical mea culpas from the likes of Polly Toynbee, whose Guardian column supplied anti-Corbyn ammunition to the right wing of the Labour Party. And from MPs like Harriet Harman and Owen Smith, the defeated candidate in the second leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn.

Even Peter Mandelson, the Blairite ‘prince of darkness’, congratulated Corbyn. Mandelson’s ‘master’ Tony Blair, however, has remained quiet so far, perhaps conscious of the fact that his friend Bill Clinton commented when Corbyn won the leadership that Labour had elected “the maddest person in the room”. The right are not motivated by principle or by a Damascene conversion but by the lure of office, future rewards in a possible Labour government. In addition, the most conscious right-wing figures are well aware of their role as the ultimate guardians of capitalism within the Labour Party. Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher boast that her greatest achievement was Blair, the organiser of the counter-revolution against socialism and the left.

During the election campaign Labour remained two parties in one, with the pro-bourgeois right wing not letting up for a moment in their undermining of Corbyn. In fact, there were two Labour campaigns. A number of Labour MPs and candidates explicitly attacked Jeremy Corbyn. John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness, appealed for votes as a Labour candidate but specifically opposed supporting Corbyn for prime minister. Another was Phil Wilson, Labour candidate in Blair’s old Sedgefield constituency, who declared: “People don’t like Corbyn; I don’t like Corbyn”.

Others did not even mention Corbyn or the Labour manifesto in their election literature. They were preparing for the aftermath and the expected humiliation of Corbyn, when they would be able to claim that it was purely their own efforts and personal programme that guaranteed them success. Many of these right-wing MPs, on the coat-tails of Corbyn’s radical manifesto, saw big increases in their votes. The urge for unity is powerful in the labour movement but it would be childishly naive to imagine that the right have undergone a miraculous conversion to Corbynism and socialism.

Nor should the workers and youth who enthusiastically backed Jeremy Corbyn pass over in silence the scandalous sabotage by Labour’s headquarters machine, led by general secretary Ian NcNicol and Tom Watson MP, Labour deputy leader. They displayed unrelenting hostility towards candidates from the left, often starving them of help and finance while showing gross favouritism and bias toward the right-wing parliamentary candidates. The Labour officialdom at national and local level is the same old Blairite bureaucratic machine with a thin veneer of ‘radicalism’.

Manifesto game changer

The Socialist Party energetically supported Corbyn, throwing in our resources and receiving the thanks of Labour activists. We argued from the beginning that, if Labour and Corbyn were to fight on a radical programme and manifesto of consistent anti-austerity and socialism, it would find a huge response among British people after more than a decade of brutal austerity. We said that it could not be ruled out that Corbyn could win and a Labour government brought to power.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has argued correctly that, if the campaign had continued for a few more weeks, Jeremy Corbyn would have crossed the finishing line as the victor and would now be in power in 10 Downing Street. This is confirmed by the post-election polls which show a dramatic increase for Corbyn, who is now ahead of May and the Tories.

Our analysis was validated and the gloomy prognostications – unfortunately from some trade union leaders on the right, and the left as well – were ripped to shreds from the moment that the manifesto was launched. It was a decisive moment, a game changer. The promise to abolish tuition fees, particularly for those who are starting university in September, ignited a youthquake, with young people and workers turning out in mass rallies. Unprecedented thousands attended, chanting like football crowds: “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” Indeed, a mass rally took place at Tranmere Rovers football ground in Birkenhead, Merseyside.

Labour secured a dramatic increase in support from young people with an estimated 63% voting for Corbyn. They also provided the shock troops for a stepped-up campaign on the doorstep. This support was particularly expressed through social media which assumed a bigger importance in this election for Corbyn and Labour, with an estimated 56% of voters consulting and participating on Facebook. The Tories ascribed their victory over Ed Miliband in the 2015 general election to their more effective social media campaign, but the tables were decisively turned this time with the mobilisation and channelling of the energy of youth to help to secure the huge advance for Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn has pointed out that Labour added 3.5 million votes in this election, the best results for Labour since 1945. Some of the individual results were nothing short of spectacular. In Bristol West, for instance, the majority for the Labour candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, was just 400 votes less than the total number of votes Theresa May received in her own constituency!

London swung massively against the Tories. The capital now occupies a similar position to New York, where the Republicans have been reduced to a small minority. Likewise, London has come out for Corbyn and Labour with just a few Tory enclaves remaining. London is now a ‘tale of two cities’, one inhabited by the rich and the other by a growing army of the poor and working class that supplies the sweated labour to keep the city running. A searing class polarisation exists between a handful of the rich – many of them absentee foreign billionaires – living cheek by jowl, sometimes separated by just a street, with the poor and working class who live in unspeakable deprivation and poverty.

Deadly austerity

The terrible Grenfell Tower fire has illuminated this perhaps even more than the general election result itself – and has driven further nails into May’s coffin. The tower stands in the Kensington constituency, in Britain’s richest borough, and saw the election of a Labour MP for the first time just a week before this disaster. The Labour candidate, Emma Dent Coad, had campaigned against the scandalous Thatcherite housing record of the Tory-dominated council.

This illustrates the gathering mass opposition that exists on many issues in the capital, particularly housing with unaffordable sky-high rents and ruthless landlords. The election was the heat lightning flashes of the storm to come. This has now taken place as a result of the creation of this monstrous crematorium for workers and their families, including helpless and terrified children.

It is no accident that the rollcall of the dead – more accurately, of those killed by capitalist neglect arising from the lust for easy profits by ‘developers’ and their cronies at national and local government level – is made up in the main of immigrants and people of colour from the very poorest backgrounds. Moreover, the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity in the wake of the tragedy – not to say, the selfless heroism of the firefighters – has given the lie to the capitalist myth that working people are too selfish, narrow minded and impervious to the message of socialism, of the working class banding together to change society.

The roots of this catastrophe are to be found in the Thatcherite Tory-led counter-revolution – also backed in practice by Blairite Labour councils. The savage cuts in housing combined with the sale of council housing, the bias against ‘social housing’, and the denunciation of so-called ‘red tape’ (necessary health and safety regulations). It was only a matter of chance that this catastrophe unfolded in a Tory-led council. ‘Labour’ councils have also turned a deaf ear to safety concerns in their own high-rise flats. They have carried out savage cuts which endanger workers’ lives.

Tory propaganda neutralised

These events have naturally evoked enormous interest and support in Britain but also internationally among the new layer of radicalised and resurgent young people. Bernie Sanders, who is at the head of a mass movement in the US – unfortunately, still imprisoned within the framework of the capitalist Democratic Party – participated briefly in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign and greeted his advance in the election, as has the labour movement in many countries.

This is a harbinger of a new internationalism and the resurgence of socialism. And, remember, this is the result not of an electoral victory but of a dramatic advance for Corbyn’s radical programme, as with the movement around Sanders in the US and Podemos in Spain. The irony is that the alleged victor, May, is in fact the loser, while Corbyn is seen as having won! The Corbyn phenomenon is a promissory note for the compulsive movements – the leaps in consciousness among workers and youth – that will inevitably come in Britain and worldwide because rotten and outmoded capitalism does not open up a new vista.

Moreover, it was not in the main a revolt against Brexit by ‘remainers’, particularly on the part of the youth, even though bourgeois commentators maintain that this was the principal cause of Corbyn’s advance. If this were so why did the Liberal Democrats crash, who were the leading advocates for Remain and a second referendum, followed by the resignation of their leader Tim Farron? The majority understood that the caravan had moved on. Even most remainers realised that it was impossible to reopen the issue without risking mass protests. In addition, a big proportion of former UKIP voters swung over to support Corbyn and Labour. Why? Because the overarching issue in this election was austerity and a determination to punish its main architects, the Tory government.

Corbyn’s stress on austerity ensured his dramatic advance. Even the two terrible terrorist attacks in Manchester and London did not allow the Tories to divert attention to the ‘security’ field – though they tried. After these incidents – with the help of the media, and working on the principle that ‘when it hurts go to nurse’ (ie May) – the Tories sought to blame Corbyn for being ‘soft’ on terrorism. It did not work even with the police, as Labour unexpectedly evoked sympathy from them by turning the tables on May because of Tory government cuts to police numbers. Indeed, so evident was the anti-austerity mood of the police that many openly fraternised on demonstrations against the bombings, even suggesting they take selfies with the marchers!

When the media tried to exploit Jeremy Corbyn’s connections with Sinn Féin and some of his mistaken positions in the past, this cut no ice, particularly with the new generation to whom the ‘troubles’ in Ireland are a distant past. This and the failure of the media, particularly the gutter press, to shape the election in favour of the Tories – partly because of the counterweight of social media – meant that Corbyn was able to break through the propaganda barrage and get his anti-austerity message through to working people, young people and even disgruntled sections of the middle class.

This was especially so with the emphasis in the manifesto on the nationalisation of energy, water and the railways. This was and is the most leftward-inclined programme of any of the new left parties which have developed in Europe in the recent period. Although, in truth, it was quite a mild social-democratic programme, the context in which it was put forward – decades of neoliberal policies, privatisation, the driving down of wages – represented a dramatic change in course.

The manifesto did not propose to go back to the programme of large-scale nationalisation put forward by François Mitterrand in France in the 1980s, or even to the proposals of the Labour Party in the same decade. Labour at that time included the call for the nationalisation of 25 major companies. Nevertheless, it dramatically altered the perception of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, particularly in the eyes of radicalised new sections of the population, especially young people although not exclusively. The older generation responded enthusiastically to the pledge to maintain the winter fuel payment and opposition to ending the ‘triple lock’ on pensions.

May left hanging

To compound the problems, May scored a spectacular own goal by threatening to make the elderly pay for their social care after death by seizing their assets. This was immediately interpreted correctly as a ‘dementia tax’. This had a similar effect to that felt by Gordon Brown in 2007 when he proposed an inheritance tax so elderly people would pay for their own social care. It was the opposition of then shadow chancellor, George Osborne, and his promise to fight the proposal in any possible election, which compelled Brown to cancel his plans for an early election. This postponement ultimately led to the Con-Dem coalition coming to power in 2010.

May was compelled to effectively abandon the dementia tax – unprecedentedly, in the middle of the election. Although it did not result in her defeat, she was severely wounded, returned to office not with a thumping majority as she hoped but in a hung parliament. The Tories are only able to survive through a tawdry deal with the sectarian Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

However, this brings its own contradictions. While opposing same-sex marriage and maintaining a ban on a woman’s right to choose, the DUP supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum. It could prop up the government while extracting a big price in terms of increased public expenditure, on which Northern Ireland is more dependent than Britain as a whole. Moreover, Tory luminaries such as former prime minister John Major and Michael Heseltine – together with Peter Hain, former Labour Northern Ireland secretary – have warned that the ‘peace process’ could break down and the Good Friday Agreement could be scrapped because of a reinforcement of naked sectarianism. In reality, this has never ended but has been contained up to now.

So precarious is May’s position that her government could be brought down at any time. One Tory admitted: “[May] can last for one month or five months… Who knows?” One thing is clear, the split within the Tory party is of Grand Canyon proportions, is naked and open. “We will split. We hate each other”, declared a Tory MP anonymously.

Well-known Tory commentator Tim Montgomery was prepared to go on the record in the London Evening Standard, calling for the head of Theresa May: “Every day she remains in charge is a wasted day. Every day the country inches closer to an election for which Jeremy Corbyn will have added more activists to his impressive turnout machine… Mrs May’s flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was not just further proof she’s not that good at politics. It was another moment of not rising to the occasion as a leader with vision would do… We must not underestimate Corbyn. Voters who yearn for change may well roll the dice if forced to choose between Corbyn and ‘the same old Tories’.” Meanwhile, the Observer warned that May “could be facing her own poll tax moment over botched responses to the [Grenfell] disaster”. Osborne, now editor of the Evening Standard, openly speculates that May could be gone in a matter of weeks.

Historically, the Tory party has been the most successful bourgeois party in Europe, the voice of the British ruling class, the ‘natural governing party’. British capitalism took great care to hide its divisions, in particular from the gaze of a rising labour movement which would seek to exploit any weaknesses. It even invented a special form of hypocrisy, ‘cant’: parliamentary language and etiquette to disguise its divisions. Not anymore. There is open discussion about the coming civil war within the Tory party. We have pointed out that this is potentially the biggest split in the Tories since the schism over the Corn Laws in the first half of the 19th century. That saw the Tories out of power for decades. Europe has been a running sore in the Tory party ever since Britain entered the Common Market in 1973.

Labour right bides time

It is mirrored in the ongoing and parallel civil war within Labour which has not been settled by Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the election campaign and subsequent events like the Grenfell Tower fire. Corbyn intervened well on that issue, correctly calling for the requisition of empty properties to house the survivors. This kind of demand and language, which the Socialist Party has consistently raised as a solution to ever-growing homelessness, has not been heard from Labour Party leaders for decades! Together with the bold demand for nationalisation, it shows the potential for a Corbyn-led government to be pushed even further by mass pressure. Equally, it is this which makes the bourgeois even more determined to try and prevent this happening.

The deep roots of the conflict are to be found in the fact that neither side – the Blairites, their core thinkers and fellow travellers, or Corbyn’s radical base among young people and in the trade unions – can be fully reconciled even after Corbyn’s success. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is still steeped in the ideas of Blair, of Labour remaining within the framework of capitalism, and ultimately being prepared to bow to the pressures of the system, including implementing austerity policies, albeit of a ‘softer’ character.

They are not socialists, whereas the ranks, the broad support for Corbyn and Labour, are implacably opposed to further austerity and are moving towards embracing socialism. While some of the right present themselves as being at ease with Corbyn, the veteran witch-hunter John Spellar compared his success to being freed from execution on a Friday only to face a life sentence on Monday!
The rest of the right, the majority, are biding their time. Only Owen Smith has been taken into the shadow cabinet – a big mistake on Corbyn’s part – and given responsibility for the Northern Ireland Office, the equivalent of a Siberian power station!
The overwhelming majority of the PLP come from Blair’s political stable of managing capitalism at national and particularly local level, acting as a transmission mechanism implementing the Tory government’s savage cuts. They have been a fifth column constantly seeking to undermine and eventually overthrow Corbyn, thereby preventing Labour’s shift towards the left. However, it would be more accurate to describe them – with only a small minority of new MPs coming from the left – as the ‘four-fifths column’, the fraction of the PLP who showed no confidence in Corbyn in the last two years.

They may try to disguise their political position, with some masquerading as ‘soft lefts’. There have been reports of an attempt by Yvette Cooper and others to resurrect the Tribune newspaper around which a section of the left gathered in the past. Tribune fell into a state of disrepair as the Blairites strengthened their grip on Labour. Cooper and her friends do not represent a genuine attempt to organise a fighting left wing but a screen around which a discredited right can regroup.

End Tory cuts

Wishful thinking, particularly in conditions of crisis – and we face a profound crisis in Britain, both of an economic and political character – is a grave mistake. The right have not undergone a deathbed conversion. Not only in the PLP and Labour headquarters but at council and other levels they remain in control. They intend to carry out the bidding of the government if the Tories manage to cling to power. What will that mean but a continuation of the cuts which laid the basis for the disaster at Grenfell Tower? The cabal in charge of Kensington and Chelsea’s Tory council deliberately refused repeated demands by the tenants for adequate safety measures to be installed, while they had £273 million in reserves!

There can be no more conciliation with right-wing Labour. If they are not confronted, they will continue to pass on the Tory government’s cuts. Jeremy Corbyn should act in the same bold manner as he did over Grenfell Tower and issue an immediate call to arms, instructing all Labour councillors and cabinets: ‘No implementation of Tory cuts. No school closures, sacking of teachers or local government workers. Implement no-cuts budgets’. Nobody can pretend that such an approach would not be popular. Indeed, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins wrote: “People are entitled to the city they want. When in the 1980s Liverpool’s Militant movement asked Everton’s inhabitants what should be done with their towers, the reply was pull them down and give us back the streets. It was done”.

If Labour groups and council cabinets refuse to change course, the demand must be for them to step aside and be replaced with real fighters who are prepared to mobilise working people. The Socialist Party always starts from what is in the interests of the working class. It will not only be the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which will come into conflict with Labour councils, and even be forced to challenge electorally the ‘little butchers’ who preside over cuts as early as next year’s council elections. It will be sacked teachers, local government workers, nurses and NHS workers who will be driven to oppose them in the elections.

If Corbyn does not act, his triumph could dissipate over time. The same approach must be adopted towards changing the rules of the Labour Party to ensure that its National Executive Committee is in tune with the new membership. The first responsibility of this committee should be to implement mandatory reselection of MPs. But Corbyn should go further and boldly act as he did with the manifesto. He appealed over the heads of the right and got support for his radical proposals. That confronted the right with a fait accompli! He should do the same by presenting his own democratic constitution to a referendum of all Labour Party members – full and associate – which would have at its heart mandatory reselection and the replacement of the bureaucratic machine, with power resting in the hands of the membership, particularly new members and the trade unions.

Transforming Labour

It should also enshrine the principle of a federal arrangement which would lead to the re-admittance of all expelled socialists and organisations back into the Labour Party. After all, Zoe Williams wrote in the Guardian (19 June): “The Fabian Society has always existed as a group thinking independently of the party, but not an existential threat to it: this needs to be replicated for other voices. Greens and green-sympathisers… need structures and organisations within Labour, from which to pursue their agenda. Even without the Greens, Labour is de facto a multiparty party… It should be possible to stand as a joint candidate, Green and Labour, or Women’s Equality Party and Labour: this isn’t unprecedented. It’s been done by the Co-operative Party for years”.

Williams’s idea is for a cross-class, so-called ‘progressive alliance’, including the Liberal Democrats who participated in the austerity government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. We reject this. But her proposal has some common features with our call for a federation of socialist organisations within Labour. Such an approach would shatter the plans of the right to pursue a rear-guard struggle to frustrate and delay the real involvement of workers and youth in a revived, socialist Labour Party. The unions, particularly the biggest, Unite, also have a responsibility to ensure that no bureaucratic constitutional manoeuvres stop the implementation of this demand, which is overwhelmingly supported by the ranks of the labour movement.

Jeremy Corbyn should also put his full weight behind the call to open up Labour, to welcome enthusiastically and integrate the new members – not just as election fodder but as fighters for a socialist programme and a new society. Down with the deadweight of bureaucratic tradition! Open up Labour to the new socialist forces which include the Socialist Party. Readmit those who were expelled not by the new membership but by the bureaucratic right-wing, Blairite machine which should be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The right still have their contingency plans for a split as Yvette Cooper is seeking to use her position as chair of the Home Affairs Committee in the Commons to create an ‘all-party’ approach towards Brexit. She is trying to create a counterweight to what the labour movement should be demanding, and which the Socialist Party has gained support for: a workers’ Brexit. This emphasises the class interests of British workers and their brothers and sisters in Europe by emphasising the class issues. Cooper’s proposal – ‘all pals together never mind the weather’ with some Tories and Liberals – on the issue of Europe contains the outline of a possible future political realignment: a split within Labour and possibly other parties leading towards another attempt at a ‘centre’ party.

Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have opposed the capitalist single market, as we do, with its overwhelming bias towards the employers. It allows work to be shifted from one country to another thereby undermining wages and conditions, and rules against public ownership and state intervention. This does not mean that we want to retreat to a kind of British autarky leading to import controls, banning goods from one country against another, to the detriment of all European workers through the growth of unemployment.

Fighting for a socialist policy and creating a mass party that consistently advocates the struggle for power is the best way of laying the basis for a victory leading to the democratic socialist federation of Europe. That would pave the way to abolishing all the ills of capitalism on a continental and ultimately a world scale. Britain, especially the labour movement, has entered a new phase when socialism and Marxism can become a decisive force for change!

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June 2017