Corbyn and the struggle for the soul of UK Labour

18 July 2016
Tom Bramble

The battle for the leadership of the British Labour Party is not only a fight for the heart and soul of the party; it is a struggle of crucial importance to the entire workers’ movement.

On one side stand the Blairites and their allies, who together comprise the big majority of the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They see the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as an opportunity to drag the party back to the right, to the policies of Tony Blair’s New Labour – neoliberal austerity economics with a few socially liberal positions thrown in to prettify the picture.

On the other side stand Corbyn and a few dozen caucus colleagues, and the majority of the party’s membership, 59 percent of whom voted him into the leadership last September. Also standing alongside Corbyn are the leaders of Britain’s big unions, including Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite with its 1.4 million members.

On the outcome of this contest rests the future of the party. Will it be one that forms a rotten bloc with the Tories to oversee still more years of austerity, war and racism in the aftermath of the EU referendum? Or will it be one that provides millions of British workers with a left wing alternative to both the Tories and the whole Blairite agenda?

The right wing in the party is backed by almost the entire British establishment. All their bought and paid for opinion makers have declared that Corbyn must go. Behind all their fake concern for the future of the party is fear that a left wing Labour Party might come to office and take the axe to their privileges and those for whom they are the mouthpieces, the big capitalists and state bureaucrats.

The significance of Corbyn

Since its formation, the Labour Party has been a more-or-less reliable Team B for capitalism in Britain. The bosses’ favoured party is the Conservatives, but they have always been able to trust Labour to govern if the public turn on the Tories. At crucial moments in British history – the two world wars, the 1926 general strike, the strike wave of the 1970s – the Labour Party has stood firmly for king and country, quashing any insurgent revolt by workers and lining up behind the capitalists.

Labour leaders played a treacherous role during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. And in 2003, as has now been revealed in fine detail by the Chilcot report, the Blair government lied and schemed to ensure that US president George W. Bush had a firm ally during the illegal invasion of Iraq.

For services rendered, generations of Labour politicians have received the acclamation of the ruling class and been richly rewarded – seats in the House of Lords, membership of exclusive clubs, well-remunerated appointments to company boards and various inquiries, positions as political consultants to lobby their former colleagues and generous parliamentary pensions.

Corbyn threatens this accommodation. An avowed socialist, he has always been an outsider in the comfortable circles at Westminster. He voted against the war in Iraq. More than that, he spoke at the million-strong demonstration against the war in February 2003 and was chair of the Stop the War Coalition from 2011 until his election as Labour leader.

He supported the establishment of the Chilcot inquiry, opposed the bombing of Syria and today opposes the £200 billion renewal of Britain’s Trident missile program. He opposed the introduction of tertiary fees in 2010 and the Tory cuts to welfare programs last year. He is also a staunch supporter of the Palestinians.

The Blairites and many of their current allies in the PLP jumped the wrong way on all these questions.

Had the PLP had its way, Corbyn would have remained an isolated figure on the backbenches of the party, treated at best with condescension – as someone who might be a decent enough fellow but not quite cut out for serious politics. He was put up for Labour leader by some of his colleagues only to give the impression that the party was a broad church. The right of the party has always been prepared to give a bit of space to the left if only to maintain the enthusiasm of the members, who are for the most part to the left of the PLP. While the politicians run the show, they need the members to do the hard work of getting the vote out in working class communities (voting is voluntary).

But the left’s role in the party has always been allowed in the knowledge that the right would remain in control. For many decades, the parliamentarians could rely on the support of the union leaders, who for the most part backed the right. So it was in the 1980s, when Neil Kinnock drove the hard left out of the party. Corbyn’s election in a landslide, under rules adopted only in 2010, was therefore regarded with horror by the PLP. The enemy was not just at the gates but had suddenly become leader.

The right wing conspiracy

Since his election as leader, the right wing media have done their best to drag Corbyn down, portraying him as incompetent, a dreamer and a clown. But the attacks have come not just from the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Labour-supporting newspapers such as the Guardian and Mirror have also called for Corbyn to stand down. These attacks have reached fever pitch since the results of the EU referendum became known and the string of resignations from the shadow cabinet began.

The right in the party and its media allies say that Corbyn and his supporters are “divisive”. But the main division is not primarily within the ranks of the PLP. It is between the right wing parliamentarians, backed by the political and business establishment, and the labour movement, including Corbyn, his parliamentary allies, the leaders of the major unions, the hundreds of thousands of party members and the millions of Labour voters who are looking for the party to offer a way out of their economic predicament.

The divisive ones are the right wing plotters. At a time when the Labour Party should be making the most of the Tories’ internal divisions following the defeat of the Remain case, the right is splitting the party and tying it down in months if not years of internal turmoil. Rule or ruin is its motto.

The right says that Corbyn is unfit to lead the party because he did not campaign vigorously for the party’s position of Remain in the EU referendum. Leave aside the fact that Corbyn was the most active propagandist for Remain on Labour’s front bench; leave aside the fact that majorities were racked up for Leave in the constituencies of many of the coup’s plotters. This notion is easily debunked by the fact that the right has been campaigning for a new leader for at least six months.

And while we cannot say for certain, it is likely that the trigger was not the referendum but the impending publication of the Chilcot report. The Blairites knew that the report would damn the former prime minister – Blair received a copy of the report ahead of release – and they had to move before they too were tarnished. It was vital, therefore, that Corbyn be squeezed out before the report’s publication, and without a leadership ballot.

The EU referendum is relevant to the leadership contest only because the right is using the fact that many traditional Labour voters, blue collar workers in industrially depressed areas, defied the party leadership to vote Leave. The right argues that the party should now tail the UK Independence Party and the Tory right and adopt a harsher anti-immigration position to win these workers back to the fold. In other words, the right wants to draw on the worst aspects of the EU referendum – its racist and its pro-austerity elements. Corbyn’s crime is that he won’t go along with this.

Only the left is capable of drawing on the anger of the Leave-supporting workers and directing it against the capitalists rather than immigrants. Corbyn campaigned for Remain but refused to join the Tories and the bosses on the same platform. This gives the Labour leader the credibility now to appeal to workers on the basis of their common hatred of the Tories. Had Corbyn instead joined the capitalists and Tories on a common platform, the result would have been a disaster for the party, just as it was when the Labour leadership campaigned aggressively along with the Conservatives and business groups for a “no” vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. With working class areas in Scotland voting heavily for independence, the Scottish National Party cleaned up in the subsequent general election, reducing the Labour party to just one MP out of 59.

If they are generous, Corbyn’s critics accuse the leader of being a “decent man”, but unfortunately not up to the task of winning government for Labour. He “lacks charisma” they say, he doesn’t know how to put on a show.

The notion that Corbyn cannot win popular support for the Labour Party does not bear any scrutiny. In the four by-elections held since Corbyn became leader, Labor retained its seat in all four, and its share of the vote rose in three. The party outpolled the Tories in the local council elections in May, and Labour’s Sadiq Khan withstood a vicious racist Tory campaign to become mayor of London.

It’s not like the alternatives have fared any better. Blair, once feted as Labour’s saviour, is now regarded by many within the party and in broader society as an embarrassment at best, a war criminal at worst. Party membership had fallen to its lowest level since 1918 by the time Labour lost office in 2010.

The “soft left” option has also failed. Ed Miliband, leader from 2010 to 2015, took the party a step or two away from Blairism, but Labour was crushed at last year’s general election, the Tories winning a majority in their own right for the first time since 1992. Miliband’s each-way bet – a few token concessions to the welfare state and a more progressive tax system – convinced no-one. It mildly irritated the establishment but failed to arouse any enthusiasm within the working class.

Now, with new Conservative prime minister Theresa May positioning herself to the left of the Blairites on questions of austerity and inequality, and flagging the need for more state intervention in the economy to ease the pain of the post-EU transition, the space for Labour to win on a wishy-washy basis is reduced even further.

In a fair contest, Labour under Corbyn would be eminently electable. But his enemies within the party are determined there will be no fair contest. They are untiring in their efforts to destroy him to prevent their nightmare scenario – a Corbyn Labour government – and are prepared to wreck the party rather than see this come to pass.

Behind Corbyn’s opponents inside the PLP stands the ruling class as a whole, which will stop at nothing to crush the Labour leader and the threat that he represents to the longstanding and successful incorporation of Labour within the confines of capitalist order. During the 1960s and 1970s, the ruling class was prepared to allow the Labour Party to carry through some modest reforms. Today, when neoliberal reaction has been in full swing for nearly 40 years, when the world economic system is in a much more precarious position, Britain’s rulers will not contemplate allowing Labour to take office on a radical left wing program.

So it is true that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would face enormous obstacles in a general election. This is not, though, as his opponents make out, because his policies have no appeal to the working class. The real reason is that the ruling class and the right wing within the PLP and national executive are not prepared to let him win. For Corbyn to succeed, if he survives to fight an election, it will take an enormous fight by the unions, party activists and the broader left and working class movement – a mass social mobilisation of the kind that party apparatchiks would shudder to think of.

Dirty tricks

The right wingers within the party are convinced that they have to act, but understand that Corbyn will beat them in any open and fair ballot of the membership. They have no alternative, then, but to use lies and dirty tricks to force him out of his position.

The first act was the stage-managed succession of resignations from shadow ministerial positions, accompanied by a huge media fanfare. This was followed by the motion of no confidence by the PLP and days of sustained anti-Corbyn lobbying of trade union leaders by PLP deputy leader Tom Watson.

The right wing sabotage campaign was to no avail. Corbyn and his supporters appealed over the heads of the right to the broader labour movement, with great success. Public meetings of hundreds and rallies of thousands in London, Liverpool and Manchester and many hundreds in many other towns, demonstrated support for Corbyn. Labour’s leader received an enthusiastic response at union conferences and at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

More than 120,000 new members joined the Labour Party, the majority of them to express their support for Corbyn. Significantly, the trade union leaders did not buckle to the right’s attempts to get them to withdraw their support for Corbyn; indeed, the intransigence of the PLP majority appears to have only hardened the union leaders’ resolve. McCluskey denounced the right for the “squalid coup”, saying that they would be “branded forever with the mark of infamy for betraying their party and their country”. A string of Labour Party branches moved motions of confidence in Corbyn or motions of no-confidence in their own MP if they backed the right.

Having failed to intimidate Corbyn and his supporters, the architects of the coup then tried to exclude Corbyn from the ballot for leader. They failed at this too, with the National Executive Committee (NEC) voting narrowly on 12 July to ensure Corbyn was on the ballot.

The next step, taken immediately after the NEC vote, was a highly irregular motion, not included on the agenda papers and moved after Corbyn and several of his supporters had left the meeting, to exclude from voting any member who had joined since January. This motion, which passed by the narrowest of margins, was a transparent attempt to rig the ballot by excluding the big influx of Corbyn supporters. Registered supporters could vote, but only if they joined in a two-day period from 18 to 20 July and only if they paid £25, a big fee to stump up for many of the party’s poorer supporters. The NEC also voted in the same week to deny the vote to any member of an affiliated union who had joined since January, extending the attack not just on the membership of the party but of the trade unions too.

Faced with an upsurge of no confidence motions in sitting members, the NEC then in effect declared martial law in the party, banning any local branch or constituency Labour Party meetings, in order to prevent any more such motions. The biggest branch in the country, in Brighton, had held a meeting of 600 on 9 July and voted by a two-thirds majority to replace the existing executive with one dominated by Corbyn supporters. It was simply suspended and the vote annulled.

The string of actions only caused more anger among the membership. Even many who did not support Corbyn objected to the denial of basic democracy within the party. In the days that followed, there were reports of branches across the country holding “get-togethers” or “socials” to vent their outrage at the NEC. The Unite conference voted on 14 July that the party should introduce mandatory reselection of MPs every five years as a way of putting the right wing on notice.

Plotters in disarray

Not only have the right wingers cohered hundreds of thousands of party members against them, but their own ranks are in disarray. After the initial attempt to force Corbyn to resign failed, the right wing had to come up with its own candidate. But no-one in its ranks has the kind of credibility needed to make a contest of it. Many of the better known figures were not willing to endure a second thrashing at the hands of Corbyn after their experience last September. So it has come to pass that two complete nonentities, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, have put their names forward.

The second problem Corbyn’s opponents face is that they can’t make the contest around policy because they know that they would be on a hiding to nothing. Eagle can hardly win the hearts of the membership on the basis of her voting record – for the Iraq war, against Chilcot, for bombing Syria, for tertiary fees, for renewal of Trident and abstention on the Tories’ welfare cuts. All she could say when asked at her campaign launch on 11 July why members would vote for her is that she is a “good, sensible, down-to-earth woman with northern roots”.

While Corbyn and the left need to fight tooth and nail inside the party, to succeed it is crucial to fuse the defence of Corbyn’s leadership with the broader struggle against austerity and the Tory government.

Owen Smith might genuinely be considered part of the soft left, given his voting record. His problem is that his claim to have principles was shot to ribbons when a newspaper reprinted a 2006 interview with him when he was standing in a by-election in South Wales. It revealed that Smith, then employed on an £80,000 salary as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Pfizer, supported public-private partnerships, private sector involvement in the NHS and privatised school academies.

While he “didn’t know” if he would have voted for the Iraq war had he been in parliament in 2003, Smith viewed the invasion in the same light as the party’s “noble, valuable tradition” of “removing dictators”. He is also in favour of Trident. Smith is also not helped by the fact that his claim to be only now stepping forward for the leadership for the good of the party has been debunked by a fellow MP who revealed that he had been approached about supporting Smith in a leadership challenge six months ago.

So the right wing is faced with the prospect that the anti-Corbyn front has been split in two, by equally unappealing candidates. It is possible that one of them will be pressured to drop out to avoid splitting the vote, but whether it’s Eagle or Smith or both who appear on the ballot against Corbyn, the chances of unseating the leader are not good, short of a major development, like a major scandal involving Corbyn, the leader simply giving up or the union leaders turning against him.

But if the right fails this time around, it will not be the end of the plotting. Observing the fate of the previous right wing split in the early 1980s, the Social Democratic Party, the right understands that in a first past the post electoral system, it has slim chances of winning many seats if it splits. So while it is possible Corbyn’s opponents will simply walk away to form a new party, it is just as likely that they will try to stay in and fight a war of attrition. Everything they have done in the past month demonstrates their willingness to demoralise and drive out Corbyn’s supporters, to eliminate half or two-thirds of the membership, in order to make it clear that Corbyn cannot remain as leader.

International implications

The fight inside the Labour party has far-reaching implications. Since the late 1970s, ruling classes have been on the attack against workers and students around the world. With few exceptions, the leaders of the traditional mass working class organisations have tailed the conservatives, sometimes even leading them, in implementing austerity measures.

In the 1980s, Australia had the ALP under Bob Hawke; Spain, France and Greece had social democratic governments led by Felipe Gonzalez, Francois Mitterrand and Andreas Papandreou. In 1997, Blair took office in Britain and the following year the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder became chancellor in Germany. In every case, the social democrats turned on their working class supporters. The result has been the long term and steady degradation of these parties, opening up the space for right wing populist parties to make inroads into the social democrats’ working class base.

The election of Corbyn as Labour Party leader represented a sharp break with this tendency. One of the world’s oldest and largest working class parties was now led by a genuine radical, for the first time in its history. Corbyn demonstrated that Labour could shift to the left and win popular support. It was a blow to the entire right wing social democratic agenda of “fiscal responsibility”, the idea that working class parties had to embrace the right wing neoliberal austerity agenda in order to come close to winning office. That’s why it’s so important that Corbyn win, not just for the working class in Britain but around the world as well.

While Corbyn and the left need to fight tooth and nail inside the party, to succeed it is crucial to fuse the defence of Corbyn’s leadership with the broader struggle against austerity and the Tory government. That struggle is of vital importance in its own right, and putting the Corbyn forces at the head of a broader working class fight back is the best way to defend his leadership.

The fight in the British Labour Party raises the question as to the purpose of working class political organisation. For the right, the answer is obvious: to win parliamentary seats. For the left, the answer has to be to defend the working class. For the right, every question boils down to the electability of the party. For the left, the issue is how the party can help the working class in its struggle. Sacrificing basic principles simply to pursue “electability” may win handsome salaries for a few politicians, but it does not advance the cause of the working class.

Seen in this light, the fight to defend Corbyn is not ultimately about whether he can win government in 2020, or sooner if the Tories call an early election, but about whether an opposition can be built that is worthy of the name.

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