Andrew Stone argues that movement around Corbyn has created great potential for socialists to organise and debate about how fundamental change can be realised.
The co-ordinated post-Referendum resignations from the Shadow Cabinet to unseat Jeremy Corbyn will have come as a surprise to few. Indeed, they closely follow the plan leaked to the Daily Telegraph two weeks previously (one of countless such stories in the press going back as far as last July – ahead of his election). Despite his overwhelming victory in the leadership election – 59.5% first preferences in a four horse race – the numerically dominant right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has spent the ten months of his leadership in barely-concealed rebellion. Many refused to serve in Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet (ten resigned in total). In November, former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umanna attacked Corbyn’s “nasty troll” supporters, and implied that his leader’s anti-war views were “a disqualification from office”. Several Labour MPs called for his resignation before the crucial vote on bombing Syria, so shocked were they that a Labour leader should stand by his lifelong anti-war principles. Initial Shadow Ministers Angela Eagle and Hillary Benn, while proclaiming loftily about their loyalty, undermined Corbyn on policies such as abolishing trident, as Deputy leader Tom Watson, more Stringer Bell than Nye Bevan, waited for an opportunity to deal a fatal blow.
The plotters have been egged on throughout by the political establishment. David Cameron set the tone almost immediately, proclaiming that Labour under Corbyn was now “a threat to our national security”. The media have happily followed his lead, spluttering with outrage whenever he failed to sing an anthem or questioned a Judge Dredd-style shoot-to-kill policy. The one-sided journalism of BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, which included the co-ordinated live resignation of two quickly forgotten junior shadow ministers, has been called out in particular due to her role for a supposedly neutral public broadcaster. But in content there is little that is exceptional about her vitriol.
In the face of this offensive from the establishment, it may seem obvious that anyone on the left who is not incurably sectarian should join Labour. After all, the argument goes, the battleground is now inside the Party. If Labour under Corbyn can be won to socialism, then in 2020 (or sooner, if the Conservatives implode) the citadels of power at Westminster can be stormed in a peaceful, electoral revolution. We’ll have a chance to reverse austerity and create a more equal society. Alternatively, if Corbyn is allowed to fall it will irretrievably set back the left. Even many who resisted the siren calls to join during Corbyn’s initial leadership campaign are now considering doing so to defend him in a rerun.
It is an alluring argument. Clearly there are massive political battles ahead which socialists should not abstain from. The creation of Momentum is one opportunity for those outside the labour party to campaign alongside the left within it, though the scope to do so has been limited somewhat by its response to scare-stories of far left infiltration. But when Momentum call a protest outside Parliament to defend Corbyn against the right wing’s coup, we should back them without hesitation. Corbyn, McDonnell, and Abbott have continued to support united front initiatives in campaigns to defend refugees, to oppose war and even (shock, horror!) support workers taking strike action, and this is all entirely welcome.
But it is important to be clear about why we also organise separately. It is because of our understanding of the nature of the Labour Party and the capitalist state in which it operates. We believe that while bringing about lasting change through parliament may seem like the line of least resistance, in fact it will encounter just as much opposition as an overt revolutionary approach. As history shows, if we prioritise the parliamentary struggle we risk weakening the grassroots forces that are key to challenging capitalism.
Politics A-level students are told that parliament is the source of legitimate authority in the state. Even if the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) wield a lot of power, it remains accountable to parliament and thus, indirectly, to voters. But this ignores the huge unaccountable power of institutions exercised within, and through, the state. Big business and banks, the civil service, the military, spies, police and prisons – all exert enormous influence while remaining outside democratic control.
There are minor sops to democratic principles of course – such as the police and crime commissioner elections of 2012 that inspired all of 15% of the electorate to vote – but nothing that challenges the hegemony of unelected bankers, bosses and their assorted bully boys (and they are mostly men, although the record of Stella Rimmington, the former director general of MI5, is one example of how their pernicious role would not be cured by better gender representation). In general though, it is an article of faith of official politics that these bodies are neutral props of our democratic structure.
Yet whenever the left globally has attempted to use parliament to bring meaningful change, these institutions have resisted. Electoral calculations suddenly become irrelevant. As former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said as he plotted with multinational corporations and the Chilean military to overthrow elected socialist leader Salvador Allende, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
More recently Syriza, the left-wing government elected in Greece on a clear anti-austerity programme, was threatened and blackmailed by the ruling class and EU. The clear referendum decision to reject the third EU bailout (a bankers’ bailout paid for by squeezing workers even further) was essentially vetoed by the European Central Bank. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s surrender was not the only possibility, but an alternative strategy – such as that proposed by former finance minister Yanis Varafoukis – would have entailed deepening the struggle well beyond the realm of parliamentary politics.
Meanwhile, last October Portugal’s president blocked a left-wing coalition from forming a government despite its parliamentary majority. The Daily Telegraph reported that the president insisted that “conservatives should soldier on as a minority in order to satisfy Brussels and appease foreign financial markets. Democracy must take second place to the higher imperative of euro rules and membership”.
“But this is Britain,” you may say, “birthplace of democracy, protector of liberties and mother of parliaments. It couldn’t happen here.” There is a long article to be written on the historical myths underpinning such a position, but for the sake of brevity I will make a few points from the recent past.
When ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson became Education Minister after the Labour landslide of 1945, she requested her MI5 files from her time as a trade union militant and suffragist. She was told they had been burnt. (Whether this was true or not it remains instructive.) In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, there were serious plots to overthrow Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. As Jonathan Freedland explained in the Guardian in 2006, “Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilisation by a rogue element in the security services. Prompted by CIA fears that Wilson was a Soviet agent…these MI5 men burgled the homes of the prime minister’s aides, bugged their phones and spread black, anti-Wilson propaganda throughout the media.”
Freedland describes this as the plotting of a “rogue element”, but bear in mind that Major Alexander Greenwood was actively planning to put together a private army during 1974-5. Former intelligence officer Brian Cozier has admitted that the army top brass “seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover”. That a centrist Labour leader like Wilson should face such a plot seems fantastic, but for some sections of the ruling class he was opening the door to union militancy (which was growing despite his efforts) and frustrating their attempts to ingratiate themselves with the US by attacking Vietnam.
But they need not have bothered. Wilson had been a busted flush since shortly after his initial election in 1964, when the governor of the Bank of England demanded immediate cuts to government spending, in stark contrast to Labour’s manifesto. Wilson later reflected that “a newly elected government with a mandate from the people was being told, not so much by the Governor of the Bank of England but by international speculators, that the policies on which he had fought the election could not be implemented; that the government was to be forced into the adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed.” Though not so fundamentally opposed, he might have added, that it would resist the pressure.
Still, a sceptic might argue, this is not 21st century Britain. And yet Corbyn has already been criticised by the (supposedly politically neutral) head of the UK’s armed forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, who voiced his fear that Corbyn’s unilateralism would be “translated into power”. An unnamed senior army general said that there could be a mutiny if Corbyn took office, as “the general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardize the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that.”
This is undoubtedly not the mainstream strategy for dealing with Corbyn – it is more a contingency plan in case all else fails. If Labour “moderates” get their way, Corbyn will be long gone by 2020. This may seem perverse given that Corbyn’s candidature and leadership has almost doubled the party’s membership. However, it makes sense when we consider the essential nature of Labour as a reformist organisation.
Founded in February 1900 after a Trade Union Congress resolution, the Labour Party began as a political voice for the trade union bureaucracy in the wake of key setbacks. After the militancy of New Unionism, the Taff Vale judgement outlawed picketing and made unions liable for financial costs incurred by employers during strikes. Left-wing Labour founders such as Keir Hardie thought these industrial defeats created a political opportunity, because demoralised workers would place new importance on influencing parliament.
Viewing parliamentary elections as the main vehicle for change leads to voters being seen in static terms, as electoral propaganda is a much less effective method of changing minds than the first-hand experience of taking strike action or participating in a mass campaign. Commentators speak of fixed cores of Labour and Conservative voters, with floating voters in between that must be won over with centrist policies. By contrast, Karl Marx placed emphasis on how the experience of struggle encouraged workers to throw off “the muck of ages” – the oppressive ideas that hold us back. This process, he argued, was key in making us fit to found a new society.
Russian revolutionary Lenin called Labour a “capitalist workers’ party”. At first sight this sounds like childish lefty abuse – “capitalist” used as a pejorative rather than an analytical term. After all, how can Labour belong to both capitalist and worker? But the contradiction is a real one. Lenin argued that though Labour’s membership was largely made up of workers, it sought to manage rather than replace the system – seeking to be capitalism’s doctor, rather than its gravedigger. As a result it accepted the framework of the nation state. The “national interest” would forever supersede the class interest.
Ernest Bevin once said that Labour was born “out of the bowels of the TUC”. It is a striking image. During the general strike of 1926, tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin tried to embarrass Labour leader Ramsay McDonald by quoting his previous anti-union speeches. McDonald complained that he could have chosen one of his more detailed condemnations. McDonald might be seen as an aberration, but not the post war government of Clement Atlee. This was the zenith of Labourism, yet as late as 1951 it was using wartime anti-strike legislation backed up with troops. Future Labour governments were similarly hostile. Neil Kinnock shamefully abandoned the miners as Margaret Thatcher mobilised the full force of the state against them. Tony Blair promised that Britain would retain “the most restrictive union laws in the Western world” after he took power. It was a rare promise that he kept. Ed Miliband swallowed a disproven allegation about union vote-rigging in Falkirk to weaken trade union influence.
Yet the trade union leaderships continue to back Labour financially. They might be seen as the embarrassing family secret, but at least they are in the family. Hard as it was to believe under Blair, historically the trade unions have often been on the right of the parliamentary party. But years of marginalisation led some to see Corbyn’s election positively. The Fire Brigades Union, one of the few unions to have disaffiliated under New Labour, have now re-affiliated. But overall they are somewhat ambivalent. Though Unite’s Len McCluskey has criticised the Labour right he has effectively sided with them when backing the continuation of Trident.
Though Labour members are frequently among the best campaigners and workplace activists, the Labour Party as an institution has rarely been at the forefront of the key battles of the day. From the poll tax to mine closures and rail privatisation, they have told the public to wait until they are elected. This is partly because their focus is on the patient work of canvassing, constituency surgeries and local politics. This, at least, does not involve managing the nation state, so on rare occasions this can break away from a servicing relationship.
The highpoint of Labour reformism was thus the battle of the Poplar councillors. Mass protests in one of the country’s poorest boroughs backed a campaign in which the Labour-run council set illegal budgets, which raised unemployment benefits and council wages. Thirty councillors were jailed but freed after a six-week campaign. The government backed down, and the resultant equalising of the local rates led to Poplar’s death rate halving in five years. It was only when Labour entered its first government that Poplarism was defeated, with the formerly heroic George Lansbury calling off a strike and the Poplar board of guardians – in which Labour had won a clean sweep – caved in to a house of lords ruling.
Corbyn today faces an overwhelmingly hostile PLP. This was set up as a distinct body after Labour’s electoral gains in 1906. From the outset it has viewed itself as superior to the wider party. As Labour’s first ever chancellor said of Labour’s supposedly sovereign body, “My experience of conferences has taught me to attach very little importance to their resolutions…conferences will talk, let them talk.” Indeed, when the 1960 Labour Party conference voted to support unilateral nuclear disarmament (of the weapons that Atlee had secretly developed), party leader Hugh Gaitskell vowed to “fight, and fight, and fight again” against the policy.
The above analysis is not intending to read like a counsel of doom. But it is a warning that a left that devotes itself narrowly to an internal battle within the Labour Party may not be using its energies wisely. The ultimate failure of supporters of Tony Benn and groups like the Militant Tendency in the 1980s, offers a cautionary tale about the efficacy of entryism. In those cases many saw Labour as a substitute for a trade union movement in retreat. Trade unions have not suffered comparably decisive defeats in recent years, but neither have they recovered their former strength, and this is partly why Corbyn has been so enthusiastically received. But no matter how sincere and principled a leader he is – and it would be hard to find Corbyn’s match on these measures – he will not be able to deliver socialism from above. Socialism is a collective project that requires collective agency -whether its national strikes by junior doctors or the NUT, or local battles within small workplaces, or fights for disability rights or against trans oppression.
Yet Corbyn’s election can still be immensely positive. He has raised the confidence and participation of hundreds of thousands of people, and though he has inevitably compromised on some issues, he has also showed that reforms can be won if the opposition actually opposes the government, as the cancelled arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the tax credits cuts u-turn shows. While his decision to back Remain in the EU referendum may have been tactical, he showed courage and principle in not sharing platforms with Tories and in refusing to enter a Dutch auction about ‘acceptable’ levels of immigration. The symbolism of giving ordinary people a voice at Prime Ministers Questions – and the arrogance with which Tories laugh them off – is a powerful sign of the class divisions that underpin our capitalist society. The essence of that society – exploitation and the oppressive structures that enable it – cannot be abolished through parliament alone.
But the movement around Corbyn has created great potential for socialists to organise and debate about how fundamental change can be realised. A defeat for the coup plotters would give a boost for all those engaged in that endeavour.