Pat Stack, in a piece originally published in the Spring 2017 (February) issue of the rs21 magazine, untangles a tumultuous time for Labour, arguing there is only one way for Corbyn to win
The article below was written just a few weeks ago when there was no sign of a general election – indeed, when Theresa May kept insisting there wouldn’t be one. However, given the Tory leads in the opinion polls, there was always the chance of a snap election.
May has staked her pitch on the dreary slogan ‘strong and stable’ and has attempted to depict herself as the jingoistic defender of brave Britain against horrible Europeans who are apparently conniving to get Jeremy Corbyn elected. If the local elections are anything to go by, this strategy has so far allowed the Tories to almost wipe out UKIP electorally, and the polls seem to suggest May is well on course for re-election with a comfortable majority. However, as we know, polls have often been very wrong over the last few years both in Britain and elsewhere, and it would be a terrible mistake for socialists to concede that the game is up.
The election is giving Corbyn a chance to give shape to his vision and policies in a way that has largely been denied to him previously. This inability was in large part brought about by the sheer hostility of all sections of the media and the open acts of sabotage by an overwhelming majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Of course, as the article below outlines, there are also weaknesses in the Corbyn camp, and some of them have been manifested in the campaign – Diane Abbott’s hapless performance over how the Labour Party intended to fund policing, for example, probably reflected a lack of commitment to the policy (Abbot hardly came to politics inspired by a desire for more cops) as much as sheer incompetence – though incompetence it undoubtedly was. Also as argued below, Corbyn’s rather indecisive stand on Brexit probably satisfies no one.
Nevertheless, there are issues that Labour is raising that will capture many people’s sympathies. The general lack of funding for the NHS and the idea that nurses are having to fall back on food banks is something that greatly angers many, as well as the sheer chaos in social care brought about by Tory cuts. Policies which threaten to make huge cuts to teaching budgets, alongside a desire to reintroduce grammar schools, will also be very unpopular. Even May’s promise to try and restore fox hunting will caused outrage for some.
Ultimately, Theresa May threatens to continue with austerity policies that have alienated so many and caused so much hardship, no matter what tinkering there might be with George Osborne’s strategy.
Labour can offer an alternative. They can show by raising corporation tax and income tax on the rich (albeit £80,000 seems a remarkably high breakoff point) that they are willing to claim at least something back from the fat cats. Labour’s commitment to scrapping tuition fees could make a real impact. In other words: Corbyn can offer an alternative vision, and show that far from being hostile to ‘the establishment’, May is the establishment, and that Labour wants to (at least in part) redress the imbalance brought about by austerity.
When he was elected, Corbyn mobilised huge audiences, recruited very large numbers to the Labour Party and generated great enthusiasm. Those people will now be key. Never has the Parliamentary Party shown so little commitment or enthusiasm during a general election, and therefore, those people who were part of Corbyn’s audience now need to be mobilised to visit door steps, town centres, work places, colleges, and to get involved in every single activity that represents resistance to the Tories. We need to state loud and clear that the Tories must be kicked out.
The odds are against Corbyn, but there remains a fight to be fought, and recent history shows that those who are far behind in the polls have ended up surprising everyone. Furthermore, even if Corbyn should fail to win, the nature and measure of that failure could have enormous implications for the left in the near future.
At the time of Jeremy Corbyn’s original election to the leadership of the Labour Party, a piece on the rs21 website argued that:
Socialists of all hues, including those of us who see socialism as something that can only be won from below, and not delivered through parliament, still had no hesitation in celebrating this breath-taking victory. It is a victory for everyone who opposes this system; its inequality, austerity, war mongering, racism, oppression and brutality. It’s a victory for everyone who believes there is an alternative, everyone who has a vision of a better world, and doesn’t believe politics is the plaything of a self-selecting, oleaginous, mealy mouthed elite.
However, we added:
Corbyn has to turn his votes into an active base very quickly. At the time of writing 30,000 had joined the Labour Party since his election. He has to begin to transform that membership into an active base that can offer him protection and support within the Party carrying out any reforms needed to help that happen.
Equally however, he has to become identified with and encourage the growth of the social movements and class struggles outside parliament and the Party structures that can underwrite and give real hope for change and success.
In reality the greater union resistance, student unrest, pro migrant activities, anti-war demonstrations, anti-austerity struggle there is, the more likely it is that Corbyn can see off his enemies.’
Looking back some 15 months or so later, the political landscape is rather different to the one that we envisaged.
True, Corbyn comfortably saw off a bungled, opportunistic coup attempt by the Parliamentary Labour Party, yet it is far from clear that he has become the spokesperson for everyone who ‘doesn’t believe politics is the plaything of a self-selecting, oleaginous, mealy mouthed elite.’ Sadly, it is the right wing of British politics that has – in a hugely contradictory, hypocritical and reactionary way – presented itself as that voice in Britain, just as it has elsewhere in the world, most notably and spectacularly through Trump in the US. There is no doubt that there is still a large constituency of people who identify with Corbyn, but little evidence that that constituency is big enough to bring Corbyn to office, and some evidence that at least a portion of it are now somewhat demoralised and disorientated.
As our original article pointed out, Corbyn’s first challenge would be the fact that, in parliament, he was surrounded by an opportunist, careerist clique of Blairites, Brownites and moderates of every hue who to a greater or lesser extent had bought into austerity, were hostile to trade union activity and would gallop behind the ‘stop free movement’ bandwagon quicker than you could say Nigel Farage. This proved to be entirely correct. Corbyn, caught in the logic of parliamentary politics and fearful of splits, initially seemed to want to hold an olive branch out to these people, making it clear for instance that he would not endorse a campaign of deselections, but they had no intention of grasping it. Instead they attempted to sabotage him from the outset. If they weren’t sitting in demonstrative silence behind him in parliament when he spoke, they were openly attacking him (as with Hillary Benn) or briefing their pals in the media, resigning from the front bench, and ultimately staging their laughable coup.
At the same time, the attempt to build a genuine alternative base spluttered fitfully. Momentum was formed, apparently as a vehicle for doing that, but from the outset seemed confused and strangely directionless. Big and enthusiastic launch and public meetings in many places failed to deliver any substantial ongoing base, and where they did, it was frequently made up of longstanding faces from the left rather than the huge groundswell of younger people who had flocked to Labour to vote for Corbyn. Even a very successful parallel conference at the time of the Labour Party conference failed to follow up with transformation at the roots.
Furthermore, there remained much confusion as to how Momentum intended to support Corbyn. Was it to be a movement that would gain hold of the levers of the Labour Party, or would it relate to the extra-parliamentary struggles that could give momentum and impetus to Corbyn’s vision, or was it to be both? The answer was not really clear on any front. In different parts of the country Momentum seemed to envisage itself differently. In some places the pro-Corbyn non-Labour Party left were welcomed and encouraged to join, and in others they were effectively excluded. There seemed almost no appetite to be the voice for mobilising on the streets, in workplaces or in student militancy, yet at the same time no clear plan for fighting to transform Labour. Repeatedly spokespeople re-assured the media that they were not interested in a campaign of deselection. Finally, a sort of Palace coup was enacted by one of the founders, John Lansman, supported by Corbyn’s office it would appear, that restricted membership to Labour Party members and seemed to remove any real democratic input.
In the meantime, the EU referendum left Corbyn in a strange and largely ineffectual position. Leaving aside for the moment who was correct – the left Remainers or the ‘Lexiteers’ – Corbyn didn’t seem to give shape, leadership or succour to either side. His half-hearted support for Remain set a very different tone to many of his supporters, particularly his young supporters who ardently supported Remain, seeing it largely as a fight around questions of immigration, free movement, racism and Little Englandism. On the other hand, his failure to take the contrary position gave him little voice among the swathes of working class people who felt ‘left behind’ by a political elite who cared little for their plight, leaving their anger to be reflected by the Little Englandism of Farage and co, rather than by the left. Furthermore, one of the things that had set Corbyn apart from the get go was his honesty, his lack of political game-playing and so on. Yet on this issue there was an uneasy feeling that he wasn’t quite saying what he really believed.
Having said all that, whatever damage was done was not anything like enough to give the succour the coup plotters were hoping for, and he saw off the ludicrous Angela Eagle/Owen Smith challenge with consummate ease. Clearly many in the Party still looked to him, and many more that weren’t in the Party now joined in a huge show of support.
However, all opinion polls still place Labour way behind the Tories, with very low approval ratings for Corbyn, and real concern is being expressed about the outcome of the up-coming (at time of writing) by-election in Stoke. It has to be acknowledged that so far none of the predicted electoral disasters for Corbyn have actually occurred, and that the record of opinion polls have been very poor of late. Nevertheless, there seems to be very little of the mood that swept Corbyn into the leadership reflected in the country as a whole.
Why is this? Much of the reason is the result of wider questions rather than the competence of Corbyn and his close supporters, but some of it can possibly be placed at their door.
Corbyn was elected because he represented a rejection of establishment politics, the neoliberal ‘common sense’ idea that the rich should keep getting richer and the poor poorer. Yet very little of that radical message seems to be being put across in any sort of coherent, clear way. If one looked at Trump, one was clear exactly what sort of madness he was planning, and appallingly frightening as it is, it undoubtedly enthused his supporters. Of course it can be argued that the media does not give Corbyn a fair crack at the whip. Also, astonishing as it seems, the right have managed to re-create Old Etonian Boris Johnson, ex public schoolboy Michael Gove and stockbroker Nigel Farage as ‘anti-establishment’, whilst trying to paint Corbyn’s commitment to anti-racism, women’s rights and support for causes like Palestine as indicating that he is ‘part of the establishment’.
The problem is that confusion abounds where Corbyn is concerned. His support for freedom of movement soon became an embarrassing muddle and ‘the maximum wage’ seemed to disappear from the agenda as quickly as it appeared amidst confusion and contradiction. Part of this muddle is undoubtedly a reflection of the isolation of the Corbyn project within the Parliamentary Party, so that very few will stand up and back him in defence of freedom of movement or on the maximum wage. It seems after every announcement there is a rush of Labour MPs who either publicly distance themselves from his position, or raise a world-weary, knowing eyebrow whilst declining to say anything. It is ironic that the wing of party responsible for much of the anger and alienation of traditional Labour Party supporters acts as a huge block on Corbyn’s ability to wrench Labour from the wretched past of Blair and Brown. Even figures thought to be close allies like Clive Lewis are more than happy to put some distance between themselves and their leader.
So, for all these reasons and more, it feels that the huge anger out there is not in the main being reflected in the performance of Corbyn’s Labour. His very ‘reasonableness’ which initially made him popular may also project an inability to articulate the rage of many of those he needs to win to the cause.
Of course it is always easier for the right to tread the path of simplistic populist answers; they are only arguing an extreme version of ‘common sense’ capitalist ideology. The left on the other hand has to challenge the ideology itself, and after years of neoliberal dominance, even much of what the left forced into the mainstream has been severely weakened and eroded.
Herein lies a huge part of the problem that we tried to deal with at the time of Corbyn’s election. If he was to win, we argued, he had to do so not merely by transforming the apparatus (which he has largely failed to do), but more importantly to harness himself to a vibrant movement of struggle and protest, strike and occupation. Sadly for him such movements and struggles have tended to be small-scale, but even where they have taken place and despite his supportiveness, it has never seemed the priority of those around him.
There is perhaps an overused and often poorly explained quote from Lenin that one strike is worth ten election victories. At the core of what Lenin was arguing was how people and their ideas are transformed, and that voting is an essentially passive (if still important) activity. If life has ground you down, it can make you vulnerable to reactionary and simple solutions like blaming those of a different colour, nationality, or those who claim benefits, or other groups of workers you feel get a better deal. If nothing real in your life makes you proud, then the temptation can be to become proud of things you had no control over and did nothing to accomplish, like being British or being white. Voting does not challenge these things. Nothing happens between your having been persuaded of these opinions and the moment you put X on a ballot paper that is likely to change your mind.
Participating in a strike, struggle or campaign on the other hand can in its every day practice challenge these notions. In those, you can quickly find there is not a white Britain versus a non-white Britain, or a native Britain versus ‘foreigners’, a straight Britain versus a gay Britain. Rather, there is a rich and privileged Briton determined to deprive you of the thing you are fighting for. That rich and privileged Briton will have at their disposal the police, the judiciary, the media, and the only thing at your disposal is the strength of unity. In this way, all the old notions are challenged by genuine real life experience.
There are many such examples of those engaged in activity breaking down barriers that had previously divided them from others. To take one example, recently celebrated in the film Pride, during the great miners’ strike in Britain, mining communities that had been very male-dominated and where almost no-one was openly gay suddenly found two things: one, that the women in their communities could be leaders in their own right, creating their own structures to play a key role in the dispute, and two, that LGBT activists from around the country were raising money for them, campaigning for their cause, and coming to their communities to show solidarity. For large numbers of miners, this changed their attitudes to the role of women forever, and many of their homophobic prejudices were swept away. Furthermore, those struggles can give you sense of your power, your strength, your unity. You become proud of the things you do, the causes you fight for, the stands you take, rather than elements of your life that are often no more than an accident of birth.
It is for reasons such as these that the article quoted at the beginning of this piece emphasised the need for the struggle to advance beyond the internal workings of the Labour Party and into the streets, the workplaces and the colleges, to every movement against racism and oppression, to every struggle for international solidarity with those facing war, oppression and starvation throughout the world. The forces and reasons that lay behind Corbyn’s original election still exist, but unless the forces are mobilised, energised and placed at the centre of his struggle to offer an alternative, there is a real danger that the voices who claim to be against the establishment on the right might gain ground here in ways they are doing in much of Europe and in the US.
We still all want to see Corbyn win the next election, shift Labour to the left, begin to change the political dialogue of the country, but for those of us who recognise the limitations of parliamentary politics, it is the self activity of all the forces on our side that is crucial to winning even those limited goals.