Stuart King of Lambeth Left Unity gives his view.
Late July saw the leadership of the Labour Party suddenly wake up to the unthinkable; Jeremy Corbyn was 17 points ahead of his nearest rival in the leadership election, it was just possible he could become leader.
Recriminations were the order of the day. How could some rightist Labour MPs have helped a left-winger to overcome the key hurdle, the nomination of 35 MPs from the PLP? This obstacle was crucial because of the new electoral system introduced by Ed Miliband. Now it is a one person one vote system which determines the leadership contest, including trade union affiliates opting in and £3 Labour Party “supporters” signing up.
Once it became clear that Corbyn was the front-runner first in a private poll for the New Statesman, then in the YouGov poll, all hell broke loose. Blairites fell over themselves to denounce voting left as another “emotional spasm”, “gesture politics” that would take the LP back to the 1980s of Tony Benn and Michael Foot and guarantee electoral defeat. Tony Blair weighed in with the suggestion that anyone voting with their heart in this contest rather than their head needed a “heart transplant”; his chief aide was blunter – Corbyn supporters were “morons”.
No doubt Blair’s intervention did wonders for Jeremy’s campaign. Having one of the heartless architects of the Iraq and Afghan wars against you is bound to increase support. But if threats don’t work then plots to split the party or re-running the leadership contest in a few months, excluding Corbyn, have already been floated.
The problem for the Labour leadership is that they have three candidates who offer more of the same. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are all part of a party centre that supported Blair and Brown and who are committed to “austerity light” policies. Kendall of course is more open about her right wing views but all three have decided that, having been rejected by the voters twice, they must now “triangulate” to the right, in particular by embracing Osborne’s attacks on the welfare state.
This was the reasoning behind Harriet Harman’s decision not to oppose Osborne’s Welfare Bill. It would send a signal to voters that the LP had got on board with the Tories “strivers not skivers” campaign and signal to the left in the LP that the party had to move right to “get in tune” with the voters. Kendall, Cooper and Burnham all dutifully went along with this “abstention”, only Corbyn voted against. This has strengthened the outrage of those who want something different to the Tory onslaught on the unemployed, disabled and working poor. This is why Corbyn’s campaign has taken off and why the Labour leadership seems so powerless to stop it.
Jeremy Corbyn is a longstanding member of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition. He is against renewing Trident. He has opposed British intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria etc, spoken out in parliament against NATO expansion in eastern Europe and denounced plans to encourage a 2% of GDP minimum arms expenditure.
He has argued that under Miliband the party was not radical enough, making too many compromises with the coalition’s cuts policy and not committing itself to an anti-austerity programme. This he has argued would involve greater public investment, a large housebuilding programme, private rent controls, a green new deal, dropping student fees and restoring grants, and nationalisation of industries like rail gas and electricity. All this would be funded by tackling corporate tax avoidance, raising corporate taxes and taxes for the highest earners. It is a radical left social democratic programme.
Yet while he has said all these things over a number of years and at meetings up and down the country, his campaign website is less radical and has been rowing back on or remaining silent on many of these commitments. One reason may be the increasingly important role in the campaign of the team around Ken Livingstone whose former chief of staff Simon Fletcher is now Corbyn’s campaign director. Fletcher, a former member of the Socialist Action grouping that staffed Livingstone’s GLA at its highest levels, is now in charge of the campaign – and it shows.
A recent paper on the economy for example, The Economy in 2020, declares “The biggest issue facing British politics right now is not whether the top rate of tax should be 45% or 50%, or whether corporation tax should be 18% or 20%. The big question is how to get some of the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations to pay anything like their fair share.” Well previously Corbyn was in favour of raising corporation tax to 50% for top earners and raising corporation tax – has this changed? All the promises on investment, growth measures and reversing Tory cuts being made by the Corbyn campaign cannot possibly be paid for by tax avoidance measures alone, nor even by raising taxes on the highest earners. Real riches in Britain resides in unearned and inherited wealth – in shares and bonds, property, land, yachts, paintings and other valuables – wealth that can only be tapped by a steeply progressive wealth tax and land taxes, something Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign doesn’t even mention.
There are other questions that are yet to be answered in Jeremy’s campaign. He has committed himself to repeal Osborne’s latest attack on the trade unions but hasn’t said anything about repealing all Thatcher’s and Major’s anti trade union laws. He has talked about getting rid of “the scourge of PFI in the NHS” but hasn’t said clearly that any government of his would cancel outright all PFI contracts without compensation, releasing the NHS at a stroke from its debt bondage to the big corporations. He has spoken in favour of bringing the banks, railways and other utilities back into public ownership but said little about how workers and consumers will control and direct these utilities in the public interest, leaving one to suspect it is the same old discredited bureaucratic state control he is talking about. While he is opposed to Trident and overseas military adventures, nothing has been said about pulling out of NATO, an imperialist military alliance.
For all these reasons those of us in Left Unity supporting the Corbyn leadership campaign, and we should all be in whatever capacity we can, need to be critical and questioning. Jeremy’s campaign slogan is “straight talking, honest politics”. One way of achieving that is being absolutely clear to your supporters what you stand for and what you will do if you come to office.
The media and Labour leadership’s campaign against the left will go into full swing in the next months harping on about how Labour will be out of power for a generation if they vote for Corbyn and threatening chaos and split if they do. A Corbyn victory is still the least likely outcome whatever the polls say. But his campaign needs to prepare now for just such an eventuality.
Ken Livingstone and his Socialist Action acolytes will tell him to moderate his campaign, reach out to the centre and right of the LP, go for the long game to 2020. The more leftwing LRC has already been sidelined and is helping the process by putting off its November conference, exactly the time when the Labour left, win or lose, should be rallying the new forces that have come into the campaign.
If Corbyn wins he should be immediately planning, alongside his trade union allies, an emergency LP rules revision conference to put in a reorganisation to pre-empt any attempts by the right-wing PLP to call another leadership election. At a minimum a Corbyn leadership should be changing the rules to allow for CLP and TU nominations alongside MPs, the policy forums should be abolished and LP conference restored to a real policy making and controlling body of the party, the right to de-select and recall MPs and councillors who flout constituency/LP policy should be introduced, and the constituencies themselves should be opened up as never before to campaigning bodies, social movements and the rank and file of the trade unions.
The perspective of waiting for the election in 2020 to oust the Tories should be thrown out the window. Councillors should be instructed up and down the country to vote down Osborne’s cuts and reorganise the councils as fighting bodies to mobilise the communities to fight. The aim must be to obstruct and destroy the Cameron/Osborne austerity plan and bring down the government as soon as possible. Waiting for 2020 is a recipe for a weakened and demoralised labour movement.
If Corbyn did win then Left Unity itself would have to immediately reconsider our perspective. It would be self-defeating to stand aside from a period of crisis and turmoil in the LP reminiscent of the Bennite movement of the 1980s. We should be willing to suspend our electoral activity and join as a tendency to strengthen the left of the LP against a right wing onslaught.
A more likely scenario is the failure of the Corbyn challenge as LP members are convinced of the opportunist argument “better a right wing Labour government than no Labour government”. The question then is how to rescue the tens of thousands of militants who have been inspired to fight for socialism in the campaign.
Because we have been here before, tens of thousands rallied to the John McDonnell campaign for leadership, even Ed Miliband inspired lots of young people that he stood for something different. Within the LP these militants are quickly disillusioned and leave often to go out of active politics. It wont take much to repeat this. A new leader gets the party to vote for the Tory’s benefit cap, to vote for military action in Syria, denounces this or that public sector strike for better pay as “disruptive” or “mindless”. We have seen it a hundred times. That is why Left Unity needs to reach out to the Corbyn campaigners and demonstrate that a LP under rightwing leadership is not the only alternative. To demonstrate that it’s possible to build a fighting party outside of the LP that can struggle for and win the things they are fighting for. That’s the challenge for Left Unity.
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