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28 June, 2015
Against the odds, the socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn has made it onto the ballot for the Labour leadership election, transforming overnight a tepid debate between shades of Blairism into a struggle over Labour’s record and role in the labour movement and struggle against austerity.
Corbyn’s campaign is a good thing for the renewed movement against austerity; Labour’s Parliamentary group will be confronted with the questions they have spent five years trying to avoid.
Socialists and anti-cuts activists should join the Labour Party not only to vote for Corbyn in the election, but to help his supporters integrate his campaign into the wider anti-austerity movement.
Far from ‘sowing illusions’ in the Labour Party, supporting Corbyn’s campaign is a chance to present a clear alternative to the Tory government and New Labour imitators and their commitment to austerity.
From the perspective of the left and trade union activists this is an opportunity to confront the trade union leaders with a clear choice: support a candidate that backs workers’ struggles and defends trade union rights – or back a candidate whose support for the labour movement has never amounted to more than empty platitudes dropped when touting for trade union money.
The news that the RMT, Aslef, FBU, Bfawu and Usdaw trade unions have backed Corbyn is welcome, but the crucial factor will be whether the three big affiliated unions – Unite, Unison and GMB – join them and mobilise their members to register as affiliated supporters.
Corbyn’s late entry into the contest meant it was not certain he would get the 35 nominations needed to get onto the ballot.
In the end he relied on nominations by notorious right-wingers like Frank Field and others who openly admit that they don’t support his views. This grudging ‘support’ was granted in order to ensure that the mainstream candidates could achieve a convincing victory over the left, but it was also testament to the indignation aroused amongst Labour supporters by the idea of an election contest limited to a choice between hard and soft New Labour candidates.
Tens of thousands of new members did not join Labour in the aftermath of the election because they believed Mandelson’s and Kendall’s disloyal assertions that Labour lost because it was “too left-wing”.
They joined because huge numbers of people still see Labour as some sort of political barrier to the Tories’ slash-and-burn austerity policies – in spite of its wretched record in opposition and local government.
The fact that the three main contenders – Burnham, Kendall and Cooper – had a uniform right wing stance will also have encouraged Labour MPs to favour the inclusion of a left candidate. Certainly Jeremy Corbyn’s inclusion on the ballot will benefit each of the three in different ways, while his exclusion would have exposed them to accusations that they wouldn’t or couldn’t debate an anti-austerity position.
In the hours and days following the election, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham denounced Ed Miliband’s election manifesto and campaign as appearing too left, too fixated on the “politics of envy”, too interested in wooing Labour’s natural supporters – i.e. the working class.
Liz Kendall has been the most outspoken telling a meeting of Westminster correspondents;
“As leader, I’m not going to waste time obsessing about school structures. If a school is providing a great education – whether it’s a local authority, academy or free school – we will back it. Full stop. What’s more, if someone wants to help run their school, they deserve credit not criticism.”
She went on,
“On business, I want to change our whole approach, not just set up a new committee. I want to lead a Labour Party that’s genuinely as passionate about wealth creation as we are about wealth distribution. I want Labour not just to ‘understand’ business but be the champion of people who take a risk, create something, build it up and make a success of it.”
Not to be outdone Andy Burnham – probably the TU leader’s favourite as the “realistic candidate,” talked of the need for Labour to treat “entrepreneurs” as “heroes in the same way as nurses”.
All of them emphasised that Labour should have been appealing to “aspirational” people – unsubtle code for Tories. Labour’s stand-in leader, Harriet Harman, added to the display of pandering to the right wing media by suggesting Labour supporters she had met were secretly glad Labour didn’t win.
All the candidates apart from Jeremy Corbyn have criticised Ed Miliband’s speeches on growing inequality, on taxing the mansions of rich, condemning non-dom tax evaders and promising to end zero hours contracts, criticising free schools, private health provision, etc. They ignore the fact that these relatively tame speeches actually saw Labour rise in the opinion polls.
Such blatant advocacy of surrender on the eve of the Cameron and Osborne’s massive assault on the welfare state shows the blithe arrogance of the Labour Right in parliament. The Parliamentary group exists not just in the famous Westminster Bubble but a bubble of the media’s making where public opinion is manufactured by the hired hacks of billionaire tax dodgers in the interests of a tiny class of super rich.
A left alternative
Jeremy Corbyn is a world away from the other candidates. Not only is he one of the veterans of the Labour left in parliament (he was elected MP for Islington North in 1983) but someone who has supported every important strike and progressive struggle, joined picket lines and countless marches over the last three decades and more.
By a nice irony of history the one-member-one vote “reforms” pressed for by the right wing dominated Parliamentary Labour Party, the media and the Tories, that was supposed to break the power of the trade unions over the party they founded and still pay for, could now rebound against them. The franchise has been extended to supporters who merely have to register online and pay £3. Thousands of people – because Corbyn is standing – are now doing just that.
What its architects hoped would act as a way of allowing “aspirational” middle class supporters to swamp the active party membership as well as trade unionists, will now become a plebiscite between the Blairite policy of mimicking the Tories and total opposition to austerity, the latter represented by movement that put 100,000 on the streets on June 20. Jeremy Corbyn has stated his aim;
“I will take part in that debate and hope that at the end of it the Labour Party emerges stronger and more resolute in opposing the principles behind austerity and impoverishment of the poorest in Britain”.
To deliver a crushing blow to the Labour right and the Tory press every one on the left, in the unions, in the People’s Assemblies, should join or at least register as a supporter now, pay their £3 and vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Electing him would be the biggest upset in Labour politics since the Kinnock and Blair “revolutions” of the 1980s and 1990s that crushed the Labour left. We need to win endorsement for Jeremy’s campaign in every union conference and every local branch too.
Imagine a Labour leader elected by the movement against austerity facing a PLP stuffed with right-wingers. This would not mean a peaceful transformation of Labour to left wing policies but a ferocious debate on Labour’s whole future. There would undoubtedly be a right wing rebellion. But such a disturbance of the main political instrument for controlling and pacifying the working class would be immensely positive.
Even a big minority vote for Corbyn would encourage and grow those forces in the Party willing to join in the mass movement that was born on June 20. Indeed Jeremy has made it clear at the hustings and meetings around the country that he intends his campaign to help build the movement.
Unsurprisingly, the two largest far left groups, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, are rather muted in their support.
Judith Orr in Socialist Worker ends her “support” for Corbyn on a distinctly downbeat note;
“Whoever wins, the possibility for real resistance to the Tories will not come through the Labour machine. Workers cannot afford to wait till September, let alone another five years, in the vain hope that Labour will build real opposition to the Tories’ assault.”
But who is waiting till September, who is claiming resistance will come “through the Labour machine”?
Likewise in the Socialist Party newspaper, which has been arguing for years that Labour was no longer any sort of working class party, Peter Taaffe grumbles;
“[W]e do not believe that he will succeed in reclaiming Labour as a political weapon for the workers’ movement. Any attempt to foster illusions that his challenge could do this, is a dead end. The process has gone too far, transforming Labour into a British version of the Democrats in the USA.”
This might seem strange for a group that once thought that building an alternative could only go through the Labour Party and that all those not in its ranks were “on the fringes of the labour movement.”
Workers Power certainly does not believe Labour – even the Labour Left is the force chosen by history to either lead the resistance to the destruction of the welfare state, let alone to achieve socialism. But we do believe that Labour remains a working class party, what Lenin and Trotsky called a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ and part of the workers’ movement. It is bourgeois because of its policies which are pro-capitalist and its leaders who are middle class career politicians, not leaders in the class struggle.
But despite constant attacks on union leaders like Len McCluskey, the party’s roots still lie in the unions – witness the £11 million in donations paid in 2014 and the £3.5 million Unite paid for the party’s election war chest in this year alone. Blair and co.’s attempt to win the support of a significant section of the capitalist class to Labour was an abject failure. Nine million mostly working class people voted Labour to defend themselves against Tory attacks.
In short Labour is the historic link tying the labour movement to the bosses and their policies. It is a link that needs to be broken. This can only be done through action not by trying to kill it with curses from groups a few thousand strong, no matter how inflated their leaders’ egos. We too believe that a new genuinely socialist working class party needs to be built – that is why we are members of Left Unity. But groups for making socialist propaganda will not build such a party just by recruiting to their own organisation.
It requires setting the whole workers’ movement in motion for its vital interests. This will create the best conditions for hundreds of thousands realising that they need an entirely new type of party to fight capitalism to a finish.
But a successful, indeed victorious fight back against the Tories, cannot await the day when either Left Unity or TUSC succeed in building such a mass party or till the Labour right succeeds in casting the unions adrift for good.
To that end we need a genuine mass united front of all the forces in the labour movement – all those suffering from the Tory onslaught and fighting it. It will need the activists in Left Unity and TUSC, from the revolutionary left groups, libertarians, etc. We need massive forces from the trade unions and the multitude of campaigns fighting for all the sectors hit by austerity. But we will also need the members and supporters and voters of the Labour Party.
Indeed we need Labour MPs and councillors too, all those who will speak out against austerity, vote against it whether in parliament or in the council chamber. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Owen Jones are already key figures in the movement launched on June 20.
The Labour leadership campaign can be a very public arena for the battle against austerity. At best it can destabilise the existing Labour leadership and their austerity-lite policies and win greater forces for the struggle.
Everyone should join their local anti-cuts group and help to build a mass campaign of resistance to the government. A big vote for Corbyn will not stabilise but destabilise Labour as a tool for the bosses, and take forward the fight for a new working class party.
Red Flag is a
socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned
and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement,
militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the
Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and
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