Jeremy Corbyn won Labour’s leadership election by mobilising hundreds of thousands with his call for Labour to break with the austerity consensus and lead opposition to cuts, privatisation and war. The comprehensive nature of Corbyn’s victory has opened up a serious struggle over the Party’s future direction. The Blairite right have been quick off the mark.
Tristram Hunt has been touring the universities, pouring scorn on Labour’s new leader. In Sheffield he argued that Labour had “marched decisively away from the views of voters on issues that are fundamental to our electoral prospects: immigration, personal financial interest, welfare, public services and business”.
Hunt wants Labour to be tougher on migrants and welfare claimants and in cutting public services. He wants to pander to the “aspirational” middle classes, and racist prejudices on immigration.
At Cambridge he summed this up succinctly: “You are the top 1 per cent. The Labour party is in the shit.” There speaks a true representative of the pro-capitalist tendency in the Party.
Jeremy’s victory has exposed this historic contradiction in the Party, that goes back to its very foundation: between a pro-capitalist leadership and a pro-working class base in the unions, constituencies and amongst voters.
After years of being sidelined and taken for granted, suddenly members and trade unionists were able to use the new one-member-one-vote system to speak out, giving Jeremy a crushing 59.5 per cent majority.
Labour now has approaching 400,000 members, 100,000 registered supporters and 80,000 affiliated union supporters. Corbyn’s victory gives them a mandate to reorient the Party and set out a radically different programme for future elections.
Jeremy and his closest ally John McDonnell have denounced the Tories’ new Welfare Bill as punishing the poorest, in sharp contrast to Harriet Harman, who in June directed Labour MPs to abstain on it.
Corbyn also opposed the Trade Union Bill and proudly acknowledged the role unions and socialists played in founding Labour. He has appealed to all those who have left the party to “come home”, suggesting that the bans on Marxists and Trotskyists could be rescinded.
The right wing organises
Jeremy repeated at conference his opposition to Trident. His statement that he would never authorise a nuclear attack led to criticism from shadow cabinet colleagues Maria Eagle and Hilary Benn. However, opinion polls show that this is closer to the views of most people than the Labour establishment.
The incomplete character of Corbyn's revolution, relying on his election as leader, lies in the Party’s federal structure. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in particular has always felt free to ignore conference decisions it did not like.
Most of Labour’s 7,000 councillors will not quickly become anti-austerity champions. Many have been selling off housing, school playing fields and other council assets while cutting services. The bureaucracy at Party HQ, inherited from the old regime, will do their best to frustrate Corbyn and McDonnell.
In the constituencies, there have been already attempts to resume the witch-hunts of the 1980s. Supporters of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have had long standing Party memberships revoked. Labour should reinstate all the expelled or excluded socialists.
Under this sustained attack, Jeremy and John have already made a number of concessions. Some, like putting so many of their opponents into the shadow cabinet, are tactical, given the right wing majority in the PLP. But appointing Benn to Foreign Affairs and Eagle to Defence is dangerous. In these posts Labour’s loyalty — to British imperialism or to the international working class — will be put to the test. Will Labour support Trident? Will it back the bombing of Syria? We already know where Benn and Eagle will stand.
There are reports that a meeting between these shadow minsters and Corbyn decided that Labour MPs could vote to bomb Syria, even without a UN Security Council mandate. If so, this would demonstrate just how far the left has to go to establish control over the PLP. If Jeremy himself were to vote for such action, then this would be a terrible betrayal of the entire movement.
Another serious concession is ducking a fight over restoring mandatory reselection, the membership’s automatic right to select parliamentary candidates. Unless this is reversed soon, it could saddle a majority left wing membership with a disloyal PLP selected in days of Blair and Brown, with only a handful of new left MPs.
John McDonnell made an even more serious concession on Labour councillors and local cuts, saying: “The situation the councils are now in is, if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them anymore.”
This concession threatens to undermine the foundations for any anti-austerity and anti-cuts alliance between Labour and the grassroots resistance. We need a radical about-turn from Labour councils to make the party integral to the fightback.
This means telling people, now, exactly how much is being spent on services, exactly how much money comes in, and exactly how much the Tories wants us to cut. No more secret accounting behind closed doors.
Labour councillors must stop treating public sector unions as enemies, and should take their side without hesitation, standing with them on picket lines and calling for solidarity.
Most controversially, Labour councillors should not bow to Tory demands, and should instead refuse to carry out the cuts. Yes, the Tories will then suspend them and impose unelected commissioners. But if every Labour council, or a large enough number of them, refused to do the Tories’ bidding, then the Tories would have to try to scrap local democracy across huge swathes of urban Britain.
Alongside a wave of public sector union strikes to save services, we could then have councillors appealing to workers to occupy workplaces, and build towards a general strike in defence of local services and democracy.
With their tiny majority, the Tories would never be able to withstand this, provided that the Labour movement’s leadership was determined to fight and win.
Otherwise the fight against cuts will be just hot air in parliament, and a historic opportunity to transform the Party into a vehicle to defeat the decimation of local services will be wasted.
Keeping up the momentum
Unless the branches and constituencies welcome in the new mass membership, turning them into activists, then sooner or later the right will move to oust Jeremy and reclaim Labour for austerity and war.
The formation of local groups of Corbyn supporters, and of Momentum nationally, is a step in the right direction. They should continue their mass recruitment online, on the streets and in the workplaces.
They should mobilise to change Labour’s official policies both nationally and locally. Then it will be possible to demand that MPs and councillors carry out party policy, and to replace them if they don’t.
This makes it vital to democratise the party from top to bottom: to restore and enhance the sovereignty of conference; to make it easier for branches, constituencies and affiliated members to submit resolutions; and to overturn all the bans used to purge the left from the Party.
But a powerful movement of rank and file Party members, trade unionists and youth must not simply be uncritical supporters of the new Labour leadership. This leadership is under extreme pressure, and needs to feel the critical support of a politically alert membership.
Above all, it is vital to bring the new members and supporters into the forefront of the fight against the Tories, not just as a “social movement” alongside the party, but as political movement to make Labour a mass party of and for the working class.