If we want to adopt radical socialist policies – and act on them – the first step is changing the balance of power in favour of the membership By KD Tait
REPORTS ARE rife that rebel Labour MPs will offer Jeremy Corbyn a “truce” if is he re-elected. In return for ceasing their open sabotage in the Commons and the media they will demand the dilution of Corbyn’s programme and the blocking of any restoration of the membership’s democratic rights. They will demand a stop to any reselection of MPs and any clear out of the bureaucrats at Party HQ.
Deputy Leader Tom Watson has already mooted his intention to ask Annual Conference to restore the old regime of the PLP election of the shadow cabinet and even of the leader. They could receive support from right wing General Secretaries like the GMB’s Tim Roache and maybe Unison’s Dave Prentis, though he would face difficulty delivering his delegation on this.
Watson, the apparatus and the PLP hope this manoeuvre will win them what their coup failed to do. This of course is plain and simple blackmail. ‘Give in to our demands or we will wreck the Party’s anti-Tory campaigning, drive it down even further in the polls and demoralise and drive out the hundreds of thousands of new members Jeremy Corbyn has attracted.
Corbyn supporters in the Party and the unions must demand no surrender to this blackmail or any concessions the saboteurs at Westminster or Party HQ.
In fact the most urgent task if Corbyn wins is to decisively change the balance of power between the parliamentary elite, their allies in the party apparatus and the new mass membership.
From day one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, his enemies in the Labour Party have tried to get rid of him by any means possible. Not content with removing voting rights from 130,000 new members, found guilty of joining the party since January, they have conducted a purge of longer-standing members and supporters; over 25,000 members and registered supporters have been suspended or otherwise denied a vote.
The purges and the closing down of the party meetings for the duration of the election reveal not only the extensive powers of the unelected full time officials of the party but also their political allegiance.
The purges, the closure of the party base units, during an election time when free public debate should most be flourishing, makes it clear that democratising the party will require a lot more than just countering the arguments of right wingers like fomer NEC member Luke Akehurst. It requires structural change to break the power of the unelected officialdom and to select MPs and councillors under the control of the party members who worked for their election.
It is the full time apparatus of party and union officials, the Labour bureaucracy, to give it its scientific name, that holds together and works tirelessly for the public figures such as MPs and councillors. Right now, via the Compliance Unit, it is coordinating teams across the country who are using social media to identify likely supporters of Corbyn who they can then target for suspension.
Of course, the Labour bureaucracy does not operate in a vacuum, and neither is it restricted to the party. The same kind of bureaucracy dominates the unions, though this is more widely recognised. Although it was the General Secretary, Iain McNicol, who angered many with his appeal against the High Court’s decision to grant 130,000 new members a vote, he was defending a decision made by the NEC. That was a decision supported by both union members and even Momentum-backed member Ann Black.
The purges are also intended to “otherise” Corbyn supporters as Twitter trolls, “Trotskyist entrists”, Green Party infiltrators, in short, people who don’t “belong” even in Labour’s “broad church”. The implication is that bona fide Labour Party members wouldn’t back Corbyn and the party’s officials are just trying to keep an alien “Corbyn cult” at bay.
In fact, many of the “new” members are people returning to the party, socialists driven out by Kinnock’s purges and Blair’s neoliberalism, alienated by Tony Blair’s wars, which were hated and opposed on the streets by the mass of Labour members and voters. This was what reduced the membership to less than 200,000 and lost two general elections along with four million Labour voters. The truth is that the Labour bureaucracy would rather see the membership reduced to 200,000 again rather than lose the austerity-lite polices which lost in 2015.
Some Blairite headbangers in the PLP have been talking to the Telegraph about splitting the party, stealing its assets, even its name and so on, but they are a minority. The majority follow the advice of the “sensible” right, including Luke Akehurst, who say “stay in and fight”. Their tactics are to try to force compromises on Corbyn, conceding them at the very least veto powers in the shadow cabinet. If that fails then they will continue to sabotage Corbyn and his front bench supporters in the Commons and use the Party’s bureaucratic structures to delay and obstruct the implementation of democratic reforms and radical policy changes.
If Corbyn is not be able to rely on a firm-minded majority on the NEC, they hope he can be forced into accepting the continuation of the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and the PLP over the membership via purges and an undemocratic constitution.
This is in fact to continue and even institutionalise the “dual power” between PLP and the bureaucracy on the one side and the bulk of the membership on the other. All those who want to turn the party into an active campaigning force that can stop the Tories in their tracks, here and now, have to break the power of the party bureaucrats and the right wing MPs. It is clear these officials, like the anti-Corbyn factions in the PLP, are institutional defenders of capitalist interests within our party. Only when their power to purge and sabotage is broken will it be possible, by mobilising the entire labour movement in mass actions, to break the Tories and bring to power a Labour government that will meet the full the needs of working people, whatever the cost to the rich and powerful.
The party apparatus, the PLP and the bulk of Labour councillors who accept the need for cuts, do all in their power to paralyse such campaigning by Corbyn. They see his policies as alienating the middle ground (i.e. the middle class) and losing votes. To provide themselves with “evidence” they keep up a remorseless press campaign against him which opinion polls dutifully register as massive Tory leads. They have succeeded in doing this for over a year. Their aim is to dishearten and demoralise the new members to the point where they give up and leave the party.
The unprecedented mass meetings up and down the country, bigger than those in 2015 even in the face of scandalous gerrymandering, show that even if the bureaucracy finds a way to give it to Smith then a veritable uprising of the membership is inevitable. At the mass meetings and in conversations with supporters we also have to argue for measures that will put a stop to the sabotage and call the saboteurs to order in no uncertain terms.
Starting at the top, McNicol and his unit must go and all staffers at Party HQ must be obliged to declare their loyalty to the members’ choice; in short, shape up or ship out. Tom Watson should certainly expect a challenge to his position.
The MPs who have tried to de-select Jeremy after less than one year in office but who object to facing reselection themselves every five years must be forced to face their own constituency memberships in fair contests with other candidates.
Most importantly, if we want to see the Corbyn movement’s policies adopted, then offering compromises, inviting the rebel chiefs back into the shadow cabinet, accepting the purge as a fait accompli or leaving the spies of the “Compliance Unit” in power, would be a recipe for defeat.
Jeremy should use his leader’s speech at conference to announce the opening up of the party’s policy forums to the membership in a widespread review and development of the party’s programme. The historic Clause Four with its pledge to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, must replace the Blair’s empty phrases about “a community in which power and wealth and opportunity, are in the hands of the many not the few.”
Policy initiative and development must involve all party bodies down to branch level and directly involve the trade union affiliated membership as well. It should culminate in a special conference to adopt the new programme and a charter of members’ rights. Many of these things have been promised by Jeremy and John McDonnell and now they need to be implemented. They will have the overwhelming support of the membership.
The task of the members, once the branches and constituencies have their right to meet restored, must be to make sure that at AGMs, delegates and officers who respect the members’ wishes and the policies repeatedly called for by Corbyn and the majority are elected to General Councils and Constituency Labour Parties. Renewed local party leadership bodies and the NEC need to begin a huge involvement of the new membership in all the party’s campaigning, not just in electioneering, important as that is. A process of political education, cultural and popular media development and policy formulation will be essential. Last, but not least, once the purges have been stopped, the drive for a million Party members must be resumed. Together with the trades unions, the Labour Party must indeed become a mass social movement, taking on the Tories on every front and fighting for socialism in our time.
A longer version of this article was published online a week before being edited down for print. It can be read here