Sunday, 1 November 2015

Appeasement is no way to fight the Labour Right

An article of mine was published in the Weekly Worker a week ago on the situation, as I see it, facing Jeremy Corbyn.  

 Labour Turned Upside Down

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

The election of Jeremy Corbyn opens up significant possibilities for the left to advance a socialist agenda in Britain, but it also lays the basis for a possibly terminal defeat for the left in the Labour Party if the wrong strategy is adopted.   The danger is that the far left will retreat behind sterile slogans about the Labour Party and the limitations of a reformist or bourgeois workers party without analysing the uniqueness of the present situation.  That is the method of the SWP which views everything through the prism of recruiting opportunities.

People need to understand what has happened and the limits of what is possible.  Since the General Election over 150,000 people have joined the Labour Party.  Revolutionaries should be joining the party.  The idea of affiliation of groups to the Labour Party in this situation is irrelevant.  It bypasses peoples’ consciousness.  The election of Corbyn has taken place in the absence of any significant working-class mobilisation or a mass movement against the decimation of the steel industry, local government cuts or the housing crisis. 

Politically the mass media has embarked on a concerted attack on Corbyn and there is a danger of wide-scale demoralisation amongst those who voted for him.

For the first time in over 30 years the Left has achieved a significant political victory, almost in spite of itself.  The far Left in Britain has never been very good when it comes to strategy or forward planning.  It has been bedeviled by sectarian impotence, the belief that differences between groups are more important than what unites them.   Since the 1960’s the socialist left has gone backwards as the working-class has suffered successive defeats. 

As one of the few people to predict an outright Tory victory in May,  I suggest that the first thing to do is to understand why Corbyn, as near to the far-Left as any candidate could get in the Labour Party, came from being a 100-1 outsider to winning the leadership with 60% first preference votes.  All talk of infiltrators from the massed ranks of the far-left disappeared with the result.  Can the British left, for once in its history take advantage of what has happened or will it continue to plough the same furrows of irrelevance?

After its General Election defeat, the reaction of New Labour was that Labour had lurched too far to the left.[Miliband made 'terrible mistake' in ditching New Labour, says Mandelson]  Who can forget the distilled wisdom of Tristram Hunt that Labour had to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, the aspirational Waitrose shopper.  In fact Labour had actually gained 1.4% of the vote nationally and 3.6% in England, compared to the Tories 0.8%.  New Labour’s ideologues comprehensively misread the popular reaction to the Tory victory and their candidate, Liz Kendall paid the price.

The nomination of Corbyn by right-wing Labour MPs was not merely fortuitous.  Thousands of people, via social media, including my 13 year old son, bombarded Labour MPs demanding that they lend Corbyn their nomination.  Undoubtedly this created an atmosphere in which MPs were pushed into accepting the need for a contest where the Left wasn’t excluded.

The primary reasons for Labour losing the election in England were the 16% drop in the Lib Dem vote coupled with the 10.7% increase for UKIP.  In addition the Green Party gained 3.2%.  The Tories gained 21 compared to 15 seats for Labour in England.  In Scotland the SNP took 10 seats from the Lib Dems.  It had no effect on whether there would have been a Labour government (assuming an arrangement had been reached with the SNP).

From the first declaration in Sunderland, where UKIP gained around 8,000 votes, it was clear that UKIP would make a heavy inroads into Labour’s northern working-class vote.  The mistake was in writing off such a vote as racist or chauvinist.  When people mentioned ‘immigration’ what they were really doing was looking for an explanation for job insecurity, low wages, housing and poverty.  In the absence of any class alternative UKIP’s scapegoating provide an alternative.  In these same northern cities Corbyn was speaking to meetings of 1,000+.  Those who voted UKIP also support rail renationalisation, rent controls and many other socialist and radical demands.

They are not revolutionary demands but we are not in a revolutionary situation.  Nationalisation is a progressive demand because it poses a collective solution to the fragmentation and profiteering of private capitalism.  To dispense with transitional demands is to dispense with any notion of how to change society.


Corbyn is in a distinct minority in the Parliamentary party.  Unfortunately his strategy appears to be one of feeding the lions rather than shooting them.  Appeasement is rarely a successful strategy.  At best it buys time.  As soon as sufficient time has elapsed, the Labour right is going to go in for the kill. 

Far from giving the green light to MPs to rebel over the bombing of Syria, the sole purpose of which is to make it clear that in foreign policy bipartisanship rules, a three line whip should be issued opposing all military action.  Instead it seems that Corbyn is contemplating supporting a ‘safe haven’ which can only be enforced militarily.  No serious strategist believes that Britain will succeed where the US has failed in bringing ISIS to heel.  The only American success was in Kobani where the Kurds were on the ground. 

Appeasing the right can have only one outcome.  The removal of Corbyn when the time is right, probably 18 months at the maximum.  Having betrayed most of his promises there will be no one left to fight for him.

The omni-shambles represented by MacDonald’s about turn on supporting Osborne’s fiscal statement betrays a Labour left that talks anti-austerity but refuses to adopt, even within capitalism, an economic policy that rejects the framework of reducing the deficit.  If the State is in deficit others are in surplus.  If the state is in surplus savings are run down and deflation stalks the land.  That by any definition is austerity. 

We are seeing a slow motion replay of Syriza, except that Labour is not even in government.  The left inside and outside the Labour Party will pay the price for abdicating its responsibilities.  The Labour Right would prefer a Tory to a left-labour government.  Blair wasquite explicit‘I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.’  It is the job of the Left is to draw the appropriate conclusions.  Instead Corbyn has adopted a trappist silence, giving the Right in the shadow cabinet its head.

Whilst Corbyn had little alternative but to appoint members from the Right as members of the shadow cabinet, it was a crass political mistake to appoint a supporter of NATO and Trident to the post of Shadow Defence Secretary.  The resignation of Lord Warner as a Whip in the House of Lords begs the question as to why was this advocate of introducing charges in the NHS and a consultant to private healthcare firms ever appointed?  Whilst Corbyn is making a virtue out of necessity, in turning the other cheek, he should remember that even Jesus used whips to drive the money lenders out of the Temple.  Corbyn’s experiment in the ‘new politics’ is simply postponing the inevitable whilst the Prince of Darkness (Mandelson) plots away.    

The Achilles heel of past Labour governments, even of the reforming kind, has been the bipartisanship relationship with America on foreign policy.  That is the real meaning of Trident. The idea that the ability to incinerate millions of people contributes to Britain’s ‘security’ is self-evidently absurd.  Not only is it not independent of the USA, but it makes it that much more likely that Britain would be a primary target in the event of war between Russia and the USA. 

Having been the subject of the Kinnock purges in the early 1990’s and having participated in the Socialist Alliance, Left Unity and TUSC, it is clear that efforts to organise outside the Labour Party have been a failure.  Thousands of socialists have now joined the Labour Party and the urgent need is to provide a leadership in the fight with a Right determined to save Labour for capitalism. 
That means drawing up our own red lines.  Trident, the bombing of Syria, rail and utilies nationalisation, rent controls and security of tenure, abolition of the benefits cap, Council Tax Benefit and the bedroom tax, tuition fees and grants.  If that means the resignation of shadow cabinet members, then so be it.  Higher corporate taxation and an end to corporate welfare and to multi-nationals tax avoidance, as well as the repeal of the anti-trade union laws should be part of a minimum programme. 

What we are talking about is a left reformist government.  Socialism is not on the agenda but a left Labour government would represent a very distinct advance in the fight for socialism.
The temptation is for Corbyn and MacDonald to continue to appease the Right.  Having promised to abolish tuition fees and reinstate grants, Corbyn is now backing down on this.  In the face of steel closures the SNP has called for nationalisation.  Labour has said nothing.  

A major factor in Corbyn’s election was housing, rent levels and security of tenure.  Tory policies of using housing price inflation to stimulate the economy are leading to a situation where key workers can’t obtain affordable housing.  A policy of taking housing out of the market, reducing the price of housing and rent levels coupled with a right to buy at a discount in the private sector and repeal of the right to buy social housing would bury the buy to let sector. 

There is one other question on which socialists needs to take a stand.   Proportional Representation.  To have a political system that accords one seat to a party with over 4 million votes is grotesque. 
Reform of internal party structures are crucial.  The abolition of the National Policy Forum and the reintroduction of Conference sovereignty, coupled with the abolition of the requirement to obtain 15% of MPs as nominees for the leadership is the minimum.  The one measure that will put the frighteners on right-wing MPs will be mandatory reselection coupled with the right of recall.  To abjure this is not to strengthen but to weaken Corbyn’s position. 

The Labour Party has always accepted the British state uncritically.  They are literally Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.  A refusal by Corbyn to defend his republican beliefs and to pretend they are ones of private conscience is part of the fundamental political weakness of the Labour left.  The Tory press fulminated but the majority of people were unpersuaded by the necessity to doff the cap and sing the anthem.  A programme to reform the feudal British state should include the royal prerogative, the Privy Council and a referendum on abolition of the Monarchy. 

MacDonald’s craven apology for having said that the IRA were brave wasn’t simply embarrassing.  Did MacDonald forget the origins of the Northern Ireland state or its existence as a Protestant supremacist police state for half a century or that when the RUC and B-Specials invaded Derry’s Bogside in 1969, the IRA stood for I Ran Away.  Instead MacDonald apologised and emphasised his allegiance to the British security state. Thus we see a Sir Stafford Cripps in the making.

Corbyn has been involved in Palestine solidarity for as long as he has been an MP yet he is now retreating to a position of ‘dialogue’ which conveniently omits the question of who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor.  Would he have called for dialogue to resolve Apartheid in South Africa?   Those who possess privilege rarely give it up of their own accord.

Working in the Labour party will not be easy.  Electoralism has its own rhythms.  Corbyn and MacDonald are prisoners of their own shadow cabinet.  Our job is to free them.  The victory of Corbyn gives the socialist left opportunities it has rarely had.  The question is whether they will instead allow the Right to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

Tony Greenstein

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