|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 217 April 2018
For a fighting, democratic Labour Party
The Labour left has been strengthened since last year’s general election. However, decisive action is needed to consolidate those gains, against right-wing attacks and to transform Labour into an open, democratic, federal working-class party with a clear anti-austerity, socialist programme. HANNAH SELL writes.
Just 18 months ago a majority of Labour MPs – 172 of them – launched an attempted coup against their democratically elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn. They were defeated by hundreds of thousands of people who, understanding what was at stake, swung behind Corbyn. The lines between the two Labour parties – the pro-capitalist Blairite one and the anti-austerity party in formation around Corbyn – were clearly drawn. Today things appear less clear cut. Prior to the snap general election last June the Labour right wing imagined the result would allow it to force Corbyn out. Instead, of course, the election enormously strengthened his hand and that of the left.
In the wake of the election the left has therefore been able to make some gains in the structures of the Labour Party. It can now claim a majority on the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The previous right-wing general secretary, Iain McNicol, has been replaced by Corbyn-supporting Unite union official Jennie Formby. In addition, a democracy review has been set up, led by Corbyn-supporting ex-MP Katy Clark, to look at reforming the Labour Party’s structures which currently remain in the undemocratic, truncated state left by Blairism.
Despite these steps forward, however, the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party remains intact and still wields considerable power. As the Blairite journalist John Rentoul put it, "the non-Corbyn forces still control the deputy leadership, the parliamentary party and local government. Each of these is under siege, but they can hold out for years". (Independent, 2 December 2017) There are not yet significant signs of the right’s control of these important power bases being undermined.
Prospective parliamentary candidates are currently being selected for the 75 most marginal non-Labour seats. According to the Guardian, only a third of the 45 selections so far have gone to candidates supported by Momentum, the group set up to campaign for Jeremy Corbyn. Nor has there been any substantial change in the make-up of Labour council candidates. Individual successes, such as the deselection of Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales, do not alter the general picture that Labour councillors are a bulwark for the right.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) carried out a survey of Labour council candidates. In the 21 councils surveyed only one in eight candidates could be described as Corbyn supporters, even with the most generous definition. Martin Kettle wrote in the Guardian: "What is most striking about Labour at the end of 2017 is that, so far, there is little evidence of a systematic attempt to purge the centrists and social democrats". He went on: "Individual cases, such as the Haringey council battle or the shortlisting in Watford, get a lot of publicity but they are too easily caricatured and exaggerated and they are not typical of the whole country".
Does it matter that the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party still has so much power? After all, claims abound that the party has never been more united and that the right now accepts Corbyn’s leadership. As we have warned, however, this is a dangerous illusion. In reality, the civil war in the Labour Party is continuing. It is true that many on the pro-capitalist wing of the party were forced, post snap election, to hum along to ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ Yet they are not reconciled to his leadership and take whatever chance they can to undermine him.
Just look at their frenzied attacks on him over his correct refusal to join in the cynical use of the attempted murders of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter to try to whip up nationalism. Eighteen of the most right-wing Labour MPs immediately signed an early day motion unconditionally giving their full support for Tory prime minister Theresa May on the issue, in a crude assault on Jeremy Corbyn. This, when May has refused to share the intelligence service reports with Corbyn, breaking normal capitalist parliamentary protocols.
Attacks await a Corbyn government
Following in the wake of these events are renewed rumours of right-wing Labour MPs being in discussion with Liberal Democrats and pro-EU Tories about founding a new capitalist, ‘remainer’ party. Rumours of this type have periodically surfaced ever since Corbyn became leader. They are not without substance. The MPs involved meet on a weekly basis to discuss how to bring about a ‘soft’ Brexit in the interests of the capitalist class. This does not mean that the creation of a new party is necessarily imminent, but that the implicated MPs, led it seems by Chuka Umunna, see their role as acting for ‘liberal capitalism’. If they cannot reclaim the Labour Party for this agenda, at some stage they may split away in order to act more effectively for the capitalist class. The response of the Labour leadership should be to show them the door now.
Doing so is essential preparation for a future Labour government. The barrage of attacks Jeremy Corbyn has faced in recent days is nothing to the slander he would be subjected to if he wins a general election. The lies heaped on him would only be one aspect of a campaign of capitalist sabotage to try and prevent Corbyn from carrying out a programme in the interests of the working and middle classes. In reality, Corbyn’s programme is relatively modest, but that does not mean that British capitalism would acquiesce to its implementation. The overriding feature of capitalism in this era is a relentless drive to make the working and middle classes pay for the consequences of a system in crisis.
The capitalist class considers Corbyn’s programme a threat to that, above all because it would awaken the appetite of the working class for more. Attacks from the capitalist elite are therefore inevitable. If they are to be successfully combated, it is a serious mistake to leave in place inside your own ranks a fifth column party that is guaranteed to join in. Especially when, at least in the Parliamentary Labour Party, it could more accurately be described as a four-fifths column!
Imagine if a Corbyn-led Labour government moved to nationalise the water companies, for example, paying compensation only to those in need, not to the billionaires who have made a fortune from our water supply. The capitalists and right-wing media would scream blue murder. Is there any possibility that MPs like Chuka Umunna, who has fulminated that ‘we can’t just go round nationalising things without compensation’, would loyally defend Corbyn’s actions? If the pro-capitalist MPs are still inside the Labour Party at that stage, they will undoubtedly try to sabotage any attempts by Corbyn to take radical measures in defence of working-class interests, splitting Labour if they consider it is necessary to do so and the conditions are right.
There is a comparison with the Labour government of 1929-31. Wracked by economic crisis, the capitalists demanded that the government implemented brutal austerity. The Labour Party was then a capitalist workers’ party: a party with a capitalist leadership but a mass working-class base that could exert pressure on the leadership through its democratic structures. Therefore, it was not a reliable tool for the capitalists in an age of austerity so, at their behest, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald split the party and formed a national government together with Tory and Liberal MPs. There can be no doubt that Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party would be prepared to take equally brutal measures if the capitalist class demanded it.
Anti-austerity leader, pro-cuts party
We do not dismiss the steps that have been taken to shift the Labour Party towards the left. However, they are still modest and it is essential that they are consolidated and extended. The establishment of the democracy review is an opportunity to make the necessary root-and-branch changes to the party’s structure – and these changes cannot be separated from the transformation of the Labour Party into a working-class, anti-austerity party.
Jeremy Corbyn was thrust into the leadership by hundreds of thousands of people who were searching for an effective anti-austerity political voice, following the Tory victory in 2015. They succeeded in electing an anti-austerity leader, but to a predominantly pro-capitalist, pro-austerity party! Attempts by the right-wing Labour machine to get rid of Corbyn were defeated by his popular base. Then, when Corbyn got a chance to put his programme to the country, it led to the biggest increase in the vote of any party since Labour in 1945.
This is the essence of the situation: Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance is popular, and it has won the votes of millions who had either never voted Labour or stopped doing so. Meanwhile, the parties around Europe which have continued to follow the New Labour road, supporting and implementing capitalist austerity – Pasok in Greece, Parti Socialiste in France, the SPD in Germany, etc – have suffered catastrophic defeats because they are associated with implementing capitalist policies that have contributed to lowering the living standards of the majority. However, mistaken and utopian attempts to conciliate with the ‘New Labour’ wing are preventing a thoroughgoing campaign to transform Labour into an anti-austerity party.
The democracy review needs to propose measures which hand power to the hundreds of thousands of Labour’s new members, and the millions of workers organised in the trade unions. Such measures need to be combined with a clear political call to those enthused by Jeremy Corbyn to actively campaign to transform the Labour Party.
Unfortunately, the leadership of Momentum, inaccurately described in the establishment media as ‘hard-left Corbynistas’, is not taking this approach. Momentum currently claims 36,000 members, a not insignificant force but still a small minority of those who joined the Labour Party to back Corbyn. To mobilise this larger force would require inspiring them with a programme to transform Labour. Instead, at each stage, the Momentum leadership has sought to compromise with the Blairites, while taking an undemocratic witch-hunting approach towards the left.
The Momentum National Coordinating Group (NCG) has submitted proposals to the democracy review but they are extremely limited, covering uncontroversial issues such as a ‘code of ethics’ and the establishment of a ‘Labour Party ombudsman’. One positive proposal is for Labour Party members to also be allowed to be members of other organisations unless their "objectives and methods are clearly incompatible with Labour’s".
We hope that the Momentum leadership argues that this should include the Socialist Party and other organisations currently excluded from Momentum! There are, however, no proposals from the NCG for the more far-reaching measures necessary to transform the Labour Party. It is no wonder, therefore, that only around 3,500 Momentum members bothered to vote in the online poll.
One important aspect of transforming Labour would be an ideological rearming. In 1995, Tony Blair abolished Labour’s historic commitment – in Clause Four, Part IV of the party’s rules – to "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". The replacement clause instead committed the party to the dynamic "enterprise of the market", "the rigor of competition", and "a thriving private sector". It is this latter pro-market clause which is still printed on the back of the Labour Party membership card.
When asked by BBC TV presenter Andrew Marr about changing it, Jeremy Corbyn side-stepped the question, saying: "It is what we do that counts". Of course, that is true, but it would still be a mistake to leave this pro-capitalist clause intact. There should be a wide-ranging discussion on replacing it with a clearly socialist clause. This would be part of the process of transforming the party and raising the consciousness of Corbyn supporters as to what is required to implement his anti-austerity message.
Restoring union rights
What democratic measures are necessary alongside the political rearming of the party? A first step would be to re-establish the central role of the trade unions, recognising their importance as the collective voice of millions of workers. The capitalist media dismiss their role within Labour as being power to a few ‘union barons’, ignoring that these so-called barons have been elected through the unions’ democratic structures. They also resulted in Unite, Labour’s largest affiliate, standing for the mandatory reselection of MPs – as a result of a democratic decision taken at its conference in 2016 to support a motion moved by a Socialist Party member.
Nonetheless, we do not accept that the trade union voice should only be that of a few leaders; it should be democratically exercised by union members. This would provide a potential means for the working class to control its political representatives. It was this potential, above all, that defined the character of the Labour Party in the past as a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ – as opposed to the capitalist party (with just a few surviving remnants of its past) that it became under Blair.
Some on Labour’s left do not support the restoration of trade union rights. Momentum director and Labour NEC member Christine Shawcroft even called for an end of the limited rights that the trade unions currently have. She posted on Facebook: "It’s also time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour Party. The party belongs to us, the members". Shawcroft later retreated from these remarks ‘made in the heat of the moment’. Nonetheless, this indicates the mistaken position of the Momentum leadership with regards to the trade unions.
Instead, they look to the kind of ‘horizontal’ structure exhibited by Podemos. This is less horizontal and less democratic than it might appear, however. Largely based on membership participation via online consultation, it actually cedes too much control to a leadership which is not sufficiently held to account by an active and combative membership. Unfortunately, this is also the approach taken within Momentum, whose leadership sees its role to ‘police’ the left rather than to build a political, democratic, campaigning organisation.
Of course, online consultation can be useful, but only as an aid to the active mobilisation of the membership around a radical programme. If, as it should, the democracy review agrees a root-and-branch democratic transformation of Labour’s structures, given the present alignment of forces it would be correct to put that directly to Labour members and supporters, including in the trade unions, over the heads of the Parliamentary Labour Party and right-wing union leaders.
Yet it would be a mistake to do this only as a relatively passive ‘online vote’. It should be part of a series of mass meetings to discuss the transformation of the Labour Party. A workers’ party, in its real sense, provides political representation for all those taking part in collective struggle against the existing capitalist order – from workers on strike, to housing and community campaigners, to students fighting for free education. It should be absolutely clear, therefore, that the trade unions, organising over six million workers, should play a key role in the Labour Party and its transformation.
Democratic federal structure
Re-establishing the rights of the unions within Labour would be one aspect of returning the party to its federal roots. The Labour Party was born in 1900 as an umbrella grouping of trade union and socialist organisations fighting together for working-class political representation. There was no individual membership until 1918. Marxists played an important role from the start, and early affiliated organisations included the British Socialist Party (one of the forerunners of the Communist Party), for whom John Maclean stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate in 1918.
Even today a few remnants of that federal structure still exist although, unsurprisingly given the history of recent decades, it is organisations on the right which remain affiliated. Marxists – above all, Militant (now the Socialist Party) – were expelled from Labour for their ideas. The Co-operative Party, for example, has since 1927 been a separate party which has an electoral agreement with the Labour Party. There is no reason there should not now be a similar arrangement for left and socialist electoral forces.
Several Corbyn-supporting commentators have suggested that the Greens should be allowed to affiliate to Labour. Most recently, Owen Jones praised the Greens for standing down in some seats to aid Labour in the snap general election – even though they fielded candidates against Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Nevertheless, Jones argued: "It is surely time for the Green party to formally join forces with Labour. Sounds like an absurd proposition? ... It’s exactly the arrangement that has existed between Labour and the Co-operative Party for nine decades: indeed, there are 38 MPs who belong to both. Rather than proving the death of green politics, such a pact would give it new life".
This is a correct idea. The Greens should be encouraged to affiliate to Labour provided they are prepared to agree to an anti-austerity programme. Even if not all the Greens are prepared to do so, those who are should be welcomed as an organised force. But why only the Greens? Why not TUSC, the Socialist Party and other socialist organisations? TUSC was co-founded by Bob Crow, the late general secretary of the RMT (Rail Maritime Transport union), to enable "trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against pro-austerity establishment politicians", in the days of New Labour. On a much smaller scale it operates as a federation, with affiliated organisations including the RMT and the Socialist Party.
TUSC went further than the Greens in supporting Corbyn in the general election, standing no candidates and instead campaigning for the election of a Corbyn-led government. Like the Greens, TUSC is contesting seats in the local elections taking place this May. TUSC however, is doing so selectively against anti-Corbyn Labour councillors who are implementing austerity. An anti-austerity, democratic Labour Party could bring together all these forces and more in a powerful federation.
Readmit the socialists
Some on the Labour left would argue that this is a utopian demand and that members of the Greens, TUSC and the Socialist Party should accept joining Labour as individuals, giving up the right to be an organised force within a broader umbrella. Of course, we would welcome the whole of the Labour left campaigning for the readmittance of all genuine expelled socialists. A handful of individuals have been allowed to join since the general election but the vast majority remain excluded. In the autumn of 2016, 75 expelled socialists with a combined 1,000-year membership of the Labour Party, many of them members of the Socialist Party, collectively demanded that they and others be readmitted. Iain McNicol, then Labour Party general secretary, turned down this application flat. Jennie Formby should now overturn this decision for the 75 and other similar cases.
However, readmission of individuals alone is not enough. It is also vital that all organised forces have the right to act collectively to promote their views, provided they are anti-austerity and on the left. No doubt, the socialist greens would consider it essential to be able to campaign around their key environmental demands within a federal Labour Party. In the view of the Socialist Party, we have a vital role to play in campaigning for Labour to move further to the left. We also make a significant contribution to aiding the day-to-day struggles of the working class in defence of their living conditions and against the attacks they face – as tens of thousands of striking workers and community activists recognise.
The role we are able to play is inextricably bound up with our Marxist programme and methods. It is inevitable that capitalist ideology has influence in the Labour Party, even if the left wins the civil war and the party is successfully reclaimed from the Blairites. We live in a capitalist society. Ideas that defend the continuation of the existing order – from the role of the ‘free market’ to the ‘inevitability’ that a tiny minority hold vast wealth – permeate all aspects of society.
They have to be consciously combated within the workers’ movement. This can be done by open debate between different organised tendencies. The Socialist Party, which puts forward a clear programme for the working class to bring an end to capitalism and build a new democratic socialist order, has an important role to play now, and particularly in the future – when a Corbyn-led Labour government would face huge pressure to capitulate to the demands of capitalism.
For mandatory reselection
The Socialist Party also campaigns for many other key measures to democratise the Labour Party, sterilised by Blairism over years. The selection of Labour councillors should be democratised, with local wards allowed to choose their own candidates. The National Policy Forum should be scrapped, with the Labour Party conference restored as the body that decides party policy.
One of the most important demands is for the restoration of mandatory reselection of MPs. The threat of local Labour Party members being able to effectively hold their MPs to account is considered an outrage by Labour right-wingers who seem to think they have a God-given right to sit in parliament. When the NEC moved to the left they responded by giving anonymous briefings that they would ‘resign the parliamentary whip’ – effectively, resign from the Labour Party – if threatened with deselection. Unfortunately, the response of Jon Lansman, leader of Momentum, was to immediately reassure them: "We have made it clear that we are not going to campaign to deselect anyone, at all, anywhere".
Why? MPs who have voted for benefit cuts, privatisation and war – and who are now working to undermine Corbyn – should all be facing reselection, as should the councillors who have presided over endless austerity. Until the rules are changed, the current ‘trigger ballot’ system (a watered down version of mandatory reselection) should be used. It would be a serious mistake if, as has been publicly stated, the democracy review is not even considering the issue of mandatory reselection.
The enthusiasm engendered by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has created the potential for the formation of a powerful mass workers’ party. This will only be possible, however, if that enthusiasm is harnessed and mobilised to reclaim Labour from the pro-capitalist scoundrels who still dominate much of the party machine. If this path is not taken, there is unfortunately no doubt that they will seize the opportunities which will inevitably arise to push Labour decisively back to the right.