By summer 2019 Theresa May had fallen, but the Labour right were blocking a no confidence motion in the new Johnson government. The following Socialism Today editorial was published in the October 2019 edition, No.232.
Have the September shenanigans in Westminster fatally undermined the chances of a Corbyn-led government being elected this autumn? And, as pertinently, what do they say about the character of such a government if it were to come to power in the midst of the political crisis and looming economic turbulence now confronting British capitalism?
Jeremy Corbyn’s first concession as Labour leader to the pro-capitalist Blairites who dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party was to agree, within days of his victory in 2015, that he would support a remain vote in all circumstances in the then forthcoming EU referendum. While a referendum, reducing issues to a simple government-set binary choice, is not an ideal terrain for the workers’ movement to fight for its collective interests, it could still have been an opportunity to give a working-class lead to the cry of rage at the capitalist establishment and its austerity agenda which the 2016 vote for leave at root represented.
Imagine how differently the debate around the EU would have developed had Corbyn stuck to his previous position of, correctly, opposing the neoliberal character of the EU bosses’ club and its policies; while explaining the need to negotiate a new relationship with the other 27 member states – which is what Brexit ultimately means – based on socialist policies and workers’ solidarity across borders. But the opportunity was lost.
A new chance to change the narrative, however, presented itself in September, as the implosion of the Tory party gathered pace. Jeremy Corbyn’s letter over the summer to other opposition parties and Tory rebel MPs proposed a no-confidence motion to bring down Boris Johnson and the formation of a minority Labour government. This, he argued, would then seek an extension from the EU of the 31 October Brexit date in order to avoid a no-deal crash-out and allow for the calling of an early general election. An October contest on such a basis – vote to stop an imminent no-deal Brexit with its consequences now more apparent to all, and for a Corbyn government to reopen talks with the EU for a new pro-worker withdrawal agreement to be put to a confirmatory referendum – could have decisively defeated Johnson.
But instead, under pressure from the Blairites and the Liberal Democrats in particular, Corbyn’s proposal was withdrawn and the consequent alternative ‘strategy’ of parliamentary game-playing saw Labour twice decline the chance of an election. Johnson remains in number ten.
A fundamental rule of an independent workers’ movement fighting for its own class interests is that its political representatives should assume no responsibility for the stances taken by pro-capitalist politicians – let them attempt to resolve their own crises, if they can! The ex-chancellor Philip Hammond, now expelled from the Tories as Johnson seemingly moves to consolidate the right-populists’ grip on the party brand, was indignant at the jeers from the government benches that he was helping Corbyn by opposing a no-deal Brexit. “I would sooner boil my head than hand power to the leader of the opposition”, he retorted (4 September). But that’s for him to decide – his choice, not ours!
Jeremy Corbyn should have stood firm and tabled a no-confidence motion and let the various stripes of pro-capitalist politicians – from the anti-no deal Tories and the Lib Dems through to the Blairites and the Scottish National Party – show their colours. Instead, Labour was seen to be running away from an election, bolstering Johnson’s efforts to portray himself as ‘the people’s champion’ against ‘the Westminster establishment’ – including Jeremy Corbyn.
But the September setback can still be recovered from if the trade unions, more particularly the left-led unions acting as a lever on the others, intervene decisively in the events ahead.
An alternative power
While there has undoubtedly been some scaremongering about the consequences of a no-deal exit from the EU, the government’s official Operation Yellowhammer assessment document, released in September, did provide a sobering picture of what an acrimonious crash-out could entail. Vehicles using the Kent channel crossing are likely to be delayed for up to two and a half days, initially, with the ‘flow rate’ only ‘improving’ to 50-70% of present levels after three months. With three quarters of the UK’s imported medicines coming through this route, there will be significant supply disruptions for short shelf-life medicines that cannot be stockpiled.
There are similar issues for chemical supply chains, for example for water treatment works, “affecting up to hundreds of thousands of people”. There are expectations of prices rises for fuel and food, including “significant electricity price increases”, and warnings of the impact on companies providing adult social care, including the “closure of services and handing back of contracts [to local councils] which are not part of normal market function”.
This unvarnished talk of ‘market functions’ and so on is one reason why the government did not volunteer to publish the report – it was forced to after another defeat in parliament, and after an almost identical draft was leaked in August. The document also complaisantly observes that “private sector companies’ behaviour”, in a no-deal upheaval, “will be governed by commercial considerations” (as ever, profit-grasping) “unless influenced otherwise”. But it is only independent action by the workers’ movement, industrially and politically, that can guarantee to challenge the rule of the capitalist market in defence of workers’ interests.
This is precisely the government’s fear: of the workers’ movement as a potential alternative power. Significantly, the only redacted paragraph in the Yellowhammer document, the contents of which were revealed in the leaked version, refers to the likelihood of strike action by oil refinery workers over the prospect of an anticipated 2,000 job losses in the sector. Memories of the collapse of the Blair government’s poll ratings during the tanker drivers’ blockade of fuel depots in 2000, or Edward Heath’s ill-fated attempt to take on the labour movement in the 1974 three-day week lockout which led to his election defeat, are no doubt haunting the Tories.
The unions must urgently prepare now, raising a programme of opening the books to workers’ inspection of all companies threatening, under the cover of Brexit, investment strikes, reorganisations, closures, redundancies, ‘emergency’ relaxation of health and safety standards and other attacks on workers’ conditions, and profiteering price rises. This must include the call, where necessary, for nationalisation under democratic working-class control and management, as the only effective way to definitively ensure that ‘commercial considerations’ do not ‘govern’.
Moreover, they must act urgently on the political front, too, fighting for the earliest possible general election that can send Jeremy Corbyn to Brussels – and to meet workers’ organisations across Europe to seek their support – to re-open negotiations on the basis of opposition to all EU rules that go against the interests of the working class.
Such a bold intervention really would have the potential to break through the fog of Brexit, unite workers however they voted in 2016, and prepare the way for decisive socialist measures against capitalism.
Socialism not Keynesianism
It is in this context that shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s stance during the summer events constitutes the most serious warning to the labour movement about the pressures a future Corbyn-led government would face.
Although he has not done so with sufficient clarity or vigour, Jeremy Corbyn has pointed to the legal obstacles – not insurmountable if faced down by a mass movement, but obstacles nonetheless – that the EU’s neoliberal rules and directives would place before an incoming Labour government. When the collapse in 2018 of the private-sector contractor Carillion exposed what Corbyn termed “the outsourcing racket” forced on public services, he incurred the wrath of the pro-EU Blairites. He raised that a Labour-negotiated Brexit deal would have to include a release from current EU procurement and competition policy, including the obligation to offer large public-sector contracts to firms across the EU.
Corbyn opposed Theresa May’s EU withdrawal treaty because, he wrote in a Guardian article, it would give a Labour government “no say either in its own customs arrangements or key market regulations. While workers’ rights would be allowed to fall behind, restrictions on state aid to industry would be locked in”. (7 December 2018)
That is why the policy of reopening negotiations with the EU27 and presenting to a confirmatory referendum what Jeremy Corbyn refers to as a “credible leave option” – which can only be a pro-worker Brexit deal – is at least attempting to appeal to workers across the Brexit divide. John McDonnell’s recent position, however, that he would campaign for remain in a confirmatory referendum even against a Labour-negotiated deal, is a dangerous retreat.
Speaking to the Society of Motor Manufacturers conference over the summer, McDonnell said that he had campaigned for remain in 2016 “because I can’t see anything better than what we have at the moment”. On BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, he conceded: “People will want to have a say and see whether there is another option. But we’ve had that debate in parliament” – in a Tory majority parliament, remember – “and that’s why I’ve come down in favour of remain, because I can’t see one [a deal] that will have the same benefits as remain”. (19 August)
Is John McDonnell really saying that there is ‘nothing better’ to be fought for than the current neoliberal rules and directives of the EU bosses’ club? What about a deal based on scrapping the austerity-driving European Fiscal Compact, writing off the eurozone debts, and working towards a common economic area which allows public ownership of the banks and major monopolies in each EU country?
This shows the danger of limiting a programme to the confines set by capitalism, and not just in relation to the EU. What will McDonnell say when the improvements he proposes to workers’ rights and conditions under a Corbyn-led government meet the same objections from conferences of capitalists – and ‘debates in parliament’ – as those put against the demands a Corbyn-led government would need to make for a pro-worker deal in its negotiations with the EU27?
The deep crises in the world economy and political establishments have led a section of capitalist economists to look to a revival of post-war Keynesian policies of public spending and state regulation to put capitalism back on its feet – while others ponder an even harsher neoliberal model. But neither approach will succeed, in an era when there is no prospect of a prolonged economic upswing to sustain significant concessions to the working class and secure a stable social base for the system. There is no alternative to fighting for a socialist programme to decisively defeat capitalism, at home or abroad.
As Socialism Today has consistently argued, neither a reversal of the 2016 referendum result nor a capitalist Brexit – ‘soft’ or ‘no-deal’ – can meet the interests of the working classes of Britain and Europe, or resolve the political crisis for capitalism that Brexit represents. A no-deal exit would merely signal the start of new negotiations between British capitalism and the EU27. Revoking Brexit would not overcome a single one of the factors that underlay the 2016 vote. The watchwords of the workers’ movement in these volatile times must be: No more retreats! Stand firm against the pro-capitalist politicians with socialist policies!