The decisive majority for Boris Johnson in December’s general election represents a turning point in Britain, all the consequences of which have yet to fully work themselves out. The British capitalist class still looks upon 2020 with trepidation. For them 2019 was a nightmare – with economic stagnation, a deadlocked and unpopular parliament, the risk of a chaotic Brexit, and above all the fear of the consequences of a Corbyn-led government. The fact that the Supreme Court intervened directly in politics – against a Tory prime minister – was a clear indication of the pitch of the crisis. The serious strategists of capitalism are now hoping that the election outcome will provide their class with some temporary stability or at least a breathing space. But even if this momentarily appears to be so, none of the underlying problems have been resolved and new crises will be posed in short order, which the capitalist class will not be able to trust Johnson to reliably deal with in their best interests.
It is now a commonplace on the Labour left to blame Brexit for the election result. And Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approach to Brexit was central – although not the only factor – to Labour losing 2.6 million votes compared to 2017. According to Lord Ashcroft’s election day exit poll, 25% of leavers who had voted Labour in 2017 switched to the Tories in December. However, before banging their heads up against the reality of the election result, most of the left had either supported Corbyn’s approach or, in many cases, joined with the Blairites in trying to drive him to go further and argue a remain position. The Socialist Party were almost alone in recognising the elemental revolt which lay behind the working class vote for leave in the 2016 referendum, and arguing for Corbyn to fight for a workers’ Brexit.
Shallow roots of victory
The rage which found an outlet in the EU referendum has not gone away and will erupt again in a different form. Johnson’s parliamentary majority gives him an important buffer, but his government is still in reality very fragile and can be forced out of office long before its term is up. Thatcher was re-elected with a majority of 102 seats in 1987. Within a year the mass struggle against the poll tax, which led to her demise, had begun in Scotland, with the Socialist Party’s predecessor, Militant, in the leadership. Today the Tories’ social base is far weaker than it was then. The root cause of the parliamentary paralysis last year, and the splintering of all the major parties, is the accumulated discontent of the working class at the diet of misery capitalism and its institutions has fed them over the last decade of austerity.
Only by posing as a representative of ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment’ was Johnson able to win the election. He got away with this amongst a layer only because of the serious mistakes Corbyn made, including in the run up to the election where he was seen to be prioritising parliamentary manoeuvres together with pro-capitalist politicians rather than fighting in the interests of the working class. Now that Johnson has been elected however, despite the capitalist class’s continued misgivings about him, they nonetheless hope that he will act in their interests.
Johnson is aware of the tenuous character of his election victory. Despite the size of his parliamentary majority the Tory vote only increased by 1.2% – an extra 329,000 votes on Theresa May’s score in 2017 – and that was achieved by winning the votes of a section of workers who were desperate to ‘get Brexit done’. Hence Johnson’s acknowledgement that workers had only ‘lent’ their votes to him and his promise to ‘rebalance’ the economy and to put funding into the North.
It can’t be ruled out that Johnson will introduce measures that temporarily and slightly ease the burden on some layers of the working class, including infrastructure projects, using the current low costs of borrowing to fund them. They will not have a fundamental effect, however, and any steps he does take, for example to prop up or even temporarily nationalise failing companies, can give workers more confidence to fight for public ownership in the interests of the working class rather than the bosses – including with the rebirth of movements to occupy threatened workplaces. And Johnson is inevitably going to disappoint those workers who voted for him to ‘get Brexit done’. All the versions of Tory Brexit he is considering will result in attacks on the living standards of the working class.
Tory Brexit divisions remain
Which option Johnson will take is not yet clear. The capitalists’ fear of what is to come on Brexit is a factor in the very low levels of investment in 2019 and that fear has not gone away. According to the Federation of Small Businesses “fewer than one in seven firms are planning to increase capital investment in the near future” and that will not change “until we have a trade deal”. Initially Johnson ruled out extending the transition period beyond the end of 2020, and this commitment is included in the Withdrawal Bill, although he now appears to be more equivocal. As things stand any extension has to be requested by the end of July this year. If he goes for an extension this will, in and of itself, damage his reputation among leavers. However, any deal negotiated in just eleven months is bound to be a limited deal on EU terms. The only other option, however, is an exit on World Trade Organisation terms, which the majority of the capitalist class will put ferocious pressure on Johnson to avoid.
All of these scenarios will, to one degree or another, be economically and politically disruptive for British capitalism. A shock comparable to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis in 1992, with a sharp recession being triggered by the Brexit process and the Tories taking the blame, is possible. The negotiations are also likely to lead to the resurfacing of the continued deep divisions in the Tory Party.
Despite the shift in the character of the parliamentary Tory Party post general election there are still over one hundred remain supporting Tory MPs. While no longer fighting for blanket opposition to Brexit they can revolt against a deal which is not in the best interests of capitalism. Conversely, if – as is possible – Johnson accedes to the pressure of big business, he can face opposition from the European Research Group of Tory backbenchers.
Johnson’s general election campaign was a graphic illustration of how – faced with defending their rotten and unpopular capitalist system – capitalist politicians will inevitably whip up national feelings in order to try and find a social base on which to stand, particularly when they are trying to defeat a left candidate – like Corbyn – who the capitalist class considered a threat. Nonetheless, for British capitalism, as a second-rate power no longer part of the EU trading bloc, the growth of global national and regional tensions creates particular problems, as Johnson’s attempts to balance between US imperialism and the EU on Iran, and the conflict over Huawei, have already shown. Trump is now threatening a 25% increase in car tariffs if Johnson doesn’t toe the line on Iran! Moreover, these stormy events will be taking place against the background of a new phase of capitalist crisis which will further limit Johnson’s room to manoeuvre.
Working-class political representation
Johnson cannot just continue with the old neo-liberal mantra because of the capitalists’ fear of the growth of support for socialist ideas. Despite its weaknesses, one of the consequences of Corbyn’s radical programme was to force the capitalist class to react to it, fearing that otherwise he might win the general election. This gives a glimpse of the role of even a capitalist workers’ party (the Labour Party, prior to it being transformed into a capitalist party in the Blair years, was such a party – with a capitalist leadership but a predominantly working class membership who were able to exert pressure on the leadership via the party’s democratic structures). Had such a party existed in the decade since 2010 the Tories would not have been confident to implement the attacks on the working class that they have carried out.
An essential element of the class struggle remains the fight for working class political representation. Corbynism did not resolve this. The Socialist Party has described the Labour Party under Corbyn as ‘two parties in one’. This was a good description of a party which was not the stable capitalist workers’ party of the past, but an extremely unstable formation in which a ferocious civil war was being fought for dominance. The description was short hand, however. One of the ‘two parties’ was a capitalist party which, while suffering a series of defeats at the hands of the Corbyn influx, nonetheless had a clear programme and goals and continued to fight tenaciously for them. The other, the potential workers’ party in formation around Jeremy Corbyn, won the leadership of the party but had no conception that the only way to consolidate the victory was by transforming Labour – politically and organisationally – into a socialist workers’ party. As a result the right were able to push the left into endless damaging compromises and the potential for a party around Corbyn was not realised.
Parts of the initial Corbyn wave have been successfully incorporated into the capitalist wing of the Labour Party while another section are still fighting to push Labour to the left. The majority, particularly of the most working class elements, have lapsed into inactivity. Many of them would have been prepared to fight to drive the pro-capitalist wing out of the Labour Party but, discouraged from doing so by the Momentum organisation tops and the left Labour leadership, were not prepared to act as troops for the pro-austerity politicians who dominated their local parties. Consequently, the enthusiasm initially generated by Corbyn had ebbed long before the 2019 general election, leaving in most areas only a predominantly petit-bourgeois minority of the Corbyn wave actively involved.
The Socialist Party warned that compromising with the capitalist wing of the party, particularly on Brexit and the council cuts, could result in Corbyn losing the general election. Since the election Labour leadership candidates have been pondering the mystery of the disconnect between their party and communities in the – now ex – ‘red wall’. The role of local councils in implementing austerity is not mentioned by any of them. Yet many of the seats that went Tory last month had councils which had been Labour for decades before recently being lost to the Tories, independents or to no overall control. It is not realistic to think workers will believe your anti-austerity manifesto when at local level they have experienced austerity at Labour’s hands over decades. More than 800,000 jobs have been cut from local government since 2010, mainly in Labour areas.
Does any prospect remain of the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party launching a serious struggle to drive out the pro-capitalist wing, or of a split in the Labour Party resulting in the Blairites being vomited out? So far the leadership contest is bringing to the fore all the weakest aspects of Corbynism. Rebecca Long Bailey, projected as the continuity candidate, has already gone much further than Corbyn did in her preparedness to make concessions to the capitalists and their representatives in the Labour Party. She has accepted all the demands of the right-wing Jewish Board of Deputies – which creates the basis for further witch-hunts against the left after the leadership election. She has agreed in a radio interview she would be prepared to press the nuclear button and has preached the need for peace with all wings of the Labour Party. While she has defended the election manifesto in general she has so far avoided explicitly supporting the nationalisation it contained.
Long Bailey is moreover on a ticket with Angela Rayner for deputy, who is not a member of the Socialist Campaign Group – and whose nominators included Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper – rather than with Richard Burgon, who is. The twenty two MPs and MEPs who nominated Burgon – including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – give an idea of the actual number of genuinely ‘Corbynite’ MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Corbyn himself has mistakenly said he will take no position on the leadership and deputy leadership contests.
Given the political weakness of the Labour left, and of their chosen candidate Long Bailey, it is not surprising that Keir Starmer has managed to dominate the early stages of the contest. Starmer is attempting to tack left in order to increase his chances of winning the leadership. This – combined with a feeling among a layer of Labour members that, in order to stand a chance of winning an election, it is necessary to choose someone to the right of Corbyn because they are more ‘electable’ – means that it is possible he could win.
The growth of this feeling partly reflects the predominantly middle-class character of Labour Party activists. However, it is also the responsibility of Corbyn and McDonnell who – by constantly seeking peace with the Blairites because they believed it was the only way to win a general election – have fed the mistaken approach which Starmer is now trying to take advantage of. It is also significant that only 14,700 people have paid £25 to vote as registered supporters in the current Labour leadership election, far fewer than the 180,000 that did so in response to the PLP’s ‘chicken coup’ against Corbyn in 2016 (or the 112,000 who paid £3 in 2015 when he first stood), indicating a wider disengagement from the contest.
Despite his attempts at a radical gloss, the election of Starmer would represent a major victory for the capitalist class and their representatives in the workers’ movement. The right-wing Unison bureaucracy carried out a blatant undemocratic manoeuvre so Starmer could quickly claim he had the backing of a major union. Labour First and Progress – the main pro-capitalist groupings within Labour –preferenced Jess Philips and Starmer, clearly thinking Starmer is the one who could win. The London Evening Standard editor, the Tory ex-chancellor George Osborne, says explicitly that Starmer is the best candidate! But by your friends shall you be known and – despite his slick and superficially ‘left’ campaign – it is still possible that the layer who were enthused by Corbynism could see Starmer for what he is and mobilise to defeat him. In other words, if Long Bailey manages to win it will be down to opposition to Starmer and what he represents rather than any deep-felt enthusiasm for her.
Still the age of volatility
We are living through an unstable and fast-changing period, in which class antagonisms can come to the fore in unexpected ways. It is not excluded that, under the impact of events, in the future a split between the different wings of the Labour Party could still take place.
The right could split en masse under a Long Bailey leadership, particularly if she is pushed to the left during the leadership campaign and her deputy is Burgon rather than Rayner. Up until now the majority of the Blairites have held back from splitting, and the dire electoral fortunes of those who did take the plunge in December will encourage them to continue to do so. However, under the impact of a decisive victory for a left campaign, and moves against the PLP to consolidate the left’s position, they could decide that it is best to go now – hoping Johnson’s electoral majority would prevent them having to face the ballot box anytime soon.
If, on the other hand, Starmer or another clearly pro-capitalist candidate wins, the issue of a new party would be on the agenda and, particularly if moves developed in the unions, it is also possible that an organised split to the left could take place, although that would not be in the short term but as a result of a sustained attack from the new right-wing leadership.
However, at this early stage of the leadership contest, these possibilities do not appear likely. Given Long Bailey’s weakness it is more probable that the right would remain in the Labour Party and work to push her further to the right. Neil Kinnock was initially elected as a ‘soft left’ in the wake of Labour’s 1983 defeat, and then prepared the ground for Blairism in his battle with Militant. We are in a different historical period now, but Long Bailey could also move rapidly to the right.
Alternatively if Starmer or another of his ilk wins, the weakness of the Corbynites means they are unlikely to build a serious struggle against the pro-capitalist wing of the party, including its leader. It is impossible to imagine them behaving with the same determination that the right displayed in their fight against Corbynism. In that instance we would see a dissolution of the ‘Corbyn project’ but the burning need for a workers’ party with a socialist programme would remain. Even then it is likely there would still be local rebellions against the right’s onslaught which could form part of the basis for a new party of the working class.
In Scotland, as a result of its mistaken approach to the national question, Labour got its worst vote in its 119 year history, losing 196,000 votes even compared to its 2015 wipe-out (see article on page 21). There the issue of fighting for a new mass party of the working class is posed immediately. The alternative is to leave the hundreds of thousands of workers and young people who are entering the struggle for independence, but are to the left of the Scottish National Party (SNP), without a political vehicle. The demand for the workers’ movement to take immediate steps to build a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales, however, would be premature at the moment, although it is possible that could change quite rapidly.
What is clear, though, is that the fight for working class political representation will need to include standing candidates in local and mayoral elections independent of the Labour Party against Blairite candidates. Johnson’s claim that austerity is over should be used to call for councils to fight, as Liverpool city council did under our influence, for the return of the tens of millions that have been stolen from them in order to meet the population’s needs. If there is a serious battle taking place against the right inside the Labour Party such an approach would form part of our energetic support for that battle.
Most important, however, is to fight to reach those workers and young people who have seen the limits of Corbynism and are looking for a fighting working class alternative which has a programme capable of leading a struggle to transform society. The more of this layer that can be won now to the Socialist Party and to Marxist ideas the better position the workers’ movement will be in for the mighty battles ahead.