Like all the processes in society speeded up by the Covid-19 crisis, the consequences of the defeat of Corbynism within the Labour Party framework for working class political representation are being revealed more acutely by the day.
As discontent with Boris Johnson’s leadership grows inside the Tory party at his inept handling of the pandemic – and amongst wider circles of the ruling class for his reckless Brexit talks brinkmanship – the Keir Starmer New Labour-retread leadership becomes ever more determined to prove itself a reliable alternative for capitalism.
The latest example was Starmer’s decision not to oppose the government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – the ‘SpyCops Bill’ – which protects state agents who commit offences while undercover from criminal prosecution or civil redress.
The bill permits crimes against the activities of trade unions, for example, to ‘prevent disorder’ or maintain ‘economic well-being’. The instruction to abstain on the October 15 third reading of the bill provoked the biggest parliamentary rebellion to date under Starmer, with 34 Labour MPs breaking the whip to vote against.
Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto pledged to “ensure the powers exercised by the security services are proportionate and used in accordance with human rights”, and committed to a Public Accountability Bill including requiring “judicial warrants for undercover operations”.
The SpyCops Bill, however, gives powers to the security services, police and other agencies to approve criminal acts without any prior judicial authorisation.
But the December 2019 pledges were for then – when Jeremy Corbyn was leader and the pro-capitalist right had to concede on policy to preserve their positions as MPs, ready for the right moment to bring him down.
Now, as Starmer’s shadow security minister Conor McGinn said, the new management team is showing that “we are a responsible government-in-waiting” by not opposing the bill (Labour List, 14 October).
When Corbyn was first elected leader in September 2015 the then chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said he would “worry” if Corbyn’s views were “translated into power”. The Sunday Times quoted a serving general warning of “an event which would effectively be mutiny”.
Labour with Corbyn at its head presented a latent danger for the capitalists, a potential route to a mass party of the working class that, armed with a socialist programme, could threaten capitalism, including the state apparatus that ultimately defends the system’s interests.
But now, as the official party slogan goes, Labour is under ‘new leadership’ and the vote on the SpyCops Bill is another signal of reassurance to the ruling class that the danger from that avenue is over. The workers’ movement must draw its own conclusions too.
Labour and Unite
“It would be a total dereliction of duty” said Howard Beckett, the assistant general secretary of the Unite union, if a “party of organised labour [was] to continue to sit on its hands” over the SpyCops Bill (Labour List, 12 October).
Unite members have been among the victims of blacklisting operations linked to unlawful undercover policing behaviour which the bill would legitimise in the future.
The Unite general secretary Len McCluskey signed an open letter with the Blacklist Support Group, the Communications Workers’ Union general secretary Dave Ward and others, leading the call on Starmer to vote against the bill.
This is another example of why, as Rob Williams explains in the article in this edition, both Starmer and the capitalist establishment as a whole are looking with keen interest at the contest, if not yet formally triggered, to succeed Len McCluskey as his last term of office comes towards its end.
Unite’s firm intervention on the SpyCops Bill issue followed the decision of its Executive Council in early October to reduce the number of union members it affiliates to the Labour Party by 50,000 (10%). This will mean a consequent cut in the union’s annual funding of Labour of £150,000.
This decision is undoubtedly an important warning shot although in itself it does not point a way forward to resolving the problem of ensuring workers’ political representation.
As Labour was transformed into New Labour under Tony Blair the unions’ power within the party over policy, the selection of candidates and party governance, was systematically gutted – a process which, as part of his mistaken attempt to conciliate with the right, was not reversed under Corbyn.
Starmer has not had to change much to secure the interests of big business within what can no longer be credibly called ‘a party of organised labour’.
Even the affiliated trade unions’ funding of Labour is much exaggerated, for their own purposes, by the capitalist media and the Blairites.
The unions’ annual affiliation fees account for under 15% of the party’s income (£6.24 million in the last published accounts), less than government grants (£8.45 million) or individual membership fees (£16.93 million).
Reducing union funding does not change the character of Labour under Starmer’s revived Blairism.
Concretely, it does not answer the question for trade unionists in the elections scheduled for next May in Scotland, Wales, London and 184 English councils – what should they do when faced with so-called Labour candidates implementing new Tory Covid austerity or otherwise refusing to fight for workers’ interests?
After a debate over the summer the RMT transport workers’ union national executive committee decided to support the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) resuming standing candidates again, “in the new conditions of a Starmer leadership and the continued implementation of austerity cuts by many Labour-led authorities”.
A stand is particularly important in Scotland (see the Update article in this edition), where Labour continued to haemorrhage working class support even under Corbyn’s leadership of the party at Westminster.
But it is not just in Scotland where working class voters will be effectively disenfranchised.
The Unite decision on funding is significant. Now, a concrete next step would be to enable Unite branches to either support anti-cuts candidates or stand their own when there is no other means of getting an anti-austerity alternative onto the ballot paper – and approach the RMT and other unions, affiliated to Labour and unaffiliated, to begin discussions on how to develop an anti-cuts electoral challenge for next May.
The electoral weapon
The proposal to cut affiliation was only narrowly agreed by 25 votes to 23 on the Unite executive, with supporters of the dominant United Left group divided over whether it would weaken their ‘influence’ over Starmer.
There was also a minority on the RMT executive who argued that TUSC should fight austerity only as a non-electoral campaign.
These debates accord with reports, picked up earlier this summer by The Economist magazine, that some “influential figures on Labour’s left”, recognising that Starmer’s “position looks unassailable” at the head of the party, were adopting a ‘social movement’ strategy of attempting to “exert public pressure on Sir Keir through protests, community projects and political education” (22 August).
Open challenges to Starmer, in their view, and certainly standing candidates in elections, do not come in to it.
But why renounce means of ‘exerting public pressure’, including at the ballot box?
Not to contest elections, as a minimum, leaves a dangerous vacuum for reactionary forces. Jeremy Corbyn, in a Tribune interview in October, argued that Labour’s loss of working class seats to the Tories in former single-industry towns in the Midlands and the North was the product of a longer-term trend including “local authorities being underfunded, cuts to public services and their funding – and a lack of presence of the party, in many cases”.
What he meant, as he goes on to say, was the lack of “a vibrant movement campaigning on issues like health and housing investment” – not the very real ‘presence’ of ‘Labour’ (the Blairites) in the council chambers implementing austerity! For fighting trade unionists to positively decide not to have anti-austerity candidates standing in such circumstances is to effectively give a vote of support to the cutters.
A ‘social movement’ strategy without an electoral component reduces the role of the unions to that of lobbyists in the ear of capitalist politicians rather than a force independently representing workers’ political interests.
Coalescing the different elements for a new mass vehicle for working class political representation after Corbynism will be an uneven process.
But events, and the timely intervention of organised socialists, are inexorably driving them on.
21 October 2020