After Corbyn’s re-election

In June 2016 the PLP organised a 172 to 40 vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and another leadership election was held, with balloting closing on September 21. The following Socialism Today editorial was published in the October 2016 edition, issue No.202.

At the time of writing – and bar what would be an election stitch-up of monumental proportions – it appears that it will be Jeremy Corbyn who is announced as the victor in Labour’s leadership contest on 24 September, the day before the start of the party’s annual conference.

Corbyn’s expected re-election triumph will be a significant defeat for the capitalist establishment – big business, the media tops, and their political representatives. Despite Owen Smith’s recently-discovered verbal radicalism – he stood, he said, for a ‘cold-eyed socialist revolution’ – he was the candidate of the ruling class, with their vested interest in keeping the Labour Party a safe, New Labour-style alternative to the Tories.

The capitalist establishment benefitted enormously from the transformation of Labour into Tony Blair’s New Labour and the domination of political debate by pro-market ideas which that allowed for the last 20 years. They were the forces behind the summer coup against Jeremy Corbyn and the defeat of this first attempt to unseat him will be a resounding blow.

But because the stakes are so high, it is clear that this won’t be the last attempt by the capitalist establishment to regain their formerly unchallenged control of the Labour Party. The issue of what needs to be done to consolidate Jeremy Corbyn’s victory – by really transforming Labour into an anti-austerity, socialist, working-class mass movement – is the critical question facing socialists in Britain today.  

No compromise with the right

As he approached his first leadership election victory this time last year, Jeremy Corbyn was sanguine about warnings of a Labour establishment counter-revolution. “Plots and double plots and sub-plots and plotting – it’s fascinating”, he said, as a Guardian journalist at a Leeds campaign event described him as “brushing aside suggestions that he would face an internal coup to depose him if he became Labour leader”. (5 August 2015) He even gave the unfortunate example of US president Abraham Lincoln as an alleged ‘unifying figure’ after the American civil war – “with malice towards none and charity towards all” – as the ‘way forward’.

The events of the last twelve months within the Labour Party, culminating in the summer coup, show how mistaken it was to attempt to conciliate representatives of, in this case, not the same class but different classes. It is a mistake which must not be repeated now.

The course of the summer events shows that Jeremy Corbyn’s position is still tenuous. If three votes had gone the other way at the 12 July meeting of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) on whether he was required to seek nominations from MPs before he appeared on the ballot paper, Owen Smith, Angela Eagle or another right-winger may well have been elected unopposed, as Gordon Brown was in 2007 after Tony Blair resigned. Only the protests of thousands of Labour members and trade unionists averted what would have been a pre-emptory closing down of the opportunity to transform the Labour Party which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represents.

Ultimately, the structures and power relations that were developed under New Labour, which had destroyed the ability of the working class to contend for influence within the party, are still in place. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a bridgehead against the forces of capitalism within the Labour Party. But the task remains to take on the main bases of the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the national party apparatus and, locally, the big majority of Labour’s 7,000 councillors who are carrying out the Tories’ austerity agenda.

Organisation and policy

A first step for Jeremy Corbyn after his victory should be to declare that he will re-establish a central role within the Labour Party for the trade unions, commensurate with their importance as the collective voices of millions of workers.

Trade union representation within the Labour Party, when democratically exercised by union members, provides a potential means for the working class to control its political representatives. It was this characteristic above all that defined the Labour Party in the past – before New Labour – as a ‘capitalist workers’ party’. The unions’ rights must be restored.

Other measures are also needed to democratise the structures of the Labour Party, sterilised by Blairism over years, with mandatory re-selection of MPs a key demand. But while allowing local parties to replace their MPs at the next general election may bring some of them into line, more decisive action needs to be taken at a national level before then. The 172 MPs who triggered the coup with their ‘no confidence’ motion on 28 June should retain the Labour whip only if they agree to accept the renewed mandate for Corbyn and his anti-austerity, anti-war policies. 

An ideological rearming is also necessary. 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 committed the party instead to the dynamic “enterprise of the market”, “the rigor of competition”, and “a thriving private sector”.  

The article in this edition by Hannah Sell on The Corbynomics Challenge argues that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s economic policies do represent an important break, even if only partial, with the neoliberal nostrums embedded in Labour’s Blairised Clause Four. They have certainly incurred the wrath of the former Bank of England monetary committee member David Blanchflower who – again in a mistaken urge to conciliate the right – was brought into Labour’s economic advisory committee last year. Arguing that Corbyn and McDonnell “have to accept the realities of capitalism and modern markets, like it or not”, he came out for Owen Smith in this year’s leadership contest. (The Guardian, 2 August 2016)

Unfortunately, however, it is also true, as we explain, that Corbynomics – ultimately a form of Keynesianism – does not answer Blanchflower’s charge that “the bond and equity markets”, which would still be free to rule the economy, “would eat him [Corbyn] for lunch”. There is no substitute for a clear programme of democratic public ownership of the banks, financial institutions and major companies, under workers’ control and management. This would be the essential basis for a new form of society, socialism, in opposition to the capitalist market system.

Reinstate the socialists

This necessary discussion and clarification of policies and ideas is the reason why another vital demand in the period ahead will be the right for all socialists, including those previously expelled or excluded, to participate in the Labour Party – and with the right to be organised.

The leadership battle has revealed the morbid fear of the ruling class and their representatives within Labour precisely of ‘organised socialists’. Above all for the right wing, exemplified in the attack on ‘Trotskyist arm-twisters’ by the deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, is the spectre of Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party. Peter Taaffe, one of the members of the Militant editorial board expelled from Labour in 1983, looks behind the new hue and cry. (See Leon Trotsky’s Living Legacy, Socialism Today No.202 October 2016)

The capitalists have their ‘tendencies’ within Labour which they support both materially and ideologically, including through the weight of the establishment media. Moreover, the PLP and, locally, councillors, are an organised caste, a ‘tendency’ with the resources of the state that go with their positions, state funds (including the ‘Short money’ to ‘ensure the functioning of the parliamentary opposition’), but also the role of senior civil servants and council officials. So why should those who oppose capitalism not be allowed to organise too?

The best way to achieve this, undercutting the capitalist media’s manufactured fixation on ‘secret conspiracies’, would be to allow socialist parties and organisations to openly affiliate to the Labour Party, as the Co-op Party does.

The transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour was not one act but a process consolidated over years. To reverse that transformation will also not be accomplished by one act but will require the organisation of a mass movement consciously aiming to overturn New Labour’s legacy, politically and organisationally. Jeremy Corbyn’s likely re-election is another big step on that road – but it must be built upon urgently.