The Get Corbyn plot and how to combat it

Immediately after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory the right began to organise to unseat him. In an article first published in Socialism Today No.193, November 2015, CLIVE HEEMSKERK argued that the likelihood the coming struggle could pose the need for a new party would have to be discussed.

Inherent in a revolution is the prospect of counter-revolution developing in its aftermath, as the forces of the old order test out the possibilities of regaining power. And the blow at the capitalist establishment that was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership insurgency is no different. A systematic campaign is under way to restore what can be salvaged of the status quo ante by the pro-capitalist forces – ‘establishment Labour’ – which still dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), council Labour Groups, and the Labour Party officialdom, both nationally and, in most cases, locally too.

The scale of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory on 12 September prevented an immediate coup, curbing the August talk of a legal challenge if he had won only through the votes of affiliated trade union members and the £3 registered supporters. In the event, although he was marginally outpolled among full party members by the combined Anyone But Corbyn trio of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, the overall result was indisputable.

But the transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour, politically and organisationally, was not one act but a process consolidated over years, reflecting a deeper movement in the balance of class forces. To reverse that transformation, if that is possible – and this is far from certain – would also not be accomplished by one act but would require the organisation of a mass movement, consciously aiming to overturn the ‘political settlement’ of the last 20 years.

The forces defending that settlement are regrouping. Lord Mandelson, the architect of New Labour, in a private circular debating tactics – a manual for counter-insurgency – advised ‘mainstream’ party members to prepare for ‘the long haul’ rather than “try and force the issue” too early. Former deputy leader Roy Hattersley called for a fightback that “will not be painless. But it will be necessary”. The PLP “ought to take control of the political agenda” and encourage “like-minded party members to rally round”. (The Guardian, 14 September) In response, every socialist, fighting trade unionist and anti-austerity campaigner must seriously discuss how the coming counter-revolution can be combated and the gains of the Corbyn movement consolidated.

High stakes

The transformation of the Labour Party was an historic victory for the ruling class. As the recently deceased former Tory deputy prime minister Geoffrey Howe said at Margaret Thatcher’s 80th birthday party, “her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party, but two” (The Guardian, 7 May 2009), with New Labour’s embrace of the capitalist market.

Government papers released under the 30-year rule show that Thatcher, her thuggish employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, and the Tories’ head of policy, Ferdinand Mount, held discussions as long ago as 1983 on whether it would be possible to engineer by the end of the century, “a trade union movement whose exclusive relationship with the Labour Party is reduced out of all recognition”. (The Guardian, 1 August 2013) This was necessary because British capitalism could no longer afford the reforms conceded during the long post-war boom, and the role of the unions within Labour “fossilises the Labour Party and stultifies the whole political dialogue”.

This project for a ‘new settlement’ was given a powerful impulse by the seeming triumph of capitalism after the collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990s, an ideological defeat for the working class even though the brutal regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were far from being models of socialism. And thus the conditions were created for the establishment of New Labour, which itself became part of an international trend for the transformation of the former social democratic parties.

The victory of New Labour, and the change in the balance of class forces it represented, had material consequences for the working class and the capitalists. The Labour Party until its transformation in the 1990s was a ‘capitalist workers’ party’, with pro-capitalist leaders but with mass working-class support and a structure, particularly through the trade unions, which meant that the Labour leaders could sometimes be compelled to act as a check on the capitalists. The removal from the scene of even a capitalist workers’ party, alongside and linked to the failure of the union leaders to resist the capitalists’ offensive, was one reason why wages as a share of GDP fell from a 1975 peak of 65% at the end of the post-war boom to 53% in 2008, while profits swelled.

This is not to say that, in the final analysis, the Labour Party as a capitalist workers’ party did not also act as a shield for the ruling class, providing the capitalists when necessary with a social base through which they could attempt to secure acquiescence to their vital interests. Labour governments before New Labour carried out pro-capitalist policies too. Yet the dual character of the Labour Party then meant that it always presented a latent danger for the capitalists, a potentially unreliable tool. That is why, prior to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, previous Labour governments, in 1924 and 1929-31 as well as the Labour government of 1974-79, while reluctantly tolerated, were simultaneously undermined and eventually brought down by the capitalists.

But that is also why in this era, when there is no prospect of a prolonged capitalist upswing to sustain significant improvements for the working class, there is no basis for the ruling class to be reconciled to a Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell leadership. An editorial in The Guardian, the house-newsletter of establishment Labour, warned immediately after Corbyn’s victory that “some in the unions may see his triumph as an opportunity to recast the party to their own advantage”. (14 September 2015) Many of Corbyn’s policies would represent gains for the working class, although real socialist change would be necessary to fully realise them. But while ‘Corbynomics’ is at bottom a version of Keynesianism, conceding to it would indeed be perceived as a victory by the working class, whetting their appetite and building confidence for a broader struggle, including support for clearer socialist ideas.

The transformation of Labour is not a gain that the capitalists, and their Labour representatives, will lightly give up. The resources of the establishment will be mobilised to snuff out the possibility which Jeremy Corbyn’s victory creates of a revival of working-class political representation through the Labour Party. That is why, in assessing what needs to be done to defend the Corbyn insurgency, the prospect of a new workers’ party being the ultimate outcome of the struggle must also be part of the discussion.

New Labour was a new party

Tony Benn often polemicized that he had never joined New Labour which, he said, was ‘a different party’ to the Labour Party he had joined, including in its organisational structures. Among other examples of this idea, he wrote that “there would be no point in joining the party locally or affiliating as a union in the hope of discussing policy” (The Guardian, 20 September 2007), after another round of constitutional changes to policy-making procedures were pushed through by Gordon Brown.

Unfortunately he never drew the conclusion that a new party was necessary, arguing instead that the task was “to campaign vigorously outside parliament and build a body of opinion so strong no political party would be able to ignore it”. But he was right that the accumulated changes to Labour’s democracy (see box: Making Labour’s structures safe for business) had closed off the opportunities for the working class to be politically represented through the party.

Since the 1997 Partnership in Power rule changes, further augmented in 2007, Labour Party policy has been decided through the 184-member National Policy Forum (NPF), under a rolling review process of policy commissions reporting to the NPF which, in turn, submits reports to the party conference. These, however, can only be accepted or rejected in their entirety. For example, the NPF meeting that decided the final policy document to form the basis of the 2015 manifesto had rejected an amendment, by 125 to 14 in its only contested vote, for an incoming Labour government to overturn the Tories’ 2015-16 public spending cuts. The conference could take it or leave it – but not amend it. ‘Contemporary motions’ for conference can only cover subjects not included in a NPF report.

This labyrinthine procedure means, for example, that Labour’s official policy is to back Trident renewal and, even if there had been a vote at this September’s conference, a policy change would still have had to be referred back to the NPF process. In the event, just 7.1% of CLP delegates prioritised a contemporary motions debate on Trident, so the issue was not even discussed.

And this will not change any time soon. The Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) – which is certainly not uniformly left-wing – failed to increase its support in the biennial elections held this year for the CLP places on the National Policy Forum, winning a similar number to the right-wing Labour First organisation. Not surprisingly, “a Labour insider who was loosely associated with Liz Kendall’s campaign” for the leadership told The Guardian that, whereas he had previously “thought the arcane rules at conference were stupid, now I see that they are there for times like these”. (29 September)

Unions’ collective role eliminated

More important in characterising the Labour Party as it has been reconstituted is the other issue raised by Tony Benn, namely that “there would be no point in affiliating as a trade union in the hope of discussing policy” or, indeed, selecting candidates or controlling the party machine. If the 80,000-strong RMT transport workers’ union was to re-affiliate to the Labour Party, for example, at a cost of £240,000 a year, it would secure 1.3% of the vote at Labour’s annual conference and one seat on the National Policy Forum (fewer than the two seats for the House of Lords Labour Group). Its ability to have an impact at a local level would be even less.

There are, of course, still trade unionists in the Labour Party, as there are in the US Democratic Party. A substantial block of delegates to the quadrennial Democrat conventions are members of the teachers’ unions, for example (10% in 2008), but they are there as individuals not as union representatives. There is not an exact parallel – the trade unions founded the Labour Party while the Democrats have been a capitalist party since their inception – but the historical collective role of the unions in the Labour Party has been broken, culminating with the Collins Review proposals adopted at a two-hour long Labour Party special conference in 2014, following the infamous ‘Falkirk affair’.

Falkirk actually showed how far the process had already gone. What happened there – with Unite officials recruiting union members in this central Scotland constituency to become individual members of the CLP – actually had no connection with the union’s status as a Labour Party affiliate. In the past trade union branches would send delegates to CLPs, alongside ward party representatives, to select a parliamentary candidate. In Falkirk, Unite members were being recruited as individuals to take part in a future ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) ballot. But even that pale reflection of ‘union influence’ was seized upon by Ed Miliband as a chance to complete the job of effectively ending the union link.

Trade union affiliation (when democratically exercised by union members) enshrined the potential for the working class through the unions to control its political representatives, which was one of the defining features of the Labour Party as a capitalist workers’ party. Unfortunately, the collective role of the trade unions has not been defended by most of the trade union leaders. Arguments were used during the Falkirk affair that actually undermined the very idea of collective working-class political representation.

Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, for example, argued that he could not go “in front of TV cameras and pretend to speak on behalf of a million Unite members” since many of them do not vote Labour. (The Guardian, 18 July 2013) That is true, they don’t. But when union representatives speak in negotiations with employers they (should) put forward the decision reached collectively by the union members, even though a minority may not have supported the finally agreed position. So why should a union’s agreed position not be represented collectively in the political arena too?

But it can’t be in the Labour Party as it has been reconstituted over the past 20 years, as John McDonnell has also recognised many times. “The left has the difficult task of accepting and explaining to others that the old routes into the exercise of power and influence involving internal Labour Party mobilisations have largely been closed down”, he wrote eight years ago. “We have to face up to the challenge of developing new routes into effective political activity”. (Morning Star, 29 September 2007)

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory opens up new opportunities to ‘develop new routes for effective political activity’, nothing in Labour’s internal structures has changed for the better since 2007. The struggle must go wider, involving forces inside and outside the Labour Party – and including where necessary independent working-class challenges to establishment Labour candidates at the ballot box.

Not by Queensberry rules

Many Corbyn supporters accept that a battle is inevitable with establishment Labour and that this must involve forces outside the Labour Party. But other voices have expressed concern at being associated with organisations like the Socialist Party, a co-founder with the late Bob Crow of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is prepared to stand candidates against pro-capitalist politicians who carry out austerity policies, whatever their party label.

The reality is that the Corbyn movement is, and needs to see itself as, a party in formation. Whether this embryonic party will be able to ultimately prise the Labour Party name for itself from the grip of the capitalist Labour establishment is not resolved. But it will not succeed, unfortunately, if it restricts the arena of struggle, and its participants, to the limits prescribed by the current ‘arcane world’ rules and procedures of the Labour Party.

The right wing can move at any time to begin the process of unseating Jeremy Corbyn once they have prepared the ground. Nominations can be made for a leadership candidate ‘where there is no vacancy’ if they secure the support of just 20% of the PLP and the European Parliamentary Party (50 Labour MPs or MEPs).

The preparatory ‘destabilisation strategy’ has already begun. This will include organised parliamentary rebellions – The Times reported “senior Labour figures were pushing for an early vote” on Trident in talks with the Tories, coordinating their attack on Corbyn (12 October) – and a step-by-step repudiation of Corbyn’s leadership election platform.

The model will be the retreat over the EU referendum, after an ultimatum from shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, and the shadow Europe minister, Pat McFadden, who only “agreed to remain in his ministerial role after two rounds of talks with Corbyn”. (The Guardian, 18 September) And so Corbyn signed a joint letter with Benn stating that Labour “will be campaigning to stay in regardless of the outcome of the government’s renegotiation” with the EU. This was just four days after John McDonnell pledged that “if there is any attack on employment rights or the promotion of the EU-US Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) we will be rejecting that package”. No wonder The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee gloated, pointing not just to EU policy but Trident, Nato, the deficit and the abolition of tuition fees, that “in just two weeks, Corbyn policies that have made most MPs’ blood run cold have evaporated… sensibilism has replaced impossibilism”. (29 September)

There will even be an element of ‘counter-revolutionary defeatism’ in next May’s elections for the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the Greater London Authority, and English local councils. The overwhelming majority of Labour incumbents in these polls are bitter opponents of Corbyn, and new candidates also will have been drawn from pre-Corbyn era panels. Some, it is true, will have been affected by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and TUSC will make every effort to establish with them whether a common struggle against the draconian cuts in local council spending is possible.

But the majority will see winning in 2016 as a chance to be in place until 2020 and use their public positions for the ‘destabilisation’ campaign. On the other hand, if they lose they will have also contributed to the cause, by ‘proving’ that ‘Corbynism’ – not their collaboration with austerity but Jeremy Corbyn – ‘is electorally unpopular’. This is a fight conducted not by Queensberry rules but a profound battle with the Labour establishment and, behind them, the ruling class. Contrary to the arguments of some on the left, giving anti-Corbyn ‘Labour’ candidates a free run at the ballot box will not in any way help to consolidate the Corbyn movement.

Coalescing a movement, seizing the moment

The unspoken thought may be that, if ‘the left behaves’, the forces of the capitalist Labour establishment will pull back and not move against Jeremy Corbyn. Or that the broad support for him can itself defeat a Labour counter-revolution. Both unfortunately underestimate the stakes involved and lack the necessary sense of proportion for the struggle ahead.

The Corbyn insurgency is a significant and inspiring movement but its scale and depth should not be exaggerated. Labour’s membership has now increased to around 350,000 in total, from 193,754 in December 2014. But this pales, for example, beside the two million workers involved in the 2011 N30 public-sector pension strikes or the 750,000 mobilised by the TUC for that year’s March Against Austerity, a movement squandered by the trade union leaders (with some exceptions). The deep social reserves of the organised working class have not yet mobilised for Corbyn.

Important lessons in this respect need to be drawn from the 2002-03 anti-war movement which shook the British ruling class to its core but which also – after six mass demonstrations between September 2002 and March 2004, with participation ranging from a ‘low’ of 50,000 to a peak of 1.5 million in February 2003 – was unable to create a mass political alternative. The main responsibility lay with the Labour lefts, including the left trade union leaders of the time, who refused to draw the conclusions from the transformation of the Labour Party.

If the different components of the Corbyn movement – the left trade union leaders, young people in the anti-austerity movement, socialist organisations, etc – can build a movement powerful enough to overcome all the hurdles that exist to prevent a deep-going ‘regime change’ inside the Labour Party, they can as easily build a new party if the course of the battle shows that is necessary. A party of struggle with a few MPs, if that’s how it started, would have a bigger impact on the balance of class forces, than a party of acquiescence with capitalism with a couple of hundred MPs. But that possibility – if it is not in fact the most realistic likely outcome – must be recognised by the movement from the start.

What is urgently needed now is a national conference open to all anti-austerity and socialist organisations, to discuss what steps must be taken to consolidate Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. There have been turning points before when it would have been possible to build an authoritative alternative to the Thatcher-Blair ‘settlement’. But the possibilities are even greater now and timing is the essence of politics.

Making Labour’s structures safe for business

1992: The unions’ share of the vote at Labour Party conferences (with the other affiliated organisations, the Co-op Party and socialist societies) is reduced from 90% to 70%.

1993: Labour’s conference narrowly agrees to replace Constituency Labour Party (CLP) delegate selection meetings for parliamentary candidates with ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) ballots. This change, removing local trade union representation in parliamentary selections and promoting passive membership over representative democracy, was later described by former deputy leader John Prescott as being more important in changing Labour even than the abolition of Clause Four.

1995: The historic commitment in Clause Four, Part 1V of the party’s rules to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” is abolished, replaced with a clause praising the “enterprise of the market and the rigor of competition”. At the same time, the affiliated organisations’ share of the conference vote is reduced to 50%.

1997: The Partnership in Power proposals are agreed, with the 184-member National Policy Forum (NPF) taking over policy-making powers from the party conference. The unions hold just 16% of the votes at the NPF. CLPs and affiliated organisations can submit ‘contemporary resolutions’ to party conference but only on subjects not covered by NPF reports. NPF policy documents cannot be amended by conference: they are either accepted in their entirety or not.

1998: The New Labour government’s Neill Report on funding political parties is used to end trade union sponsorship of MPs, replaced by ‘Constituency Development Plans’. The Collins Review report later approvingly described this as removing “any suggestion that financial support from trade unions could be used to exercise influence over elected representatives”.

2003: The 21st Century Party report to conference recommends that delegate-based CLP General Committees (GCs) where local union branches had representation should move to quarterly meetings. They would be replaced by all-members meetings, while constituency executives conduct business. The conference also passed another constitutional amendment changing the composition of the ‘Clause V’ body which agrees the general election manifesto, adding NPF and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) officers as yet further insurance against any union influence.

2007: Gordon Brown is elected unopposed as John McDonnell is unable to get enough nominations from the PLP to mount a leadership challenge when Tony Blair resigns. The Renewing Party Democracyproposals sponsored by Brown further strengthen the powers of the NPF over the party conference, and the Joint Policy Committee over the National Executive Committee.

2011: Rule changes from Ed Miliband and Peter Hain’s Refounding Labour review are agreed at Labour’s conference, including the abolition of Local Government Committees (which had trade union delegates) for Local Campaign Forums, led by council Labour Groups, with power over council candidate selection and local election manifestos. A new category of ‘registered supporter’ is introduced, with a vote in leadership elections.

2014: The Collins Review proposals are endorsed at a special conference, which lasts for just two hours. They include introducing a new category of individual trade union ‘affiliated supporters’, able to vote in leadership elections but not in local party candidate selections, and raising the threshold for leadership nominations to 15% of PLP members.