Class consciousness, class struggle and Jeremy Corbyn
By KD Tait
29 July, 2015
Yvette Cooper has said victory for Jeremy Corbyn would turn Labour into “a protest movement” rather than a party that was serious about winning the next general election.
In fact, victory for establishment Labour candidates like Cooper or Andy Burnham would signal the party’s intention to stand aside from the struggle to stop the Tory offensive against the welfare state and trade union rights.
Only a mass movement that develops beyond protest to a demonstration of working class power can stop five more years of Tory austerity.
The surge in support for Corbyn is an outburst of class consciousness by workers who don’t want Labour to wait idly for the next election but want it to demonstrate effective opposition to the cuts happening now.
The shock of the Tory election victory sparked protests and meetings across the country. Corbyn’s campaign has tapped into the mood of defiance and exposed the fact that the Labour leadership neither understands nor shares this mood.
Tens of thousands have joined the Labour Party. Thousands have signed up as supporters of Corbyn’s campaign and hundreds have attended his rallies to hear his call for Labour to become a social movement against Tory austerity.
This desire to fight the Tories is exactly what the mainstream centrist and the Blairite factions of the Labour Party fear. It threatens to wreck their strategy of token opposition or outright collaboration with the Tory war on the welfare state.
“What has happened to the party?” one shadow cabinet minister was quoted in a New Statesman article that recorded the “mood of incredulity and panic at the top of Labour”.
Against the Corbyn insurgency which threatens to undo the comfortable routine of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the disreputable, the discredited and the disgraced architects of New Labour have been deployed.
Labour has a “death wish” claimed former Labour health secretary and current private health firm advisor Alan Milburn.
Former home secretary David Blunkett said the party is in “emotional trauma” after its May defeat.
Friend to the filthy rich, Lord Peter Mandelson told the Times: “Labour will be out of office for more than a decade if Jeremy Corbyn is elected.”
Fresh from pulling out of a World Hunger speech in a dispute over his £330,000 fee, Tony Blair weighed in with the observation that those tempted to vote for Corbyn from the heart should ‘get a transplant’. In a rare brush with reality he refused to endorse any candidate because it would ‘possibly not be helpful’.
The most poisonous attempts to derail Corbyn’s campaign have come from sitting MP John Mann. First he accused Corbyn of failing to tackle historic child abuse in Islington. He then alleged that Corbyn’s campaign was the result of far left infiltration. Finally he called for the election to be suspended entirely – presumably so a new electorate could be arranged to ensure the ‘correct’ leader was elected.
The purpose of these pre-scripted attacks are to deprive the working class of a party capable of putting up even the most minimal opposition to the Tory offensive.
The centrist and Blairite wings of the party rightly fear that active participation in the fightback – let alone a Corbyn victory – would destroy the party’s ability to present itself as a loyal and reliable custodian of the bosses’ state.
Welfare wake up call
The intervention of the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson will only have fanned the flames of Corbyn’s campaign.
But it was interim leader Harriet Harman’s decision that Labour should abstain rather than vote against the Tory Welfare Reform and Work Bill that set alarm bells ringing for thousands of party members who did not consider themselves as particularly leftwing.
The abstention was a wakeup call that rammed home just how much basic Labour values ingrained in ordinary members are viewed as dispensable electoral liabilities by the Party leadership.
Grassroots activists in communities at the sharp edge of austerity know that the policies which please spin doctors and focus groups will be a disaster for Labour in 2020. Any number of loyal party activists who want Labour to win elections know that the leaders’ politics of triangulation cost it Scotland and will lose other areas forever unless a clear alternative is put forward.
The rot at the top of Labour extends beyond Liz Kendall and Chuka Umunna’s parroting of Tory rhetoric about “hard working families” and ‘people who don’t want to work’.
Andy Burnham, who criticised the Bill and claims to have opposed Harman’s support for it in the shadow cabinet, tried to excuse his abstention and claim that if elected leader everything would be different.
An indication of just how different things would be is his endorsement by Rachel Reeves MP, his prospective shadow chancellor and infamous author of the claim that Labour would be ‘tougher than the Tories’ on benefits.
Burnham’s duplicitous excuses failed to convince hundreds of former supporters who flooded his Facebook page with denunciations, declaring that they would transfer their support to Corbyn.
The Tories have a very small majority, so consistent opposition in the Commons really matters. Just 48 MPs – including Corbyn – voted against the Bill. Labour’s abstention facilitated its passage and deepened the impoverishment of the poorest in society.
Labour’s inability to oppose the Tories, combined with Andy Burnham’s vacillation, was a shock to the system for many supporters. It has polarised the campaign between those who want Labour to openly oppose the Tories – and those, like Cooper, who fear opposing the Tories will cost Labour Tory votes in 2020.
The debacle over the vote made it clear that this contest is a struggle to decide if Labour will fight the Tory attacks tooth and nail, inside Parliament and out – or if it will capitulate to the demands of the Tory press and abandon the people it was founded to defend.
The leftwing veteran’s popularity, especially amongst young people, is an expression of popular dissatisfaction with Labour’s failure to seriously obstruct – or even criticise – Tory austerity over the last five years.
His appearances on TV, at rallies, at demonstrations, where he urges open opposition to the Tories is a radical change from the typical conformist Labour mouthpieces preaching capitulation to austerity.
Corbyn explained his basic stance when he launched his campaign. Against his rivals who claim Labour lost because it was too left wing he blamed “…the fundamental economic strategy [which] was not that different from what the Conservatives were offering.”
He went on “I long for the day when there’s a Chancellor of the Exchequer who gets up to introduce a budget in the way that very few have in the past which says the priority is to have an expanding sustainable economy, with sustainable jobs in an environmentally friendly way and to eliminate poverty and destitution at the same time.”
Even the establishment media have pointed out that many of Corbyn’s policies have widespread support – renationalisation of the railways, a 75 per cent top rate of income tax, rent controls, a living wage and free education.
These are good leftwing policies with broad appeal that could draw masses of people into active struggle to achieve them – and make an immediate difference in the lives of millions.
By any standards Corbyn’s economic policy is a cautious neo-Keynesian programme based on public spending and investment to boost growth. His pledge to balance the books by 2020 is tempered with a commitment that public services will not be cut to meet this target.
Nationalisations are limited to public utilities (rail, water, electricity). The question of nationalising the banks and controlling the financial sector is ducked through the creation of a national investment bank.
Since there is no explicit threat to big private capital at all, it amounts to a relatively modest left reformist programme – one exceeded in practice by Labour governments under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 70s.
Nevertheless it is Blair and Brown’s conversion to neoliberalism or “social liberalism” in the 1990s that makes previous Labour programmes – and Corbyn’s today – look very left wing.
Nevertheless, Corbyn’s popularity does not come so much from his specific policies – popular as they are – but from the fact that he stands for a clear break with the politics of compromise, of capitulation to the neoliberal consensus.
His campaign has enthused those who want an end to the demonisation of the unemployed and ill and an end to the persecution of migrants. It has rallied young people and workers who are fed up of a society run by the rich, who force the poor to make sacrifices, while the wealthy get tax cuts.
The fact that Corbyn’s campaign has such support has unsettled the bourgeois establishment; its toleration for a government elected on Corbyn’s programme would be virtually nil.
The example of Syriza shows that a leftwing government which intends to implement even mild social reforms will have to confront and overcome the resistance of the banks and the big capitalists.
Corbyn’s platform envisages a certain amount of redistribution of wealth through increased taxation and economic growth. But it leaves the levers of economic power – the banks, large scale industries, food production and distribution, technology etc. – in the hands of the capitalist class.
Without seizing control of these levers, and putting them under the control of the workers who make them run, serious attempts at redistribution through the tax system will fail.
Why? Because those who own and control industry will constantly frustrate tax collection, move their money offshore and manipulate the financial markets to blackmail the country. A Corbyn government would face massive sabotage from the establishment unless a force far more powerful than a democratic election mandate was deployed.
This force is the working class – the people who are flooding into the Labour Party and building Jeremy’s campaign. The workers in the factories, depots, stations, banks, shops and media will have an instrumental role to play in defending a left Labour government’s programme and mobilising to carry it out.
Against the sabotage of the bosses, workers would have to exercise a veto on their managers, open up the accounts to public inspection and demand that closures and layoffs be met with nationalisation. The intervention of the courts will have to be overcome through mass strike action. This kind of mass mobilisation, organised through democratic committees of workers’ delegates, is what was missing in Greece and its absence facilitated Syriza’s ultimate surrender.
Corbyn has stated that he wants Labour to become a ‘social movement’. This is welcome because it breaks with the PLP’s monopoly on politics and encourages ordinary people to become active participants in the struggle to impose a programme that puts the interests of ordinary people before the rich.
The debate over what kind of tactics will be necessary to implement policies that directly attack and provoke resistance from the rich is too important to be left to election day.
It needs to inform the debate over what kind of party can deliver a programme in the interests of the working class and how Labour, the left and the labour movement can organise to stop the Tory offensive in the here and now.
Beware the Right
A victory for Jeremy Corbyn would be a victory for the whole labour movement. It would galvanise resistance, placing tribunes of the working class on the front benches of Parliament and in the media, challenging and exposing the government.
A major struggle will erupt including a debate over what measures a leftwing Labour government could take if it wanted to be loyal to its working class supporters and make the bosses and bankers pay the price for their economic crisis.
It would certainly stimulate a debate amongst hundreds of thousands of working class people about what a socialist programme means today and what kind of party could carry it out.
If Corbyn wins, if he sticks to his programme and if such a debate about the way forwards can be had, the working class will have made a significant step forwards.
And yet. These are big ‘ifs’ which face big obstacles. A Corbyn victory will not in the first instance have to overcome the Tories, the bosses or the press barons.
The principle obstacle will be the right wing of the Labour Party – the careerists, the cowards, the traitors whose past crimes in government and present capitulation to austerity condemns them in the eyes of millions.
These loyal stooges of the ruling class are the real ‘infiltrators’ into the Labour Party and they are already plotting how to oust Corbyn if the unthinkable happens. By denying plans to leave Labour they are threatening to do so.
These threats, whether open or disguised, present the latent risk of compromise by the left. The aftermath of the Gang of Four crisis serves as a warning from history. When these senior Labour cabinet members split in 1981, left Labour MPs led by Tony Benn made a fatal compromise in the interests of ‘party unity’. In what became known as the Bishops Stortford Agreement they promised not to stand for leadership or deputy leadership positions, leaving the right wingers in control.
The result was a counterattack by the “soft left” leadership led by Neil Kinnock, first against Militant Tendency supporters, followed by a purge of the wider left. Benn’s compromise paved the way for Labour’s relentless march to the right, culminating with Tony Blair who, on Labour’s centenary, referred to the break with the Liberals and the founding of Labour as a “tragedy”.
This time there must be no compromise if the Right threaten to split. Their departure into the camp of the bourgeoisie would not be a tragedy but a necessary and overdue purification.
Vote Corbyn – prepare to fight
Organising the new leftwing forces in Labour’s ranks and in affiliated unions is an urgent task to resist and overcome the inevitable sabotage by the rightwingers who pack the benches of the PLP and many Labour councils.
The strength to resist the Right is found in the collective strength of the wider labour movement mobilised to stop austerity on the streets. To ensure Corbyn’s campaign becomes a true turning point, we need to help the tens of thousands of new members and supporters make Labour a full participant in the fight against the Tory offensive.
A first step would be to argue that local parties must break with the policy of making cuts in social services, closing libraries, selling off social housing – in short, refusing to implement central government cuts and appealing for workers to mobilise to support them.
The revivified Labour left can become an integral part of the resistance, bringing the 50, 000 new members and scores of thousands of young Corbyn supporters into campaigning on the ground before, during and after the leadership vote, alongside local campaigns and people’s assemblies.
The goal is to force the Labour Right to choose between the working class’s struggle to stop austerity, reverse the cuts and kick out the Tory government – or stick with the bosses, their media, and their destruction of the welfare state and impoverishment of ordinary people.
Whether Corbyn wins or loses, we should aim to destablise the dictatorship of the right wing in the PLP. Socialists are not indifferent to the programme and leadership of the Labour Party.
Labour’s identification with the trade unions means the whole labour movement would benefit from a victory for Corbyn. It would be positive for the mass struggle against austerity on the streets and positive if the left gains a louder voice in parliament and in the council chamber.
If Jeremy Corbyn prepares to launch a structured leftwing organisation or network within the party, his new supporters might stay and fight inside Labour even if he loses. If not, they may leave in disgust and join a leftwing alternative. We will see which perspective opens up this autumn.
The sudden mass impact of the Corbyn campaign is a sign of the times. The great economic crisis opened a new period in the decline of capitalism. That is now developing into a political crisis across Europe, one from which Britain – as these events show – is not immune. The potential for a genuinely mass political movement against austerity has emerged.
The mood to fight is there and tens if not hundreds of thousands of workers recognise the central role that the Labour Party will play in mobilising or obstructing a serious fight to stop Tory austerity and kick them out before their term is up.
Every left winger, every socialist individual or group, should throw themselves into the Corbyn campaign and prepare to fight the Tories in the streets and their stooges in the Labour Party.