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Corbyn in Camden: a new movement is born

By Jeremy Dewar

On Monday 3 August the Jeremy Corby campaign came to London. After drawing crowds of 1,500 in Liverpool, 1,000 in Birmingham and hundreds upon hundreds in Luton, Coventry and elsewhere, it could not have surprised anyone that 2,500 turned out to see him in the Camden Centre.

In fact the crowd was so large that Corbyn had to deliver his speech four times – to the main hall, two overspill rooms, then finally from on top of a fire engine to another 500 who did not have tickets.

He was joined at various times by musician and antiwar campaigner Brian Eno, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, writer and Party activist Owen Jones, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, 1980s Labour Black Sections activist Martha Osamor and Haringey councillor Amina Ibrahim. There was even time for 12 young activists from Islington Labour to address the crowd.

And what a crowd it was. Many were veterans of the anticapitalist, anti-war and anti-austerity movements, some of whom had been expelled from the Party in the 1980s and ’90s, others who were coming to their first Labour event, having found the Party too enamoured of the neoliberal project of privatisation, cuts and poverty, and too embroiled in imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years.

Jeremy’s Vision 2020

The cutting edge of Corbyn’s campaign is undoubtedly his anti-austerity policies, but that is not the only message that he is articulating.

Corbyn has a long record of opposing wars, arms dealing and nuclear weapons. As Owen Jones said,

“Jeremy opposed British troops in Northern Ireland and called for a political solution. He was proved right. He opposed Britain’s sale of weapons that allowed Saddam Hussein to gas the Kurds in the 1980s. He was proved right there too. Jeremy opposed going to war in Iraq, saying it would cause untold deaths, misery and chaos for years to come. He has been proved right again.”

Corbyn himself admitted that his opposition to nuclear weapons would no doubt become a bigger issue,” i.e. be used to “prove” he was not a safe pair of hands for the British war making machine. But he characteristically added, “Fine, let’s have that debate.”

Jeremy, totally lacking the celebrity ambition of most politicians, appeals to many precisely because he treats his audiences, whether face to face or via the media with respect as people capable of grappling with ideas and ideals, with policies rather than personalities. As a result he has opened up a long-overdue debate on Labour’s direction. As a result as Owen Jones observed it will be difficult if not impossible  to put this genii back in the lamp.

On the latest immigration “scandal” in Calais, Corbyn also struck a chord with the audience, when he condemned David Cameron and Theresa May for their rush to blame migrants for the crisis, and instead offered a vision of an inclusive Britain that welcomed asylum seekers and migrant workers. He also called for urgent action on climate change.

But the overriding message that both bound all the other policies together and gave his candidacy its sense of urgency was that there is an alternative to austerity: a message that places Corbyn’s campaign right alongside other parties that have emerged across Europe in the last few years, in a break from the neoliberal conformity of the main social democratic parties, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and even though not a socialist or working class party, the Scottish National Party.

The latter however spuriously made the headway it did against Labour because it was verbally unequivocal in its condemnation of austerity where Labour peddled the austerity-lite message.

Corbyn rightly laid the blame for the economic crisis of 2008-09 and the consequent great depression and stagnation at the door of the banks:

“Was it nurses that caused the banking crisis? Was it street cleaners that caused the banking crisis? Was it the unemployed that caused the banking crisis? Or was it the inability or refusal of governments to face up to a financial system that allowed that to be brought about?” he asked rhetorically.

His big idea – or rather, the centrepiece of his campaign team – is the establishment of a national investment bank, funded by a mixture of taxation and quantitative easing, or QE. Ken Livingstone, in his speech criticised Chris Leslie, Labour’s current shadow chancellor, who called the plan “illiterate” and promised not to serve under him (no loss there!), saying,

“If we can create £375 billion with QE for the banks, then why not create money to fund the tackling of climate change and green jobs? If Labour is looking for new markets, then there can be no bigger market than tackling climate change.”

With the money, Jeremy also promised:

  • To build more council housing – no more sell-offs
  • To end creeping privatisation of the NHS, guaranteeing a free and universal service at the point of need
  • To abolish tuition fees and establish a free education service that would skill young people up so Britain can renew its manufacturing base.

He also pledged to renationalise the rail, Royal Mail and the energy companies: all policies with a huge swathe of public support.

Movement and party

One of the most lasting and important impressions of the evening was that such a movement is possible. Owen Jones was the clearest on this. In a repeated soundbite, Jones declared, “a new movement is born, is it not?” Jones emphasised, as did others, that this movements was one coming from “the grassroots of the labour movement,” and Corbyn added that, “whatever happens on 12 September [when the ballot closes] we must stay together.

Both – despite Owen Jones’ youthful appearance   – are too experienced to believe that a simple majority for Corbyn as leader would settle matters. Both are fully aware that a witch-hunt has already started to exclude as many of Jeremy’s supporters from the Party, as members, supporters or affiliated supporters, as possible.

Neil Kinnock has risen from the political grave to pronounce that there was an attempted coup, orchestrated by the “Trotskyite left and the Telegraph right”, to lever Corbyn into the leadership. He claimed that this would mean local services would be destroyed and Labour would lose elections. Eh? Isn’t this the man that under whose leadership, Labour councils that resisted rate capping were isolated, demonised and ultimately closed down and expelled? Isn’t this the man who lost two elections to the rampaging Tories? Isn’t this the man who condemned the miners for violence in their heroic one-year strike?

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has also declared that Corbyn would make Labour unelectable and called for a vote for Yvette Cooper because she alone could unite the party. So said Toynbee, who, er, helped split the party in 1981 joining the SDP Gang of Four. Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair (“if you support Jeremy Corbyn, you need a heart transplant”), and the other three candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – have also joined the chorus of doomsayers.

But it is Harriet Harman, who has made the first real move. Intent it seems on bowing out on a low note with steps towards a new witch-hunt, Harman has started handing over the names of all the new members and supporters – including union affiliates – to Labour MPs, instructing them to vet anyone who has opposed the Party in the past. This of course could include any activist who has marched against Tony Blair’s wars or lobbied Labour councils against their budget cuts.

Haringey councillor Amina Ibrahim, gave an instructive insight into what it feels like to vote through such cuts:

“It’s a really difficult challenge to push through essentially Tory cuts. People in the public gallery were screaming at us, calling us cowards…

“Labour is playing a duplicitous game, saying to the middle class that we won’t waste your money on people that are undeserving, while telling workers that they didn’t want to make these cuts.

“In 1985 [under Kinnock’s leadership], we were told not to play games with people’s services. But everyone knows we do.”

Martha Osamor also recalled another famous event of the Kinnock years. In 1989 Martha was democratically selected by Vauxhall Labour Party as their candidate for a by-election in 1989, only to be removed by Neil Kinnock  in favour of Kate Hoey. This scandalous decision was part of the assault on the left and on Black Sections. Martha recalled how Jeremy Corbyn resolutely supported her throughout this struggle

If  people like Ibrahim and Osamor can be persuaded by Corbyn’s campaign that another Labour Party is possible, then many others could follow suit. Indeed this is confirmed as a mass phenomenon by Corbyn’s securing of more constituency nominations than any other candidate.

His appeal to the wider movement is also shown by his support among trade union executive committees and most significantly the number of people joining Labour in order to vote for him: 65,000 new members, 35,000 new supporters, another 35,000 new affiliated supporters – so far. In short the Party’s organised base has risen to 275,000 since May – and the rate of growth is accelerating.

This exposes the nature of the Labour Party: true, a party that has been and is led by a pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist core, but also a party of the labour movement as a whole. Harman and co.’s complaint boils down to the assertion that the current leadership (installed after a huge witch-hunt of the left in the 1980s, which targeted not only the Militant Tendency, but also shut down one in eight CLPs; maintained by the desertion of others who could not stomach Blair and Brown’s neoliberal economics and warmongering policies; and walled in by the undemocratic removal of any democratic control from below) is the Party.

Wrong. So long as the Labour Party remains the Party of the labour movement, then every socialist, union member or working class activist has the right to join it and help shape its policies.

Harman is even wrong on the numbers. She knows that Corbyn’s campaigners – probably the vast majority of the 135,000 new members and supporters – far outnumber the Trotskyist left in Britain. She is also undoubtedly aware that the two biggest far left groups in Britain – the SWP and Socialist Party – have not urged their members and supporters to join Labour because they have an alternative perspective, which Jeremy’s campaign has disrupted.

But herein lies a weakness of the Corbyn campaign strategy. Jeremy has not called for a struggle against this anti-democratic right wing. He has accepted that Labour MPs, who were selected by shrunken and right wing dominated Party structures, will elect his shadow cabinet, a move which could leave him a prisoner of the right.

Of course he emphasises the building of a “grassroots movement”. Such a movement is essential of course, win or lose, because the immediate task has to be to defeat the Tory government’s attacks. If we don’t do that, then there will be precious little of the NHS and other services to defend.

But it has also to be a movement to fight against the right wing inside the party. We say this, not because we believe the Labour Party can be reformed, captured for socialism, but because we believe the working class needs a mass party – and you don’t get one by abandoning a struggle that has erupted over the heart and soul of the already existing one.

A new movement has been born – Owen Jones and Jeremy Corbyn are right there, no exaggeration.  But this movement has to be both a social movement to stop neoliberal austerity and a political movement to fight for power. And to do that it will need first of all to capture the Labour Party from its present right wing leadership and parliamentary party. And that will be a hard struggle – one that requires all the forces in the labour movement to participate in.

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