Corbyn the triumph and the challenge

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Jeremy Corbyn's crushing victory over the Blairites sent the Establishment reeling. We must organise to defend him and, even more importantly, the principles he was elected on, writes Shaun Doherty.

In politics as in life always expect the unexpected. Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing and crushing victory in the Labour Party leadership contest was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams a few months ago. When I think of the local MP who, for most of my 40 years of teaching in Islington would cycle up and down the Holloway Road, the main artery of his constituency, supporting every strike and progressive campaign under the sun, I could barely have imagined his current elevation.

What I and many others could, however, predict was that in the unlikely event of him winning all hell would break loose.

His friend and now shadow chancellor John McDonnell calls what they faced in their first week in charge a “tsunami” of opposition. In one sense the scale of opposition and the level of vitriol heaped on them should be taken as a compliment. The attacks have been so fierce because the right, both inside and outside the Labour Party, are terrified of what Corbyn and McDonnell represent and what their leadership has the potential to deliver.

How refreshing it was to hear Corbyn applaud the strikers from the National Gallery in his speech to the TUC conference in September. When was the last time a Labour leader spoke out in support of strike action? Indeed, in the run up to the leadership vote it took the Daily Telegraph to take to task those Tories who thought that a Corbyn victory would be a gift to them and a free pass through the next election in 2020. It rightly pointed out that the opposite could be the case; the basic premises of capitalist society would be put under scrutiny.

Scale

It is worth recalling the scale of the victory. Corbyn won 251,417 (59.5 percent) of the votes to Andy Burnham’s 80,462 (19 percent), Yvette Cooper’s 71,928 (17 percent), and Liz Kendall’s 18,857 (4.5 percent). He won in all three categories of the electoral college — 49.6 percent of party members, 83.8 percent of registered supporters (those who paid £3 to join) and 57.6 percent of affiliated members (trade unionists).

That he should subsequently come under attack from the right is no surprise. True to form the media wolves have tried to tear him apart, from the trivial — “His top button was undone” to the sinister — the threat of a mutiny in the army if he becomes prime minister. But it is in the response from the liberal press and his own MPs, including members of his own shadow cabinet, that the real threat lies.

The Observer and the Guardian, the twin pillars of the liberal media, campaigned relentlessly against Corbyn, and after his victory instantly heralded his inevitable failure. Their hostility not only offended many of their readers but also some of their most established journalists. The Observer was compelled to print articles by Edward Vulliamy and William Keegan writing back against the stance their paper and its stable mate the Guardian had taken.

Vulliamy writes, “For what it’s worth I feel we let down many readers and others by not embracing at least the spirit of the result, propelled as it was by moral principles of equality, peace and justice.” Keegan argues that austerity needs an opponent such as Corbyn, and makes the point that the policies he campaigned on were remarkably reasonable and moderate.

They were both confronting an attitude epitomised by Jonathan Freedland, a key political influence in the Guardian, the previous day: “Corbyn has to represent the whole of Labour, not just himself.” In other words, he must reconcile his anti-austerity principles with the neoliberal consensus championed by his Blairite colleagues that brought us austerity in the first place. And while he is at it, he must conform to all the outmoded cultural practices of the establishment — anthems, suits and the Andrew Marr show.

To argue that it is selfish and individualistic for Corbyn to stick to the principles he campaigned on begs the questions: what was the point of him standing in the first place, and why he won with such a decisive majority.

Corbyn’s opponents from inside the party did not hold fire either. Lord Falconer and Hilary Benn argued that they would be prepared to support air strikes on Syria in certain circumstances when Corbyn had made his own opposition to them clear. Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, used the Mail on Sunday to accuse both Corbyn and McDonnell of risking inciting terrorist and anti-Semitic attacks because of their views on the Middle East and Ireland. Chuka Umunna raised the spectre of rioting in the streets if Corbyn’s leadership led to another Tory government. Charles Clarke and Roy Hattersley resorted to ad hominem arguments, calling Corbyn “characterless” and “an absurd vehicle for the hopes of the disaffected” and adopting “a carefully constructed image”.

These are presumably the voices that Freedland wants Corbyn to listen to. But a crucial point is being missed here. Corbyn was elected because he was different. He wasn’t one of the New Labour clones (indeed, the most Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, managed just 4.5 percent). He was elected precisely because he opposed austerity, Trident and the scapegoating of refugees and because he supported the nationalisation of the railways and a redistribution of wealth. It would be an insult to all those who voted for him if he now junked his principles.

Energised

I hope he remains steadfast in the face of this destabilising storm of abuse. He must know that the more he compromises the more his enemies will see it as a sign of weakness and attack him even more virulently. His strength comes not from the Parliamentary Labour Party, where no more than 20 MPs agree with him politically, but from the tens of thousands who backed him for the leadership and who were energised by his campaigning up and down the country.

The 100 public meetings he addressed during the leadership campaign enthused a new layer of young people alienated by mainstream politics and rejuvenated many older socialists who had become disillusioned with the neoliberal consensus. His was a victory of hope that things really could change. It reflected the underlying opposition in this country to the politics of austerity. As I write some 62,000 people have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election. A quarter of them are former members who have rejoined — probably after years of disenchantment with New Labour’s wars and privatisation.

The announcement of the result on 12 September coincided with another expression of hope and humanity. Tens of thousands marched in London and other towns and cities across Britain in support of refugees, reflecting an upsurge across Europe of ordinary people horrified at the plight of the millions fleeing war and conflict.

The fact that one of Corbyn’s first acts as Labour leader was to address the demonstration is a further sign of how he has become a lightning rod for anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-racist feeling.

How should revolutionary socialists respond to the sustained attacks on Corbyn and attempts to undermine him? Should we shout “Sell out!” at every compromise he is forced to make? Should we sloganise against the inevitable capitulations of reformist politics? Or should we build the broadest possible defence of his leadership in order to give him the backing to implement the policies he was elected on and to defend him against attacks from the right?

If we adopt the former approach we will be consigned to a sectarian ghetto and not deserve a hearing for our politics. Instead we need to rally round to defend him from attacks from the right. In defending Corbyn we are defending the principles of anti-austerity, solidarity with refugees, anti-racism and opposition to war that are at the core of our own politics.

If the attacks on him succeed in undermining his leadership who will benefit? One thing is clear: if Corbyn were to fall it is unlikely that the political mood would shift towards a revolutionary perspective and far more likely that we would face demoralisation and defeat.

Defend

The initiative taken by Unite the Resistance in the form of a petition, “Defend Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies and his democratic right to lead Labour”, is an important example of the right approach. It already has the signatures of all the major trade union leaders. This is particularly important because some of the most prominent union general secretaries were at best lukewarm about Corbyn’s decision to appoint John McDonnell as shadow chancellor.

The petition argues that not only have many been inspired by the message of his campaign, but that he has a clear mandate to carry through the policies he put forward in the contest. Those who seek to undermine him fly in the face of democracy. The petition needs to be taken around every workplace and community.

Corbyn himself has argued that he wanted to create a social movement against poverty, racism and war. And a genuine mass movement will not only help with the implementation of his policies but will also inoculate him against attacks from the right. But it is important to be specific about this movement. It means supporting all campaigns against austerity; supporting mobilisations in solidarity with refugees throughout the world; supporting strikes and all forms of workers’ resistance; support for all anti-cuts campaigns both at local government level and nationally; supporting the nationalisation of the railways; defending public health provision; opposing war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons — be it air strikes on Syria or the renewal of Trident.

These are the principles around which both the defence of Corbyn can be built and the struggle against the Tories’ austerity agenda can be pursued. One thing is absolutely certain: if he relies on the Parliamentary Labour Party he is doomed. The right is already plotting his downfall.

If the energy of the movement Corbyn has created is dissipated by an exclusive focus on internal Labour Party struggles its momentum will be lost. There are urgent battles to be fought now; the Tories’ won’t wait until 2020 to implement further austerity and we can’t wait until then to fight it.

Does defence of Corbyn mean that we should take leave of our critical faculties? Of course not. There will be positions Corbyn adopts that we are unhappy about. A pluralistic agenda is all well and good and a broad church sounds more hospitable than a narrow one, but is it really a good idea to want to include in the shadow cabinet the likes of Chuka Umunna, who would use his position to undermine Corbyn at every turn?

Luke Akehurst writing in Labour List outlines the concessions on defence and foreign policy Corbyn may have already made to some members of his shadow cabinet and outlines ways in which he could be brought down in future. It only requires 20 percent of Labour MPs to trigger a challenge to his leadership. Many are biding their time and planning the best moment to strike. Corbyn will also face a number of dilemmas at the Labour Party conference.

Neither should we shrink from the more general arguments about the nature of the British state and the parliamentary road to socialism.

I’m sure Jeremy will be only too familiar with the arguments of the late Marxist political commentator Ralph Miliband and will be aware of the constraints that a parliamentary strategy will place him under. In the postscript to his seminal book, Parliamentary Socialism, Miliband argued that left parliamentarians are hamstrung by the institution itself and by the conservatism of the Labour establishment. Quite explicitly he stated, “What this means is that the Labour Party will not be transformed into a party seriously concerned with socialist change.”

Movement

These are important arguments for us and need to be conducted in a patient and comradely way. But those of us in the revolutionary tradition need to be honest and self-aware enough to acknowledge that it is a left reformist politician standing in an election for the leadership of the Labour Party who has ignited the spark of enthusiasm for political change among thousands of people, young and old.

We need to be a part of this movement if we are to earn the right to shape it.

The Unite the Resistance petition is one way that we can take the fight to the enemy. Everywhere we go we want to get signatures for it and support for the positions it argues.

We can defend Corbyn’s leadership as part of fighting to build the mass movement that is essential if we are really going to take the fight to the Tories.

The 4 October TUC/People’s Assembly demonstration in Manchester at the Tory conference is our first opportunity to turn our fire on them, and the bigger and more militant it is, the more they will feel the heat.