For the second summer in a row Jeremy Corbyn has been out on the road battling for the Labour leadership. Mark L Thomas looks at the dynamics of the campaign and the prospects for the Labour Party once the contest is over.
The summer was dominated by the bitter fight over the Labour leadership. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) gambled that the Brexit vote could be used to launch an onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn, who they deemed insufficiently enthusiastic for the Remain cause after he refused (rightly) to campaign alongside pro-Remain Tories or drop his entirely justified criticisms of the EU. The aim was to force Corbyn to resign without risking a vote by the Labour membership. But the no confidence vote by 172 Labour MPs (out of 230), the hourly Shadow Cabinet resignations, the fusillade of attacks hurled at Corbyn during PLP meetings (designed according to one report to “break him as a man”) all failed to dislodge him.
Corbyn’s resolve can only have been steeled by the immediate and massive mobilisations in his defence. So Corbyn was able to go straight from a reportedly brutal PLP meeting inside parliament to speak to a crowd of over 5,000 people gathered at 24 hours notice in Parliament Square, who made both their support for Corbyn and contempt for the manoeuvres of the PLP very vocal.
This combination of manoeuvres from above by the PLP, eagerly amplified and encouraged by the media, and massive mobilisations from below to defend Corbyn set the pattern for the weeks that followed. The meetings that Corbyn addressed in the leadership election last year were impressive enough but even those pale before the size of the turnouts this summer. Over just one weekend a tour of northern cities saw Corbyn address enthusiastic crowds of over 2,000 in Leeds, 3,000 in Hull and anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 in Liverpool.
Equally remarkable has been the size of rallies in areas less historically associated with Labour support, such as Milton Keynes where 1,500 turned out, or the thousands who attended in Redruth in Cornwall. All this was matched by a renewed surge in membership — with over 100,000 joining the Labour Party in just a few weeks. Labour’s membership now stands at around 550,000 — higher than its peak under Tony Blair shortly after the 1997 election (405,000).
One sign of how much has changed since then is that the Labour Right has been forced to abandon one of the battering rams it used successfully against its opponents on the party’s left in the 1990s — the call for “OMOV”, one member one vote, first under John Smith and then under Tony Blair. This was designed to erode the influence of the union leaders inside the Labour Party, weaken the influence of class politics — which at least indirectly, the union leaders reflect — and put the left on the defensive as opponents of democracy. A mass of atomised new members, influenced by the mass media and the string of defeats Labour suffered at the polls under Thatcher in the 1980s and then John Major in 1992, would help reshape the party in the image of Tony Blair and pave the way for electoral success.
It seemed to work and became the template for the Labour right. Indeed, as recently as 2013 the Labour right successfully pushed through the Collins Reforms that introduced the category of “registered supporters” for non-Labour Party members, forced Labour supporters in the unions affiliated to the party to actively “opt-in” to gain voting rights, and introduced OMOV for the election of the Labour leadership by abolishing the old electoral college made up of MPs, the unions and members. The assumption was that this would create an electorate more under the sway of the PLP (and media) and further weaken the ability of the union leaders to influence the choice of leader.
The Labour right has been horrified by the results as instead of being fatally weakened the Labour left underwent a Lazarus-like resurrection around Corbyn. The right’s retreat from OMOV has been rapid and crude — using their influence in the party’s apparatus to exclude recent members from the leadership ballot and defending this, at considerable cost, in the courts; hiking the supporter’s fee from £3 to £25 and only allowing a two-day window to register; trying, unsuccessfully, to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper itself.
All this has been coupled with a relentless campaign of smears accusing Corbyn supporters of abuse, thuggery, anti-Semitism, and most recently ridiculous claims of Trotskyist infiltration, as if this could explain the huge backing Corbyn has received.
Such tactics are a sign of the weakness of the Labour right. Further proof of this is that the candidate the PLP finally alighted on to challenge Corbyn once a leadership election was unavoidable, the unimpressive Owen Smith, has had to try and distance himself from Blair — claiming, rather unconvincingly, to be a socialist and stealing many of Corbyn’s policies.
All of this reflects the fact that the unresolved contradictions of Corbyn’s surprise victory last year have erupted. Where elsewhere the desire for a radical left alternative has been captured by smaller left forces outside the dominant social democratic party, like Syriza in Greece, or completely new parties, such as Podemos in the Spanish state, in Britain this has taken place within the hollowed out structures of the Labour Party. All conventional wisdom among politicians and pundits dictates that when a leader loses the support of 80 percent of his or her MPs, they have no option but to step down. But Corbyn did not emerge conventionally as leader from within the parliamentary party as the figure best placed to pursue its interests, but by a rebellion against the PLP and its inability to offer any real opposition to austerity and the Tories’ war on the welfare state.
One consequence is that the weakness of Corbyn’s support inside the PLP means that his supporters are forced again and again to mobilise to defend him — at Constituency Labour Party meetings, at public rallies and even demonstrations in the streets. In the process they have come up against at least some of the key bulwarks of ruling class power: the Labour right, the mass media, the courts. This has opened wider political questions and raised the need for greater organisation by the left inside Labour.
A significant feature of the current balance of forces inside Labour favouring the left — and it seems almost inevitable that Corbyn is heading for victory when the result is announced on 24 September — is that there is split between a major section of the trade union bureaucracy and the majority of the PLP. Corbyn won the formal nominations of eight Labour affiliated unions while four backed Smith — but crucially Corbyn has continued to win, as he did last year, the backing of the two biggest unions, Unite and Unison.
Driven by the desire to see a Labour government more sympathetic to their interests than those under Blair and Brown, the backing of key union leaders gives powerful reinforcement to Corbyn’s position. But this support is neither unconditional nor universal. So Unite’s Len McCluskey told the Guardian: “I don’t think Jeremy has any problem with the test of electability. He wants the ability to implement the mandate to put forward an alternative. They’ve got to be given the chance…the idea of trying to get rid of him now is absolutely wrong.” But he hinted that if the polls hadn’t shifted in a couple of years, then this support might be withdrawn: “If there was a view that we needed a new leader, someone would say: well, you can’t do that six weeks before a general election. That’s why 2018 is spoken about by people.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis was more forthright, putting out a press statement alongside the announcement that Unison was nominating Corbyn that attacked “witch hunts” of MPs, councillors and party staff and calling for unity — in effect holding out an olive branch to the right and sending a signal that the Unison leadership is opposed to any attempt to discipline them through deselections, etc. The third and fourth biggest affiliated unions, the GMB and USDAW, both backed Smith — a sign that the Labour right still has friends in the union bureaucracy. Were the big battalions of Unite and Unison to turn against Corbyn this would make his position much more difficult.
The battle cry of the Labour right is “The left can’t win elections”, “Jeremy Corbyn is another Michael Foot”, “Labour faces a return to disastrous 1983 levels of support”. One point this overlooks is that the Labour right itself stopped being electable sometime around a decade ago — that’s why people like Tom Watson engineered a coup to push out Tony Blair, who had become electorally toxic by 2006, but then found that Gordon Brown, the other key architect of New Labour, was equally unable to stop the rot. In fact, by 2010 New Labour’s leadership of the party had taken them back to 1983 levels of support!
So whereas in 1983 Labour received 8.456 million votes (27.6 percent of the total), in 2010 Labour got just 150,000 more than this with 8.606 million votes or 29 percent of the total. In fact, apart from 1983 there have only been three other occasions since 1935 when Labour has received under 10 million votes at a general election. These occurred under Blair, Brown and Miliband in 2005, 2010 and 2015. And along the way Labour saw its number of MPs in Scotland collapse from 41 to one.
But how will the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Labour to back Corbyn relate to the millions Labour needs to persuade if it is to win a general election? A radical Labour programme backed by effective arguments from the leadership that challenge the market, put the case for renationalisation, challenge myths that blame migrants, and so on, would make a difference. Equally, the revival of Labour as a mass party potentially gives it a network of activists who can take those arguments into communities and workplaces that Labour has long retreated from.
But the most important factor shaping whether workers will back a radical Labour platform is their overall confidence to challenge ruling class ideas that insist you can’t challenge the market. And this crucially depends on the level of struggle. Workers who are actively engaged in collective struggle are far more likely to reject the arguments peddled by the media than those who remain isolated and passive. But that points to the need to build such struggles.
Could Labour split? Certainly, there has been much speculation that MPs opposed to Corbyn would split away. In 1981 the trigger for this move was the threat by the deselections at the hands of the Bennite left. But even then only 28 Labour MPs ultimately defected to the SDP, which despite spectacular polling at points and winning nearly 8 million votes in 1983 (after forming an alliance with the old Liberal Party), never managed to make a decisive breakthrough, let alone to displace Labour as the main opposition party. And the ambitious generation of MPs who formed the SDP never served in ministerial office again.
A split from Labour would be a considerable gamble, to say the least — though some MPs may do so, especially if the talk of deselections was to become a reality. But more likely is that they will wage a war of attrition against Corbyn’s leadership and place pressure on Corbyn to moderate his message and seek unity with at least sections of the PLP.
In other words, the pattern of the last year could continue — the Labour right unreconciled to Corbyn and the PLP majority refusing to accept his mandate but equally unable to force him out. Corbyn did attempt to work with the PLP — the decision not to sack Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary after his speech in favour of bombing Syria last December was the clearest, but far from only, example. Far from generating loyalty, Benn simply continued to use his position to help orchestrate the shadow cabinet revolt against Corbyn.
Many of those around Momentum may well now want to see a much more implacable line taken against the Labour right and especially Labour MPs who refuse to accept Corbyn’s mandate, but the pressure on Corbyn to maintain unity — including from some of those backing him in the trade union bureaucracy — will be considerable.
The SWP’s starting point continues to be that we take unequivocal sides with Corbyn against those trying to depose him. But Corbyn’s position will be immeasurably strengthened if the level of struggle rises — and, in fact, this path offers the most certain route to creating an electoral majority for Corbyn. But that requires socialist organisation which is not orientated on Labour’s internal battles but is organised to encourage greater working class resistance — and that also requires rejecting the traditional divide between politics and economics that has always shaped the Labour Party, including its left. Crucially this must mean a willingness to challenge at points the trade union bureaucracy, and not just the wing that opposes Corbyn, but also pro-Corbyn union leaders when they fail to fight.
Such arguments need to be put patiently and wherever possible within the context of joint activity between revolutionaries and the new Labour left around anti-racism, solidarity with strikes, opposition to wars, and so on. And the revolutionary left also needs to argue a simple point: if the ruling class are prepared to launch this level of political and media onslaught towards Corbyn now, how would they respond to a Corbyn-led government? The ruling class has so far deployed just a fraction of its weaponry — investment strikes, currency crisis, sabotage by the senior civil services and judiciary, manoeuvres by the secret services have all been utilised with devastating effect against previous reforming Labour governments to ensure these presented no threat to the profits and stability of British capitalism.
The autonomist-turned-Corbyn supporter (and former Trotskyist) Paul Mason is mistaken to now argue, as he did in the Guardian last month, that, “Should a left wing Labour party come to power — either on its own or in coalition with left nationalists — it is likely to be able to govern relatively free of politicised sabotage from the state” because “the rule of law is stronger now” than in the early 1980s. The bulwarks defending capitalism remain intact — the onslaught versus Syriza which broke its anti-austerity stance is a potent reminder of that.
These are exciting times for the left in Britain but the movement around Corbyn will face repeated tests in the months and years to come — and a non-sectarian but independent revolutionary left can play an important part in the ultimate evolution of that movement.