As soon as Corbyn’s manifesto was leaked, the election campaign began to take a turn. Corbyn’s supporters began to feel more confident; people who hadn’t been sure made up their minds to vote for him. Taxing the rich, abolishing tuition fees and putting an end to privatisation all proved very popular and contributed to a serious shift in the polls before campaigning was suspended after the Manchester bombing.
But if Corbyn were to win the general election and seek to put his manifesto into practice, what would happen? Firstly he would have to get past his own MPs, most of whom have been anything but supportive.
Assuming he managed to do that, what of the vested interests he would be challenging? Would the private companies currently raking in profits in the health sector willingly relinquish their contracts? What of the corporations and rich individuals facing higher levels of tax? And what of the British and international institutions, which exist to defend the interests of capital, and are currently imposing austerity?
Some historical examples can give an indication. Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964 promised to increase public spending and ensure full employment. But the Bank of England chief quickly warned Wilson that this would not be happening — big business required a wage freeze and public sector cuts. When Wilson tried to expand public spending, the rich moved their money out of the country and the pound lost value rapidly.
As Wilson later explained: “An elected government was being told by international speculators that the government was to be forced into the adoption of Tory policies.”
This story is remarkably similar to the experience of the Syriza government elected on an anti-austerity programme in Greece in 2014. It too had a policy forced onto it that was exactly the opposite of what people had voted for and what the Syriza MPs stood for.
In Venezuela in 2001 president Hugo Chavez made a fairly mild attempt to challenge the interests of the rich. He proposed limited land reforms which would hit big landowners and he sought to regulate the state oil company, which had been acting as a law unto itself — that is, in the interests of its bosses rather than the Venezuelan people.
Within a few months the bosses organised a shutdown of the major industries, paying workers to join “protests” and locking up factories and power plants. The major private TV companies joined in this attempt to destabilise Chavez. They were joined by business owners, Catholic priests and right wing military officers in what quickly became a full-on coup.
This recalls the dark threat against Corbyn, made by an unnamed high-ranking officer, that action would have to be taken if Corbyn were to threaten the security of the nation.
So, when a government tries to challenge the interests of capital it faces resistance.
The “Golden Age of Labour” — the 1945 government of Clement Attlee that introduced the NHS and nationalised whole swathes of British industry — is held up as the model for Labour governments to aspire to. But it only managed to implement those reforms because they coincided with the interests of British capital in a country which had been destroyed by the Second World War and needed to be rebuilt.
This can be seen in the way industries were nationalised. There was state investment, but no hint of workers’ control. The conditions of exploitation remained for workers and for the bosses, who were often kept in place as well as being generously compensated.
The basis of reformism is to bring change through parliament and within the confines of capital. If left wing governments are not prepared to break from capital then they will be forced into submission. Capitalism will never let democracy stand in its way when it comes to the crunch. In that situation the balance of class forces is decisive — the confidence of the ruling class to make workers pay and the willingness of our side to fight.
As the coup-makers in Venezuela in 2002 found out, people who have elected a left wing leader on the basis that he will make their lives better after decades of neoliberal torture won’t necessarily sit back and let him be overthrown.
Whatever the outcome of the general election, the vote for Corbyn is a sign of that willingness to fight, and the Tories’ backtracking over the “dementia tax” is a sign of their weakness. The battle will be far from over on 9 June.