Labour: left in the driving seat

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The Shadow Chancellor defending the NHS

There is no doubt that the left were in the driving seat at Brighton and exuded a confidence and assurance born from the unexpectedly favourable election result in June and the subsequent turmoil and implosion of their Tory opponents.

It was particularly refreshing that socialist ideas were common currency and openly debated. What a change from the stage-managed PR presentations of recent years.

The new-found confidence to take up these ideas and this debate was reflected in the increased attendance at the conference itself and all the related meetings, not just the left fringe.

There was indeed much to cheer, but there remain some unanswered questions and evasions.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell certainly rattled a few cages with his determination to end the disastrous PFI contracts and to take their projects back in-house.

An unusually defensive editorial (27 September) in the FT, while accusing him of “bluster” and “not offering the right remedy”, had to conclude that business and investors had been “put on notice that they need to defend the record of a swath of privatisations that in some cases delivered less than they promised”.

McDonnell was also right to warn of the onslaught from big business in the aftermath of a future Labour victory and the advanced planning that would be needed to avert this scenario. However, the idea that this planning should include attempting to work in partnership with big business is seriously misplaced.

Defence of a future Labour government attempting to implement the kind of anti-privatisation polices and support for public services that was championed at conference, would require mass mobilisation on a massive scale, most likely including wholesale strike action.

The more compromises are made the less likely the implementation of progressive policies. Preparing for power is not about striking a more pragmatic pose. The humiliation of Syriza, who were ironically lauded at the Labour conference, at the hands of the EU should be a salutary lesson. Imitation of abject failure is not a good way forward!

Praise for the new “grown-up version” of McDonnell and Corbyn has come from the unlikeliest quarters. In a volte-face, typical of liberals who can feel the wind blowing in a different direction, Polly Toynbee heaps plaudits on the newly “pragmatic” Labour leadership, “Labour looks more credible by the day, its senior team more impressive”, even asserting that Momentum is merging into mainstream Labour (Guardian, 26 September).

This after spending two years rubbishing them at every turn. It would be wise not to be taken in by fair-weather friends. Toynbee’s erstwhile fellow travellers in the Labour right have not gone away and she echoes their failed attempt to drag opposition to Brexit back onto the agenda.

Chukka Umunna and the other signatories of the motion to retain a commitment to the single market were denied the platform at conference to pursue their proxy war against Corbyn. As Zoe Williams, Toynbee’s Guardian colleague, put it, the signatories to the motion were in tactics and personnel not “substantially different from the attempts to oust Corbyn a year ago”. But side-lining your opponents is not the same as articulating an alternative policy.

A “fudge” on Brexit should not be mistaken for a coherent strategy. Access to the single market is the Holy Grail for the establishment and big business and a potential barrier to the implementation of a whole swathe of polices enshrined in the Labour election manifesto and endorsed at conference to implement nationalisations and to protect public services from privatisation.

In the same issue of the FT cited above, a second editorial sings the praises of the neoliberal “reforms” championed by Macron in France and concludes, “The EU has spent the best part of a decade fighting for survival.

“At last, recovery is in full swing and the populist threat is contained.” This claim’s dubious credibility is made in the immediate aftermath of the German election where the dramatic growth of the fascist right of the AfD has reflected similar developments in other EU countries.

The same editorial describes migrants as one of France’s “malign external forces” and this is another policy area where the Labour conference sold short the key principle of free movement of labour. Increasingly the EU wants to pull up the drawbridge in an attempt to keep out migrant workers.

Sadly, many in the Labour Party and in the leadership of major trade unions, are making significant concessions to this retrograde development.

A clear statement from the leadership that all EU migrant workers in Britain should be given indefinite right to remain after Brexit and that Labour embraced the free movement of migrant workers in future would have been an open challenge to racism and xenophobia.

Raising these issues by those of us who are outside the Labour tent may seem presumptuous and even churlish, but in doing so we are reflecting the traditions that Corbyn and McDonnell themselves are steeped in. Their future challenges, especially if they find themselves in government will require the mobilisation of the whole of the working class movement if they are to prevail.