Can Corbyn's Labour grasp the moment?

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The Tories’ Brexit troubles are escalating, with talk of an early general election returning. But can Corbyn’s Labour Party take advantage of the situation? Shaun Doherty investigates.

In any assessment of the Labour Party conference it’s useful to look beyond the headlines, particularly since some of them were quite remarkable.

After Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech to conference George Osborne’s London Evening Standard ran a front page featuring a caricature of Corbyn wearing a communist hat and carrying a volume of Marx, alongside the headline, “Corbyn: United, We Will Never be Defeated”.

Presumably this was intended as a scathing attack, but actually the headline conveys something of the buoyant mood among Labour activists following the conference. After a summer of vicious rows over antisemitism, there was indeed more of a sense of unity at the conference.

Corbyn outlined a range of progressive policies, which left his supporters feeling confident that the project is still on track.

Perhaps more surprising was the media response to John McDonnell’s speech outlining a future Labour government’s economic strategy. Polly Toynbee was positively drooling (Guardian, 25 September): “He bestrides this conference like a colossus. Big Mac is the one they want to hear.” And she titled her article “Labour’s fate depends on its own Thomas Cromwell.” Whether this leads to a three volume biography of McDonnell from Hilary Mantel remains to be seen — and we certainly don’t wish him Cromwell’s fate!

More interestingly, Lord Jim O’Neill, formerly of Goldman Sachs and advisor to George Osbourne, had a lengthy piece in the Financial Times (22 September) singing the praises of a number of the shadow chancellor’s economic policies and concluding, “The Labour party has stepped into the vacuum left by the government and appears to be offering the radical change that people seek.” Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, on the Today programme extolled the credibility of Labour’s strategy. So what are we to make of this fanfare?

O’Neill’s article provides some clues for these responses by charting the critical state of the economy under the Tories. He outlines five policy areas that Labour has prioritised that address the current crisis: weak productivity (15-20 percent decline since the 2008 crash); a tax overhaul to reverse the false notion that low corporation tax would lead to greater investment; attacking executive pay and the obscene ratio of their pay to that of their workers, on average currently 126:1; and addressing the housing crisis.

Aditya Chakrabortty, less surprisingly and in a similar vein (Guardian, 24 September), points out that had workers’ wages kept pace with their productivity since 1990 they would be 20 percent better off today. He quotes Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, who in 2015 worked out the dramatic decline in workers’ share of national income from 70 percent in 1970 to 55 percent now.

Credibility

They all point out that such is the scale of the crisis that the Tories lack the credibility to rubbish Labour’s remedies and that when the bosses’ CBI in a typically knee-jerk response to McDonnell talks of investors “packing their bags” and Labour of “cracking the foundations of the nation’s prosperity,” people are inclined to respond, “What investment? Whose prosperity?”

Watching McDonnell’s largely impressive performance at the conference was instructive. He confidently committed to nationalise public utilities, introduce radical reform of business practices, launch an assault on tax avoidance, resurrect long-lost workers’ rights, bury “casino capitalism” and he declared that an incoming Labour government would move swiftly to implement these policies on the basis that “the bigger the mess the Tories leave, the more radical we have to be”. But just how radical were the specific proposals?

Underpinning them is the idea that McDonnell’s proposals would make capitalism fairer and more efficient. They are reforms not a revolution. And it is a sad reflection of how far austerity has cut into the lives of the vast majority that even moderate and “sensible” proposals seem more dramatic than they really are.

It is also true that McDonnell himself has been at pains to reassure business that his policies are not a threat to the system and his conference speech distinguished between good and bad entrepreneurs. His headline promise of giving workers shares in companies and a say in their governance is problematic. It strengthens workers’ commitment not just to their own company, but to the system in which that company operates; it creates the illusion that the interests of bosses and workers can be compatible.

Both he and Corbyn rightly drew attention to the catastrophic ten-year legacy of the 2008 crash. Taxpayers bailing out the bankers who were responsible for it at the expense of the rest of us who have had to suffer the ensuing austerity. Ironically McDonnell made a complimentary comment in passing about Gordon Brown, the former Labour chancellor. This was despite the fact that Brown was a champion of those policies, particularly deregulation of the financial services sector and the introduction of PFI, which became the bedrock of the neoliberal agenda that McDonnell was railing against.

So what of the Labour conference as a whole? It would be fair to say that there has been a coalescing around the leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell and much less overt opposition and hostility from the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in particular. There was an almost tribal demonstration of common purpose. One important explanation for this apparent show of unity is that on several major issues the leadership has already made unnecessary concessions. At the heart of these concessions was the dominant influence of the major trade unions.

The two main issues that have signalled a retreat were party democracy and Brexit. The proposals on extending democracy in the party to an ever increasing membership were seriously undermined early in the conference by the adoption of a proposal at the behest of the major unions including those, like Unite, supposedly supportive of Corbyn.

Conference accepted a motion that made it a requirement for any candidate in a future leadership contest to win the support of 10 percent of the PLP (rather than the 5 percent that had been originally argued for), as well as either 5 percent of affiliated organisations (mostly unions) or 5 percent of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). This new policy would make it exceptionally difficult for a future left candidate to be elected, and while it may prevent the emergence of credible Blairite candidates it will tend to favour more malleable moderate candidates.

The vote at conference was carried against the wishes of the vast majority of delegates through the block votes of the major unions.

Potential deal

In some ways the biggest shift to the right is around Brexit. Although the final resolution which will almost certainly be adopted unanimously is open to interpretation, Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit minister, departing from his prepared speech, made it clear that in any referendum on a potential deal “Nobody is ruling out the Remain option.”

This led to a sharp debate on the floor of conference since it was at variance with the position of John McDonnell who had argued that if Labour failed to force a general election over the issue there could only be a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal not the principle itself.

As we have argued previously in this journal any referendum that sought to overturn the 2016 vote to leave would pour fuel on the fire of alienation that so many people felt about the institutions of the EU and established politics. Those who wish to see a re-run of the referendum and the result overturned are not only blinding themselves to the nature of the EU itself, but would be siding with big business and neoliberal politicians from both Tories and the Labour right.

Were the original vote to be reversed not only would it be a gift to UKIP and the far-right because of the contempt it would show to the Leave voters, it would also create false illusions in the EU itself. What characterised the motivation of Leave voters more than anything else was a sense of alienation from establishment politics and its institutions. This anger can express itself in attraction to far-right policies focused on anti-immigration or it can express itself in support of radical socialist critiques of the existing economic and political institutions. If the left is seen to support a reversal of their previous vote it is more likely to move towards the former.

During the course of the debate and in discussions at meetings at the conference fringe there was a distinct lack of scrutiny of the workings of the EU and the neoliberal agenda that underpins them. The single market would make it more difficult to implement McDonnell’s plans for nationalisation by limiting the state’s ability to intervene in the economy. It would make it more difficult to overturn the austerity agenda at the heart of the EU’s neoliberal institutions, the European Council and the European Central Bank.

Even delegates on the left seem to have a blind spot as far as the EU and the single market are concerned. At The World Transformed, the fringe event organised by Momentum, there were very well attended meetings on Brexit and the European left project at which many of the speakers who four years ago would have been extolling the virtues and achievements of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza in Greece have now erased Syriza’s fate from their memories. The brutality and callousness of the EU institutions in their response to the Greek debt and the oft expressed wishes of the Greek people led them to impose a regime of austerity and misery — a regime which still has Syriza and Tsipras at its head.

The other aspect of the EU that is conveniently forgotten is the notion that it is somehow more progressive than individual nation states. The argument goes, “If you line up with those wishing to leave you are associating yourselves with racists and xenophobes.” But the EU itself is increasingly operating racist policies. Migrants are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea because of its harsh border controls and in many of the countries that make up the union the far-right are on the march and gaining votes at an alarming and increasing rate. The fascist rampage against immigrants and anyone who looked “foreign” in Chemnitz in Germany should be a warning of what this will lead to.

Again it is important to note that attempts to steer the Labour Party towards a reversal of the referendum vote are being promoted by the TUC and many of its affiliated unions. The strategy of a return to Remain was articulated recently by the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady. It is a strategy that sees an embrace of the EU as an alternative to a real fight over wages and conditions against austerity.

The third retreat was over allegations, many of them spurious, of antisemitism in the Labour Party. This had already been effected prior to the conference and was again promoted by the main unions represented on Labour’s National Executive Committee. It was not a central issue at conference because the damage had already been done.

The decision to adopt the IHRC definition of antisemitism, including all of its exemplifications, has made it more difficult to combat real manifestations of antisemitism and has undermined the ability of members to speak out against Israel’s continuing oppression of the Palestinians. By asserting that to speak of the Israeli state as a racist endeavour is intrinsically antisemitic flies in the face of history and the establishment of the state through the dispossession and massacre of the Palestinians in 1948. Israel’s racist character is further enshrined in the laws of the Right to Return and the more recent Nations Act, both of which institutionalise discrimination against the Palestinians.

What was heartening, however, was the response at conference to the issue. To great acclaim a resolution in support of Palestinian rights and which committed Labour to stop supplying arms to Israel was passed amid an unfurling of Palestinian flags by many of the delegates. An important riposte to the spurious allegations of antisemitism is to put the issue of Palestine at the centre of the debate.

Stark contrast

In his closing speech to conference Corbyn outlined a wide range of progressive policies that stand in stark contrast to the Tories’ politics of greed and austerity. Many of Corbyn’s policies should be applauded and if implemented would dramatically improve the lives of the majority.

He also exposed the Tories’ hypocrisy on racism, highlighting May’s creation of a “hostile environment” for immigrants and the Tories’ support for Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, a real and vicious antisemite. Corbyn reiterated his personal commitment to rights for the Palestinians and he highlighted the need to create “green” jobs in response to the threat of climate change.

Many of the policies he espoused would be welcome not just by committed socialists but by a majority of ordinary people toiling under Tory austerity. The response to his speech at the Labour conference and beyond is testament to this — his supporters felt buoyed and confident, reassured that Corbyn still stands strongly for a break with Tory austerity, racism and war.

But there is a crucial problem which cannot be avoided: how to deliver the policies. Corbyn’s and Labour’s project have primarily an electoral focus. But the scale of the opposition to them both by his political opponents and corporate capitalism should not be underestimated. In the face of this opposition the struggle needs to go far beyond the electoral sphere, important though that is, into the workplaces, communities and onto the streets.

Corbyn echoed McDonnell’s sentiments of workers’ involvement in business — “We need workers on the board.” It’s not unreasonable to respond that we need them instead in the unions, in struggle, on the picket line and on the streets if any of Labour’s objectives are going to be won.