This article by Sean Matgamna, one of the founders of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, also appears on the AWL’s website and in their paper, Solidarity: ________________________________________________________________________
Seize the chance the left has now
In the three months since the general election hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party, the party that lost the election.
Over 600,000 people have signed up to vote in the Labour leadership election. 300,000 have become full members of the Labour Party. The rise in Labour Party membership started immediately after the general election. Twenty thousand joined in the first couple of days after the defeat. Opinion polls report that in his campaign to become leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has the support of between 50 and 60% of those eligible to vote. He has the backing of the bulk of the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party.
Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union explained that what the trade union leaders are trying to do in backing Corbyn is to shift the political axis of mainstream labour movement politics radically from the politics that has ruled the roost in the labour movement for the last 21 years, since the Blairite coup in the mid-1990s. Jeremy Corbyn, Ward said, is the antidote to “the Blairite virus”.
The confluence of large numbers of rebellious people joining the Labour Party and union leaders looking for an “antidote” to neo-Thatcherism — that is what “Blairism” in the labour movement is — has produced something very like a mass movement to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class and the left. This mass movement has to be judged for what it is, not by how it measures up to our own working-class socialist politics. It would be a miracle indeed, if such a movement began with adequate working-class socialist politics.
It is for socialists to work to convince this movement of the need for socialist politics.
To do that socialists must be part of the movement, engage in dialogue with it. The alarm at the idea of a Corbyn victory in the press and in the ranks of the Labour Party Blairites tells its own story. The war criminals, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, architects of British participation in the invasion of Iraq, warn against electing Corbyn. Tony Blair: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”
Their’s is the voice of the Blairite virus. Their warnings that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable are beside the point: a left-wing Labour Party could and would have to inform, shape, educate and re-educate “public opinion”. That is what a proper opposition party does. A serious political party is not, should not be, what the Blair-Thatcherite Labour Party now is — an election machine to install venal careerists in ministerial office. The influx into the Labour Party is itself evidence that this is possible. In any case, it is necessary.
There are vast numbers of people in Britain who have been deprived of a political voice and a political party by Blairite rule in the Labour Party. For a quarter of a century, at least, the working-class and the labour movement has been deprived of genuine representation in Parliament. British politics has been dominated by the political-personal rivalry of different strands of Thatcherism.
In a world on which the banks and their relentless greed have brought down catastrophe, Britian’s “public discourse.” has focused on the hunt for “cheating claimants” and an unending outcry against immigrants. The ideas, norms, consequences and ideology of market capitalism has not been contested by the political labour movement. All that can now be changed.
But let us take the worst possible case: what if the Labour Party in the course of educating “public opinion”were to lose an election? In 1931, when the Labour Party leader, Ramsay MacDonald and his associates went over to the Tories and to a Tory-led coalition government, with Macdonald as Prime Minister, the Labour Party was reduced to about the same number of MPs it had had in 1906, at its beginning. But if the Labour Party had not stood up to Macdonald and to the bourgeois economic consensus of that time then there would have been no 1945 victory for a Labour Party committed to the radical reform-socialist programme which created the modern welfare state.
In the Labour Party drift to the right of the late 80s, “anti-Toryism” — “we must get rid of the Tory government” and never mind what is to replace it — played a deadly role in de-politicising the Labour Party. Thereby it prepared the party and the unions to accept Blairism in the 1990s and afterwards. We should also remember that when the Labour conference adopted the politics of serious reform that the Labour government implemented after 1945, Herbert Morrison, Home Secretary in the wartime coalition, shouted “You have just lost us the election!” .
This, of course is not the first effort of the trade unions to reshape the Labour Party. After the 2010 general election Ed Milliband won the leadership election only because he had the backing of the unions. So had Blair in the 1990s.
Elected to Parliament in 1983, Jeremy Corbyn has for a third of a century defied all the “establishments”. He has stood with the working class movement and the left, or what he thought was the left. He shares many of the weaknesses of the conventional left. The Jewish Chronicle indicts him for his attitude to Hezbollah and Hamas and other “terrorists” and anti-Semites.
In fact Corbyn has come out for the two states solution to the Israel-Arab-Islamic conflict. In a recent interview with the New Statesman, Corbyn responded to the question “Do you support Israel’s right to exist” with “Yes”. That makes him qualitatively better than most of the left, which is for the destruction of Israel and the removal of self-determination from the Jewish Israelis which it embodies.
The truth, though, is that it is a healthy instinct that makes young people side with the Palestinians and against their Israeli oppressors. The pseudo-left then leads them into vicious Arab and Islamic chauvinism and indifference — at best — to rampant anti-Semitism. The Jewish Chronicle is mistaken however, that the major problem is the willingness of left-wing leaders to share platforms and other forms of association with anti-Semites.
The basic problem in the left is “absolute anti-Zionism” — opposition to the existence of the Jewish state. From that all the rest follows. There is nothing to be done about it except to confront it politically and — for the benefit of young people and people new to politics who have not considered the complexities of the issue — argue and debate the question. That Jeremy Corbyn is for two states can be an important, positive, factor here.
What if Corbyn wins? What will the Parliamentary Labour Party do?
The precedent here, perhaps, is with what happened when the Labour Party conference in 1960 came out in support of unilateral British nuclear disarmament. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), led by Hugh Gaitskell, refused to accept the decision. They expelled from the PLP MPs who voted in Parliament according to the party conference position — Michael Foot was one of them. In the course of a year, they battered down the rest of the party. Foot and his friends buckled and looked for compromises with a right wing that refused to compromise. They rejected a policy of deselecting MPs — that is, a serious fight with Gaitskell and his friends. The unilateralist policy was reversed at the 1961 Labour Party conference. As a result of this performance the Labour left counted for very little for a very long time afterwards.
The other precedent is, of course, when Michael Foot won the leadership of the party at the beginning of the 1980s. Michael Foot was the candidate of the left. His record, despite what happened over nuclear disarmament in 1960/61, was not that of a contemptible man. He spoke during his election campaign of mobilising a great crusade in Britain against the Thatcher government. He did not. Why not?
He was faced with a political situation that demanded extra-Parliamentary action — strikes, demonstrations, occupations — against the government. Against the properly elected government, backed by a majority in parliament. He couldn’t handle it.
Amongst other things he was afraid that if the class struggle flared high in Britain, there would be a military coup, like that which in Chile had overthrown a left-wing government in 1973. He made himself the champion of “parliamentary methods” against the class struggle left (see Workers Liberty’s pamphlet Socialism and Democracy). When he retired after the election defeat of 1983, his chosen successor was Neil Kinnock, a vaguely left demagogic MP without any record worth mentioning. Over a long period Kinnock steered the party to the right, to the all dominating idea that getting rid of the Tories was more important than having a socialist policy that was an alternatives to their politics. Kinnock prepared the way for the Blairite coup in 1994.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins, it won’t be the end but the beginning of the fight.
A leader of the French Revolution once observed that “those who make half a revolution, only dig their own graves”. A Corbyn victory will at best be only half a revolution. It will energise the PLP and its backers in the press for a serious fight back. If we don’t respond blow for blow, with determination to win, then the right-wing counterrevolution will win. There will be a severe repression of the left. The chance of a new beginning for working-class politics will be squandered.
If Corbyn wins, then the left should immediately go on the offensive. Irreconcilable MPs should be de-selected. A real political life can be restored in a Labour Party that has received an alluvial flood of new members. Labour Party democracy needs to be restored. Labour Party Conference must again become the democratic labour movement forum it once was.
The Tory anti union legislation that outlaws solidarity action, the very core of labour movements, must be repealed. It is one of the great crimes of the Blair Labour Party that in over a dozen years in power it did not repeal those laws.
The labour movement has a ready made, clear-cut political focus — a mass movement in defence of the NHS. Everything is encapsulated there. The entire premise of what the Tories are doing to the NHS is the idea that the poor do not deserve the same chance of life as those who can pay for advanced medical treatment. That is an outrage against everything the labour movement believes in. Against everything most people in Britain believe in.
If we don’t seize the chance which the left now has, it will not soon come again. Seize it!