The Corbyn Party and the Working Class

September 18, 2016 at 5:23 pm (class, elections, Guest post, Johnny Lewis, labour party, Marxism, Socialist Party, SWP, unions, workers)

Image result for picture Jeremy Corbyn Len McCluskey

Above: McCluskey and Corbyn, the leaders of the two wings of our movement

By Johnny Lewis

Corbyn’s victory in 2015 and what by all accounts will be a victory by an even larger margin later this month is the second attempt to remake the Labour movement – the first being Blair’s. Both differ from Gaitskell or Bevin – their political ancestors, as they have arisen at a time of fundamental change to the structure of class in the UK and throughout the advanced  capitalist world.  The essential consequence of this change in the UK has been the unions’ inability to overcome the competition between workers: it is this which informed both Blair and Corbyn’s rise and informs what the Corbyn party should do.

Competition between workers 

From the 1870s, for about a century the manual working class formed an overwhelming majority, of the population, and workers’ were concentrated in ever larger workplaces. Both its size and cohesive character determined how the ruling class had to rule, gave rise to the modern unions and the Labour Party – the labour movement which Marxists, socialists and Stalinists engage with. The centre of gravity for this constellation was the unions, and although their economic power ebbed and flowed their potential to struggle against the employer remained a constant threat to capital.

For the last 40 years developments in the accumulation process, primarily through growth in productivity, alterations in the international division of labour and technical advances have reordered work both the type of work workers do and how they work. For the first time in history we have a working class in which manual workers constitute a minority, while large workplaces have declined in number with an attendant rise of SME’s, outsourcing, sub-contractors the ‘gig economy’ and under-employment.  Combined, these changes to work have cracked and fractured the cohesive character of the working class. It is no longer possible, as EP Thompson did, to view the working class as one where shared material conditions had enabled them to arrive at an understanding of their social position. Gone then is a working class commonality of shared experiences with a set of common markers and understandings which arose from lifestyles and communities rooted in similar experiences of work. Today we have something approaching the opposite, where it is quite possible to find Thompson’s working class but it does not share a singular experience of class: rather there are many radically different practical experiences amongst workers. This redrawing of class would be of little consequence if it had not triggered the political and ideological fragmentation of class. If anyone needs proof of this, they only need to look at the post-2015 election analysis and the prognosis for 2020: commentators universally consider Labour’s chances of winning as  bleak. Not only will they have to win 100 seats, but the voters they need to win back are highly differentiated between North, South, inner city and suburbia, and of course Scotland – all have a different view as to what Labour should represent.

Under the impact of this transformation of class, the unions and the Labour Party entered parallel processes of prolonged change punctuated by more or less acute crisis, this manifests itself as a loss of an authoritative and coherent working class voice to articulate its interests, and it could not be otherwise.

Both class fragmentation and the loss of a working class voice have a single source they are a direct consequence of the labour movement’s failure to control competition between workers. As the Communist Manifesto makes plain `…This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves’.

Competition between workers is a natural consequence of capitalism, meaning that workers and their organisations are always confronted with how to overcome it, and the answer is always the same: organisation. However accumulation shapes what and how workers produce, consequently it shapes the organising tasks workers face. While the accumulation process (eg mass production) prior to the 1970s tended to homogenise class, developments since have generated the opposite. Of course the growth in competition between workers is not simply a product of changes in the accumulation process: rather it has facilitated capital’s victories over labour which have, in their turn, enabled the institutionalisation of competition at the workplace by government and through the legal system.

The unions’ inability to win is due to their inability to organise new types of employment and in most cases to stop the race to the bottom of many traditional workers. This is not because they don’t want to win, they don’t know how to and neither does anyone else – at this moment in time.

For the first time since before the great wave of industrial militancy, which began with the new unionism; unions’ are unable to function as the backbone of the working class as they are unable to defend workers’ economically. The corollary is political activity now dominates over economic struggles a situation entirely contingent on the unions’ inability to end the competition between workers. We are then functioning within the template of a fragmented class / weak labour movement. While this predates the miners’ strike it became part of the movement’s DNA with their defeat.

This is the context in which Corbyn and Blair should be understood as twins of a sort, both owe their ascendency to the competition between workers and both propose a resolution to it – albeit diametrically opposed solutions. For Blair the weakness of the movement and class fragmentation provided the potential to bury the institutions of the labour movement and with it class politics, throwing us back into a reworked liberalism – and he nearly succeeded. Corbyn aspires to offer the opposite, however to do that the movement has to answer the question how can we practically end the competition between workers or to put it another way how can we organise to unite our class?

Parallel worlds

The primacy of political activity has come to dominate what the movement does and it is also the hallmark of a radical activism which has sprung up since the crisis – all to the good. Now political activism is de rigueur there is also a prevalent view of equivalence between different types of political activity But this is not the case. Campaigning activity, demos, social movements, cannot offer a governmental alternative, if for no other reason than they are not mass movements they fall into the category of pressure or protest groups. Labour movement politics are different in that they focus on their own internal political struggles which have taken us from Blair to Corbyn and the need for a governmental alternative to stem or stop competition between workers. A Labour government including a Blair government, offers limited protection from competition. Blair’s introduction of the minimum wage is an example, while Corbyn’s proposal for mandatory collective bargaining would to all intense and purposes end the competition between workers. There is then a substantial difference between protest and the parliamentary politics of the labour movement, and it is equally wrong to counterpose one to the other as it is to think they are equivalent both are essential elements in any working class strategy.

Although political radicals and the far-left have got Corbyn (after a fashion), they spent the last two decades, particularly since the crash and until Corbyn’s victory, demanding a New Party (NP) and in effect calling for an alternative labour movement: the crassest examples being the Socialist Party (SP) and the SWP.

At bottom they rejected the reality of a fragmented class / weak movement template – a rejection which pushed them away from a class based politics towards a political radicalism. The most direct outcome was to detach them from the movement’s norms and rhythms and most importantly the political struggle by which it began to reform itself. The core justification for a NP was the notion that Labour was unreformable. This was always the propaganda of misdirection as the Blairites’ success was predicated on the support (active and passive) of the unions. However pusillanimous one may wish to paint the union leaders and however guileful the Blairites were, this was a matter of power – and the powerlessness of the unions decimated by relentless numerical decline and the collapse of their economic muscle. Any cursory understanding of the labour movement brings you back to this underlying problem of the weakness of the unions.

Those of us who insisted Blair’s project could be rolled back based our view on two propositions. First the dynamic which had propelled the unions to form the Labour party was, in the face of the anti-union laws (and the collapse of collective bargaining) reasserting itself. Unions need a political party to enable, what the Webbs called ‘legal enactment’ to counteract the decline of collective bargaining and legal constraints on the unions. This need and the Blairites’ unwillingness to countenance it, provided a potential for a fight-back within the party. The second factor was the CLPs. Historically party members have time and again shown an ability to form a left wing and struggle over control of the party. In spite of being hollowed out by wars and marginalised by party ‘reforms’, by 2010 the members were ready for change. Yet experience showed that outside support for the CLPD they were unwilling to organise, nor were the unions individually or collectively (with the partial exception of Unite) willing to push for change within the Party.

There was then a stalemate – which existed since at least 2010 – between a Labour movement, large parts of which wanted or needed to move beyond Blair’s party, and on the other hand the party machine and the MPs. With Miliband’s resignation those in the Party who understood it was essential for an anti-austerity candidate to beat Kendal got Corbyn onto the ballot paper by the skin of their teeth. As soon as he was nominated he became a conduit for those politicised to the left by the crisis and his victory showed in a starker manner than anyone believed possible, the mismatch between Blair’s party machine and the CLPs and associate members.

The significance of the leadership ballot remains, lost on the majority of NP advocates: they focus on the element of luck which saw Corbyn get nominated and on the potential of the Corbynistas. As in any endeavour one needs luck but such an argument obscures the activity of the many activists arguing with MP’s to nominate him and then organising and running his campaign. While focusing on the Corbynistas obscures the fact that the centre of gravity was the constituencies who threw off the dead hand of the party machine and reasserted control over the party – the act of a movement rather than a sect and which would be equally significant even if Corbyn had lost. We have witnessed a readjustment from below – something many Marxist did not believe possible and for sure played no part in – their absence highlighting the absurdity of the politics of the ‘alternative party’.

The rejection of the ‘template’ I have described (ie: of fragmented class / weak movement) also meant the rejection of the terrain and tempo of struggle it necessitated and the boundaries it imposed on the class struggle. These boundaries were replaced with the assertion (liberally peppered with bombast – listen to any SP or SWP speaker) of the alternative made possible by an act of will if only enough effort was expended. However much they asserted themselves it was not possible to break free of the constraints imposed by ‘the state of the class’ – if they could we would be living in a radically different political landscape.

This attempt to ‘jump over’ the fragmented class had the consequence of turning its advocates into the very opposite of what a Marxist organisation should aspire to be. Time and again ideas were overextend to the point of becoming irrational, illustrated by the assertion during the general election that there was little or no difference between Labour and the Tories and, yes, they (eg the SP’s front organisation TUSC) were a serious alternative to Labour. It was noticeable that the organisations supporting this perspective became increasingly illiberal and quixotic; guided by a hugely inflated self-image (the small propaganda group as the Party) chasing an imagined working class, they attempt to make history `under self-selected circumstances’, we have over the last decade or so been witness to a reprise of Third Period Stalinism as farce.

It seems highly unlikely they will reorient to see themselves as a tendency whose main task is one of contributing to the `organisation of the proletarians into a class’, instead they will, in all likelihood, recalibrate their alternative labour movement to run through the Labour Party. We will bear witness to politics as an historical reenactment society preforming the French turn with Corbyn in the role of Blum and the Party’s left as the ILP.

Although Corbyn’s victory has shifted the terrain and tempo of what is possible the fundamental constraints of a fragmented class remain intact. However it is inconceivable we will not see further attempts to `jump over’ the fragmented class not just by some Marxists but also from the influx of radicals buoyed up by Corbyn’s victory. For those who see class as central our question is how we practically organise class and this can only be done by linking existing struggles and anti-Tory campaigns to winning the working class to vote Labour.

Corbyn’s party and the need to convince

It is not difficult to image the chaos which will engulf the party after Corbyn is reaffirmed as leader, as far from receding the factional struggles will intensify. Many of the union leaders already lined up against Corbyn will no doubt find a new impetus to continue their struggle arguing that `Corbyn is unelectable’ and turning the very real difference over issues as Heathrow and Trident into factional conflicts. In this febrile atmosphere it is important the Party actively promotes a plurality, it needs to signal that political differences will be resolved by political debate not bureaucratic diktat. For the left this means attempting to win over MPs and their supporters, while if we cannot win the political argument with `Saving Labour’, then I am unsure of our ability to convince anyone. The one exception to the plurality rule is the party machine which has shown itself not to be neutral and for sure will continue to hamper an invigorated party looking to spread its wings.

The other main jobs the Party faces are to consolidate members’ control by supporting CLPD’s programme and to develop an economic programme. of necessity, this must be a Keynesian programme suitably recast for the globalised world: developing a coherent alternative to austerity is the basis for everything else Labour will want to do.

How the Party organises to fight the Tories and links this to organising for the next election are the practical ways in which it will go about uniting class. A cursory look at who constitutes the party membership and its voter base provides a snap shot of how fragmented class is and with it a sense of the task confronting the Party.

Labour now has some 600,000 members the majority of full members’ associates and probably the union affiliates will have voted Corbyn. It is quite feasible the numbers who will rally to Corbyn’s banner will reach one million. The move towards a mass party would seem to be heralding a party in transition as the Guardian report on an unpublished Party document outlines `… While there has been a dramatic rise in members across the entire Party, Labour’s traditional supporters from poorer parts of society are now a smaller proportion of the total membership’. Although the majority of these new members will be Corbyn supporters a point often pressed by the right, the trend towards a middle class membership predates Corbyn. Similarly while much is made by the anti – Corbyn MPs about the `southern elite’ in fact the party is pretty homogenous in holding to social liberal values. What separates the Corbyn supporters from the rest is according to a YouGov profile ‘…not necessarily about specific policies – they are intuitively more attracted to non-conformist alternatives and Jeremy Corbyn appeals to their broader world view’.  So while the party members are largely social liberals Corbyn supporters are politically radicals.

If the party is beginning to reflect the changing class composition its dislocation from the manual working class, partially skilled workers is well rehearsed, a summary is found in the Party’s independent report on the 2015 defeat, Labour’s Future. In a nutshell on nearly all major issues the Party membership is far to the left of the general population

Nowhere do these divisions show themselves more acutely than in the relationship (or lack of it) between the majority of union members and the Party. While just 54% vote Labour, beyond a thin layer of activists who support Corbyn, union members or are on the right as exemplified by the GMB membership ballot in favour of Owen Smith. It was also noticeable in the last and the present leadership elections, that union members were largely absent from the feast.

Once you cut through the cant about all Labour’s woes are due to Corbyn we see a party becoming more middle class – not a problem in itself – and where, over time, it has lost large numbers of working class voters, mainly due to the Party being perceived as too left wing and ‘soft’ on immigration – a serious problem.

The Right use these polls and the reality of general election defeats to argue the Party needs to move back to the centre ground, which would be a valid point if the views of the never-voted Labour or used-to-vote Labour were immutable.

In fact this is not the case. The crash has shaken up perceptions, where workers have questioned the status quo and when further shock waves to the economy and the disaster that will be Brexit can only intensify this questioning. Unsurprisingly people’s views have been reshaped in a contradictory manner with polling in the US as well as the UK showing how the centre ground has to a certain extent given way but not into easily definable left – right pattern.

Working people trying to make sense of the world have their own experience and their observations of the lives of others’ such as the money paid to executives mediated through the press. Missing in this formulation is any clear and authoritative working class voice providing a counter narrative.  An example of this is found in one of Labour’s Future key findings while a majority consider the economic system unfair Labour lost the election ‘…because voters didn’t believe it would cut the deficit. The Tories didn’t win despite their commitment to cut spending and the deficit: they won because of it’. This view about the deficit did not come out of thin air rather it became the common sense about the economy in part due to Labour’s supine concessions to the Tories over its causes, and by Labour joining the consensus about the need to end it. Without an authoritative voice arguing an alternative where else could workers end up expect accepting the economic consensus? While the Tories commitment to end the deficit has now been abandoned, Labour’s failure to pose an alternative means workers who brought into Osborne’s economic approach are unable to draw any lessons.

The absence of an alternative voice has impacted on how workers have understood the recession: in broad terms we have observed a shift to the left epitomised by the Corbynistas while among manual workers there has been a shift to the right. What has driven the move to the right and is shaping up into a populist politics is immigration. Although xenophobia cannot be reduced solely to the competition between workers, for many workers reducing immigration is seen as the means of restricting the supply of labour. For these workers under the influence of populist right demagogues and the tabloid press, this underpins their understanding of the recession.

In part the divisions within the working class have been shaped by Labour’s failure to provide an alternative to austerity and if Labour is to have any chance of uniting the class then rather than stealing the Tories’ clothes it needs to present that alternative. Although the starting point is having a ‘clear socialist programme’, to believe that is all Labour needs to win would be foolish – another version of an idealised unified working class just waiting for the correct leadership to rally behind.

The Labour membership have a pivotal role to convince non-labour voters and in particular skilled manual workers, to vote Labour. To put it another way Party members need to interact with the working class and develop workers’ class consciousness to the point where they vote Labour. There is no trick or cleverness to how we can unite workers or how Labour can become an authoritative voice: all we have is our ability to convince others that we are right.

While there are a number of ways to convince workers,  the key is talking to individuals or small groups, convincing them through issued based anti –Tory campaigns which directly affect workers, such as housing and the NHS as well as taking up and confronting xenophobia in a firm but sensitive manner.

To do this with real purpose demands a significant change in attitudes and approach to how campaigns are organised and run. Firstly this activity is not for this or that group inside or outside the Party: these should be Labour Party campaigns and the property of the CLP’s. Second, rather than being undertaken on a piecemeal basis they should be co-ordinated regionally if not nationally. Thirdly, affiliated unions should play a central role, the campaigns should be jointly organised by the Regional Boards and TULO and the campaigns taken into the workplace by union activists as well onto the streets. Fourthly, they should be linked into Labour’s parliamentary activity; MPs should become megaphones for the campaigns.

Many will be opposed to such directed campaigning activity, but the struggle to get it accepted is an essential part of the process of changing the Party on the ground. It also provides practical means by which the disparate Party can cohere and learn to work together as well as subsuming radicalism in a class-directed programme. In short, the approach should be viewed as a means of both uniting our class and building our movement.

Others may well come up with a better schema for how we begin to unify our class; however if we fail to get Labour to work along these lines it will indicate we are incapable of unifying the class and the probable consequence will be working class politics, and with it the potential for socialism, will recede for the foreseeable future. For sure a more radical politics may come to fill the vacuum but that would rest on a radicalism rather than class politics.

1 Comment

  1. @pplswar said,

    Comes pretty close to acknowledging that Corbyn’s politics are in fact middle-class radicalism but I don’t think the author would agree to this conclusion even though it flows rather nicely from the analysis.

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