The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has decided to reaffiliate to the Labour Party.
At a recall conference today, the issue was debated and delegates voted to reaffiliate. The FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004 after a bitter pay dispute, where the Blair government intervened aggressively on the side of the employers. A combination of disgust with the disgraceful behaviour of Labour ministers, anti-political sentiment, nationalism in the devolved administrations and plans by some activists to back other socialist candidates saw the union voluntarily leave the party. Resolutions at subsequent conferences calling for reaffiliation, mostly from brigades in the North East of England, have been overwhelmingly rejected. The picture began to change before the election, particularly last year after Labour leaders provided some support to firefighters in the FBU’s pensions dispute. Labour shadow ministers also took on board some of the union’s political demands for the fire and rescue service, such as on flooding. The decisive shift has been the Corbyn leadership.
Corbyn and John McDonnell were co-founders of the FBU’s parliamentary group, set up after the disaffiliation. Corbyn has a record of support for the union going back to the 1977 pay dispute. Both supported the union throughout the Blair-Brown and Miliband years. Although the precise form of affiliation will be debated, to take account of differences in Scotland and Northern Ireland, re-engagement will be a tremendous fillip to the left across the labour movement and an important counter to the gathering forces of the right wing who want to depose Corbyn. Socialists should add our weight to the FBU debate as enthusiastic advocates of affiliation to the Labour Party, as part of transforming the labour movement and promoting working class political representation.
Every union, particularly those not currently affiliated, should have this discussion. Socialists should seek these discussions with other activists, rather than leave it to union leaders to make links at the top. Socialist Worker’s editorial (27 October 2015) sagely advises that “affiliating to Labour won’t stop the Tories”, but does not say whether it is for affiliation or against. The Socialist Party, whose TUSC perspective has been utterly discredited by the Corbyn surge, has Rob Williams writing in The Socialist (14 October) that “we believe it is premature to re-affiliate”. Rather than plunge into the living battle within the Labour Party, the SWP and SP advise militants to ponder their doubts from the outside, or wait until things somehow become more “mature”. Their stance is utterly useless in the debates now raging within the unions.
Labour: reaffiliate to unions
Dave Green, National Officer of the Fire Brigades Union, spoke to Solidarity (paper of the AWL) some weeks before the special conference:
Q: It has become public this week that the FBU will be discussing re-affiliation to Labour at it’s special conference on 27 November. What do you think about the affiliation debate?
The FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004. This followed the acrimonious pay dispute a couple of years previously where firefighters were regularly vilified by not only the mass media but also Labour politicians. There had been disquiet with the Labour Party and its policies for some considerable time, from the abolition of Clause 4 through to the Iraq war. However, the public attack on firefighters and the FBU in 2002/03 was the final straw. Since then there has been much debate about affiliation. Every year there are motions to our conference asking for affiliation and, so far, every year they have been voted down. We have to be honest with ourselves about this. Firefighters are no different to the general population and are influenced by debates and issues that surround them. Many are wary about any connection with a political party. Distrust in the established political system cuts across all classes and occupations. The move away from the Labour Party reflected that distrust and a general feeling of ″they are all the same″ or ″what have they ever done for us?″ Many of us have fought for years from within to bring the Labour Party back from a party that merely diluted down Tory policies to a party that truly reflected the aspiration of working people and proactively, unapologetically made the case for socialism. We have had a presence at the Labour Party conference for several years now and the heartening aspect of that has been the positive messages we get from delegates there. Not the usual MPs, but active local Labour politicians, many of whom have the same aspirations as us. It is not just a case of the FBU affiliating to Labour, but it is more to do with the Labour Party re-affiliating to the trade union movement. Corbyn′s election has given the trade union movement, and workers generally, a massive opportunity to bring forward, through the Labour Party, policies that we as socialists have aspired to for all our working lives. A awful long time for some of us! However, this needs to be translated into positive action. Those supportive Labour politicians are still enacting cuts across the public sector. They need to be given the confidence to start resisting. An alternative narrative needs to be written, and pretty damn quick. Our Executive Council were clear. We are living through one of the most reactionary, right-wing governments that most of us can ever remember. The Tories are removing all obstacles of opposition to their policies, that are trying to create a society that looks after the elite and them only – they are attacking the only protection that workers have (through the Trade Union Bill), they are gagging the media (through attacks on the BBC), they are engineering the electoral system to ensure a one-party state (in England at least) through denying the poor a vote and re-drawing constituency boundaries to give them an inbuilt majority. If we, as socialists, are serious about creating a different society, one that reflects our wishes and aspirations and is not one that we talk about in pubs and at meetings, then we have to act. Jeremy Corbyn has fought alongside all workers in struggle, both nationally and internationally, for decades. He has supported firefighters and the FBU. He will reject austerity and will protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. At this still embryonic stage of his leadership, it is essential that all who want a better society do all they can to support him and what he stands for. That is why the FBU believes we must affiliate to the Labour Party. If we can build a mass movement from within, then who knows what we can achieve. However, I know what will happen if we stand back and do nothing, watch it evolve, watch the party machine do its dirty work. Corbyn will be ousted and the hopes of millions will be gone. What will we do then? Stand back and say ″I told you so!″? No, it’s about supporting Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell — not necessarily the individuals, but what they stand for, because it is what we stand for. How can we not be part of that?
Q: How do you think the FBU should organise for its politics within the Labour Party if it was to reaffiliate?
We would need to be active. We would need to ensure that our members and officials across the UK engage with what the Corbyn Labour Party stands for. We need to encourage members to be active within the Labour Party. First of all, join the Party and go to branch meetings. We can then get the fire service back on the political agenda. We would encourage more political schools around the country to discuss the fire service and organise to protect it. In order to engage our membership the Labour Party needs to show what it will do for them — both in their working lives and their lives outside the fire service. The problem with Labour under Miliband (and the others) was that whilst they talked about representing the working class and the disadvantaged they really never did. There was never any real discussion about an alternative. I think many within our movement felt completely powerless as the agenda was set by the Tories and their friends. The Labour spin machine has a lot to answer for. The amazing return for Jeremy Corbyn proves the point about there being a political vacuum as regards an alternative.
Q: The Blairites did a lot to destroy Labour Party democracy. What do you think needs to happen to re-democratise the Party?
The main thing would be conference. That is where members of the Labour Party, be it individuals or affiliates, can make a big difference. If the decisions at conference revert back to being binding on the PLP and its leadership then workers will see a real point in being affiliated. If firefighters can see that moving a motion at their local branch could become national policy, then that will energise and give them hope. It is no use having a democratic conference if there is no substance beneath it. Branch organisation is also key. Any party worth its salt has to be built from the bottom up. It is impossible to have a credible political party without there being democratic accountability on the ground.
Maria Exall, Communication Workers Union and chair of the TUC LGBT committee spoke to the AWL’s paper Solidarity in a personal capacity
What are the factors behind the “Corbyn explosion”?
It is a response to the Tory victory. Anyone who has half a socialist thought in their head will have been shocked by that, would have thought “we are stuck with this lot for another five years, they are going to do so much damage to welfare, the unions.”
What is exciting about it, especially as this includes a lot of young people, is people thinking how politics does matter. Jeremy’s campaign came along and they were inspired by the necessity of politics, at different levels.
The second element is people who were once Labour Party members and who have come back. Plus existing Labour members, are realising that the Blairite era is well and truly over.
Ed Miliband was a bit half-and-half. People backed him wanting something different and they got half of something different. Now people are thinking, what is the Labour future? Maybe other candidates in the leadership contest didn’t present something so future orientated. The Corbyn campaign was seen as a new paradigm.
The third element is that things in Labour politics are quite different when in opposition than in government. There is more room for recasting politics. Maybe that was an element in the unions’ thinking because it was surprising that they supported Corbyn. All the time that I’ve been active in the unions and attending Labour conference on behalf of my union, it’s been about “how can we win power” and “what will be acceptable”. That’s important actually, because it’s about convincing the majority of the British people. However to be always constrained by this imperative, as it was in the New Labour era, was a problem.
Now things have gone the other way and people are coming out with all sorts of ideas. In any party that should represent the labour movement and the working class we should gather up all these ideas. But we also need to think about how to convince people to vote for Labour. There has to be a strategy for the future.
The new political direction needs people to go out and convince people, street activity, door knocking..
Yes that’s right. But we also need to develop the Labour left. There has been some residual left in the party over the last ten years, people voting for left candidates etc. but it has been suppressed. We need a united democratic organisation to support this shift in politics.
People should get involved in their constituencies and their union’s political organisations to ensure this develops. Of course it raises democratic questions about who decides what policies get pushed and so on.
What were your impressions of this year’s Labour conference?
There were obviously some people who were really pissed off that Corbyn had won. There were people who had voted for Jeremy as well. But also a whole lot of people who didn’t vote for him but wanted to give him a go. I would say they were in a majority.
People responded very well to John McDonnell’s speech even though he made it very clear that he wanted to take Labour on a different political route. Jeremy’s speech was received very well. I think though a whole lot of people will be coming in and changing things, they are not so very different from the people who have been involved before. There is a difference but it is not as great as has been said.
A majority of people went along with the Blairites, but that’s all it was — going along with. Doesn’t mean that they thought in the same way as those people controlling the party machine. The Blairites got just 5% of Labour Party members’ vote this time [votes for Liz Kendall]. After all most Labour Party members don’t go to meetings and those that do might, just go to, for example, a selection meeting.
It’s as Tony Benn always used to say, there are the members, the activists and the Parliamentary Labour Party. They are all different people. It’s still the case. The problem, and political time-lag we have now is with the PLP. It’s very important now for the trade unions to encourage people to stand, to have candidates who represent working-class people and push campaigns.
Do you think the unions are going to try to capitalise on Corbyn’s victory? Getting local branches to affiliate, pushing policies forward?
There will always be a tension in the union movement between control from the top and what happens at the base. That may become an issue. For example, getting working-class candidates. It means unions have to go out and find people, educate them. More than just going through the motions of supporting this, that or the other campaign.
To organise effectively we need to take people, coming into the party, from where they are. Their experiences won’t be identical. But if people aren’t empowered, or shown how to get involved, then they won’t. People may get involved because they have been inspired. But there is a difference between being a member of a political party and being part of single issue campaign. With the former you are part of a project to win people over to a political viewpoint. And that is quite difficult. It requires you to think differently.
There is a big necessity for political education…
Yes, that is what we need. It needs to involve the trade unions as well. For instance, how many people understand what’s wrong with the Trade Union Bill? It seems to be an abstract democratic question. Unless you know how things work on the ground you won’t understand that the Tories are pushing back the unions in the workplace. Plus if you hear about what is happening on the ground, then solidarity becomes a bigger possibility.
How would summarise your thoughts and feelings about Corbyn?
I think it is a massive opportunity to push forward socialist ideas in Britain. And for the Labour Party to remake itself with a more pro-worker and grounded agenda on all the big issues about political economy, and trade union rights.
Personally I think the domestic agenda is more uniting; if you want relate to people on issues that really matter in their lives that is the direction to go in. We all have our important single issues, enthusiasms. But what this is about is trying to build connections in communities and workplaces. That has always been the strength of the Labour Party compared to other political formations.
Because it is a mass political party, of half a million people, you have the opportunity to be rooted in working-class peoples’ lives. If you are socialist of any sort and want to motivate people on a class basis then you have to take that seriously. The priority for the moment is to pick things that really chime with people, tell people how to fight back against the Tories and make clear that the labour movement is on peoples’ side.
On the issue of Trident, while I support the abolition, it is a problem. You are picking a hard issue there. A bit similar to Republicanism. For rebuilding the Labour Party in the immediate term we have got to be clear that we have a leadership that fights for people in their workplaces and communities.
There are some issues you can not avoid; that’s true of the Trade Union bill. But on other issues you can pick and choose. We have to chose the main things — housing, rail. I would hope we can take policies on these issues further. Public ownership of the rail is an easy issue; it’s not so easy on the other utilities. But we have to tackle that. The same arguments apply to other utilities as to rail. A campaign on rail is an opportunity to make people political about public ownership. I would hope there is more space to make similar political arguments.
The same on the trade union issue. In the Blairite years the arguement always had to be balanced between unions and employers. Why? I would hope there is more opportunity to get beyond that. To talk about, for instance, who actually creates the wealth. It should be about drawing out the basic socialist arguments.
Anyone who is a socialist activist needs to get active.
It’s now about rebuilding the sinews of the movement. Politics isn’t about having an opinion, it is about doing something about having an opinion. The collective approach is not just about debating and voting it is also about building support for campaigns, to work with others to achieve something.
And we are going to have to have big fights. In local government for instance, where democratic accountability has almost disappeared, and it’s now all about directly elected Mayors, it will be a big task to reverse that situation.
I’ve been quite privileged to be quite rooted in an active labour movement structures, a union branch and as a member of the Labour Party. I can see things with a more long term perspective and that a continuity of working in those structures is important.
(This article also appears on the Workers Liberty website and in the AWL’s paper Solidarity)
If the bankruptcy of the trade union bureaucracy were in any further need of demonstration, then the antics of soon-to-depart GMB general secretary Sir Paul Kenny over the European Union (EU) referendum adds a new chapter.
First, Kenny orchestrated a motion to the TUC Congress, which would have pledged the trade union movement to campaign for Brexit if David Cameron extracted some concessions from other European powers on the working time directive, agency workers and other workers’ rights. The key phrase was: “Congress gives notice that it will campaign for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum if these rights and protections are removed.”
After some behind the scenes horse-trading, Kenny withdrew the resolution in favour of TUC general council statement. This softened the stance, warning the prime minister that “you will lose our members’ votes to stay in the EU by worsening workers’ rights”. It added that if British workers’ rights were further undermined, the “pressure to put TUC resources and support in the referendum behind a vote to leave the European Union will intensify dramatically”.
Kenny spoke to the resolution and rhetorically repeated his threat in the Congress debate on Tuesday 15 September. He said: “If Cameron secures the sort of cuts to workers’ rights he is seeking — will you be able to stand up and say to members and beyond that ‘yes — we know your protection under the working time directive and rights to proper earning on holiday pay are going, yes — we know crucial rights for agency workers are going, that health and safety laws designed to protect the work life balance are being denied to you, that free trade agreements threaten your job and your public services. But forget all that — We want you to vote yes to support these attacks.”
Second, Kenny made a similar attempt at Labour Party conference on 28 September. This time the GMB motion was composited, with Kenny moving the resolution so as to add his own caveat. Actually the motion stated: “Conference supports the membership of the EU as a strategic as well as an economic asset to Britain and the Labour Party approve of UK membership of the EU”, adding that “Conference recognises that Europe needs change, but notes that the path to reform is working with our allies across Europe”.
Kenny put his own spin on it, stating that “Free movement of labour has become the right to exploit workers in one member state by employment of people through the now notorious umbrella agencies”. He chastised Labour Party leaders who “by blindly embracing a Europe at any price, merely encourage Cameron and the CBI to push for even more attacks on working people”.
Kenny penned a crass justification of his position, published in the Morning Star on the same day. Kenny criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to vote to stay in the EU in the referendum and fight for reform. Kenny opined: “This retreat on the European Union is a big mistake. The EU needs reform. All those ideals of a social Europe, of solidarity and raising pay and conditions to a standard, have been lost. The EU has become an exploiters’ charter.” Apparently, because Cameron is going around Europe trying to sell off working people’s rights “Jeremy’s original ‘wait and see’ position was correct. So why give them a blank cheque? That’s bad negotiating tactics.”
Kenny pretends he is conducting negotiations, when in fact he’s not even at the table. It is no blank cheque to commit to staying in the EU and pledge, as Corbyn has, that a future Labour government would overturn any opt-outs that Cameron secures. In fact such a position is more likely to persuade other European leaders not to give ground to Cameron. Even if Cameron were able to extract some concessions, it would take workers in Britain back to the situation in 1993, when the UK belonged to the EU but the Tories opted out of the social chapter. Most unions then were for staying in, for good reason.
Instead of seeking to fight alongside workers across Europe to level up rights and protections, Kenny appears to think that if his poker game fails, somehow leaving the EU will be okay for workers. What Kenny fails to explain is how leaving the EU would strengthen workers’ rights. A Tory-driven “leave” campaign might topple Cameron, but only to replace him with someone more right-wing like Johnson. And a Eurosceptic-led Tory party would immediately slash workers’ rights even further in pursuit of trade deals and concessions with world markets. Kenny’s position is strategically wrong and tactically completely inept.
Kenny then makes a classical sleight of hand, exclaiming “And Labour wants us to fund the In campaign, to stand on platforms next to Tory bastards and then to convince our members to swallow it?” To campaign alongside the Tories, he warns, would be “as bad a mistake as it was in Scotland. Worse.”
This is nonsense. The “quit EU” camp, will be dominated by reactionaries such as Lawson, Farage and quite probably a few current Tory cabinet members. The risk of being pulled behind them is not hypothetical. Already the anti-EU Pledge campaign, driven by right-wing Torie, has roped in the RMT union (briefly) and Labour MPs such as Jon Cruddas, John Cryer, Kelvin Hopkins, and Ronnie Campbell.
The composition of the two camps does not determine the working class policy: socialists and trade unionists must make our independent stand based on the best assessment of working class interests.
Kenny also echoes Tory anti-migrant talk. The EU is simply “transporting people with lower living standards to new places in order to further lower living standards”. He told the Stalino-nationalist Morning Star that “he’s pleased that so far, the social conflict this can cause has not got out of hand. But he’s in no doubt that that’s thanks to unions, not politicians”.
This is a mealy-mouthed way of saying the problem with the EU is too many migrants and that the only way to protect “British” labour is to put up the border controls. Kenny dissolves internationalism with this stance: workers in Europe, migrants or refugees are irrelevant to his main concern: namely, British workers.
Beneath the veneer is a callous narrowness, a shameful chauvinist sectionalism, that can have no place in the labour movement. His anointment by the British ruling class brings his career in the trade union movement to a fitting conclusion. But no workers should follow his abysmal counsel.
This first appeared in the AWL’s paper, Solidarity; Charlie Kimber is National Secretary, Socialist Workers Party:
Dear Charlie Kimber,
I am responding to your “Letter to a Jeremy Corbyn supporter” (8 September), and subsequent statements by your organisation in which you basically tell “The tens of thousands of people who cheered Jeremy at his rallies [who] are a sign of the potential for a mass movement against austerity” that they are wasting their time.
You say, the Labour Party leadership are so right wing and the unions will only back Corbyn if he can win the next election so there is, “no point spending four years striving to get Corbyn into office just to see him destroyed.”
I don’t share your analysis. While not destroying them, the effect of Corbyn’s campaign has been a disaster for the Parliamentary Labour Party and the trade union leaderships who have worked hard to maintain the wall between what Labour does politically and the rest of the labour movement.
Yes, his candidacy was a fluke and the Labour Party left is woefully unprepared for the fight against the right, both inside and outside the party. It is an indication of the weakness of whole left over decades, but we have to start from where we are and make the most of this chance.
Even in your worst case scenario and Corbyn is “destroyed” in four years time, the revolutionaries in the Labour Party will still have been struggling alongside hundreds of thousands of others for that period. People can learn from defeat as much as from victory; but to learn from either revolutionaries need to go through the struggle and having done so will get a much more receptive hearing than if you are one of those revolutionaries who remained on the sidelines as a spectator.
There is then the possibility of raising the movement to a higher political level but only if there are enough revolutionaries trying to spread that message.
For all your talk about the undoubted necessity for struggle you back away from the political struggle within the Labour Party to move it to the left. “The real danger is that Corbyn supporters are plunged into internal party struggles…” Except that this lack of internal party struggle is precisely what has made the Labour Party the top-down neo-liberal supporting organisation it is today.
The struggle inside the party can be a part of the more general struggle to rouse our class against the Tories. If “…resistance… [is] … the best route towards political radicalisation” why doesn’t that apply inside the structures of the hundreds of thousands strong Labour Party as well?
Your dismissal of the need for internal party struggles illustrates the operational mindset of the SWP’s leadership who can just tell the membership what to do without having to “waste” all that time on debate and democracy. Happily there are Corbyn supporters who understand that a healthy political organisation cannot be built be decree or decide what to do in the “… struggles at work and in working class areas” by diktat.
Socialists should be encouraging Corbyn’s supporters to flood into the Labour Party, get organised and tear down the wall before the Parliamentary Party has time to rebuild it.
You say, “We should all support [Corbyn] against the Labour right”; if you’re serious about that then join the Party and encourage your members and supporters to do the same.
From Workers Liberty (who know a thing or two about Irish politics):
Northern Irish power-sharing institutions look close to collapse, following a crisis sparked by the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan on 12 August in the Short Strand area of East Belfast.
McGuigan’s murder is widely seen as a revenge killing for the murder in May of Gerard “Jock” Davison, at one point one of the IRA’s most senior commanders in Belfast and allegedly responsible, along with McGuigan, for much of the IRA’s vigilante violence against drug dealers in the mid-to-late 1990s.
After the two men fell, an internal IRA disciplinary unit “sentenced” McGuigan to a “six-pack” — republican parlance for gunshot wounds to each of the elbows, kneecaps and ankles.
For years, McGuigan blamed Davison for the punishment shooting, and last May decided to get revenge. Davison was shot outside his home in the Markets area, near Belfast City Centre.
With a police investigation stalling, the IRA placed their own surveillance team on McGuigan and decided to avenge Davison’s death. McGuigan was ambushed by two men in dark clothing as he was walking with his wife, and killed in a volley of shots.
A number of factors explain why these killings have sparked such an intense political crisis at Stormont.
In a press conference following the McGuigan murder, Police Service of Northern Ireland chief George Hamilton made it clear that the police blamed individual members of the Provisional IRA for the murder.
He did not believe that the IRA leadership ordered the killing but did admit that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place, although its purpose has radically changed since this period.”
No one should have been surprised by the admission of the Provisional IRA’s continuing existence.
Indeed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers commented afterwards that: “It didn’t come as a surprise to me… that a number of the organisational structures of the Provisional IRA still exist but that there is no evidence it’s involved in terrorism or paramilitary activity.”
Even though Sinn Fein say publicly that the IRA has “left the stage”, no movement of this type could have moved from armed struggle to politics without maintaining a military structure with sufficient authority to rein in “hardliners”.
Without this, the movement would have descended even more than it already has into a collection of local fiefdoms motivated by apolitical criminality or, worse, a continuation of sectarian warfare.
It is remarkable that there has not been more internecine republican violence during the Provisional’s transition to politics. The anti-Good Friday Agreement groups, though deadly, remain little more than an irritant.
In truth, the significance of the McGuigan murder lies ultimately in political rivalries within Unionism.
In the last decade, the IRA has been involved in two high-profile murders (those of Robert McCartney in 2005 and Paul Quinn in 2007), both a testament to its capacity for sheer gangsterism and violence. Both victims were thrown under the juggernaut of the “peace process” by republicans, Unionists and the British government, to ensure power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
So what has changed? The Northern Ireland Executive has failed to deliver on any of the promises made to people about a “peace dividend”, instead locking itself in sectarian wrangles over parading, flags and other issues of identity, as well as attempting to implement Tory austerity.
This has largely sapped any enthusiasm that once existed for Stormont across both communities. Added to this is a reasonable fear among Nationalists that many Unionists continue to be hostile to power-sharing.
Sensing this, the smaller Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), opportunistically seized the chance to reverse its political fortunes after a decade of marginalisation, and piled the pressure on the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
With one eye on the 2016 elections it pulled its one minister out of the Northern Ireland Executive — a move highly popular with over 80% of Unionist voters.
Stunned, and after failing to suspend Stormont pending crisis talks, the DUP felt in turn reluctantly obliged to pull its ministers out of the Executive, effectively shutting down the working of the devolved government which has provided such material benefits to the party in the form of ministerial salaries, expenses and other privileges of office.
This clownish play-acting, which has always been implicit in the very structures of Stormont, risks the return of Tory direct rule, the implementation of savage welfare cuts and an intensification of sectarian tension.
A political system based on institutionalising sectarian identities within the existing boundaries of the six counties has become unable to provide adequate governance of any sort, let alone a space in which workers can elaborate a socialist politics capable of a democratic resolution to the national question.
“Don’t mourn, organise”, the American trade union activist Joe Hill famously told his comrades in 1915 as he was railroaded to a firing squad on trumped-up murder charges.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour leader on 12 September, we should flip that motto into “don’t celebrate, organise!” And if he has a near miss, Joe Hill’s original will do.
All the opinion polls since early August show Jeremy Corbyn ahead. They also show him more popular with voters in general than the other candidates.
Corbyn, an unassuming campaigner and supporter of workers’ struggles for forty years, has become the seed around which a surge of anti-capitalism, generated by the crashing and grinding of the system since 2008 but previously dispersed and almost “underground”, has crystallised.
It will be wrong, terribly wrong, disastrous, if we think that once we’ve elected Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, then we can sit back and let ourselves be towed by the new leadership to a better future.
The basic ideas of democracy, workers’ rights, and social provision which Corbyn represents are not such as can prevail just by having a good advocate in the high ground of politics.
They can prevail only by determined and militant mobilisation of the rank and file.
A relatively “moderate” Labour right-winger, Luke Akehurst, has denounced Corbyn’s supporters as “moving through the party like ISIS in their jeeps in Iraq”. Decoded: he wants to demonise the Corbyn camp, and move against it as the US has moved against Isis. The New Statesman reports that Corbyn “faces a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him”.
Behind those MPs stand hundreds of “advisers”, “researchers”, spin-doctors, think-tank people and other careerists. And behind them, the billionaire media and the whole entrenched power of the ruling class. The smear and scare campaigns of the last couple of months — “Corbyn will make Labour unelectable” — are only the start.
They are the minority. A small minority. But compact and rich minorities win unless the working-class majority makes itself organised and compact, striking with a fist rather than flailing with limbs askew.
Corbyn’s advisers will tell him to go softly-softly, to woo the maximum number of right-wingers who may grudgingly cooperate for a while.
We’ve seen where that approach leads with Syriza’s decision to form a coalition with the right-wing Anel, to elect a moderate right-winger president of Greece, and to invest in cajoling Hollande and Renzi and Lagarde to sway Schäuble towards less harsh EU policy.
Working-class, socialist majorities need to be made and sustained in dynamic action. Unless the Corbyn campaign presses on to transform the labour movement radically, it will be neutralised and then reversed by the entrenched power of the right wing. If Corbyn wins, we should press him to start by opening out the Labour Party conference at the end of September, allowing debate on rule-change reforms and political challenges usually stifled.
Already in some areas, like Sheffield, Corbyn supporters are organised into active, regularly-meeting, local groups. Elsewhere there have been only rallies and phone-banks without organising meetings. The first step should be to get local groups going everywhere – democratic, active, open to debate, geared both to campaigning on the streets and to transforming their local Labour Parties.
Transforming the unions, too. The great lesson of the last big ferment in the Labour Party, in the early 1980s, is that the left-talking union leaders who had let it happen, by supporting democratic reforms within Labour, also cut it short. Because no similar democratic reforms were made within the unions, the top union officials could meet with Labour’s leaders in January 1982, at Bishops Stortford, plan to start reeling back the left-wing surge, and carry through the plan.
The TUC congress assembles the day after the Labour leader election result is announced. Trade unionists should argue for it to raise the pressure on Labour.
Young supporters of Corbyn have a national conference for ongoing organisation on 20 September. We need a similar general conference as soon as possible.
August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
You can order a copy of the book here
The following report, by Sasha Ismail, also appears on the Workers Liberty website. We think it gives a good, if brief, overview of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Corbyn’s politics. It does not, however, deal with the issues on which most Shiraz contributors would have our sharpest difference with Corbyn: international affairs.
Above: overspill meeting at Ruskin House, Croydon
I was slightly late for the meeting Croydon Trades Council held for the Jeremy Corbyn campaign on 4 August (“privatised trains”, joked Corbyn, who was even later than me). By the time I got there, the hall at the back of Ruskin House was full, as was the garden next to it, with more people inside the main building – perhaps just short of five hundred in all.
There was, genuinely, a real mix of people there – young and old, black and white, men and women, established labour movement activists and people pulled into political life by the Corbyn campaign. The hall was full of local trade union banners.
Croydon Trades Council collected details, advertised upcoming events and had a good profile. GMB organiser Nadine Houghton gave a very good speech on its behalf about fighting the government’s Trade Union Bill and defending the right to strike. I guess most Corbyn meetings, except perhaps the central London ones, are organised by and will help boost similar local labour movement organisations or networks. That’s one of the most positive elements of the campaign.
It was very easy to sell literature and have conversations (though I noticed there weren’t many organised socialist groups there). Interestingly lots of the people I approached, at random, were pretty new to political activity.
So far, so good – excellent in fact. It was great, inspiring to be at such a big, lively meeting. What about the content? What did Corbyn say?
He said lots of good things – about housing, about wages, about benefits, about public ownership of the banks. He called for an end to austerity, an end to pandering to the Tories, a start to fighting the cuts and fighting for the rich to pay. Even for someone who wants something more radical, as I do, it was good hearing all this from a politician with a decent chance of leading the labour movement.
The best bit of the speech, in a way, was Corbyn’s call to replace technocratic Blairite dictat with democratic labour movement discussion. He argued for an end to “secluded policy forums in leafy hotels” and for a “grittier process of discussion and decision-making in community centres and union buildings across the country”. He said that the policies he’s advocating are “not finished” and that the campaign wants ideas and argument.
In that spirit: there were some things on which I thought he was a little woolly. On lots of issues he cited detailed proposals; but on immigration he limited himself to condemning Tory and Blairite “rhetoric” and arguing for a “humanitarian approach”. From the press and reports, I’d guess that is his general pitch. More specific policies – about detention and deportation, about access to services, about immigration controls more generally – are necessary.
The other thing to say is that while Corbyn’s speech had “socialist values”, to use his phrase, it was not particularly socialist. It didn’t make an explicit case for class politics, or do more than hint about the possibility of replacing capitalism with a new society. I asked a friend what she thought about that: at first she was surprised I didn’t think the speech was socialist, but when I explained she said “Well, it’s a step”.
And for sure it is. The Corbyn campaign has potential to break the blockade – not just of socialism, but of anything approaching a labour movement political voice – which Blairism has maintained for twenty years. The excellent meeting put on by Croydon Trades Councils shows that, as do similar meetings up and down the country.
If Corbyn wins, big possibilities will open up. To maximise the impact and opportunities, socialists need to argue within this movement for clearer, more consistent, more explicit socialist ideas.