Corbyn Wins Labor Leadership
Now we must build the class struggle
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive …but to be young was very heaven.”
These words on the French Revolution, by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, flashed through my mind on Saturday, September 12, 2015, as I attended the Special Conference of the Labor Party in Queen Elizabeth Conference Center in central London. As the results of the leadership contest were announced it was clear that the left candidate Jeremy Corbyn had won an overwhelming mandate, polling 251,000 votes (59.5 percent) against three candidates who supported the neo-liberal austerity program.
It was clear from the reaction of the (Tony) Blairite “suits” in the conference that they were utterly stunned, especially as the official Blair candidate, Liz Kendall, polled 4.5 percent. After a three-month campaign, in which Corbyn had spoken to packed meetings across Britain, his softly spoken anti-austerity message in defense of the welfare state and the positive role of immigration had enthused a new audience of young people and of many who had despaired of politics.
Walking in the early autumn sunshine that day down to meet the huge Refugees are Welcome Here march packed with young people in Whitehall, I also remembered that Wordsworth had quickly become disillusioned and ended up a reactionary High Tory. How to build on this tremendous movement to avoid disappointment and lose support?
Reflecting on that day five weeks later, it is clear that Corbyn faces huge and organized opposition to his policies from within the Parliamentary Labor Party—where only 14 of 232 Labor MPs voted for him—as well as from the organized party machines of the Blairites and the predictable hostility of the establishment Tory press, including the BBC. The strategy of these neo-liberals in the PLP is to publicly rubbish Corbyn, hope Labor polls badly in 2016 elections for London Mayor and the Scottish Assembly as a result, and try a coup against him. On October 12, 21 right-wing Labor MPs actually refused to back Labor opposition to Tory austerity spending.
On the positive side, the Labor Party has gained 40,000 paying members since September taking membership up to 340,000. More importantly, Corbyn has challenged the Tories on the impact of their housing policies and austerity cuts to the income of the poorest working families (known as tax credit cuts here.) Corbyn having appointed John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, a left politician more hated by the neo-liberals than himself, it has been good to see McDonnell standing on picket lines. To the horror of the right, Corbyn has made clear he would never press a nuclear button and will not back down in his opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine. In this respect topics rarely debated on British media for years such as why is Britain in NATO, why do we want to support Saudi Arabia and U.S. in their Syria campaign, why do we need nuclear weapons and why are the poor paying for the international financial crisis that are reaching thousands of people
Most encouragingly, Corbyn and McDonnell have realized that they must organize forces inside and outside the Labor Party to strengthen the struggle being waged inside as well as building solidarity in struggle against the Tory government. The new grouping Momentum launched this week is designed to achieve this in every part of Britain supporting strikes and social movements against austerity.
The Labor Party is a unique party in the world, genuinely founded in 1900 by the working-class organizations and developing into a mass party of government. Such a powerful party has always attracted reformists of all hues who have led the party for its entire history, ensuring that capitalism is never challenged as a system and serving as a loyal ally of U.S. imperialism since 1945. If Tony Blair represented a right-wing version of this reformism, then Corbyn and McDonnell represent a left-wing version, possibly the most radical left reformists ever to lead the Party. Labor therefore remains a mass workers party with a bourgeois leadership.
However the economic program of Corbyn, with its proposed “people’s quantitative easing” (borrowing money on the international financial markets and printing money for social investment) is a form of updated Keynesianism. It ignores the real crisis of world capitalism, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and therefore for investment to dry up and capital to migrate to low-wage economic zones. When Corbyn proposed a small program of re-nationalizing the privately owned railway system, he made clear that this would be on the basis of taking over expired contracts of private companies. This would mean that if there were five years of Labor government to 2025, only a quarter of railways would be renationalized. Socialists would argue that this deference to capitalist property rights is wrong and the railways and much else should be nationalized without compensation.
On other issues, McDonnell has shown a tendency to wobble, reversing his previous stance of support for the Irish republican struggle in the 1980s and publicly apologizing for the deaths of British soldiers occupying Ireland.
This and other retreats partly show the huge pressure of the right in the Parliamentary Labor Party and the weakness of reformism in the face of the neo-liberals’ agenda for world exploitation of workers.
Never before has it been more important for socialists in Britain to be active in the Labor Party and trade unions, supporting Corbyn against the right and challenging concessions to capitalism.
It is a period of political engagement unparalleled in the last thirty years and reflected in anti-austerity movements across the world. Our task is to help educate and support in struggle this new generation interested in the workers movement and the fight for socialism.
Graham Durham is a Unite the Union shop steward and editor of Socialist Labor bulletin.
—October 18, 2015