Resolutions passed for Counterfire National Conference 2016
Building Local Counterfire groups
- A surge in left-wing politics and activity with the massive anti-austerity and anti-war demonstrations and the election of Jeremy Corbyn over the last year
- The possibility of a emerging workers struggles and industrial confrontations with the government over austerity reflected by the Junior Doctor’s strike
- A huge increase in people joining organisations and political parties
- A desire for a radical analysis in this process as seen through the large and successful national and local Counterfire public meetings
- Counterfire’s centrality in People’s Assembly, Stop the War Coalition, supporting the Corbyn campaign and defending them against right-wing attacks
- The productive role of the Counterfire paper in amplifying our analysis and perspective in the movement
- A rise in people encountering Counterfire for the first time and engaging in political/ideological arguments with our members
- Increasing size of our membership and growth of groups in Bristol, Leeds and York
- There is a unique historical window of opportunity to strengthen and grow our organisation Counterfire’s critical role in maintaining the breadth, longevity and radicalism of the movements
- The challenge of engaging with the spike in political activity and responding quickly to change requires strategy, education and organisation
- Recruiting and building local groups will help broaden and strengthen social movements
- A need to retain and deepen the politics of new members in order to have the capacity to act politically and strategically at a local level
- Developing members requires encouraging them to engage in activity, take on key responsibilities and creating opportunities to put political arguments into practice
- Local groups should be encouraged to organise:
- Frequent Counterfire members activist meetings with political discussion and introductions led by new members as well as experienced members
- Reading groups on key theoretical texts
- Public meetings on political issues and debates in the movement as well as historical struggles (e.g. Lessons from the Russian Revolution)
- Encourage new members to chair public meetings
- Where possible, local groups should form a local committee of the most active members
- Members are encouraged to take on key responsibilities such as a paper organiser
- The organisation nationally commits to sending one speaker every quarter for public meetings to each locality
Imperialism, war and the anti-war movement
- The current period is shaped by the fallout from the failures of the 'War on Terror' for US imperialism and its junior allies, including the UK, and is also shaped by the limitations of the Arab Spring, which recently marked its 5th anniversary, as counter-revolution has largely triumphed across the Arab world
- The US continues to compensate for relative economic decline through overwhelming military might; while there are rival, competing imperialisms (including Russia and China), there is no doubt that the US is by far the most powerful and influential state, with the UK and other allies playing a subservient role
- A number of regional powers - notably Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia - are close allies of the US but can operate semi-independently, often generating or deepening tensions in the Middle East, while the UK's relationship with these same regional powers is a source of growing political controversy
- The rise of Islamic State jihadism, fuelled by the disastrous occuaption of Iraq and civil war in Syria, has heightened the dangerous volatility in Iraq, Syria and the wider region, while exposing the limits of Western military power in re-shaping the region in its own interests
- The US-led bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria have failed to substantially damage Islamic State, creating new layers of violent jihadists to equal those killed through air strikes and other operations, while UK participation has been extremely marginal in military terms
- Many years of wars and occupations have fuelled the biggest refugee crisis for decades, with the conflict in Syria accentuating the crisis, and this is sharpening a racist backlash inside Europe; the growing anti-refugee backlash complements the well-established problems of state-led Islamophobia (eg the Prevent agenda), with racism as the domestic corollary of waging wars abroad
- The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader reflects widespread anti-war opinion and its previous disenfranchisement in mainstream politics, and has led to anti-war (and anti-racist) arguments getting a hearing in official political debate
- Syria and Trident have proved to be the most central issues of contention inside the Labour Party and integral elements of the media and ruling class attacks on Corbyn, going to the heart of the power and prestige of the British state; the great majority of Labour MPs voted against air strikes in Syria but a significant minority dissented, while Trident replacement is an ongoing debate but with anti-nuclear weapons views shaping the debate in a way unknown since the 1980s
- The US presidential election takes place in November and the outcome could influence the direction of US foreign policy, while the rise of Corbyn is challenging the assumption that UK foreign policy must be tied to American interests and facilitating exposure for Stop the War Coalition and its arguments
- Build Stop the War Coalition - in every locality - as a major strategic priority, campaigning above all for: an immediate end to the bombing of Syria, the scrapping of Trident replacement and a complete rejection of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim racism
- Mobilise, through all available networks, for the 'Stop Trident' national demonstration on 27 February, linking opposition to war and austerity and focusing especially on winning the argument against Trident inside the labour movement
- Focus our campaigning around Syria on opposition to our own government and its allies' military intervention in the country
- Defend and support Jeremy Corbyn by building extra-parliamentary pressure, while also going beyond his positions if he succumbs to right-wing pressures on contentious issues
- Continue developing clear and relevant analysis of imperialism, particularly in relation to fresh developments in the Middle East, and disseminating this through the website, paper, publications, day schools and meetings
Corbyn and the crisis of the regime
- Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader is a victory for the whole left in Britain, and has created a new audience for left wing ideas. Labour’s membership has swelled in the run up to and since his election. It is comprised of two main elements: large numbers of radicalised young people who are looking for an alternative to the right wing neoliberal politics of war and austerity; and a significant layer of those older socialists who left Labour (or stopped voting Labour) over Iraq and Blairism more generally.
- The enthusiasm for Corbynism was demonstrated by the huge rallies which took place during the election campaign; such rallies have not taken place in recent months but there is little to suggest that this enthusiasm has waned.
- Jeremy Corbyn's victory was an expression of a crisis in British society. It was precipitated by a growing popular rejection of the kind of politics that has dominated Westminster for so long, which also have their expression internationally. It reflects the strength of the protest movements over issues over war and austerity. The movements provided a good deal of the impetus and base for his campaign last summer.
- We should be aware, however, that a right wing which feels that its opposition is weak is going onto the offensive against any form of struggle (for example over the doctors’ strike or Stop the War) and against Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing policies. There is also an offensive over issues such as the refugees (reflected in aggressive right wing politics in other European countries). This is leading to political polarisation, which makes the importance of clarity in socialist ideas even greater.
- On issues like nationalisation, tax, war and inequality, majorities have been to the left of the policy of all the main parties for some time. These opinions put people on a collision course with the strategy of the British ruling class. This is creating turmoil across British politics.
- At the same time, the failure of those movements to break through and score major victories, coupled with the return of a Tory government and a worse than expected result for Labour last May, led to the movement in support of Jeremy Corbyn last summer, and the resurgence of membership and support for Labour.
- The fact that in Britain discontent with austerity and the neoliberal regime has mainly expressed itself inside the historical party of reformism has created an existential crisis in Labour. Labour is a capitalist workers party. This crisis sets the majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party, many of whom will do anything to stop Corbyn, against a majority of the membership who support him.
- As the crisis over Syria in December showed, the right wing core in Labour is collaborating with Tories, the media and other elements of the state to try and destroy Corbyn and will continue to do so, for example over Trident. We can expect a sustained and tumultuous conflict centred round a series of political flashpoints determined partly by parliament's agenda. This will be a permanent feature of the conflict between a left dominated membership and a right dominated PLP.
- Corbyn’s rise has further politicised anti-war and anti-austerity movements and opinion. It raises the stakes by making radical social change appear a practical possibility for the first time in decades. Corbynism and the crisis it has precipitated all sorts of ideological questions about how change can happen which can't be properly addressed within the Labour Party, hence Counterfire has been holding some of its biggest meetings it has ever had.
- While the Corbyn victory is a big step forward for the left, Corbynism also creates the danger of passivity. Like all reformist projects, it tends to promote the idea that change can come from above, without the active participation of working people. The role of strikes, movements and other actions outside parliament remain absolutely central to strengthening left and working class organisation and consciousness.
- The essential first step for revolutionaries is to strengthen such organisation and consciousness, show in practice and through argument that the future of the Corbyn project depends on extra-parliamentary mobilisation. There is simply no way the combined forces of the Labour right and the British state will allow Corbyn to come to office with a radical programme unless huge pressure is exerted from below.
- We should support initiatives from Labour members in support of Jeremy Corbyn. But above all, this means we must continue and strengthen our united front work by broadening and deepening the movements in particular the People’s Assembly and the Stop the War Coalition. The timetable of the movements need to be calibrated to the wider political agenda in order to defend and push forward the Corbyn project as well as fighting to win on the issues.
- The fact that roots of Corbyn's support are in the movements and a widespread disenchantment with the mainstream means there is a big opening for this. But it is far from inevitable that it will happen. While many in the Labour Party support the movements, because of the contested nature of internal Labour politics, the movements will not mainly be organised from within the party.
- There is a premium on independent socialist organisation. As the political crisis deepens, Counterfire needs to strengthen and grow as a driving force behind popular mobilisation.
- There are further reasons to emphasise building Counterfire. This is a complex situation, Labourism will be attractive to a layer of people, and we need to stress the limitations of reformist projects. The concept of socialism has made its comeback at a time when there is a good deal of confusion about the idea. We need to prioritise popularising the ideas of socialism from below and the Marxist tradition through our new paper, the website, other publications and our theoretical work. We urgently need to find ways to develop a new generation of revolutionary activists.
The Left and the EU Referendum
- Following the Conservative’s victory in the 2015 general election, David Cameron has been forced to carry out his pre-election promise to “renegotiate” Britain’s relationship with the EU, and then to hold a referendum on its continued membership of the EU at all. He was forced into this position by a division within his own party, and has now been further forced to allow Cabinet ministers to decide their own lines to take in the forthcoming election.
- There should be little doubt at all that the great majority of British capital wants Britain to remain in the EU. David Cameron, and the majority Tory leadership view reflects that. This has been the British ruling class’ position on the EU and its predecessor institutions since at least the early 1960s, when it became apparent that an economic and political strategy based on the former Empire was not viable. They turned, instead, to the (then) fast-growing and (still) major markets of Europe. European integration was always an anti-democratic and elitist project; over the last two decades, it has married this to neoliberalism.
- The strategy that developed for the British ruling class, as perhaps most ably applied by Margaret Thatcher, was to remain significantly less committed to the process of European integration than the core European countries of France and Germany. The British ruling class has used this half-in, half-out position to continually demand more-or-less special treatment within European institutions, and it has declined to participate in the key initiative of the euro. At the same time, Britain has been the leading major country arguing in support of neoliberalism inside the EU, urging the destruction of Europe’s post-war settlement in the name of “productivity” and pushing hard for wholly neoliberal measures like the Lisbon Treaty.
- The British ruling class has further reinforced it own position within the European institutions through the so-called “special relationship” with the US. The US, for its part, has been very happy to use Britain as its European catspaw, with Britain functioning as a counterweight to whatever independent geopolitical ambitions France and Germany, in particular, might hold. Barack Obama has continued this support, urging a vote for Britain remain an EU member in the forthcoming referendum.
- However, a strategy that had served British capitalism rather well for a number of decades has today been thrown into disarray. There are three external factors to note: first, the steadily crumbling legitimacy of the European institutions themselves, in the face of repeated crises that they are evidently unable to cope with; second, the long-term shift in the balance of power away from the historic centres of capitalism, towards the “emerging markets”, especially China; third, and related to this, the long-term decline of the UK’s most important partner, the US.
- On the last, US-UK relations are as strained as they have been for some time. Cameron and Osborne’s flagrant attempts to ingratiate Britain with the Chinese government (notably in being the first Western country to sign up to the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, without telling the US first) has severely tested the US’ patience. At the same time, the UK’s role as Washington’s little helper in Europe has been undermined by the expansion of the EU eastwards, with generally strongly pro-Washington regimes installed throughout the old Communist bloc. And Britain’s diligent support for a succession of US-led military disasters since 2001 has seriously undermined its own ability to act as a reliable military ally, with British domestic politics hardly now conducive to further major interventions under US leadership. The EU renegotiation, meanwhile, is going predictably badly: whatever Cameron comes back with is going displease one or other faction inside the Conservative Party, and most likely will involve a further weakening of whatever limited social rights remain for British citizens inside the EU.
- The EU itself is being pulled apart along two separate axes: first, in the divide, roughly north-south, of “debtor” versus “creditor” nations that emerged in the euro crisis. Second, in the divide, roughly east-west, that has emerged through the refugee crisis. In the first case, the response of the EU has been to accelerate neoliberalism, imposing appalling austerity conditions on Greece in particular. In the second case, the response of the EU has been to build the ramparts of Fortress Europe still higher, whilst squabbling about the least noisome distribution of the desperate refugees who do make it in. As the EU weakens, it becomes nastier: more neoliberal, more authoritarian.
- Given this background, for some on the British left to pretend the referendum is largely about Nigel Farage is to act as a parody of British parochialism. Similarly, to pretend that the many and varied problems in Europe currently worsened by the EU will, in fact, be resolved by the EU is simply obtuse. And to pretend that a set of institutions now marching hard into an authoritarian neoliberalism, this direction set by the unelected, unaccountable European Commission, will now be thrown off-course by some concerned leftist hand-wringing is plainly delusional. The demand for a “radical” left vote to Stay in the EU amounts to demand to change everything… by voting for everything to stay the same. It’s not a strategy, it’s a sentiment.
- Away from the “radical” left, the Labour Party has unfortunately adopted its default position of uncritical support for the EU and all its works. This is despite the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and reflects the balance of power inside the Parliamentary Labour Party with a rock-solid pro-EU majority dominant. The Party so far has at least not repeated the error of the Scotland referendum by signing up to support the Tory campaign to Stay.
- In Britain, as (with some variations) across the rest of Europe, active support for the distant and undemocratic institutions of the EU is confined to a relative small number of generally wealthier citizens. Active opposition has been mobilised by the right, often on a plainly racist or xenophobic basis. Yet it would be grossly irresponsible to simply accept that position (itself in no small part due to prior failures by the left to campaign) and hand leadership in a crisis to the right. The vote is unlikely to resolve the issue: although currently finely-balanced between both sides, a re-run of Scotland’s Project Fear will no doubt produce a slender (if unenthusiastic) majority in favour of Britain’s continued membership. But a close vote, and a potentially low turnout, are unlikely to end the arguments: fundamentally, the position of the British ruling class will not be resolved by it. A vote to leave, meanwhile, would be a political crisis of immense magnitude.
- The left therefore has a responsibility to put the clearest possible argument against the EU. It needs to present clear, internationalist arguments for doing so. The forces available for a mass left wing campaign appear limited at the moment, though this could change. Counterfire should do its best to help gather such forces if possible and to present a clear and principled case for exit.
Austerity and The People's Assembly
- The left is winning the ideological battle on austerity - this can be seen around the large mobilisations against austerity & the Tories in 2015, the election of JC as leader of the opposition, and consistently opinion polls show a majority against more cuts.
- However, the Tories are accelerating austerity and their attacks on workers.
- The new Junior Doctors contracts, scrapping of nurse bursaries & an increasing underfunded NHS looks likely to throw the health service in chaos.
- Schools are facing a funding crisis with funding being frozen and the government is restructuring the funding which will effectively leave the big cities millions of pounds worse off from education budgets.
- Cuts to local council budgets will leave councils struggling to keep even statutory services going and force the closure of many essential local services that millions of the poorest in society rely on.
- The hosing bill essentially marks an end to social housing, the government will be demolishing 'sink' estates and has made no guarantee people will be rehoused in the same area. Rents, especially in London, continue to spiral out of control.
- Austerity remains the key mobilising issue today as it directly affects every working class person in the country.
- The People's Assembly has gained mass support, is the only genuine broad based united front against austerity in Britain and is the best vehicle we, as revolutionaries, have at relating to millions of people.
- The role of the People's Assembly remains crucial to continue to build mass opposition to the government.
- The big protests, rallies, demonstrations play a key role in building the confidence across society to take action against the government, this includes confidence to take strike action and strengthen workplace organisation. For the first time in many years, we are seeing an increase in strikes.
- Building the People's Assembly should remain a priority for every Counterfire member. We must make sure Counterfire remains absolutely central to every People's Assembly group, but we must also seek to make alliances with broad sections of society and make sure the People's Assembly is as representative as possible bringing in much wider layers of people than just our own organisation.
- The People's Assembly should play a key role in supporting strike action, mobilising for picket lines and strike day demonstrations.
- The People's Assembly national demonstration on Saturday 16 April 2016 has the potential to be very big and should be a priority for every member and group.
More articles from this author
- German elections: 'The first time in decades that a party with a fascist wing is going to enter parliament'
- Tories out - Counterfire freesheet September 2017
- Namibia, diamonds, copper, gold and uranium. Also worms
- Are books in schools for reading or for balancing?
- Beauty, a dark history, and class conflict
- How the Establishment Lost Control
- Rashan Charles: police racism hasn't gone away