John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, after McDonnell gave his Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer speech at the 2016 Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Labour must distance themselves from the status quo and instead fight for radical change in the interests of working people, argues Martin Hall

As Boris Johnson and the Tories cling to power, many people could be forgiven for wondering what is going on in the Labour Party. Having rightly had a stated policy of prioritising a general election these last two years, it has now turned down the chance to have one twice in under a week. Furthermore, its stated reason for doing so the first time – the need to ensure the bill forcing the government to seek a further extension of Article 50 and prevent no deal passed – had evaporated by the time it refused an election on Monday night.

Why is this?

There is no answer to this question that makes any sense other than seeing this as an another retreat, as evidence of the tack rightwards, and of the balance of forces pushing Labour away from being anything resembling an insurgent movement and back to being a party of moderation and accommodation.

What we are seeing then in Labour is a further shifting in the balance of power within the party towards those forces that are against both the left and honouring the 2016 EU referendum. Labour went into the 2017 general election with a policy of enacting a People’s Brexit. By the end of that summer, this had started to slide, first via an announcement that a transitional deal would be sought, followed by the phrase ‘People’s Brexit’ leaving the Labour lexicon, to be replaced by a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, then the fudge agreed at conference in 2018. Since then, after huge pressure from the pro-remain (and anti-Corbyn) majority, this has become a policy of putting any deal that a Labour government could get back to the people with remain on the ballot. There has even been talk this week of potentially putting May’s deal, with a tweak or two, up against remain. While Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the TUC today was welcome in its criticism of what the Tories plan to do after Brexit, as was his emphasis on class, trade unionism and Labour’s plan to extend workers’ rights, he did also confirm a referendum on a deal vs remain as Labour’s policy.

This slide has had other pit stops along the way, but that is a general summary of what has happened. While there are many socialists who support remain and a radical, transformative government under Jeremy Corbyn, it is not them who are calling the shots. Labour has got itself into an alliance with the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and a rump of rebel Tories. The effect of such alliances is to subordinate the left’s needs to those of capital, and that is exactly what is happening here. Witness the relative praise coming out of the serious capitalist press this last week or two. Of course, the vast majority of capital wants to remain, and would cope with a defanged Labour government far more than a no deal Brexit.

Last night in parliament, endless voices from the so-called ‘rebel alliance’ were asking for a second referendum having just refused a general election. The Lib Dems were talking about revoking Article 50 while calling for political change. Labour’s current position is politically incoherent and, we should suspect, can’t hold. No party can expect to be taken seriously going into a general election saying they will allow their own front bench to campaign against their own negotiated deal. Moreover, when Kier Starmer sits down in Brussels, those across the table from him will know that he will himself campaign against what he is trying to achieve. That is a negotiating position that makes Syriza’s in 2015 look like a card sharp holding a Royal Flush. Therefore, the logical conclusion of this drift is to go full remain and simply go into the election promising to hold another referendum.

In the context of a Tory party presenting itself as anti-establishment and for the people against an obstructive, rump parliament, a left movement of insurgency and transformation at a time of great crisis cannot hope to resolve that crisis in its favour by returning to its position as the second party of capital. That is what the establishment has wanted since 2016. At times when the Tories cannot function as the first party of capital, in this case because it cannot resolve the contradictions that Brexit has caused for it, the ruling class looks to a right social democratic Labour party to maintain its interests. Jeremy Corbyn in the leader’s chair had put paid to that. They couldn’t unseat him in 2016. Manufactured crises have had little effect on the polls. Therefore the tactic has been to push the party over time towards positions that stymie the ability of a Labour government to affect radical change. This has led to a situation where John McDonnell is saying that Labour is putting ‘country above party’. What this really means is country above class. There is no national interest. There are our interests, and there are theirs.

Despite all this, sections of the Labour left are acting like the leadership are playing an intricate game of chess. Wishful thinking and hopes and dreams will get us nowhere. Politics is concrete, and based on material reality and the balance of forces. There must now be the greatest pressure put upon Labour to go into the election promising to campaign for a deal that will benefit the working class and allow it to implement a radical programme free from EU rules and regulations. The confrontation with British capital and the establishment will be tough enough, without also having to take on the EU in legislative and judicial terms.

LeFT says this to the labour movement:

If you want a radical, transformative government, whatever your views on Brexit, it cannot be achieved by siding with people who’ve spent the last four years trying to destroy the growing left in the UK.

They don’t want what we want.

They will attempt to subordinate our politics to theirs. This is already happening.

As soon as the election comes, they will tack even more rightwards.

Labour need to distance themselves now and go into the coming election arguing for a Brexit in the interests of working people. Only by doing that can it free up space to talk about everything else.