Westminster Bridge at five to six. Source: Wikipedia Westminster Bridge at five to six. Source: Wikipedia

As the Tories’ trauma continues, Chris Nineham sketches out a strategy for radical change

We are moving into a new and dramatic political phase. The Tories face a series of insurmountable and connected problems. Their split over Europe is deep-seated, long-running and damaging. But this has now been exacerbated by two more profound issues. First, continuing economic malaise has made it clear that austerity simply isn’t working even in its own narrow terms. Second, Osborne’s budget and the Panama Papers have crystallised a growing sense that the whole economic project is based on the systematic robbery of the poor by the rich. Defeat in the Euro referendum would create a Tory meltdown. Whatever happens in the referendum, the current leadership is terminally damaged and neoliberalism itself has lost much of any legitimacy it ever had.

Apart from our opponents’ disarray, our side has important advantages. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour means that the worst excesses of government policy are regularly called out. There is an anti-austerity voice in the mainstream with a huge following in the Labour Party and beyond. As Corbyn moves ahead in the polls and the Tories troubles deepen, the prospect of an election with a left-led Labour Party comes tantalisingly close.

This and splits and general disorder in government ranks have started to raise the fighting spirit of at least sections of the movement. The junior doctors’ escalation of strike action is the clearest indication of this, but you could see it too at the NUT conference and the rapturous reception on last Saturday’s demonstration for anyone who called for taking strike action. Finally the demonstration itself proved – if proof were needed – that we have in the Peoples’ Assembly a broad and powerful coalition through which local assemblies and a host of campaigns and trade unions can co-ordinate action and mobilise huge numbers.

Parliament and power

Given the seriousness of the situation, we clearly need to think ahead, and try and outline the most important elements of a strategy for change.

First we need to do everything possible to encourage the mounting mood for resistance and in particular industrial action to take advantage of the government’s disarray. Jeremy Hunt’s tentative retreat over imposition of contracts on the doctors is a hint of the power strikes can have in this situation. Calls for solidarity between junior doctors and teachers show the potential for building unity in action. There is the possibility of strikes in other sectors including the colleges. The left needs to be pushing to build the unions and for industrial action wherever possible, and arguing for maximum co-ordination. The Convoy to Calais is an opportunity to build on the fantastic success of last Saturday’s demonstration as well as providing a counterblast to the racist rhetoric dominating the EU referendum. Ideally we want every workplace, every union branch, every college to become a collecting point for a convoy that can involve thousands of people across the country.

We need to be clear Corbyn is electable. Opinion polls show he has already connected with the strong mood-swing against austerity. But we have to oppose those on the left who are calling for him to rein in his radicalism by downplaying his opposition to foreign wars and Trident, for example. If we drop opposition to foreign wars we will be weakening the movement. If Corbyn moderates his message he will lose his greatest asset – the enthusiastic support of tens of thousands of activists who want real change, He will also lose his wider appeal to those millions turned off by the Westminster circus. Times are changing. In the current situation it is not radicalism that alienates people, what people find unacceptable is the status quo, more of the same.

We also have to be clear that the establishment is not going to allow Corbyn to continue to consolidate his position for long. The Labour right are in permanent cabal, plotting to bring him down. They will use any opportunity that presents itself to move against him. In this they will have the full support of all arms of the state. The media is uniformly hostile. As the history of previous Labour governments with even a hint of radicalism shows, the nearer he inches to office, the more other elements of the state, the banks, the civil service and so on, will move into action to sabotage the project.

We have therefore to strengthen the movement everywhere. Areas with a vibrant People’s Assembly were the ones best able to mobilise in strength on Saturday. The assemblies have a unique capacity to pull together people from Labour, the Green Party, and the radical left, from the unions, the universities, the myriad of local and national campaigning groups and people from all walks of life who are being inspired to get involved for the first time. The People’s Assembly’s ability to mobilise and co-ordinate on a broad and militant basis is going to be a prerequisite for keeping the heat on the Tories, defending Corbyn against the right and pushing for fundamental change.

Beyond electoralism

Finally, we need to build a radical left that is at the heart of the movements but clear about the challenges ahead. Many people will be tempted to believe that campaigning to get Jeremy Corbyn elected is a sufficient strategy. This is a mistake. For one thing, we cannot allow the government another four years grace to continue their assault on the very fabric of our society. We have to mount a militant grass-roots effort to drive them out as soon as possible.

We also have to recognise that Corbyn’s rise is itself partly a product of the popular mobilisations of the last fifteen years and more. His leadership campaign was spurred by the huge rallies up and down the country last year which pulled together thousands of activists and trade unionists. Without a mobilised movement the energy would go out of the project and team Corbyn would be dangerously isolated in a hostile parliament.

Most important of all, we have to be clear that if Corbyn does ever get elected the institutions of the ruling class in Britain will block him and his programme. The only circumstances in which we will be able to push forward a left-wing programme is if there are popular mobilisations on a much bigger scale and if people are absolutely clear about the class nature of state institutions. The real socialist transformation that so many people are looking for will require an organised movement on a massive scale, rooted in the whole working class movement and with the ability to organise political strikes and popular assemblies that can challenge the institutions of state power.

We need socialist organisation that is committed to such a fundamental reorganisation of society; to doing away with the rampant inequality and serial wars that are spreading chaos across whole swathes of the globe. It is for this reason that we launched Counterfire as a political organisation six years ago. We have been key to the development of the People’s Assembly, the growth of the anti-war movement and a host of other campaigns. We have thrown ourselves into support for Corbyn. Now more than ever we need a radical left committed to system change. 

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.