The political challenges to a Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party will come thick and fast…and long before a 2020 election, argues John Rees
The political landscape has been transformed by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid. Unless all political calculations are amiss (and the estimates of the bookmaker Paddy Power) Jeremy Corbyn will be leader of the Labour Party on 12thSeptember.
The campaign alone has significantly raised the popular profile of anti-austerity and anti-war politics. Indeed, it has made socialist politics more widely discussed than it has been for a generation.
But the impact of the campaign is more specific as well. It is hard to believe, for instance, that this broad level of radicalisation will not spill-over into increased willingness by trade unionists to take industrial action. The level of union membership and of strike action has shown a marginal increase from historically low levels recently and the effect of a Corbyn victory can further bolster this trend.
The impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-war politics maybe even more immediate. It’s hard to see a nervous David Cameron persisting with the vote on Syrian air-strikes without bi-partisan support, or, if he does persist, getting the result he wants. At the very least the opposition to such an extension of the war will be strengthened by a Corbyn victory.
The anti-austerity movement, and especially the mass TUC and People’s Assembly protests outside the Tory party conference in Manchester in October, will find its message much more easily accepted now there is a breach in the political establishment’s cross party support for austerity.
And Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has sealed the return to party politics that was first visible, as we reported, in the Green surge and the rise of the SNP. The high watermark of the horizontalist rejection of party politics has passed as many of them embrace, rather uncritically given their starting point, the Corbyn campaign. This is all to the good. All specifically party organised political projects, including revolutionary parties, will gain from this more focussed debate.
Jeremy’s victory, however, will be the end of the easy part. Right wing forces, already beside themselves with anger at the mere prospect of his success, will begin seriously attempt to co-opt, undermine and destabilise his leadership. Owen Jones is right to sound the alarm here, though I don’t agree with all of his proposed answers to the threats he identifies:
‘If Corbyn wins, the challenges…will be enormous, but not insurmountable. I’m not writing this to dampen people’s hopes, or to prepare excuses, but because people have to be ready and prepared. See those guns in the distance? Yeah, well we’re running towards them. We have to be hopeful and optimistic, but also prepared for what awaits.’
This is far from being only an internal Labour Party concern. If the right succeed in defeating Corbyn then the whole movement, and not just the left in the Labour Party, will suffer a reverse.
For this reason it is now time to review what these right wing challenges may look like and to develop a strategy to defeat them.
The Labour right
The Labour right are currently divided and demoralised by the success of the Corbyn campaign. They have not been challenged by the left since Neil Kinnock expelled socialists and defeated the Bennites in the 1980s. They have never tasted defeat by the left like this and they don’t like it.
Tony Blair’s most recent article in The Observer is one long wail of despair. Blair complains that ‘Someone said to me the other day re Corbyn mania: “You just don’t get it.” I confess they’re right. I don’t get it…’. His warnings go unheeded, ‘Anyone listening? Nope. In fact, the opposite’. It’s likely that Robert E Lee wasn’t this depressed when he surrendered to the Union at Appomattox Court House.
But the current disarray of the right will not last. When the leadership campaign ends they will be relieved of the burden of having to say what they believe in (difficult for them because of the decades of agreeing with the Tories, a fact exposed by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign) and will be able to unite around opposition to the new leader.
Lord Mandelson has already outlined this strategy in the Financial Times. The Dark Lord’s advice is for Blairites and Brownites to bury the hatchet…or at least to unite in the business of using it to attack Corbyn supporters. He’s looking to the Tristram Hunt/Chuka Umunna ‘Resistance’ as one starting point for such unity between the right and centre.
The attack will start on 12thSeptember. It’s not just Jeremy Corbyn who will be elected on that day. So, in all likelihood, will a right or centre right Mayoral candidate and deputy leader. The deputy maybe Tom Watson who, although he has tacked a little towards Jeremy in the election campaign, is a right wing bruiser and a member of Trade Union Friends of Israel. If there is a knife in Jeremy’s back in 18 months’ time it will likely have Tom Watson’s prints somewhere near the hilt.
But, although the attack will start on 12thSeptember, there is currently a debate among the right about whether to attempt to remove Jeremy immediately or whether to wait until the right have had more time to undermine him. The size of Jeremy’s vote will undoubtedly influence this debate. The larger his margin of victory, the more likely that right will wait some time before they try to remove him.
However this tactical debate turns out, it is very unlikely that they will wait more than two years. The right need Corbyn gone long before the next election in 2020. They will need at least two years to ‘recover’ with an ‘electable’ leader in place. The more astute Labour right wingers are already looking at next year’s Welsh, Scottish and London Mayoral elections as a springboard for an attack on Corbyn. They are demanding that he ‘win back Scotland’, improve the party’s showing in Wales and win the London Mayorality.
These targets are difficult to meet. If, for instance, the newly ennobled Dame Tessa Jowell is the Labour Mayoral candidate facing ‘green’ Tory Zac Goldsmith no one would sensibly bet on her Ladyship winning. And that failure will not be laid where it belongs, at her Dameship’s feet, but at Jeremy Corbyn’s door. Scotland is even more difficult. The PR system for Holyrood elections means that Labour’s showing will improve over the general election result (let’s face it, it could hardly be worse). But it’s unlikely to be enough to disrupt the now embedded sense that independence is the quick route to breaking free of austerity Britain. Chances would improve if Scottish Labour followed Corbyn’s anti-Trident policy, but that’s far from certain. Corbyn’s appeal to class politics is likely to recall some voters to the Labour flag, but his ambivalence over independence will make Labour look, north of the border, like its failed past.
In all these battles the Labour right has enormous reserves of political power. The Parliamentary Labour Party is overwhelmingly hostile to Jeremy Corbyn. Of the 232 Labour MPs no more than 20 can be relied on to back him. Back bench revolts, leaks, and public attacks by MPs opposed to the leadership are likely to be frequent.
Some Labour left wingers hope that the patronage that comes with the leader’s position will appeal to the careerism of the right and centre MPs to provide Jeremy with the support he lacks. No doubt this will have some effect, but it will be limited. For a start it’s a mistake to think that all right wingers are venal. Some are. But some believe in their ideas as sincerely as left wingers believe in theirs.
More importantly, the leading figures of the Labour right should not be seen as simply part of the Labour movement. They are also, and this is where their loyalty lies, embedded in the British political establishment. Commentators often talk as if the sociological dividing line in British politics lies between the establishment (the heads of corporations, military, police, civil service, the media, Tory and Liberal parties, etc, etc) on the one hand, and the Labour Party as a whole, the unions and the left on the other. But this is not the case. The dividing line actually runs through the middle of the Labour Party, between its right wing leaders and the left and the bulk of the working class members.
From Ramsey MacDonald (who started on the left of the party) splitting Labour and joining the Tory government in 1931, to the Labour ‘Gang of Four’ splitting the party to form the SDP in 1981, to Neil Kinnock’s refusal to support the 1984-85 Miners Strike, to Blair and Mandelson’s neo-conservative foreign policy and neoliberal economic policy, the main figures of the Labour right have always put their establishment loyalties first and their Labour Party membership second. They do not need Jeremy Corbyn to prefer Cabinet places on them because they will be rewarded with company directorships and places in the Lords by the establishment.
Corbyn is seen as a threat to the establishment and the Labour right will react, as they have always done, to eliminate this threat. And because the Labour right are part of the establishment they will not be acting alone. Even if they were a minority in the PLP, as the SDP founders were, their power would be enormously amplified by the rest of the establishment. In fact the Labour right today is much more powerful than the SDP, and so the amplified dissonance from the right will be even greater.
This is why the argument that a Corbyn leadership must compromise with the right in the name of unity is so mistaken. The Labour right are only interested in unity on their terms. If they can’t get it they will fight until they win. If they can’t win they would rather split the party than unite with the left on the left’s terms.
When Leon Trotsky analysed the defeat of the 1926 General Strike it was the operation of this kind of ‘unity’ which he saw as critical in giving the right the ability to disorganise the left. The collapse of the strike came, argued Trotsky, when the government put pressure on the right wing of the Labour movement, who put pressure on the left wing of the movement, who put pressure on the Minority Movement (an alliance of the Labour left and the Communist Party). And the Minority Movement put pressure on the CP…and thus the whole movement collapsed.
To this day this is the way in which the establishment transmits pressure through the labour movement. The only effective antidote is political and organisational independence on the far left so that it is capable of mobilising beyond the ranks of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy. This then provides a counter-power pushing in the opposite direction that can be more powerful than the pressure from the right.
The ruling class and state
All this is merely internal Labour Party politics of course. And Labour Party politics in opposition at that. The real power of the state, as opposed to the skirmishing line of the establishment which is the Labour right, will be deployed later. We have not yet even seen the forces that were deployed to stop Scotland voting Yes in the referendum. There has been no public statement by the banks and the bosses of the supermarkets, no speech by the Governor of the Bank of England, no moment when the politically neutral Queen ‘lets her views be known’~all of which happened during the referendum campaign.
Nor, since a Corbyn led Labour Party is still a long way from government, has there been the kind of moment where the governor of the Bank of England tells a Labour prime minister to dump his economic policy, as Lord Cromer instructed Harold Wilson in the 1960s, or where the IMF imposes austerity, as it did on an all too willing Denis Healy in the late 1976s.
Anyone who wants an analysis of how this will all work can still do no better than read two books by Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism and The State in Capitalist Society. Or to read how the left wing rapture for former Nye Bevan supporter Harold Wilson turned to despair there is no better account than the one written by Paul Foot. For a contemporary example of the same disastrous process we need look no further than the defenestration of Tsipris’ Syriza in Greece.
These are endgames, not the immediate prospect of the coming months. But they should warn us that we need to prepare alternatives now and not allow the excitement of current advance to blind us to the real dangers ahead. They should also serve to warn us that if we are to avoid these dangers it will be mass movements and political organisations outside the Labour Party which will play a decisive role.
The establishment line of attack
The establishment line of attack will, while Corbyn is in opposition, be of an ideological and propaganda nature. The levels of abuse will rise, both on Corbyn and his supporters. We have yet to see the levels of vitriol that were direct at Tony Benn at the height of the internal battles in the Labour Party. But they will come. The main lines of more serious attack, however, will be on economic policy and foreign policy.
Both fronts will be attacked with vigour by the right wing in the Labour Party in alliance with the press and the wider establishment. But there are already signs that the heaviest attacks of all will be on foreign policy. Why? Because there is already an establishment case for less austerity and the system can get by, Osborne’s self-serving austerity notwithstanding, using a more Keynesian approach. If there is another crash the establishment may even favour such an approach. So less austerity will be resisted, but it is possible.
But less NATO is not really possible or acceptable. Neither is ‘less Trident’. Less ‘war on terror’ would be a challenge to the whole centre of British foreign policy. It would be a direct challenge to the British state’s standing in the world, and a breach in the special relationships with the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is why any threat to the ‘UK’s place in the world’ (including unity with Scotland or membership of the EU, as well as NATO membership) will be treated as an existential threat by the ruling class.
And this is why Jeremy Corbyn should hold to the ‘No to NATO’, ‘No War’ positions that he has campaigned for over many years. Owen Jones is completely wrong to urge Jeremy to break his long-standing agreement with the anti-war movement on the NATO issue:
‘the merits of membership are so far from the mainstream of political debate, it would be pointless and self-defeating to pick a fight over it. Instead, Labour should suggest a more constructive role for Britain within the Alliance’.
Firstly, it’s not even the case that opposition to NATO is outside the mainstream of public consciousness as this study published by The Conversation reported: ‘The majority of people in the UK and most other European members of NATO say they no longer support the key principle of the alliance’. Secondly, this retreat from carrying an argument that is absolutely at the core of the UK ruling classes imperial strategy will be read as weakness by both enemies and allies of Jeremy Corbyn. It will embolden the former and demoralise the latter.
To avoid a similar danger the Corbyn campaign’s stance on the EU needs to be addressed. No one on the left wants to see another Tory-Labour joint campaign, of the kind that was so disastrous during the Scottish referendum, when the EU referendum comes around. The Tories will be desperate for such an alliance of course. The main bloc of British capital and the mainstream of the Tories want a Yes vote. They need Labour to help them deliver it. And they also need Labour to continue is self-destructive opposition to Scottish independence if UK PLC is to maintain its competitive position in European and world markets.
The unity of the state is always and above all else the vital issue for the ruling class. It will be these issues on which they are most determined to co-opt a Corbyn led Labour Party. If they succeed the demoralisation on the left will be palpable, and disastrous for the ability of the Corbyn government’s ability to defend itself.
One chicken, one camel
Many on the Labour left will maintain that they are interested in both the parliamentary struggle and the anti-parliamentary struggle and that we must sustain both. But in practice this often means concertation on the time consuming business of internal Labour party meetings, elections and conferences rather than the direct struggle involved in protests, demonstrations, strikes and strike support. As Tony Cliff used to say the Labour left's version of a combination of parliamentary and extra parliamentary struggle is like being offered a mixed grill of one camel and one chicken...the parliamentary struggle tends to be a lot bigger proportion of the grill than the extra parliamentary struggle. This is a mistake because it confuses a reflection of the class struggle, which is what internal Labour Party politics is, with the class struggle itself.
But there is an even more fundamental reason why this sort of combination is hard for Labour Party members, as opposed to revolutionaries, to maintain. These two approaches stem from diametrically opposed views of how working class struggle can be advanced. The electoralist approach accepts the spectrum of working class consciousness as it exists, running from workers who hold many Tory ideas to revolutionary socialists. It then attempts formulate a programme which commands enough support to win an election. If you believe that electoral struggle is central then this is an absolutely necessary and unavoidable approach. Labour right wingers believe this can only be done with a near-Tory programme while left-wingers believe it can be done with a more radical programme. But the aim of a broad electoral constituency is the same in both cases. Given the weight of the media, the educational system and the right this always involves the left in compromises.
Owen Jones, to his credit is one of the few Corbyn supporters who has written seriously about the threat from the right that will confront Jeremy. But too much of his proposed response is a kind of left wing version of triangulation in which the left must moderate its language and tailor its appeal to some ill-defined centre ground. Now, we all can agree that accessible language is desirable but something more electoral is meant here. It’s a moderation born of electoralism where what is actually needed is the militancy of mobilisation.
Revolutionaries approach the uneven spectrum of working class consciousness differently. We aim to organise the most militant section of the class to take action (to protest, demonstrate, strike, as appropriate) and to use the action of this minority to act as a lever to raise (i.e. to change) the consciousness of the rest of the spectrum of working class opinion. This relies on the transformative impulse of action to create a possibility for change which simply never arises from electoral politics. This means, of course, speaking to people considerably to our right. But the purpose is to enthuse, convince and mobilise for action, not simply to reflect existing consciousness in the hope of winning votes.
Where will the battle be decided?
There will of course be resistance to the right inside the Labour Party. A proportion of those who have joined to support Jeremy Corbyn will draw the easy additional, but false, conclusion that this is the best way to ensure that anti-austerity, anti-war politics prevail. Naturally we wish them success in the internal Labour Party struggle. But all historical experience shows that the right would rather wreck the party, damage its electoral chances or split it before they will let the left triumph. It will not be different this time. And even if another possibility might exist if there were an infinite amount of time to elect new left MPs, change party structures and so on, in actual fact this battle will be decided in a much shorter timescale.
What can effectively decide the issue is a movement that radically transforms the political environment by defeating the Tories before their five year term of office expires. This is necessary for a more important, and therefore politically more effective, reason than defence of Jeremy Corbyn. It’s necessary because there won't be much left of the welfare state, trade union rights, civil liberties or the NHS if the government completes it term. Beating the government will also be the best way of isolating and defeating the Labour right and defending a Corbyn leadership. Not for the first time it will be extra parliamentary action the opens to door for parliamentary advance, not the other way around.
All the evidence is that the Corbyn campaign did not get its momentum from internal Labour party developments. In fact, as is well known, the Labour left was never weaker than at the moment Jeremy was nominated. So weak that it had to borrow nominations from the rght wing MPs just to get Jeremy on the ballot paper. The Daily Mirror website came nearer to identifying the force behind the Corbyn movement when it wrote:
‘Labour insiders say Mr Corbyn has been able to outflank rivals Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall by galvanising support from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity he helped to found in 2013. The pressure group is backed by major unions Unite, Unison and RMT and the Green Party. It has organised mass rallies across Britain and formed a network of local campaigning groups. Last year organisers were able to muster 50,000 protestors for a demo in central London.’
This, of course, doesn’t even mention the 250,000 strong People’s Assembly demonstration this June which was one of launch pads for Jeremy’s campaign. But even this actually draws the influence of the mass movements on the Corbyn campaign too narrowly. The long term effect of the anti-war movement, the Palestine solidarity movement and the anti-capitalist movement have also helped to create the environment from which Corbyn’s campaign draws its strength. As YouGov’s survey of Corbyn supporters found:
‘Most of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters (51%) agree with the statement that “the United States is the greatest single threat to world peace”, compared to just 36% of Andy Burnham’s supporters, 18% of Yvette Cooper’s supporters and 15% of Liz Kendall’s. The continuing influence of the Iraq War as an issue is palpable in these numbers.’
It is by continuing to mobilise and enthuse these supporters that Corbyn can defend himself. They in turn can create a movement that can cause a political crisis for the whole right, both the Tory government and the Labour right, that is capable of opening up the possibilities of real change.
This movement will not however sustain itself. It never has. It has always required an animating core of revolutionaries who see popular mass mobilisation as the key to political advance. This is a different perspective to those who see electoral advance as key. We all work together in such movements of course. But without dedicated and separate revolutionary organisational these movements are not sustainable, or not sustainable as anything more radical than support mechanisms for electoral strategies.
Yet it is on the success or failure of popular mobilisation that the Corbyn leadership will actually depend. Long before the processes of internal debate in the Labour Party or the mechanisms of electoral politics have run their course the battle will be joined. We are probably talking in terms of a couple of years, perhaps of some months. But, in historical terms, time is tight.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.