The last week in British politics has perfectly captured the contradictions of a Corbyn-led Labour Party, explains Alex Snowdon
We are currently seeing real breakthroughs opened up by the left turn in the Labour Party's leadership, but also the ongoing obstacles to radically transforming Labour politics. The hostility of scores of Labour MPs to Jeremy Corbyn's left-wing politics remains a huge problem, generating constant pressure for compromise.
Corbyn's speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday was well-received, earning praise even from those who are sceptical about his leadership. It outlined a set of economic and social policies that marked a clean break from Ed Miliband's painfully moderate approach. There were no surprises - it was all in line with Corbyn's platform in the leadership election - but it did indicate that the Labour leader is determined to push through his domestic agenda: rail renationalisation, increasing the minimum wage, capping bosses' pay, creating a lifelong education service, delivering universal childcare, and so on.
There is also a sense of individual policies being framed by a broader commitment to equality. Labour's own internal review of why it lost the May 2015 general election - overseen by Margaret Beckett - was this week leaked to the press. It apparently notes the lack of a coherent political outlook, despite some appealing individual policies, in the run up to last May's election. This is hardly news to many of us, but it underscores the need for Corbyn to present a coherent worldview not merely a disparate collection of policies.
A recent newspaper column by Corbyn did an excellent job of outlining a coherent agenda, built around what he termed 'three pillars': economic policy focused on investment and reducing inequality, ground-up democratisation, and an independent foreign policy geared towards peace. The speech to the Fabians can be seen as providing some flesh on those bones, but that doesn't mean that shifting Labour policy leftwards is straightforward.
War and weapons
It's in the field of foreign policy that more rightwards-leaning elements of the Labour Party have been most hostile, at times virulent, towards the new leader and the direction he is mapping out for the party. Corbyn felt obliged to grant a 'free vote' on bombing Syria, such was the resistance to an anti-war position inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. This decision was regrettable - as it undoubtedly weakened parliamentary opposition to David Cameron's plans - but primary responsibility for it lies with those elements of the PLP that remain dedicated to an interventionist foreign policy (the kind of foreign policy that drove so many members out of the Labour Party around the war in Iraq).
The other major issue where divisions inside Labour run deep is Trident replacement. This is a foreign policy issue, but also closely connected the battle of ideas around austerity: campaigners repeatedly point out that the vast sums required for sustaining Britain's nuclear capability could instead be devoted to public services and job creation. Scrapping Trident is a key alternative to austerity - and this explains why the People's Assembly Against Austerity is backing CND's national demonstration, calling for abolition of Trident replacement, on 27 February.
Two leaders of major trade unions - the GMB's Paul Kenny and Unite's Len McCluskey - have both made interventions designed to undermine Corbyn's anti-Trident position. Their arguments are based entirely on an appeal to protect jobs in the defence industry, despite Corbyn making it clear that he wants public investment to guarantee new jobs for the workers who would be affected, ensuring they do socially useful and climate-friendly jobs instead of producing weapons of mass destruction.
Kenny and McCluskey betray a lack of political imagination or foresight, sticking unthinkingly to a narrow sectional agenda. But this issue is far from resolved inside those unions, especially in Unite (where anti-Trident arguments have a strong base of support). There is potential for anti-Trident campaigning to win widespread support in the labour movement. The national demonstration will be the first test of this.
Trident isn't the only way that the relationship between Labour and trade unions has hit the headlines this week. Strike action by junior doctors on Tuesday had a huge media and public impact, offering hope for anyone wanting a wider defence of the NHS and an increase in resistance by public sector unions.
But the response from Labour was mixed. Left-wing shadow chancellor John McDonnell - Corbyn's closest ally and a reliable friend of striking unions - turned up on a picket line. Yet this generated controversy because Heidi Alexander, shadow health secretary, had insisted the party took a neutral stance on the strike action.
Labour has historically never supported strikes. This might seem surprising, but the Labour Party was founded on the separation between parliamentary politics (Labour Party business) and workplace-based resistance (leave it to the unions). The party's failure to publicly support Tuesday's strike - despite polls suggesting it was popular - indicated the continuing limitations in spite of Corbyn and McDonnell's place at the helm. This doesn't mean nothing has changed - it was noteworthy that Alexander addressed last Saturday's London rally for student nurses - but support for strikes remains a contentious subject.
Nonetheless, Corbyn is definitely pushing for Labour to have a very different approach to trade unions, and strikes in particular, to the rather guilty, shamefaced embarrassment associated with previous leaders Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, none of whom championed the restoration of workers' rights removed by Margaret Thatcher's governments in the 1980s.
Corbyn, by contrast, told viewers of the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning that he wants radical changes to legislation on strikes, saying: “Sympathy action is legal in most other countries. It should also be legal here.” This is combined with strong opposition to the Trade Union Bill which the Tories are currently trying to force through parliament.
That Bill is, in turn, a key component of a far-reaching Tory strategy for weakening democracy and especially undermining Labour and the unions. The strategy also includes proposed boundary changes, alterations to voter registration, cuts to funding for research by the Opposition, and a ban on local councils taking action to practically support human rights elsewhere in the world (primarily a response to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in solidarity with Palestine). It is to Corbyn's credit that he recognises this bigger picture and opposes the various measures in full.
The examples of the junior doctors and Trident illustrate a couple of important points about Labour and the challenges for defeating Tory policies. One important point is that these (and other) causes now have a degree of support in mainstream politics that until recently was unimaginable. Having a left-wing Leader of the Opposition and shadow chancellor - and now an anti-Trident, anti-air strikes shadow defence secretary - makes a difference.
The second point is that Labour alone cannot be relied on to fight for what we need, whether that's junior doctors' pay and conditions or the scrapping of Trident. There is a constant struggle inside Labour between left and right, with two parties effectively co-existing (one which is strong in the PLP, one whose power is based in a combination of the leadership and the grassroots).
The left is more likely to prevail in these battles when there are powerful movements outside the realm of parliamentary politics, and involving many thousands of people beyond the Labour Party. Around the Syria vote, we saw how campaigning led by Stop the War Coalition could combine with an anti-war Labour leadership to deliver a substantial body of votes against air strikes (and increase the pressure on the government).
The 27 February national demonstration will be a decisive moment for everyone seeking to end Britain's ludicrous and wasteful addiction to nuclear weapons - and a chance to articulate alternatives to both austerity and war. With a Commons vote on Trident replacement expected this year - and perhaps as early as spring - the demonstration, combined with lobbying of MPs, will be very important.
The junior doctors will be emboldened if Labour politicians voice their support, especially if left-wing arguments linking their specific dispute with a broader fight for the NHS are at the fore, but victory will ultimately depend on their collective resolve - through the British Medical Association - to persist with the strike action, marches and rallies needed to force a Tory climbdown. It will also help if other health unions step up their practical support, and if close links are pursued with other groups involved in disputes (like the student nurses campaigning to keep bursaries). Similarly, the Trade Union Bill is a winnable battle for its opponents, but only if there is serious, sustained and co-ordinated action by unions complementing Labour's opposition at Westminster.
Finally, this week saw the People's Assembly's announcement of a national demonstration for 'health, homes, jobs and education' in London on 16 April. This can be a rallying point for everyone wanting to resist the Tories, pulling together disparate issues and the different strands of resistance. In the immediate run up to May's Scottish, Welsh, London and local elections, it is very timely for making maximum political impact. It will also have the by-product of demonstrating support for Corbyn's drive to make Labour a consistently anti-austerity party.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
More articles from this author
- Apartheid under pressure – weekly briefing
- NEU Conference escalates the fight against the government
- Introduction – A short guide to Israeli apartheid excerpt
- Calling it what it is: Amnesty's bold stand against Israeli apartheid
- The bloody legacy of Bomber Blair
- Did someone say austerity was over? – weekly briefing
- Not so hidden agenda: Ken Loach and Labour's war on the left