The re-election of Corbyn is key, but an increase in the level of class struggle is critical to lasting success, argues Lindsey German
With the Democratic National Convention in uproar in Philadelphia, and civil war within the Labour Party as the majority of its MPs aim to destroy the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn elected overwhelmingly only 10 months ago, it would be hard to overestimate the crisis bedevilling reformism in two of the major capitalist countries.
At root, despite the very many differences, there lies a similarity between the crises: the neoliberal and pro-capitalist policies associated with both the Democrats in the US and Labour in Britain have caused revulsion for a layer of those activists among the young who are looking for a radical anti-capitalist alternative. In the case of Britain, they alighted on the leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, in the wake of a second general election defeat in 5 years, to put forward a left-wing alternative politics totally missing from any form of mainstream Labour for decades now. In this they coincided with a layer of older activists, driven out of the party by Blairism and especially the Iraq war but now returning enthused by Corbyn.
The Democratic Party is a different animal from Labour, without organic links to working-class organisation and much more openly pro-capitalist in its stance. Unlike in Britain, many on the left argue there should be no real distinction in terms of voting for either of the main parties. Nonetheless it has a various times incorporated a left, for example, around the election of Obama eight years ago.
This year, Bernie Sanders defied expectations by galvanising wide layers of young people and older activists in the same way that Corbyn did. It's not an accident, as they say, that both men derive some of their credibility from decades-long involvement in left politics and strong track records of campaigning around issues such as Vietnam and anti-Apartheid. Dedication to these sorts of politics seems ridiculous to the figures who now inhabit the mainstream but to many activists it is a sign of principle and commitment - valuable commodities for those opposing neoliberalism.
While Corbyn won the election for leader, it is clear from recent revelations that Sanders was never going to be allowed even a level playing field in his search to become presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Leaked emails reveal that the party establishment had, while pretending a required neutrality, been acting against Sanders and in favour of Hillary Clinton throughout the primaries campaign.
Not surprisingly his supporters are up in arms and some have rejected his pleas to get behind Hillary. With Donald Trump now the Republican candidate, it looks - amazingly - that Clinton may struggle to beat him. Indeed, according to some polls, Sanders would have been a stronger candidate against Trump. But the Democratic hierarchy and the media were determined never to let this eventuality occur. It seems that they would rather lose an election than see a left president.
Hillary Clinton has little to recommend her. A creature of Wall Street, a neoliberal to her core, a vicious hawk in foreign policy, we can be assured that she will do little to improve the position of women, supposedly her unique selling point. Indeed her choice of vice presidential running mate, Tim Kaine, shows her commitment to big business, and is compounded by her rejection of an all women ticket with, for example, Elizabeth Warren.
Cut to the election for Labour leadership - an election held, let us not forget, as a substitute for a failed coup. Again, the hierarchy of Labour, overwhelmingly its MPs but also its officers and donors, are outraged that Corbyn has not resigned and that he still appears to have majority support in the party. A mixture of claims of unelectability (although the biggest barrier to Labour's electability at the moment is clearly the behaviour of its MPs and their echo chamber in the mass media, especially the BBC); of lack of competence; of bullying and intimidation; of sexism and 'brocialism' among Corbyn supporters; all have been used repeatedly to discredit the Corbyn campaign.
Even though there is little evidence to substantiate the claims, the goal is clear: repeat slurs long enough in order to discredit those allegedly carrying out attacks, create a climate of unpleasantness within Labour and throw as much mud as possible at Corbyn. On balance, it may not work in this election (although we shouldn't rule it out in a two-month campaign). But it is part of eroding support for the left over the longer term. Add to this an astonishing level of bureaucratic manoeuvring and what Robert Peston has called gerrymandering: the exclusion of members who joined in the last 7 months; the hike in supporters' affiliation to £25 from £3, and narrowing their window to sign up to just 48 hours; the suspension of CLP meetings until after the election campaign. All these are designed to hinder Corbyn and help his rival, Owen Smith.
What are the politics involved? Smith forced Angela Eagle from the leadership contest (despite the faux feminism which has been used against Jeremy) on the grounds that she was to identified with old school Labour and crucially that she voted for the Iraq war. But his claim to be to the left of her isn't overwhelming. He voted for Trident renewal, abstained on the welfare bill, and has said that he didn't know how he would have voted over Iraq. His background in the BBC and working in PR for pharma giant Pfizer hardly set him out from the run of the mill mainstream Labour MPs. His grandfather was a miner, hardly unusual in South Wales and as we know from the Kinnock family, hardly a guarantee of present day socialist politics.
It looks very much as though Smith's politics are designed to appeal superficially to those on the left while accommodating very much to the mainstream. It's unlikely to wash since those voting in this election are not stupid and will probably conclude to stick with someone who has a track record of supporting left causes.
Where does that leave the right and centre of Labour? Up the creek without a paddle. A full split will be well financed by donors who have already gone on strike against the democratically elected leader, but would be engaged in highly unpromising electoral politics, espousing austerity and moderation in a first past the post system. Why vote for them rather than the LibDems or even Tories? Alternately they could declare an independent PLP, but this too would be fraught with all sorts of difficulties and lay them open to widespread deselection by activists.
What about the left? The truth is this will be a very different election campaign than last year's. Then, Jeremy was the outsider and today he is the incumbent, under attack from many within the Labour Party hierarchy, and treated with almost universal disdain by journalists and the media. His supporters are already under attack as outlined above and seem to be universally blamed for any violence or bullying in the campaign (which extends, in the wacky world of his opponents, to any kind of peaceful protest). They are also likely to be subject to crude disciplinary measures for any real or perceived breach of the rules.
So this will be much less pleasant for individuals since there is so much riding on it. There is also the need to deepen the politics of the campaign. In particular the immediate trigger to this crisis was the Brexit vote. The outcome of this vote will be used by Smith, who has already flagged up a second referendum on the EU. This is an attempt to drive a wedge between Jeremy and his younger supporters. It would of course also lessen support for Labour in precisely the areas such as South Wales and the North East where there was strong support for a Leave vote.
The test for the Corbyn campaign will therefore not simply be winning but whether it can put forward a credible left-wing post-Brexit argument, one which recognises this as a major turning point in British politics and puts forward a programme for creating jobs, building houses, funding public services and opposes any restriction or scapegoating of refugees and migrants. It is this positive agenda that needs to be put forward. The leadership campaign should be treated as a wider general election campaign to win over wider sections of society.
The past year has been remarkable in British politics. The outcome of Labour's leadership campaign opens up huge possibilities as the historic working-class party is shaken to its core. The hostile reaction to Corbyn by those in power demonstrates what huge issues are at stake. One can only imagine what a Corbyn government victory would be faced with. The whole of the British state machine, as well as its outriders already in play, would be brought to bear on such a left government. We are getting a small taste of that onslaught now, precisely because there is a possibility of a left-led Labour government.
While the election results are centrally important in the project to defend Corbyn, the level of activity outside of Labour's structures, including the fights of the teachers and junior doctors, the demo at the Tory party conference and much else, and a general increase in the level of class struggle, will be crucial to its ending in success.
With establishment politics in Europe and the US up in the air, with a growing polarisation between left and right, there is no better time for working-class people to use their power to bring about lasting change.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Time for the big picture - election briefing 19 November
- Fire, floods and emergencies: these are what the election is about - election briefing 18 November
- Immigration: it’s not about statistics, it’s about racism – election briefing 15 November
- Unelected judges deny the right to strike - election briefing 14 November
- Bolivia: whose side are you on? - election briefing 13 November
- The nasty parties unite to stop Corbyn - election briefing 12 November
- The world turned upside down - election briefing 11 November