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  • Published in Analysis
Jeremy for PM

Pro-Corbyn protestors in Westminster, June 2016. Photo: Jim Aindow/Flickr

This is a decisive battle, and it's even bigger than Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, argues John Rees

The leadership election in the Labour Party will not be a re-run of last year, despite Jeremy Corbyn's early lead. Last year the question was: do you want a left-wing leader of the Labour Party? Back then the contest was the only show in town. But this year is different. Now the Labour leadership contest, no matter how completely it engages the attention of labour movement activists, is only one part of a much bigger crisis, the crisis created by the Leave vote.

Hundreds of thousands will engage in the Labour leadership contest. But they are just a small part of the millions of workers who want another question answered: who can provide a solution to the greatest political crisis the British establishment has faced since the miners' strike of 1984-85, possibly since the early 1970s.

The coup against Corbyn, though it was predicted here a year ago, was occasioned by the Leave vote. And Owen Smith, though rightly derided as a Blairite disguised only by a thin left veneer, whose only purpose is to attract the easily-fooled away from Corbyn, has nevertheless understood this fact.

His offer of a second referendum is designed to drive a wedge between Jeremy Corbyn and Remain supporters in Labour. Jeremy was forced into a pro-EU stance in the referendum by the Blairites who threatened to split the shadow cabinet if he stuck to the Leave position he took in last year's leadership contest. But he was as unenthusiastic as it was possible for him to be about the EU during the campaign. This, and his call for an immediate implementation of Article 50, kept him in touch with the huge working-class constituency that voted Leave, but is not a stance that all Corbyn supporters understand.

On the other side, Owen Smith is also attempting to appeal to the very Leave supporters he opposes by presenting Corbyn as merely the representative of a metropolitan left elite that doesn't understand 'real working-class people' and their concerns about immigration or their ingrained patriotism. It's the old 'blue Labour' triangulation strategy brought back from the knackers yard for another trot round the paddock.

Finally, Smith has dumped the austerity rhetoric of the Blair-Brown-Osborne years, but then so has the new Chancellor Philip Hammond. It's a signal that even the ruling class realise that some form of Keynesian solution, beyond QE, will be necessary in the oncoming crisis.

All this may make the leadership campaign more closely fought than it seems as if it will be now. One only has to think about the upcoming TV debates to see that it will be a very different prospect to last year where Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a surprise, underdog insurgent. Now he's an incumbent.

But even if Smith is marginalised by a Corbynista juggernaut this will be a limited victory unless it also advances Jeremy's ability to lead the whole working-class movement in the coming crisis.

To do this a much more detailed programme needs to be advanced and ruthlessly propagated in the Labour leadership election, addressed as much to the wider working class as to the immediate Labour Party electorate.

This is necessary because ultimately Jeremy Corbyn's continued support in the party depends on his ability to win working-class opinion throughout the whole movement. Less thoughtful Corbyn supporters imagine that the growth of the party makes it co-terminate with the wider working class. Maths alone show that this is far from true.

So what is necessary? Well, if, as we are told by the pundits, this is the most severe crisis since 1945 then we will need government policies as radical as 1945 to solve it.

The first point in this plan should be an National Investment Bank to drive the investment so badly lacking in the UK for decades. This should be coupled with an extensive programme of public ownership, returning the assets taken from us under Thatcher and subsequent neoliberal governments. We have already spent billions on pumping money into the economy through QE... but it never actually gets invested because the banks sit on it as a buffer against bad debt.

Only publicly driven investment through publicly-owned industries and services has any chance of turning the economy around and actually having any effect of working-class lives ruined by a generation of neoliberal economics.

Much of this is in the Corbyn policy portfolio. But it needs to be taken out, popularised, repeated a thousand times and made the new common sense.

What is already common sense is that the NHS should be saved, as it can be instantaneously by cancelling Trident. An emergency public house building programme would also drive investment and solve one of the most pressing social problems... but it needs to be on a post-1945 scale and driven through with a modern version of the same imagination and ambition.

All this, quite apart from the demand for labour it would create, would in part nullify such concern as exists among a minority of workers over immigration. But there should also be no retreat from the pro-refugee, pro-migrant stance that Jeremy has taken but which Owen Smith rejects.

At his campaign launch Jeremy identified five modern evils that need to be eradicated, drawing on the similar rhetoric used by the Beveridge Report that prefigured the welfare state. But it is the enumeration of answers that is needed as well as the identification of problems, as every working-class person knows.

A split in the Labour Party?

The question of developing a hegemonic programme for the working-class movement is all the more pressing because the whole left may have to reconfigure if there is a split in the Labour Party.

This will of course depend on the outcome of the leadership contest. If the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party decides not to split, and this seems to be the mood among them at the moment, then they will return to the pattern of repeated coups and a longer term process of destabilisation until Corbyn is forced out.

This strategy can work because every Labour Party member cares about electability. The Labour right are prepared to make Labour unelectable for as long as it takes to get rid of Corbyn. Even now, among some Corbyn supporters, there is a demoralised 'it can't go on like this' mood emerging which may make some of them willing to sacrifice Corbyn in order to restore 'stability' and return to 'electability'. Getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn won't do either except on Blairite terms, but that fact may not stop despair resulting in a draining of support for Corbyn.

The only way of avoiding the Labour right's war of attrition is to effectively reconstitute the Labour Party on a radical left platform. But if the fact that the Labour right is more loyal to the establishment than to the Labour movement is one enduring truth about the Labour Party, the other equally enduring truth is that the Labour left has traditionally been more committed to party unity with the right than it is to radical left politics.The very last thing that most of the Labour left wants is a split and it will surrender to the ever recurring fate of right-wing coup attempts before it will organise a breach with the right itself.

But if the majority of the PLP leave the Corbyn-supporting part of Labour this would open up a very different scenario. The Labour Party would then need to re-organise itself as a campaigning left party able to rebuild in working class communities where Labour has long been a shell.

This will require much more than the programme outlined above, vital though that will be. Labour is an old social democratic electoral formation with little interest in popular mobilisation and an obsession with internal procedure and electoral politics. Even its left-wing, even its newest left wing movement, Momentum, is shaped by these priorities. Momentum's concentration is on 'internal lobbying'. And this kind of phone-bank politics is where its core activity lies. And that, in its way, is fair enough in terms of electing preferred candidates in internal party elections. But it is essentially passive politics: we phone you, you vote in election. Momentum certainly supports protests, but its substantial mobilising capacity has not been thrown into building them or the broader organisations that underpin them. It is not the politics of active, mass mobilisation.

But a new party cannot be built this way, and it cannot win this way. For that a genuine social movement approach is necessary, locating the party at the heart of working-class resistance and trade union struggle. The personal participation of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and a small number of other MPs in such struggles is a kind of place holder for such a policy. But it is a long way from an entire party and its membership organically linked to working-class communities by participation in such struggles. It is even further from making these struggles the centre of a party strategy rather than an adjunct to an electoral strategy. But only this would build a party that could see off a new Labour right formation and really galvanise working-class struggle on the required scale.

State power is not yet engaged

All this is necessary for an even more important reason. The campaign against Jeremy Corbyn has so far been driven by the Labour right and the media. The core institutions of the state - the civil service, courts, police, security services, army, central bank - have played a minor role only. That will change with a second victory as party leader and change even further should Corbyn become prime minister.

As every historical experience shows, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Chavez government in Venezuela, only mass action is capable of defending a left government from this level of attack. And such action cannot be magicked out of nothing on the day the threat emerges.

It has to be prepared by a long period of struggle in which trade union and mass campaigns grow in strength and self-confidence. This requires a single-minded obsession with creating such mass mobilisation. It cannot and will not emerge from an election-centred strategy, even though an election may well be the trigger that initiates a right-wing thrust.

The main question

Behind all these issues is one question: how does a party of left-wing activists relate to a much larger working-class constituency?

The right have a simple answer to this. They say the Corbyn supporters are a left-wing minority who don't represent the views of the wider working class and that Corbyn is therefore unelectable.

Let's look at this proposition. Some of it is true. Firstly, it is true that however many hundreds of thousands of Corbyn supporters there are, they are a minority among a working class that numbers around 40 million. Indeed they are a minority even among the 7 million organised trade unionists. They are nowhere near the 12 million or so votes needed to win a general election. This should give some pause for thought to the more unreflective Corbyn supporters who seem to imagine that winning hundreds of thousands of votes in an internal party election is the same as winning a general election.

Secondly, it is also true that the views of Corbyn supporters are not hegemonic in the working class, though on all the core issues they are much more widespread than the pro-market, pro-war views of the Labour right. And in the actual elections that have taken place so far, Corbyn's Labour has done well, despite the best efforts of the right to destroy its chances of success.

But no one imagines that this means anything else than that more work, much more work, is required for the working-class movement to advance further. But what kind of work? What kind of strategy?

There is one answer on the left coming both from now luke-warm Corbyn supporter Owen Jones and more robust Corbyn supporter Paul Mason. It is essentially a more left-wing version of the triangulation strategy: voters need to hear a clear core message shorn of anything too frightening, the argument runs. Stick to bread and butter issues, dump opposition to Trident, dump opposition to Nato, stay away from foreign policy (expect perhaps the easy meat of bashing the Saudis). Be more 'efficient' in getting the message across.

This will never work because, much as some would like it not to be the case, Britain is an imperial power in which foreign policy, and the racism directly related to it, is always central to domestic politics and definitions of 'patriotism'. The Tories will always bring this dead cat to Labour's door step. Pretending it's not there won't work. The argument needs to be taken on as it has been, successfully, for more than a decade by the anti-war movement.

And whether it's over foreign policy or any other issue, triangulation won't work for the left. Workers' consciousness moves left in struggle. Only organising struggle and ensuring its success will allow Corbyn's policies to become hegemonic. Trimming to existing consciousness, the consciousness shaped by passivity and then reinforced by the capitalist media, will only lead to weakness and defeat by forces that more accurately reflect established ideas.

A realisation of this problem has got some to talk of Labour as a social movement in an attempt to see a way through to mass mobilisation in support of left politics. But this too is mistaken in its method, although not in its aim.

Political parties cannot be social movements. To confuse the two is what philosophers call a category error: designating a thing to one category when it belongs in another. The Labour Party is an electoral organisation which competes against all others on the basis of its political programme. To this extent it is necessarily exclusive. A social movement is by definition composed of people from a wide variety of political parties, non-party campaigns, non-party religious and social organisations, and individuals who are in no party at all (the vast majority of workers). The minute that a mass movement becomes a party front it loses its ability to mobilise.

The whole 'Labour Party as a social movement' is either a fashionable way of saying its members must become more active and engaged in their community, which is fair enough. Or it is a sectarian way of counter-posing party and movement. The correct relationship of party and movement, no matter how large the party, is that the party should participate in the broad movement, alongside others and in agreement for action over limited aims, and hope that its non-sectarian willingness to advance key working-class demands wins it the support it requires.

So generating and sustaining active struggle by trade unions and mass movements is key to success. A radical left party could do this. But all the Europe-wide experiences of these kinds of party - Syriza, Die Linke, Podemos - show that they too are subject to the same kind of electoralist pressure to triangulate. The results have been a disastrous inability to fulfil their potential and to provide a really effective alternative leadership to the parties of the centre.

In all these cases a revolutionary organisation working in a non-sectarian way with these parties is essential for this reason: for revolutionaries working-class self-activity is the irreducible core of our politics. It is only through such activity that working-class consciousness becomes radicalised, and only through such activity that working-class advance can be achieved and defended. Electoralist concerns are a secondary, if essential, by-product of this struggle and should always be judged by whether they advance or retard this struggle.

For electoralists, the poles of this equation are reversed. Mass struggle is sometimes helpful, and often not, for their electoral project. The recent distancing of even the Corbyn front bench from the CND campaign around Trident renewal is testimony enough to this process at work. Indeed, outside the immediate Corbyn inner circle it's hard to find any of the Corbyn-supporting MPs with any real commitment to building mass movements on a day-to-day basis in the way that is the hallmark of Jeremy Corbyn's own politics.

So, paradoxically, the effectiveness of any left party and of the Corbyn movement will depend as much on the revolutionary strategy of generating mass struggle by sustaining independent revolutionary organisation as it will be on internal Labour Party manoeuvres. The strength of revolutionary organisation, its clarity of ideas, its analysis of the capitalist state, its ability to generate strategic alliances in mass movements, is a crucial hinge on which this whole social crisis will turn. 

John Rees

John Rees

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) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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