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jeremy corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Kilburn in 2016. Photo: Flickr/Jim Aindow

A new political alignment is taking place against Corbyn and the left, argues John Rees

What is the liberal centre?

I use the term to distinguish the Blairite, anti-Corbyn, 'Guardian liberals' from, on the one hand, the Tories and the populist right and, on the other hand, from the Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party and the radical and revolutionary left.

Of course I only refer to the settled liberal elites here, not to people who join mass movements or trade unions who hold liberal ideas about justice and democracy, ideas which are also held by socialists. Indeed, the starting point of nearly every socialist's political development was a liberal rejection of the injustice of capitalist society. Moreover, many 'rank and file liberals', so to say, are on the protests against Trump, and many from the liberal elite are scared rigid by the populist right in general. But whereas the ordinary protesters have no problem with the radical left this is not true of the elites who are at least as opposed to the radical left as they are to the populist right.

For much of the period from the rise of New Labour in the wake of the miners strike in the mid-1980s a simpler political landscape existed. On the one hand there was the entire establishment bloc from the Tories and the Liberals (apart from the notable exception of their opposition to the Iraq war before it began) through to the majority of Labour MPs who accepted neo-liberal economics at home and neo-conservative foreign policy abroad. On the other hand there was the mass anti-capitalist and anti-war movements who found political support only among the radical and revolutionary left and from a minority of left wing Labour MPs, mostly survivors from the Bennite left of the early 1980s. Later these were joined by the left wing trade union leaders, originally known as 'the awkward squad' elected as the radicalising left mood found expression within the trade union movement.

One effect of this was to hollow out mainstream politics. Party memberships declined, voter turnout reached post-war lows, trust in politicians and the major intuitions of power plummeted. All this has been brilliantly documented by Ady Cousins in The Crisis of the British Regime and so I will not repeat the analysis here.

Further polarisation

A couple of years ago this situation began to change. The Scottish referendum revived mass participation in electoral politics and led to the rapid rise in the membership of the SNP and then to an SNP landslide in both Westminster and Scottish elections. At that time there was a less pronounced but nevertheless significant uptick in membership of the Green Party. Again this development has been described on Counterfire before and I won't repeat it now.

In England and Wales Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign achieved the seemingly impossible and revived the seemingly dead body of the Labour Party, massively increasing its overall membership, recreating a substantial Labour left organisation, and re-igniting an unfinished and uncontrolled conflict with the Labour right, especially in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

These developments were of course part of a wider international pattern. They were preceded by the rise of Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. After Corbyn's first victory came the rise of the movement around Bernie Sanders in the US. But the left is not the only force that has been eating away at the previous neo-liberal, neo-conservative dominant bloc.

The impact of the radical right

In the same timeframe the populist right has been making gains. The English variant, UKIP, is probably one of the weaker examples of an international trend which includes older formations like the National Front in France, the openly fascist Gold Dawn in Greece, and the Tea Party and related Alt-Right groups in the US.

But even UKIP, given massively favourable publicity by the BBC and other mainstream news outlets, has had some success in popularising anti-migrant racism, although the main driver of racism remains the state sponsored Islamophobia that arose from the war of terror.

The Trump election campaign and his victory in the US Presidential election has driven this to new heights, raising the hopes of European far-right groupings most notably in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

Two types of left response

The polarisation of politics has disinherited the liberal centre. The rise of the new left reformism has reconstituted a challenge to right wing reformism that was mostly absent for a generation. The rise of right wing populism is also a misplaced reaction to the failures of the neo-liberal elite. It is simply impossible to imagine either UKIP or Corbynism, either Trump or Sanders, either Syriza or Golden Dawn, without the failures of Blair, Obama and Clinton, and Pasok.

The liberal centre has been sent into crisis by the disappearance of what it imagined was a entitlement to rule. Its great god, Triangulation, no longer works its magic. The howls of pain can be heard all the way from the Washington Beltway to Hampstead, from the Guardian offices to the European parliament.

The liberal response is simply to repeat the old incantations in the hope that the spell will work again. Back to Blairite Labour, blue Labour, or ABC (Anything But Corbyn) Labour is the cry from every disinherited PLP member and their echo chamber in the media. Let Hillary run again, rebuild the Democrats, is the transatlantic equivalent. In Greece, Syriza created itself by not being Pasok, and has now gutted its own party by becoming the Pasok of the austerity era.

In post Brexit Britain the same cry can be heard from the remain-at-all-costs brigade. Let's return to the EU, now recast as a socialist paradise even by people on the left who were critical of the EU during the referendum campaign. Now they've discovered another Europe is impossible they are willing to endorse the one that exists without criticism or qualification.

There is no talk of what the progressive provisions there would have to be if the UK were to rejoin the EU, only the desire to return to nurse for fear of something worse. And this despite the staggeringly obvious fact that membership of the EU has done nothing to quell the far right in Europe but rather serves to give it a popular cause to rally support beyond its own base. Indeed, Britain post-Brexit has one of the weakest and most crisis ridden fascist and far rights in Europe.

Nothing deterred, the liberal centre ploughs on, refusing to ally with the radical left against the right. Worse it not only refuses to ally with the left, it does everything that it can to destroy the radical left at every turn. Tony Blair, ever reliable in condensing the neo-liberal case, has made it absolutely clear that returning to the EU and destroying Corbyn are simply two sides of the same coin. But the same is also true for de facto Guardian editor Jonathan Freedland, who has called directly on the soft left of Labour to remove Corbyn, and a phalanx of Guardian columnists including those until recently Corbyn supporters. They too are equally opposed to the revolutionary left, Corbyn, and leaving the EU. For them any fight against Trump must be carried out by excluding left forces in favour of promoting their chosen candidate to replace Corbyn as Labour leader.

The main basis for these forces are the liberal opinion formers, most notably the Guardian, the PLP, the right of the trade unions, and some small fragments formerly on the revolutionary left. The vast majority of the trade union movement, the revolutionary left, and Corbyn supporters have no problem uniting behind the eminently sensible idea of a People's Brexit, or more generally of forming united coalitions of the whole left in the trade union and labour movement, including the revolutionary left, to fight austerity, war, and the populist right.

The crisis of left reformism

There is however a further problem. The new reformist projects are facing huge problems in their own terms. Syriza, as we have noted, has collapsed. Die Linke and Podemos have yet to make a decisive breakthrough. Sanders is hamstrung by his loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Jeremy Corbyn's movement, in many ways the most rooted of them all and certainly the most numerous, is locked in a never-ending fight with the irremovable majority of the PLP who have made it absolutely clear would rather crash the party than see it win an election while it is led by Corbyn. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has recently made explicitly clear that this is the right's strategy. This permanent internal war is damaging the party's prospects and therefore demoralising even some of those who were initially Corbyn supporters.

Just as there is no solution for the neo-liberals that involves doubling down on their time worn policies, there is no solution for the radical left that involves simply repeating the phrases that worked so well in Jeremy Corbyn's initial election campaign.

It is simply not believable that the Labour right, the Guardian and their co-thinkers will get into line. What would make them? A third LP leadership election contest? A general election, when they will be joined by the whole weight of the capitalist class attempting to destabilise a Labour government?

In short there is no plausible scenario that doesn't point back to the streets and workplaces as the essential arena in which future struggles will be decided. Of course all efforts that can be made should be made to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn survives in post. His leadership not only prevents Labour being used against strikes and protests but provides important support for them.

But evidently a strategy that can win won't be 80 percent parliamentary struggle and 20 percent extra parliamentary struggle. It will be the reverse proportions. Decisive weight will lie with popular extra parliamentary struggle and parliamentary politics needs to be bent, inso far as it can be, to support those struggles.

The increasingly self-evident fact is that the Jeremy Corbyn project is best defended in an extra-parliamentary way than in an exclusively internal Labour Party or electoralist way.

Look at it this way: the crisis in Britain is now so deep in terms of industrial underinvestment, declining wages, the housing shortfall, conditions at work, health and education provision that it is simply not credible to think that any electoral project alone can solve it. This is the secret of voter apathy towards Corbyn. The challenge to capital is not so great that it repels voters, it is not great enough to inspire them sufficiently . And neither can it be if it remains trapped within the Labour Party where the enervating challenges of the right simply hobble Corbyn at every turn, divide the party and make it look unattractive electorally.

Both because the objective social transformation necessary is huge, and in order to defeat the right in the Labour Party now aided by former Corbyn supporters gone liberal, renewed energy is needed to extend, deepen and radicalise anti-parliamentary struggles. The paradox is this: Corbyn cannot be defended by reformist means but he can be defended by a revolutionary strategy based on mass mobilisation.

The left alternative

One front on which exactly this prospect lies before us in the struggle against Trump. In the US the mass movement rescued the situation from the hole in which Obama and Clinton had left it with the election of Trump. The anti-Trump uprising has transformed the situation from a wholesale defeat to a situation in which an embattled, though not defeated President, is at war with sections of the establishment as well as with a movement which represents majority opinion in the US.

In the UK the battles against Trump's state visit have materially added to the mounting crisis confronting the Tories. The NHS crisis will mobilise an even larger protest than Trump. The small but significant uptick in industrial disputes both among unorganised and organised workers has resulted in some important victories.

The left and the labour movement are short of victories, but it has not suffered any catastrophic defeats. If it follows the lead of the liberals it will destroy its independent capacity to act, to inspire and organise mass movements. It will reduce them to the kind of ineffectual and temporary NGO dominated affairs that Make Poverty History or Live Aid represented. They will be celebrated by the media and the centre MPs will rush to praise them...precisely because they will ultimately neuter the left and relinquish the capacity to challenge the establishment. Already in the UK this has produced a divided anti-Trump movement.

Most trade unions, most on the left, have no problem uniting in opposition to Trump or over a host of other issues, including opposition to a Tory Brexit. Very few want to import divisions over Brexit into other campaigns. But the liberal elites have a different agenda. They do explicitly want to make division over Brexit and Corbyn the dividing line in politics. And a small minority on the left are willing to echo this destructive politics.

Those on the left who are willing to stand for a united response to the threats that face us must chart a different course: one in which unions, the left and Corbyn supporters combine to build a mass movement of resistance that can defeat the Tories and open the road to a wider transformation of society. 

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

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