Counterfire recently held its biggest annual conference yet. We report on the discussion and the decisions made
Counterfire's conference was conveniently timed to discuss Labour's defeat in December and also to try to help chart a way forward for the left. There were more members there from a wider geographical spread than at previous conferences and the discussion was wide-ranging and pooled a good deal of experience.
Proceedings started on Friday night with a well attended public meeting on Corbynism, the left and the resistance. Speakers and contributors from the floor laid the blame for Labour's poor electoral performance on Labour's change of tack over Europe primarily, and a connected failure to recapture the radical, insurgent spirit of the 2017 election. This was partly a product of the attacks by the media and the right and the failure of the leadership to push back sufficiently hard. In the context of a meltdown in trust of mainstream politics, the sense of betrayal over the Brexit referendum and a general defensiveness was fatal to Labour's challenge.
The feeling was however, that, though very serious, the defeat is unlikely to have as much of a demoralising impact on the wider movement as the defeat of the Miners' strike in 1984/5. Ten million people voted for Corbyn's radical programme, tens of thousands of activists were actively involved in the campaign and, despite their big majority, the Tories face a series of major problems, not least that they were elected very much on the basis of Johnson's promise to get Brexit done, not on what is likely to be a fairly brutal programme of attacks on working people.
Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation that differs with those in Labour about whether the party can be won to socialism and whether socialism can be attained through Parliament. Nevertheless, we were at the forefront of defending and encouraging the Corbyn project, while being fraternally critical when neccessary.
Socialists in Labour should vote for Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon in the current elections, it will be a boost to the entire left if left-wing candidates win the leadership and deputy leadership of the Labour Party. But the loss of the election has strengthened the right and Corbyn’s resignation is likely to lead to retreats, particularly on foreign policy issues. Increasingly the focus for socialists ought to be outside electoral politics.
In these circumstances, it was argued that the central priority must be to win as many activists to the job of building resistance against the government on the ground, in the trade unions and through the movements. Amongst other things, this is going to require ideological clarity and the strengthening of the revolutionary left.
Saturday involved a deeper exploration of these themes. In the first session, speakers underlined the seriousness of the problems faced by the Tories. There was some discussion about the likely direction of the Tory government but it was clear that the kind of hard Brexit apparently backed by Sajid Javid would create real friction with Europe but also put the government in opposition to the prevailing view of the British ruling class. It would also force Britain into tight alignment with the very unpopular Trump regime and create a series of flashpoints of which the current controversy over Huawei's role in Britain's phone network is just one example. Meanwhile, the level of problems facing British capitalism and whole regions of the country cannot be solved by the largely cosmetic spending promises of what remains a government deeply committed to neoliberalism.
The following two sessions looked forward and discussed two things above all. First the need to strategically rebuild movements of resistance to the government and the neoliberal regime in general, second, the demand for a revived Marxist politics. Delegates stressed that a turn to class-based extra-parliamentary campaigning must focus on rebuilding class combativity, building solidarity and making connections between struggles and trying to generalise struggles against the government. Rebuilding local People's Assembly groups is a major priority – the People’s Assembly is likely to be a central component in any kind of joined-up opposition to the Tories. At the same time, campaigning against further British involvement in wars, against assaults on the unions and against the Prevent initiative would involve campaigning on a number of fronts.
In this situation, it was argued that the growth of Marxist organisation is critical. We are in the midst of a major crisis of the institutions of British society created by forty years of relentless free market, neoliberal politics and economics. The recent Edelman index of trust put Britain second to bottom in terms of popular confidence in key institutions, above only Russia.
Waves of popular struggles around the world show that the crisis of neoliberalism can and is generating social explosions. But such a crisis doesn't automatically generate clear, class politics. In the end, Corbynism was undone by the Labour members' adherence to liberal ideas in the form of support for the EU and a second referendum. Even now many people on the Labour left are arguing for public unity with the right of the party, exactly the opposite of the kind of radical class politics that is needed to relate to widespread alienation and dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and the economic regime.At the same time identity politics is very influential. Oppression of various forms are structured into this situation and need to be fought seriously and systematically but the central limitation of identity politics is it tends not to locate oppression as part of a wider system.
The clarity provided by Marxist politics is at a premium. You cannot have effective resistance that is based on the dominant ideas in society, even on the softer versions of dominant ideas. We need to re-establish a political tradition that is anti-capitalist and puts class at its heart. A threefold increase in Counterfire's online readership was reported, and the establishment of a new publishing arm.
But there was a big stress at the conference on the need to create more Counterfire branches and strengthen the existing ones, including ensuring the active participation of the widest possible number of members. Branches need to be outward-looking places where new activists will feel at home, that can provide a Marxist education, a serious analysis of the fast-changing political situation and a place where members and supporters can discuss local organisation and intervention in the area. It was reported that Counterfire had grown fairly rapidly in the last few months. We need to make every effort to continue to recruit nationally and locally. It is noticeable that recent growth has been concentrated in places that have active and thriving branches where the organisation has a profile.
Conference ended with a discussion about Trump, imperialism and war which focussed on the continuing threat of war with Iran, the potential for British particpation, and the need to sustain permanent anti-war organisation. A recent poll showed that Stop the War was the most popular campaigning organisation in Labour and had the support of the majority of Labour Party members. This shows the impact the anti-war movement has on the political scene but also the potential for anti-war organising in the months ahead. Conference committed Counterfire to continuing to work to build the widest possible campaign against the threat of an attack on Iran and further wars.
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