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Jeremy Corbyn addressing the CND Stop Trident demonstration, 27 February 2016, Trafalgar Square. Photo: Flickr/ Garry Knight

Jeremy Corbyn can now really win – but our side needs to act decisively and boldly, contends Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Following the Brexit vote, the establishment has found itself in deep confusion about most things save one: its hostility to Jeremy Corbyn. In this time of crisis, the ruling class feels threatened by the presence of a principled, anti-imperialist and anti-austerity leader of the Labour Party. Not since the witch-hunts against Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Arthur Scargill in the 1980s has any leftist faced such vitriolic coverage in the media or such levels of hostility from within the Westminster bubble.

This article argues that the situation is different to what it was 30 years ago – and that the left has much better chances of winning. But it also argues that, to do so, the entire left needs to understand that the fight to keep Corbyn is also its fight and remains the key question of the day. The alternative is the return of Blairism in the Labour Party and a major victory of the re-consolidation of establishment power over the popular classes in the uncertain aftermath of Brexit.

Paralysis on the establishment right

It is not hard to see why Corbyn worries the establishment. The ruling class fear the consequences of Brexit: the further waning of British imperial power, the rising levels of economic uncertainty and the risk of political upheaval at home all provide reasons for concern. Moreover, the preferred party of British capital, the Tory party, is in a mess. David Cameron resigned within hours of the declaration of the referendum result. No one can easily step into the power vacuum.

Contrary to predictions of doom after Brexit from sections of the left, those small sections of the establishment right who fought hard for Brexit clearly had no plans for victory and are already proving to be nothing more than political casualties of their own apparent success. Boris Johnson’s bid for premiership is already in tatters. Michael Gove looks like a weak contender given his cloak and dagger move against Johnson. Nigel Farage, too, has resigned his leadership of UKIP.

And all the while Corbyn remains Labour leader and has courageously withstood vicious attacks, orchestrated by the right in his own Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The apparent inability of the right to unseat Corbyn for over a week following the PLP’s vote of no confidence in him must be a source of frustration for the establishment. For a few days, the right appeared to be engineering all the headlines, but the story now seems to be that they are unable to execute their long-planned coup. The risk for them is that their tactical blunders turn into irreparable damage.

Corbyn and the left have taken the initiative

When it became apparent that the right in the Shadow Cabinet and PLP were planning to oust him, Corbyn acted decisively. He sacked Hilary Benn for his role in the planned coup, which seemed to shake the right’s self-confidence. Corbyn also centred his fire on the Tories and plausibly argued that the referendum defeat was not his but Cameron’s: most Labour voters had voted Remain. In the circumstances, the rebels began to look even worse than the back-stabbing Gove and Corbyn looked ever less like Cameron or Johnson.

More importantly, Corbyn turned to the movements for support. More than 60,000 people joined in a week, making Labour bigger than it was in Blair’s heyday. Most new members joined to defend Corbyn. Impressive rallies of thousands have turned out in support of Corbyn in many major cities since the 10,000-strong demonstration in Parliament Square in support of him during the PLP’s treacherous vote of no confidence. Corbyn issued defiant statements that he was not going to resign and that the country needed a strong opposition to stand up for working class people in a time of economic uncertainty. As teachers went on strike this week, Corbyn’s key ally, John McDonnell addressed union protests. More strikes from junior doctors also beckon. The mood is radicalising from below.

Corbyn’s anti-austerity message chimes with the public in a way the PLP’s message cannot. During New Labour’s 13 years in power, the party had lost almost 5 million votes. Because of Private Finance Initiatives, Public-Private Partnerships, the introduction of markets in health and education, banking de-regulation, the ‘permanent debt economy’, the liberalisation of labour legislation and the proliferation of McJobs, Labour massively shed support in the former industrial heartlands.

It should not be surprising that the unions released a statement backing Corbyn and challenging MPs to stop their divisive actions and put up their counter-candidate if they wanted to challenge Corbyn. So too did many Labour councillors and more than half the Scottish Labour Party’s MSPs. If that were not enough, of 50 constituency parties contacted by the BBC, 45 still backed Corbyn. Most opinion polls suggest support for Corbyn still runs high in the Labour Party. Even where YouGov suggests his poll ratings might have fallen, it still admits he is the head-on favourite to win any leadership contest.

Furthermore, still more trouble lies ahead for the rebels in the PLP. The Chilcot Inquiry reports back this week. Whatever the report says, memories of Blair’s criminal conspiracy to bring the UK into the US’s war in Iraq will be brought back across the UK. The report could damn Blair further and indeed damn many of his supporters in the PLP. Anyone wishing to lead the Labour Party, or even to split and rebrand on the model of the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s, would have difficulty shedding their Blairite legacy. The Liberal Democrats may wish for their own rebranding following their disastrous stint in coalition government with the Tories, but they seem hardly a desirable partner.

This is not a return to the 1980s: we should overcome the past to win the future

This is not a return to the 1980s. It comes on the back of a different set of experiences. The Tories are still widely hated because of Thatcher’s destructive policies and the right’s incompetence in the wake of the Brexit referendum is manifest. Moreover, New Labour represented in many ways continuity with the Conservative past, in that few reversals for the working class were scaled back. The triumph of finance over industry, markets over democratic control and anti-union legislation against partnership continued under New Labour. At the centre was a powerful, authoritarian and pro-business state that was prepared to meet challenges head-on.

It is not for nothing that Margaret Thatcher said that Tony Blair was her greatest achievement. What she meant was that the left had adapted to the right. Sadly, this was not true just of the Labour Party but of vast swathes of the extra-parliamentary left too. The Eurocommunists around Marxism Today theorised rightwards as a form of strategic élan, rendering the left relevant. In reality, it meant that the attempt to understand defeat led to the glorification of defeat.

Some left commentators today tend to emphasise the left’s weakness and suggest courses of action accordingly. This boils down to a clarion call for inaction or forms of action that are effectively reactive. Much of the left greeted Corbyn’s election in this way too. While sympathetic, these strands of the left argued that the stakes against Corbyn in society and in the Labour Party were high, and that we ought to limit our goals accordingly.

But Corbyn’s election to Labour leader with over 60 percent of the vote brought such analysis into question. Despite the real experience of defeat for working class activists since the 1980s, despite the weakening of collectivism and solidarity as markets, finance and anti-labour legislation atomised human and worker existence, despite media and schooling efforts to structure consciousness along neo-liberal line – despite all that - hundreds of thousands, often young people, reacted to the failure of New Labour by – turning left and voting Corbyn.

They did so on the back of mass campaigns in which the left led the way across the developed world. From anti-globalisation movements, through the mass anti-war mobilisations, to the elections of left-leaning union leaders and rise of anti-austerity coalitions, people of various generations felt emboldened to think collectively and act in solidarity against the new forms of injustice and class power. Corbyn’s centrality to some of these initiatives singled him out among MPs and made him electable in 2015. He was part of a trend: from Syriza to Podemos, from Yanis Varoufakis to Bernie Sanders, the left globally has been articulating class-based anti-austerity in a new way.

Dangers still lie ahead – the left needs to broaden out the struggle and present a socialist alternative

With the PLP in open revolt, however, the Blairites will still try to paralyse Corbyn, and convince unions, members and voters that re-selecting 172 MPs is harder than finding a different leader to take on the Tories. The establishment will do everything they can to wreck the Labour Party, including engineering splits, giving Corbyn and the left a ferocious ride, and rolling back any attempt by the left to decisively defeat the right.

We should remember that the strength of the right is in the PLP, the bureaucracy of the Labour Party and wider sphere of establishment politics, like the media. And with the Tories in trouble, the establishment wants a Labour Party it can trust. It may therefore try to construct a new leadership to re-run the New Labour strategy once more and ‘triangulate’ by trying to win the imagined ‘centre’ and the imagined ‘lost working class votes’ by moving in two ways at once.  

According to this scenario, running the next election as a re-run of the Brexit referendum, while at the same time moving to the right on immigration, Labour could win over potential Tory or Lib Dem voters who want to stay in Europe, and win back estranged Labour voters on a racist basis. We saw that already in the referendum, as the likes of Alan Johnson, Gordon Brown and Yvette Cooper all played the immigration card but without success.

The left – both in and outside the Labour Party - has to resist the rightward pull both organisationally and politically. The left should therefore help build and continue to identify ever more closely with movement events that move against the New Labour consensus, like the Durham Miners Gala on 9 July and the People’s Assembly national demonstration ‘No More Austerity – No to Racism – Tories Must Go’ on 16 July. We should be all out to support the junior doctors and to involve more and more people in the movement. When Chilcot reports, we should be in the news arguing the case for a criminal trial for Blair.

We also need to put forward a positive case for a new economics. With the City of London in trouble following Brexit, we should put forward the case for democratic ownership and control of the banks. With the future of the likes of Tata Steel's UK assets now in question, we should argue for nationalisation. With a declining industrial sector, we should be arguing for state-led investment in new technologies and jobs. With the racist right emboldened, we should be putting the case that immigration brings benefits in the form of nurses, cleaners and teachers. 

United and bold, we can win this time. But we need to go beyond traditional politics.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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