A Corbyn-led government will provoke a determined backlash from the British establishment, including the Labour right. Radical social movements must be ready
We face an unprecedented situation of going into a general election with the Labour Party, traditionally one of the key pillars of the British establishment, led by arguably the most left wing leader in its history.
This means the stakes are unusually high for a UK general election. For, should Corbyn close the gap on May, possibly resulting in a hung parliament or a viable Labour / SNP coalition, the sense of panic amongst Britain’s ruling class would be palpable.
Any such outcome would be a crisis on the scale of February 1974 when Conservative leader Edward Heath lost his majority after calling an early election in the midst of the 1974 miners' strike. Heath called an election on the question of ‘who governs’ and subsequently narrowly lost it to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party.
In 1974 Labour had swung left in opposition as industrial action by miners, dockers and shipbuilders paralysed Heath’s capacity to act. Labour’s 1974 manifesto promised ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power towards working people and their families’.
However, the Labour Party since its inception has always been deeply committed to the institutions of the British state and to seeking to run capitalism as efficiently as possible on its behalf. This means that when in government it has frequently ended up attacking its own supporters.
Indeed, a crucial political divide in British politics lies not between political parties, but within Labour; between a radical left based amongst the party’s working class supporters, and a pro-establishment right based on the Parliamentary Labour Party and the patronage offered by the state. This is why Lenin described Labour as ‘a bourgeois workers’ party’, working class in composition, bourgeois in leadership.
Therefore, Labour has historically sought to channel working class aspirations into safe parliamentary channels. In 1974, this meant defusing working class militancy via the ruse of the Social Contract. The unions limited their wage demands as inflation rose and got relatively little in return.
Then, in 1976, Labour’s right wing chancellor Denis Healey used an exaggerated debt ‘crisis’ to force through a package of severe spending cuts at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. Britain’s neo-liberal counter revolution had begun, the ground for Thatcher being prepared.
To be fair, the experience of Wilson and Callaghan in 1974-76 was far from being the biggest capitulation made by a Labour government. In 1931 Ramsay MacDonald had formed a National Government with the Conservatives in order to implement austerity and cuts to unemployment benefits. MacDonald split Labour in the process of doing this.
The Attlee government of 1945 – 1951 was genuinely transformative in terms of the welfare state it created and its programme of public ownership. However, the Labour right were deeply committed to the maintenance of Empire and the Cold War Atlantic alliance with the USA. This meant diverting funding from the NHS to pay for the Korean war and the atom bomb. Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS, walked out of Attlee’s cabinet in disgust.
But the Labour right’s deep commitment to the preservation of the status quo does not only express itself when the party is in government, as the experience of the last two years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has very clearly demonstrated.
Split by SDP
During the 1980s, there were numerous moments when Thatcher could have been beaten and the neo-liberal tide reversed. At each moment, the Labour right acted to undermine any radical opposition.
In its first term, the Thatcher government was massively unpopular as unemployment soared and large scale riots rocked Britain’s inner cities. During the summer of 1981 Thatcher was in despair. But, that same year, the Labour right split the party to form the SDP, which was the crucial factor in her 1983 election victory.
Neil Kinnock was labour leader from 1983 – 1992. During this time he consistently opposed the extra parliamentary opposition that arose to Thatcher, as well as attacking the left within Labour and seeking to move the party’s policy platform sharply to the right.
Whilst the miners’ strike, the revolt of Liverpool and Lambeth councils and the anti Poll Tax campaign can be cumulatively credited with ultimately defeating Thatcher, they did so despite Neil Kinnock and the Labour leadership. Kinnock went on to lose the 1992 election, setting the stage for Tony Blair whose time in power was characterised by slavish devotion to neo-liberal economics and a neo-conservative foreign policy.
So Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, both inside and outside Labour, can expect to face determined opposition from the Labour right who will act ruthlessly in their defence of power, wealth and privilege.
Already the election campaign has a dual character, against both the Tories and the Blairite right within Labour. Both need to be beaten for any radical transformation of British society to take place. This can only be accomplished by radical social movements exerting a powerful counter pressure on the Labour right.
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