The failed coup presents the left with an unparalleled historic opportunity. James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists outlines a programme of immediate tasks and long-term strategic goals.
Despite the unremitting hostility of the mass media, despite the MPs’ no-confidence motion, despite the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smearing, despite the court battles, despite the gerrymandering exclusion of 130,000 members, despite the ongoing witch-hunt, comrade Corbyn has trounced citizen Smith.
The right has already been adjusting its approach accordingly. The 169-34 Labour MP vote calling for a return to the pseudo-democratic practice whereby the Parliamentary Labour Party elects the shadow cabinet – scrapped under Ed Miliband in 2011 – is not an attempt to “heal wounds”. Nor is it a peace offering to Jeremy Corbyn. No, manifestly, it is a continuation of the policy of “relentless rebellion” against Corbyn’s leadership.
The PLP right eyes the national executive committee as a vital field of struggle in the organisational, constitutional and policy battles to come.
The shadow cabinet is allocated three NEC seats and the right feared that the left stood on the threshold of establishing a functional majority. But, though the NEC narrowly rejected Tom Watson’s proposal to give the PLP its way over shadow cabinet elections, the 16-14 vote on Scotland and Wales might hand the right a workable majority.
Scotland and Wales will both have NEC seats – with a full vote. However, they will have to be frontbenchers. Kezla Dugdale and Carwyn Jones are the most likely to take these seats.
Another victory for the right on the NEC came with the agreement to “clamp down” on “online abuse”. New members will be expected to sign a code of conduct or be barred.
The Corbyn camp has also promoted proposals at the NEC: two more trade union seats, plus a councillor, a Scotland and a Wales NEC seat … elected by the membership. The left would be expected to win the lot.
Similar Corbynista moves are afoot for the Liverpool conference to take the MP and MEP 15% nomination threshold back down to 5%. In 2015 that would have comfortably allowed Corbyn to stand for leader. He would not have had to rely on the “morons” to “lend” him their votes.
Of course, what the PLP right dreads, above all, is submitting to a genuine reselection process in the run-up to the next general election. By the same measure, anything towards that end, no matter how partial, is to be welcomed, at least as far as the LPM is concerned. Most constituency members are itching to see the back of traitor MPs.
There has been much chatter in the media about a PLP split. Needless to say, however, the right remains haunted by Ramsay MacDonald’s 1931 National Labour Organisation and then the ‘Gang of Four’ of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, who broke away exactly 50 years afterwards to form the Social Democratic Party. MacDonald’s NLO instantly became a tame Tory satellite. It finally dissolved in 1945. As for the SDP, it merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 and shared the same sorry fate. From the early 1970s till even the late 80s, of course, the political centre enjoyed something of a revival. No longer. At the 2015 general election the Lib Dems were decimated. They remain to this day marginalised and widely despised. Given the punishing logic of the first-past-the-post election system, it is therefore highly unlikely that the rightwing PLP majority will do us a favour and walk.
Conceivably, the PLP right wing could go for electing their own leader (not the hapless poseur, Owen Smith) and constituting themselves the official opposition. The result would be two rival parties. A rightwing Labour Party with by far the bigger parliamentary presence. Then, on the other hand, a leftwing Labour Party with trade union support, but a much smaller number of MPs. That way, the right would get hold of most of Labour’s £6.2 million Short money and come first when it comes to asking parliamentary questions.
However, a de facto split surely guarantees their expulsion and the selection of alternative, official candidates. Most traditional Labour voters are expected to remain loyal, not to opt for some SDP mark II. Premising such a split, a recent YouGov poll gave a Corbyn-led Labour Party 21% of the total vote and a “Labour right party” just 13% (and the Tories 40%, Ukip 11% and the Lib Dems 6%). Doubtless, such arithmetic explains why Ed Balls, former shadow chancellor, dismisses the idea of a breakaway as “crazy”.
Political suicide certainly exerts no appeal, as far as most rightwing Labour MPs are concerned. The one thing they truly believe in is their own career. So, the chances are that the right will dig in, use its base in the bureaucratic apparatus, amongst councillors, MPs, MEPs, etc, and fight till the bitter end.
John McDonnell has been holding out an olive branch, talks of welcoming back Owen Smith into the shadow cabinet and pulling together to fight the “real enemy”, the Conservatives. In the mind of team Corbyn doubtless that constitutes clever tactics. Divide the implacable anti-Corbyn MPs from those merely fearful of losing their seats. Divide the MPs who want an effective opposition to the Tories from those who really are Tories.
An appeasement policy presumably based on Seumas Milne’s wonkery. Back in January 2016 our director of communications produced a problem-solving spreadsheet of Labour MPs. Leaked to The Times two months later, it showed just 85 MPs who could be considered “core group negatives” or “hostile”. Another 71 MPs were supposedly “neutral but not hostile”. Just 19 MPs were put in Corbyn’s “core group”, while 56 were classified as “core group plus”. Needless to say, though, comrade Milne’s calculations were violently wrong.
After all, in June 2016, 172 Labour MPs actually signed the no-confidence motion. Then, after that, we had the 169-34 vote on shadow cabinet elections. These two PLP moments accurately photograph the real dimensions of the “core group negatives” or “hostile” camp. There might well be those who can be considered “neutral but not hostile”. Their numbers are, though, vanishingly small. What of the Corbyn camp? The “core group”, together with the “core group plus”, nowhere near adds up to 75 MPs. No, there are little more than 40 of them … in total.
Practically, we need less spiel about olive branches, coming back and uniting. Instead, the membership must be organised, educated and galvanised. Not just to vote Corbyn. Not just to defend Corbyn. But organised, educated and galvanised for war in the wards, constituencies, committees and conferences.
There must be a strategic recognition that the right will never reconcile itself to the Corbyn leadership. Let alone the growing influence of the radical, socialist and Marxist left. And because the PLP right will pursue its civil war to the bitter end, we must respond by using all the weapons at our disposal.
In our view the Labour left has seven immediate tasks.
- Fight for rule changes stipulating that all elected Labour representatives must be subject to mandatory reselection. Reforming trigger ballots is a step in right direction, but not enough. MPs must be brought under democratic control: from above by the NEC; from below by the CLPs.
- We need a sovereign conference once again. The cumbersome, undemocratic and oppressive structures, especially those put in place under the Blair supremacy, must be rolled back. The Joint Policy Committee, the National Policy Forums, etc, must go as a matter of urgency.
- Scrap the hated compliance unit and “get back to the situation where people are automatically accepted for membership, unless there is a significant issue that comes up” (John McDonnell). The compliance unit operates in the murky shadows, it violates natural justice, it routinely leaks to the capitalist media. Full membership rights must be restored to all those cynically suspended or expelled. More than that, welcome in those good socialists barred from membership because, mainly out of frustration, they once supported Green, Tusc or Left Unity election candidates.
- The stultifying inertia imposed on Momentum must be ended. That can only happen through democracy, trusting the membership and allowing the election of and right to recall all Momentum officials. Neither politically nor organisationally has Jon Lansman proven to be a competent autocrat. He has stopped Momentum meetings, he has blocked Momentum attempts to oppose the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smears, he has done nothing to get Momentum to fight the ongoing purge. End the control-freakery. Membership lists and contact details must be handed over to local branches. Then we can begin to organise, educate and galvanise Corbyn’s supporters.
- Securing new trade union affiliates ought to be a top priority. The FBU has reaffiliated. Excellent. Matt Wrack at last came to his senses. He took the lead in reversing the disaffiliation policy. But what about RMT? Let us win RMT militants to drop their support for the thoroughly misconceived Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Instead reaffiliate to the Labour Party. And what about the NUT? Why can’t we win it to affiliate? Surely we can … if we fight for hearts and minds. Then there is PCS. Thankfully, Mark Serwotka, its leftwing general secretary, has at last come round to the idea. The main block to affiliation now being the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Yes, PCS affiliation will run up against the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act (1927), introduced by a vengeful Tory government in the aftermath of the general strike, whereby civil service unions were barred from affiliating to the Labour Party and the TUC. The Civil and Public Services Association – predecessor of PCS – reaffiliated to the TUC in 1946. Now, however, surely, it is time for the PCS to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. True, when we in the LPM moved a motion at the February 2015 AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy calling for all trade unions to be encouraged to affiliate, we were met with the objection that it would be illegal. However, as NEC member Christine Shawcroft said, “What does that matter?” Here comrade Shawcroft, a close ally of Corbyn, shows just the right fighting spirit. Force a another change in the law.
- Not only should we commit ourselves to securing further trade union affiliates. Within the existing affiliates we must fight to win many, many more members to enrol. Just over 70,000 affiliated supporters voted in the 2015 leadership election. A tiny portion of what could be. There are well over four million who pay the political levy. Given that they can sign up to the Labour Party at no more than an online click, we really ought to have a million affiliated supporters as a minimum target figure.
- Every constituency, ward and other such basic unit must be won and rebuilt by the left. The right has done everything to make them cold, uninviting, bureaucratic and lifeless. The left must convince the sea of new members, and returnees, to attend meetings … and drive out the right. Elect officers who defend the Corbyn leadership. Elect officers who are committed to transforming our wards and constituencies into vibrant centres of socialist organisation, education and action. As such our basic units would be well placed to hold councillors and MPs to account.
Our main goal should not be the attempt to win the next general election by courting the capitalist media, concocting some rotten compromise with the right, let alone going for a “broad political alliance” with the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists. A well trod road to disaster. No, our main goal should be to transform the Labour Party, so that, in the words of Keir Hardie, it can “organise the working class into a great independent political power to fight for the coming of socialism”.
Towards that end we need rule changes to once again permit left, communist and revolutionary parties to affiliate. As long as they do not stand against us in elections, this can only but strengthen us as a federal party. Today affiliate organisations include the Fabians, Christians on the left, the Co-operative Party … the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Business. Allow the SWP, SPEW, CPGB, the Morning Star’s CPB, etc, to join our ranks.
Moreover, programmatically, we should consider a new clause four (see box). Not a return to the old, 1918, version, but a commitment to working class rule and a society which aims for a stateless, classless, moneyless society which embodies the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. Towards that end the Labour Party should commit itself to achieving a “democratic republic”. The standing army, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the state sponsorship of the Church of England must go. We should support a single-chamber parliament, proportional representation and annual elections. All of that ought to be included in our new clause four.
The PLP rebels are out and out opportunists. Once and for all we must put an end to such types exploiting our party. Being an MP ought to be an honour, not a career ladder, not a way for university graduates to secure a lucrative living.
A particularly potent weapon here is the demand that all our elected representatives should take only the average wage of a skilled worker. A principle upheld by the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik revolution. Even the Italian Communist Party under Enrico Berlinguer applied the partymax in the 1970s. With the PCI’s huge parliamentary fraction this proved to be a vital source of funds.
Our MPs are on a basic £67,060 annual salary. On top of that they get around £12,000 in expenses and allowances, putting them on £79,060 (yet at present Labour MPs are only obliged to pay the £82 parliamentarians’ membership subscription rate). Moreover, as leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn not only gets his MP’s salary. He is entitled to an additional £73,617. )
Let them keep the average skilled workers’ wage – say £40,000 (plus legitimate expenses). Then, however, they should hand the balance over to the party. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott ought to take the lead.
Imposing a partymax would give a considerable boost to our finances. Even if we leave out our 20 MEPs from the calculation, it would amount to a £900,000 addition. Anyway, whatever our finances, there is the basic principle. Our representatives ought to live like ordinary workers, not pampered members of the middle class. So, yes, let us agree the partymax as a basic principle.
Given the huge challenges before us, we urgently need to reach out to all those who are disgusted by corrupt career politicians, all those who aspire for a better world, all those who have an objective interest in ending capitalism. Towards that end we must establish our own press, radio and TV. To state the obvious, tweeting and texting have severe limits. They are brilliant mediums for transmitting simple, short and sharp messages. But, when it comes to complex ideas, debating history and charting political strategies, they are worse than useless.
Relying on the favours of the capitalist press, radio and TV is a game for fools. True, it worked splendidly for Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. But as Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband found to their cost, to live by the mainstream media is to die by the mainstream media.
No, to set the agenda we need our own full-spectrum alternative.
The established media can be used, of course. But, as shown by the run-up to the anti-Corbyn coup, when things really matter, we get hardly a look in. Indeed the capitalist press, radio and TV were integral to the anti-Corbyn coup. There are, of course, siren voices to the contrary. Those who think we can win over The Guardian, the Mirror, etc. But, frankly, only the determinedly naive could not have anticipated the poisonous bias, the mockery, the hatchet-jobs, the implacable opposition.
Once we had the Daily Herald. Now we have nothing. Well, apart from the deadly-dull trade union house journals, the advertising sheets of the confessional sects and the Morning Star (which is still under the grip of unreconstructed Stalinites).
We should aim for an opinion-forming daily paper of the labour movement and seek out trade union, co-operative, crowd and other such sources of funding. And, to succeed, we have to be brave: iconoclastic viewpoints, difficult issues, two-way arguments, must be included as a matter of course. The possibility of distributing it free of charge should be considered and, naturally, everything should be put up on the web without paywalls. We should also launch a range of internet-based TV and radio stations. With the abundant riches of dedication, passion and ideas that exist on the left, we can surely better the BBC, Al Jazeera, Russia Today and Sky.
Of course, the Jeremy Corbyn-John McDonnell leadership faces both an enemy without in the PLP and an enemy within in their own reformist ideology. They seriously seem to believe that socialism can be brought about piecemeal, through a series of left and ever lefter Labour governments. In reality, though, a Labour government committed to the existing state and the existing constitutional order produces not decisive steps in the direction of socialism, but attacks on the working class … and then, as we have repeatedly seen, beginning with the January-November 1924 MacDonald government, the re-election of a Tory government.
Naturally, knowing our history, real Marxists, not fake Marxists, have never talked of reclaiming the Labour Party. It has never been ours in the sense of being a “political weapon for the workers’ movement”. No, despite the electoral base and trade union affiliations, our party has been dominated throughout its entire history by career politicians and trade union bureaucrats. A distinct social stratum, which in the last analysis serves not the interests of the working class, but the continuation of capitalist exploitation.
Speaking in the context of the advisability of the newly formed CPGB applying to affiliate to the Labour Party, Lenin had this to say:
[W]hether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men [sic – JM] that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.
Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns [the executioners of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht].
An assessment which still retains its essential purchase. The PLP is a 172-strong bourgeois party, which acts “quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie”. However, the election of Corbyn, the “core group” of 19 pro-Corbyn MPs, the massively expanded membership, gives us an unparallelled historic opportunity to refound the Labour Party as a party that “is really a political party of the workers.”
Today the Labour Party is a chimera. Instead of a two-way contradiction between the leadership and the membership, we now have a three-way contradiction. The left dominates both the top and bottom of the party. That gives us the possibility of crushing the rightwing domination of the middle – the councillors, apparatus and PLP majority – from below and above.
No wonder the Tories, the army top brass and the bourgeois media want an immediate end to the Corbyn leadership. In this context, note David Cameron’s genuinely impassioned entreaty to Corbyn during one of their set-piece PMQs jousts: “It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there. It’s not in the national interest. I would say – for heaven’s sake, man, go.” Tory MPs cheered to the rafters the “for heaven’s sake, man, go” phrase. It is, of course, directly borrowed from that great bourgeois revolutionary, Oliver Cromwell. Most Labour MPs kept glumly silent. But obviously they agreed – having the day before voted 172-40 for the no-confidence motion.
In the exact same spirit, Sir Nicholas Houghton, the outgoing chief of the defence staff, publicly “worried” on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government. There were accompanying press rumours of unnamed members of the army high command “not standing for” a Corbyn government and being prepared to take “direct action”. Prior to that, a normally sober Financial Times ominously warned that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”. So, in the event of a Corbyn-led government, expect a “very British coup”.
Of course, in the medium to long term we Marxists want the abolition of the Bonarpartist post of leader. In the meantime, however, we favour Corbyn using to the full all the dictatorial powers accumulated by Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Neil Kinnock and above all Tony Blair. From bitter first-hand experience, former Labour MP Alan Simpson writes: “When Blair talked of ‘an unbroken line of accountability’, he meant everyone, and everything, being accountable to him.” We need a similar ruthlessness from Corbyn. Indeed, when dealing with the 172 rebel MPs, he too should borrow from the revolutionary Oliver Cromwell:
Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye are grown intolerably odious. You were deputed here to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance. Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! Go! In the name of god, go!
Corbyn’s much publicised admiration for Karl Marx, his campaigning against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, opposition to US-led imperialist wars, call to junk Trident and nuclear weapons, his commitment to increase the tax take from transnational corporations, the banks and the mega rich, his Platonic republicanism, even his timid mumbling of the royal anthem – all mark him out as completely unacceptable to the British ruling class. It does not want him as the leader of the official opposition. It certainly does not want him as prime minister.
Of course, there is the danger that the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership will have their agenda set for them by the attempt to establish PLP unity. Put another way, in the attempt to placate the right, it will be the right that sets the political agenda. We have already seen the abandoning of principles, staying silent and putting them onto the backburner. Eg, John McDonnell’s pusillanimous statements on Ireland. Eg, Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to defend the victims of the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. Now there is the call from the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership to have a “sensible” discussion on immigration. After the EU referendum McDonnell says we are no longer obliged to defend the principle of the right of people to free movement (he was disgracefully backed by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey). Such a course is meant to pander to working class EU exiters. But it disorients, demobilises and demoralises Corbyn’s base.
What about those on the left who stand on the sidelines? Eg, members of SPEW, SWP, the Morning Star’s CPB, Socialist Resistance and Left Unity? Do not dismiss them. Do not shun them. Instead they, or at least their cadre, should be viewed as a potential asset. If they throw themselves into the fight to transform the Labour Party, I am sure they would make an outstanding contribution. Necessarily, towards that end, there has got to be thoroughgoing self-criticism … beginning at the top.
If Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, wants to be treated seriously, it is obvious what he must do. Firstly, openly and honestly, admit that his characterisation of the Labour Party as a bourgeois party, as being no different from the US Democratic Party, was short-sighted, impressionistic and fundamentally mistaken. Secondly, he should immediately put an end to standing candidates against Labour. Close down the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition forthwith. Thirdly, comrade Taaffe must own up that his repeated attempts to get trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party amounted to sabotage. He should tell his comrades in RMT, PCS, NUT, etc to join us in calling for affiliation or reaffiliation. Unless he does that, a suitable replacement should be found.
The Socialist Workers Party is little different. Charlie Kimber, its national secretary, claims to “stand shoulder to shoulder with all those seeking Corbyn’s re-election”. But the SWP has likewise dismissed the Labour Party as a trap, backed Tusc, supported trade union disaffiliation and opposed affiliation. Indeed comrade Kimber sees the Corbyn re-election campaign as little more than an opportunity to “build for the ‘Unwelcome the Tories’ demo in Birmingham on Sunday October 2 and the ‘Stand up to Racism’ conference the week after on Saturday October 8”. Myopia still rules.
Charlie Kimber says that what really matters is not changing the Labour Party, but “strikes and demonstrations”. A Bakuninist, not a Marxist, formulation. Because the Labour Party is historically established, because it involves all big unions, because it has drawn in hundreds of thousands of new members, because it provokes bourgeois fear and anger, what is happening in the Labour Party is, in fact, a far higher form of the class struggle than economic strikes, let alone ephemeral protests or fake front conferences. In fact, the civil war raging in the Labour Party is a highly concentrated form of the class struggle.
Then there is the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. When not promising to shop “entryists” to our witch-finder general, Iain McNicol, we have, in essence, a continuation of the SWP’s movementist politics. Morning Star editor, Ben Chacko, wants to focus attention not on decisively winning the civil war in the Labour Party. Idiotically, even at this crucial stage, he sees “a task far bigger than the Labour Party”. Fighting for a mass revolutionary party? No. Forging the links necessary for establishing a new workers’ international? No. What comrade Chacko, laughably, wants is “organising at a local level in groups such as the People’s Assembly, Keep Our NHS Public, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts and many more”.
Where we in the LPM strive to elevate local struggles to the national and the international level, comrade Chacko’s sights are set on “saving an A&E or a youth club”. That he does so in the name of Marxist politics and creating a mass movement on the scale of the Chartists shows an inability to grasp even the A in the ABC of communism.
Hopefully members of SPEW, the SWP, the Morning Star’s CPB, Socialist Resistance and Left Unity will as a matter of urgency deal with their sectarian, their benighted, their nincompoop misleaders and join us in the history-making struggle to transform the Labour Party.