The unexpected general election result has considerably weakened the Tories and strengthened Jeremy Corbyn’s position. The left has a real chance of transforming the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind, says James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists
I was firmly convinced that the Tories were heading for a clear majority and the Labour Party would almost certainly lose seats. You can therefore appreciate my emotional state on election night. Delight mixed with surprise, as soon as the joint BBC-ITV-Sky exit poll was announced. The Tories were on track to be the biggest party … but with no overall majority.
From our viewpoint the results were almost without exception excellent. While the Tory share of the vote was 42.4%, humiliatingly they lost 13 seats. Labour’s share rose to 40% and we gained 30 seats. No less pleasing, the Scottish National Party suffered a significant setback – down by 21. True, as we have long warned, there was an always present danger of a Tory rebirth north of the border. Ruth Davidson now has 13-strong group of Scottish MPs. But Labour is back too. Having been reduced to a single MP in 2015, we now hold seven seats in Scotland’s central belt. Those on the left who pathetically trail the SNP – eg, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Resistance, Scottish Socialist Party, etc – and wanted to “make” June 8 an “independence election” have had their answer. And in Wales, instead of the Tories gaining, it was Labour.
With good reason we can say that there is a return to two-party politics. Not that it ever really went away. Capitalism, the existence of two main classes, the first-past-the-post system – all tend to produce two great camps: one of capital, the other of labour.
So what about the other parties? Frankly, I expected a minor Liberal Democratic revival. They are, after all, ideally placed to hoover up discontented remainers because of their manifesto promise to oppose Brexit and the offer of a second referendum. True, they gained four seats. However, their share of the vote fell to just 7.4% – an all-time low . An additional bonus: Nick Clegg lost in Sheffield Hallam – the final coda to the Cleggmania that swept the country just before the 2010 general election.
The UK Independence Party now looks to be heading in the same direction as the British National Party. And it wasn’t Stand Up To Racism what done it. Theresa May stole Ukip’s programme. This helps to explain why the Tories could increase their overall total vote to 13.6 million. Nevertheless, especially in the north of England Labour too benefited from Ukip’s collapse.
Northern Ireland’s politics are ever more polarised. The Democratic Unionist Party gained two seats, as did Sinn Féin. In parliamentary terms the official Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic Labour Party suffered complete wipe-out.
Nature of election
Was June 8 a second EU referendum? Was it chiefly about Europe and Brexit? That is what pundits suggested when the general election was first called. And, obviously, that is what Theresa May and her Tory strategists intended. The same can be said of Paul Nuttall and Ukip, and Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats. However, unless they could not help it, that was never going to be the case with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Their position on the EU was, and is, deliberately equivocal. They campaigned ‘remain’ in 2016, but now they say they respect the 52:48% ‘leave’ vote. Moreover, they want a Brexit that protects British jobs and British industries, while simultaneously making noises about reducing the flow of labour from abroad. A classic left-nationalist fudge.
Here the Lord Ashcroft analysis of the general election makes fascinating reading. Six out of 10 of those who were for ‘leave’ in 2016 voted Tory this time. Only 25% of them voted Labour. Meanwhile, amongst ‘remainers’ 25% voted Tory, 51% Labour and 24% Liberal Democrat. In other words, in terms of electoral base the Conservative Party is solidly pro-Brexit, while that of the Labour Party and Lib Dems is opposed to Brexit. Certainly, taken as a whole, this bloc has no wish to see a hard Brexit. That said, when it comes to reasons for voting, while Tory and Lib Dem voters rated Europe as their key issue, Labour voters were much more likely to be motivated by education spending, NHS cuts, student grants, poor housing, low wages and opposing wars of foreign intervention. Given how well Labour actually did, certainly when it came to poll predictions, it is clear that June 8 was not a Brexit election.
Arguably it was a generational election. The figures are startling. Of those aged 18-24 a massive 66% went with Labour; a mere 18% for the Tories. And this cohort came out in record numbers. Many for the first time. However, when it comes to the over-65s, the picture almost reverses: 58% Tory, only 23% Labour.
What this reflects, however, is not a generational war: rather class retrogression, the proletarianisation, the de-petty-bourgeoisification of the younger generation. They might be attending university, or already have graduated. But they come out of full-time education burdened with huge debts, and then they can only secure precarious or comparatively low-paid jobs. As for the dream of home ownership, it is likely to remain just that: a dream. They have to stay with aged parents, pay exorbitant rents for tiny, often shared, flats. Sociologists insist on classifying them as middle class, but of course they are no such thing. They are working class. They have to get up in the morning and sell their labour-power. Even those who still aspire to make it into the middle class bitterly oppose the Tories – their austerity, their anti-migrant national chauvinism, their warmongering, their amorality and their worship of the market. Newly qualified teachers, junior doctors and young techies alike voted Labour in huge numbers. Corbyn chimed with them, excited them.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn looked like he was going to win the Labour leadership contest in 2015 – certainly since the Brexit vote and Theresa May became prime minister – Marxists arrived at five main conclusions:
- The Labour right would fight an unremitting civil war against Corbyn and the left.
- We had a once-in-a-lifetime’s chance to transform the Labour Party.
- There would be no Brexit – definitely no hard Brexit.
- Whatever May was saying about waiting till 2020 and the fixed-term parliament act, she would eat her words and call a snap election over Brexit.
- The Labour Party would come out of the general election in no position to form a government.
I make no apology about warning about a bad Labour result. The danger was that a Tory landslide and Labour being reduced to a parliamentary rump would demoralise the hundreds of thousands who had joined or rejoined the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn. The strategic goal of transforming the Labour Party could, as a consequence, hit the rocks. It was necessary therefore to try and lower expectations in the short term with a view to securing the long-term goal.
And, of course, that is what the polls were telling us. In the couple of weeks before June 8 polling companies were reporting that, while the gap between the two main parties had narrowed, it was still considerable. ComRes gave the Tories a 12% lead (down from 21% when the election call was first made). ORB put the Tories at 44% and Labour 38%. On the day of the election, Lord Ashcroft produced estimates giving a Tory majority ranging from 52 to 96. Given past performances in by-elections and the recent round of council elections, such figures struck me as quite likely. Labour was also plagued by a rightwing anti-Corbyn campaign that amounted to out-and-out sabotage. Labour MPs habitually briefed against Corbyn, staged coordinated resignations and regularly demanded his resignation. Rank-and-file leftwingers were subject to vile charges of anti-Semitism, intimidation and even assault. Thousands were expelled or suspended. While, of course, no rightwing Labour MP actually wanted to lose their seat, without exception they expected Labour to do badly. Therefore the “working the tearooms” in preparation for a new leadership challenge. Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna were widely touted. So was Clive Lewis (thanks to Owen Jones).
Hence, it was more than reasonable to take a sober approach. Opinion polls, recent election results, ongoing Labour Party divisions and historical parallels, such as 1931 and 1983, are certainly a lot more reliable than subjective impressions derived from the last person one happened to talk to on the bus or at the train station.
Terrified by the prospect of an increased Tory majority Jon Cruddas, Clive Lewis, Helena Kennedy, Hilary Wainwright, Tulip Siddiq, etc, pleaded for Labour to stand aside for the Greens in Brighton Pavilion and the Isle of Wight. In line with this, Compass – a “leftwing” pressure group, once aligned with the Labour Party, but now uniting “people across different political parties (and those with no party affiliation)” – promoted its ‘Progressive Alliance’. This popular front involved tactical voting and Labour, the Lib Dems, Plaid, the SNP, the Women’s Equality Party and the Greens getting together to “co-create a new politics”.
Of course, there was no increased Tory majority. Nor was there a ‘Progressive Alliance’. Thanks to Tory blundering, May’s cowardice, Corbyn’s wonderfully successful town and city rallies, his more than competent media performances, the alternative Labour machine in the form of Momentum and a huge army of individual members canvassing and campaigning – not least by Facebooking, Tweeting and Snapchatting – Labour did remarkably well.
Seemingly, the Labour surge took place with the finishing line already in sight. According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election analysis, unlike the Tory vote, Labour’s took some time to firm up: 57% decided to vote Labour in the last month, 26% in the “last few days” of the campaign.
And there has been another mass influx into the party. Hundreds of thousands have joined. It should be said, moreover, that the majority of them stand instinctively, albeit vaguely, to the left. They soaked up Labour’s policies from the social ether … and interpret them as far more radical than they actually are. Tory propaganda also had its own, altogether unintended, effect. Corbyn was denounced as a communist, a Marxist, a friend of extremism, an advocate of class war. The Tories repeatedly showed old pictures of him standing alongside Gerry Adams. They repeatedly showed old pictures of him speaking in Trafalgar Square in opposition to the Iraq war.
This hugely expensive media and advertising campaign totally backfired. Nowadays many people, especially the young, are looking for an alternative to capitalism. They no longer fear socialism. They positively yearn for fundamental change … and they are looking to Jeremy Corbyn to deliver.
What about the Iraq war? The Tories attacked Corbyn for suggesting some causal link between what has happened to Muslims in the Middle East over the last couple of decades and Manchester, London and other recent examples of home-grown Islamic terrorism. Well, there is a link. That is not to excuse the bombings, the car attacks, the stabbings. It is merely to state the obvious … and it served to bring attention to Tory cuts in police numbers in pursuit of their austerity agenda.
Moreover, the electorate was usefully reminded by the Toriesthat Corbyn was one of the tiny minority of MPs who consistently stood against the imperialist interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria … and the hell on earth they created. Not only has the ‘war on terror’ cost the lives of “as many as two million people” (Physicians for Social Responsibility). The conditions were created for al Qa’eda, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Nusra, Islamic State, etc. As for Gerry Adams, British ministers now regularly meet and greet him. Sinn Féin is integral to the constitutional arrangement put in place by the 1998 Good Friday agreement. As for being pictured alongside Gerry Adams – Charles Windsor, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair have all posed for the world’s cameras, smiled and duly shook hands with the great peacemaker.
The general election greatly diminished Theresa May. She is a shadow of her former self. Her remaining time as prime minister is surely very limited. Already her trusted aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, have been forced to fall on their swords. Leading rivals retain their ministerial posts and have demanded one token concession after another. The proposed “confidence and supply” deal with Arlene Foster and her Democratic Union Party is a recipe for weak and unstable government. May’s allies are sectarian, bigoted, eccentric, crazed … and unreliable. Expect to see MPs transported to the Commons by ambulance. Expect desperate government bribes. Expect by-election defeats. Indeed, so slim is the government’s legislative majority, so fractured are the Tories, that the prospect of a hard Brexit has been reduced to zero. At least that is my considered opinion.
The Brussels bureaucracy, the EU 27, crucially Germany and France, will play hard ball. British negotiators will be treated with contempt. After all, Theresa May did not get the mandate she asked for. She was rebuffed, thwarted and punished by the British electorate.
True, the Great Repeal Bill that parallels Brexit could be presented to parliament as a one-line motion. Politically, however, that is impossible. There are too many factions, too many conflicting interests, too many hobbyhorses. Meanwhile the two-year clock is already ticking away. The March 2017 vote on article 50 saw to that. Therefore, with an unprecedented mass of legislation to steer through parliament, in all probability the whole Brexit process will simply grind to a halt. Tellingly, both president Emmanuel Macron and the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, have recently stressed that the EU is “open” to a British change of heart.
Big business frets mightily over the uncertainty. The June 23 2016 EU referendum came as a terrible shock for the core representatives of capital. Now they have the June 8 2017 general election. A double whammy. Note, Moody’s is already casting doubt over Britain’s stability and its Aa1 credit rating. Understandably, desperate voices are being raised calling for a “national unity government” made up of ministers from both main parties. Of course, as the Financial Times readily admits, in the “real world” it will not happen. Corbyn has no apparent appetite for a coalition and is obviously relishing the prospect of a decaying Conservative Party and outright victory in the next general election.
Yet the fact of the matter is that Labour’s For the many, not the few manifesto is only a tad to the left of Ed Miliband’s 2015 offering. Britain can be better promised a ban on “exploitative” zero-hours contracts, to “freeze energy bills”, “abolish non-dom status”, to “value” trade unions as an “essential force” in society, to “reduce tuition fees to £6,000” annually, invest in health and education, put in place a national rail body and encourage “public-sector operators”, build “at least” 200,000 homes, “cut the deficit every year”, “replace” the House of Lords with an elected “Senate of the Nations and Regions”, and “build an economy that works for working people”.
For the many promised to eliminate the “government’s deficit on day-to-day spending within five years”, “invest in cutting-edge” industries and to “upgrade our economy”, bring back into “public ownership” the rails, establish “publicly-owned water companies”, no new “private prisons”, “regain” control over “energy supply networks”, “review laws on trade union recognition”, “repeal the Trade Union Act”, “ban zero-hour contracts”, a programme to build a “million new homes”, a Britain “for the many, not the few”, etc.
In other words, a pro-worker Keynesianism that was tried, tested and failed in France with the socialist-communist government under president François Mitterrand. Having begun in 1981 with the mildly leftwing policies of the common programme, he presided over the so-called tournant de la rigueur (austerity turn) two years later. Capital went on strike, inflation shot up and French competiveness slumped. That For the many is in fact thoroughly Mitterandist did not stop the economistic left going into rhapsodic overdrive.
A Labour Briefing editorial called for “Labour to power” and somehow managed to claim that this amounts to “a clear socialist message”. The Labour Representation Committee, the mother ship of Labour Briefing, welcomed the manifesto as “a programme which would help begin the socialist transformation of Britain”. The LRC even gave For the manyits own subtitle: A socialist manifesto for Britain. But the word ‘socialism’ never appears anywhere in the actual text.
Socialist Worker fulsomely welcomed Labour’s manifesto as a “shift to the left” and, crazily, urged Corbyn to embrace the cause of Scottish independence.
Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, announced that it would fight “for a Jeremy Corbyn-led government with socialist policies”.
Paul Mason, formerly a leading Workers Power member, now a right-moving “Momentum activist”, said that we can “elect the Labour Party on a socialist platform”.
Socialist Resistance – otherwise known as Resisting Socialism – praised Corbyn for presenting a “radical alternative” … and in that spirit called for an “anti-austerity alliance” uniting Labour, the Greens and the SNP. Class politics is a long forgotten concept for these comrades.
Ironically, the economistic left found confirmation in the hard right print media. Except, of course, that their hopes are turned into nightmares. The Daily Telegraph described the Labour manifesto as “a tax raid on the middle class” and a recipe to “take Britain back to the 1970s”. A “socialist programme”, fumed the Daily Mail, that is “red in tooth and claw and dripping with class envy”. The Sun, Express, The Times, etc, could be quoted along similar lines.
However, as we have seen, there is precious little that is genuinely leftwing about For the many. Certainly it has nothing whatsoever to do with genuine socialism. For orthodox Marxism, as everyone knows, socialism begins with a fundamental break with capitalism – socialism being the rule of the working class and the transition to a classless, stateless, moneyless society. But For the many does not even adhere to a reformist socialism … which holds out the seemingly plausible prospect of ending capitalism though introducing socialism in one country at a time through piecemeal legislative change.
For the many accepts capitalism, does not mention socialism, wants to reconcile antagonistic classes. In fact, for those willing to see, there are many tell-tale formulations within it, designed to appease the openly pro-capitalist right. No wonder in the aftershock of June 8 one rightwing Labour MP after another has gone to TV and radio studios to sing its praises.
The opening section of For the many includes the revealing statement that Labour “will support businesses”. Big capital is given the assurance that a Corbyn Labour government will keep corporation tax “among the lowest of the major economies”. And then there is the pledge to “put small business at the centre of our industrial strategy”.
As for ‘back to the 1970s’, in truth it is more like ‘back to the 1980s’. Margret Thatcher thought that rail privatisation was a step too far. What of prisons? Did she ever seriously envisage wholesale privatisation? No, the most that was considered to be politically viable was allowing private companies to tender for contracts and building prisons through the so-called private finance initiative (continued by the Blair-Brown Labour governments).
Indeed, sadly, it is worth noting that For the manyinternalises many aspects of Thatcherism. Take the programme of building a million homes. Nine-tenths of them are projected to be private. Only a tenth council and housing association. A Corbynite take on the Tory ideal of the property-owning democracy: a cynical attempt to undermine working class consciousness by getting mortgage slaves to imagine themselves little capitalists.
Nato membership goes unquestioned and there is the boastthat the last Labour government “consistently” spent above the 2% benchmark. Indeed it is claimed that the Tories are putting “Britain’s security at risk” by “shrinking the army to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars”. We are also told that “the scrapping of Nimrod, HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier jump-jets have weakened our defences and cost British taxpayers millions”. Unlike the Labour 1983 manifesto, For the many commits Labour, not to a “non-nuclear defence policy”, but renewing the Trident missile system. Bizarrely, this is proposed in the name of fulfilling Britain’s “obligations” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So building the next generation of SSBN submarines, together capable of obliterating 172 cities, is meant to be a step towards “a nuclear-free world”.
No genuine leftwinger, no genuine socialist, no genuine Marxist could possibly support For the many. Our motto remains “For this system, not one man, not one penny” (Wilhelm Liebknecht speaking in the German Reichstag in 1871). The working class should, as a matter of elementary principle, oppose the standing army, not regret its reduced size. We are for a popular militia, not weapons of mass destruction.
Nor are socialists purveyors of the myth of Britain’s “long established democracy”. Britain’s quasi-democracy is in historic terms recently established. And every democratic advance has been won from below in the face of fierce opposition from above. Male workers only got the vote in the late 19th century. Women in the 1920s. And, of course, the capitalist press, the media, the education system ensure that the electorate normally votes for safe, careerist, bribable candidates (eg, a clear majority of Labour’s 262 MPs elected on June 8). Moreover, the country is a monarchy, where the privy council, the secret service, the bureaucracy, the army high command and the judges can legally dispose of any unacceptable government. Yet For the many innocently proclaims that “Democracy is founded upon the rule of law and judicial independence.” A classic liberal formulation. And, apart from calling for an elected second chamber, a “more federalised country” and a vague phrase about “inviting recommendations about extending democracy”, the existing constitutional order is accepted.
The same goes for capitalism. For the many believes that capitalism, the economic system, can be managed for the benefit of the many. But it simply cannot be done. Capitalism is a system of exploitation based on the endless self-expansion of capital and generalised wage-slavery. Individual capitalists and top managers can have their dividends heavily taxed and their salaries capped. But capital has to expand through extracting surplus value from workers … without that capital will cease to be capital, stay as money, find its way abroad, etc. In fact, the “creation of wealth” is not, as For the manymaintains, “a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government”. Wealth is created not by so-called entrepreneurs, not by investors, not by government. No, wealth is created by workers … and nature.
Past Labour leaders have promised much in opposition … but once in office they always side with the interests of capital … typically disguised with the coded phrase, used by For the many, of putting the “national interest first”. And in the “national interest” they keep down wage rises, attack irresponsible strikes and back British capitalists against foreign rivals.
Therefore the real significance of For the many lies not in how leftwing it is. No, it encapsulates the political drift, the taming of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Once they were left reformists; now they seem to have reconciled themselves to the existing constitutional order and the system of capitalist exploitation. Obviously the same applies to the main authors of For the many – reportedly Andrew Fisher, a former darling of the LRC, and Seumas Milne, a former Straight Leftist.
However – and it cannot be stressed too strongly – for the ruling class, for the political, business and state elite, Jeremy Corbyn remains totally unacceptable as a potential prime minister. His past statements on Marxism, the monarchy, Nato, nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, Iraq, Zionism, Palestine, etc, rule him out as a safe option. No wonder, as soon as he was elected Labour leader, there were 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, the normally sober Financial Times ominously warned that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”.
Despite that, the majority who voted Labour on June 8 did so not because of what For the many actually says, but because what they believe For the many says. Hence, while there is the distinct danger that Corbyn and McDonnell will steer further to the right, in the attempt to secure PLP unity and victory at the next general election, there is also a real chance of transforming the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind … and equipping it with the minimum-maximum programme of classical Marxism.
The minimum programme, it should be stressed, is not concerned with tinkering with capitalism: rather readying the working class to become the ruling class. So the minimum programme is both the maximum the working class can achieve under capitalism and the minimum terms the workers’ party sets for forming a government.
Hence demands such as genuine equality for women, extending popular control over all aspects of society, devolving power downwards, a federal republic, Irish unity, abolishing the monarchy, the second chamber, MI5 and disestablishing the Church of England. The shortage of housing should be ended through a massive programme of council house building. Flats and houses must, of course, be of a high quality and rents set at a token level. Allocation should be on the basis of need. State secrets should be ended, along with all forms of censorship. The pharmaceutical industry, the power, water and transport infrastructure, land, the banks and financial services must be nationalised. Judges should be not be appointed from above, but subject to popular election.
Marxists certainly oppose Brexit and instead demand the democratisation of the European Union – moving towards an indivisible Europe under a council of ministers elected by the European parliament. And, while Marxists would advocate specific measures to protect small businesses and farms from exploitation by banks and monopolies, we have no wish to preserve this sector in aspic. Indeed its destruction is historically progressive.
For the sake of human survival we must put a stop to the degradation of nature in double quick time and seek to preserve what remains. Native animal and plant species should be reintroduced. In short, the connection between town and country must be placed on new foundations. Huge farms and urban sprawl have to be replaced by an urbanised countryside and cities full of gardens, small farms and open spaces. Trade unions must be freed from state control. They are voluntary associations. We fight for complete democratisation and measures to combat bureaucracy in the trade union movement.
When it comes to the armed forces, we demand that officers be elected. There should also be full trade union rights and the rank-and-file soldiers must be encouraged to mutiny if they are given orders that run counter to the interests of democracy, the working class and the struggle for socialism. Of course, we want to see the end of the standing army and its replacement by a popular militia.
Unless we can carry out such a programme in full, which would, obviously, require international coordination, we cannot countenance forming a government. Meantime our task is to act as a party of extreme opposition.
There has been much silly media talk of a PLP split and MPs resigning the Labour whip and sitting as independents until Corbyn quits as leader. Frankly, it is not going to happen. To this day, the right is haunted by the ghosts of Ramsay MacDonald and the Gang of Four. MacDonald, twice a Labour prime minister, led what he called the National Labour Organisation into a thoroughly unequal coalition with the Tories in 1931. The Gang of Four of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams broke away exactly 50 years later to form the Social Democratic Party. The NLO instantly became a tame Tory slave – it finally dissolved in 1945. As for the SDP, it merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 and shared the same richly deserved fate. From the early 1970s, even till the late 80s, of course, the political centre enjoyed something of a revival. No longer. Despite May’s hard Brexit stance providing an open goal, the Lib Dems remain to this day marginalised and widely despised.
Given the results of June 8 and the punishing logic of the first-past-the-post system, only a complete fool would now expect Tom Watson to play Ramsay MacDonald, Sadiq Khan to step in for Philip Snowden or Iain McNicol to make an appearance as Benjamin Musgrave. Even with a bad general election result there is every reason to believe that Corbyn would have seen off another leadership challenge. Obviously, with June 8, Corbyn’s position has become considerably stronger. However, while there is every reason to defend Corbyn against the right, we must go far beyond that. Our goal is socialism and towards that end we must put in place and fashion the organisational means. That is why the LPM advocates this 10-point platform.
- Fight for Labour Party rule changes. Crucially, all elected Labour representatives must be subject to mandatory reselection based on ‘one member, one vote’. MPs must be brought under democratic control – from above, by the NEC; from below, by the CLPs.
Mandatory reselection, of course, terrifies the right. It was this, “even more than nuclear disarmament and membership of the European Community, that became the main catalyst for the launch of the breakaway Social Democratic Party”. Progress, Lord David Sainsbury’s party within the party, furiously denounces mandatory reselection as “a weapon of fear and intimidation”. Yes, mandatory reselection is viewed as an affront by every wrecker, every hireling, every parliamentary careerist.
It is worth revisiting the background. Interestingly, and with good reason, we read, on the Progress website, that mandatory reselection carries “echoes of the Paris Commune, and of the Russian soviets, where delegates were subject to recall if they displeased their local citizenry. It rests on the idea that leaders will always be tempted to sell you out, once they get power.” Well, surely, that is what history actually shows.
For decades, sitting Labour MPs – certainly those in safe seats – enjoyed a job for life (as long as no better offer came along). They might visit their constituency once or twice a year, deliver a speech to the AGM and write an occasional letter to the local newspaper. Meanwhile they lived a pampered, middle class life, frequented various London’s gentlemen’s clubs and spent their weekends in the home counties countryside with Lord this and Lady that. Despite such evident moral corruption, they were automatically the candidate for the next election. Unless found guilty of an act of gross indecency or had the party whip withdrawn, they could do as they pleased.
With the insurgent rise of Bennism that situation was increasingly called into question. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, founded in 1973, committed itself to a range of internal reforms – crucially mandatory reselection of MPs, which was finally agreed by the 1980 conference. What this saw, however, was not a Labour Party equivalent of the Paris Commune or the Russian soviets – there was no right of instant recall. Nevertheless, once in each parliament, our MPs had to get the endorsement of their local general management committee. Note, GMCs were made up of delegates elected by local party and trade union branches. They were sizable bodies, typically consisting of 100 or even more delegates.
At the prompting of the bourgeois media and desperately seeking acceptability, Neil Kinnock sought to extract trade unions from the voting process altogether. He failed, but accepted a compromise. A local electoral college for the selection and reselection of candidates was introduced. Ordinary members were given a direct vote for the first time, leaving GMCs with the right to nominate and shortlist only. This electoral college system gave unions and affiliated organisations up to 40% of the vote, with ordinary members having some 60% (the actual balance was different in each seat, depending on party and union membership).
Trigger ballots were a product of the 1990s. Formally honouring conference’s “desire to maintain reselection”, they made it significantly “easier for MPs to defend their positions”. Trigger ballots allowed for a sitting MP to be subject to a full-scale ballot of the membership. But only if they lost the trigger ballot.
- 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.
- 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. We say, allow in those good socialists who have been barred, reinstate those good socialists who have expelled or suspended.
- Momentum proved to be an effective campaigning organisation. An alternative election machine for Corbyn and McDonnell to wield, given the sabotage, bias and limited imagination of Iain McNicol and the Victoria Street HQ. But politically the stultifying inertia imposed on Momentum has proved to be an own goal. Eg, Jon Lansman blocked all Momentum attempts to oppose the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smears; nor did he allow Momentum to fight the 2016 purge of leftwing supporters of Corbyn. It is now impossible to transform Momentum into a democratic organisation – an organisation that can educate, activate and empower the rank-and-file membership. So there is an urgent need for the left to organise within Momentum branches where they still exist … but, also, go far beyond that by expanding the influence and organised strength of Labour Party Marxists.
- Winning new trade union affiliates ought to be a top priority. The FBU reaffiliated. Excellent. Matt Wrack at last came to his senses. He took the lead in reversing the disaffiliation policy. But what about RMT? Especially after June 8 we can surely get RMT militants to finally drop their support for the thoroughly misconceived Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition project. Not only vote Labour, but reaffiliate to Labour … and exert real influence. And what about the NUT? This year’s Cardiff conference saw the executive win an amendment by the narrowest (50.63% to 49.37%) majority, which effectively ruled out affiliation. This can surely be changed … if we campaign to win hearts and minds. Then there is PCS. Thankfully, Mark Serwotka, its leftwing general secretary, has at last come round to the idea. True, PCS affiliation to the Labour Party will run up against the Trades Disputes and Trade Union Act (1927). Introduced by a vengeful Tory government in the aftermath of the general strike, civil service unions were barred from affiliating to the Labour Party and the TUC in the name of ensuring the “political neutrality” of civil servants. 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. Force another change in the law.
- Every constituency, ward and other such basic unit must be won and rebuilt by the left. Our individual membership grew from 200,000 in May 2015 to over 500,000 because of the historic opening provided by Corbyn. And with the general election campaign membership has again risen, this time to over 550,000. A million members is within our grasp. However, the left must convince the sea of new members to attend meetings … only then can we sweep out the right from the NEC, the HQ, the councils and the PLP. Elect officers who support genuine socialism. Elect officers who are committed to transforming our wards and constituencies into vibrant centres of socialist organisation, education and action.
- Our 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. That is what we mean by a united front of a special kind. As long as they do not stand against us in elections, this can only but strengthen us as a federal party. Today affiliated organisations include the Fabians, Christians on the Left, the Cooperative party … the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Business. Allow the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, CPGB, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, etc, to join our ranks.
- 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. 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’ 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 worker’s wage – say £40,000 (plus legitimate expenses). Then, however, they should hand the balance over to the party. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott ought to take the lead in this.
- We must establish our own press, radio and TV. To state the obvious, texting, Twitter and Facebook etc 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.
- Programmatically, we should adopt a new clause four. 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”. That is what socialism is all about. Not a measly £10 per hour “living wage”, shifting the tax balance and a state investment bank. No, re-establishing socialism in the mainstream of politics means committing the Labour Party to achieving a “democratic republic”.
Organisations such as SPEW, the SWP, the CPB and Left Unity are having a hard time of things at the moment. Not only are they haemorrhaging members: there is profound political disorientation.
Having dismissed the Labour Party as nothing more than a British version of the US Democrat Party, having fought for trade unions to disaffiliate, SPEW’s general secretary, Peter Taaffe, is busily rowing backwards. But if he wants his perfectly correct call for the Labour Party to be opened up once again to affiliation by socialist organisations to be treated seriously, it is obvious what he must do. Put an end to the farcical Labour Party mark two Tusc project. Close it down … permanently.
However, comrade Taaffe is a towering genius, compared with Robert Griffiths, the CPB’s general secretary. When not promising to shop “entryists” to our witch-finder general, Iain McNicol, what he displays is a completely detached attitude towards Labour’s ongoing right-left civil war. He seriously says there are more important issues … like strikes and protest demonstrations. Morning Star editor Ben Chacko is equally small-minded. 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 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.
Having rejected any active involvement in the Labour Party at its 2016 conference, what remains of Left Unity is also reduced to issuing its own thoroughly unremarkable list: Another Europe, Stand Up to Racism, People’s Assembly demo, etc. No wonder its entire London membership now meets in the snug little space provided by Housmans Bookshop.
Then there is Charlie Kimber. Showing the SWP’s crisis of leadership, he is now joint national secretary of the SWP and editor of Socialist Worker. Anyway, as might be expected, comrade Kimber called for a Labour vote, but, the more members who leave the SWP, the more he stresses localism, ephemeral demonstrations, economic strikes and fake fronts. In his ‘Letter to a Jeremy Corbyn supporter’, comrade Kimber warned that “there’s a great danger that you could be drawn into endless internal battles”. The “crucial arena” of struggle is not “the long slog” of “endless meetings to (perhaps) get rid of a rightwinger”. No, according to comrade Kimber, it is the “fightback in the workplaces and the streets”.
Comrade Kimber’s claim that what really matters is not changing the Labour Party through the long, hard slog, but the “fightback in the workplaces and the streets”, is a Bakuninist, not a Marxist, formulation. For the 19th century anarchist leader, Mikhail Bakunin, strikes and protests were the key to revolution. By contrast Marxists have always placed their emphasis on programme, consciousness and building solid organisation.
In Marxist terms therefore, because the Labour Party is historically established, because it is a class party, because it involves all big unions, because it has a mass electoral base, because it has drawn in hundreds of thousands of new members, what is now happening within it is a far higher form of the class struggle than mere economic strikes, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ protests, let alone fake front conferences. In point of fact, the struggle to transform the Labour Party, is a highly concentrated form of the class struggle.
It is worth noting that Lenin and the Bolsheviks, following in the tradition of Marx and Engels, considered the “fightback in the workplaces” – ie, trade union politics – the lowest, the most elementary form of the class struggle. Bargaining over wages and conditions might be the dawning of class-consciousness, but, “taken by itself, is in essence still not social democratic [Marxist] work, but merely trade union work”. Lenin elaborates: “… social democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich.”31
Apply comrade Kimber’s derogatory, typically economistic, remarks about the “long slog” and “endless meetings” to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. There was a drawn-out struggle between the Bolshevik, Menshevik and many other smaller factions. Of course, I am not equating the Labour Party, which can, with its federal structure, only become, at best, a permanent united front of the working class in Britain – our version of soviets – with the highly dedicated, explicitly Marxist, individual-membership Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.
That said, it is clear, that comrade Kimber exhibits a fundamental disdain for the Marxist perspective of elevating thetrade unionist politics of the working class (which, through error, miseducation or sorry conviction, far too many on the left nowadays take as common sense). Comrade Kimber and the SWP serve to degrade Marxist politics to the level of routine trade union politics.
Another analogy. OK, we envisage the possibility of the Labour Party becoming a British version of Russia’s soviets (not that LPM is calling for ‘All power for the Labour Party’). Would the Bolsheviks have been right in 1917 to direct their main energies towards economic strikes, street protests and building fake fronts? Hardly. In fact, Lenin, having returned from his Swiss exile in April 1917, famously presented a perspective of winning the argument for the Bolshevik programme – sloganistically crystallised as ‘Land, bread and peace’. Progress was, however, judged by the election results provided by the “long slog” and “endless meetings” of the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants.
In the spring of 1917 the Bolsheviks were a not insignificant minority fraction in the workers’ soviets. By the summer of 1917 they had gained majorities in Petersburg and Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. And, of course, in November 1917 the peasant congress of soviets voted for the entire Socialist Revolutionary programme of land reform … plus, the vital Bolshevik addition of soviet power. In other words a Bolshevik government.