Bourgeois Labour Party: no change with Corbyn at the top - FRFI 253, October/November 2016

jeremy corbyn

1 March 2019: The Labour Party is once again in the midst of a self-generated crisis. In the past two weeks, eight MPs have split from it to form the Independent Group of MPs, citing the leadership's failure to back a second referendum on Brexit, and Corbyn's handling of anti-Semitism allegations. On 25 February the Labour leadership announced it would put forward or support an amendment in favour of a second referendum. Two days later, Labour MP for Derby North Chris Williamson was suspended for alleged anti-Semitism after announcing he would show a documentary in the House of Commons about the witchhunt of Jackie Walker for her alleged anti-Semitism. In a further example of its capitulation to the right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn’s leadership team has failed to defend Williamson for his real ‘crime’ – condemning the racism of the Israeli state. Robert Clough's article from FRFI 253, October/November 2016 reported on Corbyn’s inevitable concessions that started early in his leadership as he tried to hold the Labour Party together. We republish that article below.

Bourgeois Labour Party – no change with Corbyn at the top

A year ago, in the summer of 2015, the Labour Party was in complete disarray and facing a deep crisis. It had lost two successive general elections in 2010 and 2015. Its defeat in 2015 was especially abject: after five years of punishing austerity for the working class at the hands of the ConDem coalition, Labour failed to prevent a Tory victory, was wiped out in Scotland and lost 24 seats overall. There had to be the semblance of change if the Party was to avoid disintegration. Corbyn’s victories in the subsequent leadership elections have enabled the social democratic left to begin a new project; sowing expectations that the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership can now fight austerity and transform itself into a socialist party capable of winning working class votes. Robert Clough argues that this is an illusion.

Corbyn’s success, announced on 24 September, came with a substantial margin over his challenger, Owen Smith, to the delight of his supporters. Overall, Corbyn won 61.8% of 506,000 votes cast, compared to 59.5% of 422,664 votes cast in 2015. While support from trade union voters increased slightly, from 57.6% in 2015 to 60.2%, votes from Party members increased substantially (49.6% to 59%). Corbyn’s second victory was never in real doubt: his ability to attract thousands to his rallies contrasted with the efforts of Smith, whose meetings sometimes struggled to get into double figures. The Labour Party machine tried its best to exclude Corbyn supporters both by preventing those who had joined the party after February 2016 from voting in the election, and by disqualifying large numbers of registered supporters, those who had paid £25 to vote in the election. Given that Labour Party figures showed that 180,000 supporters had signed up in the two-day period for registration over 19-20 July, and that 121,517 actually voted, claims that 40,000 Corbyn supporters had been prevented from voting seem justified.

No change for the working class

However, Corbyn’s victory will not bring any change for those suffering the brunt of austerity. Hiding behind a Party rule change which prohibits them from implementing an illegal budget, over the winter Labour-run councils will approve budgets for 2017/18, decimating front-line services for children and adults. They will implement ‘pay more to stay’ for council tenants by April 2017. Hundreds of thousands of people will face eviction because of massive cuts in their housing benefit under the reduced overall benefit cap (see 'Pay more to stay - now way', FRFI 253). In his closing speech to the Labour Party conference, Corbyn did not offer any relief for these poorest sections of the working class, focusing instead on what a Labour government might do if it were to win the next general election.

The internal crisis of the Labour Party is unresolved. While some Labour MPs will row back on their previous decision to leave Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, others will remain on the back benches until they achieve their aim of an elected Shadow Cabinet, which will place it beyond Corbyn’s control. Sniping will continue: for the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party even verbal opposition to austerity is anathema. While Corbyn spoke of ‘socialism of the 21st century’ at the Labour Party conference, pro-Corbyn shadow ministers furiously signalled their wish not to upset the apple cart: Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis espoused the virtues of NATO and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell supported the City of London.

Corbyn’s enemies in the Labour Party were never going to take his second victory lying down. Hilary Benn, who had led the Shadow Cabinet coup against Corbyn after the Brexit vote, remained shamelessly defiant. At a Labour First rally on 25 September, he condemned Corbyn supporters for what he alleged was a campaign of abuse against Labour MPs and staff and told the crowd not to engage with politics in the ‘gutter’, saying: ‘If you wrestle with a chimney sweep you're going to end up covered in soot.’ He was echoed by Angela Eagle, whose constituency Labour Party remains suspended at her behest because of unsubstantiated claims of abuse, intimidation and homophobia.

Labour First, which calls itself ‘a network which exists to ensure that the voices of moderate party members are heard while the party is kept safe from the organised hard left’, added that ‘Labour will only be able to win in 2020 with a Leader who can connect with mainstream voters’, as if there was a candidate who could do that – forgotten are the roles played by Corbyn’s opponents in two successive general election defeats. It also said it would ‘fight to defend mainstream policies such as Trident renewal, to defend hard-working MPs and councillors from sectarian deselection threats, to maximise the moderate voice in the party structures at all levels, and to seek to bring in rule changes that will bring stability back to the party’ – these will be rule changes to exclude any influence from the left.

While many in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), particularly those associated with the explicitly right-wing Progress group, are determined to continue their opposition to Corbyn’s leadership, others are signalling their wish to return to the Shadow Cabinet, including, it is claimed, Dan Jarvis and even Yvette Cooper, who spoke at the Labour First event. Their hand will be strengthened by a rule change which allows leaders of the Welsh and Scottish Labour Parties to appoint representatives to the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) unencumbered by any democratic process. It is a stitch-up by those opposed to Corbyn to remove his existing majority support on the NEC.

Wiping the slate clean

Following his election victory, Corbyn spoke of his desire to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and welcome back former Shadow Cabinet members. All along, his main aim had been to make the compromises necessary to restore unity – allowing a free vote first on the bombing of Syria and then on Trident renewal; or instructing Labour councils to set legal austerity budgets. He also set up the Chakrabarti review into allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party following a frenzy of mostly unsubstantiated allegations worked up by pro-Zionist MPs in alliance with the mass media and triggered by Corbyn’s support for Palestine. He has continually expressed his opposition to the mandatory re-selection of MPs in the face of constantly manufactured crises over the issue. The fear of many of his parliamentary opponents is that with the implementation of the Boundary Commission report, which will reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and which will cost an estimated 40 Labour seats, they will lose their places on the parliamentary gravy train.

Thumbs up for Zionism…

Corbyn’s concessions have continued. In an effort to woo back Jewish voters during the leadership campaign – polls show that fewer than 10% of them support Labour – Corbyn agreed to debate with Smith under the auspices of the Zionist organisations Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel on 18 September. Corbyn, historically a supporter of Palestinian freedom, stated unequivocally ‘I recognise and support the right of the state of Israel to exist’ and went on to say that ‘I admire the verve and spirit of the towns and cities in Israel – the life and the way people conduct themselves, I admire the separation of legal and political powers and the system of democratic government that is there.’ Corbyn could not speak a word on the racist character of Zionism and the Israeli settler state, on its brutal occupation of the West Bank, its illegal settlements, or its wars on Gaza or Lebanon, or its oppression of the Palestinian population within Israel. Instead he confirmed his support for a rule change proposed by the JLM which would ‘recognise that it is not acceptable to use Zionism as a term of abuse’ – in other words, it would be anti-Semitic to reject the legitimacy of the Israeli colonial-settler state. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has taken the cue and joined Labour Friends of Israel, while Jackie Walker, the black, Jewish vice-chair of Momentum, has been subject to a vicious witch-hunt because she is anti-Zionist.

…and for the City of London

Corbyn’s allies have joined him in making concessions, sending clear signals at the Labour Party conference that a Corbyn-led government will not challenge the foundations of British imperialism. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell reassured the City of London that whatever he said about cracking down on tax avoidance, at the centre of Brexit negotiations ‘is Britain’s financial services industry. Our financial services have been placed under threat as a result of the vote to leave. Labour has said we will support access to European markets for financial services.’ He offered a vision which even the CBI applauded where ‘we want to see a renaissance in British manufacturing and as we’ve committed ourselves, our government will create an entrepreneurial state that works with the wealth creators, the workers and the entrepreneurs to create the products and the markets that will secure our long term prosperity.’ No socialism here, then.

… not forgetting NATO

Shadow Secretary of Defence Clive Lewis was clear that Labour would continue to defend Britain’s imperialist interests. Although a dispute over policy on Trident overshadowed his conference speech, more significant was his breathtaking declaration that ‘when I look at our key military alliance – NATO – I see an organisation that springs directly from our values: collectivism, internationalism and the strong defending the weak. Its founding charter – a progressive charter – includes standing up for democracy and defending human rights.’ An aggressive, imperialist military alliance since its inception, it is fitting that a representative of the imperialist Labour Party should paint NATO in these rosy colours. To make his position clear, Lewis continued ‘Every Labour government since Attlee’s has met NATO’s spending target of at least 2% of GDP, every single year. And I confirm today that the next Labour government will do the same, including our UN and peacekeeping obligations.’ This is a far cry from Corbyn’s proclaimed pacifism. Later, Lewis confirmed to The Guardian that he would not be seeking to change the Party’s policy on Trident renewal: ‘I won’t be coming back to conference between now and the next election to try to undo the policy we have on Trident as things stand.’

Momentum and the working class

Corbyn’s victory in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile media and Parliamentary Labour Party depended on the organising capacity of Momentum which held a four-day jamboree in Liverpool alongside the Labour Party conference. Established following Corbyn’s election in September 2015, Momentum set up phone banks to contact members to vote for Corbyn, and organised the rallies which Corbyn spoke at over the summer. Its base lies among better-off professional workers whose aspirations have been capped by a combination of the crisis and the austerity programme of the Tories. This layer wants these barriers removed, and it is not as yet concerned with the interests of the mass of the impoverished working class, or with socialism. Radical journalist Paul Mason says:

‘Though there are undoubtedly far-left activists inside Momentum, they are a small minority swimming in a sea of networked, horizontal, democratic, globalist and liberal young professionals who regard them, largely, as oddities.’

The majority of Momentum members, and of the 500,000 Labour Party members, are not out on the streets engaged in any struggle against austerity; at present they just want to leave everything to Corbyn. Momentum’s leadership will try to ensure this remains the case since any real movement against austerity would involve a challenge to Labour councils which it is determined to prevent. Momentum chair Jon Lansman says that the movement will not campaign for mandatory reselection or to deselect any individual MP. He also criticised Unite general secretary Len McCluskey for encouraging a challenge to Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson.

The Momentum event illustrated how closely the leadership wants to control its supporters. Far from being ‘horizontalist, democratic and networked’, the dozens of sessions over its four days were organised so that platforms of three to four speakers took the lion’s share of the time available either with their introductions or their responses to questions, preventing any debate from the floor. There were no sessions on housing or state welfare; socialism scarcely featured: ambitions were limited to greater state regulation of finance and the economy. Immediate problems facing the working class – the next round of local authority spending cuts, the attacks on housing and housing benefit – were ignored in favour of ruminations on the future under a Corbyn-led government. In fact the working class was practically invisible throughout.

Despite enormous internal opposition, the pressure of the crisis has forced the Labour Party to present itself as an anti-austerity party. Corbyn has given expression to this sentiment in his election campaigns, but he and the Momentum leadership will try to prevent this from developing into any movement which goes beyond the control of the Labour Party. They are both part of a labour aristocracy which seeks to bind better-off sections of the working class to the Labour Party and frustrate any real struggle by the working class. Their position will be shored up by the rule change approved by four to one at the Labour Party conference which requires Labour councillors not to ‘vote against or abstain on a vote in full council to set a legal budget proposed by the administration [or] support any proposal to set an illegal budget. Any councillor who votes against or abstains on a Labour group policy decision in this matter may face disciplinary action.’ This sets those determined to fight the cuts on a collision course with Momentum supporters who will have to decide whether they put their support for the Labour Party before the interests of the mass of the working class.

Socialists cannot deceive themselves that Corbyn’s victory marks a significant change: Labour still represents the interests of a tiny minority of the working class. There can be no movement against austerity, racism and war, or for socialism, unless it stands outside and against the Labour Party.

Labour Party, immigration and rivers of blood

Speaking at a Labour Party fringe meeting on 27 September, former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves argued that free movement of labour under EU rules had to be curbed, and that the reason ‘we have got to get this right is because there are bubbling tensions in this country that I just think could explode…You had those riots in 2011, the riots didn’t happen in Leeds and in my constituency, but if riots started again in Leeds and bits of my constituency, it’s like a tinder box.’

This is a deliberate echo of Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of blood’ speech. Reeves is a complete reactionary who said in 2015 that Labour is ‘not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those out of work’ and that under a Labour government, ‘There will still be [benefit] sanctions. If it is clear that someone is deliberately trying to avoid work then they shouldn’t be getting benefits.’

The Labour Party has always had a reactionary position on immigration. In government, its controls on immigration have always been devised to meet the changing needs of British imperialism. The six asylum and immigration laws it passed between 1997 and 2010 were designed to exclude black people from Britain unless they had specific skills or could be exploited as cheap labour. Following the accession of eastern European countries like Poland in 2004, the then Labour government encouraged increased immigration to cut wages and conditions for large sections of the working class. It did nothing to alleviate the pressures on local health or education services or to help migrants already living in Britain or working class people to fight unscrupulous employers.

The result was a backlash against Labour, and following the 2010 general election, Labour leaders, including Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, the Miliband brothers and former immigration ministers Liam Byrne and Phil Woolas, argued that the party’s defeat was because of two issues – immigration and welfare benefits. They kept to the same story after 2015, with Burnham putting forward immigration as one of his three key issues during the subsequent Labour leadership election campaign. Burnham returned to it when he announced his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet at the Labour Party conference saying that voters have a problem with ‘unlimited, unfunded and unskilled migration which damages their living standards.’ Other leading Labour figures such as Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna have also argued the need for an end to the free movement of labour as part of Brexit negotiations.

Reeves’s speech was a deliberate challenge to Corbyn who has rejected such crude demands. In his Labour conference speech he argued that a Labour government ‘will act decisively to end the undercutting of workers’ pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour and agency working’, claiming that this would anyway ‘reduce the number of migrant workers in the process’, continuing: ‘we will ease the pressure on hard pressed public services – services that are struggling to absorb Tory austerity cuts, in communities absorbing new populations.’ However, he was vague on whether there would be controls on immigration in the future, saying: ‘We will tackle the real issues of immigration instead whatever the eventual outcome of the Brexit negotiations and make the changes that are needed.’

In the meantime, he committed to ensuring that migrants will pay more to enter Britain, saying ‘Labour will reinstate the migrant impact fund [paid by migrants], and give extra support to areas of high migration using the visa levy for its intended purpose. And we will add a citizenship application fee levy to boost the fund.’

Controls on immigration to imperialist Britain are always racist and anti-working class. Corbyn’s opponents are determined to ensure Labour adopts an even harder line on immigration than in the past, and Reeves is showing that there are no depths to which they will not stoop to get their way. Corbyn’s defence of migrant labour is no opposition to their racist standpoint.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 253 October/November 2016