While in the US all eyes are turned to the presidential election, an important election was held in Britain. There, the left leader of the Labour Party was reelected. He won reelection despite a rigged campaign by the rest of the LP leadership that would make Debbie Wasserman-Schultz proud. Among other things, over 100,000 members of the LP were expelled – every one a Corbyn supporter. Roger Silverman, one of those expelled for sharply criticizing the right wing leadership, reports from London
The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party with a strengthened mandate is a sign of the change that has transformed British society. After decades of relative stability, political life in Britain is now in turmoil. In last year’s general election, the briefly fashionable Liberal Democrats were virtually annihilated, and the Scottish Nationalists swept from relative obscurity, with just six MPs out of 59 Scottish seats, to a near-monopoly of 56. Now the ruling Tory party is reeling from the shock result of the Brexit referendum, following which the prime minister resigned overnight, and the party is riven with barely concealed splits. Most significant of all is the transformation of the Labour Party, which has more than trebled its membership in a matter of months as hundreds of thousands of working people and youth have joined to elect a left leader and begin to restore it to its class roots.
This transformation of the Labour Party represents a decisive rejection of the legacy of the Blair years. With Blair’s accession as Labour leader in the mid-1990s, there was an influx into parliament of career politicians owing little or no allegiance to the Labour and trade union movement. This process accompanied a conscious tactical manoeuvre by the ruling class. The Conservative Party had become discredited beyond foreseeable repair by popular revulsion at the effects of a decade of Thatcherism, and subsequently by the disaster of Black Wednesday in 1992, when the value of the pound sterling crashed. The decision was taken to abandon temporarily the Tories as the traditional political instrument of the establishment. For the first time, corporate donations poured into New Labour, with a mandate to carry onward under a new banner, along with some minor reforms, the Thatcherite crusade of privatisation. For the first time in its history, the Tory party found itself starved of funds; media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch became miraculously transformed into champions of Labour; and for the first time ever, under its new pro-business leadership Labour won three elections in a row and ruled for three full terms, from 1997 to 2010.
These Blairite MPs explicitly adopted an identity very distinct from Labour’s socialist traditions, proclaiming themselves explicitly as a separate party (“New Labour”), and expunged the socialist aims embodied for eighty years in the Party constitution, ditching in words as well as deeds time-honoured principles to which previous leaders had had to pay at least nominal lip service, such as defence of trade-union rights, an aspiration towards public ownership, and opposition to colonial wars. It was only following the financial catastrophe of 2008 that the New Labour project was deemed to have outlived its usefulness. Corporate support for Labour was unceremoniously withdrawn, funds began once again pouring into Tory Party coffers, and the media switched to vicious and unrelenting ridicule of Blair’s successor Brown.
This left the spent political residue of Blairite MPs – a beached whale if not quite a rotting carcase – awkwardly sprawled across most of the Labour parliamentary benches, lacking either the confidence of the newly regenerated Labour ranks or the patronage of a ruling class to which they have largely outlived their usefulness, except as an obstacle to the democratic rights of the Party membership. All that is left to them is to cling on to their careers in parliament. The ferocity of their resistance to the spectacular revival of Labour’s membership is due to the fact that they are fighting not just for discredited political ideas, but for their very livelihoods.
“Blinded with own delusions”
Blinded with delusions in their own status, these MPs have now precipitated their own downfall. It was they who opened the electoral floodgates to allow non-members to vote in leadership elections, deluding themselves that the wider electorate would always flock to their support against the left; some of them even nominated Corbyn as a leadership candidate in the mistaken belief that he would be trounced in any leadership vote and the left humiliated for evermore; and even after Corbyn had already proved them wrong by winning the leadership by a landslide, it was they who imagined that they could still bring him down in an orchestrated back-stabbing coup by resigning en masse from the Shadow Cabinet, hoping that the left would crumple under their pressure.
At every stage they showed themselves blind to the change sweeping Britain and the world. In their insulated Commons cocoon, what they had failed to notice was the new mood of revolt, in Britain taking the form of a wave of determined but scattered local grass-roots protests against housing evictions, hospital closures, etc., and most spectacularly the unprecedented strikes of hospital doctors. They have now perversely precipitated their own terminal crisis, by wantonly undermining a democratically elected leader who already enjoyed the biggest mandate in the party’s history.
It is the new mass influx into the party which has transformed the political outlook.
According to some surveys, Corbyn’s contemptible challenger Smith had won a small margin among that minority who had been members prior to 2015; but overall Corbyn won overwhelming majorities in all three sectors: among full party members, registered supporters and affiliated trade unionists. His victory is all the more impressive when account is taken of the outright sabotage practised by the party officials surviving from the Blair years, who grossly and blatantly rigged the vote, disenfranchising up to 200,000 party members through the imposition of arbitrary membership deadlines, targeted suspensions amounting to a wholesale purge, and even plain vote-stealing. Behind these machinations stood the unanimous hysteria of the media, from the BBC and the Guardian rightwards, who let loose an unprecedented barrage of baseless smears of intimidation, sexism and even anti-Semitism.
Right Wing’s “Magnanimous” Offer
Now that Corbyn is confirmed more overwhelmingly than ever as leader, the entire establishment is clamouring for the winning side in this contest to throw away its victory in a one-sided gesture of reconciliation which would leave the defeated MPs in place for perpetuity. They have magnanimously offered to resume their places in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet… in return for just one favour: a guarantee of jobs for life. By demanding a ban on the right of local Labour Parties to hold democratic reselections of Labour candidates in future elections, they are insolently putting the onus on Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters for avoiding the coming split in the Labour Party which they themselves have made inevitable.
Labour today is a reinvigorated mass party, already numbering more than 600,000 members. They must insist on their right to select candidates who reflect their interests. They seem to have conjured up a new dogma: the divine right of Labour MPs. It is those who deny their members simple democratic rights who are paving the way for a split.
Social Democratic Parties of Europe
The old parties of social-democracy that had in more affluent times succeeded in winning partial concessions and reforms are today in terminal decline all over Europe: Greece, Spain, France, Germany, Scandinavia… In Britain the eclipse of New Labour and the influx into the Labour Party of workers and youth eager to transform it is a particular local variant of this same worldwide trend.
What matters now is to formulate a programme adequate to the challenge. Winning and then reaffirming the election of a left leader is only the beginning of a long hard bitter struggle. With the active connivance of the ruling class, the right wing of the Labour Party has succeeded easily in outmanoeuvring the left, by springing clever traps in reshaping the composition of the National Executive Committee, fixing the election of conference delegates, manipulating conference procedures, etc. So far the programme of Corbyn and his chancellor McDonnell is confined to inspiring visions (a universal living wage, free lifelong education, a million new homes, etc.), but rather more modest immediate practical proposals, limited to renationalisation of the railways, limited curbs on the utility companies, etc. There are no proposals even for the nationalisation of the banks. Among the population there is a widespread thirst for far more sweeping measures.
Yes, Corbyn’s decisive mandate has generated genuine hope for the first time in decades; but on its own, hope is not enough. Now it is time to launch a debate at every level about how that hope can be vindicated and translated into deeds. Momentum (a Corbyn-led campaign mainly inside the Labour Party) has arisen spontaneously as a mass left movement within and alongside the official Labour institutions, but it has yet to develop a structure and a constitution, and above all a socialist programme. In their absence, it has already lost impetus and needs to catch up fast. The time for cheerleading is now over. What Corbyn and McDonnell need now is not just passive support but active participation in a democratic debate drawing in the whole revived movement.