British Capitalist Class, Corbyn and Momentum: Update from Britain

by Roger Silverman from London, UK

Just as Britain 2017 is not Britain of the 1980s, Theresa May is no Margaret Thatcher.

After an election called in the hope of strengthening their mandate, it is the Tories who find themselves humiliated, entangled in a “coalition of chaos” with the most bigoted and reactionary of allies.

The ruling class are desperate to stave off the election of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn. The question is: how? It’s true that in normal periods, by and large it gets the government it wants – that’s why the system is known as bourgeois democracy. In 1997, for instance, it actively wanted a New Labour government. So the Tories may manage to cling on to office for a while. But at times of rapidly rising expectations, times even of impending revolution (and surely that’s a fair characterisation of the period now opening up in Britain), then it simply has no option but to give way for a time… meanwhile quietly preparing to resort to other measures.

Labour MP’s defection?
It has been suggested that the establishment might try to maintain its grip a little longer by enticing enough Labour MPs to defect, thus enabling it to impose a “coalition” National Government. Under current circumstances, this would be futile. It would mean stitching on to the head of, say, George Osborne a rump of renegade Labour MPs, to put together a pantomime horse. It would be a laughing stock.

Holding a pathetically weak hand, its strongest card at the moment is the relics of New Labour within the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is trying to woo a section of these Labour MPs, with some limited success. This includes those MPs who recently defied the Labour whip to vote for continued membership of the single market. After all, now that the Tory party has taken over UKIP’s programme of blind bigotry, there is a yawning political vacuum to be filled; a need for a party representing the true interests of big business, which has no wish to give up the lucrative markets and the ready supply of cheap labour offered by membership of the EU. Outright New Labour dinosaurs like Blair and Mandelson have already all but defected; by their own admission, they are actively plotting to undermine the democratically elected leadership of the Labour Party.

Corbyn a “liability”? Not!
But most of those Labour MPs who had spent the last two years rubbishing Corbyn are now tripping over each other in their haste to ingratiate themselves with him (and with their own constituency parties). Some of these are no doubt sincere; cocooned in their Westminster bubble, they had disastrously misread the new mood in society, and genuinely allowed themselves to be persuaded that Corbyn was an electoral liability. Others are simply preoccupied with their prestige and privileges; they now feel reassured by the election result that their parliamentary careers are safe if they stay with Labour for the time being – at least until the threat of being unseated by a wave of reselections.

“Tidal Wave of Revolt”
Sometimes the ruling class has no option but to accept a temporary relinquishing of direct power. Wasn’t the the European oligarchy just as desperate to avoid a SYRIZA government in Greece? It had already tried a National Government (a coalition of New Democracy with PASOK) and seen it fall apart ignominiously. It had no option but to concede SYRIZA ministerial office, while preparing the necessary instruments of financial torture to undermine and humiliate it. A tidal wave of revolt is gathering pace; to try to resist it head-on would be a colossal blunder: if anything, more like the fiasco of the Greek colonels’ coup in 1967, which staggered from crisis to crisis, collapsed in disgrace, and ended up pushing the whole country to the left. Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that the establishment will make a disastrous mistake. If so, all the better. However, we have to proceed on the assumption that it will act in its own best interests.

True, Ramsay McDonald’s National Government was initially very popular. In the 1931 general election it decimated the Labour Party. But at that time the population had already endured the experience of a thoroughly tamed Labour government which had disastrously betrayed their expectations. It’s inconceivable that that could work under current circumstances. To impose a similar cross-class coalition in advance of a popular Labour government would only further swell the growing tide of support for Labour and risk provoking fury, resistance, and even a full-scale uprising. It is after the election of a left Labour government that treachery by a handful of ex-Labour quislings   could prove a deadly danger by undermining the government, conspiring, sabotaging, and ultimately defecting.

A Corbyn Government
A Corbyn government would of course start from a position far to the left of McDonald in 1929. It would be a government of genuine and radical reforms, more like Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile. And as we saw under that government, every dirty trick imaginable would be brought into play to overthrow it. When a Labour government was elected in 1964 on a programme of very mild reforms, Harold Wilson accused big business of conducting a “strike of capital”, and his economics minister George Brown denounced “the gnomes of Zurich”. In today’s far more critical conditions of chronic stagnation, investment is already at a standstill, and the value of the pound has already fallen sharply. The consequences of Brexit will almost certainly be further devaluation and disinvestment.  

This would be only the very start. A Corbyn government would be undermined from the very beginning by economic sabotage, fabricated scandals, royal diversions, racist hysteria, foreign wars, assassinations and terrorist outrages (both by racist and Islamist fascists, each of which plays into the others’ hands, committed as the security services look the other way, or even if necessary as fully-fledged false flag operations).

And when the time comes, we can’t rule out outright military conspiracies. A coup would only be the very last resort of the ruling class. However, in 1966, even under the mildly reformist government of Harold Wilson, a serious conspiracy was underfoot to impose a royalist coup d’etat under Earl Mountbatten. More seriously, under the subsequent Labour government in the 1970s (swept to power by the miners’ strike after an election called by the outgoing Tory prime minister over the question: “who rules Britain?”), there was a mushrooming of “private armies”, military manoeuvres were staged on the streets, and the media were openly debating the viability of a full-scale military coup along the lines of Pinochet’s in Chile. In that crucial and decisive period of turmoil, Labour must be prepared theoretically, politically, and practically.

What role can Momentum play in promoting and defending a Labour government? It has earned credit for the surge of Labour support in the election, using the social media to stunning effect, bombarding it with articles, quotes and videos exposing the Tories and promoting Labour’s manifesto. (Oaklandsocialist Note to American readers: Momentum is the movement/organization started through Corbyn’s campaign for the LP leadership. It is composed of Corbyn supporters inside the LP.) It mobilised thousands of activists, directing volunteer canvassers to their nearest marginal constituencies. Local Labour parties often found they had more helpers than they knew what to do with – sometimes 100-plus at a time. This is a phenomenon unprecedented in previous elections. It helped gain Labour three million extra votes compared to the previous election, held less than two years previously.

However, on a political level Momentum has had little impact, other than to form a passive base for Corbyn and McDonnell. The official national leadership has gone to drastic lengths to avoid holding national conferences or establishing an elected leadership; while the so-called “grassroots” alternative is an ineffective jumble of various left factions competing for influence. As a result, Momentum is still a loose network of virtually autonomous left clubs – a loose federation of active militants without any national structure.

But that creates unprecedented opportunities. The most active local Momentum groups participate in all the local demonstrations, strike picket lines, lobbies and protests which in this new era of struggle are now multiple daily events. And as these largely fresh forces learn, debate, and grow in stature, experience and authority, they can start to build a far stronger and more substantial base than have the relics of the dying left cliques. The weakening influence of the fringe sectarian groups routinely denouncing “reformism” and warning of “betrayal” is to be welcomed. The most serious campaigners in the active Momentum branches around the country have come fresh to the cause and are immersed every day in local and national struggles, mostly free from the accumulated debris of the failed and disintegrating left groups and untainted by past defeats. Their arguments should be calm, comradely, objective and rational. If so, they can have a decisive influence.

Oaklandsocialist comments: The owners of capital – the capitalist class – in the US are paying close attention to what is happening in Britain, and workers should too. Roger Silverman’s contributions on this issue are important for us all. We also think that maybe the most serious threat to a Corbyn-led government might come, not from the machinations that Roger describes so well, but from the simple laws of global capitalism. Already, capital is leaving Britain and the pound is weakening. This is not due to any plot, but the simple laws of the global capitalist economy. Wouldn’t this tendency accelerate in a Corbyn-led government?

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