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“Jez we can”

An historic victory, facing a Labour counter-revolution

John McAnulty

16 September 2015

The historic and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in winning the leadership of the British Labour party is matched only by the defeat and humiliation of the Blairite wing of the party. It clearly sits alongside other mass upsurges across Europe, where traditional working class organizations have disconnected from their base and workers and youth have struggled to find new forms of organization.

Commentators scratch their head at the Corbyn victory, ignoring the seminal moment at the start of the campaign when the Labour party MPs, including the other three leadership candidates, abstained on government proposals to slash a further £12 billion from the welfare budget. A party that can only say yes to unending austerity has no future as any form of defence for the working class.

Unique aspect

The unique aspect of the British experiment is that, where other social democratic parties have simply collapsed and new movements built from scratch, the attempt to build a new movement is taking place inside the existing structures of Labour.

As with other movements, within the Corbyn campaign there is a tension between the belief that capitalism can be reformed and the actual demands for reform, which capitalism will not and cannot meet. In practice the current Labour party will be unwilling and unable to support the Corbyn programme.

In Greece it was the demands of the workers that were abandoned. In British Labour we will see civil war as the right attempt to bury Corbyn.

One myth that should quickly be put to rest is that of old Labour. The Labour party has always put the interests of the capitalists before those of the workers. They were the first to introduce anti-union legislation, privatisation and austerity. Tony Blair did not seize power. He was pushed to the fore as the figure who could win the support of Rupert Murdoch and of British capitalism more generally. Brown claimed to be old Labour while bowing down to the bankers and financiers.

Enemy inside the gates

So the Corbyn victory is not a nostalgic return to old Labour roots but the advancing of a left social democratic programme, immensely popular with sections of the workers but involving an immense struggle with the British state and with many enemies within the gates of labour.

We have a faint hint of what is to come when Cameron labels Labour a threat to national security and the Blairites move into opposition and form a party within a party. It is hard to say who is the greater threat - those who join the shadow cabinet or those who stay outside.

Corbyn and his supporters will remain a tiny minority within the parliamentary Labour party and a minority within the apparatus running the constituency parties. He was supported by many trade unions but the union bureaucracy is an unlikely supporter of the Corbyn programme. They have done what they have always done - backed the left candidate and passed the buck of organizing resistance from their own hands to those of the Labour party. They will be among the first to call for conciliation and unity with the Labour right.

So the only way to maintain momentum is by a continuing mobilization of workers returning to the Labour party and young people mobilizing for the first time.

The fight on the streets

Those who commit themselves to that task must understand that the illusion that the goal is to elect a Labour government in 5 years is beside the point. The fight against austerity, in defence of workers’ rights and democratic rights, will be fought now on the streets and in workplaces. 

Socialists should fight that battle inside and outside the Labour party. If they can shake off the mist of broad parties they can argue within the actually existing broad party for independent organization by the workers and for the necessity for a new, united party - a revolutionary party of the working class.

Socialists have much to offer. We can explain the history of social democracy and of the trade union leaderships in supporting capital. We can point to the illusion of “parliamentary idiocy” – the belief that the state will serve a parliamentary majority rather than supporting the capitalists against any threat – the horror in the parliamentary Labour party over Jeremy Corbyn, a republican, failing to sing the British anthem is a perfect indication of the attachment of mainstream Labour to the feudal elements of the state, to the military and to the interests of imperialism. It shows the narrow limits open to a loyal opposition to British capital.

The main thing we have to do is provide a left critique of the Labour left itself. Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to conciliate the right and drive for party unity are not things that arise from his personality or merely strategic considerations. They are political weaknesses of the current he represents that is vulnerable to attack because it will not spontaneously break from the right. Social democracy is a current in support of capitalism. It is left social democracy that balances between labour and capital. In order to combat the labour right and the union bosses we need an independent organisation of the workers. Building this organisation inside and outside the party, moving beyond protest to direct confrontation with the state, this is the arena where the progress of the Corbyn experiment will be decided.

Whatever the outcome, we owe Jeremy Corbyn a great debt. He has presented the elements of a socialist alternative and shown the hunger for that alternative amongst the working class. That hunger will not go away. We will no longer accept the Thatcherite catchcry that there is no alternative to capitalism.

Later we will discuss the lessons of the Corbyn victory for Irish socialists.

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