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Perspectives for Britain 2016

Socialist Party documents

Perspectives for Britain 2016

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Civil war in the Labour Party

24. It is not possible to predict the outcome of the civil war that is taking place within Labour. Jeremy Corbyn was elected on a surge of good will, which he largely still has.

However, he is facing determined resistance from the unreconstructed right, which still controls the party machine.

Even highly undemocratic structures like the 'compliance committee' which, at the time of writing is still considering whether to allow some left wing union leaders to join the party, remain wholly intact.

Our role in this situation is primarily, as Trotsky said in 1932, 'not speculation but a strategy for action'.

We trenchantly oppose the right. We give critical support to Jeremy Corbyn, whilst seeking to energetically push him to the left and combatting any hesitation or retreat on his part.

We recognise that this battle will not take place exclusively in the Labour Party, but that the struggles of workers against cuts and austerity, in which we play a central role, are in many ways more crucial.

25. While Corbyn's programme is, objectively speaking, barely reformist, the capitalist class do not want to run the risk of a Labour government which intends to take any measures in the interests of the majority as this would undoubtedly awaken an appetite for far more radical measures.

They particularly fear this given the likelihood that the next general election will take place against the background of a new, deeper phase of the economic crisis.

If they cannot ensure Corbyn is overthrown, it is possible that the capitalist class will shift its position on proportional representation - suddenly noticing the undemocratic character of the first-past-the-post system - in order to try and prevent a left-led Labour government coming to power.

26. It is not a simple matter for them to overturn Corbyn, given the size of his mandate. This in the end reflects the lack of a social base for the Labour right.

They may dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party but around what policies are they going to be able to mobilise an 'anti-Corbyn' movement? Keeping tuition fees? Private ownership of the railways? Support for another disastrous imperialist intervention into the Middle East? To ask the question is set out the difficulty they face.

Today is a completely different world to when New Labour came to dominate the party. Since then, workers have experienced in practice what Blair's 'third way' actually meant through thirteen years of Labour government.

At the same time, the profound economic crisis means there is no room for even the very limited reforms introduced by New Labour governments except as a result of mass struggle.

27. New Labour's 'prince of darkness', Peter Mandelson, has commented on the paucity of social forces available to the right in the ongoing civil war, but has pointed out two forces to look towards: "While the trade unions can no longer be relied upon to rescue the party as they helped Kinnock do, it would be a mistake to disregard them entirely, or Labour's legions in local government, who are a bigger force for sense and moderation in the party than at any time in the recent past." [The Guardian 31 December 2015.] There is no doubt that the majority of Labour councillors form a bureaucratic caste which is a bulwark for the right.

Only 450 of the 7,000 Labour councillors supported Corbyn, a smaller percentage than of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Only three council Labour Group leaders describe themselves as supporters of Corbyn! As far as the trade unions are concerned, Mandelson is undoubtedly correct that right-wing leaders would be keen to assist in the overthrow of Corbyn.

But this will be not be easy for them without the undermining of their own popular base among trade unionists.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, felt he had no choice but to back Corbyn in the election campaign - not least because he was standing for election himself.

Now formally 're-elected', but facing an investigation into electoral malpractice, Prentis will have to cautious about openly undermining Corbyn, although it is revealing that Liz Kendall's campaign manager has recently been appointed to a senior union position.

28. Of course, this does not mean that the right will not be able to win some support - assisted to the utmost by the capitalist class - and by relying on a more conservative section of the working class.

Trident is one issue around which they are attempting to mobilise, backed by right-wing trade union leaders who are playing on defence workers' genuine fears about jobs.

Corbyn has correctly promised investment in alternative jobs for Trident workers but to put a convincing case that can win workers in the industry it is necessary to go further than he has, by calling for nationalisation of the companies concerned and working out a concrete alternative plan of production, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did in the 1970s.

At the same time, opinion polls have generally shown a majority of the population opposing the renewal of Trident.

The idea that Trident is a waste of money and the billions it would cost could be better spend on public services is potentially very popular.

29. Like the bombing of Syria, a central part of the reason that the Labour right and sections of the capitalist class are so irate over Trident is because they see it as a means to strike a blow against Corbyn and conversely understand that a victory for Corbyn on either issue would strengthen the anti-austerity and anti-war movement.

Neither issue is crucial for the capitalist class, apart from their prestige. While it is true that - once Cameron had declared he wanted Britain to take part in the bombing of Syria - it would have been a blow to the prestige of British capitalism if he had once again been unable to accomplish it, much of the capitalist class in Britain are - at best - doubtful about the merits of adding Britain's puny contribution to another doomed intervention in the Middle East.

Equally with Trident, when Blair first agreed the renewal in 2007, many capitalist commentators, including an FT editorial, questioned the point of doing so.

Now, however, the FT is fulminating at Corbyn's opposition to Trident, calling for the right to refuse to serve in his shadow cabinet.

Grinding their teeth their editorial (7 January) declared: "By reopening the question of the nuclear deterrent and empowering the hard left, he is reaching way back to the 1980s, when unilateral disarmers controlled the party until being ground down, constituency by constituency, town hall by town hall."

30. It is one thing for the FT to identify the problem for the capitalist class but it is another to find a viable way forward for their supporters within the Labour Party.

They are currently enormously weakened in the face of Corbyn's support and cannot see an easy way forward.

Of course, over time, particularly if Corbyn consistently retreats in an attempt to pacify the right wing, they hope that his supporters will become demoralised and demobilised and they will be able to push him aside.

However, it is now possible but not the most likely they will attempt a coup directly after the May elections, not least because of the destabilising effect it could have in the run up to the EU referendum.

31. If they feel they have no choice the right could resort to their 'plan B' to split to found a new party.

In the immediate aftermath of Corbyn's victory, Sunday Times journalist Adam Boulton reported: "The first hope of the Blairites and Brownites appalled by Corbyn's election was that all but a tiny rump of Labour's 232 MPs would defect to a new party in such numbers that they would become the official opposition.

"Backers were prepared to put up millions of pounds for the new party, provisionally called the Progressive Democrats, which would have left the Labour Party behind with its debts." They would not do this lightly, however, as it would mean handing the Labour label to a new radical left party, and also because they fear a right split from Labour would suffer the fate of the SDP.

"However, these factors would not prevent them if their plan A failed. Even the SDP, from the point of view of the capitalist class if not the politicians who pinned their careers to it, was not a failure as it played an important role in ensuring that Labour lost the 1983 general election.

"Of course, just as Peter Mandelson's grandfather Herbert Morrison stayed behind in the Labour Party in 1931 instead of following Ramsay MacDonald, even if the bulk of the right split away, a few right wingers would be left behind to try and pull the Labour Party back to the right.

32. The civil war in the Labour Party cannot continue indefinitely without events tipping one way or the other.

Every incident, no matter how minor, results in a new crisis, worse than the one before. It is therefore likely that events will reach a tipping point quickly.

Nonetheless, it cannot be excluded that the deadlock between the two sides can continue for a period because the right cannot find a way forward and the left fail to effectively mobilise their support.

What is excluded, however, is an end to the civil war and constant crises for as long as the deadlock continues.

33. A critical factor is the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters mobilise and build on the anti-austerity movement which thrust him into power.

Unfortunately, up until now that has not been done effectively. On the contrary, the general tendency has been to try and win the right over by making concessions to them.

This, as we have consistently explained, will not pacify but embolden the right, while at the same time ultimately demoralising and demobilising Corbyn's supporters.

34. We welcomed the launch of Momentum as potentially a positive step forward in the sense that it aimed to harness Corbyn's support inside and outside the Labour Party, but it has been a big disappointment.

Unfortunately, the leaders of Momentum have up until now consistently responded to attacks on them by the capitalist class and the right by retreating at a rate of knots.

Their insistence that they will not campaign for deselection of pro-austerity and pro-war MPs was a serious mistake.

Under attack for being a new version of the Militant, they responded- in a top-down, undemocratic fashion - by excluding our party and others from their organisation.

This jars sharply with the new generation who have been drawn into activity by Corbyn's anti-austerity stance and have a very open, democratic approach.

There is an understanding among this layer that, if Corbyn is to succeed, he needs to harness and build an anti-austerity movement that cannot be constrained by the undemocratic straitjacket of the current Labour Party structures.

35. Unless it is reversed, the move to the right of the leadership of Momentum, while at the same time trying to limit its remit to non-controversial issues like voter registration, means Momentum is likely to become an empty shell.

The trend is already in this direction in many areas, although this does not preclude exceptions in some areas where the local leadership adopts a more inclusive and democratic approach.

In many areas, however, Momentum has been colonised by the right, including right-wing councillors. We have supported the idea of founding 'Trade Union Momentum', which was being discussed by the PCS, FBU and other left unions, and was intended to be independent of Momentum.

Mark Serwotka is continuing to argue for this, but it is not clear what the outcome will be. We have and will continue to engage positively with Momentum, Trade Union Momentum and any other developments aimed at harnessing and developing the anti-austerity movement which has begun to come into being around Corbyn's election.

At the same time we have to prioritise the most important struggle - that is the fight against cuts and in defence of living conditions in working class communities, which in turn will have an impact on the battles within the Labour Party.

36. We cannot soften our criticism of mistakes made by the leadership of Momentum, and also by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

The developments around Corbyn represent an important break in the situation and potentially could lead to a real step forward for the working class in the development of a mass party with an anti-austerity and, broadly speaking, socialist programme.

When that potential step forward is put at risk - as it is consistently being - by prevarication and retreat, it is our duty to clearly say so and put forward a programme to rectify the situation.

We have to point out how a firm stand by Corbyn in different situations could have transformed the political situation in Britain.

Imagine if Corbyn and McDonnell had made a clear call for a struggle to demand nationalisation of the steel industry under democratic workers' control.

Such a call would have enormously increased the popularity of the Labour leadership but also would have been likely to have given steelworkers the confidence to fight, which in turn would have lifted the heads of millions of workers across the country.

37. Compared to the majority of the Labour left of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tendency in the Corbyn camp - particularly the self-appointed leaders of Momentum - is to move to the right very quickly under pressure.

This is ultimately a reflection - shown on a much broader stage by the election and then capitulation of the Syriza leadership - of the character of the first wave of left reformism in this new era.

On the one hand, the popular support for them is still largely passive and unorganised and based mainly on a more petit-bourgeois layer.

This means that the pressure from below is not yet comparable with the pressure from the organised working class that existed in a previous period, whilst at the same time the pressure from the capitalist class is greater than ever.

Objectively speaking, a reformist approach is completely utopian in this era. This means that reformist movements and parties will be inherently unstable.

However, this does not preclude the development of more left-wing and determined strands of reformism in the future.

The mass of the working class will not go straight from their current consciousness to drawing revolutionary conclusions but will first test out the seemingly easier road of reformism in practice.

In the course of this experience, workers' movements can exert more intense pressure on reformist leaders to go much further in the fight to defend workers' interests than has been the case up until now.

38. It is a real possibility that continued retreat by Corbyn could lead to the dissipation of the new party that has begun to form around him and his eventual return to the Labour backbenches.

Even this worst-case scenario would not of course mean that everything went back to 'how it was before'.

On the contrary, the idea that an anti-austerity party would be popular would have been firmly established.

Many who had been enthused by Corbynism would draw the necessary conclusions about the need for a new party.

In this situation, TUSC and our party could have a very important role to play. However, this scenario is very far from certain.

It is likely that any attempt to oust him - particularly if the right act prematurely - could lead to a new upsurge from below in support of Corbyn.

In this situation, the momentum towards a rupture in the Labour Party would become unstoppable.

39. Nor will the current trend of retreats necessarily continue in a straight line. One possibility is that we could see second and third waves of people - including bigger layers of workers - joining or becoming active in the Labour Party to defend Corbyn against attacks from the right.

For example, both Corbyn and McDonnell have made a point of attending the picket lines of workers on strike and making publicly supportive statements about strikes.

This disguises the reality that they have not even attempted to overturn the shadow cabinet's position of refusing to support strikes.

Nonetheless, for many workers the sight of a Labour leader standing on a picket line in solidarity with striking workers is inspiring.

If the right attack Corbyn for doing this, it is easier to imagine striking workers also taking their struggle into the Labour Party in order to defend Corbyn.

This scenario would make it more likely that the right would be forced to abandon the Labour Party and split away.

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