By John Pickard
Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership victory in a year has been a crushing defeat for the right wing of the Labour Party who triggered the contest by their bumbled rebellion. As the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley, noted, the rebellion and subsequent leadership campaign has left Corbyn stronger than he was before. The attempted coup, he says, was the political equivalent of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
The unprecedented 62 per cent mandate was achieved despite months of unrelenting smears and distortions in the press and on TV. There has never been a campaign in the entire post-war period like the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. The nearest equivalent was the so-called Zinoviev Letter, a forged document used to link the Labour Party to the Bolsheviks in 1924 and used by the lying Daily Mail in the general election of that year. But even the smear campaign of 1924 is tiny in comparison to the overwhelming bias today. Academics have even logged and quantified the clear bias that has been shown in the BBC coverage of Corbyn. Last June, one of the BBC’s chief news correspondents, Laura Keunssberg, even conspired with Shadow Cabinet members to have them resign on air.
The press has done their best to demonise Corbyn and his supporters. They have followed the maxim of Goebbels that no matter how big the lie is, if it is repeated often enough, it begins to be believed. Thus, a completely artificial campaign on supposed “Anti-Semitism” was launched just prior to the May local elections and still reverberates around the media, with the sole intention of undermining Corbyn. The latest pretext to undermine him has been a blizzard of accusations about “abuse” within the Labour Party – the vast majority of which is without the slightest morsel of evidence or basis in the real world. Many right wing Labour MPs see any kind of criticism as “abuse” because they are used to Party members being meek and deferential. The Momentum organisation, set up to support Corbyn after his election the first time, has come in for particular criticism by the right. What they really object to is the fact that the Party now has tens and hundreds of thousands of members who want their voices and opinions felt.
Some commentators in the capitalist press, as if looking in a mirror, have themselves noted the bias in the press and have even suggested that the lack of balance is so now obvious that it is even counter-productive. In other words, workers expect the press to be biased so they reason that if it is a newspaper article on Corbyn, it must be a lie. For millions of young people, in any case, their main source of news and information is not the press or TV, but the internet and social media, which have proved to be a lot more transparent and even-handed than the press and TV barons would have liked.
The actual leadership election was rigged in such a way as to deliberately disadvantage Corbyn. The payment for a vote by a ‘registered supporter’ was raised by 800 per cent compared to 2015, from £3 to £25 and the on-line registration period was narrowed down to a very brief 48hours. But still, despite this, 180,000 registered to vote. All local Labour Party meetings were put into a ten-week ‘lockdown’, allegedly to prevent abuse and intimidation, but in reality to prevent awkward discussions and votes of no-confidence in MPs like Angela Eagle in Wallasey. Several Constituency Labour Parties have been suspended and Annual Meetings invalidated on the most spurious grounds. In many CLPs, the right wing managed to avoid any kind of leadership nomination meeting, but where they were held, the vast majority of these voted to nominate Corbyn.
In addition to these measures, an unknown number of Party members have been suspended or expelled on the flimsiest grounds. The Labour Party “Compliance Unit” has employed new staff with the particular responsibility of combing through Facebook posts and Twitter tweets – sometimes going back for years – to seek any ‘evidence’ of past support for other political parties or ‘abusive’ behaviour. Even commentators in the Tory press have had wry smiles at the blatant bias in this process and although there is no official notification of how many members have been suspended or denied a vote because of ‘administrative errors’, the total figure has been put as high as 60,000. The turnout of 77.6 per cent might give an indication of how many votes were missing – it amounts to over 100,000 – and it is inconceivable that no more than a few thousand of these were active abstentions.
The biggest element of the rigging was the completely arbitrary decision to exclude all full Labour Party members who joined after January 12th, thus keeping 130,000 votes off the list. The vast majority of these – people who joined the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected – joined to support him. Altogether, it means if all LP members had been allowed to participate without suspensions or completely arbitrary ‘cut-off’ dates, it is likely his majority would have been well over 62 per cent and more like 65 or 70 per cent.
The crushing defeat for Labour’s right wing is a confirmation that British politics has changed irrevocably, as it also has in the USA and in Europe. There is an ongoing historic change in the consciousness of working class. As Karl Marx put it, “…the old mole of revolution has been burrowing away” even in what is seen by some as a period of relative political calm.
An article by James Kirkup in the Telegraph noted the changes sweeping through politics in general. The article heading, “Don’t be afraid of Jeremy Corbyn. Be afraid of what comes after him” itself speaks volumes. “If there is one lesson from the last 12 months of politics, in Britain, in Europe and the US,” he writes, “…it is that the established order is fragile, more fragile than it has been in a generation and maybe more. Some of the iron laws of politics, economics and society in the industrialised west have proved to be surprisingly flexible. Britain couldn’t leave the EU, and now it is. Donald Trump couldn’t run for president, and now he is. Things have changed, and are continuing to change”.
What Kirkup calls the “iron laws” of politics were never more than illusions: the illusions of capitalist stability and progress. We have now returned to the ‘norms’ of capitalism, with over-production and crises, leading to greater insecurity, uncertainty and impoverishment for the broad mass of the population. Although there has been a temporary respite in the economy, following a severe bout of post-referendum nerves, the longer-term perspective for British capitalism is dire. In the event of a world economic downturn – which is a matter of “when” rather than “if” – the British economy will suffer the consequences far more than others.
Data from the Office of National Statistics, published earlier this year (February), shows the devastating decline of the British economy relative to its rivals. Using 2014 data, it shows that output per hour worked in the UK is 18 per cent below the average of the G7 countries, the widest gap since the financial crisis of 2007-09. British output is 30 per cent below the USA, 36 per cent below Germany, 5 per cent below Spain, 45 per cent below Netherlands and even 30 per cent below Ireland. The economic outlook has no other perspective than a continued ‘drive to the bottom’ in living standards and conditions of work. This is the real explanation for the economic policies of the Tories, not political ideology.
Having long ago given up all hope of competing with its rivals through a policy of long-term investment and economic development, the British capitalist class uses the economic model of Victorian England to squeeze the maximum out of the sweated brows of the workers they have. Britain is fast becoming a low-wage, long-hours, low-skill economy, kept afloat only by virtue of London being a financial centre for the hundreds of billions of dirty dollars, not invested in useful production but sloshing around the globe. This is the real economic and social background to the election of Jeremy Corbyn and it is leading to huge changes in political consciousness in a way that the right wing of the Labour Party just does not and cannot understand, linked as they are by a thousand threads to the Establishment and the status quo.
Once again, as happened in 2015, within hours of Corbyn’s election being announced, a variety of Labour right-wingers have gone to the media to complain about the result. MP John Woodcock drew a comparison between Corbyn’s leadership and the regime the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian political satire 1984.”For those Labour supporters who are disappointed by this result,” he said, “my message is this: don’t give up, don’t walk away and don’t stop making the case for the kind of party that can change the lives of the many who need a Labour government.” The implication is clear…once again the right are peddling the myth that Labour is “unelectable” under Corbyn, when it is a left Labour government they fear, not a Labour defeat.
“Labour” MP, Chuka Ummuna, darling of the Tory media, has also thrown in his pennyworth, articulating the underlying fears of many parliamentary careerists worried about their meal-ticket-for-life. Corbyn should make it very clear, he said, that “the only talk of deselection that there should be is of Conservative MPs at the next general election.” He has also echoed the call of the right wing for the Parliamentary Party, overwhelming on the right, to surround Corbyn with a right-wing Shadow Cabinet, elected by MPs – the same MPs who have “no confidence” in the Corbyn leadership.
Chris Leslie, former shadow chancellor and another who refused to serve under Corbyn, questioned whether the party could ever win under his leadership. The day after Corbyn’s victory, he echoed the myths rattling around the Tory media. “Unless we see a leader who can set out credible policies, stamp out abuse, take us ahead in the polls, persuade the public that he is a prime minister, which is going to be a really difficult challenge.”
Another so-called heavyweight, David Blunkett, weighed in – writing for the extreme right wing Mail – that Corbyn’s victory was a “disaster”. There is not a shadow of doubt that the majority of the 172 Labour MPs who voted no-confidence in Corbyn will continue to snipe and undermine him at every stage. Like their supporters in the media, right-wing Labour MPs are more afraid of a left Labour government than a Labour defeat and their guerrilla war against Corbyn will continue. On the other hand, the Labour Party rank and file is more radicalised than it has been for decades and members will not take kindly to having a few dozen careerist MPs undermining the prospects of a Labour victory in the next election.
What, then, is the perspective for the Labour Party? There is already a gulf between the majority of Labour MPs and the rank and file. A formal split in the Party, therefore, is inevitable at some stage. The only question is how, when and under what precise circumstances it will take place. Marxism is the condensed experience of the working class and we have to at least look at past experiences to see to what extent they are a guide to the future. In this regard, the events surrounding the National Government of 1931 hold important lessons for us because the same sort of conditions are maturing today as were maturing in the early 1930s when that Government was formed.
The key question is the unbridgeable gulf that exists between the parliamentarians and the increasingly radical rank and file of the Labour Party. The neo-liberal Blairite wing of the Party is still intact in the PLP and in Progress, although they have no real base in the Party rank and file. These MPs have more in common with Teresa May than with any ordinary worker or Party member, but as the election of Corbyn clearly shows, the Party is coming under huge pressure from the class. Now that this pressure has an outlet in a radical leader –and the formation of Momentum – that pressure will only increase in the coming years.
It is inconceivable that the Blairites, who detest Corbyn and everything he stands for, will remain in a party with a mass membership and a firm trajectory towards the left. But to the question of what will the Parliamentary right wing do next, it is hard to answer with any certainty. They probably have two options, both of which involved splitting from the Party. In fact, both options may be adopted by different parts of the Parliamentary Party. The more rabid right wingers might leave before the next election if they see that Corbyn is not going to be toppled – they will hope to stymie a Labour election campaign much like the SDP did in 1983. There might only be a few who do this – it is impossible to say. Linked to this is the question of de-selection.
In many Constituency Labour Parties up and down the country there is real anger that their sitting Labour MP has been undermining Corbyn and sabotaging the Party. The ‘lock-down’ of Party meetings was in no small part due to an impending meeting of Wallasey Labour Party, where it was likely that there would have been an overwhelming vote of no-confidence in the arch coup-plotter, Angela Eagle. But Wallasey Labour Party is only one of many, probably dozens at least, where the sitting Labour MP is at odds with his local Party. It will take only one de-selection for the alarm bells to ring loudly around the PLP and for the question of a walk-out to be discussed again.
Even among those MPs who stay in the Party, there will be pressure to leave, particularly after a Labour victory in 2020. A Labour victory will immediately lead to a Government of crisis. There will be such an enormous degree of economic and political pressure put on – as it was for Syriza, but worse. The UK ‘credit rating’ will be cut to the lowest level; the stock market will fall, there will be an investment strike. The top civil servants in the Treasury will be pressing ministers – supported by the World Bank, IMF and hysterical headlines in the press – for massive cuts in public expenditure. The cuts that would be demanded would put into the shade the swingeing cuts that have taken place in Greece. The NHS, public education, public transportation and all public services and institutions will be in jeopardy. The capitalist class will try to force a Corbyn/McDonnell Government along the same road as the Syriza Government in Greece – to surrender to the global financial ‘reality’.
Under these conditions, the Marxists in the Labour Party and the trade unions will argue for the Labour government to take emergency measures to nationalise the banks and finance houses, to take over the large industries upon which the economy depends and to base its policy on the interests and needs of the working class. We would argue for a crash house-building programme, financed by a nationalised banking sector. We would argue for the defence and the ‘renationalisation’ of the NHS. We would argue for a national minimum wage of £10 immediately and for the restoration of all trade union and workers’ rights. Using transitional demands, it would be possible to link the day-to-day needs of the working class to the only means of realising those needs –the socialist transformation of society. Under such conditions of economic and political crisis, the rank and file of the Labour Party and trade unions will be energised as never before in the post-war period. Support for the ideas of Marxism will grow in leaps and bounds.
Despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of the rank and file of the Labour Party and the trades unions, in these circumstances what remains of Labour’s right wing and many of the ‘softer’ lefts will be pushed to agree to some kind of ‘technocratic’ cross-party government to “save the day”. It will be like a National Government Mark II.
For the moment, the political representatives of British capitalism are split and more indecisive than they have ever been at any point since the Second World War. The referendum campaign exposed deep divisions not only within the ranks of the capitalist class itself, but even in the once monolithic Tory party. These divisions will not be easily healed. The only thing on which they agree is on the need to lower living standards still further because of the ongoing economic crisis. Again, all this points to the possibility of a new National Government.
The British ruling class no longer have any easy options. They controlled the right wing leadership of the Labour Party and the trades unions by their political influence and by direct connections and patronage. But that was in the past: it is not so easy in a period of austerity and radicalisation of the working class. What they “want” and what they “get” will not be the same thing. The whole situation is pregnant with all kinds of new possibilities or new variations of ‘old’ themes. It is worth bearing in mind that when the National government was formed in 1931, some lefts stayed inside the Labour Party and (even unconsciously) still reflected the political influence of the ruling class, even though they hadn’t split at that stage. That also might happen again. If Labour splits, Marxists should not assume that all those who remain are genuine ‘lefts’ and class fighters – they might just be waiting to split themselves at a later (more critical) stage.
Whatever happens – and one can really only speculate against the experiences of the 1930s and the more recent SDP split – what is true is that the possibilities for Marxism will be better in the Labour Party than for any period in modern history.
What is of absolute importance is that the Labour Party has a mass membership for the first time in decades. It is now not only the biggest political party in Britain, but the biggest social-democratic party in Europe. Nor are these just ‘paper’ members, but half a million individuals who have made a conscious decision to participate in the election of Labour’s leader. Just as tens of thousands joined after his victory in 2015, again there will be thousands of youth and workers joining the Party after this new victory. Indeed, 15,000 joined on September 24th, the day of his victory. With over half a million members now, the total could easily become a million as an election draws near. Added to this is the fact that there is more opportunity that ever before for serious political debate and discussion in LP meetings.
In the wake of the Corbyn victory, the most significant development for Marxists is the appearance of Momentum. Within days of Corbyn’s first victory, the chief political correspondent of the Financial Times noted with alarm that the huge enthusiasm and scale of his campaign was likely to change the Labour Party permanently. He wrote, just prior to the Brighton conference, that “the battle looms for party control” and bemoaned the fact that in Essex, for example, a “permanent network” of Corbyn supporters had already been set up. He quoted the right wing Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, who noted that although Corbyn is “not a dab hand” at organising, “there are some around him who are more organisationally adept than him.” (FT, 25 September 2015)
Nationally, such a “permanent network” of Corbyn supporters is now well-established in the shape of Momentum. This organisation has a national membership structure and in the first week of its membership going live on-line, signed up 10,000 members. There are now hundreds of verified groups around the country and the numbers are increasing weekly as new groups are set up, usually with no prompting or support from the national office. It is clear that this organisation is bound to grow enormously in the future.
It is true that those behind Momentum nationally – the Corbyn campaign team, more or less – have an almost obsessive preoccupation with the rules and constitution of the organisation. Many of the meetings, like the first formative National Committee, are virtually apolitical, with little reference to austerity, low pay, the housing crisis or any of the issues faced by working people. There is a spectrum of views within Momentum, from ‘soft lefts’ (and some not even that) on one side, to ultra-lefts on the other, but for the moment these political differences are muted in many meetings. One of the tasks of Marxists in Momentum is to encourage and participate in discussions on ideas, not to debate for its own sake, but to have political ideas and programmes clarified and tested out against the march of events. Nominally, the aims of Momentum are to “transform Labour into a more open, member-led party, with socialist policies and the collective will to implement them in government”. This clearly offers a lot of scope for discussion of ideas and policies.
It is also true that the growth of Momentum has been patchy, with some groups developing lively political discussions and others not, some groups with a big influx of new young people and others not. But the likely trajectory of this organisation is unmistakeable. It will develop apace and, despite the shortcomings and the bureaucratic mentality of its national leadership, it will bring into political discussion hundreds and ultimately thousands of the best, most class-conscious workers. Many meetings of Momentum are similar to Labour Party meetings as they used to be, and as they will be again in the future, with lively discussions and plans for campaigns and activities.
In some Momentum groups the ultra-left sects have participated, especially where there have been meetings opened up to the public. After decades of condemning the Labour party as dead and beyond all hope – or even describing it as a “capitalist” and/or Tory party – they cannot but be impressed by the huge wave of support for Corbyn and the movement it has engendered. In the main, because they cannot bring themselves to be active in the Labour Party and have no perspective for a left Labour Party developing, they are reduced to bleating on the side-lines.
There was originally a lot of discussion in the early meetings of Momentum about its orientation and membership. Some wanted membership to consist of only Labour Party members; others wanted it to be completely open. In the end, the first National Committee agreed a compromise, with Momentum facing towards the Party, but open to non-members. However, it was clear that there was no room in its ranks for those who were members of other parties opposed to the Labour Party – in other words anyone who stands or supports candidates against Labour candidates. The compromise that was reached allowed Labour supporters – those who are not ready to face the right wing and the ‘slog’ of Party meetings – to participate in the comparatively more active and politically alive Momentum. In that sense, Momentum can also act as a ‘bridge’, a half-way house between Labour supporters and members, although it still actively encourages – correctly, Marxists would say – joining the Labour Party. It has a link to join the LP on its website, for instance. But for a long time, Momentum is likely to exist as a ‘separate’ organisation, standing alongside and partially immersed in Labour Party meetings. Here and thereits intervention is likely to shift the composition of Constituency Labour Parties, through fresh elections at AGMs and this tendency will accelerate.
Given the size and scale of Momentum now and the potential that it has, Marxists must be active members and participants in Momentum. It is not possible to increase the influence of Marxist ideas with a ‘stand-offish’ or dilettantist approach. To have your ideas taken seriously, you must first be a serious participant. We must be among the best and most active members, actively seeking to build and develop Momentum groups, as well as the Labour Party itself. The database of supporters of Momentum is 120,000-strong and its potential membership is on the same scale. It is potentially the biggest movement on the left of the Labour Party for eighty-five years since the old ILP, which constituted the ‘core’ of the left of the Labour Party and had tens of thousands of members, but which split away in 1932.
The organisation of a left grouping in Momentum would also be an important step forward, as a necessary counterweight to a leadership which has been politically weak and organisationally almost Stalinist. Unfortunately, after an initial start, the ‘Momentum Left’ has disappeared from view and shows no signs of resurfacing. This is a pity, given the constipated organisational processes of Momentum itself. In putting in place a structure and an organisational framework, its national leadership has tried to choreograph the setting up of groups down to the nth degree. Momentum groups are only officially recognised, when they have ticked all of the prescribed boxes, irrespective of whether or not the local members want an exact match to what the leadership requires. There is an almost paranoid dread of groups being formed that are not ‘official’ or who might open a Twitter or Facebook account without formal authorisation.
This careful monitoring and control from above runs directly counter to the original stated aims of Momentum that it would be a grass-roots and ‘bottom-up’ movement. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the net result of all this control has been a partial suffocation of the enormous potential of Momentum. It is not ruled out that the attitude of the leadership could mean that Momentum is strangled before it is properly born, or at least that it might result in severely hampering the networking of local and regional groups.
While lip-service is given to ‘democratic’ values, there is more than a suspicion that many on the provisional National Committee are not representative of really active groups, but are self-selected and based on the original Campaign election team. In at least one case, an elected regional representative has mysteriously been replaced by another person, obviously more in favour with the national office.
Momentum now has proposals to elect leaders by e-ballots, but there are great dangers in this approach. Firstly, it means that the scrutiny and oversight of the election process is not open, as it would be at a regional or national event. Secondly, it means that the national leadership – those who control the website and mechanism of the on-line voting – will necessarily have more exposure than others who may wish to challenge them. Most importantly of all, those participating in an electronic vote will have no idea of the views and opinions of the candidates. Election of regional and national committees at regional and national conferences, allows the delegates to see and hear the candidates and judge for themselves whether or not they are deserving of their support and whether or not they even agree with their political views.
As much as the Momentum leadership is over-tough on organisational questions, it is the opposite on political issues as was seen on the question of the so-called “anti-Semitism problem” in the Labour Party. This whole episode was a completely artificial and manufactured campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the run-up to the May elections, yet in the face of this assault, the leadership of Momentum was at best weak and at worst craven. The best known national leader of Momentum went out of his way to support the disgraceful suspension of Ken Livingstone, and by various publications and policy statements in effect supported the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ against him. When some local groups tweeted their opposition to Livingstone’s suspension, they were asked to take down the tweets because Momentum “was not taking a position”. This weakness in the face of a concerted attack by the media and Labour’s right wing on the Corbyn leadership does not augur well for the future.
The Marxists and the left of Momentum need to be based on the local groups as much as possible. Once it was initiated and given the name “Momentum”, the floodgates opened and the organisation mushroomed. But although the national leadership may own the ‘brand’ at that level, locally, it is the activists on the ground that have the Twitter and Facebook accounts, who organise meetings and who are involved in campaigns on Housing, NHS, Education and so on. It will be in these healthy and vibrant local groups that the left of Momentum will promote political debate, discussion, education and clarification of ideas. The local groups will be a focus of organisation of campaigns of solidarity and activities. They will also be a focus of change in the Labour Party itself.
The whole raison d’être of Momentum is lost if it has no effect in the official structures of the Party. Momentum meetings will inspire and motivate Labour supporters who are put off by the routinism and lack of discussion in the Labour Party: they will see Momentum doing what they really want the Labour Party to do. But in time, these supporters must be encouraged to participate in the Party meetings and make their voices heard there too.
Marxists should make sure that Momentum groups promote discussion and debate in the Party by, for example, circulating model resolutions and speakers’ lists and ultimately, Momentum should be a vehicle for changing the Party. In time, the huge mandate of the Corbyn victory will be reflected in CLPs, in the election of officers, regional and national conference delegates, in the nominations and elections to the NEC and also in the selection of local and parliamentary candidates.
The tide of history is flowing in our direction. The right wing has nothing to say to the four million living in permanent poverty. They have nothing to say to the young workers living on minimum wage, zero-hours contracts, and living at home because their chances of getting affordable accommodation are virtually nil. The whole economic and social crisis of capitalism is undermining the relative ‘stability’ that existed in the past and is driving working class people, but especially the youth, towards radical ideas and radical solutions.
Every political party will feel the coming series of earthquakes. This is also the case internationally. Internationally, every single election is fought and won under the slogan of ‘change’ because people are completely alienated from the system, although what the ‘system’ is and how it can be changed is not clear in the minds of the mass of workers. In one election after another in Europe, the result has been indecisive and we have a succession of short-term, unstable coalition governments. The two or three traditional parties, which in the past had eighty or ninety per cent of the votes shared between them, are under enormous stress as new parties come along and gain millions of votes from nowhere.
As it is with other political parties, the long-term (and not so long) perspective for the Labour Party is for a split or a series of splits as the rank and file become more radicalised under the pressure of events and as the right wing increasingly expose themselves as the political advocates and agents of capitalism.
Another important development is the beginning of the opening up of Young Labour to real political activity and campaigning. The June conference of Young Labour had enormous significance. Here was a conference that for the first time for years in the Labour Party reflected a movement of young people to the left. The supporters of Corbyn won nearly all the elected positions. Only the NEC position was lost – and that by a whisker, after the Labour Party apparatus ruled out a crucial handful of delegates. The conference voted in favour of free education and the NHS.
Given the general economic and political outlook in the world as a whole and in Britain in particular, the next few years will see the politicisation of greater and greater layers of workers. It is beyond the scope of this short document, but apart from a few relatively isolated and localised disputes, industrial struggles are at a very low level at the moment. 2015 saw the second lowest number of days lost through strikes since records began in 1891. Many jobs have been lost and the drive to reduce basic working conditions and wages has cowed many workers, particularly in the private sector, with the result that trade union membership has been reduced to a little over half the total of twenty-five years ago. The big majority of young people, especially those on zero-hours contracts and dead-end jobs are not yet organised into unions so that the profile of a typical union member is relatively old and in the public sector.
However, the basic conditions of life at work and the cul-de-sac in which workers find themselves will force more and more into being organised in the future and into fighting for their basic rights and conditions. The present relative industrial peace cannot long. As it was in the United States in the 1930s and in Britain forty years before that, there will be a surge of new, younger workers into the trades unions as the struggle is taken up for better wages and secure work. Newer layers, even of skilled workers who were previously isolated from the labour movement, like the junior doctors, will be brought into struggle. Inevitably, this will bring newer, fresher layers into the unions and many of these new activists will draw political conclusions from their experiences.
As it will be on the industrial plain, inevitably, thousands of British workers and youth will be drawn into active politics, often for the first time. In which direction will these new activists move? As Trotsky said on many occasions and Ted Grant after him, workers do not understand small organisations. The overwhelming majority of workers and youth moving into political activity will move towards Momentum or the Labour Party and towards Labour’s youth organisation.
The full-time apparatus of the Labour Party has been completely shocked by the election of Corbyn. The supporters of the right wing – Progress – have had years to put their people into positions in the Party bureaucracy. Now, they are like long-term tenants who have suddenly seen their house taken over by noisy and raucous squatters. They will fight tooth and nail to slow down any changes. They will investigate any ‘allegation’ by the right wing, even the most spurious and trivial. All over the country Labour Party members have been suspended in the most Kafkaesque terms as the right wing defend their ground. But in the long run, it will not stop the increase in membership, political activity, discussion and ultimately the radicalisation and growth of the Labour Party.
Even in Scotland, where conditions are not the same as those in the rest of Britain, the developments in the Labour Party are not completely and utterly different to those in England and Wales. There is not the slightest evidence to support the assertion made by some comrades that the 4000 members who have joined the Scottish Labour Party since the 2015 general election are right wingers or careerists as has been suggested. This number is not as great as the membership of the SNP, but scaled-up, it is equivalent to 40,000 new members in the UK as a whole…not a small number.
In Scotland, Momentum membership is approaching 600 and is mainly made up of new members of the Labour Party, including many young activists who voted ‘yes’ in the referendum campaign. Edinburgh Momentum has taken the lead in organising a major local anti-cuts campaign and a conference before the recent local government elections. It has good links to the trade unions and Unite in particular. There are also active Momentum branches in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. Momentum is supported by Neil Findlay who was at one time a candidate for leader of the Scottish Labour Party, as well as many councillors. What was once an ‘unofficial’ left grouping of Labour youth, the Scottish Labour Young Socialists now effectively controls the official Scottish Young Labour. It is completely wrong, therefore, even though it is still at a low ebb, to write off the Labour Party in Scotland (“facing extinction”) as some have done.
Impatience and short-termism are the worst habits we can inculcate in young active comrades at the present time. We need to teach young comrades to participate in a movement with workers and youth, not stand aside from it and play ‘spot the contact’, as if it were possible to seriously win anyone to Marxism without showing that you were a serious socialist. Participating in a serious way must mean helping to build, whether it is a Labour Party, a trade union branch or a Momentum group. Marxists should intervene and play their part in building but also in promoting discussion and debate – always in a friendly way – and using Momentum as a springboard for politicising and promoting change in the LP itself.
Marxists who are activists in the Labour Party, Momentum or in a trade union ought to regularly take stock of what work they are doing so they avoid becoming donkeys, mindlessly going from one routine meeting to another without any strategy for building real support for Marxist ideas. An annual ‘audit’ of political work being done and meetings attended is a good idea for anyone in the labour movement. But with trade union work it has always to be borne in mind that it is necessarily long-term. Being an articulate and outspoken member of a trade union branch or Labour Party will inevitably attract at least the respect of fellow members who see someone capable of holding a position and promoting the union. This is not yet political support and it may not mean that other members are won to Marxist ideas; it may mean no more than respect for someone with good principles and clear ideas. But in those circumstances it is not possible to constantly back away from holding some position of responsibility or another. But where a comrade clearly has the respect of workers, even without them agreeing with all the ideas today, winning them to Marxism tomorrow will be possible. On the other hand, a constant refusal to do anything to help build the movement –turning up at meetings and articulating a point of view while others do the work – means that you will never be taken seriously.
“Work amongst the honest, reformist workers and politically backward workers is far more fruitful than with these exotic elements. Young workers particularly are a thousand times more important than the sects. Engels already explained this problem nearly a hundred years ago. Workers, even right-wing reformist workers supporting the ideas of Callaghan, Healey, Rodgers [Labour right-wing leaders], can be won to the ideas of Marxism on the basis of experience and on the basis of patient argument and explanation…” (emphasis added)
The period opening up in the Labour Party for Marxism is potentially the best for thirty years. In a measurable period of time, the landscape of the main party of the working class will be transformed. It is important that in our work in Momentum and the Labour Party, that Marxists use language and tone that is appropriate. Ted Grant used to always point out that there is no such thing as a ‘sincerometer’ and there is no way to gauge how sincere or genuine a politician is. Our focus must always be on the politics not the personalities.
The big majority of leftward-moving workers are prepared to extend a period of grace to the new Labour leadership. They recognise in them a ‘new breed’ of leaders, who appear to say what they mean and mean what they say. They also recognise that Corbyn is isolated and the few parliamentary lefts who really support him are hugely outnumbered by right wing MPs who would dearly love to see Labour do badly in the polls so they have a pretext to oust Corbyn. Whether or not it is a good idea, many lefts accept that Corbyn is trapped in a situation where he is forced to compromise to hold the line against the onslaught of the right wing.
But where Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnellare under constant attack by the media and openly sabotaged by Labour’s right wing, it does the Marxists no good at all to suggest they might be “moving to the right” even if we have important criticisms of their views. It is far better to stick to the politics and programme, without personalising the issues. Marxists should argue that “Labour should do this…” and “Labour should do that…” We support Corbyn against the right wing and we “urge” the Labour leadership to adopt socialist policies. We urge the Labour leaders to go to the rank and file of the labour and trade union movement and to appeal to Labour voters over the heads of the right wing MPs. It is absolutely correct to use the example of Greece and Syriza as a warning, to explain the inadequacy of the policies of reformism, but the manner of our criticisms is absolutely key.
Marxists must always address the issues in a calm, sober and serious way, with facts, figures and arguments, patiently explaining our views. We do not and should not participate in shrill denunciations of the LP leadership even if mistakes are made or compromises with the right wing sought. Where it is necessary, we will make comradely and friendly criticism, but not using the hysterical language of the sects. Workers who can be won to the ideas of Marxism with the right approach, will be turned off, not by the content of such criticism, but by its tone, which will appear to them as a superior and haughty ‘Marxism’.
Ted Grant always made the point that we criticise the Labour leaders, and especially the lefts, “more in sorrow than anger”. Look at the words Ted used to describe how we should put forward our ideas: “soberly and positively…we must proceed unsensationally and calmly, ‘patiently explaining’…we must be firmly against any adventurous courses and ultra-left gestures… with a Marxist approach buttressed with ‘facts, figures and arguments’, no hysterical denunciations…clear and concrete answers to the problems of the working class…”
Referring the left reformist Tribunites and Tony Benn in 1979, Ted argued: “Tony Benn has enormous popular support among the workers. Marxists must approach this question very carefully. There must be a friendly criticism, of the policies which are put forward by the Tribunites, both in the Labour Party and the trade unions. A friendly approach is absolutely essential if the ideas of Marxism are to gain a hearing.”
If we must criticise the lefts, we do it indirectly, by contrasting the programme of Marxism with the programme of left reformism. Adopting the wrong tone now will lead to a slippery slope that ends up in shrill denunciations of betrayal, cutting no ice with leftward-moving workers.
There is more potential for Marxist ideas than at any time since the Second World War. It took the Militant Tendency two decades to go from a few hundred supporters – the paper was founded in 1964 – to thousands of supporters in the 1980s. It was the biggest Marxist movement up to that point in post-war history. Three Labour MPs supported the ideas of the paper and dozens of councillors. There were key supporters in leading trade union positions nationally, including at one time a member of the TUC general council. There were hundreds of supporters in key positions locally in trade unions and Labour Parties. In the titanic movements that will affect world politics – and in Britain it is only a reflection of world changes – it will not take decades but a few years to reach the same stage again, but on a higher and more solid foundation than ever before.