Britain Europe

Crisis in the British Labour Party

By Javed Iqbal
(Organiser Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, PTUDC, in Britain)

The recent period we have been going through is a period of sharp turns and sudden changes in Britain and internationally.  The result of the British referendum on the membership of the European Union, the resignation of David Cameron and the insurrection within the Labour Party are all clear examples of these turbulent times.

In the scenario at a global level, we have witnessed radicalisation and the desire for a radical left alternative rise across continents. In the US, the socialist candidacy campaign of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party was narrowly defeated by the might of the Democratic Party’s bureaucracy and apparatus, as the recent revelations shows that Sanders was never going to be allowed even a level playing field in his search to become the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Leaked emails reveal that the party establishment had, while pretending neutrality, been acting against Sanders and in favour of Hillary Clinton throughout the primaries campaign. Sanders galvanised the imagination of American workers and youth, as it has never been seen before. There is a growing revulsion against the Establishment in the USA. Saunders was able to tap into a mood of discontent in American society.

In Greece we witnessed on the one hand how the troika – The IMF, EU and the ECB unleashed unprecedented austerity on the Greek population reducing Greek economy by half, attacking wages, conditions, pensions and jobs and on the other a spectacular display of courage and determination by the Greek working class. We witnessed one general strike after another and in the process exposing class collaborationist policies and a role of the PASOK and reducing it to rump. The international working class movement saw a birth and rapid rise of new left revolutionary party Syriza. However lets us also not forget the treacherous role played by Tsipras and the Syriza leadership in caving into the austerity of the Troika (maybe this can be discussed in more detail in another article). In Spain a completely new party Podemos, went through a similar process and in Britain this process has taken place within the ideologically bankrupt and hollowed out structures of the Labour Party.

The morning after the British referendum on the European Union (Brexit), when the Labour party needed to rally itself around its leader and bring all the other UK progressives forces to prevent a right-wing Brexit from the European Union – the majority of the Parliamentary Labour (PLP) used Brexit vote to launch an onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn, who they accused of insufficiently enthusiastic for the ‘Remain’ cause after he refused to campaign alongside pro-Remain Tories or drop his entirely justified criticisms of the EU.  Nine months into Corbyn’s leadership, ratified by an overwhelming majority of Labour’s members, and in the context of a profound existential crisis for the Tories and when the country was still reeling from the vote, shadow foreign secretary, Hillary Benn fired the first shot, but was soon followed by a staggered series of resignations from the members of the shadow cabinet who have never supported the Corbyn leadership. This was followed up with Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey submitting a motion for a vote of no confidence in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. This is despite Corbyn winning last year’s leadership election with the greatest landslide of any leader in the party’s history, doubling the membership of the Labour party, and moving ahead in the polls.

The aim was to force Corbyn to resign without risking a vote by the Labour membership. But the no-confidence vote by 172 Labour MPs out of 230, the hourly Shadow Cabinet resignations, the fusillade of attacks hurled at Corbyn during PLP meetings – designed according to one report to “break him as a man” – all failed to dislodge him.

The above was being peddled by the Blairites as spontaneous. The truth was far from it as this was nothing but a coup that miserably and spectacularly failed. The whole affair was well thought out, planned and choreographed in advance long before the referendum. Ever since last September, the right within the Labour Party and in particular the hardcore Blairites have been constantly attacking Corbyn, insulting him, sabotaging his work, and doing everything in their power to undermine him. They have stooped to the lowest kind of slanders and smears, which were repeated a thousand times by the British gutter press and the establishment planted and hired prostitutes within the corporate media houses particularly that of Rupert Murdock.

The combination of onslaughts and manoeuvres from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) encouraged aided and abetted by the right wing capitalist media only ended up emboldening Corbyn and saw massive mobilisations from below to defend Corbyn. First, there was a massive show of support for Corbyn by Labour members. A petition called “A vote of confidence for Jeremy Corbyn after the Brexit vote” has gathered more than 150,000 signatures within 24 hours of the attacks. The meetings that Corbyn addressed in the leadership election last year were spontaneous, lively, and full of inspiration put even those pale in comparison to the size of the turnouts this summer. At the time of the PLP vote of no confidence, and with a mere 24 hours’ notice a spontaneous mobilisation of over 10,000 turned up outside the Parliament Square to defend Corbyn. In just one weekend a tour of northern cities saw Corbyn address enthusiastic crowds of over 2,000 in Leeds, 3,000 in Hull and 10,000 in Liverpool. In addition we also witnessed a renewed surge in membership — with over 100,000 joining the Labour Party in just a few weeks. Labour’s membership now stands at around 550,000 — higher than under any Labour leader.

The leaders of the 12 strongest unions in the United Kingdom, under growing pressure from the rank and file, decided that they had to support Jeremy Corbyn. They wrote a letter of support following the attempted coup, stating “that this is not the time for internal strife particularly when Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had to resign and thrown the whole Tory Party into disarray and divisions. This is a time to focus on speaking up for jobs, workers’ rights under threat from the Tories.” The Trade Union leaders warned that the last thing Labour needs is a manufactured leadership row of its own in the midst of this crisis and called upon all Labour MPs not to engage in any such indulgence.

The message from the public, the Labour membership, and Corbyn himself could not be clearer. This coup does not have popular support, and those behind it need to re-examine their dirty game plan.

The Labour right has been horrified by the results. Their desperations had no limits and wheeled out Neil Kinnock, who incidentally lost two general elections to attack Corbyn, calling on Corbyn to resign and implying that he has lost the confidence of members. Ed Miliband, the previous Labour leader who like Kinnock failed to win an election, demanded that Corbyn stand down in the interest of making Labour “electable”. This is great advice coming from Labour’s greatest failures in living memory offering advice to Labour on how to win an election.

The right’s retreat from their mantra of democracy has been rapid and crude and all the forces of the British Establishment have united behind them.  The gutter press and the planted agents of the state within the media have been undermining Corbyn from the day one when he was elected as a leader last year. Now the Courts who always weigh on the side of the private property have come on the side of the right wing by their decision to back the NEC’s ruling that the 130,000 new members who joined Labour after 12 January cannot vote in the contest.  The capitalist establishment will in the final analysis back undemocratic manoeuvring of the Labour right such as using their influence in the party’s apparatus to exclude recent members from the leadership ballot. They also increased the supporter’s fee from £3 to £25 and only allowing a two-day window to register. As if this was not enough they attempted, unsuccessfully, to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper. Already more than 40,000 members are being excluded from voting on some of the most spurious reasons. All this has been coupled with a relentless campaign of smears accusing Corbyn supporters of abuse, thuggery, anti-Semitism, and most recently ridiculous claims of Trotskyist infiltration; as if this could explain the huge backing Corbyn has received.

General Election 2015

The Tories victory in the 2015 General Election is very precarious as they only have a majority of 12. This Tory 12-seat majority, won on less than 37% of the vote, was nothing like the landslide portrayed. Labour haemorrhaged votes on its left to the SNP and Greens, and on the populist right to UKIP, but won more votes in England than Tony Blair did in 2005.

Immediately after the 2015 General Election Tories embarked on a massive programme of privatisation up to £23bn which included Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds, Royal Mail, the Royal Mint, Met Office and Channel 4. None of this privatisation was mentioned before the election. None of this featured in the Tory manifesto. The Conservatives have no mandate for these measures. Austerity, which transfers wealth from public to private and poor to rich, has been Tory Party’s main aim. In other words the idea is to hand over anything and everything to the City. This needs to be opposed by the Labour movement as it is no secret Tories will unleash vicious attacks on millions of people’s living standards. The austerity programme needs to be opposed in parliament, but also with industrial action, demonstrations and local campaigns.

When Ed Miliband resigned after taking Labour through a defeat, all the candidates with the exception of Blair were tainted with Blair’s war crimes and his unashamedly pro-business policies and actions. Labour under Miliband miserably failed in small former industrial towns but did better in London and big metropolitan cities. It continued to lose working-class votes but bolstered its middle-class support. Coming up with a strategy to win back these traditional Labour voters is far from straightforward. However this is not something what the Labour right and arch-Blairites had to offer at the time. All the three Blair tainted candidates took the nod from Blair and a string of former New Labour luminaries and have fallen in behind the Blairite agenda.

They all declared Ed Miliband’s leadership was “anti-business”, threatened rich people with punitive taxes, and failed to accept that the last Labour government “overspent” in the run up to the crisis of 2007-08. Liz Kendall, the most unreconstructed Blairite claimed the plan to restore the 50% top tax rate was a “major problem”. Yvette Cooper turned sharply to the right and said that Miliband’s distinction between corporate “producers” and “predators” had been “anti-business, anti-growth and ultimately anti-worker”. She also advocated further cuts in corporate tax.

Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda captured the imagination of working class particularly its youth. Advocating policies which promised to end zero hours contracts, give much more security, cut the number of hours worked, raise the level of wages and increase trade union rights were very popular. As were pledged to control housing crisis with rent controls, security of tenure for tenants and a mass emergency council house building programme.

The media and the political class can hardly contain themselves. What’s happening in the Labour party should simply not have been happening. It’s suicidal, puerile, madness, self-mutilation, narcissistic, an emotional spasm and, in the words of one Tory cabinet member, a “potential catastrophe for Britain”. But Jeremy Corbyn’s runaway leadership campaign showed little sign of flagging. In fact, the more he was attacked and derided, the more support he attracts. It’s an extraordinary example of how utterly unpredictable politics can be.

It was the above programme, which saw Jeremy Corbyn elected last September by a sweeping majority of 60% of party members. The victory of Corbyn was guaranteed by a huge influx of new members into the Party. The right-wing MPs and the bureaucratic clique that controls the Party apparatus were horrified by this development and this right-wing Blairite faction that controls the Parliamentary Labour Party has been engaged in a continuing campaign to oust him in defiance of the democratic will of the Party.

New Labour’s  ‘prince of darkness’, Peter Mandelson, in an article in The Guardian on 31 December 2015 had commented on the paucity of social forces available to the right in the ongoing civil war, but 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.” There is no doubt that the majority of Labour councillors form a bureaucratic caste that 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.

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. We have already seen the shift within GMBU, changes in the tone of Dave Prentice Unison General Secretary and other TU leaders.

Current Leadership Contest

Due to the weakness of Corbyn’s support inside the PLP, his supporters are forced again and again to mobilise to defend him — at Constituency Labour Party meetings, at public rallies and even demonstrations in the streets. In the process they have come up against at least some of the key bulwarks of ruling class power: the Labour right, corporate media and the courts.

Despite the suspension of the constituency parties until the leadership election is over, Jeremy Corbyn has won local party nominations by a landslide in the Labour leadership contest, with 84% of constituency nominations at the final count. The Labour leader won the support of 285 constituency Labour parties (CLPs), with his rival, Owen Smith, taking just 53 nominations. Corbyn has more than doubled his support among local parties since the 2015 contest. In 2015, he won support from 39% of CLPs.

Corbyn won the formal nominations of eight Labour affiliated unions while four backed Smith — but crucially Corbyn has continued to win, as he did last year, the backing of the two biggest unions, Unite and Unison.

But how will the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Labour Party to back Corbyn relate to the millions Labour needs to persuade if it is to win a general election? A radical Labour programme backed by effective arguments from the leadership that challenge the market, put the case for renationalisation, put the case for free education, a National Health Service not only free at point of that blame migrants, and so on, would make a difference delivery but free from the shackles of the market forces imposed by the Tories and challenge myths. Equally, the revival of Labour as a mass party potentially gives it a network of activists who can take those arguments into communities and workplaces that Labour has long retreated from.

But the most important factor shaping whether workers will back a radical Labour platform is their overall confidence to challenge ruling class ideas that insist you can’t challenge the market. And this crucially depends on the level of struggle. Workers who are actively engaged in the collective struggle are far more likely to reject the arguments peddled by the media than those who remain isolated and passive. But that points to the need to build such struggles.

Could Labour split?

All the claptrap of the Blairites and the British Establishment that they want to see a strong and electable opposition is nothing but a total sham. Blairites know very well that they have been living in a “Westminster bubble” which has ended up alienating Labour heartlands in the Midlands, North and Scotland. The issue is not that Corbyn in unelectable.  On the contrary what they are afraid of is that Labour under Corbyn could win the next election.  Despite Brexit and Cameron’s resignation, the Tory Party remains deeply split over Europe and this probably explains why “grey man in grey suits” paid a visit to Andrea Leadson, the candidate of the Brexit anti-European wing of the party, in order to give Theresa May a clear run for the Party leadership and a coronation to placate infighting and threats of further split.

The election of May as new leader of the Conservative party has reduced the dangers of a split within the Labour Party but not eliminated. The civil war in the Labour Party has to come to an end, as it cannot continue indefinitely without events tipping one way or the other. Certainly, there has been much speculation that MPs opposed to Corbyn would split away. The split in 1981 when 28 Labour MPs defected to the SDP, which despite winning nearly 8 million votes in 1983 did not succeed in making a decisive breakthrough, let alone to displace Labour as the main opposition party.

Following Corbyn’s victory last year, Adam Boulton in an article in the Sunday Times said that “the first hope of the Blairites 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, to be called the Progressive Democrats.” This was being considered at that time, however, it was a last resort as they also feared a right split from Labour would suffer the fate of the SDP.

A split from Labour would be a considerable gamble, to say the least — though some MPs may do so, especially if the talk of deselections was to become a reality. But more likely is that they will wage a war of attrition against Corbyn’s leadership and place pressure on Corbyn to moderate his message and seek unity with at least sections of the PLP.

The drama of the last 12 months could continue. Corbyn did attempt to work with the PLP — the decision not to sack Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary after his speech in favour of bombing Syria last December was the clearest, and one of the many olive branches offered to the right to generate loyalty but all failed as can be seen how Benn continued to use his position to help orchestrate the shadow cabinet revolt against Corbyn.

The re-election of Corbyn opens up huge possibilities as the historic working-class party is shaken to its core. The hostile reaction to Corbyn by those in power demonstrates what huge issues are at stake. It does not take much to imagine what a Corbyn victory would unleash. The entire British state machinery, as well as its outriders already in play, would be brought to bear on such a left government. We are getting a small taste of that onslaught now, precisely because there is a possibility of a left-led Labour government.

If the ruling class were prepared to launch this level of political and media onslaught towards Corbyn now, how would they respond to a Corbyn-led government? The ruling class has so far deployed just a fraction of its weaponry. Investment strikes, currency crisis, sabotage by the senior civil services and judiciary, manoeuvres by the secret services are just a few of the many dirty tactics that have been utilised with devastating effect against previous reforming Labour governments to ensure these presented no threat to the profits and stability of British capitalism.

Corbyn’s position will be immeasurably strengthened if the level of struggle rises — and, in fact, this path offers the most certain route to creating an electoral majority for Corbyn. Crucially this must mean a willingness to challenge at points the trade union bureaucracy, and not just the wing that opposes Corbyn, but also pro-Corbyn union leaders when they fail to fight.

These are exciting times for the left in Britain but the movement around Corbyn will face repeated tests in the months and years to come. The right within the Labour Party and the British Establishment will use every arsenal available to them undermine Corbyn and discredit socialist values and policies. The test for the left in Britain is to coalesce around Corbyn in these testing times we are going through and ensure a truly revolutionary left alternative to the Tories, Blairites, Liberals in other words proponents of market forces and capitalism, fighting to establish a society which will strive to end inequality, discrimination, oppression, exploitation and more importantly lay the real foundation for establishment of a socialist society in Britain. This shall a beacon for Europe and the rest of the world.