After Corbyn: making socialist politics a decisive force

Submitted by Matthew on 28 October, 2015 - 11:56

On 21-22 November, Workers’ Liberty will be holding our annual conference.

This document about the Labour Party and the Corbyn surge will be one of those discussed. After decades of capitalist triumphalism and the decay of the left, the movement which carried Jeremy Corbyn to victory brings great openings and opportunities for socialists, potentially very great. But we have not yet emerged from the old period; that is the task to be accomplished.

We need to:

• Organise the newcomers into active CLPs, Young Labour groups, local left caucuses, etc.

• Fight for democracy and for an active political life at every level of the party and labour movement.

• At the same time, patiently explain class-struggle and socialist political ideas, shifting the debate, making new socialists and winning new support.

The progress of socialist education and organisation will also be vitally important for the fate and development of the broader movement. Either the “Corbyn surge” will be consolidated by building an active and democratic mass Labour Party and reviving working-class politics, or it will end with a backlash driven by the Labour right. Either we will to some significant extent win the battle of ideas in this movement, or it will go down, one way or another. We can do that only if we convince many more people of class-struggle socialist politics and rally significant numbers of them — and of those previously vaguely and passively sympathetic — into active fighters for the politics of working-class self-emancipation.

During the Blair years, the Labour Party remained in general terms what we have called a “bourgeois workers’ party”, due largely to its institutional link with the unions. Within that formula, there was a very significant shift towards the bourgeois “pole”, as the Blairites reshaped the party structure, the party’s self-conscious working-class membership and supporter base attenuated, and the unions allowed themselves to be pushed to the margins. Now, with the Corbyn surge, there is a positive shift. Party membership, fast approaching 400,000 in mid-October, has more than doubled since the general election; on the face of it the influx is made up mostly of left-wing white collar workers and young people. There is a renewed movement for labour movement political representation, although many of those involved do not yet see it that way. The Blairite drive to push the unions out of Labour Party politics has been halted — in fact in some respects the unions have in the last four months played a more pro-active role in the party than ever before in its history.

The basic reason for the surge must surely be the experience since 2008 of the capitalist crisis and since 2009-10 of the brutal ruling-class offensive called “austerity” — plus the shock of the Tories’ election victory, which must also have made many people feel Labour or British politics could not go on as before. In some respects what is happening in the Labour Party is similar to the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Despite its limitations so far — which are to be expected — this is an opportunity to break the blockade on minimally left-wing, class-based politics which Blairism, building on Thatcherism, achieved from the mid-1990s. It is an opportunity to shift politics to the left, persuading and changing the ideas of hundreds of thousands and millions of people through energetic campaigning and reasoned debate, and thus make class-struggle socialism a more viable and substantial project than for many years. We reject the idea that a Corbyn-led Labour Party cannot win a general election. The political “consensus” can be shifted, and it is the job of the left to fight to shift it. We can learn and teach from history: if the majority of the Labour Party had not rejected “austerity” in 1931, immediately leading to electoral catastrophe, there would very probably have been no 1945 government creating the welfare state. We face many difficulties. The unions have not been transformed. The Blairite party structure and party machine remain in place, for now. Much of the left-wing politics promoted by the Corbyn campaign has been woolly and populist, with little reference to socialism or even the labour movement. The whole left visibly bears the signs of the period we are perhaps coming out of. We must challenge any notion that, with Corbyn elected, the job is done. In fact the bigger and more difficult job starts now. Our basic line of activity is to help build up active, democratic, campaigning CLPs and Young Labour groups, and Labour Clubs. The left will only become a serious force if it goes far beyond the layer that has had disproportionate weight in the central Corbyn campaign — the MPs’ researchers and advisers and office people and media operatives, the think tank people, those who float between NGO jobs and Labour Party politics, the young people with full-time trade union jobs, etc. Building local broad left-wing groups to organise activists in local Labour Parties and labour movements (on the model of e.g. Sheffield, Merseyside, Newcastle, Lewisham), as well as broad local labour movement conferences to discuss the way forward is an urgent task for the left.

Youth work is particularly important for renewing the movement and for convincing a new generation of socialists. In as many places as possible local Young Labour groups should be centres of left-wing campaigning and discussion, on a constituency basis (or possibly borough basis in parts of London). Student Labour Clubs should be centres of left-wing campaigning and discussion on campuses, and should link up with the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, anti-cuts struggles, and worker solidarity campaigns. Labour Young Socialists is an important initiative. It should spread socialist ideas among young people, and be an engine for building strong Young Labour groups and Labour Clubs, and work in Young Labour and Labour Students nationally to argue for such politics. We want to educate young Labour Party members in the traditions and importance of the workers’ movement and help make them a force to renew it.

The first task is the fight to revive, democratise and enliven the whole Labour Party and labour movement, in every area and at every level. Without that we cannot meaningfully fight for left-wing policies. Make party conference sovereign, abolish the policy forums; end bans on the socialist left’s participation in the party; open up the youth and student structures; and create democratic structures for oppressed groups. What policies? We support, against the Tories and the Labour right, even the relatively weak and piece-meal reforms being proposed by Corbyn and his close allies; but we argue to deepen and develop Labour’s program along the lines of the class-struggle “Emergency Plans” developed by French Trotskyists or our “Workers’ Plan for the crisis” — reform demands which boldly answer the most pressing needs of the working class and workers’ struggles regardless of the needs and demands of capitalism. The “political economy of the working class”, as Marx put it — allocation of resources planned for need, against the logic of the market and profit. Tax the rich to stop and reverse cuts, rebuild public services; attack inequality; scrap nuclear weapons and cut military spending; renationalise privatised industries and services; nationalise the banks; repeal the anti-union laws. We argue for the left to advocate the aim of a government based on and accountable to the labour movement, a workers’ government which serves the working class as the Tories serve the bosses. In the movement for such a government we will seek to constitute a consistently revolutionary wing. We call for Labour councillors to refuse to implement cuts. But the dominant soft-left outlook in the Corbyn surge accepts it as obvious that councillors must make cuts. We won’t win that argument with councillors (or many of them, anyway), before we win it with the rank and file. This discussion can stimulate the re-building of active local anti-cuts campaigns.

We defend the right of members to easily select/deselect MPs and councillors as a basic precondition of democracy, of accountability of representatives and of the labour movement’s ability to exert pressure on and control over a future Labour government. We call for Labour MPs to take only a worker’s wage, and reasonable expenses, and to donate the rest to the party. rebuild We seek to rebuild and extend union involvement in the party, in particular by promoting union delegates to local Labour Party structures.

If the Trade Union Bill passes, hollowing out Labour Party funding and the union link, we will continue to fight for it repeal; and we will fight for the overthrow of the Collins Review arrangements and the restoration or creation of a much more extensive and democratic union-party link. We must fend off the drive that will come for agreement between the union leaders and the party leaders, or some of them, to halt and reverse progress to the left — of the kind that signalled and prepared retreat in the early 1980s. It is good that most unions supported Corbyn for leader, but it does not mean they have been transformed; that task remains, including by fighting for the unions to promote working-class policies in the Labour Party and by fighting to democratise them. Union democracy is key — without it, no wider transformation of the movement is possible. Whatever the tactical specifics, we advocate all unaffiliated unions affiliate to the Labour Party, starting most obviously and urgently with the RMT.

Corbyn’s record and the fact that he obviously thinks much of the “left” baggage he has carried for decades now unviable mean that many important issues on which we differ from the “left” consensus — particularly Israel-Palestine and Europe, on which the old “left” nationalist consensus has collapsed — are now up for debate. We need to up our boldness in argument and seek to coalesce people around us on these issues — alongside and as part of the central task of educating for socialism and winning new people to our ideas and organisation.