AWL conference 2015: "After the Corbyn surge"

These documents, "After the Corbyn Surge", and "The Next 12 Months", were adopted by AWL conference 21-22 November 2015.

AFTER THE CORBYN SURGE: MAKING SOCIALIST POLITICS A DECISIVE FORCE

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 about 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.

Where we are now

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. On the other hand, both the Collins Review and the attacks on the union-Labour link contained in the Tories' Trade Union Bill remain looming threats.

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. We believe that the political "consensus" can be shifted, and that it is the job of the left to fight to shift it. As well as more recent examples of how political organisers and ideologists have successfully shifted politics to the right (Thatcherites, Blairites, UKIP), 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.

These problems shape our tasks with regard to the Labour Party, but they do not make them any less important or urgent. For us revolutionary socialists, this new movement is of tremendous importance.

What we need to do

Into the Labour Party and Young Labour! All AWL members should be members of the Labour Party unless specifically agreed; doing Labour Party work of some kind should be the norm. Branches should discuss who is active and how. We should encourage our political contacts and allies to join and become active with us.

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. Especially YL groups and Labour Clubs. In previous Labour Party history, and so probably now, the youth movement has been the most fruitful area in the Labour Party for left-wing activism.

We are active in the Labour Party both to increase our forces and in order to help advance and transform the wider the labour movement. Only through both process can a substantial and politically adequate revolutionary socialist tendency in the labour movement and working class be built.

For the first time ever, the mass membership of the party is to the left of activists and local organisers. That makes it more important than ever to "dig down" to mobilise the widest layers we can in the CLPs, in broad local left caucuses, in street activity, in Young Labour groups, in political discussion.

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.

We will seek to build broad local left-wing groups to organise activists in local Labour Parties and labour movements (on the model of eg Sheffield, Merseyside, Newcastle, Lewisham), as well as initiating broad local labour movement conferences to discuss the way forward. We should continue to advocate a united, democratic national left-wing movement – though we should register that that is not immediately at all likely, with those close to Corbyn about to launch some sort of politically timid, undemocratic, mainly internet-based organisation.

Youth work is particularly important for renewing the movement and for convincing a new generation of socialists. In as many places as possible, we will seek to build local Young Labour groups, as centres of left-wing campaigning and discussion, on a constituency basis (or possibly borough basis in parts of London). We will seek to develop student Labour Clubs as centres of left-wing campaigning and discussion on campuses, linking them to NCAFC, anti-cuts struggles, worker solidarity, etc. All student comrades should be actively involved in their Labour Club.

We will build and promote the important Labour Young Socialists initiative. We want it to spread socialist ideas among young people, to be an engine for building strong Young Labour groups and Labour Clubs, and to seek to take control of Young Labour and Labour Students nationally. 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.

We will interest individuals and groups in our broader revolutionary socialist ideas. At the same time, what is the broad line of struggle we seek to organise people around? Firstly, 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.

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 attempts at a "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.

As we work in the Labour Party, this does not mean slapping down a full "Workers’ Plan" in every meeting – we need to be sensitive, take account of where the people around us are at, and feel our way. But we should come across as bold and class-focused: the people concerned with workers and working-class struggle. A class approach should guide us on every issue from nuclear weapons to immigration to climate change. The anti-union laws/trade union rights should be a major focus. So, once again, should the NHS, especially in light of the escalating deficits in many NHS trusts even before the start of winter. We will encourage and organise people to get on the streets to campaign on these kinds of issues. We will seek to orient the Labour Party and Young Labour towards support for working-class struggles, going to picket lines, demonstrations, etc.

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 must argue patiently: we won’t win that argument with councillors (or many of them, anyway), before we win it with the rank and file. As we do so, we must use it to stimulate the building of active local anti-cuts campaigns.

In terms of the fight for democracy in the Labour Party and the wider labour movement, the key elements are: 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; create democratic structures for oppressed groups. This needs to go alongside promoting mass involvement and active, campaigning, debating political life at a local level.

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.

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.

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THE NEXT TWELVE MONTHS

1. The political effects of 2008 and its aftermath

The world capitalist crash of 2008 and the subsequent economic depression has produced, in some areas at least, a groundswell of left-moving opinion, manifested in such things as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and now the Corbyn campaign in Britain. Much now hinges on how well we can integrate ourselves into that groundswell and win the battle of ideas within it. We can do that only if we sharpen our organisation and convert vague and passive sympathisers into active, disciplined fighters for the politics of working-class emancipation.

We wage that battle in a milieu where the biggest political movements so far away from the different shades of the mainstream neoliberal consensus have, however, generally not been left-wing. They have been less like direct working-class or even popular contradiction of neoliberalism, more like proposals to side-step neoliberalism.

Such responses have been varied. In Iraq and Syria, the most bloodthirsty and fascistic political Islamism (Daesh). In France, Hungary, Britain, a nationalist hard-right (Front National, Fidesz, Ukip). In Scotland, the mildly leftish social-liberal SNP.

All those appear as "rebel" or "oppositional" movements, but propose very little, much less than the fascistic and right-nationalist movements of the 1930s, in way of social policy or even social demagogy. None proposes a direct opposition to neoliberalism, let alone to capitalism.

We should understand that the strength of the right-wing (or at least not-really-left) responses arises not from so many millions of people being hopelessly-ingrained reactionaries, but from the lack of sizeable socialist organisations outspokenly promoting socialist answers.

2. Surges and interventions

As the evolution of Syriza shows, the surge to the left has generally been, so far, "soft", ill-formed and ill-organised, more a matter of a groundswell than of a crisp new direction.

Part of the reason for this will have been the vagaries of the organised activist left since 1989-91, its tendencies to clutch at anything which appears superficially anti-capitalist or even oppositional, rather than to map out positive working-class politics. In Britain, and not just in Britain, the AWL has been almost alone in the organised activist left since 2008 in generating systematic agitation on such basic positive ideas as public ownership and democratic control of high finance, and not just offering calls for more militancy against cuts. The prior weaknesses of the left will also have been a factor in the rise of "identity politics".

There are no vacuums in politics. If the organised activist left is inadequate, then groundswells of left opinion will still come, but they will be vaguer, "softer", more confused.

Our job, as AWL, is neither to comment dismissively from a distance on the weaknesses of what has already developed; nor to speculate hopefully; nor to sink into limited movements at the expense of our long-term aims. It is to intervene constructively.

As George Plekhanov put it: "the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists is the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat".

3. Corbyn

The tremendous surge of support for the left-wing candidacy for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (initially conceived only as a matter of flying the flag for minority views) shows three things:

a) The existence of an until-now largely atomised groundswell of leftish opinion shaped by the 2008 crash and its sequels, especially among young people. The open valve unintentionally resulting from the Collins Report's provisions for leadership elections enabled this force to make itself directly felt within the previously stultified Labour Party structures.

AMENDMENT OUTSTANDING: replace "open valve" by "opportunity". [As of yet no-one is pushing this amendment, but anyone who wants to, can]

b) The continued dominant role of the Labour Party, even after all Blair's and Brown's malign transformations, in labour movement politics. Therefore, the Labour Party remained a potential ‘lightning conductor’ for political discontent and the largest anti-Tory political party.

c) Although the core of the Corbyn campaign organisation was made up of long-standing Labour Left activists, the Labour left had up to then remained weak as evidenced by the decline of the LRC, the poor response to John McDonnell’s Left Platform and our own expectations and experience with the SCLV. (Further, no Labour left upturn has been noted in our AGM documents since 2010.)

AMENDMENT: replace above para by "That a modest, limited revival in left-wing activity within the Labour Party had happened since 2010, even before the Corbyn surge. Without that, there would have been no Corbyn candidacy and no Corbyn campaign." [As of yet no-one is pushing this amendment, but anyone who wants to, can]

A key initial factor in changing the situation inside the Labour Party was the election defeat, which both removed the pre-election inhibitions on dissent and demonstrated that a broadly consensual austerity-lite policy could not beat the Tories.

Even though most of those backing Corbyn would not have been active in the Labour Party before the leadership contest, the contrast is sharp between his support and the wretched showing in the 2015 election for left-of-Labour slates, even when those slates had considerable financial resources. It shows that the ramshackle, clogged-up Labour-union nexus can still appear as a live site of politics in a way that those politically thin and narrow slates did not.

We should:

a) Throw ourselves in renewed activity within the Labour Party and Young Labour;

b) Focus our activity there on drawing in, organising, propagandising among, and recruiting among, the new people (especially the new young people) mobilised by the Corbyn surge. This dictates a priority for building constituency Young Labour groups;

c) Calculate that Corbyn's large victory will open things up and discourage witch-hunts, but retain at least a small core of people aligned with our politics who "play safe" so that they can be confident of not being swept out of the Labour Party by a backlash at the next stage.

4. The world economy and neo-liberalism

Neo-liberalism as a governing ideology for capital – privatisations, labour-market flexibility (i.e. attacks on workers' rights), welfare cuts, free trade – has survived 2008. It has even intensified.

The traits which provided the basis for the 2008 crisis – spirals of dodgy financial dealings, balloons of debt – are still there.

The Chinese stock-market crash of summer 2015 may lead only to slowdown in China rather than a full-scale slump. Even in that case, the general picture since the initial capitalist recovery from crisis in early 2010 remains and will continue one of a slower growth rate for global trade than for a long time, and repeated relapses into outright recession here and there.

5. Industrial disputes

Smaller-scale industrial disputes, often focused on catching up on wages after the great wage squeeze following 2008, have increased. The new confidence generated by Corbyn's Labour leader victory is likely to swell that increase.

Official industrial-dispute statistics are available only up to the end of 2014. They show that in 2014:

• the number of stoppages rose by 36% over 2013, and was higher than in all but two years since 2002

• the number of striker-days rose 75% over 2013, and was higher than in all but four years since 1996

• the private sector has had more strikes than the public sector in the last three years, a change to

recent trends.

The time when industrial struggle was focused round set-piece national protest strikes by public-service unions, as in 2011, has passed for now. If the Tories' new anti-strike laws pass, or even if they don't, it may have passed for a good while. (Although there was much class struggle in Britain between 1926 and 1968, there were very few national strikes in that time).

Where disputes are smaller-scale and more continuous, strike-support activity is more important. We should make a new push on strike-support activity.

Workers can make gains, learn, and improve organisation from sustained smaller-scale disputes as well as, and sometimes better than, from actions like the 2011 public-sector one-day strikes.

6. A many-limbed "party"

To do our job of helping working-class consciousness to advance, and to acquire powerful organised forms, as above, AWL must act as a many-limbed "party" (or, rather, nucleus for a future party), capable of being a fresh and creative contributor on all fronts, ideological, political, and industrial.

This involves a continued drive for practical training and theoretical education (especially using our new "Fate of the Russian Revolution" volume, and the older one, which many comrades will have studied never or not since 1998). We cannot expect our new activists to come to us already having picked up basic Marxist ideas and skills of speaking, organising, writing, contact work, etc. "on the hoof" in broader movements. The "greenhouse program" proposed by the AWL NC, as a way to make it easier for our most energetic and dedicated younger activists quickly to become confident educators and organisers, is designed to build a bone-structure on which all our broader work will depend.

7. Paper sales

Given the new political situation there is a huge opportunity to increase the circulation of Solidarity and build a wider audience of people who see the paper, either by buying it, distributing it, or writing for it, as a 'their property'. But this is an audience that we will need to cultivate and build, it wont happen spontaneously.

Sales and subscription drive:

Our comrades will be doing a lot more in the coming period, and we will be involved in campaigns and be going to meetings with many new faces at them. We can increase the circulation of the paper at will in this situation. In the new year we should launch a sales drive, with someone from the office coordinating with branches to monitor and increase sales. Paper selling should be discussed in the organisers' school, discussing the problems and using case studies and role-playing to increase confidence in paper selling. Organisers attending the schools should take this back into their branches.

We should also launch a subscriptions drive. We gained relatively few new subscriptions through the fundraising drive, but this was largely before the Corbyn surge gave us new opportunities. Branches should identify, with help from the office, people to ask for subscriptions, and comrades should develop the reflex of asking people they meet to take subscriptions.

We should raise the price of the paper to 50p/£1.

Redesigning the paper

As we now have Kelly working on the paper in the office our capacity to redesign and to do more with the paper has increased. The paper team should look and possibilities for a redesign with the aim of redesigning the paper over the Christmas period for launch with the sales drive in the new year.

The paper team and the EC should also look at how the paper and our other publications can be packaged, and what package subscribers get. This may include looking at the role of pull-outs and pamphlets, and discussing Labour legal publications in the longer term.

8. Recruitment

The Corbyn surge increases our possibilities for recruitment. We can meet more interested people, and have more of them working alongside us in common activities and discussions (in YL groups, in CLPs, in Momentum groups, in Labour clubs, and elsewhere).

We should:

a. Mobilise ourselves so that we approach interested people (and people who might be interested) to meet for regular political discussions. To convince and recruit people, we have to discuss with them systematically and at some length. We must not limit our communications to inviting such people to events and activities and hoping they absorb ideas from those events and activities.

b. Systematically approach contacts to do work with us, e.g. selling a few copies of the paper, making donations, putting motions in their YL group or CLP or trade union branch or Labour club, and themselves to find and talk with new contacts.

c. Be assertive about quickly asking contacts to join, and making it clear that we discuss with them with the aim of convincing them to join. That may mean, sometimes, telling someone who says "yes" to joining that we want them to go through some discussions and activity with us before being fully signed up.

d. Improve the regularity, reliability, briskness, and purposefulness of our regular baseline activities so that they are as accessible as possible to new recruits and to contacts.

e. Give every new recruit a "mentor", to help them into regular activity and into building up confidence, who is someone distinct from their immediate organiser.