Could there be a political leader who could achieve success at galvanising a mass movement for the working class, against capital, as Corbyn has done in Britain? We start by looking at how Corbyn became Labour leader.
The 2008 slump hit Britain much harder than it hit Australia, so there has been more leftish agitation in Britain than Australia in the last 8 years, more sizeable left demonstrations, meetings, campaigns. This created a constituency in Labour Party politics in which the local party organisations swung a little to the left.
So one of the preconditions for Corbyn, was the almost invisible revival of some Labour left, and some hope of Labour moving left under Ed Milliband.
Ed Milliband as a very soft left leader was an electoral failure. This opened the way for a more serious left challenge to be welcomed by members, in the context of the impact of economic crisis in Britain. Milliband raised expectations, continuing to say leftish things from time to time, so he simultaneously raised hopes and yet disappointed them.
After Ed Milliband resigned, all the contenders to replace him competed as to who could be most right wing because they thought that was the way to win.
It turned out they were completely wrong, but that wasn't obvious to them in advance. If there has been a halfway plausible soft left candidate, Corbyn would have had no chance. But there wasn't.
The right also shot themselves in foot by pushing through a broad franchise for the leadership election. The party officials who worried about the decline in party membership didn't even imagine that there could be a groundswell that would elect a left candidate. Membership had been increasing since 2010, but Burnham, Cooper, etc. thought that the membership was right wing in majority, and supporters who could also vote were even more so.
As in Australia today, no one was sure there was a potentially persuasive leftist leader in the wings in Britain. Corbyn was mostly seen as not particularly leadership material. He was reluctant to stand, and thought he probably wouldn't get enough nominations. Having run as a flying the flag exercise, he had leadership thrust upon him.
So one lesson is that everyone underestimated the subterranean leftish swell, the diffuse left wing constituency in LP since 2010, and how pissed off even vaguely soft left union leaders were with the Labour right. Corbyn gave voice to these concerns, and was able to crystallise them. Some trade unionists and socialists had pronounced British Labour dead for the purpose of working class struggle. They could not see the contradictions the party still contained, based on labour organised in trade unions yet dominated by parliamentary ambitions to ensure peace between labour and capital. As that contradiction has blown open, thousands of people have joined Labour, and the disaffiliated RMT union is discussing rejoining.
In Australia the genuine left MPs are pretty much gone from state and federal parliament. The MPs who used to be on pickets and rallies for the left are all gone. This is very clear at anti fascist rallies now compared to the 90s. There may be some newer MPs who have some fight in them. Lisa Singh from Tasmania bested someone higher on the ALP senate ticket through attracting below the line votes. But there is little sign of a left revival in ALP branches or amongst rank and file members. The Greens seem to have drawn off a lot of the more leftist activists and left votes away from Labor, especially over refugee policies.
The contradictions that have exploded in British Labour are still deeply buried in the ALP.
It may be that some Social Democrats will conclude from Corbyn (and the debacle of the Dutch LP and French SP, both now down to 6%) that they can and must shift a bit left. Far more likely in Australia, than a socialist Labor leader, is a consolidation of the already apparent tactical shift by the ALP right to a more left economic policy, continuing their push on tax concessions for the rich etc. There is not the same electoral necessity in Australia to get out the youth vote, but they are likely to run left on education, e.g. university fees, HELP repayment, TAFE.
An instructive contrast is between Corbyn and Mélenchon in France. Mélenchon was much better known than Corbyn was before 2015, but has disrupted and diverted left rather than rallying it. He created a shoddy personalised vehicle with very poor politics, which has drawn people away from left parties but built nothing solid to replace them.
A Corbyn from the unions?
Could a break in Australian labour movement politics start in unions rather than the ALP?
The Corbyn phenomenon didn't start with the unions. The groundswell started among Party members for some sort of left candidate, which then produced the Corbyn candidacy, which put pressure on the union leaders to back him. It would be quite a different process for a political leader to emerge from the trade unions. It is much more common in Australia than Britain for union leaders to become MPs. But even those who seemed leftish as union leaders have become routine MPs, soft-left at best. Could there be exceptions in future?
Left trade unionists in Australia express the most disappointment about Labor for not having really reversed WorkChoices very much via Fair Work Australia. There is little sign of any swing to the left in the ALP, but Sally McManus as ACTU Secretary is stirring up some assertive discussion of the right to organise, to take industrial action, and of the need to stand up for workers’ rights. She has even been mentioned as a possible Australian Corbyn.
However it could be possible that a union fightback could also rouse leftists inside the ALP, especially if the union fightback asserted more explicit left-wing demands, such as for re-nationalisations, the right to strike and a living wage for all, including the unemployed and people on pensions. The unions Build a Better Future campaign issues from the 2016 federal election look increasingly mild as both inequality and awareness of it grow. Sally McManus had a great deal of input into that campaign, which she promised to continue beyond the election but it hasn’t. Her expressions of defiance have not yet translated into a new policy package that takes a sharper stand, let alone something that she would call socialist politics. The power of the position of ACTU Secretary is limited by the politics of the officials of the affiliated unions, and those can only be organised against politically across the labour movement.
If a break from right wing union leadership came, say in the form of Sally McManus developing a more militant social democratic platform, then we should advocate that the unions demand ALP commitment to it. That could produce a groundswell that might throw up a more left wing Labor MP committed to supporting and being a voice for workers’ struggles.
A Corbyn from the Greens?
Does the Corbyn surge mean that if the Greens put forward a more explicitly social democratic platform, then they could benefit electorally?
A large part of Corbyn’s appeal is that he carries the prospect of leading a government based on his policies (similarly to Bernie Sanders), which have clear working class content. The chance to achieve a workers’ government is completely different from electing MPs from a minor party, even if they manage to hold the balance of power. It is a completely different prospect from ranking candidates against a suite of policies, which is how unions and leftish campaigns approach elections, and which the Greens encourage. And it is completely different from voting for a candidate or party that is flying a flag for specific policies against Labor. The prospect of a government that stands with working class struggles is profoundly undermining of capitalist order. And this is the inspirational component of the Corbyn surge that cannot be replicated by the Greens, even in the highly unlikely case that Left Renewal could win the leadership of the parliamentary Greens.
An alternative perspective for the socialists in the Greens would be to reorient away from the parliamentary Greens, and towards alliances in the labour movement that include Labor Party members, for a more radical social democratic platform, that is a clear voice for working class struggles. This has the potential for a broader reach into shifting the labour movement leftwards, increasing the pressure on the Labor Party to make leftist commitments, and to raise the prospect of a working class government.
No one can recreate the British conditions that produced Corbyn, in Australia. But we can foster some of the conditions:
- position ourselves in the labour movement, engage in building and supporting union struggles as the basic terrain of the class struggle, mobilise against austerity, privatisations, for workers’ rights.
- invite and pressure Labor MPs to participate in mobilisations.
- seek commitments from activists, labour movement bodies and leaders to a radical working class platform, and discuss what a workers’ government could do.
- work for democratic reforms to unions and the ALP.
That also positions us best for when political openings appear, which could rapidly grow in the ALP as they did in Britain.
More from WL newsletter no. 67