The labour movement faces a dramatic choice. Either the Labour Party will be reclaimed by its right wing (covered by the soft left), the progress we have made over the last year in reviving a political labour movement will be halted and reversed, and there will be a purge of the left — or Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected and big possibilities will open up for moving forward further and faster.
The impressive left-wing mobilisation that has burgeoned since the coup against Corbyn began shows that we can win. But it is by no means certain that we will. We need to strain every muscle over the next seven weeks, fighting for every last vote.
Even less certain is that a Corbyn victory will bring the changes we need to move forward politically. If he wins but we do not use the momentum to abolish the conditions which allowed the coup against him (against us) to happen in the first place, that would be a travesty. Even as we engage in the fight of our lives, socialists need to be preparing the ground for what comes afterwards. We need to develop the movement politically. We need to renew working-class politics.
In fact such preparation may be essential to winning at all. We must discuss, assimilate and apply the lessons of the Labour left upsurge for democracy in 1979-82, above all its lack of adequate political perspectives, its failure to carry over into a movement which could transform the trade unions and with them the whole labour movement and thus its eventual demise.
Today, too, that is the task: to begin to really transform the labour movement. Either we make real progress in constructing a responsive system of political representation for the organised labour movement and the working class, or we will regress to the bad old days of Blairism in some new form, slow or fast.
One crucial, glaring element is the fight for democracy. To win a meaningful workers’ political voice, we need to push forward the fight for democracy in the Labour Party. There are a number of rule changes proposed to Labour’s conference — we should fight for the National Executive Committee to promote them for discussion at this year’s conference. Even if the left does well in the NEC elections (closing on 5 August), there must be a battle to make these changes happen.
Beyond initiating procedural changes, it is a question of control of the party. We need to end the situation where the Labour Party bureaucracy is constituted as a permanently organised police force for the hard right against the elected leadership and against members’ democratic rights.
The suspension of Brighton and Hove District Labour Party and Wallasey Constituency Labour Party, as well as the ongoing expulsions and suspensions of socialist activists (including supporters of this paper), show how urgent this is. The meeting in solidarity with Brighton and Wallasey organised by London region Momentum on 23 June voted for the London region to set up an organised campaign against suspensions and expulsions and to fight for democratic rights in the party. When this gets off the ground it will be long overdue.
Democracy is an end, but also a means to an end - changing society. We must combine the fight for democracy with a fight around policy and politics. Corbyn has not said nearly enough about what policies he stands for — not even about left-wing demands which are officially agreed party policy (eg renationalising the railways and Royal Mail, reinstating a public NHS, strengthening union rights and repealing the ban on solidarity strikes). This both weakens him in the face of Owen Smith’s “left-wing” demagogy — the attempt to pretend there are no policy differences involved in the leadership contest — and is a gross missed opportunity.
In the period after the EU referendum, when the massive, growing poverty and inequality which have wracked British society contributed to the nationalist surge behind the Brexit vote, Labour needs to campaign for and popularise an “Emergency Plan” of clear, radical pro-working class policies to tackle that social distress, policies like:
• Banning zero hours contracts, introducing a real Living Wage without exemptions and strengthening workers’ rights and ability to improve their conditions by repealing the anti-trade union laws.
• Taxing the rich to reverse all cuts, rebuild our devastated public services and create millions of secure, well-paid, socially useful jobs in the public sector. Guarantee decent jobs for everyone who can work, decent benefits for everyone who can’t.
• Ending privatisation and cuts in the NHS and reinstating it as a genuine public service.
• Building millions of council homes.
• Public ownership of the banks and high finance.
Such policies are the alternative to continuing to contribute to the whipping up of anti-migrant bigotry and divisions in the working class, as Labour has done over many years. Owen Smith clearly understands this — hence his positioning against migrants right at the start of his campaign. Corbyn should show he understands it too — from the opposite side — by taking a strong stand for migrants’ rights and for workers’ unity to win clear demands.
The proposals circulating in Momentum for a labour movement-based campaign on these issues, seeking to draw trade unions and Labour Parties into action, are good. So is the idea of a mass demonstration for jobs, homes and services, workers’ unity and migrants’ rights in a northern city this autumn. We should work to make these things happen.
The first step is making sure that Momentum and the Labour left do not collapse on the issue of migrants’ rights, as some are advocating.
In the battle for the Labour Party, and in the battle to defend working-class interests in society, the NHS is key. Clear, sharp, emphatic campaigning by Corbyn and, when he wins, the Labour Party to end accelerating privatisation and reinstate a public health service funded to meet need could be a game changer for the political situation. So the proposals for mass national Momentum campaign on the NHS are very welcome. Let’s make them happen, and make them part of the leadership campaign at every level — starting at the grassroots if necessary.
We need to ask and get discussion about how do we make these things happen? How do we pay for them? How do we reorganise society so they are possible? It cannot be done without encroaching on the wealth and power of the capitalist class, and first of all the political establishment, including the Labour political establishment, that defends them.
The right-wing MPs driving the campaign to remove Corbyn are right. In the medium term his leadership cannot co-exist with the Parliamentary Party as it currently is. Removing many of the MPs will be necessary. We must oppose abuse and insist on civilised standards of debate and conduct in the labour movement – but not delude ourselves we can defeat the PLP right wing without a harsh battle.
When it comes to challenging the ruling class and the rich in wider society, the perspective of a “kinder, gentler politics” is even more inadequate. We will not make society kinder or gentler without forceful mobilisation to encroach on wealth and power, and without serious social clashes of all sorts. We need to find ways to explain and popularise the perspective of class struggle – and the goal of a workers’ government, a government accountable to the labour movement which serves society’s working majority as the Tories and the Blair-Brown governments served the rich.
We say “Tax the rich” and “Expropriate the banks” — as first steps in taking the wealth produced by workers but taken by the capitalists into social control as we can use it for social good. We want to take steps towards socialism – not just social reforms but the replacement of capitalism with a new society based on common ownership and production for need.
We need to transform the movement that supports Corbyn, starting with Momentum. We want stop decisions being taken by unaccountable officials, stop democratic structures and grassroots activists being sidelined and stop the constant tendency to dodge fights and play it safe and conservative. There is a lot of talk about Labour becoming a social movement. To make that happen, Momentum should become a social movement — one oriented to transforming the labour movement.
We should call for Momentum’s National Committee, currently suspended, to meet urgently and for the national conference planned for February to be brought forward to this year. However it organises, we need more of a pro-class struggle, pro-democracy left in Momentum to make these things happen.
Last year, Momentum’s hesitations and inadequacies meant that much of the momentum from the Corbyn surge was lost. This time we must use the new upsurge around and influx into Momentum groups to put our organisation on a stronger footing — above all by organising CLP and war-level caucuses, fighting in the Labour Party ward by ward, and building local Young Labour groups, so we can run forward once Corbyn is re-elected.
The trade unions
There is support for Corbyn in the trade unions, including sections of their bureaucracy, but no serious Momentum organisation. As a step to changing that we need to fight in the unions now to win support for Corbyn, to ensure the unions mobilise people (we have until 8 August to sign up members of affiliated unions to vote) and to take the energy from this struggle and use it revitalise the movement from the workplace up.
Even union bureaucrats who say they support Corbyn are not necessarily reliable allies. We need, minimally, to weaken the union bureaucracy and bring it under great rank-and-file control, organising rank-and-file workers’ movements to do so. Without that our campaign to transform Labour will founder – as shown in 1979-82.
Corbyn-supporting activists should organise meetings in workplaces and unions to discuss building the campaign and develop demands for their sectors to put forward to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
On all these things, we need to demand that Corbyn, McDonnell and their comrades in the leadership become less timid and start to act like they take their own, stated ideas seriously. But we also need to build a grassroots movement which can bring pressure to bear while developing better, sharper, more radical ideas.
That is what Workers’ Liberty is doing, in Momentum groups and committees, in Labour Parties, in trade unions, in the youth and student movements and on the streets. We want to cooperate with the widest possible range of socialist organisations and individuals in these tasks and to recruit more supporters to strengthen our capacities for the fight.