Now Labour has changed its rules, what should Momentum do?

The internal rule changes agreed at the Brighton Labour party conference have as their purpose diminishing the influence of the membership and protecting MPs and the full-time bureaucracy from accountability. The disdain of the party leadership for its members was graphically illustrated by the video of Keir Starmer totally ignoring a young activist, Emma De Saram, who tried to engage with him about the climate crisis as he walked to the conference entrance. 

The rule changes were forced through after the narrow confirmation of David Evans as general secretary, despite opposition from constituency representatives, and only passed with the support of Unison delegates who voted against their union’s policies. As Diane Abbott put it: “Peter Mandelson has his uses. He made it explicitly clear that the purpose of the rule change for electing the next leader was to prevent another Corbyn becoming leader. And CLPs will also now have much less say in the selection of parliamentary candidates. The aim is that MPs will not be at all accountable to members, and instead are beholden to the party centre, the party apparatus and the leader.”

In contradiction to these changes, delegates passed overwhelmingly a motion for a comprehensive Green New Deal, which called for nationalisation of energy companies, a government programme to create well-paid green jobs, mass investment in green technologies and renewables, and a just transition for workers displaced by the modernization of the economy.  In addition it demanded the expansion and electrification of integrated public transport, including public ownership of railways and local bus networks, as well as subsidies for home insulation and zero carbon homes. This was the same resolution the conference arrangements committee had tried to rule out of order in the run-up to the conference, but its decision was overturned after a public backlash.

This did not stop Starmer from referring to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ announcement of £28 billion a year of spending on green investment as a “green new deal,” even though it is a pale reflection of the policy passed by the delegates. Since Reeves’ plans include investment in hydrogen, which currently mostly comes from fossil fuels, and since energy nationalization has already been rejected by the leadership, there is nothing to stop this £28 billion being given to private industry with little public control.

What is striking is how quickly the leadership disavowed other radical decisions, including a historic motion on Palestine that acknowledged Israel is practicing apartheid and called for strong sanctions. A first-time delegate wrote in LabourList that demands for a £15 an hour minimum wage received standing ovations from the floor, and while there were some disagreements, “many questions have been decided by near-consensus, with more than 90% of delegates voting the same way. This was the case with the motion that called for public ownership of energy companies and it was the same for motion in solidarity with Palestine. And yet both of these were directly refuted by shadow cabinet members in the press within less than 24 hours: Lisa Nandy on Palestine and Rachel Reeves on public ownership. It struck me that the biggest divide in the Labour Party is not between left and right or between members and unions. The biggest tension is between the movement that is meant to set our political direction, and the parliamentarians who refuse to follow it.”

The parliamentarians were confident in their ability to dismiss the membership’s opinions because of the left’s defeat in the key votes over the rule changes. The Guardian commented: “In the past, when delegates have threatened to vote for policy the leadership does not support, the leadership has mobilised its supporters to try to get the move defeated. But at this conference the leadership has largely settled for a different view – waving it all through, without even putting up a fight, on the grounds that conference decisions can be ignored come election time.”

Starmer’s long speech told his audience what they wanted to hear: that Labour could win the next election. He ignored the many structural difficulties that would pose, including the loss of Scotland’s many seats and the government’s attacks on the right to vote, instead repudiating the last two manifestos: “We will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government.” But if the party’s strategists were serious about forming a government, they would have paid more attention to why Labour was so relatively successful in 2017 and why Johnson was able to defeat it in 2019. Instead, they spent their time scheming how to isolate and defeat the left.

The policy programme developed under the left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had drawn on the work of “some of the best left-wing thinking from across the country and around the world,” writes Joe Guinan in Tribune. “In place of the main planks of the economic programme of the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos—public ownership of rail, mail, energy, and water; state-led investment in a green industrial strategy; the greatest expansion of trade union and workers’ rights in living memory; and democratisation of the economy through alternative models of ownership and bottom-up Community Wealth Building strategies—we find a return to the supply side politics and economics of Blairism.”

That was the substance of the ideas proposed by the Labour right. However, a political space for socialist thinking was to be found at the World Transformed festival nearby, where there were many lively debates about today’s urgent issues. A Momentum activist enthused about a community wealth building workshop that suggested the idea of communities “auditing” wealth that is currently flowing through them and finding opportunities to retain it in the community. Participants gave examples of taking over abandoned retail spaces to make them spaces for local businesses or community centers, and building around existing community activities such as bike repair and food hubs.

Momentum members are discussing what approach to take to work in the Labour party. Some call for putting left candidates on the ballots for target seats in the next parliamentary election, while others look towards building extra-parliamentary power through participation in struggles within local communities. But to do both is a challenge, and requires a clear political platform on which to orient and unite members. The organisation also needs to take a hard look at whether it should fight for the more radical conference policy decisions within the party when members can now be so easily auto-excluded, and whether Momentum members still have to be eligible for membership of the Labour party.

The last word must be given by Emma De Saram. Despite her encounter with Starmer, she was able to meet and hear from inspiring Labour MPs such as Zara Sultana and Nadia Whittome, “part of a new generation of politicians who are listening to young people and are prepared to take transformative action. Although most people on Twitter were supportive of me, I had several people telling me to give up hope in Labour and campaign for change through other means. But for me, it has to be both … most of my friends said they have either cancelled their membership or are thinking about it. Some said they’ve become apolitical. But for me, challenging Keir Starmer is one of the most important things I could be doing. The Labour Party could lead a government that delivers the Green New Deal. It’s going to take a government-led effort to transition our economy away from fossil fuels and deliver millions of good green jobs in the process.”

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Starmer sabotaged soft Brexit talks to aid his leadership ambitions

Back in August 2019 the journalist Patrick Cockburn warned that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was the start of a slow-moving coup, aiming to progressively marginalize opposition to hard-right Tory rule. He called it “a very modern coup in which a demagogic nationalist populist authoritarian leader vaults into power through quasi-democratic means and makes sure that he cannot be removed.” 

What is less well known, but now revealed in an unauthorized biography of Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft, is that Johnson was only able to force out Theresa May and become Tory leader because Starmer blocked a deal with May’s government that could have resulted in a soft Brexit.  

Ashcroft’s book notes that May had invited Jeremy Corbyn to take part in cross-party talks in an attempt to agree a unified approach to Brexit. Starmer led the Labour delegation. According to an extract published in the Daily Mail, “The meetings opened with some optimism. The Government team quickly discerned, however, that some of those in the Labour camp were more willing to compromise than others. While those in Corbyn’s close team ‘were sending out signals that they wanted a deal’, Starmer was insistent that an agreement had to include a second referendum.”

While on the surface conducting himself professionally, behind the scenes it appeared that Starmer himself was giving negative briefings to the media that undermined the talks. May’s former director of communications, Sir Robbie Gibb, believes that Starmer was responsible for leaks that contradicted the joint reports agreed with Seumas Milne, Gibb’s Labour counterpart.

Gibb told Ashcroft: “there were briefings to the BBC’s Today programme saying that the cross-party talks are going nowhere. I’d get a call from the BBC saying, ‘I believe the talks are on the verge of collapse.’ ‘Well, who have you spoken to?’, I’d say. ‘Can’t say. It’s official sources’. He is convinced the negative briefings came from Starmer or his team, and that the mixed messages highlighted conflicting attitudes within the Labour delegation.” 

According to Labour sources quoted by Ashcroft, Starmer was the most deal-resistant of the Labour negotiators, and worked to undermine those in Corbyn’s team who were in favour of a deal. He prioritized the possibility of reversing Brexit through a second referendum over the chance to achieve a negotiated soft Brexit. One former Labour MP said: “Starmer got into bed with the People’s Vote people, so as to get votes for the leadership among members of the London Labour party. And he wouldn’t do a deal with Theresa May, which was there to be done, and would have meant a soft Brexit. So what happens? May has to resign, and we get a hard Brexit. All because he wanted to get himself elected Labour leader.”

These revelations cast a new light on Starmer’s intervention at the Labour conference the year earlier, in 2018. He responded to the clear anti-Brexit sentiment among delegates by unilaterally introducing the idea that there would be a Remain option in a second referendum. His conference speech succeeded in shifting the emphasis of Labour’s policy in such a way as to accentuate the divisions between remain supporters and MPs from leave-voting Labour constituencies in the north who warned at the time that the policy would lose the party votes in a new election – which is in fact what happened. Corbyn had to accommodate both positions in his closing speech, but he reiterated that he would support Theresa May if she could strike a deal that included a customs union, and protection for environmental and labour standards. Starmer closed off that possibility in the negotiations with May’s government for the sake of his personal ambition and to undermine Corbyn’s support.

Labour’s confused Brexit policy in the 2019 election, for which Starmer was very much responsible, enabled Johnson to steamroller Labour with his “Get Brexit Done” slogan, even after his prorogation attempt had been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. Since then we have seen the consolidation of a de facto elective dictatorship of the Tory party. It has ridden roughshod over the most long-standing constitutional principles through partisan legislation. The blatant transfer of public wealth to Tory supporters through no-bid contracts is a clear symptom of a one-party state, which has even managed to capture senior civil servants in financial corruption. 

What then is the purpose of the Labour opposition? Starmer’s strategy of refusing to challenge the government’s handling of the Covid crisis assumes that the rules of parliamentary procedure still apply, when the government has shown its determination to manipulate and misuse these rules to gain and keep political power. He is helping to maintain the illusion of a functioning parliamentary democracy while the government has used the excuse of the pandemic to pass draconian legislation that curbs the rights of immigrants and protesters. 

A former Labour staffer, Phil Bevin, argues that while at first sight it appears that Starmer has no policies, there is a discernible logic underlying his policy equivocations. He frames an acceptance of government cuts in “progressive” rhetoric and vague language; for example, “In response to the Government’s unpopular plan to raise National Insurance, Starmer hinted that Labour would consider the idea of a wealth tax – specifically targeting landlords with multiple properties and people who trade large numbers of stocks and shares – alongside a range of options. Notably, when pressed to commit to one of these options, such as a wealth tax, in an excruciating interview with Sky News’ Beth Rigby, he was unable or unwilling to do so.”

The coherence of this pattern lies in first offering only token resistance to the anti-democratic measures of Johnson’s government, while offering weak alternatives that repackage neo-Thatcherite policies as “progressive”. Bevin warns that this framing may allow Starmer “to hoodwink elements of the soft left into letting him off the hook until it’s too late to change the Party’s rightward trajectory.” 

There is a last-ditch opportunity for the party membership to push back on this trajectory by refusing to confirm Starmer’s sidekick David Evans as general secretary at the upcoming party conference. The right has pulled out all the stops to swing the vote by a frantic campaign of suspending left delegates. What will result at conference is unclear, but there is now an irrevocable split between right-leaning party officials and the rank and file. This is cemented in proposed rule changes that include a probationary period for new members, during which time an application for membership can be “rejected for any reason which the general secretary sees fit”, except for those who the NEC has decided can be fast-tracked as parliamentary candidates. 

There will be some sort of showdown at the conference, even if the confirmation vote is not held, but the right’s determination to drive the left out of the party will result in the eventual consolidation of opposition movements outside the party with that from within the unions. For example, to reaffirm the need for a socialist platform to fight both the Tory government and the Labour right wing, the “Labour Left 4 Socialism” coalition has launched a manifesto setting out an agenda of “unified defiance on major issues affecting all sectors of the Labour movement.” It links the fight for workers’ rights with the fight against racism and with action on the climate crisis. It also backs calls for constituency delegates to reject the confirmation of Evans, urging unions to follow the lead of Unite the union and use their votes to veto his appointment.


Filed under 2019 general election, Brexit, British Labour party, British Left, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, Labour Party, theresa may, Uncategorized

The Breakthrough Party: The Many Against Starmer’s Iron Fist

Ken Loach

What are we to make of the expulsion of the world-renowned film-maker Ken Loach from the Labour party? If the party cannot tolerate someone so transparently concerned about the poor and downtrodden in every film he has ever made, is Labour entirely morally bankrupt? Or as Loach himself wonders: is the British establishment so all-powerful that it can prevent a party committed to transformative change ever being elected?

Loach was targeted by the Jewish Labour Movement and the Board of Deputies, as reported in the Jewish Chronicle, who are now demanding the withdrawal of the whip from the 20-odd MPs who condemned his expulsion. Lindsey German argues in Counterfire that Loach’s expulsion means “Corbynism has failed and Labour has reverted to type.” That would suggest that the right is in an unassailable position in the party. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the right is reacting to the left’s success in the elections to the party’s important Conference Arrangements committee, which would mean that it was a defensive response to a challenge from the membership.

One thing is clear: the right needs to create new symbols of its control over the party and to threaten others who criticize the rightward turn under Starmer, in the face of continuing demands for the restoration of party democracy and opposition to the proscription of left groups. Fellow-members of Loach’s own constituency, Bath CLP, have issued a public statement of solidarity against the “incomprehensible aberration” of his expulsion and demand an urgent all-member meeting to discuss a motion in his support. Other constituencies have already followed suit. 

Suspensions of party activists and entire constituency branches are an attempt to skew the political composition of the delegates to September’s conference. But it is quite possible that this strategy will not succeed to the extent that the leadership hopes. Nothing is a foregone conclusion, but the recent London Labour conference indicates the line-up of forces.

Michael Calderbank reports: “At the level of policy, it was remarkable how little opposition was offered to the general radical thrust of Corbyn-era thinking. … Indeed, the motion from Tottenham CLP calling on Mayor Sadiq Khan to take back in-house the whole of Transport for London – including buses and Overground services presently outsourced to Arriva – represents a policy more radical than anything passed by London Conference in the Corbyn years.” In a rejection of Khan’s infrastructure plans, delegates overwhelmingly voted for the Silvertown Tunnel project to be scrapped.

However, out of 23 positions on the Regional Executive, 18 candidates backed by the rightwing Labour to Win were elected as against only five endorsed by Momentum. The “soft left” Open Labour voted for radical resolutions but with the right on key regional positions, meaning that policy implementation would be in the hands of the right. Even though the right won these positions, it still felt compelled to shut down the final remarks of the outgoing conference arrangements speaker, Kathryn Johnson, when she began to criticize the direction of the party under Starmer. 

According to Calderbank, she spoke for many when she asked why no one had pointed out that the party was in a dire financial position following the resignation of so many members, adding that “no-one is sure what the Party stands for and the new leadership is an Emperor without any clothes.” Her Zoom connection was muted halfway through her speech, upon which the chair, Seema Chandwani, urged that Kathryn be allowed to finish her remarks rather than end the Conference on a sour note. “Just as it looked like wise counsel was to prevail, and Kathryn resumed her speech, the plug was pulled on the Conference altogether, with Kathryn’s final words ringing in our ears – ‘We can’t just despair, members mustn’t give up’.”

What is new about all this is the marked polarization between the left-leaning membership and the regional bureaucracy which is policing constituency discussions and taking over regional conferences. The cleavage has been temporarily resolved in the bureaucracy’s favour by administrative suspensions – but these have not killed the vitality of the socialist ideal that still motivates the grassroots, even though it has found that criticism of Starmer and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn is political kryptonite for the right wing.

Momentum’s take on the conference was that the voting reflected “small shifts in the balance of forces in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). London Labour conference is a delegate conference and its outcomes are largely dictated by how voting stacks up within individual CLPs, which can change back in the left’s favour with just a handful of votes.” But if only a handful of votes is involved, can Momentum really claim to have changed anything substantial in the party by electing left delegates? As the largest working-class party in Europe, Labour is in a strong position to give direction to spontaneous efforts to change society, but only to the degree it confronts the bureaucratic hostility and ingrained paternalism of its administrative structures. This is the substance of the conflict within the party at the moment, which implies a change in the way the political work of the constituencies is carried out.

Momentum advocates engaging with wider social movements and bringing their issues into Labour, but it is unclear how this can be implemented when the group’s main orientation is to keep positions in the party. James Schneider, one of Momentum’s founders, pointed out that ‘The Labour Party … has one foot in communities and society… and it has one foot in the state… it’s one part to challenge power, and one part to protect power.” He argued that the left should keep on engaging in the struggle within the party because it “isn’t an identity, it’s a battle ground”, and is still “open for a left leadership.” 

However, some have decided not to wait for the party to change. The Breakthrough party is one of the many new organisations springing up out of frustration with Starmer’s Labour. It was started by a group of young people who sought to form a party that would represent the interests of the 99% and speak to those who’ve been abandoned by Labour. Its policies bear a close resemblance to Labour’s 2019 manifesto. From a small WhatsApp group, it has grown into a party with thousands of followers and was able to contest a by-election after less than six months in existence. According to Alex Mays, its founder, “We want to build in our communities, from the ground-up and engage people who’ve never been involved in politics, who are politically homeless and are apathetic about the current state of play.”

Sam Cooper, a local councillor in Keighley who has left Labour to join the new party, explained how Breakthrough seeks to work with others who are fighting to improve their communities: “It’s about keeping it open and being able to work with other people, and to look for those projects that are already happening. Where are the bright spots, where are those people who are in their communities, making it better and how can we support them, join them and link them together? Politics are people,” she continued. “We don’t need anyone’s permission to build a better society, we don’t need to be in government, we don’t need to wait to have power. We just need people who are determined, who are dedicated, and the more of those people we find and link together, we can build that community regardless of who’s in government. It’s about creating the sort of society we believe in.” 

The Starmer leadership of the Labour party has proved itself politically, morally, and intellectually bankrupt. It is up to the membership and the Socialist Campaign group of MPs to rescue the party from the morass it finds itself in. There will be a battle over party democracy at the upcoming conference, where the confirmation of David Evans as general secretary will come to a vote and the collapse of membership will be discussed. Meanwhile, the grassroots is bypassing the restrictive party structures and turning directly to community building rather than engage with the tepid authoritarianism of “Mr. Bean trying to act like Stalin”, as Ken Loach characterized Starmer.

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The government plans to break the social pledge to provide universal healthcare

While the National Health Service is still coping with Covid patients and itself struggling with staff shortages and sickness, the Johnson government has launched a major reorganisation of the service that would remove its legal duty to arrange the hospital care people need. It also consolidates the Treasury at the heart of health decisions. The government’s bill, which passed its second reading in parliament on Wednesday, has been characterized as allowing a corporate takeover of the NHS; but it would be more accurate to say that it breaks the social bond of the last 75 years in which the government takes responsibility for the health of the public.

The NHS is the last remaining institution that embodies the 1945 Labour government’s legacy of social reform. So it is appalling that parliamentary Labour has not made more noise about the issue – and Labour MPs have even amplified Tory disinformation about the legislation. Karin Smyth, a former NHS manager and the Labour MP for Bristol South, considers the Tory measures offer an opportunity “to give the NHS renewed life to truly achieve its objective of high-quality healthcare, free at the point of use.” She says: “I do not share the fears of some colleagues that the bill is another attempt to privatise the NHS, nor that it is part of a plan to run down the NHS so that it can be sold off. What I fear most is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the NHS and secure outcomes of care at the centre of the NHS and social care system.”

Hopes that the new law will lead to an improvement in patient outcomes are belied by the absence of funding and staffing details in the legislation. Local clinical commissioning groups in England would be replaced with 42 new regional integrated care systems (ICSes), whose boards would allow private healthcare providers to sit on them. They will commission NHS and local government services, and would be authorised to hand out contracts without them going out to tender.

It has been left to extra-parliamentary bodies such as Keep our NHS Public, We Own It, EveryDoctor, Public Matters, and other campaigners to raise the alarm about the substance of the bill now being foisted on the public. Nick Davidson, a member of Haringey Keep Our NHS Public, points out in LabourHub that although the law is being portrayed as a way of taking back control of the NHS from the “unaccountable, undemocratic, quasi-governmental body, NHS England”, in reality the new regional ICS boards that replace it will be even more unaccountable and their decisions can be overridden at any time by the government. Although it removes the obligation to put NHS contracts out to tender, spun by the Department of Health as a measure to reduce bureaucracy, “some 200 private companies will be accredited, through a body known as the Health Systems Support Framework, to provide services to the NHS. These companies will be given direct access to the health service.” 

The central issue of funding reveals the core of the changes that are being planned. The money available to each ICS will be capped at an annual amount, based on a government-decided target. “The question is who determines the targets and how realistic is the capping. In the past, health authorities have been able to roll over deficits and seek bailouts. Capped budgets will remove this flexibility and inevitably lead to further rationing.” According to Keep Our NHS Public, the restrictions on their allotted funding means they will have to make cuts to services including closing hospitals and reducing patients’ access to the care they need. “Depending on the decisions each ICS makes there will be a postcode lottery of what services patients can expect to get – there will no longer be a national entitlement to a full range of services.”

It will be the Treasury that maintains tight control of the funds. The lawyer Peter Roderick and public health doctor Allyson Pollock have delivered a devastating analysis of the law’s implications. “Far from being a power grab by the health secretary as some media reports assert, the bill enables a power grab by the Treasury, the money men, the private sector and their lobbyists – one which will have terrible implications for ordinary people’s access to healthcare and the future of their local hospitals and other NHS services. The bill and its accompanying measures impose an iron grip on costs, at least in terms of cash for local NHS services, whilst dramatically watering down the public’s rights in terms of what healthcare we will have a right to receive, where, when, and from whom, in the future.” Pollock and Roderick point out that the bill scraps the idea of universal healthcare and replaces it with a “core responsibility” for “groups of people”. This would be similar to employer-sponsored HMO groups in the US, a system dependent on excluding people with expensive medical conditions. 

According to the Guardian, the BMA’s deputy chair, Dr David Wrigley, said: “We are concerned that private health providers like Virgin Care could be given seats on the boards of ICSes and therefore potentially be involved in deciding who gets what contracts.” But Virgin Care is small fry compared to the well-funded US-based health corporations which are aggressively seeking opportunities for profit in the British health market, and which will take advantage of the legislation to capture this market. These include the likes of Centene, a US insurance and Medicaid conglomerate, already the largest provider of GP services in England and with a stake in an outsourced hospital surgery firm, Circle Health. Along with the buyout of GP’s practices, there will be no defence against rapacious drug pricing. Since funds for ICSes will be restricted, expensive drugs will have to be paid for by the patients themselves. Those who cannot afford private health insurance will be left to their own devices. 

The government is vulnerable because of the public support for the NHS as a guarantee of healthcare as of right, and is carefully obscuring the true implications of its reorganization with ambiguous language and cautious disclaimers. Just as the Tories have isolated themselves with their hostility to taking the knee in football, they face the risk of positioning themselves even further out of line with public opinion by breaking the social pledge to provide universal healthcare. But the opportunity this provides for Labour is being ignored by its leadership. The party is distributing “Faith to fight for our NHS” badges – but has no concrete plan to stop the government’s legislation, and won’t even commit to support the nurses’ demand for a 12.5% pay increase.

The government’s U-turns over free school meals and lockdowns show that it is sensitive to public pressure, despite its majority. The public must be made aware of the extent to which the new Tory law dismantles the principle of healthcare free at the point of use. A poll commissioned by We Own It last year found that 76 per cent of the public want to see the NHS reinstated as a fully public service against just 15 per cent who wanted to see continued involvement of private companies. The left should support all organisations campaigning against the legislation, such as the national Day of Action launched by We Own It and Just Treatment for this Saturday, July 17.

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Political predators gobble up government wealth redistribution

Minister of Health Matt Hancock’s resignation from the UK government was forced on him not because he was caught in an office clinch with his mistress, but because his actions undermined “public trust” in the government. Like Dominic Cummings before him, it was the fact that he broke the rules he had imposed on society that threatened an unstable government legitimacy – not the thousands of unnecessary deaths he had presided over.

Nor were Hancock’s giveaway multi-million pound contracts to his acquaintances sufficient reason for his fall from grace. In fact, like Michael Gove’s award of an “unlawful” Covid contract to his friends, this is normal practice for this government. For example, Robert Jenrick remains housing secretary despite breaking the law in overruling planning inspectors and the local council to approve a Tory donor’s massive real estate development and save the donor an estimated £45 million in taxes. The multinational conglomerate Serco is to get another huge contract to continue its work on the Covid “test and trace” system, even though, as the UK public spending watchdog complained, it was defeating its very purpose since there were “too few test results delivered within 24 hours, and too few contacts of infected people being reached and told to self-isolate.”

What appears to be happening is that the government is using state resources to consolidate the recipients of contracts around a small Tory elite. There is a close network of personal and political connections between them: an analysis of roughly 1,200 UK government contracts worth nearly $22 billion, made by the New York Times, found that “about $11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.” 

William Davies pointed out in the Guardian that “The most extraordinary feature of Britain’s post-crash political era is that the Tories have steadily grown their share of the vote while offering very little that looks like growth or prosperity. It’s under these distinctive economic circumstances that ‘cultural’ factors become politically significant. The Tories have become expert at overseeing and manipulating a new sort of post-growth economy, in which there is no attempt to produce a ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’, and the state simply intervenes to divert money toward those voters who deserve it and away from those who do not.”

Calling this “sleaze” is simply inadequate to describe what is going on: Johnson has implemented a covert readjustment of power relations within the state. Labour’s argument that austerity has “hollowed out” the state is misguided. Rather, it has been reconfigured to privilege those agencies in closest contact with the world market, like finance and armaments exports, while subordinating those agencies devoted to social needs like education, health and welfare. This process began with Thatcher, but has now reached epidemic proportions.

It is arguably a structural feature of modern neoliberal states. The Marxist historian Robert Brenner has drawn attention to how politics in the United States is now about nurturing distinct interests irrespective of their contribution to economic growth, describing “a politically driven upward redistribution of wealth to sustain central elements of a partially transformed dominant capitalist class.” This contrasts with regions where state spending directly supports capital accumulation, as in Southeast Asian countries like Taiwan, whose approach to both healthcare and education is very different.

His assessment is based on the unprecedented Federal Reserve loans offered with virtually no restrictions to non-financial corporations in March, 2020, in response to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy. The loans are estimated to top $7.7 trillion – a mind-blowing figure. The bipartisan political establishment has grasped “the extent to which money-making has been de-linked from profitable production,” he argues, and has come to the conclusion that rather than spending on urgent needs of public concern, it is more important for the system to ensure the reproduction of US corporations and their top managers and shareholders by intervening in the asset markets and the economy so as to “underwrite the upward redistribution of wealth to them by directly political means.” In the context of plunging production, employment and profits, he concludes, we have had “worsening economic decline met by intensifying political predation.”

If, as he thinks, money-making has been delinked from profitable production, what does that mean in terms of the circulation process of capital? In his Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, David Harvey explains that much of the dynamic of the capitalist economy over the last 20-odd years has been bound up with changes in the role of fixed capital. The accumulation of fixed capital in a form that increases the productivity of labour has become self-defeating: the contraction of the workforce that results from more automation tends to reduce the aggregate demand for commodities and has an important impact on the rate of profit. There is just too much capital in the world chasing investment outlets to allow for profitable production. However, a counteracting tendency is possible. Fixed capital, instead of contributing to production, can be made to absorb surplus labour and commodities through what Marx called a “consumption fund”: surplus capital is junked by being channeled into military expenditure and pointless urban construction – think Trident, HMS Queen Elizabeth, Crossrail, HS2. 

Johnson’s “levelling up” projects are another example of sinking money into unneeded infrastructure for political benefit. Andy Beckett points out in the Guardian that “As a notoriously short-term politician, Johnson may not be too worried about whether his government’s levelling-up construction projects are effective in the long term. It’s the photo opportunities all the building sites will provide and the overall impression of purposeful government that are probably his first priorities.”

Lucrative government contracts are a way to dump capital instead of using it productively. If these resources were used for the benefit of the working population, thereby increasing its share of the national product, affordable housing and universal healthcare would be eminently possible. But the government would rather shore up the ruling elite and consolidate its parliamentary majority. Labour’s pathetic resurrection of the “magic money tree” argument in order to avoid advocating a fair raise for health workers misses the fact that the tree has bloomed and much of its plentiful fruit is being thrown away. 

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Do mass protests mean it is time to write off the Labour party?

Protests against the Israeli attacks on Gaza

Jonas Marvin of the Frightful Hobgoblins Collective has written in NovaraMedia that it is time to ditch the Labour party and organize within movements, outside it. The party, he says, is disintegrating, and he forecasts that the coming period will see an anti-statist series of social movements that will enable the left to “intervene in the political sphere on our terms,” meaning in an oppositional relation to the state. Both Black Lives Matter and the Kill the Bill movements took the radical left by surprise, he argues, because they targeted the British capitalist state that “the Corbyn project aimed to occupy.” But did they? These protests didn’t target the state as much as being targeted by the police for challenging the government.

First of all, it’s premature to write off the Labour party at this historical moment. Even though the ousting of a left leadership is disheartening to many activists, the party still occupies an important role in the political thinking of the working class. Its attraction stems from its relation to state power – the fact that it gives an appearance, at least, of an alternative political force to the government means that the parliamentary system gets legitimized as a form of democracy, even though in practice it is basically a one-party state. That’s why the Labour right is making such a concerted effort to control the next party conference: they wouldn’t bother if it was already moribund.

That’s also why Jeremy Corbyn had to be undermined and eventually removed as party leader. He gave the imprimatur of state legitimacy to anti-austerity and climate change protests, as representing the general will, rather than allowing the parliamentary party to claim a monopoly on it. It was the PLP that aimed at occupying the British state, whereas Corbyn aimed at democratizing it. The new politics that his leadership encouraged sought to combine structural changes in the central state with local democratic control.

“At its core,” writes Marvin, “the state is the violent organizer of capitalist social relations.” The various state bureaucracies confront the working class in an oppressive, coercive manner: but are they “the matrix of bodies through which the capitalist class hashes out strategies of domination”? That begs the question of which bodies, and how they are coordinated. If the state is “the site of both intense dispute and incredibly concerted action,” how do these disputes get resolved into “concerted action”?

It is the government that is the body that coordinates the bureaucracies of power, and of these bureaucracies the Treasury has a central role. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was able to override the cabinet’s recommendation for spending on schools, literally decimating the amount available for education catch-up. The Johnson government is in power precisely because it was able to hide the coercive aspects of its rule in order to appeal to the popular attachment to democracy. It has a powerful apparatus to help it do this – above all, the media and the law courts – and, it has to be said, the Labour opposition. Although Labour hopes to confine dissent exclusively into parliamentary channels, it cannot altogether ignore the mass protest movements that have emerged: Black Lives Matter, Kill the Bill, and support for beleaguered Palestinians. Even so, Johnson has no need to seriously answer Keir Starmer when he has made himself so ineffectual by abandoning the party policies arrived at under Corbyn.

There would be no protest movements if people didn’t expect better treatment from the state and better protection of their rights. These movements are not calls to riot, or to destroy state authority: they are aimed at getting public support for racial equality, social justice, and the very right to protest. While the Labour party is in disarray, this does not mean a decline in the social-democratic sensibility of the public, its desire for state support in the crises of modern life. It continues to demand better healthcare, education, and housing, and Labour’s policies remain popular despite the election results. Even though the DWP is punitive, would it be better if there were no social services or welfare payments? Or no rubbish collection, fire brigade, or libraries (all functions of the state)?

State oppression takes many other forms than police attacks. Systematically defunding social welfare agencies combined with intensifying repressive laws heralds a rise in inequality to intolerable levels. While the Labour parliamentary opposition is spinning its wheels, the party at the grassroots level is in a position to raise political consciousness of ways of fighting back at local levels. Now is not the time to give up on the party rank and file, especially when it is engaged in a mortal battle with the Labour right, and is equally part of the effort to strengthen ties between the left and working-class struggles. 

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How ideology is key to the British state’s assault on the right to protest

Left journalist Ash Sarkar remarked on a recent episode of TyskySour that the police are actively constructing their own ideological narrative about what their job entails. It now includes covering their tracks by physically assaulting journalists reporting on police suppression of non-violent demonstrators. The right to protest is being attacked on two fronts: the physical dispersal and arrest of protesters, and ideological attacks from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, with no counter-narrative from the Labour opposition.

The Independent reported that video footage from Friday’s protests in Bristol showed demonstrators “some sitting, others with their arms up, chanting ‘we are peaceful, what are you’ as officers use riot shields to push them back – in one instance using the edge of a shield to hit a person who was on the ground.” Daily Mirror reporter Matthew Dresch told the Guardian he was assaulted by police “even though I told them I was from the press. I was respectfully observing what was happening and posed no threat to any of the officers.” 

Ross Tatham, a 24-year-old student, said he was hit in the head by a police officer while standing on the frontlines of the protest. “I was saying ‘I’m peaceful’ and had my hands in the air saying ‘I’m here to protest not to fight’. The officer came and whacked me in the head with a baton. I got dazed and stumbled back. A lot of people got a lot worse than I did. … Further down the line, police were hitting them with the edges of the shield, which is obviously more painful,” he said. “The ones using the edges of the shield – that is done with vicious intent. There wasn’t any physical violence I saw from the protesters. The police didn’t need to clear the streets. The police could have just waited it out.”

This did not stop Patel saying she was “disgusted” by the violence of the protesters, adding “I’m in no doubt the silent, law-abiding majority will be appalled by the actions of this criminal minority.” Johnson chimed in: “Our officers should not have to face having bricks, bottles and fireworks being thrown at them by a mob intent on violence and causing damage to property.” They are portraying protestors as criminals and a violent mob, while at the same time chief constables are presenting the police as caught between their obligation to enforce covid laws in order to protect the public, and the rights of protesters who are breaking these laws. 

The function of these ideological attacks is not only to prime the public and media for the government’s draconian Police Bill restricting any form of protest, but to guide the actions of individual policemen. There is no need for Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick to give them all detailed instructions: they act on their own initiative to deal with those they regard as troublesome. An example of the effect of this ideological framing of the protests is the comments of one policeman when informed that a man had exposed himself to a woman leaving the vigil for Sarah Everard, two weeks ago. The woman told Lambeth Life that a female police officer had indicated it would be investigated, but was overruled by a male officer who told her: “No, we’ve had enough tonight with the rioters” even though the vigil was nonviolent and nobody had accused the women of rioting.

As Ralph Miliband contended, ideology plays an important coordinating role for the state to maintain a central direction over the network of semi-autonomous bureaucracies that compose it. The importance of government affirmation of the legitimacy of police violence is confirmed by the reaction of police chiefs to Patel reneging on her promise to make a public statement urging people not to gather at the Clapham Common vigil. Chiefs felt they were “hung out to dry” by Patel, when she had told them in private that a ban on gatherings had to be enforced, but after the public outcry criticised the images of officers manhandling women, rebuked the Met commissioner and ordered an inquiry into the events. According to the Guardian, “A government source hit back at any complaints from within policing, saying that ‘pinning women to the floor and dragging them away from Clapham Common bandstand was an independent operational decision’ made by the police themselves.” 

The Labour leadership has swallowed the Tory narrative whole, aligning it with the political direction of the government. Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds told BBC Breakfast that violence was completely unacceptable. She said protesters should be using “other ways of expressing whatever dissatisfaction they have,” taking at face value the statements of the Avon and Somerset police that police violence was a response to physical resistance from the protesters, refusing to blame the police tactic of kettling then charging them with horses and dogs while they were seated and nonviolent. 

To understand why the Labour right is so responsive to the ideological requirements of the British state, it is instructive to look at the politics elaborated by the party’s general secretary, David Evans, in a recent Zoom meeting. He described himself as a nonpolitical “oily rag” only concerned with the efficient working of the party’s electoral machine. “My business is running the Labour Party and to supply the people on this call with the very best possible election machine to help us win power,” he said. His highly political role in suspending left party members is thus subsumed by an ideological statement that aims at depoliticizing Labour’s constituency parties.

More significantly, he cites what he calls “Maslowian” politics, which implies a hierarchy of needs, as the justification for his argument for embracing the patriotism of conservative Labour voters. First of all, he says, “they have to have confidence you’ll look after their money, you’ll keep them secure, before you have permission to talk about their aspirations for a better life, about the benevolent society which as Labour Party members we want to get to.” He thus repudiates social welfare, the common good, in favour of individual security identified with personal capital. This makes the foundation of the British state – defence of property – the precondition for Labour politics, and enables social democratic values to be replaced with traditional “patriotism.” “The voters we try to reconnect with have Englishness as their identity,” he said, adding that his Labour-voting friends “have no problem literally wrapping themselves in the George cross.” 

Parallel to the way the British state is organized, individual regional officials do not need to be instructed directly to suppress discussion in CLPs or suspend their officers: the officials share Evans’ philosophy and so automatically remove those whom they perceive to interfere with the workings of the “machine.” And they are not above working with central office bureaucrats to facilitate their aims – as in the case of the selection of Paul Williams as the single male candidate on the shortlist for the Hartlepool parliamentary byelection. A leaked email exposed the local Labour right’s arrangements to foist their choice on the membership: “With a single candidate short list being fairly controversial (and with certain factions in the party certain to try to make a grab or call foul) LOTO [Leader of the Opposition’s office] require a formal letter from us to the NEC requesting that Paul be our candidate. The left will make a big deal of this and paint the selection as a stitch up by Starmer. We need to make it absolutely clear that these arrangements ore local and that, in the absence of a full selection process and the choice of a local candidate, Paul is the choice of the CLP.”

It is hard to understate how rightwing the thinking of these officials is, how reactionary and contemptuous of both the membership and the electorate. So when regional officials interfere in CLP elections, it is not necessarily because of a party-wide conspiracy to purge the left. It’s a result of the officials actively internalizing the direction of the central office. Since the officials, mostly young graduates, are intent on building a career in the Labour party machine, they are not going to tolerate even the slightest divergence from the general secretary’s recommendations.

The frustration of party members needs to be directed at dismantling the Labour right’s ideology by reaffirming social democratic values against its championing of property-owning selfishness, and continuing to fight for democracy within the party. Regional offices should be disbanded – they are perennially useless even in elections – and the funds retained for local use.

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Yes, the Labour party is in the throes of a major crisis

Anna Rothery speaking in Liverpool

What else could you call it? Members are resigning en masse; volunteer constituency officers are being suspended across the country; the parliamentary front bench is unable to effectively challenge government corruption; thousands of people are dead because Boris Johnson was so obsessed with Brexit that he paid no attention to the pandemic when early action would have saved lives. And yet Labour has not made any inroads onto the Tories’ popularity because its leadership is blind to the nature of the historical moment.

Keir Starmer’s recent refusal to call for health minister Matt Hancock’s resignation after he was found guilty of breaking the law, and his decision to oppose corporate tax increases, are based on the electoral calculations of the party’s right: they believe that opposing the government in the middle of the pandemic would be seen as unpatriotic by the conservative ex-Labour voters the party wants to win back. But these calculations are based on the assumption that parliamentary elections will follow traditional rules, despite the fact that the Tories broke every rule in the book in 2019. The perspective of preparing for an election in 2024 by moving the party to the centre-right does not take into account the ways in which the government has been taken over by an extremist Tory group which will whip up its Brexit base with ever more outrageous denunciations of “the enemy within,” amplified by its direct collaboration with the media. 

The Labour right’s factional assault on the left is weakening the party and destroying its chances of winning elections. Bureaucratic manoeuvering in Liverpool, just as in Bristol, shows the development of an absolute antagonism between the party’s regional bureaucracies and the local memberships. Whereas previous Labour leaders have been able to hold the different parts of the Labour coalition together, Starmer has deliberately deepened the divide between left and right by maintaining Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the parliamentary party.

In Liverpool, Labour’s slate of candidates for the city’s mayoral election was scrapped on the same day that ballots were due to be distributed, after the intervention of a “right-wing mafia”, according to Skwawkbox. A six-person committee reinterviewed the candidates and decided to get a new shortlist, but the three women candidates were given no explanation, were excluded from the new list, and were kept in the dark about the decision until a global email was sent to all Liverpool party members. Favourite to win was Anna Rothery, a popular black, socialist, Liverpool councillor, who told the Guardian that she was “shocked by the party’s chaotic handling of the selection” and may seek an injunction against the decision.

Whatever the reason for selecting a new slate, the process was so secretive that members can only speculate that the intervention was to prevent a Corbyn-supporting politician becoming the new Liverpool mayor. The heavy-handed and politically incompetent interference by the right has the effect of cementing the perception that Labour is biased against its Black and Asian members as well as being anti-democratic. Liverpool is one of the strongest Labour bastions in the country, but its voters will not take kindly to candidates parachuted in from outside the area. Secretary of Walton CLP Alan Gibbons writes that some of the city’s Constituency Labour Parties are considering emergency motions, “condemning the alleged lack of transparency, U-turns and failures of process involved in the selections.” Liverpool councillors are considering voting to scrap the post of mayor completely at an emergency council meeting. “It scuppers the plans of Labour nationally, but there is not much HQ could do to stop it now,” says Elliot Chappell at LabourList.

In the constituencies, supporters of the leadership’s right-wing turn are telling members to ignore the anti-democratic actions of regional officials and rally behind Starmer to campaign in May’s local elections. But why campaign to elect a Labour council when they are being made responsible for measures to alleviate the effects of the pandemic with no additional government funding? Because of austerity cuts, councils are now dependent on council tax revenue at a time when, according to a new report from Citizens Advice, 11 percent of those furloughed are behind on their tax bills, together with 33 percent of those on zero-hours contracts. If they default, the penalties are severe because debt collection is governed by inflexible, centrally-determined regulations with a maximum penalty (in England) of three months’ jail time. Parliamentary objections to the government’s funding of councils won’t register with voters who see families facing jail for nonpayment of tax. 

UPDATE: According to Skwawkbox, “councillors in London and elsewhere are being warned by their regional offices on behalf of CCHQ2 that any councillors who dare to vote against budgets set in line with the Tory cuts that have blighted the lives of the poor and vulnerable for more than a decade  will face ‘very significant’ disciplinary sanctions and likely deselection.”

As Joe Guinan pointed out in Tribune, “politics as usual” ignores the multiple overlapping crises facing society. Not just the pandemic, but racism, a staggering economy, and environmental instability as major weather events flood parts of Yorkshire, freeze homes in Texas, and melt the permafrost in Siberia. Labour needs big ideas to address these emergencies. And it already has ambitious ideas, contained in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. Socialist thinkers in the Corbyn era, says Guinan, charted a viable political-economic path forward that tackled the crises of “economic and regional inequality, climate change and financialisation (to which we would now need to add Covid recovery).” What is required is the delivery of “fundamental structural changes to the everyday functioning of the economic system itself” that move power away from the City of London to held-back regions and communities.

However, the Labour right are feverishly eliminating any policy or party candidate that could conceivably be reminiscent of “Corbynism.” Unless members take action to restore a socialist perspective, the Labour party will continue to decay and degenerate. That is why Momentum’s call for the NEC to organise an immediate recall conference should be supported. It will have the purpose of “restoring party democracy and achieving genuine unity as the only means for the party to achieve victory at forthcoming elections,” says Momentum.

In the longer term, however, the left needs to build a new movement of counter-power. There is no short cut to putting down roots in communities and participating in existing grassroots struggles. Transformative change will depend on the collaborative efforts of specific groups within communities to make a difference in people’s lives.

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Book Review: “In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West,” by Wendy Brown

This is not an easy book to read, but I think it’s an important one. Recent events have given extra potency to political theorist Wendy Brown’s analysis of the rise of right-wing populist movements globally. Brown argues that these movements are part of a new social formation, brought into being through neoliberalism’s attacks on notions of society and the public good. There is an extended interview with the author in Jacobin magazine, which amplifies these points. 

Brown points out that the left’s analysis of populism as a response to the working-class experience of abandonment and betrayal does not register the subjective forces – racism, nihilism, assaults on constitutional democracy – that had the ground for them prepared by neoliberal rationality during the 2010s. Decades of neoliberal attacks on democracy, equality and society melded with a nihilism manifested as broken faith in truth, in fact-based argument and enlightenment values.

Drawing on Nietzsche’s philosophy enables Brown to follow the logic of nihilism in the separation of traditional values from their connection to social life, which then empties them of substance and enables them to be instrumentalized and taken over by the extreme right. The Tories continue this nihilistic campaign with their “war on woke” and deification of Churchill and Britain “standing alone” in 1940. But the most potent impact of nihilism in politics has been the attack on the left as anti-semitic. Here the values of the left itself are wrenched from their social foundations, enabling hostility to anti-semitism to be inverted and weaponized against Jeremy Corbyn, the most resolute of anti-racists in the Labour party.

The effect of this nihilism was to generate an anti-democratic culture from below while legitimizing anti-democratic forms of state power from above. As it saturated popular discourse, the neoliberal attack on the social reframed the culture wars and “produced massive disorientation for the left,” asserts Brown. The subjective effects of neoliberal economy fused with apparent ideological opposites, authoritarian neoconservatism or nostalgic nationalism, to create an antidemocratic citizenry that “expects neither truth nor accountability in governance and state actions.” The inegalitarianism of daily life manifested in tiered pricing of service access and treatment accustoms the subject to inequality but also intensifies the resentment of those left behind. 

While privatization is the economic face of neoliberalism, she argues, it is coupled with extending the protected private sphere so as to delegitimize the concept of social welfare provision and political democracy. The rights of the individual become politicized in such a way as to make them vulnerable to the substitution of contractual relationships for human connections. Traditional values are asserted as a replacement for these connections, but are unmoored from their social foundations, which makes their meaning superficial and easily instrumentalized against democratic political life.

The neoliberal deprecation of the political and the social releases the nihilistic subject from the constraints of conscience and gives rise to the aggression and viciousness of cable news and social media. Trump’s boorishness and rule breaking makes the white male supremacism at the heart of traditional values more explicit, whose waning “is a crucial spur to his support.” If neoliberalism is only conceived as a political rationality privileging markets, she says, “we cannot grasp the affective investments in privileges of whiteness” in national culture and morality, or the way “the hierarchies and exclusions of ‘tradition’ legitimately challenged democratic equality in the name of both family values and freedom.”

The Trumpist assault on the US Capitol in January is a dramatic confirmation of her argument. The Atlantic published a survey of the arrest records of those suspected of taking part in the riot, which found that a large majority were middle-aged, middle-class, and had no connection to far-right militias but were willing to join them in a “new kind of violent mass movement” to overturn a presidential election. The Capitol riot, it says, “revealed a new force in American politics—not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority.”

Reducing neoliberalism to economic policy alone blinds us to tectonic shifts in the consciousness of social space, says Brown. The first of these is the “lost horizon of the nation-state consequent to globalization;” the world has invaded the nation and transformed the existential conditions for the whole population. The second shift is the neoliberal destruction of the social, dissolving civic equality and concern for the common good into a market order. The third is the rise of finance capital, untethered to a tangible presence in the nation-state. 

The result is a social division between those rooted in a particular space and those who embrace a cosmopolitan, deterritorialized existence – a loss of the significance of family, tradition and religion. For the subject, “the toxic mix of nihilism, fatalism and ressentiment with neoliberal assaults on the social” leads it to rage against secular cosmopolitans embracing racial indeterminacy, gender fluidity, and other manifestations of social complexity. The privatization of everything, the attack on public ownership, made it easier for right-wing politicians to argue for the belonging of the nation to an ethno-nationalist population which was being invaded by outsiders.

The particular form of anti-democratic politics is necessarily different in different nation-states. Brown’s examples are mainly taken from the United States, but in Europe it is easy to discern parallel developments. Marine Le Pen in France and Pegida/AfD in Germany are expressions of such a trend, likewise the Vote Leave campaign in the UK. Right-wing Tories sensed the potential of the Brexit vote to disrupt the political order, and were attuned to it in a way that Labour was not. The left did not take this movement seriously enough and focused instead on economic issues, not grasping that the subjective roots of the Brexit vote lay deep in decades of marginalization and erosion of social values. 

Both left and right wings of Labour misunderstood the nature of Johnson’s appeal in the 2019 election. Sabrina Huck pointed out: “VoteLeave’s strategists manufactured a constituency for the referendum based on a system of social listening and targeting that was at that point unseen in political campaigning. … This coalition that VoteLeave constructed is the force that catapulted the Conservatives to power in December. They tapped into a feeling of loss and decline, deflected from their own political role in administering the closure of industries and lack of investment in the area by focusing on the European Union, remainers and ‘metropolitan elites’ as adversaries.” 

In a converse development, a radical democratic demand and vision is emerging from social movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, presenting “a kind of naked demand on the part of the people for a better world and a world in which power was not concentrated, held, used against us, used against the planet,” says Brown in her interview. Labour has to restore its connection to the social – for example by using what parliamentary prestige it has left to back community movements that are springing up around the defence of the NHS against Tory predation and protesting the appalling death toll from Covid-19.

Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West, Columbia UP, New York, 2019

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Storming the Capitol: A riot or an attempted coup?

Juan Cole cogently argues the case that Donald Trump intended to overturn the US presidential election result through an attempted coup. The ex-president followed a three-pronged strategy, says Cole: first, a propaganda campaign relayed by Twitter and Fox news that he had actually won the election but it had been stolen by irregularities in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia. In all of these swing states, Latino and African American voters gave Biden the margin of victory – enabling Trump to exploit dog-whistle racism. 

The second prong was to browbeat and intimidate Republican election officials in those states to refuse to certify a Biden win. When these attempts failed, Trump resorted to his third plan which was to pressure Congress with a mass rally of the far right on January 6th. He intended to intimidate Pence and legislators with chaos and violence so as to derail Biden’s confirmation. Since some 140 congressional Republicans and 8 senators continued to support Trump’s attempt even after the mob had threated to kill or kidnap them, it was not altogether implausible.

Jacobin writers Daniel Bessner and Amber A’Lee Frost maintain, on the other hand, that the event was a mass riot responding to the idea that the election had been rigged. QAnon – a quasi-religious cult motivated by social dislocation, alienation, and resentment – was disproportionately represented among the insurgents. “As became clear once QAnon-ers entered the Capitol, they had no genuine strategy and no genuine program, instead relying on a millenarian faith that Trump would deliver them from the rule of elite pedophiles, heal the sick, comfort the poor, and establish a New Jerusalem. … Very clearly, they can’t overturn an election. Despite an alarming number of veterans and police officers, they have nowhere near the numbers to prevent security services from murdering them (at the very least, the elites who control American violence are not on board with Q).”

QAnon is a symptom of the derailing of rational thought brought about by years of neoliberal devaluing of political institutions and the idea that people’s lives can be improved within the system. Its bizarre conspiracy theories provide meaning in dislocated lives. Trump himself is another symptom, as Patrick Cockburn points out; he is the product of “a particular toxic variant of American nationalism now dominant in the Republican Party. It is rooted in a culture shaped by slavery, the Civil War between North and South, a century of Jim Crow discrimination against blacks, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the reaction against it. It was this past that produced the white, male, Christian non-metropolitan voters who saw Trump as their saviour.”

The coup attempt – if it was one – was bound to fail because Trump had been unable to get the US military to abandon its traditional stance of impartiality, but it is fair to say that the extreme right benefited from a show of strength. What Trump achieved during his presidency by amplifying and encouraging the extreme white supremacist right was to break down the distinction between them and mainstream Republican party discourse, and by the same token make explicit the supremacist subtext of the Republican party’s message. However, that is far from saying that all Trump’s supporters identify themselves with the far right. The only thing that united and animated the disparate groups at the riot was their belief in Trump’s claim that the election had been stolen.

Elle Reeve covered the rally for CNN and has a lot of experience reporting on rightwing rallies. She comments: “People say Donald Trump plus the Internet brings out the extremists. But I think the reality is an inversion of that: that Donald Trump plus the Internet brings extremism to the masses. There are many more regular people now who believe extreme things – who believe there’s a secret cabal of pedophiles at the very top of the American government. … Most of the people [at the rally] do not think of themselves as white nationalists. Do not want to be seen as racist. I’ve interviewed a lot of them and they’re like, ‘We want nothing to do with those guys.’ But that said, the parallels are, when this huge swarm of people who’ve been active online finally get to meet each other in person. And there’s this thrill of it and it’s very high energy ≠ but they’ve also been anonymous for so long – it kind of relieves them of the responsibility for their actions.” 

Benjamin Schiller of International Policy Digest interviewed Dan Moran, a participant in Trump’s rally and a lifelong conservative. He had imagined that there would be thousands of Trump supporters taking part in a peaceful protest. On the march to the Capitol, “everything seemed fine (with) no issues.” As challenges were made in Congress to Biden’s election certification, Moran noticed men dressed in body armour and helmets, strapped with large megaphones and radio equipment. “I thought little of it then, so I continued to lead the group (from Missouri) through the crowd upright to the foot of the Capitol,” recalled Moran.

The group from Missouri arrived at the Capitol Reflecting Pool. “We stayed in this spot for a good while, and what we saw was the people that had reached the platform on top of the scaffolding started announcing through their megaphones to ‘advance! Move up!’ The messages were then copied and announced again by nearly every person that had a megaphone scattered throughout the crowd,” said Moran. As the police attempted to hold back the advancing crowd, “the message being spread from atop the scaffolding was ‘Pence has betrayed us! They are traitors!’ “ 

“Some of the people who walked by us seemed to be debating whether or not to charge the Capitol, and others I heard seemed to be debating whether or not to go around to the other side of the Capitol where apparently the Capitol had already been breached,” said Moran. After seeing a female protestor having an adverse reaction from pepper spray, he knew that it was getting dangerous for his group’s older members. “My group at this point decided to leave the event because what started as a show of support for President Trump had been turned into a riot and attack on the Capitol and the police,” he said.

Governmental institutions are still strong and the insurgents were easily defeated once reinforcements arrived, but there were clearly individuals from organized militia groups who had come prepared to take over the building and even to capture Congress members. “That was a heavily trained group of militia terrorists that attacked us,” said an African American officer with the Capitol police, who has been with the department for more than a decade. “They had radios, we found them, they had two-way communicators and earpieces. They had bear spray. They had flash bangs …. These guys were military trained. A lot of them were former military,” the officer said.

President Joe Biden’s call for national unity may play well with the Republican establishment, but the polarization of its base will not go away. It is a lot bigger than Trump. Talking Points Memo reported that “A full 70 percent of Republican voters in a Quinnipiac Poll released January 11 said that the Republican lawmakers who tried to stop the formal certification of President-Elect Joe Biden’s win were protecting democracy. Only 23 percent said they were undermining it. … The Republican numbers are similar in an ABC/Washington Post poll released Friday: of the 78 percent who approve of GOP lawmakers’ attempts to help Trump overturn the election, 51 percent said they didn’t go far enough. A mere 16 percent of Republicans said their attempts went too far.”

“These polls lay bare the massive problems with both holding Republicans to account for their behavior and purging Trump from the party. Trump’s poisonous election conspiracy theories, amplified by Republican lawmakers, have effectively seeped into the worldview of their constituents captured by this polling. Even if they don’t like the invading of the Capitol itself, the majority of Republicans appear to agree with the rioters’ underlying fury stemming from a conviction that the November election was stolen, and that Trump’s administration is coming to an unfairly early end.”

A three-word slogan like “Stop the Steal” can focus a whole universe of discontents. In Britain, Boris Johnson was able to mobilize leave voters behind “Get Brexit Done” in the 2019 election, that equally focused the nationalist response to unemployment and lack of prospects. Now the Tories are trying to conjure up more identity politics around furlough benefits and asylum seekers, not to mention statues. What is striking is the inability of the Labour opposition to successfully challenge the government from within the parliamentary system. Johnson is still able to leverage the identification of Leave voters to sustain the Tory base. 

Labour is taking all the wrong lessons from Biden’s victory. The Democrats did not succeed by winning back white working-class voters from Trump — that didn’t happen. They won by expanding the electorate in the key swing states through grassroots campaigning aimed at African American and Latino American voters. Labour needs to learn from this experience. The party will not win elections by dialing back its policies and focusing on socially conservative voters, despite Starmer’s promises. Activists need to look for inspiration elsewhere: Jeremy Corbyn’s initiative in setting up the Peace and Justice project can be welcomed as a step to creating new connections between activists in Britain and with international organizations. It makes it possible to come to grips with the deep-seated roots of people’s despair in the midst of overwhelming crises and to offer a perspective of change through their own efforts, in alliance with others across the world fighting the effects of neoliberal politics.

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