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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Filed under Boris Johnson, Brexit, British Left, Covid-19, Neoliberalism, populism, Trump, Uncategorized

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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Filed under African Americans, Boris Johnson, Democratic Party, donald trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Republicans

Corbyn makes a stand for social justice and political hope

Jeremy Corbyn has launched a new organisation with the aim of bringing people together for social justice, peace and human rights, in Britain and across the world. He said the new organisation, called the Project for Peace and Justice, will not be a new political party, but a platform for campaigns, for social movements and trade unions, sustaining research into common problems and their solutions, and becoming a means of building networks for progressive change. 

He stated: “It’s there to create space, hope and opportunity for those campaigning for social justice and a future that works for the many, not the few,” adding that “we can build on the popular socialist policies developed in the Labour Party over the past five years. This year, many of us have felt powerless in the face of forces beyond our control. It doesn’t have to be like that. Things can, and they will, change.”

The new organisation will provide a political home for the many thousands of Labour party members who have left in protest at the Starmer leadership’s policies and its vindictive treatment of Corbyn himself, and those who remain in the party but are prevented by bureaucratic officials from discussing or taking a stand on social or international issues. 

It also creates a forum for the dissemination of socialist ideas independent of the rules of the Labour hierarchy. What is even more important is that it reconnects the social and the political, reinforcing the idea that democratic political action can change the world, recognizing a joint human fate across national borders.

The Starmer leadership is sending the opposite message. By removing the parliamentary whip from Jeremy Corbyn and unleashing the attack dogs of the party bureaucracy on local branches, it is signalling that social dissent must be confined to the parliamentary system, that all hopes of effecting real change should be forgotten, and the party must dispense with the idea that its political campaigning should actually engage social issues.

In one revealing example, Squawkbox reports that a party official wrote to the Bath CLP warning them that their plan to donate money to homeless charities and food banks was “not an appropriate use of funds,” which should only be used for returning Labour representatives to parliament or local government. He threatened: “If I become aware that the CLP has voted on and in support of this proposal I will instruct the CLP Treasurer that the funds should not be released and then seek guidance from the Governance and Legal Unit on possible further action.”

Supporting the local community is not seen by this official as in any way strengthening the party’s relation with the electorate. Instead, as Squawkbox points out, “Bath CLP was told that it must put forward a plan to prove how it will support the party’s campaign to elect its candidate in next year’s election for the south-west region’s mayor – and if the regional office likes the plan, only then might the party approve the spending on homeless people, poor children and the hungry.”

The implication of this intervention is to restrict the sphere of the political to the drab routines of leafletting and knocking on doors for the benefit of Labour candidates, and thereby wear down or eliminate the democratic energies of the membership who might be concerned with building the party’s political base in the community.

This dovetails with the neo-New Labour demand by general secretary David Evans that political discussion in the branches should be shut down in order to protect the sensibilities of individual members with different political agendas. He emailed local party officials in November that motions on the suspension of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn – including expressions of solidarity – would be “ruled out of order” because they provided “a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members”. In a second email, he wrote that the party must “double down” on “anything” that may cause members to feel unwelcome or unsafe, and that members’ rights of free speech are subordinate to the beliefs of anyone who might object to a viewpoint being expressed. 

This is much more than an arbitrary decision by the general secretary. These draconian moves are driven by the inability of the Starmer leadership to resist the authoritarian drift of the Labour right wing. Its long-term strategy is to encourage the suspension of branch officers and members who might elect radical delegates to the 2021 party conference. The two Labour councillors from the Jewish Labour Movement who gathered statements for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission admitted to the Guardian that their aim was to suppress grassroots’ influence in the party conference. Adam Langleblen, who left the party after losing his council seat, and Peter Mason both consider that Labour has to do more than just accept the EHRC’s recommendations. “It’s going to be how Keir Starmer deals with the [Jewish] community more broadly, but also the party politically and the culture,” Mason said. “If Labour conference were to convene today, with the same delegates from 2019, there’s not a single recommendation that the EHRC could make that would survive conference floor.”

While focusing on its factional fight against the left, the Starmer leadership has let slide the Johnson government’s authoritarian concentration of power in the executive. Every day government decisions are being made without parliamentary consultation, on Brexit or the lockdown tier system that blatantly discriminates against the north and Labour-voting regions. Unlike Harold Wilson, who while being an unscrupulous opportunist knew enough to be able to keep the party together, Starmer has shown himself to be politically inept by splitting Labour while the Tory government has awarded multi-million pound contracts to cronies in a blatantly corrupt process, has thrown money away on PPE contracts, has presided over thousands of unnecessary covid deaths, and has steered the country into a no-deal Brexit. 

Government officials have shown no shame or remorse for any of this, and no wonder: they pay no significant price for blatantly lying. The nature of politics has changed, but the Labour front bench acts as though parliament can continue with business as usual. Corbyn’s former policy chief Andrew Fisher pointed out that it has framed its forensic criticisms of the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic in terms of wasting money. “Let’s call it what it is: corruption,” he said. “There’s a lack of political analysis, of framing the debate.” 

The nature of this new politics can be discussed by Labour members who can join Corbyn’s new project individually, or support local constituency parties who are already beginning to affiliate to the project, allowing their members to refresh their political enthusiasm unencumbered by right-wing officials. It also serves to send a message of dissent from the broken promises of the Starmer party leadership.

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Filed under British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer

Book Review: Owen Jones’ “This Land: The Story of a Movement”

The book’s title is somewhat misleading: it’s the inside story of the circle of advisers and strategists around Jeremy Corbyn’s office, not the story of the movement that backed him. Jones gives a lively account of Corbyn’s election as party leader and the immediate attempts by the parliamentary party to unseat him. He describes the initial disorganisation of the leader’s office confronted with the infighting of the party bureaucracy, which was resolved when the calling of the 2017 general election gave the Corbyn team a new focus: an “insurgent, take-on-the-elite populism.”

The party’s relative success in the election led to new problems, in particular the need to articulate a coherent policy on Brexit. Jones argues that the Corbyn leadership missed the chance to make clear it would not support a second referendum and present instead an alternate Brexit plan that would focus on workers’ rights and jobs. That didn’t happen: it’s easy to say these things in hindsight, but at the time the party as a whole was conflicted over whether to advocate a progressive leave strategy, or work to stay in the EU.

Jones points out that the Remain movement, which gathered steam through 2018, had the support of many in the membership who reacted to the xenophobia of Tory Brexit propaganda. But there were also bad actors within Labour who saw Brexit “as a convenient wedge issue, something to provoke a split between the Labour leadership and the largely pro-Remain Labour membership,” as he puts it – including hostile MPs and even more hostile political operatives like Peter Mandelson.

The compromises made at the 2018 party conference on the issue “catastrophically damaged” Corbyn, says Jones. Keir Starmer broke with party policy to advocate a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. But by attempting to bridge the sides in the cabinet, Corbyn, says Jones, “had spent the two and a half years since the election in a constant but erratic retreat from accepting the referendum result,” and by 2019 voters saw him as “weak, indecisive and a flipflopper.” Jones implicitly blames Corbyn’s indecision for the conflicts within his leadership team. But he doesn’t discuss the ideological confusion over Brexit on the left, some tending to submerge it under domestic economic issues, although he credits Seumas Milne with keeping Labour’s Brexit position “intentionally vague.”

Were the accusations of antisemitism in the Labour party all the responsibility of the leader? Or were there larger social forces at work? The support for Corbyn had channeled the mass antiwar movement of 2003 into the electoral system. This posed a challenge to the military and intelligence communities in the Anglo-Israeli-American alliance as well as the lucrative British arms industry with its links to both Labour and Tory politicians, both closely connected to the media. Corbyn’s foreign policy plans that would have ended the selling of arms to Saudi Arabia were a threat to these entrenched forces, and they worked assiduously to discredit him.

At first, as Jones points out, the onslaught against Corbyn centred on his lack of patriotism, then on his contacts with the IRA during the peace agreement negotiations, then on his initial decision to accept the results of the Brexit referendum. But the anti-semitism allegations were more difficult to defend against. They were taken up and amplified by Corbyn’s many political opponents in the establishment.

After Jones gives a sanitized version of the relations between Israel and Labour, he gives the impression that more effective political messaging would have dealt with the accusations. He criticizes Labour’s responses as being ad hoc, there was “no coherent strategy within the leader’s office on how to tackle claims of antisemitism,” he says. Corbyn’s public interventions “were often angry and defensive, centring on his lifelong opposition to racism.” After Margaret Hodge called Corbyn “a fucking antisemite” in the House of Commons, he was “shaken up;” when John McDonnell attempted to patch things up with Hodge, fearing a split in the PLP, Corbyn refused to speak with him and became detached from his staff. According to Karie Murphy, “he was paralysed. He was being asked to do things that in some way would confirm in people’s miinds that the reason he had to do those things was because he was antisemitic.”

Jones blames the “lack of both strategy and emotional intelligence” on the part of the leadership, which he thinks should from the start have “displayed an uncompromising opposition to antisemitism, and offered more vocal support for the Palestinian cause.” But Corbyn’s defensiveness “led him to disengage and shut down when antisemitism was discussed … Corbyn’s slow-motion collapse encapsulated that of the movement. The relationships within the leader’s office had started to crumble.” This begs the question of whether any form of strategic appeasement would have ended the assault from social forces hostile in the extreme to a socialist foreign policy. The fragmentation of the Corbyn leadership team reflected not just its unpreparedness, but the extent of the establishment’s opposition to a socialist agenda. If Corbyn appeared to be “broken” by the antisemitism claims, that demonstrated the extent of his isolation at a time when he was trying to hold the party together.

Jones constructs another narrative of leadership paralysis after Johnson took over the Tory party – it was “frozen in the headlights of Johnson’s victory.” When Tom Watson faced being sacked, “as usual, Corbyn, when faced with an impasse, had gone AWOL.” But Jones is an unreliable witness when he discusses the 2019 conference vote on a second referendum. Out of two competing resolutions, one advocated that the party remain neutral in the referendum, while the other mandated it to campaign for Remain. Delegates voted down the Remain motion, while according to Jones “during the whole process Corbyn himself had been withdrawn, almost invisible.” Jones was at the conference, as I was, so he knows that during this time the Supreme Court was adjudicating the legality of Johnson’s prorogation of parliament. Corbyn was working with MPs at Westminster to work out some kind of strategy. Before the vote on the referendum he intervened at the conference with a compelling speech arguing that the party should advocate for a neutral stance in any forthcoming referendum – which is why it was carried. He was hardly “invisible.”

Although Jones acknowledges that Corbyn was driven by a deep-rooted commitment to building a world free of exploitation and racism, he concludes that Corbyn’s aversion to conflict “rendered him chronically indecisive, and his leadership sometimes directionless and rudderless.” Corbyn was in an impossible position: “His stubbornness ensured his survival in the face of an unprecedented assault from every direction, but it also left him all too defensive and contributed to a bunker mentality some of his allies perpetuated.” Jones thinks it a tragedy for the left that McDonnell never assumed the leadership. But whether members would have voted for him, “whether there was something about Corbyn’s personality … that was key to his triumph” is untestable. But he leaves the question of what that “something” was unanswered.

Perhaps a better coda to Jones’ narrative is Craig Murray’s comments about the leaked report on rightwing factionalism within the Labour bureaucracy. He says it is hard to read the report without concluding that Corbyn lacked the requisite ruthlessness to deal with his enemies in the party. “But then, his not being a ruthless bastard is why so many people flocked to support Corbyn in the first place.”

Owen Jones, This Land: The Story of a Movement, Allen Lane/Penguin Random House, 2020

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Filed under Brexit, British elections, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, political analysis, Xenophobia

Can British Labour learn from Biden’s defeat of Trump?

Joe Biden’s clear victory in the US presidential election has prevented Donald Trump from doing what he threatened: using what journalist Patrick Cockburn calls the “Turkish playbook” to cling to power. This is, he explains, a “strategy employed by several populist national leaders across the world in recent years to stay in power by prematurely claiming a win at the polls, and then manipulating the final result in their favour through their control of state institutions, such as election supervisory boards and the courts.” The classic example is Erdogan in Turkey.

Anticipated violence at the polls never materialised: the electoral system quietly and efficiently dealt with a huge number of mail-in votes. But Trump leaves behind a legacy of a packed Supreme Court and appointees to the federal judiciary. To rebalance the courts would require a Democratic majority in the Senate, but the party leadership’s strategy of channeling resources to handpicked centrist candidates in the hope of winning over moderate Republicans (if they still exist) failed miserably. Novara Media pointed out: “As progressive Democrats were sidelined by the leadership, [Senate minority leader Chuck] Schumer threw millions of dollars into his appeasement slate. And by the time of the election on Tuesday, upwards of $350m had been spent on [failed] Senate races in South Carolina, Kentucky, Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Montana. Meanwhile, in West Virginia and Tennessee, where progressive Democrats claimed the nomination, candidates were comparatively starved of resources – $1.1m and $400,000 were spent respectively on the races of Paula Jean Swearingham and Marquita Bradshaw.”  

On the other hand, Sanders-inspired socialists in Congress like “The Squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – were reelected with significantly increased majorities. Two more socialist-backed candidates were added to their number: Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep.-elect Jamaal Bow­man in New York, and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep.-elect Cori Bush, the first ever Black Con­gress­woman in Missouri. 

So it’s laughable that centrists in the British Labour party like Wes Streeting could tweet “Definitely need to learn lessons from the Democrats. Particularly the part where they won,” crediting Biden’s centrism for the result. Streeting completely misunderstands US politics: Trump increased his vote share from white Americans while Biden benefited from the community organising of Latino, Black and Asian Americans who had been campaigning over the last four years against voter suppression and racial discrimination. In Georgia, campaigns to expand the electorate after Stacey Abrams’ narrow defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial election proved that increased nonwhite voter turnout could change the balance of power in the state irrespective of the white vote. In Arizona and Nevada, a decade of organising by Mexican-Americans against discrimination energised the Latino community. Rashida Tlaib mas­sive­ly increased vot­er turnout in Michigan from the 2016 election. And Biden’s majority in Pennsylvania, which clinched the presidency for him, was owed to campaigning by organisations such as Reclaim Philadelphia, a group focused on working-class issues founded in 2016 by local organisers.

Biden had to take on board policy positions from the Sanders campaign: notably his version of the Green New Deal, an increase in minimum wage, and an expansion of Obamacare (if not Medicare for All). After Bernie Sanders gave Biden his support, a de facto Democratic coalition extending from conservatives to the progressive left worked to overturn Trump’s presidency. 

Far from learning from the presidential election, the Labour party centrists have adopted the opposite strategy. Instead of uniting the party to fight Boris Johnson’s corrupt and incompetent government, they are doing their best to marginalise the Corbyn left. Community organising won Biden the presidency, but Labour’s plan is to shut down the party’s Community Organising Unit. Starmer is slavishly imitating the mistakes of the Democratic party establishment by pinning his electability on winning votes from disaffected Tories. He won the leadership by promising to continue the party’s 2017 and 2019 policies, but has broken his pledges at the first opportunity. After getting elected on the basis of a lie, Starmer is carrying out his own pale version of the Turkish playbook by using control of the party apparatus to purge any opposition.

Labour’s General Secretary David Evans has emailed all local party officials to warn them he will “not hesitate to take action” if members are allowed to discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension or the EHRC report at meetings. But the Starmer leadership has seriously misjudged the party membership. It expected to be able to unite the rightwing of the party with centrist neoliberals while intimidating the left with threats of lawfare. The middle of the road membership was supposed to stay inactive while this was going on, but instead has been outraged. While not necessarily supporting Corbyn politically, they identify with his ethical socialism because it forms the DNA of the party.

The result has been to polarise much of the party membership against the bureaucracy. This is significant because it brings to a head a simmering member discontent with arbitrary officialdom, especially over its role in the general elections, even if they approve Starmer’s politically inept approach to opposing the Johnson government.

Constituency parties are defying the General Secretary and party officials by passing resolutions condemning Corbyn’s suspension and taking to social media to publicise them. One of the first is South Thanet Labour Party which voted by an overwhelming majority to call for Corbyn to be reinstated. According to their Facebook page, chair Norman Thomas said he thought the vote reflected widespread anger among Labour Party members. He said: “Jeremy is not an antisemite, he is a man of utter integrity. I believe it’s a measure of how much the party establishment fears Jeremy that they have taken this incredible and outrageous decision.” 

Welsh Labour Grassroots, the Welsh equivalent of Momentum, said the suspension was an “unwarranted attack on those many thousands of Labour Party members who were and remain inspired by Jeremy’s socialist vision and principles, who now feel let down by the leadership’s action”. Blyth Valley CLP in the northeast formally expressed solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn – and demanded his immediate reinstatement. 

At the important London Regional Executive Committee, meeting over Zoom, delegates from Unite the Union attempted to share an emergency motion that called on the party leadership to restore the Labour whip to Corbyn. On their Facebook page, the London REC reported: “A clear majority of members voted to hear the motion but staff advised they could not be present during the debate as it was not ‘competent business’. The staff turned off their cameras and chose not to participate until the next item of business.” While the motion was debated, a party officer prevented the vote from going ahead by removing the chair as a co-host of the Zoom call, disabling his control of the voting functions. The report calls this “clear interference from staff who should be neutral in the democratic decision-making of the Labour Party.”

Momentum national coordinating representative Mick Moore declared after the meeting: “The Labour leadership and their allies in the party are embarking on an authoritarian, factional crackdown. First they told members they couldn’t meet over lockdown, then they tried to ban motions on the suspension of a former leader, and now they are preventing members from exercising their democratic rights – party unity is being systematically undermined by a culture of control-freakery and forced silence.”

Hilary Wainwright writes eloquently in the Guardian that, “contrary to the mainstream perspective, the Corbyn period was not ‘an aberration’, but a period of renewal and growth that now needs to be built on and expanded, not destroyed, in order to unite to bring down this cruel, incompetent and now divided government. In the interests of free expression, party unity and party renewal, his voice and that of his supporters must be part of the debate and his membership reinstated.”

UPDATE: Keir Starmer has jumped on Biden’s bandwagon, suggesting that the Democrats won with a “broad coalition, including many of the states and communities that four years ago turned away from them.” Starmer is trying to make an analogy with the “red wall” voters Labour lost in the last election; but he conveniently ignores that the grassroots organising in key states that won the election for Biden did not succeed in convincing Republican voters to abandon Trump, but instead extended the nonwhite Democratic electorate in key states. Labour also needs community organising to rebuild its base, but how can the party do this when it is losing members at a great rate?

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