Category Archives: Brexit

Labour’s Corporate Makeover – Part Two


Labour’s Election Review tells us that defeat in the 2019 election was a result both of the Tories being able to mobilise their base and Labour failing to reproduce their success of 2017. But it goes on to point to the long-term decline in the Labour vote over decades. It says: “Labour lost millions of voters before it lost office in 2010 partly as a result of political alienation from politics more generally, and from the Labour Party particularly, including perceptions that there was little difference between the parties and the prominence of new cultural divides.”

The report is referring to the decline from 13.5 million in 1997, to 10.7 million in 2001 and 8.6 million in 2010 under the leadership of Blair and Brown. The Labour vote recovered slightly to 9.35 million in 2015, and in 2019 it was 10.3 million. The exceptional year was 2017 when Labour won 12.9 million votes. The report is misleading, then, by comparing the 2019 vote with 2017 rather than 2015 and calling it an “historic low point in Labour’s electoral success.” The question really is why Labour won 3 million more votes in 2017, when 2019 simply reproduced the long-term trend.

Grace Blakeley explains in Tribune that, since 1997, “working-class voters have dropped out of the electorate – the natural result of a New Labour electoral strategy based on the idea that working-class voters had nowhere else to go. Brexit was the issue that finally encouraged many of these voters to re-engage with electoral politics. Many previous non-voters turned out to vote Leave and some of those same voters turned out again to support Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. But in 2019, they were disproportionately likely to vote for the Conservatives.”  The referendum was the catalyst for an anti-establishment politics that supported Labour when it was seen as the anti-establishment party, and voted for Johnson when he successfully portrayed Theresa May and Labour as part of the parliamentary establishment frustrating Brexit.

The report accounts for the drop in the 2019 vote by referring to a cultural divide. It characterises ex-Labour voters as more “socially conservative” compared with Labour support in the major cities. But a revealing 2017 study of a group of voters who switched from Labour to the SNP in Scotland found it was motivated by highly political considerations, especially hostility to New Labour. It was “scathing in its assessment of the Labour Party: from being a ‘shambles,’ to ‘totally duplicitous’; a ‘shower of career politicians,’ who ‘have lost their way’ and no longer represent the ‘working class’. The reasons for this palpable sense of hostility towards the Party were varied: unsurprisingly, some referred to the Blair era and the feeling that the Party had lost touch, with the specific issue of Iraq being mentioned, while others raised the issue of the independence campaign and its fallout.”

If voters’ feelings about Corbyn had remained at the 2017 level, the report estimates that Labour’s vote share would have been over 38 percent, six points higher. But by 2019 Corbyn’s reputation had been shattered by the continuous drumbeat of antisemitism accusations from a hostile cabal within the party apparatus and from Labour MPs, readily amplified by the media, and the party’s ratings began to decline. The individual policies of the manifesto were and remain popular, but were overshadowed by the party’s compromised position on Brexit. The single most unpopular policy was the second referendum, precisely the one pushed by Starmer before the election.

The report does little more than divide the electorate into marketing categories, such as “Young Insta-Progressives” versus “The Older Disillusioned.” But it found that when people from different groups were brought together, there was a space for understanding and compromise. So-called “Urban remainers” listened to the concerns of leave voters, particularly in the context of a desire for Labour to rebuild its coalition. “For the ‘town leavers’ there was an acknowledgement about the benefits of immigration, and their demands were not as far reaching as some in Labour may worry about – their key concern being that there should be fair rules.” 

A positive finding was that “a new economic settlement to change lives and communities must be the centre-piece of Labour’s political strategy.” In particular, there was a conviction that the whole system of housing needed fundamental change: “far greater access to social housing, action on private rents and landlords, and, strongly amongst town dwellers, a sense that Right to Buy should be halted until more houses were available. Restoring a sense of pride in local high streets or towns also featured strongly … There is also real potential for Labour to tell a clear story about the possibilities of new, decent jobs from green and technological developments.”

Despite these political possibilities, they were not acted on in 2019. The report blames “strategic and operational dysfunction, resulting in a toxic culture and limiting our ability to work effectively.” But then it adds piously: “Responsibility for this rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement.” Keir Starmer has revealed the true content of this “factionalism has to go” approach. By avoiding placing the blame for the electoral campaign’s strategic dysfunction, it enables the Labour leadership to evade dealing with the hyper-factionalism in the party’s central office and the anti-Corbyn factionalism in the PLP. It was the anti-Corbyn faction that was responsible for the “staggering incompetence” and “vicious sectarianism” exposed by the report on the party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism. By making it nobody’s fault, the report enables the rightwing to blame it all on the Corbyn leadership and justify Starmer’s elimination of the Corbyn left from the Labour front bench.

Starmer is following the trajectory of Kinnock in establishing himself as a “strong leader” who can trounce the left. But it took Kinnock several years to finally isolate the Bennite left and then turn against the miners in their strike. It’s taken Starmer only months to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey and hang the teachers’ union out to dry, emboldening the right in the party. Already the Labour front bench are backtracking on the 2019 environment decisions, and the conference decision on Kashmir.

The report’s recommendations are purely organisational. The membership is to be bypassed in policy formation with new public “consultations,” which might be better called market research. “Reform our Party policy-making process at all levels, to ensure that it is connected to our communities,” the report says. The new form of policy-making should involve the public through “methods such as People’s Panels, Citizens’ Juries, and Citizens’ Assemblies and other methods involving the voices and experiences of people across our movement, alongside the public … resulting in policies that are co-produced with the public, supporting our political strategy.” [page 145] This plan for co-production of policies bypasses the party annual conference and the democratic expression of the membership’s views, while decisions on the party’s political strategy are centralized in the leader’s office.

Right now, CLPs are unable to meet to discuss any of these proposals. But when they do, will they accept this downgrading of the party conference? And the party front bench’s response to “big emerging questions” like Black Lives Matter or defunding the police is particularly flat-footed. In the midst of the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, Labour should be at the head of these movements of disaffection, not scrambling to shore up the system.

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Filed under 2019 general election, anti-semitism, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, British elections, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, labour mp's, Labour Party, political analysis

Book Review: “The Fall and Rise of the British Left”, by Andrew Murray


murray

Andrew Murray was one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers and an influential Labour party strategist in the 2017 election campaign. Now chief of staff at the Unite union, he chaired the Stop the War Coalition for 11 years. His book is especially interesting, although written before the 2019 election, because it gives an insight into the ideological weaknesses of the Corbyn leadership. While successfully consolidating a movement in the Labour party membership, Corbyn’s ethical socialism proved inadequate on its own to overcome the opposition of most of the party’s MPs and the poisonous legacy of New Labour.

The novelty of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, says Murray, was the joining of spontaneous mass movements with trade union dissent in the Labour party. It “was a junction uniting a track leading from the New Left movements of the twenty-first century with one leading from the historic vehicle for working-class politics, a Labour party which … still rests in some measure on the mass organisations of the working class.” [154] The nostalgic references to mass organisations in his account omits the shift in the attitude of mainstream Labour members who rejected New Labour and were instrumental in placing an anti-austerity candidate on the ballot of the leadership election.

He must be regretting writing this Panglossian account of the 2017 media campaign: “The new media interventions of Momentum, sharing powerful videos; the new commentators emerging at Novara Media, at the Canary and other websites; the direct peer-to-peer message sharing; the get-to the polls apps; the Snapchat wraps – these turned out to be the media story of the campaign and, with a few variations, will be the story of elections to come too. The left leads the Tories by a mile at the keyboard as well as on the kerbside.” [189]

Murray attributes Corbyn’s support among the Labour party’s membership to his appearance on the platform of the huge demonstration against the Iraq war in 2003, drawing a straight line from the protest movements of that decade to the 2015 leadership election. He makes the claim that the correctness of the Stop the War Coalition’s position “underpins the anti-war movement’s political hegemony on international questions within the Labour Party and the left more generally today. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the expression of the advance of anti-imperialist policies.” [94]

Murray’s conception of anti-imperialist policies is the key to the weakness in his outlook. He is not wrong in his evaluation of the anti-war movement’s influence on the left, since it is really a continuation of the long anti-colonial tradition of the labour movement. What the left should take from the socialist and communist organisations of the past, he says, is “an internationalism which celebrates and supports the struggles of people all over the world against imperialism.” [164] And he even has a good word to say about Leninism: “It remains a stubborn fact that many of the successful challenges to imperialism in the twentieth century and all of the successful breaches with capitalism were led by organisations laying claim to Leninism.” [163] His romantic characterization of anti-imperialist struggle and Leninism has long been overtaken by events, however: successful challenges to imperialist rule, like those of Vietnam, Russia, or Algeria, for example, have been coopted into a global economic system and their leadership appropriated by neoliberals.

He implicitly assumes a Eurocentric conception of imperialism as a “centre/periphery” phenomenon. Its conclusion is the necessity of supporting anti-imperialist movements in the global South, and opposing racism at home. While this is an important position to take, it also contains a blind spot: it internalizes a metropolitan exceptionalism that supposes somehow the experiences of other countries do not apply to British parliamentary democracy. This is what lay behind the party’s indifference to the danger from the right in the 2019 election, its underestimation of Boris Johnson’s national-populist appeal that imitated the successes of Trump, Modi and Erdogan by campaigning on out-and-out lies.

Murray misunderstood the potency of Brexit in consolidating a rightwing nationalism, dismissing it as part of a culture war that diverts from the real issues. In Britain, he writes, polarization on the basis of identity politics “is expressed around the Brexit issue, leading to the collapse of all social contradictions into the singular black hole of Britain’s economic-political relations with the European Union…. the country’s membership of the EU makes relatively little difference to the reality of most people’s lives in the round. Capitalism is the problem, not whether the decisive location of its administration is London and the nation state or Brussels and the apparatuses of globalized market coercion.” [214-5] Despite this perspective, Labour’s attempt to focus on economic issues failed in face of the Brexit polarization of the electorate in 2019.

Four months before the election, journalist Patrick Cockburn presciently criticized the politicians who compared Johnson’s prerogation of parliament to Charles I’s attempt to impose arbitrary rule in the seventeenth century. In reality, “Britain is experiencing a slow-moving coup d’etat in which a right-wing government progressively closes down or marginalises effective opposition to its rule. … What we are seeing has nothing to do with the British past but 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. … This is one of the strengths of the Johnson coup: many people cannot believe that it has happened.” While the Brighton Labour party conference applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling against the government, there was little appreciation of the danger Johnson posed.

From Murray’s book it is possible to see that the party’s main strategic error was to attempt to replicate Labour’s relative success in the 2017 general election and the tactics of Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign: to counter the insistent Tory drumbeat of “get Brexit done” a confusing plethora of alternative policies were hastily rolled out. This had the effect of increasing confusion about what Labour stood for, and its compromise Brexit policy was simply not convincing. A second referendum was perceived as an attempt to reverse the original 2016 vote, and in the event Labour and its leadership were simply not prepared for the onslaught of misinformation and media partisanship they faced. Far from commanding social media, Labour was swamped by billionaire-funded Facebook propaganda targeted at its vulnerable seats in the north and midlands.

As Cockburn pointed out: “Opponents of the suspension of the parliament have a touching faith that the present government will stick by the historic rules of the political game when everything it has done so far shows a determination to manipulate and misuse these rules to gain and keep political power. … Those in the Labour Party who were neutral about Brexit – or even saw it as a welcome disruption of the status quo and an opportunity for radical reform – only now seem to be noticing that Brexit was always a vehicle whereby the hard right could take over the government.” A more realistic account of the history of the British left is needed that combines the lessons of its fall and rise with a better appreciation of its weaknesses.

Andrew Murray, The Fall and Rise of the British Left, London: Verso 2019

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The lesson of European parliamentary elections: Tax the rich!


mason

The prominent left journalist Paul Mason has rightly been taken to task for his unprincipled attack on senior members of the Labour leadership after the party’s disappointing results in the European parliamentary elections.

But the content of his article deserves a more detailed analysis. He makes the panicky claim that “We have to begin from the facts: the struggle against rightwing authoritarianism and fascism is now the main priority.” Of course, it’s important to struggle against rightwing authoritarianism. But the only facts he references are the large vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. He conveniently forgets the utter humiliation of the extreme rightwing Islamophobe “Tommy Robinson” in the Northwest, who slunk off from the count rather than face the tiny vote for him in this working-class stronghold.

Prof. John Curtice assesses the vote as showing the country is equally divided for and against Brexit – so nothing much has changed materially since the referendum in 2016. What has changed is the complete disintegration of the Tory party’s vote: Farage was able to hoover up its disaffected voters as well as those of the dying UKIP he abandoned. The election result is not evidence of a sudden rise in xenophobia: the bulk of the Brexit party’s voters are the same people who always voted for the right.

It got support in Labour heartlands because the statements of a number of Labour MPs gave the impression that the referendum vote would be overturned, allowing Farage to present himself as defending a democratic decision. As Skwawkbox commented: “To working-class leave voters who voted leave because they were sick to death of feeling ignored and discounted – and who feel even more ignored and discounted by media and politicians looking to prevent the enactment of their vote – that message resonated.”

Labour also lost voters to the Liberal Democrats because they took a clear anti-Brexit position. However, it is not clear they would stick with the LibDems in a general election, given their association with the Tory coalition government. Their call for a second referendum obfuscates the fact that the social conditions that motivated people to vote Leave have not just persisted, they have gotten worse.

Theresa May’s tearful resignation as Tory leader marks the collapse of her party’s hegemony in the UK. Her indifference to her own dismal record is not a personal characteristic, but is shared by her entire party. Although the proximate cause is the failure of the government’s Brexit negotiations to arrive at a deal that both factions of the party could agree on, the roots of the crisis go back to the 2008 banking crash.

Austerity after 2010 began to dismantle the core of the welfare state that was the foundation of parliamentary legitimacy and national identity. Oblivious to the social effects of austerity policies, Cameron called the referendum when parts of the UK were already profoundly alienated from Westminster representation.

The referendum unleashed social forces that turned a Tory political project into a constitutional crisis. Cameron originally called it to counter the electoral threat from the anti-EU party UKIP, which was attracting support from the ultra-right of the Tories and its voters who were blaming immigration for welfare cuts. The narrow victory of the Leave vote, however, transformed his attempt to deflect the political cost of austerity into a crisis of governmental legitimacy, and Cameron immediately resigned. The vote cut across party lines, superseded the constitutional sovereignty of parliament, and threw its authority into disarray. The majority for Brexit was thus a signal of the disintegration of consensus, not an aberration or the result of a rise in racism.

Mason has imperiously written off Brexit voters as supporting a project of the “racist and xenophobic right.” But the referendum Leave vote gathered those who were signalling disaffection with the Westminster elite that had devastated their communities. The rhetoric of national sovereignty and “taking back control” had a resonance for many working-class voters who wanted a restoration of the 1950s economy and welfare state, symbolized by the Leave campaign’s cynical slogan of returning £350 million per week from the EU to the NHS.

Mason’s prescription for winning back “socially conservative” voters from ex-industrial towns is “to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism. It needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” Essentially he holds that the antidote to pro-Brexit views is to return to the failed politics of New Labour, forgetting that New Labour’s record in these ex-industrial towns is as tarnished as the Tories’, since both encouraged the financialisation of the economy that drained resources away from these areas to the Southeast.

What was Corbyn’s mistake? In Mason’s opinion, it was “an attempt at triangulation between two wings of Corbynism: between the demands of an economic nationalist current from the old left, and the internationalist and progressive politics embedded in Labour’s new urban heartlands.” He is attempting to pit the sources of Corbynism against each other, as though nothing new was created out of the fusion of anti-austerity protesters with the legacy of Bennism that led to Corbyn’s election as party leader. One of the fruits of this fusion was the successful 2017 election manifesto. Since then Corbynism has developed creative policies that address how to deal with the power of transnational capital.

It is true that Labour’s position of uniting both leavers and remainers on the grounds of their shared experience of austerity is hard to explain on the doorstep, in the context of a political discourse that drowns out everything but Brexit. In the next general election, a simpler position needs to be developed that places the blame for the realities facing both sections of society more squarely on those responsible. I’m going to suggest: “Tax the rich!” In order to restore and rebuild communities in Britain, the economic elite must be made to pay back the social resources they have leached out of privatization of necessities and fraudulent contracts.

The way to win the war against the right is to campaign on the message: “Rebuild our towns! Rebuild the NHS! Tax the rich!”

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Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part Two


Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part Two: Socialists must “hold the centre”

The authors accuse Corbyn of ignoring the “messiness” of real politics, “the calculated compromises necessary to achieve something concrete in a contradictory world,” in favour of an abstract morality manifested in a history of protests. However, as party leader, Corbyn has had to engage in many calculated compromises, such as holding a free vote on military intervention in Syria to appease shadow cabinet ministers, for example, and has had to navigate a difficult political terrain when aiming to unify Brexit-supporting and remaining constituencies. He has succeeded in holding together different wings of the party with moderate but practical policies that aim to reverse some of the most egregious aspects of privatization and welfare austerity. When he advocates more radical political alternatives aimed at encouraging popular democracy and involvement, he prefers practical examples like Preston and the “people’s Uber” pioneered in Barcelona over ideological purity.

Corbyn’s strength lies in his ability to communicate his ethical socialist beliefs to the public in a way that connects them with the political fight against austerity. The inclusivity of his message enables him to make a human connection with crowds at rallies and events. He does not perform well in parliament, on the other hand, since its procedures rely on making facile debating points rather than engaging with substance, a form of discourse modelled on institutions of ruling class privilege like Oxford, Cambridge, and the independent public schools. His political room for manoeuvre in parliament is limited by the hostility of many centrist Labour MPs, and even if a Labour government were to be elected in the near future, many of them would probably keep their seats. But this does not make him a prisoner of the parliamentary party. For him, the cabinet’s collective responsibility means fighting for policies decided by party conference, although his opponents had no compunction about resigning from the shadow cabinet.

As party leader, he can leverage his support from the membership in a way that previous left leaders like Bevan and Benn could not. At the same time, Labour MPs all believe in a certain amount of redistribution of wealth to alleviate social problems, and that creates a political space for Corbyn to keep the PLP together, since British capitalism now subsists on extraction of rents (in the broad sense) from the population through privatised industries and the financial sector. So, while the reforms proposed in Labour’s 2017 manifesto may be modest, the threat of halting or even reversing this flow of wealth to the rich alarms the establishment, even more than Corbyn’s foreign policy which would end the enrichment of the arms industry from dictatorships throughout the world, especially Saudi Arabia.

Bolton and Pitts’ pessimistic prognosis is that socialists must “hold the centre” to resist the advance of fascism and national populism. Only through the “structures of formal democracy” can the labour movement carry out its traditional activities. What is missing from their entire analysis is any sense of labour as a combative force in struggle with capital and its representatives, a movement that fought and fights for democratic rights even when outlawed by the state. In the 2017 election campaign Corbyn was able to shift the centre ground of politics to the left, something the authors perversely attribute to the Brexit vote, and his radical democratic instincts impel him to turn the party away from the arcane procedures of parliament towards local communities from which, he says, all progress originates. The authors concede none of this: for them, the “abstract, intangible forms of capital” remove all agency from socialists, since fighting to make the super-rich pay their taxes would illegitimately persecute those who are only the personalizations of money, capital and commodities. Demands for accountability for those who made the decision to cut costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment so drastically that they made it a death trap would not be acceptable to them. Socialists can only be spectators of “the fateful objectification of human activity in a reality that increasingly enslaves us.” This is their “Marxist” justification for accepting the neoliberal argument that there is no alternative to accepting the domination of the financial markets.

Labour’s immediate challenge is to establish itself as a clear alternative to both a Tory Brexit and the disenfranchising of neglected communities, navigating divisive political pressures exerted on the leadership by the media and sections of the parliamentary party. This depends on the politically empowered and knowledgeable party membership being able to develop policy through their connections to social movements. As Corbyn told a rallyin 2019, “What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future.” This prospect is deeply disturbing to most of the PLP, who want to preserve the division between the political arena and extra-parliamentary struggle that facilitates their domination of the party. It also frightens the ruling establishment, for whom any tactic is justified to prevent the election of a government that might reverse the transfer of wealth and power to the rich.

How could Corbyn achieve his platform in the face of such opposition from the establishment? The plain fact is that the dominant class has little inherent strength and depends on its control of the state and the grip of ideology to sustain its rule. Corbyn challenges this ideology by asserting the imperative of community solidarity, of inclusion rather than the division of Brexit and racism. Above all, he is able to channel popular dissent in a way that enables it to express itself in a creative struggle for policies of social change. This undermines the ruling elite’s historical strategy of using the elective legitimacy of parliament to contain and manage pressure from below, while strictly limiting popular influence on the actual conduct of government. Whatever limitations Corbyn may have as a politician, what is important is the fact that he has broken through the exclusion of the party membership from decision-making and released their energies in order to transform the relation of the party to the public and to the state.

Under a Tory government British society faces deepening austerity and a sharp growth in absolute poverty with its imposition of Universal Credit on benefit recipients, which can only be made worse by Brexit. The crisis it has induced threatens to break up the imperial British state, which has always depended on external advantage for its internal stability. However, social radicalisation has found an outlet and focus in a social democratic party that, for historical reasons, has provided the only practical conduit of organised political opposition to an austerity state. Rather than Bolton and Pitts’ faith in the institutions of “internationalist liberalism” to resolve the contradictions of a globalized economy, a Corbyn-led Labour government would be an inspiration for anti-austerity movements across Europe and the US, acting as an antidote to the rise of rightwing populist parties. Corbyn’s outreach to socialist tendencies battling the existing conservative leaderships of left parties and conservative Democrats in the US lays the foundation for democratizing international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU itself.

The strengthening of a mass social movement in close connection with a Labour party transformed by its roots in the localities offers the possibility of undoing the effects of years of neoliberal governments. The party at the constituency level is becoming increasingly open to the concept of empowering ordinary citizens so they can restore the social values of equality, public service, and cooperative effort for the common good. This is the socialism Corbyn aspires towards.

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Emerald Publishing, Bingley, 2018

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Labour defectors and Watson challenge Corbyn’s leadership


On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this Sunday, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, threw down a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He described the defection of nine Labour MPs as a “crisis for the soul of the party” that requires the shadow cabinet to adopt social democratic policies as “the only way to keep the Labour party united.” He himself was prepared to convene a group of MPs that believe in the “social democratic tradition” so that their ideas could be given greater weight in the parliamentary party. Watson repeated the defectors’ rhetoric of “bullying” and “intolerance” to describe attempts by party members to hold MPs accountable for their votes in parliament and statements to the press.

In reality, Watson is advocating a resuscitation of the failed politics of New Labour, not a return to the social democratic tradition of the membership. New Labour broke from this tradition in many ways, including its pro-business and anti-union stance, making benefits conditional on US-style “workfare”, and introducing market relations into social welfare provision. Its limited increases in spending on welfare were perfectly compatible with its “light touch” avoidance of regulation of financial markets that ended in the banking crash of 2008.

Watson and the defectors’ blanket accusations of “antisemitism” are intended to shut down rank and file criticism of the MPs’ differences with Corbyn: their reluctance to raise taxes on the rich, their support for neoliberal austerity policies and opposition to re-nationalisation of public utilities. The “independent” group’s policy platform, such as it is, hankers for the days of the Blairite ascendancy, reviving the “third way” argument of encouraging business so as to fund social welfare. They know there is no political future for this platform, so will continue to occupy the seats in parliament won for them by the efforts of Labour members campaigning on the manifesto produced by the party leadership.

The not entirely unexpected defection of Ian Austin MP makes it clear that the earlier resignations were not primarily about Labour’s Brexit policy. Austin is aggressively pro-Brexit and voted with the Tory government for Theresa May’s deal, while the other eight MPs demand a second referendum to overturn the result of the first one. Austin’s professed reasons for leaving mirror those of the other quitters with his denunciation of a “culture of extremism, antisemitism and intolerance.” But why should party members tolerate behaviour like Austin’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn when the Chilcot report on the run-up to the Iraq war was being discussed in parliament? In very unparliamentary language he told the leader of his own party to “sit down and shut up” and shouted “you’re a disgrace” as Corbyn criticised the Iraq war.

The defecting MPs are especially hostile to Corbyn because his election as party leader has enhanced the influence and assertiveness of the party rank and file, which has brought them into conflict with the privileges of the parliamentary party. This is why the defectors describe the party as “broken.” What truly unites them is their belief in their right to debate how the country should be run while ignoring the opinions and needs of their own members and constituents.

Even the organizational methods of the group reflect corporate financial techniques – incorporating themselves as a company rather than as a political party, which means they do not have to disclose their funders. The “shared values” that the group claims to possess appear to be those of a sense of entitlement to ignore the views of the electorate. They all claim to be working in the “national interest” – that is, the interests of the bankers, landlords, and offshore industrialists who make up the establishment – and cynically demand “leadership” from Jeremy Corbyn. HIs strategy of respecting the referendum result while exposing Theresa May’s dependence on the Tory ultra-right is not regarded by the splinter group as leadership, even though his demand that May should take a no-deal Brexit off the table would have circumscribed her manoeuvring. They want a demagogue who would denounce the referendum and align the Labour party with Tory remainers who represent the affluent beneficiaries of a global economy. Doing so, however, would only strengthen the appeal of the extreme Tommy Robinson right. Labour needs to speak for leavers as well as remainers, making itself a party of all the dispossessed.

Corbyn fired back at the quitters at a rally in former Tory Anna Soubry’s constituency of Broxtowe. He restated the party’s policies such as raising corporation tax to fund free education, and to use the power of government purchasing to end the gender pay gap. “I’m disappointed that a small number of Labour MPs have decided to leave our party and join forces with disaffected Tories, who say they have no problem with austerity that has plunged thousands into desperate poverty and insecurity,” he said. The party’s 2017 manifesto promised an end to austerity, it offered “hope, instead of the same old establishment demand for cuts, privatisation and austerity. That’s why we now back public ownership of the utilities and railways, why we now oppose tuition fees and corporate giveaways, and why we’re no longer afraid to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax.”

“What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future,” he told the rally. He had reached out to fellow socialist parties in Europe at their conference in Madrid to outline plans for cooperation after Brexit, and explained to them how anger in left-behind communities was behind the referendum result. “What’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Britain is exactly the same as what’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Germany, France, Spain, and many other countries across Europe,” he said. “The real problem is an economic system that discards industrial workers and allows whole communities to collapse and die and good jobs to be replaced by employers like Sports Direct.”

He warned about the growth of the far right across Europe when populist politicians would blame the nearest group of migrant workers for factory closures instead of the multinational companies who moved industries to the next low-wage economy, and called for closer relations with people in Europe. Climate change is a class issue, he said, and he backed the schoolchildren who had organized to protest climate change, adding that green energy would create jobs and protect the environment.

Unlike Watson, who was only concerned with the opinions of other MPs, Corbyn addressed the issues of homelessness, poverty and growing hospital waiting lists in his speech. His calm and successful leadership of the Labour party must be supported against the frantic efforts of the right wing and the corporate media to railroad through a desperate capitulation to Theresa May’s dogmatic plans.

UPDATE: The left-wing blog Counterfire responded to Watson’s challenge by calling for the party leadership to ditch Labour’s “broad church” model and recast the Corbyn project as a “left reformist socialist party. … A clear declaration that Labour wants to build a new socialist party would enthuse hundreds of thousands of activists, recapture the dynamism of the early Corbyn leadership campaigns, re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class, and open up the path to election victory.”

What a left reformist socialist party would mean in practice is unclear, but ditching the party’s centrists and making a declaration of socialism from above, so to speak, is not going to solve Labour’s problems and will not necessarily re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class. What is needed most of all is for Labour to strengthen its connections with the resistance to austerity in the communities and give it political expression. Moreover, the author’s contention that Corbynism is in danger of being killed off if the present regime continues assumes the right has much more power than it does. Counterfire is arguing from the particular standpoint of left activists rather than examining the actual movements of public opinion.

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No “People’s Vote” – fight for a general election now!


The British viewing public on Wednesday evening was treated to the sight of Tory prime minister Theresa May calling on other politicians to find a solution to the problems of her disastrous Brexit plan for the sake of the national interest. What she really meant was for the sake of the irretrievably fragmented Tory party. She appeared oblivious to the devastating parliamentary rejection of her plan the day before, which has further deepened the crisis of the British political class. Among this class are centrist Labour MPs calling for another referendum, or “People’s Vote,” which they hope would reverse the decision of the first one.

These Labour MPs ignore the fact that a new referendum could only be called by the Tory government, which would control the questions to be asked and would not include Labour’s position of a customs union and the preservation of workers’ and consumers’ rights. In addition, such a referendum would take at least seven months to organize, while European parliament elections are to be held in May. Since it would have no representation in the parliament, Britain is effectively out of the European Union already.

Gary Younge commented: “May has spent her premiership not trying to unite the country but her party. She has failed, but her party appreciates the effort. It wasn’t Westminster who backed her [in the no-confidence vote] on Wednesday but the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, who were paid £1bn for their trouble. Last month a third of Tory MPs said they would rather have another party leader. But having failed in that bid, they would rather have May than Corbyn as leader of their country. So more than 100 Tories voted first to get rid of her, and then to keep her.”

The government is caught in a constitutional conundrum. While a majority of MPs would prefer to remain in the European Union, parliamentary sovereignty was superseded by the electorate’s participation in the referendum. As Chris Bickerton of Cambridge University pointed out, MPs have repeatedly voted to implement its result. “For the House of Commons to endorse a second referendum, it would have to repeal past Brexit legislation in a manner that flouts the position adopted by the main parties in the last general election. Were this to happen, it would tear up established relations between executive and legislature, pitting popular and parliamentary sovereignty against one another. Parliament would in effect be seeking, in a Brechtian fashion, to dissolve ‘the people’ and put another in place that will vote differently in a second referendum.”

May’s negotiations with Brussels have been protracted because of her “red lines” – her insistence on ending freedom of movement, leaving the customs union and single market to pursue an independent trade policy, and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  Her dogged insistence on these conditions stem from her need to balance between the Tory party’s ultra-right leavers and centrist remainers. Her fixed strategy is to run out the clock in order to force acceptance of her deal as the only alternative to the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. Moreover, the inflexibility and arrogance of her negotiating stance has alienated any possible allies within Europe. Tom Kibasi, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, remarked after it emerged she had misled business groups about her withdrawal agreement: “It was as if May sincerely believes that she alone is the arbiter of the national interest and that it should be self-evident that she is right.”

Only a change of government would be a sufficient cause for the EU to renegotiate a deal, which would make it possible to ditch Theresa May’s red lines. According to the Independent, the EU would reopen talks if the red lines were dropped. “Speaking the morning after MPs rejected the prime minister’s deal, Michel Barnier said that the European Council ‘unanimously’ agreed and had ‘always said that if the UK chooses to shift its red lines in the future, and if it makes that choice to be more ambitious and to go beyond a simple free trade agreement, then the EU will be immediately ready to go hand in hand with that development and give a favourable response’.” But there could be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the “backstop” hated by the DUP and the Tory ultra-right.

In a supreme historical irony, the Northern Ireland border has become a major stumbling block to any agreement. Partition was enforced in 1921 by the British imperial state to enable the protestant Unionists to stay dominant in the north, where they are a majority. Now the prospect of a hard border in Ireland is being vetoed by the independent Irish state, backed by the EU, while the DUP are implacably opposed to a border in the Irish Sea since it would mean Northern Ireland being treated differently from the UK.

The referendum itself exposed the erosion of parliamentary legitimacy in Britain. Many voters wanted to return to the more stable social-democratic society of the 1950s. For example, Burnley leisure worker Hazel Allen, explained to the Guardian that she voted Leave to protect the NHS, after the town’s A&E unit was closed with no plans to reopen it.  “I have not changed my mind and I don’t want another vote,” she said. “I am deeply disappointed with the government. They could have worked together to achieve what the people wanted, could have been stronger. What we have seen is just weakness and fighting. We voted for something but it doesn’t feel like we’re going to get it. What is the point?” In Glasgow, Lorne Bourhill said that she is against a second vote. “I didn’t want to leave the EU, but people have made their choice. The government should get on with it and find a deal that has enough support. How can I tell my children to vote in a general election if they see decisions being overturned like that?”

The Guardian’s deputy opinion editor, Joseph Harker, wrote a comment piece that was in marked contrast to the paper’s editorial line: “There’s been little attempt to acknowledge the widespread poverty, deprivation, insecurity and marginalisation of so many towns and cities that led them to seek such a drastic solution [as Brexit] to their problems. … I was born and raised in Hull, a medium-sized, solidly working-class city in east Yorkshire. I remember the Thatcher recession of the 1980s, and the hit the city took, along with the collapse of its fishing industry. I also remember feeling incredulous when the media, over the following years, reported the economic boom: the yuppies, the ‘big bang’ in the City of London, the ‘share-owning democracy’. None of that was felt anywhere near us.

“And little has changed. The only two regions of the UK that have recovered after the 2008 crash are London and the south-east. So, during the referendum campaign, to raise the economy as a reason for staying in Europe was always likely to fall on deaf ears – and it did. Yet since 2016, remarkably, most remainers seem to feel that if they keep repeating this message, somehow people will change their minds. It won’t work. … Certainly, few of them are likely to be persuaded by the leading voices in the people’s vote campaign – almost all wealthy and middle class, and most of them southerners. … ‘Why won’t Labour’s leader help us and make all this nightmare end?’ they say. It is of little importance to them that Labour, as a national political party, has to listen to the voices of its northern voters; nor that Corbyn has, so far, played a tactically astute game.

“They forget that in the general election of 2017, less than two years after becoming leader, he gained 3.5 million extra Labour votes (and 1.5 million more than David Cameron had for his majority government in 2015). Corbyn did this backing a soft Brexit. And he did this when there was a clear remain option on the ballot paper – in the form of the Lib Dems, whose vote bombed. Much as the Labour membership is clearly pro-EU, Corbyn’s stance helped Labour in large parts of the country beyond the south-east – it held on to all three seats in Hull, a city that voted 68% leave. He correctly judged that, above all, people wanted to be listened to, and for the misery of austerity to end.”

For Labour to win a general election, it needs the support of voters in swing northern constituencies like Hull as well as its voters in the cities. Corbyn’s strategy is to unite leavers and remainers by focusing on the social problems facing all of them. He told an audience today in Hastings: “While Brexit consumes all the government’s energy, the vital issues that affect people most directly – cash-starved schools, the NHS at breaking point, rising bills, unaffordable housing – have all gone to the back of the queue. Two and a half years of Brexit bungling and failure have left parliament in deadlock. Nothing can be decided. Nothing can get done. We believe that the best outcome for the country remains a general election to break the deadlock and find a solution that works for the whole country.”

The centrist Labour MPs’ call for a second vote should be ignored in favour of Corbyn’s strategy of fighting for a general election to elect a Labour government. There is no point in remaining in the EU if it means keeping a Tory government in power.

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The “Many” Shake Off Their Chains to Defy Britain’s Parliamentary Elites


The stunning result of the British elections last week heralds a sea-change in the country’s politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energized a new layer of younger voters to enter into the political process, pushing up Labour’s vote to 40 percent of a greatly increased participation rate and winning 30 seats away from the Tories. He was visibly transformed in the course of his 90 election rallies, becoming more and more assured in his delivery as the response to his message snowballed.

Conventional political wisdom, expounded by the Labour rightwing and the media, had expected May to win with a 100-seat majority. The result showed that this narrative was completely disconnected from the social changes that had propelled youth and students into the election – the damning impact of the Brexit referendum and 10 years of tightening austerity policies that particularly impacted youth.

May is now limping into Brexit negotiations in an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. For American readers, this is like injecting a dose of fundamentalist Southern crazy into the staid corridors of Westminster: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, evolution-denying and global warming-denying. The DUP will demand more money to spend on schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland – something the Tories have denied to England and Wales – and the neoimperialist Tory hardliners will no doubt balk at that.

But the endemic corruption of the DUP and their past association with Protestant terror groups make them an untrustworthy partner. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is closely connected with the “cash for ash” scandal, a scheme to pay applicants for using renewable energy like wood pellets. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, meaning that users made profits simply by heating their properties – one farmer is in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Foster’s refusal to take responsibility for the lack of cost controls led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland (there is no government at all in the devolved Stormont parliament at the moment).

Corbyn is right to declare victory. He has consolidated his leadership of the Labour party and shattered the remnants of Blairite neoliberal philosophy with a dynamic campaign for an anti-austerity manifesto. Understandably, rightwing Labour MPs are angry. They had hoped for a massive Labour defeat they could have blamed on Corbyn and had plans to launch a new centrist party, now of course abandoned. While begrudgingly acknowledging his electoral success, they immediately began to badmouth his leadership, accusing him of missing an “open goal” by not winning an overall majority – even though the loss of Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015 made an outright Labour victory nearly impossible.

The result has also strengthened the hand of Momentum activists within the Labour party. While the Labour establishment channeled resources into defending the safe majorities of centrist MPs, Momentum mobilized its supporters for the hard work of campaigning in marginal constituencies, contributing to Labour wins in places like Bedford and Croydon. According to Skwawkbox, “Up in Bolton West, the Tories won the seat in 2015 by 801 votes. Labour’s Julie Hilling had an excellent chance of ousting Tory Chris Green. Ms Hilling received so little support that she had no funding even for Labour garden stakes. She did not even receive a campaign manager from Labour central – her campaign had to be run by volunteers with no experience. Ms Hilling fought a brave campaign but, on a night where Labour was making even astonishing gains like Canterbury, she lost by the narrow margin of 936 votes.”

Corbyn and Momentum have been vindicated, giving Momentum an advantage over Labour MPs who confined their election material to local issues and refused to even mention Corbyn or national Labour policies. However, the election was decided by the support generated around Labour’s manifesto, contrasting with Tory missteps over May’s “dementia tax” and her awkward U-turn. Even two terror attacks did not distract voters from the way austerity cuts had made citizens more vulnerable – Boris Johnson, former London mayor and bookies’ choice to replace May as Tory leader, famously removed barriers from London and Westminster bridges seven years ago because he didn’t like their aesthetic, which is why the terrorists were able to drive unhindered on the pavement to kill pedestrians.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones honourably made an admission that his assessment of Corbyn was wrong: “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable. It is now the party’s consensus. It cannot and will not be taken away. Those who claimed it could not win the support of millions were simply wrong. No, Labour didn’t win, but from where it started, that was never going to happen. That policy programme enabled the party to achieve one of the biggest shifts in support in British history – yes, eclipsing Tony Blair’s swing in 1997. Social democracy is in crisis across the western world. British Labour is now one of the most successful centre-left parties, many of which have been reduced to pitiful rumps under rightwing leaderships. And indeed, other parties in Europe and the United States should learn lessons from this experience.”

The French Socialist party is a prime example. Once the ruling party, its turn to austerity policies under former leader Francois Hollande cut its vote share down to just 9.5% in Sunday’s elections, setting it on course to lose 200 seats. The Labour party would have followed it into oblivion if the Blairites had succeeded in ousting Corbyn and running the party their way. However, under Corbyn it gained 150,000 new members after the election, raising party membership to around 800,000.

As well as calling for free tuition for university students, building thousands of new homes, and a stronger National Health Service, Labour’s manifesto revives the idea of the democratization of the economy: “In government, Labour would give more people a stake – and a say – in our economy by doubling the size of the co-operative sector and introducing a ‘right to own,’ making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services as preferred providers,” the manifesto says.

The most significant part of the manifesto is its plan to finance these measures by increased taxes on the top five percent and corporations. This highlights the inequality created by the Tories through the entire period of austerity by tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poorest. It showed that there was a “magic money tree” but only for the extremely wealthy; Labour called for this wealth to be used for the benefit of the rest of society.

Corbyn’s message of hope – “For the Many, Not the Few” – inspired popular comedian Steve Coogan at an election rally in Birmingham to support him with the words of  Romantic poet Percy Shelley, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819:

“Rise, like lions from the slumber
“In unvanquishable number!
“Shake loose your chains like morning dew
“Which in sleep were placed on you:
“Ye are many – they are few!”

Like Bernie Sanders in the US, politics have been impacted by the rise of a social movement opposed to neoliberal austerity and fighting for jobs, healthcare and education. The lions are rising to challenge the plutocratic few.

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Against the Party Machines: Momentum Boldly Asserts People Power in Britain, while US Progressives Fight for their Democratic Moment


Throughout Europe and the US today, the dominant political theme is how the public are shut out of meaningful decision-making at a time when globalization is having a devastating effect on people’s lives. This has led to protest voting that has unsettled the ruling elites: Brexit in Britain; in the US, support for the demagogic Trump.

The British political class, whether Labour or Conservative, believes that it is qualified to rule by virtue of family upbringing and attending Oxford or Cambridge, despite all historical experience to the contrary. What matters most is not its record of achievement – deindustrializing the economy, squeezing living standards with austerity policies, embroiling the country in a constitutional nosedive – but to be able to give the impression of administrative competence while presiding over one disaster after another.

In the US, on the other hand, the essential qualifications are money and support for the security state. That is why Trump continually talks up his mythical billions while never missing a chance to push his authoritarian vision for society. While Clinton “won” her first debate with him, the key question of the presidential election remained unacknowledged: the profound disenchantment of the public with the political system. Her message was directed at those who think the system is fundamentally sound and only needs modifying, while Trump appeals to those who think the whole thing should be blown up.

The left’s role is specific to the conditions in each particular country. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in Momentum are taking political struggle outside of the party machine and into the communities. While the official Labour party conference last week resulted in the right keeping control of the party’s inner workings through overturning Corbyn’s majority on the National Executive Committee, Momentum held a vibrant alternate event, The World Transformed, at a nearby venue. It was able to maintain and expand its organization after Corbyn’s election as party leader, thanks to the master tacticians in the Parliamentary party who gifted Momentum a popular issue to mobilize around by renewing their challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

Many of his supporters are from a new generation of “networked, horizontal, democratic, globalist and liberal young professionals,” writes Paul Mason, “who regard [the far left], largely, as oddities. When the man in charge of crowdfunding the Momentum fringe event approached me for help, I asked what had brought him into this. He’d studied social movements at university, he said, and spent five years in banking.”

The Independent’s Ashley Cowburn contrasted official Labour with Momentum’s activists: “One evening, back at the gloomy official conference, I am asked by a Labour MP: ‘How is it over there in cloud cuckoo land with the rainbows and unicorns?’ However, 28-year-old Emma Rees, a former primary school teacher and one of Momentum’s national organisers, dismisses the comment … ‘It discredits the very real experiences that lots of people are living through and I don’t think it’s rainbows and unicorns to actually want to discuss how we can do things better – how we can structure society so that it benefits more than just the privileged few. And I actually think that’s the founding principles of the Labour Party and movement, is to empower ordinary people and the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives’.”

It’s a straightforward message of empowerment and commitment to work towards a better society – no wonder Labour MPs think it a fantasy. Another Momentum supporter, Michael Segalov, explains: “Labour conference may have been consumed by party infighting, factional posturing, and endless debate of internal rules,” but at The World Transformed, “Sessions on phone banking, crowdfunding, community organising and planning were peppered throughout the long weekend, a clear sign that this new, invigorated membership is interested in more than rhetoric and backslapping.”

The situation is not so clear for Bernie Sanders’ supporters in the US. The presidential nomination process allowed a brief democratic moment around his campaign; now that Clinton has won the nomination and Sanders’ backing, the Democratic party establishment has shut down public participation in policy-making.

The dilemma of how to sustain the campaign organizationally has led to a conflict between Sanders’ professional political staff and his volunteers, who were responsible for the success of his fundraising.

Sanders introduced the promised independent organization designed to continue the fight for left policies, “Our Revolution,” through a national webcast. It sought to harness the campaign’s energy into support for candidates with a progressive platform in down-ballot elections. However, Our Revolution is to be structured as a 501(c)(4), in other words a legal entity geared to fundraising, not one able to interface directly with local political campaigns. This decision was taken apparently without consulting the volunteers who were the backbone of Sanders’ campaign.

According to the volunteer-run site Berniecrats.net, 210 downballot primary election candidates—a figure that includes local, state and congressional bids—were “Berniecrats,” meaning they endorsed Bernie Sanders and a similar progressive platform. Roughly half claimed victory. Since the primary season began on March 1, Berniecrats have won 238 of 379 races. Sanders told The Nation that “Our Revolution candidates have already won a lot of primaries. In Massachusetts, with the support of Our Revolution, a young attorney, a very progressive guy, beat a long-term incumbent. In Rhode Island, the majority leader in the House got knocked off.”

But Our Revolution is uncomfortably like MoveOn, a top-down organization sending out emails asking for donations. The difference is that potential donors are asked to contribute directly to the local candidates. While Our Revolution may develop other forms of political organization, the techniques that were successful in an electoral campaign are not the same as those needed to work with grassroots movements around the country that can change the political climate. Internet technology alone doesn’t build a movement – human interaction is the key to long-term change.

In fact, a number of leading Sanders’ volunteers resigned because of the decision to form a (c)(4) entity. Claire Sandberg, the former digital organizing director for the primary campaign, explained that this legal structure had already prevented them from doing effective organizing for candidates like Tim Canova, who stood in the primary against Debbie Wasserman Schulz; they were unable to coordinate phone campaigning with his campaign or mobilize Bernie supporters to participate in his field operation.

John Atcheson comments in Common Dreams, “Under its current framework, Our Revolution denies people that direct sense of agency, and is less transparent than it could be.  There is an explicit ‘trust me, we’ll do the right thing’ that is exercised by an intermediary. The appeal is based on the promise to support ‘progressives’ – an abstraction – rather than the specific list of policies Bernie offered.”

The challenge for the left in both countries is how to connect with the mass movement. In the US, millions of Latino and African Americans will be voting against Trump; in the UK, the left needs to reconnect with disaffected Brexit voters without compromising with racism. The ideological confusion on the left means that Sanders’ supporters are splintered, most probably voting for Clinton but some for third parties like the Greens.

November’s elections will show how the public responds to “Berniecrat” candidates at local and state level. The danger is that without a national caucus within the Democratic party they will be absorbed into the system without making headway on more progressive policies. For now, it looks like opportunities are greater for the left in the UK.

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The Collapse of the Centre: Is Brexit a Disaster or an Opportunity for Labour?


The British political class – a uniquely inbred Oxbridge clique – is in turmoil after the result of the Brexit vote, and is now engaging in a mutual backstabbing that makes Game of Thrones look tame by comparison. However, despite its disorientation, the entire establishment across party lines is clear on one thing, and only one thing: Jeremy Corbyn should not be leader of the Labour party. Its political reflex is to hold him responsible for this disruption of the status quo.

Apart from around 40 MPs, Labour’s parliamentarians are closely tied to former leader Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism that was at the root of the party’s abandonment of the working class in the former industrial and mining areas. There is now the possibility of a split between the parliamentary wing and Labour’s membership, which wants to restore its social democratic orientation. It has this in common with much of the public, even when distorted by a nationalist perspective – the Brexiters’ slogan of more money for the NHS (which they immediately reneged on) was one of the popular drivers of the vote.

Corbyn is a symbol of a social democratic alternative to neoliberal austerity, although his voice was drowned out by the shrill claims and counter-claims of the Cameron-Johnson campaigns. He is still capable of uniting Brexiters and Remainers who want to acknowledge the misery piled up in the abandoned areas of much of England and Wales that had been ignored by the political elite. The vote gave an opportunity to the people living in those areas who felt disenfranchised to show their hostility to the political apparatus; many assumed their vote would not count and that Remain would carry the day simply because it was supported by the establishment.

Gary Younge commented: “If remain had won, we would already have returned to pretending that everything was carrying on just fine. Those people who have been forgotten would have stayed forgotten; those communities that have been abandoned would have stayed invisible to all but those who live in them. To insist that they will now suffer most ignores the fact that unless something had changed, they were going to suffer anyway. … For the last 15 years, governments and the press have stoked fears about whether British culture could withstand the integration of Muslims – of whom 70% voted for remain – when they should have been worried about how to integrate the white working class into the British economy. Brexit didn’t create these problems. It exposed them and will certainly make them worse.”

The referendum itself was inherently divisive, as Patrick Cockburn points out. “This is always the way with referenda on important issues: they make irreversible decisions, but they do so at a high political cost by excluding compromise between contending parties with deeply held opinions that they are not going to abandon on the day after the poll, regardless of who wins or loses. … The Remain camp thought they could win the vote by relentlessly emphasising the economic risks of leaving the EU, though the real danger is political rather than economic as a populist right is empowered with little idea of what it should do with that power.”

The influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe escaping poverty in their own countries has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous labour agencies and landlords to force down wage rates and jack up rents in various parts of Britain. But this is not unique to the UK; it exacerbates a trend seen throughout Europe. Servaas Storm, an economics professor at Delft University, comments: “Almost everywhere in the E.U. — as in Britain — there is a polarization of the income distribution into a large number of low-income households and a much smaller number of very rich, while the middle classes have shrunk. There is a segmentation of employment into low-wage, unprotected and precarious jobs, mostly in low-tech services, and high-wage and protected jobs in high-tech manufacturing, finance, legal services and government. … The massive social protests in France against the modernization of labour laws — newspeak for a reduction in the strength of French job-protection laws and social security in general — by the ‘socialist’ Hollande government illustrate the point: The systemic dismantling of worker protection in the name of cutting wage costs and improving unit-labour cost competitiveness will certainly increase job insecurity, employment precariousness, and inequality without any further macroeconomic benefits.”

UMass professor Richard Wolff explains: “A government, voted in by the French working class, a socialist government … pushed through a labor reform law which basically does everything that the employers in France could have dreamed for a president to do. … the newspapers are filled with spectacles of helmeted police being sent by a socialist government to beat the very people that put that government into office. And if anything were more clearly a sign of the collapse of what the very word socialism meant, as well as the collapse of conventional politics, it’s being acted out on the streets of Paris. … You’re seeing everywhere that the traditional, old, capitalist-maintaining center-left, center-right, is dissolving. And the polarization is the new issue on the horizon. It is surprising the old elites, but that’s really only a sign of how out of touch those governing elites have become …”

The parliamentary Labour party’s attempted coup to unseat Corbyn is another sign of how out of touch it is with the membership. Constituency activists have renewed demands for MP reselection in the event of another general election. Labour party member Dan Iles pointed out: “I believe Corbyn persuaded 60% of Labour’s supporters to vote remain because he didn’t ignore people’s concerns with the EU. By admitting that the EU is not without its faults and then demanding that we should stay in to reform it (from the left) he was able to bypass the binary claims of the two main referendum campaigns. People voted leave because they felt abandoned by politics and scared about immigration. These structural issues haven’t just appeared in the last nine months of Corbyn’s leadership. But I think many felt his defence of immigration and his determination to turn the debate towards austerity was refreshing at a time when the leave campaign was openly whipping up racism and xenophobia.”

UPDATE: David Graeber makes a relevant comment in the Guardian: “If the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. … the Corbyn project is first and foremost to make the party a voice for social movements once again, dedicated to popular democracy (as trades unions themselves once were). … While one side effectively accuses him of refusing to play the demagogue during the Brexit debate, for the other, his insistence on treating the public as responsible adults was the quintessence of the ‘new kind of politics’ they wished to see.”

The Brexit campaign was always a dispute between factions of the Tory elite, neither of which were serious about the possibility of a Leave victory, meaning that there is no plan for disengaging from Europe. With all the criticism of Farage’s open racism, it has been forgotten that Cameron and Theresa May stoked nativism by imposing English language and income tests on new immigrants, a policy targeted at Middle Eastern refugees. Britain has never had a positive approach to cultural assimilation like the US does. It puts responsibility onto immigrants to somehow integrate themselves into the system.

While the media is fixated on British parliamentary politics, the vote is having major international repercussions, not least within Europe itself, because of the fragility and interconnectedness of the global economy. The Economist notes that the London financial industry could be in big trouble: “It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. … In the run-up to the vote TheCityUK, a trade body that opposed Brexit, boasted that London had around 70% of the market for euro-denominated interest-rate derivatives, 90% of European prime brokerage (assisting hedge funds with trading) and more besides.”

Will the inevitable diminution of the City of London’s financial clout also lead to a weakening of its political influence? This is Labour’s opportunity: the first task of a Labour government independent of EU regulations should be to take control of capital movements and pump money into kick-starting manufacturing in regionally depressed economies. Corbyn supporters have plenty of policies they could be campaigning on to unite workers whose jobs have been outsourced with immigrants who would fight for a living wage.

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Brexit and the Miners Strike, Part Three: The Disorientation of the Left


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The miners and their leaders had not expected the kind of all-out political fight Thatcher was waging, but once the strike began, it generated an intense loyalty to the union, involving communities in a fight for their survival. Although mining was a completely male-dominated industry, women from mining areas mobilized to take the struggle into other sections of the working and middle class while the government cut benefits for strikers’ families. The miners’ moral economy expanded to include collaboration with other communities defending themselves against state attacks.

The Tories’ 1980 Coal Act mandated an end to subsidies by 1984 and this empowered NCB management to aggressively confront miners, provoking a large number of separate pit-level disputes that came together after the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood, when, despite the pleas of Yorkshire area officials, rank-and-file miners streamed into Lancashire and Nottinghamshire to picket out those areas. The strike had not been officially called by the NUM national leadership, who in fact merely recognized a struggle that had already started, driven by the militancy and anger among younger miners. [Richards, 100]

They were the first in the industrial world, after PATCO, to experience the assault of international capital against the concessions they had fought for and won from a national capitalist class over many years. However, the left had not grasped the nature of the changes that had taken place during the 1970s. Its theoretical outlook was guided by Leninist categories that were premised on the national state conceived as a monolithic entity, a “body of armed men” arrayed against a homogeneous working class. The picket-line battles between miners and police appeared to fall into that schema.

The left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

After the start of the strike, the sloganizing of left groups for better organized picketing, for a one-day general strike, even for an all-out general strike called by the TUC, embodied the assumption that the miners were battling a nationally-based capitalist class with which there was the possibility of a political compromise after a change of government. To acknowledge that the strike had connotations that stretched outside of a nationally-based economy would have meant breaking from the illusion that the miners could have won a victory like that of 1972.

A general strike, even if one could have been achieved in the circumstances, posed the same question that it did in 1926: who would rule? The miners and the left assumed that it would be a Bennite government that would restore the social consensus and, like the 1970s Wilberforce inquiry, consider the miners to be a “special case” whose jobs should be protected. However, the Labour party was in disarray and its leadership had already capitulated to the pressure for austerity. While left MPs headed by Benn supported the miners, party leader Neil Kinnock vehemently condemned picket-line violence, and, like Callaghan, attacked Scargill for not calling a strike ballot. When New Labour gained power in the 1990s they signally refused to return to a policy of state subsidies to industry.

While the left in general had little influence within the NUM, the British Communist party had a close historical connection with the union, but by the 1980s the party was divided between a faction that based itself on the tradition of industrial militancy and support for the Soviet Union, grouped around the daily Morning Star, and a “eurocommunist” tendency that advocated a “new realism” of adapting to the changes that were taking place within capitalism. The strike and its outcome destabilized their uneasy alliance, leading to a split and the party’s eventual dissolution.

The failures of the Communist party during the 1970s in relation to mass student protests and the women’s movement, together with opposition to the Soviet military response to demands for Czechoslovak autonomy, had encouraged the eurocommunists’ criticism of the lack of internal party democracy and a focus on the industrial working class. Influenced by postmodernism, they perceived class based politics as obsolete because of the transition from manufacturing in large factories employing thousands of workers to a “post-Fordist” form of production based on small, flexible units of capital. The rise of Thatcher was analyzed by this tendency in the party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, as a new and powerful form of populism, conceptualizing her government as the authoritarianism of a national capitalist class which needed to be countered by a popular front alliance of progressive forces.

Scargill was close to the “traditionalist” faction, although not a member of the party, but he represented the thinking of the young, militant activists who had mythologized the 1970s strikes and the mass picket of Saltley coke depot. What united them was a syndicalist and industry-centric orientation that thought the miners could defeat the government on their own, as they believed they had in 1972.

NUM officials influenced by the eurocommunists advocated a cautious and moderate response to pit closures, which brought them into conflict with the miners’ growing militancy. In Scotland, calls for strike action against the especially provocative NCB management team there “originated from the rank-and-file in comparatively democratic forums, including mass meetings and area delegate conferences. These calls were never opposed by the two foremost national NUM leaders, Arthur Scargill and National Secretary, Peter Heathfield, but they brought those who made them into collision with bureaucratic structures in the NUM, in particular with the NUM Scottish Executive led by Mick McGahey and George Bolton” who were both associated with the eurocommunist trend. [Brotherstone, 106]

Even today, over 30 years later, the left clings to the conception that a wider strike struggle could have won a victory. Its analysis selectively omits the impact of the global recession that had shut down much of the country’s industrial base. However, Thatcher had mobilized a much-publicized ideological attack, middle class support for her anti-union plans, control of government committees, interest rates, union leaders in key industries, as well as the physical stockpiling of coal, in support of her strategic aims.

Seumas Milne’s book, The Enemy Within, is a devastating exposé of Thatcher’s use of the deep state to spy on the NUM leadership and target Scargill individually as an instigator of the miners’ militant resistance to the restructuring of the industry. In the introduction to the fourth edition, he writes: “Success for the miners in 1984-5 could not, of course, have turned the neoliberal tide by itself. That was a global phenomenon … But it would have at least seriously weakened Thatcher, reined in her government’s worst excess and put a brake on Labour’s headlong rush for the ‘third way’ – which would eventually turn into New Labour and its embrace of the core Thatcher settlement.” [xi]

Although Milne refers in passing to the global nature of neoliberalism, he explains the motive for the covert operations he uncovered as the Tory party’s determination to avenge its humiliation in 1972, an explanation that confines his account within a national context. Thatcher’s monetarist budgets had already crashed manufacturing and boosted the City of London’s international financial role. What her government did in order to usher in the neoliberal model was to build on this induced recession with a political assault on the miners’ union to break organized resistance to privatization. Thatcher couldn’t have done this so effectively if the Callaghan government had not already initiated monetarist controls on the nationalized industries; moreover, political pressure from the City and the US Treasury makes it clear that neoliberalism was not Thatcher’s personal legacy but that she acted in line with an international reorientation of capital circulation.

The Mitterand government in France, for example, quickly followed the UK and US in restructuring its economy on neoliberal lines: “what above all determined the French Socialist government’s U-turn on economic policy was the severe market pressure on the franc in the context of the high-interest-rate and austerity policies being pursued by the US, the UK, and particularly Germany. … in June 1982 … the franc was devalued alongside the revaluation of the mark, in an agreement with the Germans that was conditional on the French Socialist government’s promise … to bring its fiscal deficit below 3 percent of GDP. … It did not take long before the French Socialist Party leaders even supported the privatization of the firms they had earlier nationalized.” [Panitch, 197]

After the strike the “traditionalist” faction in the Communist party was expelled as the leadership moved closer to the eurocommunist wing.  “The strike, and its eventual defeat were to accelerate the push towards the modernisers’ agenda within the party. Although many Communists from both wings of the party were pulled into the organisation of a solidarity which mushroomed from the late summer of 1984, attitudes to the strike and to the tactics of NUM president Arthur Scargill, were to lead to further bitter divisions. … The criticisms of ‘Scargillism’, which had been relatively muted and coded during the dispute, came out into the open in 1985 as the party, by now rid of the Chater [Morning Star] group carried out a post mortem. The lessons drawn from the defeat of the miners appeared to reinforce all of the key assumptions of Eurocommunism; the economism and narrowness of the trade unions epitomised by Scargill, the authoritarianism of the state shown in the hostile press coverage and the harsh policing tactics and hence the need for ‘broad democratic alliances’ rather than class politics.” [Eaden, 176]

The CP’s political disorientation after the 1970s was also reflected in the left generally. “The way in which the miners’ strike intensified the crisis in the CP was part of the more general theoretical crisis, and, in some cases, practical implosion on the left. The heroic militancy of the miners’ strike exposed, in a most necessary way, the inability of the then dominant leftwing thinking as a whole (notwithstanding the disputatious variety within it) to meet the theoretical needs of labour. In the new situation, the pressure of militant trade unionism to secure, from capital and its servant state, measures of reform and progressive change, was no longer an historically viable strategy.” [Brotherstone, 120]

Conclusion

The miners’ moral economy considered the blood, sweat, and lives expended down the pits to have given them a form of ownership, and that nationalization had made the mines a community resource that the government was wilfully breaking up with unnecessary closures. “We are protecting the people’s coal,” wrote Mick McGahey in April 1984.  “They are weak because they are nothing but industrial vandals and bully boys.” [qutd Phillips, 110]

Although the miners’ defeat was not inevitable – there were moments when the government could have been forced to retreat – its Thatcherite leadership had been quick to respond to the industrial crisis and the increased specific weight of the City of London in the economy. It did not act merely as the agent of Tory revenge, but also as the personification of the drive of international capital to break up national accommodations with the working class and to bring nationalized industries back into the orbit of circulation through the dispossession of public capital. “The deliberate destabilization of industrial employment and occupational communities was, to be blunt, a consciously constructed and carefully executed assault on the collective culture and material position of the working class.” [Phillips, 175]

Despite the way nationalization was carried out after 1945, creating state-owned enterprises with no change in management, it still embodied meaningful egalitarian and collectivist principles. For the mining industry, starved of capital when in private hands, “Nationalization was as much about workers’ rights [as economic efficiency] in the land fit for heroes returning from the war. The bitter industrial relations battles of the 1930s in the mines were to be solved by internalizing them within the new industrial structures.” [Helm, 30]

While enabling the government’s Keynesian economic planning, nationalization also had a great social significance. Capacity in the nationalized electricity supply industry, for example, was substantially increased through the creation of a national grid that allowed technical improvements like higher voltages, but it also facilitated social integration in a way that a market-based industry could not. “A cohesive society provided the basic social primary goods not only regardless of the ability to pay, but also regardless of location. To the extent that rural customers were too expensive to justify connection, they were to be paid for by the urban masses. Connecting up the Scottish Highlands, rural Wales and other upland areas was subsidized by revenues from central locations, and, perhaps more significantly, transmission and distribution charges tended to be averaged.” [Helm, 31]

The dissolution of nationalized industries and subsequent privatizations by the Thatcher government and its successors has led to the breaking down of essential services and intensive rent extraction by capital. It is not surprising, then, that there is popular support today for the re-nationalization of certain industries, like the railways, where privatization has brought chaos. After the economic meltdown of 2008, political opposition to neoliberalism has begun to strengthen.

But with an economy dominated by international finance, how can austerity be resisted? Global capital still needs nation-states to maintain the social discipline necessary for its circulation. The orientation of the state is an important factor: even a small country like Malaysia was able to resist the IMF and US government and impose capital controls after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. “The more important effect of globalization has been on the political will to undertake state regulation, rather than on the technical feasibility of doing so.” [Kotz]

The left has to re-think the nature of the many partial movements against austerity and the relation of international capital to state power. The class struggle is fought out on many levels, inside and outside of political parties, within state institutions and regulatory bodies as well as on picket lines. If state power was not important, then the plutocracy would not spend so much effort on gaining control of it. What should the left be doing to guide the fight back?

Works cited

Terry Brotherstone & Simon Pirani, “Were There Alternatives? Movements From Below In The Scottish Coalfield, The Communist Party, And Thatcherism, 1981–1985,” Critique, 33:1, 99-124 (2005)

James Eaden and David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, 2002

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

David M. Kotz, “Globalization and Neoliberalism”, Rethinking Marxism vol 12 #2, Summer 2002:64-79

Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within, Verso, Fourth edition, 2014

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

Andrew J. Richards, Miners on Strike: Class Solidarity and Division in Britain, Berg, Oxford, 1996

Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso, 2012

Jim Phillips, Collieries, communities and the miners’ strike in Scotland, 1984-85, Manchester UP, 2012

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