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Fighting for Their Lives vs. Parliamentary Fictions: Members Reclaim the Labour Party for the People


Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.

Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.

Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”

These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.

Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.

Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s  soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”

Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.

It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”

Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.

Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.

Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.

As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”

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Filed under austerity measures, Britain, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, Momentum, privatization, tony blair, Uncategorized

Brain Transplant for Blairites: The Labour Party Conference and Jeremy Corbyn


The British Labour party conference, held in Brighton this week, demonstrated the close affinity of newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn with the party’s rank and file. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne remarked: “Corbyn brought delegates to their feet with his appeal to popular decency and solidarity, his rejection of illegal warmaking and Trident renewal, and his unqualified opposition to the new benefit and tax credit cuts about to be imposed on millions across Britain.”

His popular support meant that anti-Corbyn MPs could not challenge him on austerity and the economy. But his opponents, including some in the shadow cabinet, loudly voiced their hostility to Corbyn’s aim of scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system, whose usefulness is a myth furiously propagated by the Tories, the military high command, the armaments industry, and some rightwing union leaders.

As Milne noted: “the gap between the party’s leader, elected by hundreds of thousands, and the majority of its MPs, who didn’t vote for him, is stark.” British politics is highly ideological, and so is all about using and manipulating symbols of state legitimacy. For example, the press and BBC have attacked Corbyn on whether he would authorize a nuclear strike, his willingness to sing the national anthem, and possibly not wearing a red poppy on Armistice Day.

Corbyn’s conference speech, which so resonated with the party membership, countered these attacks with an alternative symbol, the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders. He said he was elected on the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society. … We are going to put these values back into the heart of politics in this country,” the subtext being that these values had been abandoned by the Blairite leadership in its quest for electability.

Gary Younge commented: “The speech was clear. It had purpose. It anchored a party that has for too long been adrift by reminding it of its core principles and core mission. Corbyn spoke in unequivocal terms about his support for the weak against the strong and fairness against inequality. He voiced support for refugees, trade unions, council housing, peace, international law and human rights. Amazingly, for a Labour party leader, this already made it an exception.”

Corbyn does not stand so much for a new politics as for rolling back the tide of neoliberalism. Despite the descriptions of him as having a far left agenda, he didn’t call for a change in society’s structure, but only for an end to the diversion of resources to financiers that has defunded social services for the working and middle class, and the privatization of public assets. Through his rhetoric of common values, he gave direction to party members to reground the party’s policies.

His speech implied that building a movement was more important than electoral success, troubling Labour MPs and their house journal, the New Statesman, which noted “how little he had to say about the importance of winning elections and of returning to government.” This is what his opponents call realism. But the reality for most people in Britain is that they are experiencing decline in just about every aspect of life: housing, jobs, wages, health, benefits, road and railway commutes, issues which are driving the movement against austerity, and which the Blairites failed to challenge.

This poses a conceptual problem for the British left. Socialist Workers Party supporters object that, since the Labour party is aligned to achieving a parliamentary majority, “How would Corbyn actually implement his moderate programme of social reform and end austerity?” Like the New Statesman they are asking how he would achieve change through parliament. This indicates they see the movement that elected him as being incorporated into the traditional Labour left, and not changing anything in the political climate. But they are missing how the Labour party is being transformed by an anti-austerity movement that has grown both inside and outside of it.

The real struggle now is between Labour’s newly-enlarged membership and the party establishment. While Corbyn proposed that its values would drive party policy, Rafael Behr commented: “the question of what policy is adopted is really a subset of the battle for control of the party machine. That tussle, well under way, is conducted mostly behind closed doors. It focuses on appointments, nominations and votes for positions on the key committees … what we used to call the ‘old Labour right’ (tribal centrists who mostly backed Yvette Cooper for the leadership) is doing its best to defend the machine from infiltration and control by the hard left.”

But Corbyn’s values have in fact reverberated within Labour’s membership and a significant slice of British society. So the stage is set for a clash in the constituencies as the membership begin to assert their sovereignty over policy. Labour activists want democracy within the party as a precondition of achieving democratic support in the country.

Public opinion in Britain is constructed with a monolithic barrage of propaganda from the press and media. So far, Corbyn has succeeded in neutralizing much of it by giving a voice to ordinary people. In doing this, he becomes part of a European-wide trend to reassert the politics of the local against the interests of the globalized banking system, the “enemies of democracy” in Thomas Piketty’s words. When the New Statesman argues that Corbyn wants to live in a “perfect world” and is reluctant to deal with real problems like intervening in Syria or hard choices about public spending, it is tone-deaf to these new political forces, manifested in Scotland, Greece and Catalonia.

It contrasted the “admirable idealist” Abraham Lincoln’s “cold-eyed realism” in hedging and compromising his way towards abolition with what it sees as Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with real issues of government. But Lincoln’s adoption of abolition depended on the campaigning of radical abolitionists to change the discourse of the country before the Civil War. As Lincoln’s foremost biographer, Eric Foner, explains: “They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn.”

Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaigners have a great opportunity now to change the political discourse in Britain – not in parliament or the media, but on the doorsteps of the country. But first they have to deal with the supporters of the status quo within the Labour party itself.

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Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn


Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the election for Labour party leader in Britain represented a spontaneous upsurge from both inside and outside the party, despite the open hostility of most Labour MPs. It restored political agency to Labour supporters who had been disenfranchised by the Blairite leadership and who fused with an anti-austerity movement that had been building outside the party for some years.

The party’s membership soared to over 400,000 as enthusiasm for the leadership election grew, making it the largest political party in Britain. Significantly, the members include a huge influx of a new generation of activists, alienated up until now from the political system and radicalized by the gutting of British society by a Tory government attuned only to the needs of the City. Many ex-party members and left activists rejoined in order to support Corbyn’s campaign.

For example, Rebecca Prentice, a doctor from Crouch End in North London, told reporters she joined the Labour party immediately after this year’s general election “because she was so angry at the result and because she was seeing every day what Tory policy was doing to the NHS.” When Corbyn was nominated, for the first time in her life “someone was up there saying what I believed in.” Laura Parker, who leads a children’s charity, said she had “lost faith” in Labour years ago, but was inspired by Corbyn to rejoin. “This is a man who is absolutely principled, who is interested in debate about ideas and who doesn’t care what color tie you wear,” she said.

A groundswell of enthusiasm built from Corbyn’s last-minute nomination, as people began to volunteer for his campaign. According to The Guardian, he attracted over 16,000 volunteers in three months. Seumas Milne commented: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. Whatever now happens, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed. Eight years after economic crisis took hold of the western world, the anti-austerity revolt has found its voice in Britain in an entirely unexpected way.”

Corbyn has given this revolt a focus and direction, challenging Tory austerity ideology when Labour’s official response was to abstain on welfare cuts. Gary Younge pointed out: “For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.” These movements included a massive anti-austerity protest earlier this year that mobilized tens of thousands in major cities.

Corbyn’s opposition to the dominant political narrative appears to reiterate ideas from the 1970s. But in today’s context, where the political class has shifted to the far right, his commitment to public investment has a popular appeal. Renationalization of the railways has overwhelming public support from rail passengers who now pay the highest fares in Europe to travel on services that are all too often unreliable and overcrowded. Scrapping tuition fees, resetting rent controls on landlords, increasing the top tax rate and a mandatory living wage all have general support; even scrapping the Trident nuclear system is favored by 64 percent of the public.

The newly-elected leader also pledged to end cuts and privatization of the cash strapped National Health Service. Its dire situation is reflected by an organization representing doctors in general practice which recently reported that, despite their efforts to meet rising demand, “unprecedented rises in patient demand” means that “the saturation point has been hit even by the most competently working practices in London” as doctors attempt to deal with the knock-on effect from cuts to hospital services.

Corbyn’s rhetoric in his victory speech mixed biblical imagery with a collectivist sentiment that resonates with the ethical sensibility of Labour voters: “I want us, as a movement, to be proud, strong and able to stand up and say, ‘We want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system; instead, we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.”

At his first opportunity to question Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Corbyn noted that many people he had spoken to wanted above all for their voices to be heard in parliament. So he began with a question from Marie in Putney, who asked about the UK’s housing crisis after Corbyn had appealed for ideas from the public. According to the Independent, she joined the Labour party after his campaign caught her eye. “All around where I live we are surrounded by buildings going up … completely surrounded by massive new flat developments … those are flats for rich people. No ordinary working person on an average wage could even begin to contemplate buying one of those, and social housing itself is being completely demolished by this completely stupid policy of selling off the housing stock.”

But Corbyn’s performance in parliament is hardly crucial, notwithstanding the parliamentary fetishism of many journalists. The rejection of his leadership campaign by so many Blairite MPs has exposed their hand and his overwhelming majority weakens their ability to undermine his authority. Gary Younge pointed to “an elemental clash between MPs, many of whom made it to Westminster courtesy of a centralised vetting operation, and a vastly expanded membership who want to take control of their own party.”

Corbyn has encouraged a movement that continues to grow, transforming the Labour party in the process. Left commentator Richard Seymour argues: “Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That’s the only chance he and his supporters have.” But this is something that has already happened. A grassroots movement against austerity has flooded into the Labour party. As these members assert sovereignty over their constituencies, they will clash with the centralized party bureaucracy in Transport House over policy and selection (or possibly deselection) of parliamentary candidates.

The Guardian, interviewing Labour voters about their reaction to Corbyn’s win, noted their sense of relief that the parliamentary party can no longer ignore the views of its membership. “Finally I feel I have a choice,” said Sam Brazier. “We, the people, have given the party a very clear mandate. They are there to represent us, not dictate how we should think, feel or vote.”

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