Corbyn’s victory: Labour Party in crisis

corbyn 0

By the end of the campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party, it was no surprise, even for his most stubborn and malevolent critics, that Jeremy Corbyn would win the election. But the scale of his victory, 59.5% in the first round, was a resounding shock. Despite the dire warnings of a string of Labour Party pro-imperialist grandees, 49.6% of party members supported Corbyn, as did 83.8% of registered supporters and 57.6% of affiliated union voters. The Blairite and openly ruling class candidate Liz Kendall was utterly trounced, obtaining a miserable 4.5% of the vote. Together, the other two establishment, pro-austerity candidates, Yvette Cooper and the one-time favourite to win, Andy Burnham, shared 36%.

The reactions were immediate. Within hours, the Conservative Party was presenting Corbyn’s politics as a threat to national security. The ruling class was outraged. Eleven shadow front bench members resigned, refusing to work with Corbyn. Their passing will not be mourned: among their number were Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, the openly reactionary shadow Works and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt and shadow business secretary Chuku Umunna, who had been a leadership candidate for 24 hours before passing the Blairite baton to Kendall. Good riddance to them. Most Labour MPs, an unprincipled bunch of frauds and self-serving careerists intent only on feathering their nests, were horrified at Corbyn’s success. 178 of them abstained in a parliamentary vote on the vicious benefit cuts announced in the July budget – they have only contempt for the plight of the poorest sections of the working class, despising them as scroungers and shirkers.

Corbyn’s victory is clearly a response to years of austerity. There is still no movement out on the streets in direct confrontation to the government’s onslaught, but there is a growing anti-austerity anger to which Corbyn’s campaign gave expression. Anxious to demonstrate its viability as a ruling class party, Labour abandoned any anti-austerity position before the May general election. But the changing mood should have been clear in September 2014 when the mass of the Scottish working class declared resounding opposition to austerity in the independence referendum, underlining their standpoint by ridding Scotland of all but one of its Labour MPs in the May general election.

Within England, no credible electoral force existed to challenge the pro-austerity orthodoxy at the time. In fact, such views would have been excluded from the Labour Party leadership contest if a number of right-wing Labour MPs had not decided to nominate Corbyn as a candidate to serve as a punch-bag for the other candidates to demonstrate their impeccable ruling class credentials. The tactic completely backfired. The youth of Corbyn’s supporters, clear when they attended the public meetings which were part of his campaign, was not surprising. Young people have been hit particularly hard by austerity through the tripling of university fees, the withdrawal of Educational Maintenance Allowance and the steady restriction of benefit entitlements. The expectation that a higher education qualification would lead to a well-rewarded career has been exposed as a pipe dream: rising graduate unemployment and under-employment, crippling house prices and, in London, soaring rent levels, herald a prospect of proletarianisation rather than financial security. These forces were central to the emergence of anti-austerity movements in Greece and Spain.

The pressures on Corbyn will be immense. While he has given expression to a widespread opposition to austerity, will Corbyn and his allies be part of building a movement to really oppose the government’s barbaric programme? Appeals to maintain Labour unity will involve making concessions to reactionary forces. Andy Burnham, who blames Labour’s general election defeat in part on being weak on immigration, has been appointed Shadow Home Secretary. Tom Watson, who won the deputy leadership election, has said he will fight against any attempt to oppose a replacement for Trident – a key element of Corbyn’s platform. Throughout the coming period Corbyn will have to decide which is more important: building a movement against austerity or preserving the unity of the Labour Party. The two cannot be reconciled. His victory will be a step towards its disintegration.

In the absence of any working class movement, concession will lead to capitulation. In Greece, Syriza’s election in January heralded a collision course with German-led European imperialism. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, made all sorts of radical promises – to oppose cuts in pensions, restore public sector jobs and stop a privatisation programme. Yet the following months saw concession after concession to the debt repayment demands of imperialism. Final capitulation came a mere week after the Greek people voted overwhelmingly in a referendum on 5 July to reject the terms of the bailout proposed by the Troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF. The terms Tsipras accepted were worse than those on the table in January: Syriza had conceded everything. Now the right-wing New Democracy party could win the general election set for 20 September. Reaction follows hard on capitulation.

Syriza refused to mobilise the Greek working class to oppose the ever more brutal terms of the Troika. In Britain, Corbyn has said that he wants to see a massive campaign against austerity. We agree. However, to win, its purpose must be to defend the working class and defeat the ruling class, not to serve as a vehicle for the electoral ambitions of the Labour Party. The coming months will be the test of whether Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist ambitions are real.

The crisis of British imperialism is now so deep, that it cannot sustain the material privileges of the upper layers of the working class or widening sections of the middle class let alone those of the mass of the working class.

Socialists cannot accept the daydreams of Owen Jones, a prominent Corbyn supporter, when he says that ‘What drives Corbyn, like anybody on the left, more than anything else is the plight of the poorest in society, low-paid workers, those with no affordable housing, and so on. But a political coalition cannot be built purely out of the poorest and the sympathy of others. Now his leadership must also reach out to middle-income and middle-class people.’ It is a pale echo of Neil Kinnock’s argument as a new Labour leader in 1983 when he said ‘we can only protect the disadvantaged in our society if we appeal to those who are relatively advantaged.’ Jones not only wants a capitalism which can meet the needs of the mass of the working class, but one which also preserves the privileges of the better-off such as himself. It is reactionary nonsense.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! stands alongside anyone determined to build a mass movement against austerity. But we will fight any attempt to harness such a movement to the electoral requirements of the Labour Party. We will fight Labour councils implementing cuts and we reject the argument that they have no choice. We will fight all bans or proscriptions designed to narrow the movement to Labour supporters who will not fight imperialism. We fight for a democracy which allows working class people to lead their own struggles rather than a self-appointed minority. Above all we argue that an anti-austerity movement must fight against imperialism and for socialism.

Robert Clough