Labour Party: no end to its crisis as Corbyn accepts Tory cuts

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On 20 January, after considerable delay, the Labour Party released the Beckett Report into its defeat at the May 2015 general election. The Report describes the mountain that Labour will have to climb if it is to win the 2020 general election. More immediately it faces council elections in May in which it is defending over 1,300 seats won at a high point in its electoral fortunes in 2012. Significant losses may trigger a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In the meantime, however, Corbyn has instructed Labour councils to implement the massive cuts in jobs and services demanded by the Tory government from April. Those tens of thousands of people who have joined Labour since the 2015 General Election face a choice: either remain in the Labour Party or join a fight against war, austerity and racism. Robert Clough reports.

Corbyn remains isolated within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). His Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in early January led to the resignation of four members in protest at the dismissal of Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle, and Pat McFadden and Michael Dugher (Shadow Ministers for Europe and Culture respectively). Now cast as ‘authentic working class voices’, Dugher and McFadden are university graduates who had spells as Westminster-closeted special advisers (in McFadden’s case, to Tony Blair) before they became MPs: they are career politicians on £70,000 a year who have nothing to do with the working class. Dugher, a former vice chair of Labour Friends of Israel, says ‘Each time I visit Israel, my admiration for that great country grows.’

In response to the reshuffle, Labour MPs voted by 188 to 30 on 19 January to bar Parliamentary Private Secretaries from sitting on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The decision means that Corbyn’s ally, MP Steve Rotherham, will have to stand down, undermining Corbyn’s already slender NEC majority.

The Beckett Report points out that on current constituency boundaries, Labour will need to gain 94 extra MPs at the 2020 General Election to secure a majority of two. However, the Report adds, with 1.5 million more pensioners voting in 2020, a demographic group among whom the Conservatives hold a significant majority, Labour will need a swing of 12.5% from the Tories to win. It also estimates that the government’s proposed redrawing of constituency boundaries will anyway cost Labour a dozen seats.

Beckett skates over reasons why Labour had failed to make any progress in marginal constituencies it needed to win to achieve a majority in 2015: there are just a couple of brief and non-committal points on welfare and immigration. A separate internal report using focus group interviews in key marginal constituencies is more pointed, concluding that ‘Labour came across as “downtrodden, in thrall to the undeserving, in denial about their appalling record – personified by Miliband”.’ It presents a story of Labour being seen as responsible for the financial crisis and soft on welfare claimants and immigrants so that middle class voters deserted it to vote Tory: Labour was not reactionary enough. With the Tories having a 17% majority over Labour among private sector workers, Labour MPs can see that further job losses among public sector workers will add to the likelihood that they will lose theirs, so they want Corbyn out of the leadership.

Rabid media attacks on Corbyn for his supposed revolutionary ambitions, of course, have no foundation in reality. When Lord Watt, PLP chair between 2012 and 2015, urges his colleagues to ‘take less notice of the London-centric, hard-Left political class who sit around in their £1 million mansions, eating their croissants at breakfast and seeking to lay the foundations for a socialist revolution’, we seem to be in a fantasy land. Far from promoting social revolution, the overriding concern of Corbyn and his allies is to preserve the unity of the Labour Party, so they are ducking any fight over the savage cuts in council spending that will take place in April. In a letter to Labour councillors, Corbyn has made it clear that they must accept the cuts and set balanced budgets, as:

‘Failing to do so can lead to complaints against councillors under the Code of Conduct, judicial review of the council and, most significantly, government intervention by the Secretary of State. It would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities. Their priorities would certainly not meet the needs of the communities which elected us.’

This makes a mockery of the letter’s claim that Labour is ‘now clearly an anti-austerity party’. The cuts that Labour councils will impose on services essential to the working class will be even worse than those of the last five years which have followed the loss of £18bn per annum central funding. The Tory government intends to phase out the local government revenue support grant but allow councils to retain 100% of the business rates instead of 50% as at present. The 50% that councils currently have to hand back to the government is re-distributed according to a formula which in part takes deprivation into account.

Under the new arrangements, councils which have high levels of poverty, and especially those outside London, will suffer disproportionately as business rates form a smaller part of their local income. In the case of Liverpool, for instance, spending on adult social care has been cut from £222m in 2010 to £172m this year and will fall to £150m by 2017, reducing the number of people receiving care packages from 15,000 to just 9,000. Across the country it is estimated that social care spending has fallen by £4.6bn a year or 31% since 2010, and it will be cut by a further £500m in 2016/17. Fourteen councils are near bankruptcy; many northern councils will be unable to afford any discretionary services by 2020. Whether it is Labour councillors, council officials or Tory ministers setting council budgets will make no practical difference for working class people. Labour councillors, however, are determined to lead the process to preserve their positions and, in alliance with local trade unions, to ensure there is no effective resistance.

Corbyn’s supporters point to the tens of thousands who have joined the Labour Party since he became leader. Yet they have made no difference. The 40,000 new members in London for instance have not been out on the streets protesting against council cuts, or the Housing Bill, or the new round of cuts in state welfare due in April. They are not directly affected as they are mainly young, better-off professionals. Momentum, which was set up to ensure that any anti-austerity movement would be tied to the Labour Party, has not moved them. Although some London Momentum groups said that they would oppose Labour council cuts, Corbyn’s letter has pulled the rug from under their feet as intended. Outside London, the influx of new members has been on a much smaller scale, and Momentum hardly exists. Opposition to council cuts is no more extensive or widespread than in previous years despite their savagery.

Corbyn’s election as Labour leader may have been an expression of a widespread anti-austerity sentiment, but it has also served to demobilise any opposition. Wait until 2020, we are being told, when we can elect an anti-austerity Labour government. By that time council services will be non-existent and millions will be in deeper poverty. We have to build a movement now against the ruling class offensive, involving millions of people – and we will have to do so in opposition to Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Trident

The issue of Trident renewal is deepening the divisions within the Labour Party, and exposing the completely reactionary character of the trade union leadership. The life-time costs of a Trident replacement are estimated to be £167bn with the four submarines costing £31bn, and a decision about it will be taken at some point this year. As committed supporters of British imperialist interests, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party is in favour of renewal. However, so are the leaders of two of the three largest trade unions – Unite and the GMB. GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny said that ‘If anybody thinks that unions like the GMB are going to go quietly into the night while tens of thousands of our members’ jobs are literally Swaneed away by rhetoric, then they’ve got another shock coming.’ GMB officials have made it clear that they will fight for Trident renewal and defend the ‘high-skilled, well-paid unionised work’ it will provide. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey wants a free vote for Labour MPs on the issue saying that a failure to renew it will ‘decimate’ communities like Barrow-in-Furness where the submarines would be built. Kenny and McCluskey have made their choice between the jobs of a small number of skilled workers and the possible destruction of the human race.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 249 February/March 2016