CORBYN FEVER? Outbreak of faint radicalism in Liverpool

Attendees at Labour Conference 2018 wave Palestine flags

With the Tory government on the ropes over Brexit, the Labour Party conference had to show it would be a safe pair of hands, to manage the affairs of British imperialism if it wins the next general election. Crucially this required a coherent and unified position on Brexit which would meet the needs of the ruling class. But it required more: given the furore over allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, there needed to be reassurance that support for the Israeli state would be maintained, there would be no move to the left and that the most nakedly pro-capitalist wing of the party would not be sidelined. The conference was a deeply reactionary affair which Corbyn’s radical rhetoric at the end could not disguise. ROBERT CLOUGH reports.

Brexit divisions papered over

While divisions over the EU exist within the Labour Party and were on view during the conference, they related mostly to the possibility of a second referendum and the questions it might include. On crucial questions such as opposition to Prime Minister May’s Chequers plan, and the need to maintain membership of the customs union, there was unity. Labour remains committed to Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer’s six tests for a Brexit deal:

  • Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
  • Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?
  • Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
  • Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
  • Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
  • Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

The Chequers plan will not deliver continued membership of the customs union, so Labour is on a collision course with the government whatever deal is brought before Parliament in November. Labour’s divisions revolve around membership of the single market; these would have a bearing on any possible second referendum and the questions it would include. One third of Labour MPs are pro-Brexit and reject continued membership because it requires free movement of labour. However, there are many other MPs who wish to remain, and they showed their hand in Parliament on 13 June when 75 of them defied Corbyn’s instructions to abstain and supported a Lords’ amendment requiring the government to back membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which would allow participation in the single market; a further 15 voted against.

The strength of the anti-Brexit wing of the Labour Party has a material base. The majority of the new, younger Labour Party members who joined during Corbyn’s leadership campaigns are opposed to Brexit: university graduates whose expectation of privilege is already being undermined by unemployment or underemployment; state sector workers experiencing harsher working conditions and lower pay; technical and professional staff in the private sector in a similar position. They see continued EU membership as essential for restoring their position and maintaining adequate state services in the future: they have no illusions that this would be possible post-Brexit especially if there is no deal. As former Europe Minister Pat McFadden said in June: ‘We need to address working class discontent but we do not take the first step to doing that by making the country poorer, to not get the wealth for public services, for housing, and for the better chance in life our working classes deserve.’

The broad agreement however on continued membership of the customs union marks the clearest point of Labour’s opposition to the Chequers plan. Unlike membership of the single market, it does not require acceptance of free movement of labour and so answers the racist concerns of those MPs who represent pro-Brexit constituencies, such as Caroline Flint who said ‘I do believe there should be a customs arrangement’, but added ‘the terms of EEA membership clearly do not allow the sort of changes to freedom of movement that some of my right honourable and honourable friends have suggested…  This is not an adequate response to public concern to the lack of control the UK has had over EU migration since 2004.’ Furthermore, customs union membership avoids the problem of a hard border between the north of Ireland and the 26 counties, and the impossible logistical situation that would arise from establishing customs controls in ports on the south coast and elsewhere.

Preparing a composite motion on Brexit to put to the conference had involved more than 100 delegates debating for five hours over its text. An early draft which proposed ‘a public vote on the terms of Brexit’ was rejected by delegates as being too prescriptive as it appeared to rule out an option to remain within the EU. The final draft stated: ‘If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.’ The preferred option, however, would be to force a general election.

This did not put a stop to all public disagreements. At the beginning of the conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was clear: if the deal that May negotiated was unacceptable, and there was no possibility of a general election, then ‘we’ll have a people’s vote on the deal itself and whether we can negotiate a better one.’ There would be no option for voting to remain. McDonnell, like Corbyn, is opposed to membership of the single market since it would not only allow free movement of labour, but also free movement of capital, which in their view would undermine plans for more state intervention. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey was of a similar view, declaring emphatically that ‘the referendum shouldn’t be on “Do you want to go back into the European Union?”’ Starmer however had the better feel for what the conference wanted to hear when he got a standing ovation after declaring that ‘nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.’ Such a declaration costs little since it depends on the materialisation of a set of hypothetical circumstances in the future.

Maintaining the alliance with Zionism

Given the furore over Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism, the conference had to show that a Labour government would not challenge British imperialism’s alliance with the Israeli state. The National Executive Committee’s (NEC) capitulation over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism at the beginning of September (see ‘Corbyn capitulates to Zionism’ on our website) had upset so many Labour Party members that they had to be given time to vent their feelings about the position of the Palestinian people. However, the policy outcome was carefully designed to result in minimal change (see p4), and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz could observe that freezing British arms sales to Israel:

‘… is largely declarative, as Israel does not acquire any major weapons systems from Britain – just a few things that could easily be bought elsewhere. In fact, as far as arms sales go, British acquisitions of Israeli drones, missiles and airborne systems crucial to British operations – as well as most British military-flight training, which has been outsourced to an Israeli-led consortium – is more than tenfold the value of British arms bought by Israel.’

Rejecting mandatory reselection

The lead-up to Labour’s conference had seen a lot of media speculation about the possibility of right-wing Labour MPs splitting away to form a new party, with the catalyst being mandatory reselection. From the point at which Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015, Momentum and the left of the Labour Party had prioritised reform of the constitution to ensure greater membership control of the process of selecting MPs and the party leader. Their declared intention was to drive out right-wing MPs by forcing all MPs to go through a reselection process prior to any general election.

This year’s conference was supposed to be a watershed for their campaign: but little changed. Trade union delegations moved to protect Blairite MPs by voting down any significant extension of membership involvement. A proposal to reduce the threshold for candidates to get on a ballot for leadership – 10% of Labour MPs at present – failed: the only change was to add two extra thresholds – a potential candidate has to win the support of 5% of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and 5% of affiliated trade union members as well. A further proposal for mandatory re-selection of MPs by CLPs also failed. Before the conference, reselection of an MP could only be triggered if more than 50% of CLP members demanded it. The NEC proposal that this be reduced to one third was accepted. Corbyn had been opposed to mandatory reselection in order to maintain a semblance of unity within the Parliamentary Labour Party: the reactionary trade union leadership came to his support to block any extension of elementary democracy.

Corbyn’s role as Labour leader has been to ensure that the party remains committed to the defence of the interests of the ruling class. His radical conference rhetoric about ‘greed-is- good capitalism’, ‘handouts to the few, paid for by the many’, his declaration that ‘we can no longer tolerate a set-up where the real economy is just a sort of sideshow for the City of London’, his denunciation of the ‘failure of privatisation and outsourcing’, now a ‘national disaster zone’ delighted an uncritical audience.  But it has no content: there is no working class movement to provide any substance.

Three years of Corbyn leadership have seen Labour councils continue to slash jobs and services. There has been no serious struggle to defend the NHS or to solve the housing crisis for working class people. Millions of working class people are enduring deepening poverty through cuts in welfare benefits. Corbyn has changed nothing for them. Boasting about the 500,000 Labour Party members cannot disguise the fact that in essence it has not changed. Rather than promote a fight against austerity, his leadership has ensured the atrophy of already limited anti-austerity campaigns. His readiness to capitulate in the face of the Zionist campaign over alleged anti-Semitism must serve as a warning. The pressures in government will be infinitely greater – how could he possibly withstand them? Once again, the lives of the working class will be at stake.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018


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