I hardly ever watch the TV news, but I did last night. The faces of defeated Labour right wingers, listening to the announcement that Jeremy Corbyn is the new party leader, were a sight to see. Seven of them quit the Shadow
Cabinet straight away. Ha ha ha. Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett and other pro-austerity monsters who served in Tony Blair’s governments growled at interviewers.
(Note to non-UK readers. Corbyn, 66, who won the leadership election with 59.5% of the votes, has been a Labour MP since 1983, opponent of the right wing on key political issues (austerity, NATO membership, nuclear weapons, etc) and chairman of the Stop the War coalition.)
As the Weather came on after the news, I fantasised about Blair, who with George Bush sanctioned the murderous assault on Iraq in 2003, being put on trial for war crimes. The Labour leadership election makes no difference to whether this will ever happen: it was just the mood of the evening and the beer I was drinking.
Who voted for Corbyn?
There’s been plenty in the papers about the 105,598 “registered supporters” – who paid £3 to participate in the ballot – of whom 83.8% voted for Corbyn. (Among the 41,217 “affiliated supporters”, affiliated mainly via trade unions, he got 57.6%.) But it’s also significant that among the Labour Party’s 245,520 full members who voted, Corbyn got 49.6%.
The vote was a rejection of Blair-ism, a rejection of politicians who speak in insincere soundbites, and a rejection of austerity policies.
As far as I can see from talking to friends and acquaintances, Corbyn was backed by two big groups of people: 1. Existing Labour Party members who always loathed Blair, and – after 30 years of electoral policies directed at competing with the Tories for the “middle ground” and failure in the general election in May – have also had enough of the centre right (represented in the election by Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper). 2. Young people who hate austerity policies, hate war and nuclear weapons, and have either voted Labour once or twice without conviction, or never voted before. Some of them may be active in local politics or community campaigns – but in the electronic age, it’s fair to assume that many of them signed up on line and have done little or no physical activism in the real world.
Those that are active, we have seen: they turned up in their thousands to Corbyn’s campaign rallies. They were also out on yesterday’s march to welcome refugees, out on the big anti-austerity march in June … and in Scotland, they were out voting for independence in the referendum last year, and against Labour at the general election.
This heterogenous wave of rejection of establishment politics and austerity policies, that could be labelled “anti-austerity”, has wiped out Labour in Scotland, one of its historic heartlands, and now installed as leader someone who is not part of the Labour establishment machine.
A crisis of control?
One way to see the defeat of Labour in Scotland, and Corbyn’s election as leader, is as a chapter in the crisis of social democracy as a method of ruling and controlling the working class, a means of co-opting it into, and tying it to, the political system that administers and protects capitalism.
Social democracy didn’t start out as a mechanism of control, but as an attempt by European workers’ organisations (trade unions, co-operatives, etc) in the late 19th century to give themselves a voice in parliament. Then the labour movement’s parliamentary representatives joined pro-capitalist governments (e.g in France from the 1890s and the UK from the 1920s), voted for murderous imperialist wars (across Europe in 1914 and subsequently) and bargained and compromised with their opposite numbers in openly capitalist parties.
After the second world war, social democracy was a key element in the Keynesian deal that guaranteed power to capital, and improved living conditions, and the welfare state, to workers in the richer European countries. This was social democracy’s heyday as a mechanism for subordinating those workers’ political aspirations to the capitalist state. From the 1980s, the Keynesian deal was superceded by “neo-liberalism” (a catch-all term I don’t much like, covering globalisation, a new stage in the domination of financial capital, and the offensive against the welfare state and what workers had gained) – and in the UK, social democracy morphed into its openly anti-working-class, pro-war Blairite form.
Then came the 2008-09 economic crisis, which seemed to be a break in (or even an end to?) the “neo-liberal” stage. Internationally, capitalism is thrashing around for a new political order. I don’t know what’s coming next, but it will not be a return to Keynesianism. And that means that in the richer European countries such as the UK, retrieving that post-war deal for the working class is not possible. A return to “old Labour” is an illusion. Social democracy can not go back to being what it was.
In this context, the Labour Party’s crisis – its obliteration in Scotland, the timidity of its response to the right-wing, racist populism of UKIP in some parts of England, its apparent inability to communicate with working-class people who are under 40 and not in a steady job, or with migrant workers – is part of a long-term, terminal crisis of social democracy, which in turn is part of the larger crisis of capitalist rule.
There’s no clearer expression of that crisis than the Labour bureaucracy’s disastrous (from its point of view) decision to change the voting system for leadership elections. Perhaps they thought that, by opening up to ordinary party members and “registered supporters”, they would empower the people they meet at focus groups, management training courses or neighbourhood watch meetings. They badly miscalculated. They showed how out of touch they are with the real world. They brought in a load of Corbyn voters.
Now they are all groaning that the Labour Party could become “unelectable”. I’m not so sure: it could get a second wind, it could attract people who have never voted to vote (as Barack Obama did when he first stood for the US presidency) … but if Labour does become unelectable, that’s a problem, more than anything, for the ruling class. Without two strong parties, tweedledum and tweedledee, the British parliamentary system ceases to work as a means of social control.
What happens now?
Many friends of mine hope that a Corbyn-led Labour party will somehow invigorate social and labour movements. I don’t really share this optimism. The Labour Party is a political machine that operates in parliament and local government; I have seen no evidence that its connection with working-class communities, constantly eroded and assaulted for the last 30 years or more, is being restored. And it’s not the job of activists in those movements to restore it.
By all accounts Corbyn is not a political machine man – in fact that’s a big part of why he is popular. But now he has to do things, and he will be compelled (i) to cut deals with Labour party factions (and he’s made it crystal clear he will work with them all, up to and including the Blairites, if they will work with him), and (ii) turn for advice to those with whom he has had the closest political relationships during his career, i.e. the tiny remnants of the Labour left (e.g. his election agent John McDonnell MP), the Stalinist remains of the Communist Party (represented by the Morning Star newspaper, in which Corbyn writes regularly), Keynesian economists (such as those who drafted his economic policy), and a few Trotskyists who have disappeared furthest into the Labour machine. (For more on Corbyn’s politics, see the links at the end.)
How will a Labour left loner operate in high political office? We have the example of Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000 to 2008. He buried his strongest anti-poverty policy – cheap public transport – and combined flashes of rhetoric with a good working relationship with the City of London, the enhancement of which as a global financial centre he did all he could to support. I live in London, and I know of a few laudable welfare projects that benefited from funding from the mayor’s office in Livingstone’s time – but I can’t think of a single social movement or labour struggle that was significantly strengthened by his presence. (If someone can think of an example to prove me wrong, please say so.)
The gloomiest of my friends think that Corbyn, less of a political “operator” than Livingstone, won’t even get as far as Livingstone did, and that he will be destroyed by Blairite sabotage. But if Corbyn and his colleagues can disrupt the parliamentary and local government spheres by echoing the demands of social and labour movements, fine. If they can temporarily block some of the secondary consequences of the capitalist crisis and the government’s austerity policies, or e.g. shield some refugees from the vindictive violence of the state, all well and good. But let it not be at the price of dragging activists, whose energies are best spent building, and rebuilding, labour and social movement organisations, into electoral politics.
Imagine for a moment that a Corbyn-led Labour party gets into government. All that will matter then, in terms of the battle of social and labour movements against capital, will be the strength of those movements outside parliament and local government. That’s where energy is best directed now. Surely that is the lesson of Greece. GL, 13 September 2015.
Some interesting comments on Jeremy Corbyn’s politics
■ The Stalinist-influenced aspects of Corbyn’s policies are evident in his attitude to the conflict in Ukraine, about which I’ve written regularly on this site. See Corbyn and Ukraine: it’s not pretty, by Paulo Canning, Corbyn’s election means Ukraine is Stuffed, by Paulo Canning and Why such contempt for human rights, Mr Corbyn, by Halya Conyash.
Some interesting comments on social and labour movements
A note to regular readers. I have not written on this blog for the last couple of months, due to work and other stuff. I should get back to writing regularly next month. GL.