Confronting the agents of capital: a Corbynista’s dilemma

Some thoughts on the election from Liverpool Riverside. A guest post by JOHN GRAHAM DAVIES

Listening to Radio 4 on Tuesday morning was a lesson in the gloating ruthlessness of our ruling class. We had just heard a clip of Jeremy Corbyn giving a dignified, measured assessment of his, and our, calamitous loss in the election. Corbyn explained why it was necessary for him to stay on for a short transitional period.

Cut to the studio: a cackling young BBC journalist, with an accent which sounded like it came out of one our more expensive public schools, armed with the obligatory fragment of Latin.

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a crowd outside St George's Hall, Liverpool, in 2016

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a crowd outside St George’s Hall, Liverpool, in 2016

“What’s the opposite of mea culpa? Ha ha ha! Not much self-criticism there, is there? Bit of a non mea culpa if you ask me.”

This braying buffoon, like so many of the other highly paid liars at the BBC, lives in so much of a bubble that he seems unaware of how much in contempt most of the British public now hold him. Him and his beloved BBC, that pompous foghorn of the state.

A right-wing Labour member of parliament was sharing the studio and made no attempt to silence the attack, or challenge it.

We all know that the knives are out for Jeremy Corbyn, but they are also aimed at our movement as a whole, and her silence was a reminder of that.

This election result, according to those who hold the wellbeing of our class most dearly to heart – well paid journos; former Labour politicians now earning nice salaries fronting radio shows; Tory politicians who sportingly feel it is “so vital” for our “democracy” to have a “proper opposition”; Labour MPs who have spent the past three years slandering the party that generates their generous salary and pension arrangements – all demand (for the good health of the Labour Party of course!) that this result must mark the definitive defeat of Corbynism as a movement.

If we mean by Corbynism something that was attempting to build a broad socialist coalition going beyond Westminster elections, then I don’t think it has necessarily failed – yet.

But I think we have to be honest. Last Thursday was a catastrophic defeat and we know what will follow in its wake: spiralling worries about money, how to feed our children, mental health problems.

All these – bad already – will get worse. We will see more homeless people on the streets, and some of us, particularly elderly and disabled people, will die younger as a result of cuts and our health service being given away to the sniggering spivs of the City and Wall Street.

It will be harder for our unions to rebuild and fight back. Racism, violence and the far right will grow.

There are things that we can do to try and counter all this, but this is what the victory of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) over Corbyn last Thursday means.

For that is what the election was.

The victory was not only Johnson’s. It also belongs to those on the right of the party (i.e. most of the PLP) who have worked night and day for the past three years to undermine Corbyn and the ideas of the movement which made Corbyn’s leadership possible.

We don’t forget the shocked and disappointed face of Stephen Kinnock at the exit poll announcement in 2017. He was smiling smugly on Question Time the day after this election. A defeat for Corbyn was vital for these careerist leeches, and they worked might and main for it. The bulk of them remain.

Before I move on to Brexit, it’s important to briefly mention the context, the Labour Party context, which has fuelled much of the scatter gun anger felt by many working class communities.

Others have written about the effect that Labour cuts have had. The fact that these originated in Tory government funding cuts to Labour councils was of no comfort to those seeing their services shredded. For many, Labour’s claim to be “for the many” must have rung hollow.

The fact that some of this righteous anger took the form for support for Brexit, and in many cases a little Englander mentality closely related to racism, should be no surprise.

One of the first acts of the Blair government, when it first took office in 1997, was to capitulate in the face of an assault by the media on “asylum seekers” and “economic migrants”. Fifteen years down the line, some Labour MPs were still talking about creating “hostile environments”. This was all manure for the far right and racism.

Coming out of that context, Brexit was a big factor. But, for me, neither the Brexit issue nor its effect on the election result are as straightforward as some comrades claim.

It was a difficult issue to deal with, given the twin demands of on the one hand our movement’s much vaunted (though seldom realised) tradition of internationalism and anti-racism, and on the other of recognising the hatred felt towards the institutions of the EU by those working class communities decimated by Thatcher, and then left to rot, clutching their lottery tickets in hope, by Blairism and, by extension in their eyes, the EU.

So it was a difficult issue and how it played out in parliament did us no favours. But it was certainly a big factor in the election result.

But so was the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Or should I say, so was the portrayal of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

In the canvassing that I did, it was clear that a sizeable number of voters had doubts about Corbyn. These doubts were often vague. Yes, some voiced ludicrous claims about the abolition of the army (once), allowing the rest of the world in (if only it were true!), meetings with the IRA, and, of course, antisemitism. But when asked for details about these fears, they collapsed quite quickly into an inarticulate sense of unease.

Voters were unsure or hostile, but often found it difficult to express the exact nature of their opposition to Corbyn. There was a general sense that he was dodgy, weak, and probably a racist.

The effect of the media lies and smears has been for a thin layer of disapproving dust, disapproving of Corbyn in person, to settle on a lot of people. This shouldn’t surprise us, and the media campaign should not on its own have been enough to have turned a significant section of the electorate against Corbyn.

The problem was that the campaign wasn’t properly challenged – for two reasons.

Firstly, a large and very vocal section of the PLP was noisily re-inforcing the smears, or in many instances instigating them. Our own MP in Riverside, Louise Ellman, had carte blanche to lie about Corbyn and about local pro-Corbyn members. For three years she had open access to every TV channel and newspaper column in the country to spread this filth. She was energetically supported in this, both locally by a small group of Liverpool councillors, and nationally by a network of MPs, Dame Margaret Hodge being only the most prominent amongst many.

As a sidenote, Ellman’s fantasies about antisemitism reached their comic nadir when she claimed on national radio to be able to sense that Jeremy Corbyn had antisemitic thoughts, even though Jeremy didn’t himself know he was having them. Twenty years ago there was a psychic called Doris Stokes who used to earn a good living at the London Palladium peddling this kind of thing. If Ellman can add the laying-on of hands to her repertoire, she might get a call from the late Doris’s agent.

The hostile, unremittingly false media campaign was out of our control. But right-wing Labour MPs shouldn’t have been. MPs like Ellman and Hodge should have been de-selected or expelled two years ago.

Unfortunately there was opposition to this course of action from most of the leadership around Corbyn, and by some on the left. Certainly, in our Constituency Labour Party (CLP), there was far too great an appetite from its leadership to hide behind “advice” from anti-Corbyn regional officials, and carry on a kind of “peaceful co-existence”. This “advice” was then marketed as “instructions” to the membership, preventing free discussion about the need to have Open Selection, or to discuss the slanders aimed at the most prominent and staunch pro-Corbyn members (e.g. Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Tony Greenstein, Chris Williamson).

So the failure to deal with those in the PLP hell bent on destroying Corbyn’s leadership was a serious mistake in my view, and permitted the character assassination to continue unabated for three years. We should have protected him and our fellow comrades better.

The second factor which allowed this paper-thin veneer of disapproval to settle on Corbyn – for some of our electorate at least – was the failure to robustly challenge the various witch hunts, most centrally the fake antisemitism campaign. We should have been clearer and, in Chris Williamson’s words, less apologetic.

Antisemitism is the oldest and – for the numbers killed, and the chilling industrial efficiency of the Holocaust, among other reasons – the foulest of the various racisms in our racist country. And antisemitism still exists throughout our society.

But it is at its most ideological in our ruling class and within the far right. As recently as the noughties, a Tory front bencher characterised the problems of the Tory Party as being centred on Michael Howard, Oliver Letwin and Charles Saatchi because … “could they know how Englishmen felt?”. This isn’t a slip in language, an ambiguous mural, a re-tweet of an obscure antisemitic meme or a harmless joke about Jewishness. It’s conscious, ideological racism.

The Labour Party has no reason to be defensive about its record fighting antisemitism. Had it not been for the labour movement in general, with the Labour Party at its heart, antisemitism would not have been challenged at Cable Street. This fight against Oswald Mosley was carried out against the wishes of the Jewish Board of Deputies, but with the support of vast numbers of Labour Party members, many of them Jewish. And we have no reason to be apologetic or defensive about antisemitism now.

Allowing ourselves to be driven onto the defensive had a negative effect in two ways.

Firstly, for those who were inclined to be taken in by the fake claims, our defensiveness and unending apologies made it look suspicious – as if we had indeed been up to something.

Secondly, for those who saw the smears for what they were, a political campaign to destabilise the Corbyn movement, our repeated apologies were a puzzle, demoralising, or worse. For these people, Corbyn’s repeated self-flagellation in the face of a fake campaign appeared strange. I have heard numerous people say so. For some, it took the shine off his well-earned reputation for plain speaking and probity. For others it appeared weak.

Since the election result, the witch-hunters have renewed their campaign with confidence. They have to be challenged robustly and directly.

The result of this prevarication and compromise was that some in the leadership ended up actually participating in the witch hunt. Much has been written about Momentum’s degeneration, both in terms of its democracy and its participation in the witch hunt. This was eventually echoed in the CLPs.

From being initially staunch opponents (at least vocally) of the witch hunt, some leading left members in our CLP ended up supporting it, or urging silence in the face of the suspensions. Solidarity with those suspended locally became weaker. And this was only an echo of what was going on in the national leadership circle.

As far as I understand, Chris Williamson’s expulsion was discussed by John McDonnell and his advisors – and McDonnell maintained a deafening silence when Williamson was suspended. At around the same time, McDonnell appeared in a cosy interview with Alistair Campbell, the snake oil salesman who sold us the mass murder in Iraq. During this chat, McDonnell chummily told Campbell that he’d happily have Campbell back in the party.

So in the same week we had two things: the strongest voice in parliament defending Corbyn being thrown to the wolves, and cosy overtures being made to a notorious Blairite liar.

I found this change in McDonnell quite shocking, and, if I’m perfectly honest, demoralising.

I felt the same shock listening to comrades locally who were quite happy to watch as a succession of innocent comrades were thrown under the bus on spurious charges, and who seemed indifferent to the fact that local right-wing councillors were behind this, routinely running to the hostile press, slandering local members, creating stress, health problems and family conflict.

Loss of solidarity at the top was followed by the same thing in our CLP.

Demoralisation and drift away from the Party has been evident on social media for two years, but has speeded up in the last nine months. Those who have left were among the most politically conscious and experienced Corbyn supporters. Momentum membership has plummeted. There has been an initiative by some ex-Momentum members, and others concerned about the absence of a democratic grass roots movement, to set up a national Left Alliance. This may still go somewhere.

But the Party was seriously weakened at the grass roots before this election was called. You could see it at the various rallies, which whilst still outshining the Tories by a country mile, did not have the size or fervour of 2017.

So, where do we go from here? Is the Labour Party the vehicle we need to bring about radical, fundamental social change? Is it up to the task? Can it even play a part in a wider movement?

I’m asking that question because this article is aimed at those party members who do not want a return to the free-market, capital-friendly Labour Party of the past, which is being presented to us as inevitable.

If you can’t face that, there are two alternatives, it seems to me:

  • We stay inside the Party, and make sure we get as good a leader as we can, continuing, as far as is possible, in the spirit of the Corbyn movement’s ideas. This will involve an urgent and determined fight to democratise the Party: open meetings, no limits on discussion, rotation of CLP officers.
  • We join with others, those socialists who remained outside, in a broad, democratic, grassroots movement.

I think we should do both. I don’t suggest this though without misgivings.

A close political friend told me four years ago that he wouldn’t be joining because the Labour Party was corrupt, pro-imperialist, and was incapable of change. Fuelling illusions in its capacity to do so would only bring about disappointment and alienation from politics for a large number of people. That comment has popped into my head a good deal recently.

I have to say that my own experience of the party is that its machinery has not changed much since a lot of us joined in 2015. The party’s bureaucracy remains out of democratic control, and its disciplinary processes are opaque and corrupt. Despite some limited improvements, attempts to change these things have essentially failed.

However, we do have some things in our favour. Half a million voices – while they remain – can make a lot of noise. Two or three hundred thousand people, a lot of them young and previously unengaged with politics, have experienced a very intense political education: the importance of trade unions, of fighting social injustice, learning about the Palestinian struggle. This knowledge and experience won’t go away.

The question is, will that knowledge now become active, part of an ongoing struggle, or will it turn to disappointment and disillusion. And if we do continue to try to change the course of this massive, undemocratic tanker that is the Labour Party, do we do it by trying to accommodate those on the right whose careers and material interests are bound up with a political ideology alien to ours?

In my view, the right wing of the Labour Party is a representative of capital within the workers’ movement. It acts as an agency of capital. Without defeating it, there can be no democratic socialist movement. It is acting now, ruthlessly, to try to extinguish our movement and our hopes. We need to confront it, without compromise, and re-build our trade unions and grass roots organisation. Our leaders can’t do this, we have to.

The Radio 4 programme I mentioned at the beginning of this article continued with the same journalists speculating on the next Labour leader. As if to reinforce how detached they are, one of these hired mouthpieces opined that the right-wing Labour MP Jess Phillips was a real, viable contender.

He continued, “those fanatical Corbynistas from 2015, they’ll all have disappeared in a week or so!”

Let’s prove them wrong.

More election comments on People & Nature: Nightmare on Downing Street (Gabriel Levy, 16 December), and After the election: standing up to the global rise of nationalism (Martin Beveridge, 17 December)

People & Nature site contents 

4 Responses to Confronting the agents of capital: a Corbynista’s dilemma

  1. Gabriel Levy says:

    I am really grateful to John for contributing this to People & Nature. I have a couple of comments, on things that he and I have talked about on and off for the past couple of years.

    First, I agree with John that the Labour right wing has been a key force in mobilising the witch-hunt against the Corbyn leadership, and that that leadership has itself often retreated in front of, and ended up contributing to, that witch hunt. For me a key moment was when Margaret Hodge – whose own ability to stand up to racism has been tested, and failed miserably, when she stood in the Barking byelection – accused Corbyn personally of being a racist and antisemite, a vile slander for which there was not a shred of evidence. This was some time ago, and the Labour left’s tame reaction to it encouraged their enemies.

    However, I don’t agree with John that, as he puts it here, “the Labour Party has no reason to be defensive about its record fighting antisemitism”. He himself points out that, under Tony Blair, Labour became a cesspool of anti-migrant and racist arguments. Why would we imagine antisemitism wouldn’t be in there too? As far as I know, it was.

    Against John I would quote Corbyn himself, in the letter he wrote in March last year to the British Board of Deputies. See here: “While the forms of anti-Semitism expressed on the far Right of politics are easily detectable, such as Holocaust denial, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism in the labour movement. Sometimes this evil takes familiar forms – the east London mural which has caused such understandable controversy is an example. The idea of Jewish bankers and capitalists exploiting the workers of the world is an old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. This was long ago, and rightly, described as ‘the socialism of fools’.”

    Some people in the Labour Party think that sending this letter was a sign of weakness. I don’t. I think it showed Corbyn’s strength.

    Second, this “socialism of fools” is all too often combined with what Leila al-Shami called, in a piece that I republished on this blog, “the anti-imperialism of idiots”.

    A regular exponent of this anti-imperialism of idiots is Chris Williamson, who John cites so approvingly. If Williamson really was “the strongest voice in parliament defending Corbyn”, that’s probably one of the many reasons Corbyn found himself in such trouble. Williamson’s “anti-imperialism” has led to him publicly endorsing Vanessa Beeley, the notorious propagandist for the vile regime of Bashar al-Assad. The victims of Assad’s murder and torture squads include not only hundreds of thousands of Syrians but also many more Palestinians than have been murdered or tortured by the Israeli state.

    John refers to Corbyn’s anti-imperialism, which is not of the same crude brand as Williamson’s. But it’s not that far from it either. And part of Corbyn’s problem is that he surrounds himself with Stalinist propagandists like Seumas Milne who just can’t bring themselves to denounce Vladimir Putin and his doings in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.

    If the positive sides of the Corbynism to which John refers is to flourish, it needs to reject this bankrupt type of politics.

  2. 80 or so Jews (from outside the UK) published an open letter denouncing the smears of anti-Semitism against Labour and Corbyn. it’s here
    Gabriel makes some very good points about Corbyn’s “anti-imperialism”. Corbyn never supported the Syrian people and would not criticize Russia. Morally indefensible and something that made him and Labour look weak and foolish.
    Stanley Heller

  3. louisproyect says:

    It seems like Catch-22 to me. The only way that Corbynism can succeed is if it begins to reverse the decline in the Midlands, et al. But unless it assumes the reins of power, it cannot begin reversing the effects of New Labour.

  4. John GW Davies says:

    I agree with some of Gabriel’s response.
    I don’t think that the LP has any reason to be on the defensive about antisemitism. About racism in general, certainly. About the appalling racist response to the migrant crisis in the early noughties and later, certainly. About islamophobia, about Windrush, without doubt. But antisemitism? Other than outside the wilder fringes of the far right, I don’t remember it featuring as part of the refugee hysteria or in mainstream racist discourse for a long time.
    That the LP has been ok on antisemitism isn’t a particular badge of honour of course. Antisemitism is at historically low levels, and for it to be pretty absent from the LP isn’t that surprising. By antisemitism I mean ideological antisemitism, conscious race hatred.
    Most of the expulsions in Labour recently have been the result of people using lazy language or posting pieces which, though driven by anger of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, repeat memes used by conscious antisemites. These actions can and should be corrected by a quiet word or more ongoing education. The tiny number of those persistently posting Jewish conspiracy theories obviously have no place in the LP.
    As for Chris Williamson, he wasn’t expelled because he was a bad anti-imperialist. Behind his expuIsion lay false charges of antisemitism. He should have been supported, irrespective of mistakes on other issues. This (in my opinion) wrong thinking was expressed by some on the left who failed to support Ken Livingstone. Whatever weaknesses people may identify in KL (love of the camera, selling out the GLC struggle, an aptitude for opening his mouth when he should stop and think) he is no antisemite. In the face of a smear from the right, that’s all we need to know.
    Allowing Livingstone to be kicked out on the basis of a smear campaign was the first of as series of terrible mistakes, again in my view. I continued supporting the Khomeini regimein the early eighties (he didn’t need my support as it turned out) beyond the time when he started murdering socialists. I hope if I get charged with antisemitism (again!) no-one uses that appalling mistake as a reason not to campaign on my behalf.

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