The prospect of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn being the next Labour leader is sending shivers of fear through most of its MPs and the party bureaucracy. But it’s energising many anti-austerity activists.
War criminal Tony Blair has launched an assault telling anyone whose heart told them to go with Corbyn to “get a transplant”.
He added, “Unity does not work if you’re all together in the bus going over the edge of the cliff.”
Several of the MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership now say they regret their action.
But many Labour members back Corbyn, and there’s no mystery about his popularity. He speaks clearly for an alternative to austerity, racism and war.
Whatever the Labour right says, Corbyn’s views are widely popular with people who back rail renationalisation, rent controls and taxing the rich more.
He doesn’t just speak—he’s been on protests and picket lines for more than 40 years.
This sets him apart from the other three candidates. At one recent event Corbyn supported boycotts and divestment against Israel in support of the Palestinians.
Andy Burnham called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign “spiteful” and “completely unjustified”, Yvette Cooper said it was “counterproductive” and Liz Kendall said she would fight it with “every fibre in her being”.
Corbyn has become a focus for the widespread feeling that we cannot take another five years of the Tories and that Labour is much, much too right wing.
The Labour leadership instructing MPs not to vote against the Tories’ savaging of welfare (and four fifths of Labour MPs including Burnham, Cooper and Kendall disgracefully following) strongly confirms that view.
Across Europe many Labour-style parties have nosedived as they implemented austerity and allied themselves with the political establishment.
In Greece Pasok has almost been obliterated. In the Spanish state the equivalent of Labour is under severe challenge from the radical Podemos party.
In Scotland Labour was virtually annihilated by a Scottish National Party (SNP) that spoke to its left.
In England and Wales, in the absence of sustained working class struggle or a credible mass alternative to Labour, Corbyn has acted as a lightning-rod for the yearning for a “better left”.
We welcome the widespread backing for Corbyn as a sign of support for left ideas and the potential for resistance. But there are four sets of lessons from Labour’s recent history that are important.
First, its leaders traditionally bow towards the bankers, bosses and media barons, to chase votes.
They are horrified when they imagine what the Daily Mail newspaper would do with Corbyn as leader, and see no way of overcoming it.
At the general election Labour ran a cowardly campaign which, despite its occasional lurches towards more inspiring policies, firmly followed the pro-austerity consensus.
As the campaign progressed, Ed Miliband underlined Labour’s determination to cut the deficit, balance the books—and repulse the SNP.
Labour also pandered to the poisonous lie that migrants are to blame for low wages, too few jobs, the housing crisis and cuts in public services.
If you want to know why 15 million people did not vote, the roots lie in Labour’s failure to offer a real alternative to the Tories.
Yet after the election the main drive from those at the top of Labour has been rightwards.
Jeremy Corbyn would agree with this criticism. But Labour has 232 MPs, and only nine are members of the Socialist Campaign Group to which he belongs. That’s why there is talk of civil war inside Labour if Corbyn wins.
Secondly, there has been a decades-long decline in Labour’s hold on working class votes, particularly in the era of New Labour. In 1997 Labour won the election with 13.5 million votes.
It wasn’t Tony Blair’s brilliance that secured this success. Instead it was because the Tories were rightly seen as corrupt and interested only in a tiny (rich) section of society.
At the next election in 2001, even before the blood-soaked Iraq War, Labour’s vote fell by nearly 3 million. Another 1.1 million departed by 2005, and another million by 2010.
New Labour’s rotten record of boosting inequality and embracing the rich at home, and championing imperialist slaughter abroad drove away five million votes.
Over the same period its membership slumped from 405,000 to around 180,000. New Labour was disastrous.
Thirdly, struggle is more fundamental than slick political campaigning. People’s views are shaped by experience.
The student revolt of 2010 and the mass strikes and marches of 2011 gave momentum to an anti-Tory mood in Britain. Workers’ sense of solidarity and confidence grew.
But the choking off of the strikes by trade union and Labour leaders eroded the feeling of collective revolt.
In its place came the pressures of individualism and hesitation about following a Labour Party that seemed scared of any real change.
It’s not enough to just put forward left policies. There needs to be the wellspring of resistance and revolt to change people’s ideas.
But there is a fourth level of analysis about Labour where Corbyn differs from us.
It is that power does not lie in parliament. The state structures of the police, army, judges, prisons and spies are wholly insulated from democracy. They exist to thwart change, not enable it.
The unelected and unaccountable owners of capital will use their financial and social power to block reforms that threaten business.
They will use global institutions to bully governments, they will engineer currency panics, choke off credit and funds or withdraw investment and close factories.
And if none of that works (and it usually does) they will use violence to defend their rule. Only by tackling the system at its roots can such blackmail be defeated.
That means a party based on struggle—not elections—and on strikes and protests, not parliament. It means fighting for revolution not reform.
It means a socialist alternative to Labour, built in the struggle and through working in common battles alongside people inside and outside Labour. That’s what the SWP is doing.
The history of Labour is a history of betrayed hope because the party seeks change without challenging capitalism or the state. Even at its high points, such as the 1945 government, Labour only went as far as the capitalists would permit it.
So good luck to Corbyn, and we argue inside the unions affiliated to Labour that they should recommend a vote for him.
We hope his campaign will encourage a stronger movement on the streets and in the workplaces against austerity and racism.
We hope all Corbyn’s supporters come to the Manchester demonstration at the Tory party conference in October.
But we are not joining Labour, or registering as supporters—a process that requires a pledge that “I support the aims and values of the Labour Party, and I am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it”.
There is a real danger that Corbyn’s campaign can turn people back to the worm-eaten project of transforming Labour.
If you sign up to support Corbyn, why not stay to help Diane Abbott be the candidate for London mayor, or to select a better local MP or councillor?
That’s a dead-end.
In 1981 Tony Benn waged a massive campaign to be the deputy leader of the Labour Party. It terrified the ruling class. Many socialists who had organised separately from Labour plunged into the party.
The SWP’s Paul Foot wrote to Benn’s supporters at the end of the campaign.
His main appeal was not to be “hypnotised by the struggle ‘for the soul of the Labour Party’” but instead “to put your organisation and influence at the disposal of those who are out there fighting to save their jobs and services”.
“Change does not just happen, and it certainly doesn’t just come because one day Tony Benn might be prime minister at the head of a left-wing Labour government. It comes when people fight for it.”
We need to support every kind of resistance and the strategic aim must be to build a bigger, more united, credible left alternative to Labour.
We and others have made a start towards this with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The UCU, FBU and Bfawu union conferences all called for meetings, talks or a conference on working class political representation.
The future is outside Labour.
- Three letters to a Bennite by Paul Foot - bit.ly/1g9a9Hv
- The Labour Party: A Marxist History by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, £5
- A Rebel’s Guide to Rosa Luxemburg by Sally Campbell, £3
- Debate: Syriza in power: whither Greece? Watch video from Marxism 2015 at bit.ly/1SFXOGn
Books available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk