Once again this summer we are witnessing a Labour Party leadership election. And once again Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner.
But there the similarities end. For one thing, this time the election is the result of a savage attack mounted on Corbyn by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) with the aim of removing him as party leader.
For another, the support Corbyn is getting is off the scale.
The rallies he addressed when he stood for leader last summer were impressive enough. But this time they are astonishing.
Some 10,000 in Liverpool, 3,000 in Hull, 2,000 in Leeds—all in the north of England—followed by others in Cornwall. This gives the lie to the idea that Corbyn’s appeal is limited to affluent London liberals.
The left Labour journalist Owen Jones has tried to poo-poo these rallies. He wrote, “Michael Foot attracted huge rallies across the country in the build-up to Labour’s 1983 general election disaster.”
It’s true that Foot addressed massive demonstrations against unemployment in Liverpool and Glasgow in the winter of 1980-1.
But he spoke to them as unchallenged leader of the Labour Party in cities where the organised working class was then still very strong.
The 1983 election debacle followed a series of defeated strikes and a right wing split from Labour.
For a leader of the Labour left in a fiercely contested inner-party election, with the bulk of the PLP against him, to get meetings of such a size is quite unprecedented.
Corbyn’s rallies—and the increase in Labour Party membership over the past year—confirm that a genuine popular movement of the left has gathered around his leadership.
This is also confirmed by the fact that the PLP’s chosen challenger, Owen Smith, is campaigning on an apparently left wing programme, acknowledging the change in the party membership.
“My heart sort of sank,” a right wing Labour MP told the Financial Times newspaper. “But we recognise that, with the ‘selectorate’, you have to have a soft-left candidate.”
What is happening is more broadly unprecedented.
For the past century, there have been three centres of power in the Labour Party—the PLP, the leaders of affiliated trade unions, and the mass membership in the constituency parties (CLPs).
In many ways it has been the unions that have played the pivotal role—or more precisely, the bureaucracy of full-time officials that dominate them.
The role of this trade union bureaucracy has always been to negotiate the terms on which the workers they represent are exploited by capital.
Their aim therefore has never been to lead workers’ struggles, but to achieve compromises with capital.
So they are a fundamentally conservative force within the workers’ movement—the Labour Party included.
Movements of the left have developed in the CLPs in the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1950s, and the late 1970s.
Each time the union leaders wielded their block vote at party conferences to defeat them.
Essentially Labour has been dominated by a right wing alliance between the PLP and the trade union bureaucracy.
So it has never been a genuinely anti-capitalist party. But rather, as the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin put it, it is a capitalist workers’ party that arises ultimately from workers’ struggles, but seeks to contain them within the existing system.
But now these mechanisms are breaking down—ironically in part because of the over-confidence of the right.
In the era of New Labour (1994-2010), they campaigned to transform Labour into a conventional “centre-left” party, breaking the link with the unions.
Tony Blair never succeeded in achieving this. Ed Miliband in part owed his own election as party leader in 2010 to union support.
Partially because of this he conceded a key demand of the right.
Henceforth the leader would be elected on the basis of one person, one vote, by ordinary members and supporters in affiliated unions.
The removal of the stabiliser provided by the union block vote made last year’s leadership election sensitive to a broader mood of political radicalisation in British society.
The movements against austerity and racism found expression in Corbyn’s candidacy.
He swept away the New Labour mediocrities confronting him, and seems set to do the same to Owen Smith.
But the effect is a reconfiguration of power within Labour, with Corbyn as leader, backed by the membership, confronting a bitterly hostile PLP.
So far most union leaders have backed him.
This has been a crucial factor in allowing him to survive the mass resignations from the shadow cabinet after the vote to leave the European Union on 23 June.
But this polarisation has created a highly unstable situation that is scaring some of Corbyn’s former supporters. Prominent among them is Owen Jones.
Without siding with the Labour right, he has criticised what he regards as mistakes made by Corbyn’s team and their failure to address “catastrophic” polls.
These criticisms have caused widespread anger on the left. Jones has responded by saying on Facebook, “I’d prefer having a bucket of sick being poured over me for writing it to sitting back while the left just jumps off a cliff without resolving these problems.”
This is a horrendously mixed metaphor, but it’s also a wrong one.
Corbyn and the left aren’t jumping off a cliff, the Labour right are trying to push them off one.
It was Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and Co who—when the Brexit vote had thrown the Tories into disarray—initiated hostilities by resigning from the shadow cabinet.
And when this failed to force Corbyn out, they backed Smith against him.
This is a moment for everyone on the radical left to rally round Corbyn, and people are entitled to ask Jones which side he is on.
Nevertheless, his self-publicising agonising does point to an important problem.
Labour exists fundamentally to win elections. This is accepted as much by the left as by the rest of the party.
Tony Benn, Corbyn’s mentor, was a champion of parliamentary democracy. He wanted to see its power extended in order to transform Britain
economically and to win its independence from the EU and Nato.
To put it more simply, the Labour left exists in order to achieve socialism by winning elections.
Therefore the polls matter. Maybe the poor figures result from a combination of Theresa May enjoying a short-term bounce and the negative impact of the PLP coup.
But if Labour doesn’t regain ground electorally in the next few months, then, even if Corbyn does demolish Smith, he will face growing pressures.
The union leaders, who have generally supported him so far, may start getting nervous and push for a compromise with the right.
This points to the tension inherent in wanting, as Corbyn and John McDonnell argue, to transform Labour into a social movement and simultaneously to make it a successful electoral party.
The rhythms and imperatives of mass struggles and of the electoral cycle are not the same, and they may well diverge or even come into conflict.
It is because the Socialist Workers Party gives priority to building mass struggles that we remain outside Labour.
For us elections are at best one front in the class struggle, and not the most important one.
We are organised to support and develop mass movements through which working people can take direct control of their lives.
We see the movement around Corbyn helping to achieve this goal. So we strongly support him against the right.
Everyone on the left should be campaigning hard in the broader labour movement for him to defeat Smith in the leadership election.
If Corbyn wins a convincing victory, there will be a real chance to transform the British left on a more militant and principled basis.
But seizing this opportunity will confront us all, inside or outside the Labour Party, with tough strategic and tactical choices.
The stakes are very high.