Socialist Worker

How can Labour win and can it change society?

by Sadie Robinson in Liverpool
Issue No. 2623

Discussing how to fight the rise of the far right

Discussing how to fight the rise of the far right (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Hundreds of Jeremy Corbyn supporters flocked to The World Transformed event in Liverpool this weekend. The size of the event, organised by the Momentum group, showed the interest in left wing ideas and in fighting for a better world.

Much of the event sounded very radical. At a session on "Power for the many - a radical agenda for democracy" MP Jon Trickett called for a "wholesale transformation" of how society is run.

"There needs to be a remaking of the British state," he said. "That is what the Labour Party is committed to."

There were repeated references to the "socialist government" that would be in office in the event of a Corbyn victory.

A session on the welfare state saw speakers call for a major redistribution of wealth to guarantee everyone a basic minimum income. And a meeting on democratising the media saw speakers look for "bottom up" ways of making changes that would challenge the power of the media owners.

Many speakers on the top tables delivered fiery speeches. But there was also some vagueness and signs that Labour in government would limit its radicalism.

Reverse

So shadow chancellor John McDonnell said at a rally on Saturday evening that Labour would reverse "most" of the tax cuts to corporations.

When asked how Labour would increase democracy in the party, Jon Trickett said the party would "continue discussing" this. "The leadership has to learn from members and the general public," he added.

"It's up to you to guide us in the direction you want to take."

In several sessions, people in the audience called for Labour to go further or challenged speakers. In the welfare session, economist Stewart Lansley mapped out a timescale for bringing in a basic income and redistributing wealth.

One man asked whether Labour could "accelerate these changes given the levels of social inequality". "People can't wait," he said. "There's a more immediate need."

Lansley said that changes would take time because of a need to win an argument with ordinary people about the need for a basic income.

Jon Trickett addressing a meeting

Jon Trickett addressing a meeting (Pic: Socialist Worker)

In a session on education there was a sense of some impatience with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner. Rayner has refused to say that Labour would end academies and and has said that Labour shouldn't be "ideological" about education policy. "Ideology never put food on my table," she said in an interview last year.

One person in the sessions retorted that we should be ideological. And joint NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney called on Labour to commit to abolishing Sats tests and the hated Ofsted inspectorate.

One unemployed woman at the event said in response to Labour's pledge to bring in a minimum wage of £10 an hour - "I'd want more than that."

Others described battles against Labour councils that are imposing attacks on ordinary people.

There was a sense from at least some of the audience that ordinary people have to take things into their own hands, not just get Corbyn elected.

In a session on "Beating the Bosses" Seth Wheeler, editor of socialist journal Notes from Below, told the audience, “It’s up to us to dictate our future, it’s not up to Jeremy Corbyn."

Seth argued workers should “keep one foot in and one foot out” of Labour.

Along with other speakers, he acknowledged that a Labour government isn’t guaranteed to act in workers’ interests.

There was also a sense from the floor of the need to hold Labour politicians to account. So Paddy, a teacher from Islington, noted John McDonnell’s pledge to abolish anti-union laws but said, “Let’s make sure he fucking does it.”


Facing the bosses’ resistance

There were lots of great ideas for how society can be better run in the interests of the majority. And there was some understanding of how big a task it will be to win real change.

New Socialist editor Wendy Liu in a session on the media said the rich ownership of the mainstream media "represents a huge challenge to any socialist agenda".

But there was little debate on how to actually implement radical ideas in the face of resistance from the ruling class and the state.

It was as if there was a blind spot for much of the event about the need to organise to challenge the rich and the states that back them. And in a lot of sessions there was little engagement from people in the audience.

Chairs in some sessions specifically called on people to limit themselves to asking questions of the panel - resulting in more speeches from the top table. In others, such as a session on Brexit, top table speakers talked for so long that there was little time for the audience to say what they thought.

The event showed that radical and socialist ideas can get a hearing and that people want society to be run differently. But there was also a sense in many of the meetings that electing Corbyn is the end goal that will herald a big shift in society.

Workshop discussion on the NHS

Workshop discussion on the NHS (Pic: Socialist Worker)


In reality it would be the start of a much bigger battle. Corbyn has already made concessions to the right under pressure - such as retreating on scrapping Trident missiles. And Labour has accepted some divisive rhetoric on immigration, with shadow home secretary Diane Abbott calling for prioritising "skilled" migration into Britain.

This partly reflects the fact that, despite having a left leader, Labour includes many right wingers who want to placate the bosses. It also reflects the fact that ultimately Labour wants to manage the system and so accepts its dominant ideas.

Unite union member Aiden told Socialist Worker, "Labour's policies haven't been strong enough on anti-racism. Diane Abbott came out with policies that were a bit half-arsed last week. Talking about skilled migrants buys into the idea of good and bad migrants.

"Personally I'm uncomfortable with that rhetoric. As individuals I trust people like Diane Abbott and Corbyn. But the party could be better."

In government the pressure will be much stronger.

As Jon Trickett put it, "We're going to need a massive movement around our programme to sustain and renew a Labour government in office."

But unfortunately making the main goal electing Corbyn, rather than waging struggles now, can undermine building this movement.


Defending Corbyn against the charge of antisemitism

The Tories, the tabloids and right wing Labour MPs are waging war on Corbyn. The latest attack has been geared towards labelling him antisemitic because of his backing for the Palestinians.

People at The World Transformed were mixed on how the left should respond to push back the right and defend Corbyn. Some even saw the attacks as positive.

One new member of the party told Socialist Worker, "It's good that this has happened because it's exposing arguments. When they criticise him, it gives him a chance to crystallise his position."

For Nelini Stamp, a US activist at the conference, the answer to attacks from the right is “showing our values”. “It’s a stereotyped phrase but when they go low, we should go high,” she told Socialist Worker.

Others said the attacks from the right were damaging, but remained optimistic. Liverpool Labour member Tom Logan told Socialist Worker, "It's definitely making it harder for Corbyn to get elected.

"The right is more organised, they've been around longer. It's off-putting for new members who turn up to a local Labour meeting and find everyone arguing. It's turning people away."

Yet he added, "Corbyn has a back catalogue of being on the right side of history. It's why we all rallied behind him in the first place. He's been attacking the right wing press, so you get suspicious when they attack him.

"In Liverpool the left is in the ascendency because people who join now join because of Corbyn. It's people power."

Others also argued that attacks from the right would backfire. Lynn Jones joined Labour in June. "I don't believe anything I read in the papers," she told Socialist Worker. "If there's a campaign in the press against him, it shows that people are scared of him having power.

"More people are joining Labour and it's more popular than it was before. People want to get rid of the Tory government."

Lynne Jones: I dont believe anything I read in the papers

Lynne Jones: 'I don't believe anything I read in the papers' (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Retired Unite member Linda agreed. "I'm not sure a lot of people will be too bothered by what the media say," she told Socialist Worker. "You just have to have a discussion with people when it comes up.

"You have to explain that Labour has always fought against racism."

Some activists said that taking up arguments has been successful. Sonya Robotham is a Labour member in Derby. "You can convince people if you tell the truth of what you know," she told Socialist Worker.

"We had a voter registration campaign and took on a lot of arguments. For instance, people say Corbyn is weak but when has he been weak? He's not running away. It's David Cameron who ran away.

"People registered to vote who'd never voted before in their lives and they came to tell us. In the general election we shook the establishment. And people felt that they had done that."

Sonya said the antisemitism slurs had "damaged and confused" the party. "It's muddied the waters," she said. "There's so much disinformation. The right wing media store up things to use against him when Labour is doing well. But Corbyn's record speaks for itself."

Some were determined that Labour members should continue to support Palestine.

Jack Johnson told Socialist Worker that Labour members should "get involved with local Palestine Solidarity groups".

He was disappointed that Labour recently said that it’s antisemitic to call Israel racist. “We should turn our fire on the Tories. Labour should be holding them to account over their failures on antisemitism.”

A Unite member pledged to keep criticising the Israeli state. "I am not having anyone shut my narrative down," she told Socialist Worker. "I call the Israeli administration a murderous, toxic apartheid system.

"I have the right to say that. Their intention is to wipe out every Palestinian."


No to racism and fascism

A session on "Britain's new far right" drew hundreds. Leeds MP and shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon stressed the need not to compromise with racist ideas. He referred to recent attacks on Muslim women who wear the burqa.

“There is pressure to cede on this, to say these views are legitimate,” he said. “This is a big mistake. It’s vital that racist myths are challenged.”

He said the key to beating back fascism is "unity" and "building alliances" against racism. "We need solidarity with those at the sharp end of bigotry and hatred," he added.

Football

Author and Labour activist Alan Gibbons described how ordinary people had united to oppose fascist protests in Liverpool. “Don’t be reactive, be proactive,” he urged, describing how anti-fascists had leafletted local football grounds.

Gibbons argued that it's important to confront the fascists, even if it isn't always possible to stop them marching.

And Burgon stressed the Stand Up To Racism conference on 20 October and the national anti-racist and anti-fascist protest in London on 17 November.


Lessons from the European left

A forum on the European left underlined the positives and weaknesses of the radical parties represented.

Members of organisations and movements from Italy, Denmark, Germany, France and the Spanish state all spoke well on the failings of capitalism and the collapse of social democracy.

Fabio De Masi, an MP for the German Die Linke party said, “Ten years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the start of the financial crisis we have to recognise social democratic parties were hijacked by neoliberalism.”

Probably to the surprise of many in the 200-strong audience, the speakers were nearly unanimous in savaging the European Union as a bosses’ club that lacked any truly democratic elements.

Treaties

“The EU is the corporations’ tool. It is an organisation against the people that forces those who reject its treaties to vote again and again until they get the ‘right’ result,” said Djorde Kuzmanovic, a leading figure in the France Insoumise party.

De Masi added, "Leaving the criticism of the EU to the right will strengthen them, not weaken them. It’s not about the nation state versus Europe. It’s about democracy.”

A few years ago such a meeting would have centred on the example of Syriza in Greece, sweeping to office on the back of mass resistance to austerity and the collapse of the traditional Labour-type party. But Syriza wasn’t on the platform and its record of imposing cuts and privatisation was wholly passed over.

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Such silence avoids the tough questions about what happens to the radical left in office.

All the speakers pointed to the growth of the far right. But debate from the floor revealed that some forces are prepared to concede to elements of the racists’ myths rather than challenge them.

De Masi is a supporter of Aufstehen, the movement that combines Corbyn-like economic policy and anti-migrant scapegoating. Challenged by people in the audience about this, he said that he didn’t want to back chancellor Angela Merkel over allowing in refugees. But Aufstehen’s stand has been welcomed by the far right AfD party.

Marta Fana from Italy insisted, “Profits and capital are the enemies, not migrants.”

But Kujmanovic said that hundreds of thousands of EU migrants into France were causing a problem.

Reeling from the experience of Syriza, sections of the European left are turning their fire on the EU. But they are coupling it with a more pronounced nationalism and conceding to racist arguments.

A speaker from the floor pointed out that we had seen that his encouraged the right, as with Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” rhetoric and the notorious Labour “Controls on immigration” mug for the 2015 general election.

We need stronger workers’ organisations, not stronger anti-migrant measures.

Charlie Kimber

 


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