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As support grows for Corbyn while Tory crisis deepens – now the left can win more

This article is over 4 years, 6 months old
The general election delivered the latest shock to the ruling class. Charlie Kimber says there is a shifting mood in Britain—and asks how we can organise to win real changes
Issue 2562
Part of the Peoples Assembly demonstration against the Tories earlier this month
Part of the People’s Assembly demonstration against the Tories earlier this month (Pic: Neil Terry)

The political tumult that has swept so many other parts of the world has come to Britain.

The Financial Times’ star columnist Janan Ganesh wrote on the day after the general election, “The stablest of democracies has become the Western world’s box of surprises.”

Substantial sections of the population have given politicians, commentators and the mainstream media a profound kick up the arse.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not create the basis for this mood on his own, but he has focused it.

Of course the right wing has not gone away. The Tories still cling to office, Donald Trump is in the White House and racists and fascists seek to gain from the crisis.

But now there’s a sense that the left can win—and that socialist ideas are part of mainstream debate.

The Grenfell Tower fire in west London has also crystallised so much of what is wrong with capitalist Britain.

It is about rampant inequality, austerity and an alien political elite who live on a different planet to ordinary people.

Children from the poorest families are 38 times more likely to die in a fire than children of parents in the best paid jobs. Grenfell is also about the racism that further shapes how the poor are treated.

There’s been criticism of shadow chancellor John McDonnell for saying that the victims of Grenfell were “murdered by political decisions”.

McDonnell was completely right.

Frederick Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845. He said that by creating the disease-ridden hovels in industrial cities such as Manchester the ruling class was guilty of “social murder”.

The Grenfell Tower fire showed up the contempt those at the top have for working class people

The Grenfell Tower fire showed up the contempt those at the top have for working class people (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Engels wrote, “When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.”

Grenfell has intensified the subversive sense that what we face is not just a series of disconnected horrors but a system that inevitably produces extraordinary wealth for some and hardship for most.

A few days after the Grenfell fire a furious demonstration of thousands of people swept through Kensington and another of a similar size passed through central London.  

John Sweeney, a BBC Newsnight reporter among the demonstrators, was unnerved by the mood. “Politics has left parliament and gone into the streets”, he said.

The significance of the big People’s Assembly demonstration this month was the mood of deep anger combined with growing hope. The powerful surge around Corbyn can go much further.

Corbyn’s election campaign saw huge mobilisations, such as the election rally of 10,000 in Gateshead. Will such mobilisations inspire more struggle now to wipe out Theresa May’s government? Or will it be largely directed towards preparing for the next election?

The Tories are in trouble, but we won’t defeat them just by watching and waiting.

Wheat field

Perhaps Tory backbenchers will decide it’s time to send May back to the wheat field. But removing them from government is a bigger task.

We need more, and bigger, protests. One obvious target is the Tory party conference in Manchester.

The People’s Assembly has called a demonstration there on 1 October. If Corbyn and the union leaders now call for everyone to go it can be massive.

But the streets cannot be the only site of struggle. The union leaders are now all saying that the public sector pay cap has to go and that austerity must end.

They should be organising strikes to win decent pay and campaigning to make them successful.

The political mood for resistance around Corbyn has to be brought into the workplace.

A mass rally to support Jeremy Corbyn in Reading earlier this year

A mass rally to support Jeremy Corbyn in Reading earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

We need to support every struggle and look to further build the campaigns against NHS and education cuts and for decent housing. We need to increase the pressure on the union leaders to start a generalised pay fight.

These are new political times which means there is a fluidity in the situation. The union leaders can be forced to shift, at least partially, in a way that can open the door to wider struggle.

It was refreshing to see the leaders of the FBU firefighters’ union, for example, say that their latest pay offer is inadequate.

The 2 percent offer does indeed breach the public sector pay cap—but it does not make up for years of pay curbs.

In battling the Tories we also need to struggle against the Labour right and those who hold back resistance to cuts and austerity. Often these are the same people. Activists in and outside Labour can unite around such fights.

We also need to unite over anti-racism. Faced with crisis, the people at the top of society will try to use racism and Islamophobia to divide us.

That’s why we must continue to build a big anti-racist movement to take up all these issues. The Stand Up To Racism conference on 21 October is crucial.

And if, as seems possible again, Donald Trump dares to come to Britain, we need a revolt—huge demonstrations, blocking roads, walkouts from universities and workplaces if possible.

But we have to also start thinking about and preparing for a Corbyn-led government.

If Corbyn wins it will be because he broke from what writer and activist Tariq Ali called “the extreme centre”, not because he moved towards it.

A Corbyn victory would be a huge boost to everyone on the left and can massively boost the confidence to fight.

But let’s look at some more difficult issues. Last month there was a parliamentary vote on the EU single market.


It showed that there remains a substantial section of right wing Labour MPs who will organise against Corbyn’s more far-reaching measures.

They will seek concessions—and Corbyn has already conceded over Trident nuclear missiles and freedom of movement.

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson now says that to win over “traditional working-class voters” Labour has to focus more on “policing and security”.

We need unity against racism

We need unity against racism (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Corbyn in Downing Street will send the market for bonds (how a government borrows money), the stock market and the currency exchanges into fury.

The governor of the Bank of England—who has complete freedom to set interest rates—might say rates have to double or more to stop outflows of money.

That would mean a large section of mortgage payers would be pushed beyond the limit. Living standards generally will fall.

Will a Labour government take back the power to set rates? How will it respond to bosses’ investment strikes and the downgrading of the currency? Or the ratings agencies’ stern judgment that Britain is moving towards junk status?

Either it will have to implement very radical measures—taking over the banks, for example—or it will compromise or it will be crushed.

A “senior serving general” told the Sunday Times newspaper that if Corbyn became prime minister, there would be “the very real prospect” of “a mutiny”.

Look at the experience of Syriza in Greece. It was the hope of Europe when it was elected in January 2015.

Now it is implementing austerity more harshly and deeply than its Tory predecessor.

Look at Francois Hollande and the Labour-type Socialist Party in France. He campaigned for the presidency in 2012 with the rhetoric that “‘my enemy is finance”, and pledged a break from neoliberalism.

Once elected he governed as the pawn of finance and the enemy of workers. The fascist Front National profited from the disillusion he created.

Every previous Labour government in Britain has, eventually, gone down a similar road of compromise and retreat. It’s not just about individuals.

It’s because power does not ultimately lie in parliament.

Unaccountable bosses and institutions lie beyond the scope of our present democracy. They can be blocked and defeated only by a movement of millions in the workplaces and the streets.

We do not have limitless time available. The clock is ticking on ecological catastrophe.

Trump rants and lashes out—with the world’s most terrifying nuclear weaponry under his control. Capitalism means poverty, racism and war.

We need the biggest possible campaigns uniting everyone who is enthused by Corbyn. But we also need to build a revolutionary socialist force independent of Labour.

This article is based on a talk given at the Marxism Festival 2017. Click here for videos from the event

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