Britain - Corbyn's Labour and the (Br)exit of the Left

Summer 2017

The recent developments on the political scene in Britain have thrown usually clever commentators and political pundits into a mild state of confusion. After all, it was one thing getting the result of the 2016 EU referendum completely wrong, but they also lost their bets on Theresa May's "snap" election this June.

In fact almost everyone was surprised by the result, but maybe primarily by the surge in Labour's votes, with 40% of the total, despite the Tory's apparently unassailable lead in the polls before the election.

It should be said however, that whoever was to lead the government, whether it was May or Corbyn, or someone else, with or without alliances, this government was always going to have the job of managing the affairs of British capital to the best of its interests.

The working class, as history shows us, has never made any real gains through the ballot box and has nothing to expect from any government - because it is the capitalists who are pulling all the strings behind the "democratic" mask of a Corbyn or a May. What is more, there has been no place on the agenda of any government of the capitalist class for significant reforms which could be offered to workers, in any case not since the end of the post-war boom at the beginning of the 1970s. Since then, the world economy has been in a state of chronic crisis. Which is why the "welfare state" and everything which went with it, has been slowly but surely dismantled ever since, under both Labour and Tory regimes.

What do the numbers mean?

So what exactly lay behind the unexpected election result? And how did Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, manage to increase its share of the vote by 9.5%, which is more than under any Labour leader since 1945?

Corbyn's rise was largely an accident. But it turns out that it was a very lucky one for the Labour Party. By late 2015, having lost two elections, many Labourites were finally drawing an obvious conclusion, that the taint of the Blair-Brown years had to be thoroughly expunged. Ed Miliband had failed miserably to do this, partly at least, by being too close to the Blairite old guard. Nevertheless, the party had to be revamped and the project which was undertaken was the restoration of what were meant to be perceived as "Old Labour" values - the kind which Tony Benn represented.

It was to this end, that some of the more vociferously anti-Blair faction, despite being a minority in the Parliamentary Party, decided to put forward a left-wing candidate for the leadership, choosing Jeremy Corbyn. Although, behind them were some trade-union leaders who were getting increasingly frustrated with having lost their past access to government and ministers. However, nobody expected it to go any further. They got the backing of enough MPs to proceed, just for the sake of the contest, despite the fact that most of Labour's MPs were "New" Labour, owing their cushy parliamentary careers to Blair and Brown.

The fact that Corbyn defied all expectations and won, was thanks to a perverse consequence of Miliband's reform of the Labour Party's election rules - the objective at the time, being, ironically, the dilution of trade union members' vote.

By his success, and indeed his continued success, since he faced and won a second leadership challenge after the EU referendum, Corbyn demonstrated that his mild "radical" language and simple demeanour were enough to restore hope among a Labour milieu whose only desire was to be given a reason to believe, once more, that Labour in government can make a difference.

Once he felt confident in his position, Corbyn began to play the party unity card. But he also moved, discreetly, towards a more overtly pro-Brexit policy. And central to this was the curtailment of the right of workers to move freely across borders in search of work and a better life. In January this year he told an audience in Peterborough: "We are not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don't want to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out."

In the meantime, formerly hostile Labour MPs were belatedly admitting that they needed a figure like this "man of integrity" as some describe him, to win back their lost electorate. Apparently they were now prepared to acknowledge the need to rebuild illusions in the party's willingness to represent the interests of what used to be its natural constituency - that is, the working class. Corbyn's Labour was, however, put to the electoral test sooner than they expected.

But it fared well. Despite being ridiculed from all sides, Corbyn conducted a successful election campaign: in fact he looked just like a rock star on tour, playing to adoring fans wearing Corbyn tee-shirts and waving placards banners with "Jezza" slogans. Then there was the 128-page Labour Manifesto - "For the many not the few". It was designed to look radical - with a few eye-catchers like renationalising energy, water, Royal Mail and of course the railways - all with due compensation of course. Corbyn's team could thus claim that for the first time since Blair, Labour policies put clear blue water between the Tories and Labour and that no-one could now claim they were "all the same". Corbyn's Labour was "real" Labour!

But beyond the eye-catchers, were pages and pages reassuring big business that it was Labour's priority to look after them, even with Brexit. It said: "Our new settlement with business will ask large corporations to pay a little more while still keeping corporation tax among the lowest of the major developed economies". A "little" more? Hardly radical.

As for Corbyn's former generous approach to migrants, a clear Brexiteer position has replaced this: the manifesto reads, "Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union."

What was left out was even more significant. In particular, the reversal of all welfare cuts. When asked why Labour had offered to cut tuition fees rather than reinstating proper welfare benefits, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said it would have been "unaffordable". But probably Labour's election team figured that there were less votes in it.

In the end, Labour took 30 more seats than in 2015, regaining 6 seats in Scotland. Labour also took safe Conservative seats like Kensington - where it won by a margin of just 20 votes with a swing away from the Conservatives of 21.2%. They also took Canterbury, which is also historically Conservative, by 187 votes, with a 20.5% swing to Labour.

So why and how did Labour make such gains? The youth vote may have made some difference, although certainly not as much as was claimed by the media. There was an increase in youth turnout, even if it was still below the average 68.7%: some 53% of 18-24 year-olds voted, compared to 41% in 2015 - and, we are told, two-thirds of them voted Labour.

But it seems that Labour gains were largely thanks to an anti-Tory, anti-hard-Brexit or even anti-Theresa May votes, rather than a vote for Corbyn's Labour, his manifesto or indeed, his very deliberate compromises over Brexit.

For the working class it is not just austerity as such, but the housing crisis and the serious deterioration in public services - especially the NHS, not to mention the crude and damaging benefit cuts, which have been causing feelings of deep discontent. And many blamed the Tory governments. So even if they had mixed feelings about Corbyn, they could not bring themselves to vote for May. To express their opposition to the cuts, they could only vote Labour. The parties outside of Labour and the Tories, that is Ukip, the Lib Dems and Greens, were effectively ignored or even wiped out as was the case for Ukip. Ukip's Brexit vote was evidently absorbed by the two main parties.

In this sense Corbyn helped to reinstate the old 2-party system, whereby each party takes turns in office to apply the screw to the working class on behalf of the capitalists. And Labour has always done it better in times of crisis, when the working class has to be prevented from fighting back and is bound to feel more disoriented if the attacks come from Labour.

So the final election result was largely due to people voting against what they did not like. It also means that Corbyn's relative success, can't necessarily be repeated - or at least not in the same way. Voters could well revert to type in the future.

On the other hand, what Corbyn has achieved, is the complete revamping of the Labour Party itself. This was just what the Blairite wing has wanted and needed all this time. They certainly never expected Corbyn to do the job for them; quite the contrary. But he has revitalised the Labour Party and put it in the running once more as a potential party of government.

So for the moment, the Blairite faction of the PLP have put their knives away and some have even asked to be allowed back to the front bench. Although, Owen Smith, Corbyn's rival in the last leadership election, made a point of going on record to say that Labour would have won the election, had he been in the driving seat, instead of Corbyn. So, the Blairites - and possibly Owen Smith - will certainly go for Corbyn's throat again in the future, when they get the opportunity to do so. Corbyn is just keeping the seat warm for the real thing - Blairism - or to call it by its correct name, pro-business, anti-working class politics. Of course there is always the possibility that even Corbyn could morph into the kind of leader the bosses need. After all, he has already shown his capacity for swallowing his principles - and ironically, he did it to please those on the right, not the left, nor even the centre.

The Left votes with illusions

The instability displayed after the election by May's government has been the cause for much optimism among the far-left - who attended a kind of "celebratory" march in London on Saturday 1 July under the slogan "May: Not One Day More", calling for a Corbyn-led, Labour government. It was almost as if Corbyn had won the election instead of presiding over Labour's third defeat in a row. But of course it is true that, given the precarious nature of May's government another election could be called. Even if this would mean that whoever won it would be given the poison chalice of the Brexit negotiations to drink from, and would almost surely expire politically as a result.

Among those who wanted, above all else, to have their faith restored in Labour, were most of the many far-left political organisations, some of whom describe themselves as Trotskyist and others who come from the Stalinist tradition, but would not mention Stalin's name. Among these are the Socialist Party (SP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star), as well as groups like the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL) and the former Fourth International group called Socialist Resistance (SR).

Some of these groups inexplicably also campaigned for Brexit last year. They described this as Lexit - left exit - and tied themselves into knots trying to explain why this was not being racist or xenophobic towards foreign workers. They could not really find their way out of the conundrum - because if they advocated Brexit, thus spreading more or less explicitly the myth that, somehow, the EU was a worse enemy for the British working class than British capital itself, they would inevitably be helping to stoke xenophobia and racism, whether this was inadvertent or not.

These Lexiteers joined in the crass political game of pointing at the "other" as being the problem. But whether the "other" is a fellow worker who speaks Polish or a building in Brussels, it makes no difference. This was just another way to draw attention away from the real enemy, who is at home: the British bosses and their governments here in Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont...

That said, a few groups on the far-left advocated Remain, like the AWL and SR as well as other groups which exist inside the Labour Party which just argued this because it was the official Labour Party line. As for Workers Fight, we had pointed to the fact that the Remain camp's welfare restrictions on immigrants, restrictions on migration and get-out clauses to avoid accepting refugees, placed both Leave and Remain campaigns in the anti-working class camp and we advocated abstention.

But it was a bit awkward for the SWP, SP and CP for instance, that Corbyn, behind whom they had fallen during the shenanigans when the Blairites tried to get rid of him, was on the Remain side, even if he was a lukewarm "remainer".

But finally, Corbyn came into line. After he had won the second leadership election and was obliged to make a stand over Brexit, to the relief of the Lexit brigade, he adopted a Brexit position. He decided not to oppose May's Brexit bill and even imposed a 3-line whip to ensure his MPs complied.

Since then Corbyn's line has been to favour Brexit, but a softer one - and so he meets Boris Johnson's open Brexit, except that Boris is more to the "left", so to speak, since he favours free movement!

Anyway, when the snap election came along, all of these left groups were able to give their warm across-the-board endorsement to Corbyn and happily become his footsoldiers. What a relief to be able to "believe again" and to argue for a Labour Victory! Some joined (or built) Momentum - Corbyn's "left" campaigning engine.

But what was different this time round, was that not any of these groups stressed the point they used to make in the old days, that is, to vote Labour "without illusions!"

What they argued for, was a vote for Labour with illusions. They described the Labour manifesto as "socialist", ignoring its anti-working class core pledges - that is, no big change for the bosses as regards taxation, the removal of freedom of movement for EU workers and the renewal of the costly, but dangerous white elephant, Trident.

This was not too surprising. Corbyn had reinstated the "Old Labour" they had always harked back to. It is the case that many of the far-left, including those who call themselves Trotskyist, have come out of the Labour party in the first place and certainly most of them have always been orientated towards it. It all goes back to the too-oft mis-quoted and de-contextualised advice given by Lenin back in 1920 to the fledgling British Communist Party: that they should support Labour as the rope supports the hanged man... Lenin advised that they try to affiliate as an organisation to the Labour Party and then show the working class, by going through the experience of Labour's inevitable betrayal of their interests, that what is needed is an independent workers' party, with no obligations nor ties to the political system of the capitalist class. Ever since 1920, however, British left wing groups have tried their utmost to get in, stay in, or change, the Labour party itself into this "workers" party, forgetting the task of building one themselves and ignoring the course of history and the changes it brings with it!

The left's political and organisational orientation to the Labour party and trade union structures was initially disrupted by Neil Kinnock at the end of the 1980s and then by Blair, whose continuation of Thatcherism at home and war against Iraq abroad, in alliance with George Bush, forced them out into the cold. It left them to their own resources, but failed to teach them a necessary lesson - that a workers' party can only be built by workers using their own resources, outside of the reformist parties and independently from the political institutions of the capitalist class.

After their period in the wilderness, for which they blamed Blair, they have been utterly delighted to be able to get back into the Labour fold, thanks to Corbyn. Even if it's a false economy for them, yet again putting off to some time in the future, the essential task which should preoccupy them now: that is the construction of a genuine workers party with a revolutionary programme. Instead they are aiming merely at enlarging Corbyn's "radical" base and equipping it with yet more illusions. Reality will strike, of course because what is in store for the working class is worse than what has been seen before. To argue that life can be better, if only this rotten system is in the hands of a lesser evil - like a Labour government under Corbyn - is a lie and constitutes a betrayal of the working class.

The really urgent task

On the positive side, the working class is perfectly aware that the storm clouds of a new offensive are gathering and therefore has some time to prepare for it. But it means actively regrouping all its forces, across all sections of workers. And "all" means "all" - regardless of origin, class, colour or creed.

Because there is nowhere else we will find any help in our struggle - and definitely not from the Corbyns of this world, or their left acolytes, who think we can achieve something through the capitalists' parliamentary institutions, when it is these same capitalists we are fighting. Nor will help come from trade union leaders, who're so afraid that strike action might rock the boat of their cosy partnerships with the bosses that they do their utmost to prevent it.

We need to start building a political party of our own, prepared to lead our fights, by challenging the capitalists' control over the means of production. It's urgent, because the attacks which are coming are likely to be severe. But our collective strength can certainly stop them, if we use it.