Sunday 30 August 2015
Jeremy Corbyn confuses the left
I wrote recently of how Jeremy Corbyn was setting alight the Labour Party leadership contest in a way that no-one—even himself—saw coming. Despite the direst warnings of the dinosaurs of New Labour, Corbyn’s popularity seems to be unstoppable.
But it is not just these relics from the dark days of New Labour—when socialism was a dirty word—but organisations to the left of Labour that have been equally wrong-footed by the phenomenon.
The Socialist Party, for example, has moved from a position at the start of the campaign of wondering why anyone would want to talk about Corbyn at all to outright anger and confusion. This stems from spending years dragging people out of the Labour Party in ones and twos only to see one man effectively reverse the flow—and more—over a couple of months.
Peter Taaffe points to the main political objection: although the Socialist Party “wishes Jeremy Corbyn well in the Labour leadership election”, supporting him merely strengthens the illusion that Labour can be reclaimed “as a political weapon for the workers’ movement.” The danger inherent in his candidacy is the “further delay in workers drawing the obvious conclusion from the consistently rightward direction of Labour, that it is now an urgent task for the unions and the working class to take the necessary steps towards a new mass workers’ party.”
What a condescending view that is of the tens of thousands of workers, youth and campaigners who are supporting Corbyn. Taaffe can only wonder why they cannot see that the Labour Party was dead, if not yet buried, some years ago.
The SWP, their colleagues in the new potential party-in-waiting, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, take a similar view. Charlie Kimber in an article in the Socialist Worker, says that “we welcome the widespread backing for Corbyn as a sign of support for left ideas and the potential for resistance”, and then goes on to outline why it is mistaken.
This is largely down to their view of the nature of the Labour Party and its position within the state machine. For a start, whatever his intentions, Corbyn would never be able to break the party from its support for big business and the bankers and its reliance upon the media. At the same time, the support of Labour amongst its natural working class base has declined dramatically. In the three elections after Tony Blair’s landslide of 1997 when 13.5 million people voted for them, they lost over 5 million of those. Alongside that the party’s membership declined even more dramatically from around 405,000 to less than half that figure. For the SWP the message is clear: Labour is dead as a vehicle for change, whoever gets to lead it and whatever the particular qualities of their politics.
Ultimately, like the Socialist Party, they feel that “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.”
Less welcoming towards Corbyn are the anarcho-syndicalist groupings such as Class War who argue that the left should not involve itself in the discredited Labour Party, or indeed in Parliamentary politics at all. Those thousands drawn into “Corbynmania” are mistakenly relying upon a Messiah-type figure to bring change rather than realise that real change comes from below.
To me they are all ultimately wrong. They combine a mistaken view of the nature of the Labour Party with a faulty analysis of how socialists should relate to those who are drawn to it.
It has always been an error, in my view, to take the “Labour and Tories are just the same” line. Of course many policies enacted by the Labour Party are pretty similar to, though in most cases a slight improvement upon, those of their Tory counterparts. But their social base is entirely different and that is very important.
Labour still has its link with the Trade Unions, which has not been severed in spite of Blair’s intentions whilst he was leader. As a source of funding as well as of political pressure this is critical. The membership and support of the party remains one of a progressive nature. For all those that fled the party under Blair, the Corbyn candidacy has seen many return—at least for the short term. What this has shown is a deep identification with the party as a “spiritual home” for many.
Sadly for the left, however “obvious” it may be to them, most of the labour movement has not seen through the politics of labourism. People may have had enough of Blairism and New Labour but the spontaneous consciousness remains that of getting a better deal under capitalism, not overthrowing it. For this reason Labour remains an attractive proposition for many, and the prospect of Corbyn as leader just made it more attractive still, with his reframing of the issues to include those who have for so many years felt excluded form mainstream politics.
For socialists the choice is to be alongside those flooding back, or to stand on the sidelines telling them they are wrong—that Labour is washed up and people are mistaken to think otherwise. For the most part the left have chosen the latter. They have become obsessed with their perceived need to build a Labour Party Mark 2. The fact that this has just not taken off over the last decade and a half, whilst a high-profile left of centre leadership candidate is suddenly able to form an attractive pole of attraction, is proving a disorientating and frustrating experience for them.