In September last year Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party by a huge and unexpected landslide. He received 59.5% of first preference votes, winning in the first round. His Blairite opponent Liz Kendall obtained just 4.5% and came last. That is the true picture of Labour Party members’ political outlook.
Overwhelmingly, they were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn’s track record as an avowedly socialist Labour MP who opposes imperialist wars, defends public services and opposes austerity. He opposes the Tory anti-trade union bill and has consistently backed trade unions against employers. He supports public ownership, albeit in a limited form.
To have a Labour leader who holds these views is quite exceptional. It has caused apoplectic outrage in the media and among Labour MPs, many of whom haven’t held back in calling for Corbyn’s removal at the earliest opportunity. They despise his politics. Not a day goes by without another article decrying his politics, his methods or his style, putting them more and more at odds with ordinary Labour Party members.
On the other hand, Corbyn’s election victory has been reinforced by a massive influx of new members. Across the UK Labour Party membership has doubled in six months to 370,658. These new members did not join because they were supporters of Liz Kendall. There are a further 148,000 “associate members” and 112,000 “registered supporters”. The average age of a Labour Party member is believed to have fallen from 53 to 42.
In Hackney North constituency membership has increased five-fold in six months, from 981 members in the spring to 2,963 full members at the end of 2015, with a further 501 “registered supporters” and 1,234 “associate members”. This pattern is repeated across London.
While the surge in membership outside London is nothing like so great, it is still significant. In Burnley membership has risen from 319 to 484 full members; in the Rhondda full membership has risen from 355 to 485: increases of 51.7% and 36.6% respectively.
Even in Scotland, where the Party lost every MP bar one in the May 2015 General Election, party membership has increased by an average of 68 new members per constituency. This smaller, but still significant, increase of 26.7%, shows that the Corbyn effect is having an impact even in those places where Labour seemed to be at its lowest and most vulnerable position, facing the false claims by the SNP to be the ‘anti-austerity’ party.
In addition to the support he can expect from Labour’s new younger members, Corbyn has begun to stabilise his position within a largely hostile Parliamentary Labour Party. Whereas the interim party leader Harriet Harman had refused to oppose the Tories’ welfare bill, Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to oppose it. He can be credited, along with John McDonnell, with forcing Chancellor George Osborne into withdrawing tax credit cuts in the 2015 Autumn Statement. Then came Labour’s win in the Oldham West and Royton by-election in early December. Widespread commentary in the media and amongst Labour opponents of Corbyn had predicted a Labour defeat and a blow to Corbyn’s credibility. Instead, Labour’s portion of the vote increased and Corbyn’s position as leader strengthened.
Corbyn enters 2016 with his position much safer than it appeared in the early days after his election. The right-wing in the PLP is not in a strong position. While Corbyn is still under constant criticism from within the PLP, his support in the wider party has increased considerably. On one thing, right-wing Labour commentators such as Lord Mandelson are correct. There are two different parties co-existing within Labour. One, made up of the majority of the members and trade union affiliates, is on the left and supports Corbyn. The other, made up of Blairites, Brownites and maverick malcontents, represent the beaten right-wing, those who argue for the party to embrace capitalism and emulate the Tories, believing the Thatcherite mantra that ‘there is no alternative’.
How long these two parties can co-exist is an open question. Socialists must do everything possible to ensure that Corbyn sees off his opponents.
It is a mistake to believe that the right can be appeased by concessions. They will not be happy until they take the party all the way back to New Labour as it existed under Tony Blair. They support privatisation, cuts and war. Eleven members of his own Shadow Cabinet voted in favour of the Tories’ proposal to extend UK participation in bombing raids into Syria. They believe that they have an automatic right to their positions as MPs, MEPs and councillors and will oppose any attempts to introduce democratic accountability or reselection procedures with all means at their disposal – fair or foul. Ultimately, self-interest is their only guiding principle.
The majority of members support the idea of having elected representatives who represent the new politics of the Labour Party under Corbyn. They do not want to see their councillors implementing cuts or their MPs voting with the Tories for war or attacks on welfare spending.
No one can fail to observe that Corbyn and his close ally John McDonnell are in a difficult position. They are surrounded by MPs who would readily stab them in the front, never mind in the back. But the leadership pair cannot hope to win by seeking to placate their opponents. It is therefore welcome that it appears that Corbyn will carry out a shadow cabinet reshuffle, removing Hilary Benn as shadow Foreign Secretary and Maria Eagle as shadow Defence Secretary. If he does this, it is likely that other right-wing shadow cabinet members will resign. This is a good thing. Corbyn and McDonnell must base themselves on the massive support they have in the wider party and trade union movement.
It is, therefore, regrettable that Jeremy Corbyn has said that he does not call for the introduction of mandatory reselection of MPs and that John McDonnell has stated that no MPs will be deselected. Both must recognise that if they are to have any chance of staying in their positions and implementing their policies in government in 2020 and beyond there must be a change in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The right-wing fifth column must be removed. For the two to speak out against any deselection only serves to undermine their own supporters who may well have good reason for wanting to replace MPs who, for example, have voted for war or failed to oppose Tory welfare cuts or who have spoken out treacherously against Corbyn. Many Labour members will understandably want MPs that they can trust and rely on to stand up for Labour’s working-class voters.
A regular process of reviewing the performance of elected representatives is a basic element of party democracy and accountability. No MP or councillor should imagine that they have a right to remain in place for life. If they were doing a good job in the eyes of the membership then, no doubt, they would be reselected. If they were not, then they couldn’t really complain if they were replaced by someone more in tune with the political outlook of the members to whom they are accountable. This is a decision to be taken at local level and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell must do everything they can to encourage and defend local accountability and democracy.
Oppose all cuts
A further disappointing development was a letter sent on 17 December 2015 to all Labour council leaders by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Labour’s shadow communities and local government secretary Jon Trickett advising them against setting what have become known as ‘needs budgets’ or ‘no cuts budgets’. The letter followed the announcement by the Tory government of the latest local government settlement. This reduced council funding by a further 6.7% between 2016 and 2020, on top of the massive savaging of local council funding already imposed since 2010. As Jon Trickett himself commented, “The central message is the same as always: cuts, cuts and more cuts.”
Yet despite this, Trickett, Corbyn and McDonnell are telling Labour controlled councils that they must implement these cuts. This is a huge mistake and should be reversed. A debate needs to be had inside the Labour Party and trade unions about the role of Labour councillors and how to oppose Tory cuts.
Local government spending has been reduced by Tory central government by 40% since 2010. In essence, local governments have been given the responsibility for deciding where these cuts fall. Labour councils as much as Tory councils have passed on these cuts. Of course it is correct to say that the Tory government has imposed the cuts on local councils, so they are ultimately responsible. But Labour councils should not simply allow themselves to be conduits for Tory cuts. Labour councils are elected by local communities as protection against the Tories. Implementing the cuts is not providing protection.
However many ways it is rationalised, cuts implemented by Labour councils are still cuts. They hit the weakest and the most vulnerable. Over the last five years local authority services have been devastated. Now that devastation is to be taken to another level.
Local councils have a stark choice: to pass on the cuts or to devise a way to stop them. Refusing to implement any further cuts must be the starting point. It was to be hoped that the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the appointment of John McDonnell would mark a change of strategy. If Labour is to be a real anti-austerity party it must not be complicit in transmitting Tory austerity.
The argument used by Corbyn, McDonnell and Trickett in the letter is that there is no legal alternative to implementing the cuts. The letter states:
“The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, said in September “…the situation councils are now in is if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them anymore.” As you know, councils must set a balanced budget under the Local Government Act 1992. If this does not happen, i.e. if a council fails to set a legal budget, then the council’s Section 151 Officer is required to issue the council with a notice under Section 114 of the 1988 Local Government Act. Councillors are then required to take all the necessary actions in order to bring the budget back into balance.
“Failing to do so can lead to complaints against councillors under the Code of Conduct, judicial review of the council and, most significantly, government intervention by the Secretary of State. It would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities. Their priorities would certainly not meet the needs of the communities which elected us.”
There are a number of points to be made. Firstly, the same letter states: “Following the debate inside the Party during Labour the leadership election and at our annual conference our Party is now clearly an anti-austerity party.” For this to be true, the Labour party and its leadership must oppose all cuts not only in word but in deed. The cuts mean hardship for the majority. This should be the starting point for Labour. It should never make things worse for working class people. That is what the Tories do and it is what Labour should oppose. So, as a matter of principle, Labour should refuse to implement the cuts. There must be a line in the sand for all Labour representatives: never impose worse conditions on the working class.
Secondly, Labour-controlled councils and the trade unions form a considerable social and political force. If Jeremy Corbyn and Jon McDonnell appealed to their supporters to mobilise in support of Labour councils that refused to implement cuts and called on trade unionists to back that stance, there could be a mass movement comparable to the resistance to the poll tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher. Trade unions, local communities, the young and the old, the disabled all have a direct interest in defending local public sector services. A bold, clear lead from the top could begin to make a difference.
Instead of writing to local council leaders telling them not to pass ‘needs budgets’, i.e. a budget based on the needs of the local communities, Corbyn and McDonnell should have written to them calling on them to prepare for a determined and united battle to stop the cuts. Local Labour Parties, Labour’s 7,000 councillors and 231 MPs, trade unionists and their leaders and officials could be turned into a mass educational and agitational force, taking to the streets and knocking on doors to mobilize people in support of the anti-cuts stance that the councils are about to take. Demonstrations should be called, protests and mass leafleting organised, co-ordinated industrial action called, all geared to protecting the standards of living and human dignity of millions of people. That would truly mark a new way of doing politics.
Clearly, careful thought would have to be given to co-ordinating the acts of Labour-led councils across the country. Detailed battle plans would have to be drawn up, involving the whole labour movement and wider civil society. Councils may have to draw on their reserves where available, to protect local services while the campaign develops. But in the end more money must be forced out of central government. They can find money for wars, for bailing out the banks and for renewing Trident. There is money there for the local services we all depend on.
Instead of doing any of this, however, the letter rather seeks to frighten local councils with the threat of direct intervention by central government.
Imagine the situation. Labour controls 23 unitary authorities in England, 10 unitary authorities in Wales and 5 in Scotland, 20 London Borough councils, 29 Metropolitan borough councils, 33 District councils and two county councils. If that significant section of nationally elected representatives were prepared to stand up and defend their constituents, they would be backed to the hilt. It would lead to a constitutional crisis and pose the question of whether the government could continue to govern.
It is almost unimaginable that the Tory government would attempt to move in to run all those authorities. It would amount to an unparalleled trampling on local democracy. Such a defiant stand,though, would require strong leadership and unity. It would require the 370,000 Labour Party members and its millions of supporters being drawn into a political struggle. It could ultimately mean the defeat of the government. No victory can be guaranteed in advance. But a refusal to fight guarantees defeat.
Labour to power on a socialist programme
Plans for challenging the cuts, and the drawing up of needs budgets across the UK have to be linked to the programme of an incoming Labour government, one which would now be in a position to determine the level of local government spending.
The letter to the council leaders also states: “The government’s austerity cuts are a political choice not an economic necessity.” In one sense this is true. All political acts are choices. But the decision to impose the cuts is one that the Tories are compelled to take because they are facing a crisis in the economy – not just in the British economy but in the global economy. They are the political representatives of the capitalist class and they make political choices in the interest of capitalism. They aim to make the economy more amenable to making profit. To achieve this they must reduce the amount of government spending and open up the public sector to private investment. They must curtail the trade unions so that wages can be kept to a minimum and so that conditions at work allow for the greatest exploitation of labour.
Moreover, the Tories are allowed to make this choice because there has been no effective opposition to it. For five years austerity has been imposed on millions of families with little resistance from the Labour Party or the trade unions. A few demonstrations against austerity clearly haven’t been enough to stop Osborne and his crew.
In the past, Labour governments have implemented austerity because they have not been prepared to break with the market, with capitalism. If Labour is to act differently when in government next time, it must have a strategy for breaking the power of the capitalist class and of establishing a new society based on common ownership and genuine democracy, in which the needs of all are put before the profits of a few.
A new Labour government must make a clear political choice: break with capitalism. If it does not, then it will be forced to implement the cuts as “an economic necessity”. We only need look to the recent example of Greece.