The Independent Socialist Network welcomes Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable victory in the election to become leader of the Labour Party. It is a victory to be celebrated by all socialists and all who want a fairer society.
The size of Corbyn’s victory demonstrated how broad was his support. He annihilated his three opponents, winning 59.5% and securing victory in the first round of voting. He won majorities in all sections of the vote.
His programme has enthused hundreds of thousands. And it’s not surprising. We have long argued that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of socialists who had become disillusioned with the consensus politics pursued by New Labour, who could be inspired back into political activity by a break with the austerity consensus and by a confident appeal on the basis of socialist ideas. This older layer, along with a newer generation of radicalised young people, can be the basis for a new mass movement to change society.
The extra-Labour Party left has signally failed to make inroads into this large group. TUSC continues to refuse to become a membership organisation. Left Unity has squandered the 12,000 people who responded to Ken Loach’s appeal to set up a new party.
Against the background of a mass uprising against austerity in Greece, reflected in the votes for Syriza in this January’s parliamentary elections and then the 60% vote to reject austerity in July’s referendum, and the massive vote for the SNP on the basis of its [bogus] anti-austerity policy in the UK general election, that sentiment has now found its expression in the Labour Party around the person and politics of Jeremy Corbyn.
This marks a new stage in British politics and it demands a new approach.
Jeremy Corbyn and his newly appointed Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are different from previous Labour leaders in that they are clearly on the side of the working class. They are determined to protect those on the receiving end of austerity. They want to make the bankers, rather than the poor, pay for the economic crisis. They support workers on strike, they defend the poor and those on benefits. They are anti-war. They are opposed to wasting billions on a replacement for Trident and would spend the money instead on socially beneficial projects. They are anti-austerity.
The support for this anti-austerity politics is based both within and without the Labour Party. But it is increasingly finding more reflection within the Labour Party. Well over 300,000 signed up as ‘supporters’ to vote in the leadership election. More than 60,000 have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election as leader.
But Corbyn and his allies have immediate and obvious problems. They are isolated within the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They do not have the support within the PLP as presently constituted to implement their anti-austerity programme. Many former members of the Shadow Cabinet, including two of his opponents in the leadership campaign have refused to serve in his Shadow Cabinet. Others are openly hostile. Some are reported to have discussed joining the Liberal Democrats and even the Tories. A leading Labour donor has called on MPs to form a new party.
Even MPs who have accepted positions in the Shadow Cabinet have openly disagreed with him on key issues such as Trident, NATO, economic policy and air strikes on Syria. Labour’s London Mayoral candidate for 2016 Sadiq Khan has set out his clear differences, despite having nominated Corbyn in the leadership ballot. Even his support from the Trade Union leaders is not guaranteed, with ‘Sir’ Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB union, leaving the question open.
To say there is trouble ahead would be to trivialise the difficulties Corbyn, McDonnell and their supporters face. There is civil war brewing. Grenades have already been thrown by their opponents. The right-wing Blairites and Brownites know that they have to be a little bit cautious for the time being, such was the overwhelming nature of Corbyn’s victory. But they and Corbyn cannot co-exist peacefully in the same party for long. Either Corbyn will win or his opponents will.
Although we have profound differences about the efficacy of Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s economic programme – we believe that it is essentially a modest reforming programme to manage capitalism, rather than one to replace it with a new socialist society – we are with them 100% in their battle with the right.
Corbyn does not have unlimited time. He may be able to persuade a few more Labour MPs to support his programme but he cannot base himself on his support in parliament. Were he to win the general election in 2020, he could not hope to implement his programme with the current group of MPs. He must immediately turn out to the 250,000 who voted for him and the many more who are hoping that he can deliver. His objective cannot be to scrape through to 2020 on the basis of making compromise after compromise with his opponents in parliament. His objective must be to organise the anti-austerity movement in and out of the Labour Party to strengthen his position so that he can still be in place in 2020 with his policies intact.
Corbyn must stick to the anti-austerity policies that got him elected and not water them down. He must publicly continue to argue his case against those who seek to undermine him. He cannot allow himself to become an impotent prisoner of the PLP. Of course, we want to see him lead Labour into the 2020 elections, but if he is to go sooner, through coup or as a consequence of the persistent and remorseless attacks that will inevitably continue, he must look to have built a bigger organised base for those who support his policies. Something solid and socialist must be built.
He must now use his position as a new party leader with a massive mandate to open up the Labour Party to all who want to join it, including those who have voted for or stood as candidates for rival left-wing parties. All those socialists who have been proscribed or otherwise prevented from joining the Labour Party must be allowed in. The internal party structures must be completely democratised so that local constituencies can move resolutions to party conference. Conference must be democratised and become sovereign, making policy to be implemented by party MPs, MEPs and local councillors. As Corbyn himself has argued, policy must be made democratically by the Labour Party members.
Crucially, there must be mandatory reselection of MPs, MEPs and local councillors, so that the party’s representatives begin to reflect the anti-austerity sentiment growing in the party. The longer this process is delayed, the more Corbyn/McDonnell will enable their opponents to regroup to eject them. Their supporters have to be organised in the constituency parties, the trade unions and other affiliated sections to prevent the right from reasserting their dominance. The massive numbers that flocked to hear Corbyn in the election campaign should be addressed again in every town and city. There should be a pro-Corbyn/McDonnell meeting in every constituency. These meetings should not just be to cheer for the new leadership but to organise their troops and to begin a serious discussion on the anti-austerity politics the movement needs and on the practical steps that need to be taken.
We remain committed to the creation of a new mass socialist party but it is clear that steps to build this outside of the Labour Party have been, at least temporarily, overtaken by recent events. The majority of the Marxist left is incapable even of contemplating, let alone taking, the obviously necessary steps towards building a united party of Marxists. Each group puts its own narrow interests above the interests of the class whose interests each claims to understand. The SWP and SP will continue to go through the motions in TUSC, standing candidates to build their own parties respectively, but doing nothing to establish a united party committed to changing society. A huge question mark, likewise, hangs over Left Unity. With the same politics as Corbyn/McDonnell, why should anyone join it, rather than the Labour Party?
We agree with Jeremy Corbyn that a new politics is needed. His election victory has opened up the possibility of establishing it. But it cannot be just a new politics in form. It must be a new politics in content. It cannot be the limited programme of reforms that he and John McDonnell propose but a much more fundamental programme to end capitalism and to establish a new society based on the fullest democracy, including common ownership of the economy. That would be a truly new politics.
Defending Corbyn/McDonnell against the right and fighting for a Marxist programme to change society go hand in hand. We encourage all Marxists to get involved in this fight.
No one can predict exactly how this whole process is going to unfold or conclude. A split of some sort in the Labour Party seems inevitable. Our side must emerge strengthened from the battles. Our aim must be to build the biggest organised force to defend Corbyn/McDonnell and anti-austerity politics but also to build within that the kernel of a new socialist party based on Marxist ideas.
We in the Independent Socialist Network will continue to discuss these developing events and debate what steps we should take. Should Marxists be now joining the Labour Party or is it possible to participate meaningfully in events by continuing to organise outside? We want to act collectively, after the fullest discussion. We will be taking decisions at our Annual General Meeting on 5 December.