|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 195 February 2016
Britain’s fractured politics
Labour’s left and right fault-lines are widening. The Tories face deep splits over Europe – and their savage austerity could yet unleash mass resistance. It’s a volatile mix, writes PETER TAAFFE.
The Labour Party is irrevocably split following the unprecedented election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The fault lines between the insurgent Corbynite base and a parliamentary rump of predominantly Blairite MPs who represent the past grow by the day. The Tory party is also split right down the middle over the European Union, which will be revealed in all its gory detail in the referendum over Britain’s membership that could take place as early as June or July. Indeed, if Britain had possessed Spain’s proportional representation electoral system in place of first-past-the-post, where the winner takes all, the same political deadlock – with its four- or five-party parliament, the outcome of last December’s Spanish general election – would now exist here.
This reflects the profound changes in the position of British capitalism, its parties and its ability to rule in the same way as in the past. It is no longer able to determine the political direction of the main parties which, within limits, it was able to do previously. This in turn is affected by its political weakness and loss of authority following Britain’s economic collapse, symbolised by the decay of the long neglected infrastructure which, on top of climate change, made the recent floods so devastating for thousands.
The Tory party in its heyday was the most successful electoral machine in history. Yet in last May’s general election it managed to sneak back into power with the votes of just one quarter of the electorate, shedding in the process its discredited Liberal Democrat prop, which has been reduced to a bourgeois sect. But, as we predicted, the stored-up economic, social and political contradictions came surging to the surface very quickly. After the election, this has shattered the puffed-up claims of prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne that the economy had turned the corner and sunny economic uplands beckoned.
Foremost is the decidedly pessimistic outlook for the world economy, indicated by the jitters on the stock exchanges of China and the repercussions elsewhere, including in Britain. This is the fourth time in the last decade, with an alleged economic recovery under way, that shares have not benefited by a boost, which they would have expected to do. This indicates the lack of confidence, to say the least, of the capitalists in their system’s ability to fully drag itself out of the recession in which it has been mired since 2007-08. Additionally, the World Bank has warned that the global economy is now being battered by a perfect storm of a generalised slowdown, particularly in the neo-colonial world – the so-called emerging markets which are rapidly sinking – which will impact on the ‘advanced’ industrial countries.
Despite the bluster of Osborne and his economic ‘wizardry’ – of smoke and mirrors – reality has undermined his prognosis for the British economy. He has been compelled to recognise that, despite the diet of savage cuts which he, Cameron and the Liberal Democrats have inflicted on the British people, and the terrible pain and suffering this has caused, his target for reducing the deficit has not been reached.
As the steel industry is allowed to go to the wall, Cameron and Osborne have pumped up the great lifeline for the British economy which lies in… wait for it… the proliferation of "small businesses and the legion of self-employed"! It is claimed that the number of self-employed is at a 40-year high but at the same time their average income has fallen by 22%. This bears out our contention that ‘self-employment’ is not a new lifeline for the economy or for working people. Many have a hand-to-mouth existence, eking out a living that can be compared to the fate of ancient poverty-stricken Chinese peasants condemned to a half existence on narrow strips of land.
The reality is that manufacturing industry, which historically was the foundations for capitalist ‘prosperity’, for the economy and jobs during the boom, was further undermined in 2015. The Guardian described manufacturing industry as stagnant, destroying in the process Osborne’s boast to rebalance the economy away from domestic consumption in favour of industry and exports. This was a precondition for his triumphalist ‘march of the makers’.
Debt, poverty and austerity
At the same time, the outline of a new credit crunch is appearing on the horizon. Even the Office for Budget Responsibility, upon which the government has rested to drive through its programme of cuts, has warned that the rise in debt, particularly household debt, is a real danger to the Tories’ plans. It has estimated that, "British households will spend £40 billion that we don’t actually have this year… We’re back on the treadmill of growth being sustained by personal borrowing". But many poor families are unfortunately reliant upon the lifeline of debt from unscrupulous loan sharks which, if precipitately withdrawn, would pitch them into an even greater nightmare existence than at present. It is not possible to overestimate the terrible dilemma of plunging living standards that is the lot of millions in Britain.
Last October, the ‘I’ newspaper (part of the Independent) baldly stated: "Hunger haunts England as poverty brings back Victorian diseases… Food banks claim that tens of thousands of people are missing meals every day… Malnutrition, scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough are all increasing". It backed up its claims by declaring: "NHS statistics show that 7,366 people were admitted to hospital with a primary or secondary diagnosis of malnutrition between August 2014 and July this year, compared with 4,883 cases in the same period from 2010 to 2011 – a rise of more than 50 per cent in just four years.… There are at least one million older people malnourished or at risk".
At the same time: "Debt, austerity and unemployment have been cited as significant factors in the rising number of British men who have killed themselves since 2008". (Guardian, 13 November 2015) Taking up the theme which we have consistently developed in this journal, Ken Loach, famous for his indictment of the housing situation in Britain in the 1960s in the film Cathy Come Home, states in relation to Osborne and Cameron’s regime: "The present system is one of conscious cruelty". He has been shocked by the sheer number of hungry people he had seen at a food bank: "The situation is much worse than in the days of Cathy Come Home… Where is the Labour Party on this? We should have the Tories on the run on this one… Jeremy [Corbyn], we want to hear from you on this issue. People are feeling oppressed and crushed and powerless. What is the point of the labour movement if not to give voice to people in these situations?"
The struggle to change Labour
Ken hits the nail on the head about the reality of Tory Britain, but it is of particular relevance to the battle, the civil war in reality, that presently rages between Corbyn and the left in general, and his implacable opponents on the Labour right. The Blairites, the pro-capitalist ‘entrists’, wish to remain within the framework of the rotten capitalist system, plagued by crises, which can no longer deliver the reforms of the past. Jeremy Corbyn opens up at least the possibility of a new road, which can lead to a fundamental transformation in the forces in and around the Labour Party, thereby laying the basis for a socialist challenge to capitalism.
Ever since his election, the overwhelming majority of the media – and their voices on the Labour right – have piled one insult after another upon the head of Jeremy Corbyn, denigrating him personally. Martin Kettle of the Guardian called him "the leader from hell", and the Sunday Times described him as "Labour’s führer". The BBC has joined in by facilitating a shadow minister to announce his resignation on air! These are typical examples of the diatribes which Corbyn and the left have faced. The Financial Times merely expostulated: "Corbyn lives down to limited expectations". Their venom arises from the fact that they have now lost control over the ‘political process’.
This involved the bourgeois, capitalist class not only managing its own party, the Tories, but also suborning the Labour Party through the leadership to its own ultimate interests. The Labour Party was historically considered as the ‘second eleven’ of capitalism, even when it was a bourgeois workers’ party, largely working class at its base but with a pro-capitalist leadership. Under Tony Blair – with the destruction of the elements of socialist aspiration in its programme together with the construction of a centralised, personalised, bureaucratic machine around the leader, ruling over the party – it was transformed into a bourgeois party.
This current battle will decide whether the forces around Corbyn, both inside and outside the Labour Party, can create a workers’ party which can begin to politically rearm the working class for the testing times to come. There can be no room for wishful thinking if this task is to be completed. Over the Christmas holiday, the right spelt out bluntly its intentions. Peter Hyman, Peter Mandelson, Polly Toynbee and John Harris – all signed-up Blairites – bemoaned in the Guardian the advent of Corbynism and the re-emergence of the left. At the same time, they illustrated their weakness, their lack of any real alternative for working people and the labour movement.
Besieged in a leftward-moving party, they now plead for Labour to be a ‘broad church’. In the 1980s, they were eager to ‘excommunicate’ (expel) socialists and Marxists from their narrow right-wing church. The Socialist Party’s idea of a broad church would include anti-austerity and socialist forces, not the right-wing schemers seeking the first opportunity to shipwreck Corbyn. Any attempt to do this should be met with the organisation of a national conference from inside and outside the Labour Party to defeat the right.
Unfortunately, this kind of approach is foreign to those in the self-appointed leadership of Momentum. In reality, they wish to largely limit the movement around Corbyn to the electoral plane: ‘Victory to Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2020!’ Yet on the cuts and many other issues, this is a period when there is likely to be mass political and industrial battles.
Moreover, the Momentum leadership is more and more assuming the mantle of a ‘left’ John Golding, the infamous witch-hunter general of the 1980s who organised to expel Militant, now the Socialist Party, and others on the left for the ‘crime’ of fighting for our class in the Liverpool council and the anti-poll tax battles. They have sought to oppose the involvement of the Socialist Party and other lefts, even though this approach could help to reduce Momentum to an empty, sterile talking shop. Momentum has played down or abandoned the demand for mandatory reselection of MPs, including the right to deselect saboteurs of workers’ struggles. With Momentum’s passive approach to the cuts, it can come into collision with leftward-moving workers inside and outside the Labour Party.
Hyman, borrowing from the analysis of the Socialist Party, agreed that there were now ‘two parties’ within the Labour Party, with the Corbyn wing representing the outline of a new left party. He called on the right-wing to mobilise its forces to overthrow Corbyn and return the party to "sanity". However, there is a complete absence of any practical programme, apart from vague phrases about ‘values’, which could find a resonance and support among working people. Polly Toynbee admitted that she had lost all hope for a revival of the Labour right.
This is just a reluctant admission of the brutal truth arising from objective reality which confronts the ruling class and the labour movement alike. Throughout Europe, and the world for that matter, the ground upon which social democracy has rested – piecemeal reforms as a means of ameliorating capitalism, if not fundamentally changing society – has been dynamited beneath its feet by the world crisis of capitalism. Capitalism cannot afford lasting reforms any longer. Does not the last coalition government’s action of cuts and more cuts – together with the experience of Greece, Spain and Europe generally – conclusively demonstrate this?
This is not to say that Labour right-wingers, if they cannot find the means to reassert control within Labour, will just calmly accept their fate and fade into obscurity. They will attempt – supplied with ample funds from rich backers – to seek to establish a political pole of attraction, a new formation or party, which will seek to appeal to those sections of Labour’s ‘traditional’ voters who have not yet been won to the left and Corbyn. History shows that when a left split takes place in a workers’ mass party, there are always conservative sections of the middle class, even layers of workers, whose consciousness reflects ‘yesterday’ – when reforms were possible – and not the present reality. They therefore cling to the remnants of the ‘traditional’ parties, hoping against hope to turn back the wheel of history.
This was the case even during revolutionary upheavals, like the situation following the Russian revolution of 1917, when mass communist parties were formed through splits in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere. Nonetheless, social democratic parties continued to exist. Only the test of great events shook these parties to the core and began to change the consciousness of workers who did not originally support the formation of left parties. This therefore opened up the possibility, through a united front policy, of winning them to the new mass formations.
Britain is clearly not at this stage yet, particularly in terms of the political outlook of the working class, which has still not yet recovered from the effects of the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism in 1989/90 and the massive anti-socialist ideological barrage which followed in its wake. But there is an element of the past, some analogies with the previous experiences of mass parties, in the situation which is beginning to develop today.
Fight the cuts
Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters could inadvertently play into the hands of the pro-capitalist Labour right. They could facilitate the right-wing’s task if Jeremy has an inadequate programme and perspective for this period. This involves the need to adopt radical socialist policies on domestic issues as well as on foreign policy. In the past, the Labour left tended to highlight foreign policy issues – the ‘love of the distant’ – without also sufficiently stressing the concrete domestic issues which daily confront the working class. This is not to say that on foreign policy – the bombing of Syria, the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons – it is not important to take a principled internationalist and class stand, unlike Hilary Benn who received the jingoistic acclaim of the combined right in the Commons when he backed the bombing of Syria last year.
There are fundamental, diametrically opposed political and class differences with the Blairite right-wing on foreign policy, but also on domestic issues. Foreign policy is merely a continuation of home policy. It is impossible that the Labour right – located in and ultimately supporting capitalism – can have one position abroad and an entirely different approach to the problems of Britain.
Yet John McDonnell, Labour shadow chancellor, in the discussion around January’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, claimed that there were no outstanding differences on domestic policies between him and Corbyn, on the one hand, and the unreconciled Labour right, on the other. There is, in reality, a chasm between left and right on the deficit, used by Osborne to justify the devastating cuts of a further £10 billion to be slashed from welfare, on the issue of consistently defending the most vulnerable, compelled to live on welfare or on unemployment benefit, and continued massive privatisation from the government. The Labour right still advocate ‘austerity-lite’ policies, justifying a policy of passing on and implementing the Tory government’s savage cuts.
Moreover, the Socialist Party severely criticised the letter to Labour local authority leaders from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell just before Christmas, which suggested that they agreed with this position. This was followed by a welcome retreat and denial from the Labour Representation Committee – presumably speaking with the authority of Corbyn and McDonnell – denying that this was the case and tentatively raising the question of ‘needs budgets’ at council level. Council budgets which reflect the needs of working-class people were successfully implemented during the epic Liverpool council struggle in the 1980s, and are being advocated by the Socialist Party in the current battle. It remains to be seen whether these intentions could be translated into deeds at local level.
Preparing an anti-Corbyn coup
Jeremy Corbyn was only able to arrive at his present position by articulating and reflecting the demand from below for a clean break with the disastrous policies of the Labour right. This met with a barrage of opposition from them, and from the bourgeois media standing behind them. From day one of Corbyn’s victory, the air has been thick with open and brazen talk of a ‘coup’ against him. This is what Andrew Grice wrote in the Independent in early January: "At some point, the critics may decide to press the nuclear button and resign en masse. It could happen if backbench opponents mount a coup following poor results this May in elections for the London mayor, local authorities, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. ‘It is only a question of when, not if’, said one Corbyn critic".
It was followed by a very significant editorial in the Financial Times which summed up the terror of the strategists of capital at the prospect that the Labour Party could be slipping from their grasp. Their fear is that Corbyn might even survive until 2020, and indeed be strengthened among the rank-and-file and working class by the sheer venom of his enemies and a deepening of the economic crisis.
They advocate that the Labour right should act immediately. They invoke the loss of two previous elections under Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown bluntly stating: "Mr Corbyn is much worse… By reopening the question of the nuclear deterrent and empowering the hard left, he’s reaching way back to the 1980s". Consequently, this organ of venal finance capital called, possibly for the first time in its history, for strike action. This time by urging that the Labour right, which embraces the great majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, "should withdraw their labour"!
These representatives of the possessing classes may go even further if Corbyn survives. If it looks as though he can succeed in holding out to the next general election in 2020 without a split in the Labour Party taking place, and at the same time steers Labour towards the left, then it is not ruled out that the bourgeois could consider once more changing the electoral system.
With the big swing towards the left in the Labour Party in the 1980s – with the Marxists around Militant playing a key role – the prospect of a Tony Benn-led left government coming to power was posed at a certain stage. The bourgeois strategists therefore changed their position on proportional representation. This had been ruled out previously because the ruling class considered that, with the Labour right in control, the party was in safe hands. Leaders like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan presented no danger to them.
But the prospect of a Benn-led government changed this. The experience of Chile in the 1970s – with the coming to power of Salvador Allende, presiding over mass radicalisation and threatening the system – forced a re-evaluation. The British capitalists at this stage were prepared to ditch the first-past-the-post electoral system. This would have been necessary in order to prevent a Benn-led left government, without a majority of votes but with a sufficient majority of seats, coming to power and with mass support – witness the miners and Liverpool – and beginning to change society.
This approach was abandoned by the bourgeois, for general elections at least, once the Labour Party was back in the ‘safe keeping’ of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and then consolidated in the right-wing political counter-revolution of Blair and Brown. Now, however, if the possibility of a Corbyn-led left government looms, then it is not excluded that Cameron or his Tory successor could proceed to change the electoral system to a form of proportional representation, aiming to exclude a Corbyn-led, filled-out and radicalised Labour Party from taking power.
Cameron and Osborne are capable of the most blatant political skulduggery in order to perpetuate capitalist and Tory rule. They have been involved in massive electoral gerrymandering through the conscious exclusion of at least a million people from the electoral roll and constituency boundary changes, which could give the Tories the bonus of 50 extra seats and, they falsely imagine, a permanent majority. They also seek to muzzle the usually ineffective and bloated House of Lords for daring to oppose and helping to shipwreck the government’s cuts to family tax credit. This has been combined with the attempt to cripple Labour financially through the cut in ‘Short money’ (public funds for parties to carry out their ‘parliamentary functions’), along with trade unionists being forced to ‘opt in’ to the political levy.
However, political turmoil and a split are posed for the Tory party itself over the issue of Europe. The EU referendum has the potential to divide all parties, but particularly the Tories. The very fact that Cameron has been compelled to allow a ‘free vote’ – despite the warnings and opposition to this from Tory grandees Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke – indicates how deep the split within Tory ranks is. This concession, however, was made by Cameron in an attempt to avoid a split taking place.
Chris Grayling, leader of the House of Commons, told Cameron that he would quit the cabinet and others would follow, thereby plunging the government into turmoil. Like Wilson in 1975, Cameron conceded that Tory ministers could take "a different personal position" to the official government line during the ‘Brexit’ referendum campaign, "while remaining part of the government". Clarke warned that this approach had laid the seeds of Labour’s split which took six or seven years to fully mature and resulted in the desertion by the Labour right and the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.
Cameron’s attempts to conciliate his intransigent Eurosceptic wing have already failed. His demands for a four-year ban on EU immigrants claiming in-work benefits have been rejected and could be vetoed by Poland and others as being against the EU’s ‘anti-discrimination rules’. It is not excluded that Cameron will get certain minimal concessions, for instance on ‘increased national sovereignty’, which will amount merely to a reconsideration of any new European legislation. The issue of ‘more Europe’, particularly ever closer union, which Britain opposes, has met with opposition, but certain concessions can be made about the speed with which this will be pursued. In reality, under the whip of the general economic crisis, compounded by the colossal refugee issue, measures like the Schengen agreement and the objective of a common banking union have been undermined and pushed back.
The British bourgeois and its representative, Cameron, fail to fully realise their diminished influence in Europe and elsewhere. The UK is less than 1% of the world’s population, less than 3% of its economic output! The overwhelming majority of the British bourgeois are in favour of remaining within the EU. They fear that Brexit will lead to foreign capital, which invests heavily in the finance sector of the City of London and looks on Britain as a springboard for investment in Europe, relocating to the continent. Moreover, as with the Scottish referendum, the Tories and their allies will pursue ‘Project Fear’ once the referendum campaign begins. The EU, with over half-a-billion people, is one of the biggest, if not the largest, markets in the world and takes over half of Britain’s exports.
Either inside or outside the EU, British and European workers have suffered, and will continue to suffer even more with the onset of a new world economic crisis. The EU is an expression of the incapacity of capitalism, the impossibility of the productive forces – science, technique and the organisation of labour – being contained within the narrow limits of the nation state and private ownership. Capitalism can never organise production rationally for the majority. Only the working class can realise the great possibilities that flow from this when organised in a planned, socialist fashion. The European working class would need a democratic socialist confederation of the continent to organise society and production to the benefit of the great majority of the working masses.
The referendum poses the question of ‘remain’ in or ‘leave’ the EU. The Socialist Party is opposed to the capitalist EU. At the same time, we oppose the narrow nationalist, reactionary position of right-wing Tories and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in this referendum. Inside or outside the EU, British capitalism will not provide solutions to working people’s problems. We will participate in an independent socialist and worker-oriented campaign to oppose the capitalist EU, raising the issue of European solidarity of the working people throughout the continent.
It is wrong that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have decided to advocate a ‘remain’ vote. The idea that the EU is a force for the good of working people, or that it can act as a lever in improving their living standards and conditions as the majority of national trade union leaders believe, was never true. The economic crisis has made this doubly the case. The EU is a reactionary bosses’ club and we must determinedly oppose it.
At the same time, we must fight for the socialist political rearming of the working class in Britain. All measures that strengthen and increase the ability of working people to fight back must be supported. All of those which have the effect of undermining and sapping the confidence of working people must be opposed. We have a unique opportunity to return the labour movement to a left and socialist path, through a fighting mass workers’ movement which can defeat once and for all outmoded and discredited capitalism.