Old debates, new situations

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

In an effort to understand the phenomenal rise of Jeremy Corbyn following his entry into the Labour leadership race, I’ve been reading Ralph Miliband’s book on parliamentary socialism.

I’ve yet to finish, but one of the most striking features of the Labour Party’s history is the change in the nature of the debate between the right and left of the party, and especially the change in the ideology of the Labour right.

The old debates of the early twentieth century were oriented to the question, do we get to socialism by gradual reform through parliamentary process, or through violent revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois status quo? Importantly, the question was posed at a time when revolution was a very real prospect.

This is a dichotomy that some on the left still cling to.  British Trotskyists sagely attribute the defeat of Syriza to its pro-European reformism whilst writing editorials on why reformist politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, aren’t the answer. The campaigns against austerity are seen as radicalisations, opportunities to promote a revolutionary anti-capitalism amongst the masses.

These characterizations are wrong. It’s not that people have radicalized. It’s that the traditional leaders of social democracy have. To the right. Whilst the method of the early leaders of the Labour Party, such as Macdonald or Henderson, has remained the same – the cultivation of an air of bourgeois respectability, policy “triangulation”, and concessions to the right framed as an attempt to occupy the political “centre-ground” – the content has changed dramatically.

Orwell’s observation in Animal Farm – that sooner or later the pigs who speak and act like humans become humans – is true. The stated aim of the early Labour Party was to bring about socialism through parliamentary reforms, now Blair has said he wouldn’t want to win on such a platform. As David Wearing writes both tragically and humorously , ‘promises from frontbench leadership candidates that getting into government would allow them to “put their values into practice” become not a source of inspiration, but of dread.’

The last twenty years has seen an acceleration of the process. Many in the Corbyn campaign dismiss his opponents as ‘Blairites’. They’re wrong; the new Labour right are much worse. Now, neither Burnham nor Kendall will defend New Labour’s economic record and they are joined by Cooper in saying that the party “got it wrong” on immigration. These positions put these candidates to the right of Blair, and all in the space of only one new generation of Labour politicians.

That these are Blair’s successors is to be expected. The New Labour government was brought to power on a wave of anti-Tory sentiment at the beginning of a global commodity boom. It was possible to be relaxed about ‘people getting filthy rich’ at the same time as the economy grew and living standards improved.

But now the rising tide that lifted all boats has gone out, leaving the Labour right like fish on the shore gasping for breath. Burnham and Cooper flail about looking for a coherent economic policy; Kendall finds one, but it belongs to the Tories. It’s time for the exiled Jeremy Corbyn, our bearded Prospero, to have his day.

Because the stick only bends so far without breaking. Bereft of their  social democratic leaders, what’s a social democrat supposed to do? Well, get angry of course. Contrary to how some of the commentariat have described it, Corbyn isn’t running a ‘hard left’ campaign (indeed, the New Economics Foundation’s, James Meadway, puts Corbyn to the right of the SDP). The backers of his economic plan aren’t Marxists, but stalwart Keynesians, fed up of listening to the nonsense emitted from their more likely allies. No wonder people have flocked to him.

What, then, of reform versus revolution? There’s no rush to the barricades or, if there is, the protestors aren’t carrying placards that read ‘all power to the soviets’. The demands are either in the negative (‘no to cuts’) or thoroughly social democratic (‘tax the rich’, a demand that, strangely, has gained traction on the revolutionary left). Revolution isn’t on the agenda but extensive reform certainly is.

In this context, to speak of revolution is an abstraction; to speak of ‘the limits of reformism’ is only to point to the political horizons of the present conjuncture. Whilst I don’t agree with the wording of Yanis Varoufakis’s formulation, that we should ‘save capitalism from itself’, socialists should harness all forces to defend the living standards of the majority threatened by the economic crisis. If that means picking up and running with the demand for reforms, then so be it. These are the times in which we’re living.

Some late thoughts on Labour & the welfare bill

The line peddled by the likes of Burnham, who argues that he did oppose the welfare bill because he voted for a Labour amendment (which fell), is nonsensical. Putting aside the fact that Labour’s amendment wrongly conceded on some important aspects of the bill, this position would only be defensible if Labour MPs were then to vote ‘no’. They didn’t: the whip was to abstain. This is not ‘opposing the bill’ by anyone’s reckoning. The 48 Labour rebels who did vote ‘no’ should be celebrated as heroes. Those who abstained should be ashamed of themselves.

On a different note, the figure of 48 rebels is important to another debate in the Labour Party: the leadership election. The first thing to say is that the vote demonstrates that Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is serious about opposing the Tories and the austerity agenda. Jeremy succeeded in getting 35 nominations for Labour leadership, which was brilliant. It should be noted, however, that the nominations were garnered on the basis of a democratic demand – the demand to ‘widen the debate’ – rather than any affinity with Jeremy’s politics. It seems to me that the figure of 48 is significant because it demonstrates that opposition to austerity policies goes beyond the narrower parliamentary support for Jeremy, to a broader layer of MPs who – for whatever reason (perhaps they don’t think Jeremy can win) – support other candidates for the leadership. I say this as an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but I think that the only conclusion to draw from this is that the dividing line in the fight against austerity insofar as the Labour Party is concerned is not whether or not you support Jeremy, but whether or not you support austerity. This amounts to the observation that by putting the politics first, you create a broader alliance than by putting a leadership candidate first (which makes intuitive sense to me, and is the underlying rationale behind any united front).

So, I think it’s vital that socialists in the Labour Party do everything they can to promote Jeremy’s electoral campaign, but I think it’s also necessary to wage a concerted political struggle against austerity in the Labour Party that draws in broader forces as well, a campaign for a policy of investment, not cuts. In fact, if Jeremy’s electoral campaign and the political campaign against austerity are overly conflated, we run the risk of a defeat for Jeremy’s candidacy being construed as a defeat for broader anti-austerity forces. This would severely weaken the Labour left in the aftermath of the leadership election, making it harder for us to promote a progressive economic policy under whoever takes the reins of the party.

Owen Jones is right: Vote Labour, fight the Labour right

vote labour

People on the left often pick fights with Owen Jones. Being a member of the Labour Party is a red rag to some on Labour’s left (indeed, those schooled in the basics of Trotology will know that some of these organisations – like Militant, now the Socialist Party – at one time worked within the Labour Party until they were expelled…) Unsurprisingly, then, one of Jones’s latest pieces, which calls on people to vote Labour on 7th May, has attracted the ire of several people and organisations on the far-left.

Normally, people sniping about one of Jones’s pieces wouldn’t bother me – haterz gonna hate; anarchists gonna… well you get the idea – but several of these articles have been doing the rounds with people I know and, in some cases, they have been favourably received. This does bother me because I want Labour to win and this is a knife-edge election (I also think Jones’s assessment of the situation is basically correct). Plus, even if these articles aren’t really that important, I think they’re just, well, wrong, so in writing this I’m partly responding to the well-known psychic itch of SOMEONE BEING WRONG ON THE INTERNET.

Contrary to what some have said, Owen Jones did not do a Polly Toynbee and say that you should vote Labour with a clothes peg on your nose. As I wrote at the time in response to Toynbee, this is inadequate. The critics of Jones’s piece who say that we cannot simply expect a win for Labour to usher in a glorious new dawn of anti-austerity are entirely correct. In fact, they’re so correct that it’d be hard to find anyone on the left of the Labour Party who would disagree with them. Labour – stupidly to my mind – have already voted with the government for £30 billion more cuts.

But Jones never argued that a vote for Labour would automatically end austerity. His actual position is that austerity policies would be easier to defeat under a Labour government than the Tories. This makes sense. Whereas the Tories are politically and ideologically unified in their commitment to cuts and privatisation, the Labour Party clearly isn’t.

Notwithstanding the rebel Labour MPs we’ve seen over the last parliament who didn’t vote for cuts and benefit sanctions, the Labour Party manifesto is not the ultra-reactionary slash-fest that some on the far-left are making it out to be. It includes closing tax loopholes and cracking down on tax avoidance, investing in 200,000 new homes a year until 2020, investing in properly insulating 5 million homes, repealing the health and social care act, scrapping the bedroom tax and introducing a mansion tax. These are all Good Things.

As Jones points out, many of Labour’s progressive positions – on the bedroom tax, on the mansion tax etc. – are a result of grassroots campaigning. Organising in and outside Labour has clearly created faultlines in the party; on the one hand, Labour is pledging massive cuts, but on the other it’s campaigning on the basis of progressive policies. It’s easier to win the political argument against austerity in this context than it is to fight against a completely unified Conservative Party.

Outside of conversations on the far-left, the Labour leadership are not seen as austerity-crazed right-wingers. In fact, quite the opposite is true; Labour has come under intense media and political pressure for being too soft on the deficit. This means that – irrespective of whether Labour actually does the progressive things it says it will – a defeat for the Tories will itself be seen as a partial political defeat for austerity. People are voting Labour as they rightly see it as an alternative (albeit an alternative that isn’t radical enough in my view).

Of course, the opposite is also true. The left will not gain from a Labour defeat; the pendulum within the party will swing to the right, which will create a clear political consensus for more cuts. This will make the job of anti-austerity activists even harder. Forcing U-turns is harder than ensuring parties keep their promises (and just ask the Liberal Democrats what happens when you don’t keep your promises).

One of the stranger criticisms of Jones’s piece is that he reduces political campaigning to lobbying the Labour Party. Here’s an example:

‘The most obvious problem with the above [the writer had previously quoted Jones] is that it effectively reduces all organising and campaigning down to shifting Labour’s position on any number of issues. At the conclusion of the article, Jones goes further by suggesting that all of our “campaigns and struggles […] would, under Toryism, be doomed.’

But reduced from what, exactly? It’s as much to my dismay as it is to the writer’s, but the masses are not rising up in glorious revolution. Short of ‘shifting’ the position of the Labour party – or whoever the government is – what else is there? The next thing up from that is bringing the government down and replacing it with something better, but – speaking as someone who has done the hard graft of standing in the street talking to people about austerity and organising public meetings and demonstrations – that’s a pipedream. Given that the writer of this piece doesn’t think forcing a government U-turn or holding a Labour government to its promises is a sign of success, it would be useful if they defined exactly what was.

Of course, these article usually imply that success looks something like ‘a mass militant working class movement against the cuts’ but usually this comes at the end of the article and, frustratingly, the author often gives no indication of how to build such a thing (honestly, next time you see a lefty article, before you begin to read it just check the final or penultimate paragraph for words like these. If you find them, run away).

We do need a mass movement against the cuts, and everyone on the left agrees we do. What we don’t need is people repeating that fact as an empty slogan. What’s good about Jones’s article is that he’s offering some indication of what the next steps are in building a succesful movement against austerity, and one of those steps is electing a Labour government. In itself it won’t defeat austerity, and it certainly won’t usher in a social revolution, but it will turn the odds more in our favour. Surely that’s a reason to vote Labour.