Workers Vanguard No. 1081
15 January 2016
Class War in the British Labour Party
Tories, Blairites Turn the Screws on Jeremy Corbyn
LONDON—Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party last September, the party has been in a state of internal class warfare. Corbyn is a decades-long member of old Labour’s left wing and is hugely popular among working people. Pitted against Corbyn and his followers are the vast majority of Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) who uphold the legacy of Tony Blair and are unashamedly committed to “free-market” capitalist exploitation and imperialist military slaughter in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
The latest round in Labour’s class war erupted over a New Year reshuffle of the shadow cabinet. Corbyn’s plight brings to mind a quip by Harold Wilson (who had an undeserved reputation as a leftist) after his election as Labour leader in 1963: “You must understand that I am running a Bolshevik revolution with a tsarist shadow cabinet.” To his credit, Corbyn managed to rid the parliamentary party leadership of some of his most vociferous right-wing enemies. He removed Maria Eagle from shadow defence secretary to a harmless post in “culture.” Eagle had ostentatiously solidarised with the public declaration by the commander of Britain’s armed forces that Corbyn is unfit to become prime minister. Coming from the serving head of the country’s armed forces, the general’s statement invokes the spectre of a military coup.
Amid much controversy, Corbyn allowed Hilary Benn to keep his post as shadow foreign secretary, but it appears that Benn has to keep his mouth shut if he wants to stay in the shadow cabinet. Benn’s claim to fame is his much-lauded speech in Parliament in December backing Tory [Conservative Party] prime minister David Cameron’s motion for British forces to join the U.S. bombing in Syria. Grotesquely, Benn evoked “internationalism” to mean that Labour had a duty to respond to the call from French “President Hollande, the leader of our sister Socialist party,” to join the bombing campaign in Syria in the wake of the criminal terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Benn’s speech was met with wild cheering by Tory and many Labour MPs, and lavish accolades in the bourgeois media. At the same time, it was hilariously lampooned by Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle as Hilary Benn’s revenge on his late father Tony, in the spirit of the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” Tony Benn was the elder statesman of the Labour left and until his death an opponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Corbyn’s attempt to assert his leadership over the party resulted in threats of resignations from several members of the shadow cabinet, if, for example, Benn got the axe. In the face of constant attempts to destroy him—which are orchestrated by Blairite Labour MPs in cahoots with the military, the BBC and other bourgeois media—we Marxists defend Corbyn’s right to run the Labour Party, and in his way. We say good riddance to the right-wing Labour cabal from the shadow cabinet. Any measure that will weaken the hold of the Blairites on the party is in the interest of the working class and its struggle against the capitalist order. At the same time, we counterpose our proletarian, internationalist and revolutionary programme to Corbyn’s parliamentary reformist framework.
Reprinted below is an article which first appeared in Workers Hammer No. 233 (Winter 2015-2016), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain.
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From the moment he was elected as Labour Party leader, the bourgeoisie’s gangs in Westminster and their attack dogs in the capitalist press have been out to destroy Jeremy Corbyn. Day after day he is slandered and vilified by everyone from the military’s top brass to the capitalist press and of course [Prime Minister] David Cameron. However, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, while Corbyn’s opponents sit on the Tory benches opposite him, his enemies are the vast majority of Labour MPs sitting behind him who are determined to depose him.
Barely a week after Corbyn’s election, an unnamed British general was quoted in the Sunday Times (20 September 2015) predicting “an event which would effectively be a mutiny” in the armed forces should Corbyn ever become prime minister. What gored the ox of the military chiefs was Corbyn’s opposition to renewing Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system and his statement that, as prime minister, he would never press the nuclear button. On the occasion of “Remembrance Sunday” the head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, appeared on television in military dress uniform to pronounce Corbyn unfit to be prime minister. Corbyn formally protested against Houghton’s breach of the convention that serving military officials do not comment on political matters.
Houghton’s attack on Corbyn was immediately seconded by Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, who is prominent among the “get Corbyn” cabal. Another is Simon Danczuk, the right-wing Labour MP from Rochdale, who has threatened to instigate a coup against Corbyn as leader if Labour performs poorly in the local elections next May. Many in this claque of MPs disavowed Blair when his name became so toxic that it would spoil their chances of ever being elected. But their lust for bombing in Syria, for shoot-to-kill, and their gut-level commitment to fleecing the poor while further enriching the rich, show them to be unreconstructed Blairites.
Tristram Hunt, the former shadow education secretary, recently addressed the Labour club at Cambridge University. To rally his young, elite class brethren, Hunt told them: “You are the top 1%. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward” (Guardian, 2 November 2015). Hunt and Chuka Umunna MP, who like to refer to themselves as “The Resistance,” formed Labour for the Common Good, one of the myriad groupings within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) that would like to eject Corbyn.
The bourgeois media was apoplectic when Corbyn appointed Guardian columnist Seumas Milne to be his director of communications and strategy. Milne is critical of the British establishment, particularly for their military interventions in the Near East. The Financial Times was outraged by Milne’s simple factual statement that “Western claims to be the champions of human rights and humanitarian intervention are treated with derision across much of the world” (FT, 23 October 2015). To the FT, and to the City [of London] bankers and capitalist entrepreneurs whose interests it serves, Milne’s cardinal sin was that he supported the miners union during the epic 1984-85 strike. (For a review of Milne’s book on the strike, The Enemy Within, see “1984-85: What It Would Have Taken for the Miners to Win,” Workers Hammer No. 145, April/May 1995.)
In the warfare within the Labour Party, we are seeing the effects of two classes co-existing in one party, an inherently unstable situation. As we wrote last issue, we welcomed Corbyn’s campaign for party leader, which addressed issues that are deeply felt by working people. These fundamental issues cannot be solved within the framework of Corbyn’s parliamentary reformism. However, Marxists have a side in this conflict, in defence of Corbyn against the Blairite and other bourgeois forces who want to take him down.
Imperialists Out of the Near East!
The event that really put the wind in the sails of the right-wing Labour MPs was the “national security” hysteria whipped up by Cameron & Co. following the horrendous attacks by Islamic terrorists in Paris on 13 November. We Marxists utterly condemn such indiscriminate attacks on civilians. We also recognise that it is the imperialists’ crimes in the Near East—U.S., British and French—that are the primary cause of the bloody chaos in Syria and Iraq today.
When the Cameron government seized on the Paris attacks to endorse shoot-to-kill by Britain’s police and to beat the drums for joining the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Syria, Labour’s right wing howled along with the Tories and ramped up a campaign to paint the Labour leader as untrustworthy on matters of “national security.” Like rabid dogs they seized on Corbyn’s refusal to give blanket support to shoot-to-kill, as though it were high treason. Unison [public workers union] general secretary Dave Prentis joined Corbyn’s attackers, grotesquely declaring that “rows over Trident or shoot to kill are distractions no one needs” (Independent, 21 November 2015). Unite [Britain’s largest trade union] leader Len McCluskey also piled in, lecturing Corbyn to stop making “inappropriate” comments on shoot-to-kill. McCluskey feigned support for Corbyn when thousands of Unite union members were active in Corbyn’s campaign, only to stab the Labour leader in the back when he came under fire from the right.
Shoot-to-kill was part and parcel of British Army and police “justice” for Northern Ireland’s oppressed Catholics. Following the criminal bombings in London in 2005, cops on an “anti-terrorist” shoot-to-kill mission brutally executed Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes on a Tube train. At the time, the role of the police in his murder was staunchly defended by then London Labour mayor Ken Livingstone, who has now placed himself in the Corbyn camp.
As regards Syria, Corbyn told Sky News “I’m just not convinced that a bombing campaign will actually solve anything,” indeed it “may well make the situation far worse” (16 November 2015). His views incensed Blairite MPs, who provided the bourgeois press with a steady stream of invective. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, hounded him in a television interview, and in a follow-up article cited (unnamed) Labour MPs complaining that Corbyn “is not fit to be our leader or in any senior position in this country” (BBC News, 16 November). Kuenssberg’s piece also baited Corbyn over his links to Stop the War, sensationalising a blog that had appeared on its website linking the Paris attacks to Western interventions in the Near East.
Stop the War removed the blog from its website when it became a focal point of the witch hunt. Afterwards its author, Chris Floyd, who is not associated with Stop the War, ridiculed the hooha that was manufactured around what are in fact well-known truths. He asked rhetorically: “Is it really controversial to say that without the US invasion of Iraq, there would be no ISIS? I don’t think even the supporters of that war dispute this fact. Is it controversial to say that the NATO intervention in Libya has turned that country into a chaotic spawning ground for violent extremism?” Floyd’s piece mentioned other inconvenient truths, including that “the United States and Saudi Arabia helped organize a worldwide network of violent jihadis in order to provoke the Soviet Union into intervening in Afghanistan,” and that Ronald Reagan sat down in the White House “with the forerunners of the Taliban and al Qaeda” and praised them as “freedom fighters” (“Bleaters and Tweeters: On Briefly Being a Political Football,” chris-floyd.com, 17 November 2015).
As Trotskyists who defended the Soviet Union, we have long pointed out that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) are all first- or second-generation offspring of the U.S.-sponsored “holy war” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Against the numerous reformist groups that joined the imperialists in demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops, we called for the defeat of the CIA’s Islamist cut-throats and proclaimed, “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” The Soviet Union was based on a historically progressive collectivised and planned economy—a product of the Bolshevik-led workers revolution of October 1917—albeit, beginning in 1923-24, under the rule of an anti-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy. The final overturn of the Russian Revolution in 1991-92 was a shattering defeat for working people in the former Soviet Union and everywhere else in the world. The U.S. ruling class proclaimed itself the sole “superpower,” swaggering and slaughtering its way around the globe, loyally backed in its military adventures by British imperialism.
Blairites Spit on Working Class
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the British capitalist rulers thought the class war was all over, that they had won, and all of this nonsense about the working class was history. Describing their view in the 1990s, deputy editor of the Telegraph Allister Heath wrote: “It seemed as if the free-market counter-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, had finally killed off socialism. The choice from now on would be between a particular brand of capitalism” (Telegraph, 31 July 2015). The “free-market counterrevolution” was a sustained assault on trade-union rights and on the living standards of the working class in Britain.
When Blair took over as Labour leader in 1994, he made it clear that Labour was unequivocally committed to the City of London fat cats. The Blairites did away with even lip service to socialism, abolishing Clause IV [of the Labour Party constitution—nominal commitment to “common ownership of the means of production”], and set out to transform Labour into an overtly capitalist party by cutting Labour’s links to its historic working-class base. Then, over 20 years later, along comes Corbyn, talking about socialism, trade-union rights, immigrants’ rights and opposition to NATO, to huge acclaim from the have-nots who elected him Labour Party leader. This was not supposed to happen.
Corbyn’s nomination for the leadership was a fluke, but the outpouring of support for his campaign was not. Under the Blairites and the Tories, a huge amount of social tinder was building up at the base of British society. Blair was and remains widely despised for his decision to join Bush’s war and occupation of Iraq in 2003, as well as for his commitment to further privatisations of the public sector. A 2013 survey showed that almost 70 per cent of the population favoured the renationalisation of gas and electricity, and two of every three wanted to see rail and the post renationalised. Opposition to George Osborne’s attempt to eliminate tax credits for working-class families was so huge that it seeped into the Tory backbenches and the House of Lords, forcing the government into a U-turn. And there is broad public support for the defiance of the junior doctors who are protesting against new contracts proposed by the government. If the trade-union misleaders launched any serious attempt to beat back the capitalists’ attacks, such sentiments would find expression in support for strike action. Instead the grievances of the working class, minorities and the impoverished came to the surface on the parliamentary plane in support of Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader.
The Blairites’ continual bleating that Labour under Corbyn is “unelectable” is in fact a statement that they and their masters in the ruling class will do all in their power to ensure that Corbyn will never be prime minister. At the same time, a recent poll of the party membership reveals that 66 per cent think he is doing well as leader. Since the Corbyn campaign took off in the summer, the membership of Labour has nearly doubled to some 370,000, far exceeding the membership of any other party. Significantly, the Fire Brigades Union voted on 27 November to re-affiliate to Labour.
Leninism vs. Labourism
To believe the bourgeois press, anyone might think Corbyn is a flaming Bolshevik. In fact he is not, and does not claim to be, a revolutionary. He is a principled and steadfast exponent of the politics of the old Labour “left,” embodied in the “little England socialism” espoused by the late Tony Benn. All old Labour governments have loyally served the capitalist rulers, carrying out attacks on the working class at home and supporting British imperialism in its wars—including World Wars I and II. The “parliamentary socialism” espoused by Benn and Corbyn is based on the illusion that the way to advance the cause of the workers and oppressed is through winning a parliamentary majority and introducing changes through legislation, while leaving the capitalist state intact. Implicitly or explicitly, this means collaborating with the ruling class on matters of “national interest.” Corbyn joined the Queen’s Privy Council (although he did not kneel to the monarch). He and his team attacked the Tories for their proposed cuts to the police budget (which the Tories have since abandoned).
The police, as well as the military, the courts and prisons are the core of the capitalist state, whose function is to protect the class rule of the bourgeoisie and its profit system. As opposed to Corbyn’s Labour reformism, which aims to take over and administer the capitalist state, Marxists understand that workers revolution must shatter the old state machinery and create a new state to impose the rule of the working class. A workers government will expropriate the bourgeoisie as a class and establish a planned economy, as a first step in a series of revolutions internationally, leading towards a socialist future.
Contrary to Corbyn’s perspective of the “democratisation” of politics through “citizens’ assemblies,” parliament cannot be made accountable to the supposed will of the people. In his seminal work on the state written on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, V. I. Lenin summed up the real function of parliament, saying:
“To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament—this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.”
He added that “the real business of ‘state’ is performed behind the scenes and is carried on by the departments, chancelleries and General Staffs” (The State and Revolution, August-September 1917).
In Britain, the military chiefs—who owe allegiance to the monarch, the head of the armed forces—have made it clear they are not disposed to obey the will of Parliament should Corbyn become prime minister. The City bankers and businesses are not going to voluntarily give up their vast wealth for the common good. Moreover, Corbyn’s solution to Britain’s participation in U.S.-led military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is for Britain to adopt a more rational foreign policy. This perspective is shared by Stop the War. But whether or not the imperialists decide to yet again attack a weak semicolonial country, it is in the nature of the imperialist beast to plunder, conquer and subjugate weaker nations. Wars and militarism are no more than a concentrated expression of the normal workings of the capitalist system, which condemns millions of people around the world to death by starvation, lack of medical care, poverty and exploitation.
What is objectively posed in Britain today is the need for a new kind of party. We seek to build a revolutionary workers party, based on the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution and modelled on the party led by Lenin and Trotsky that brought it to victory. Such a party will be part of a Leninist-Trotskyist international and will start from the understanding that only through mobilisation in mass struggle can the working class fight for its own interests and in defence of all the oppressed. The overall aim must be the root-and-branch overthrow of the capitalist order through socialist revolution, as a first step towards the elimination of poverty and inequality in a global socialist order.
Building such a party requires sharp political struggle against the existing misleaders of the trade unions, who refuse to wage the class struggle, including against the Trade Union Bill that is now going through Parliament, the worst attack on the trade unions in years. Its provisions include raised thresholds for strike votes and further restrictions on picketing. The bill also permits the use of agency workers as scabs, which is currently prohibited. Yet the only action the TUC [Trades Union Congress] officialdom has taken to “kill the bill” is to “mobilise” several hundred trade unionists for a lobby of Parliament. Treacherously, Len McCluskey, the head of Unite, has made an offer to Cameron to drop opposition to the bill if the government will allow electronic balloting instead of postal votes on strikes (which the union leaders say will increase the numbers voting).
It was not the anti-trade union laws that defeated the workers at Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013 when they voted to strike in defence of their union representative. Rather it was Len McCluskey who called off the strike before it even began, leading to a terrible defeat for the workers [see “Union Bashing at Scottish Oil Refinery,” WV No. 1035, 29 November 2013]. What greater argument could there be for a new generation to come forward in the trade unions to form a new leadership, one that is committed to waging the class struggle—the means by which the unions were built.
Building on the enormous support that swept him to leadership of the party, Corbyn supporters in October launched Momentum, an organisation of both Labour members and non-members. Momentum’s website lists among its aims to “encourage mass mobilisation for a more democratic, equal and decent society.” Various reformist groups including the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have joined or declared their support for Momentum.
The Blairite grouping Labour First cautioned MPs against this “Hard Left takeover” of the party by Corbyn supporters. We oppose witch hunts against the left in the Labour Party, as we opposed the purge of the Militant tendency in the 1980s. But we would point out that much of what is being described as the “hard left” of Labour is to the right of Corbyn on a number of key questions. The Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) for example, refused to call for British troops out of Iraq and, during the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, issued a statement (23 March 2011) titled: “Why We Should Not Denounce Intervention in Libya.”
The Socialist Party, which in an earlier incarnation as the Militant tendency spent decades within the old Labour Party, is now making it known that they would like to be re-admitted to Labour. On the day of Corbyn’s victory they wrote: “All those who have been forced out or expelled in the past for fighting against cuts and for socialist ideas should be invited back” (socialistparty.org.uk, 12 September 2015). The Socialist Party formed its electoral vehicle, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in 2010 with elements of the RMT union bureaucracy. TUSC grew out of the reactionary 2009 construction strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery which called for “British jobs for British workers.” Because of this adaptation to chauvinism, we have said “No vote to TUSC!” in elections.
Expropriate the Capitalist Class
The solution offered by Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell to the ravages brought by capitalism is increased public spending and a programme of renationalisations. Marxists support renationalisation of vital services like rail and utilities. But we counterpose expropriation of the bourgeoisie to Labourite illusions in nationalisation schemes, such as Corbyn proposed for workers in the steel industry facing job-slashing. In October the Thai-owned SSI on Teesside went into liquidation, with 2,200 jobs lost, followed by Tata Steel announcing 1,200 job cuts in Scunthorpe and Scotland. Overall, at least one in six of the 30,000 remaining steel jobs in the country are slated to be eliminated.
The response on the part of the trade-union leaders in Unite, Community and the GMB unions was to blame China for “dumping” their cheaper steel in the British market and to call on the British government to enact protectionist import controls. Corbyn also pushes protectionism, which is inherent in his old Labour programme. Protectionism provides a cover for rejecting the class struggle in favour of class collaboration and promotes vile anti-foreigner racism. To such wretched appeals to one’s “own” government, Marxists counterpose a class-struggle fight by the trade unions against closures and for jobs for all, with no loss in pay. What’s needed is a perspective of international solidarity and struggle.
And it takes some chutzpah for the trade-union leaders to blame Britain’s deindustrialisation on the Chinese when the steel workforce was decimated under Margaret Thatcher [in the 1980s]. Corbyn and McDonnell have engaged in China-bashing, obscenely attacking the Tories for cultivating close links with Beijing. As opposed to lining up with the imperialists, the working class must defend China, where capitalist rule was overthrown by the 1949 Revolution.
The Socialist Party called for “the steel trade unions and Jeremy Corbyn to demand nationalisation of the steel industry” (socialistparty.org.uk, 11 November 2015), and the SWP demanded that the unions should “force the government to nationalise the industry” (Socialist Worker, 20 October 2015). The devastated steel industry is itself a testament to the bankruptcy of old Labour reformism, which regards the nationalisations of industry by the post-World War II Labour government as a step towards socialism. In fact these nationalisations were undertaken as a giant bailout of declining British capitalism.
Buried under the mound of protectionist, social-democratic rubbish over the latest steel closures is the fact that in 1980, most of the country’s 150,000 steel workers went on strike against Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. This was Thatcher’s first assault on a major union. Had the steel strike won, it could have stopped the “Iron Lady” in her tracks. We, along with thousands of militant strikers, called for a general strike to repulse the anti-union offensive. But the TUC allowed the steel workers to hang.
The defeat of that strike cleared the decks for Thatcher’s showdown against the miners. The miners were defeated, not mainly due to the massive state repression the union faced, but to the treachery of the union leaders whose perspective did not go beyond the election of a Labour government. While the Labour leadership under Neil Kinnock was openly hostile to the strike, the “lefts” such as Tony Benn offered no alternative, despite many speeches about solidarity with the miners.
Following the defeats of the steel workers and the miners, the Thatcher government intensified the deindustrialisation of Scotland, South Wales and the north of England, while increasing the dominance of banking and finance in the City of London. The English chauvinism of successive Westminster governments—Labour and Tory—has fuelled the rise of Scottish nationalism. Today the Corbyn-led Labour Party is trying to win back the support recently lost to the bourgeois nationalists. But simply to begin to address the issues of jobs for all, free quality health care and education for all, as well as to regenerate the former industrial areas requires the overthrow of capitalist rule. The Westminster Parliament embodies the pre-eminent status given to finance capital, centred in London. We Marxists uphold the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales, as part of our programme for a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles.
Our aim is to build a multiethnic revolutionary workers party, forged in political struggle against Labourism, which has served to tie the working class to the capitalist exploiters for over a century. A Leninist vanguard party will be built on the understanding that the interests of workers and the oppressed are utterly counterposed to those of the capitalist exploiters and can only be realised through a government based on workers councils (soviets), not the bosses’ Parliament.
In his writings on Britain, Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the Red Army, debunked Labourite illusions that parliamentary “gradualness” ran in the blood of the English working class. Trotsky pointed to the tradition of revolutionary struggle embodied in the Cromwellian bourgeois revolution of the 17th century and in the nascent proletarian revolutionary Chartist movement that emerged in the first half of the 19th century. James Bronterre O’Brien, an Irish-born leader of the Chartists, gave voice to the need for the working class to fight in its own interests instead of begging its oppressors:
“My motto is... ‘What you take you may have.’ I will not attempt to deal with the abstract question of right, but will proceed to show that it is POWER, solid, substantial POWER, that the millions must obtain and retain, if they would enjoy the produce of their own labour and the privileges of freemen.”