Ten pounds an hour minimum wage; workers’ rights from day one of employment; end of zero-hour contracts; an end to council cuts. Thirty hours free childcare. Water, rail, mail and energy brought into public ownership; an end to the “racket” of privatisation and outsourcing. Pledges on climate change including investment in 400,000 green jobs. We have to be clear, if the popular policies put forward at Labour Party conference are to be enacted, it will entail struggle. With British capitalism facing further economic crisis, even minor reforms will be met with resistance by the bosses.
A Corbyn government would be under immense pressure from the capitalists and their representatives in the Labour Party. The Blairites must be ousted. And we have to fight to build a mass movement, not just to defeat the Tories, but to win a socialist programme that takes the major companies into democratic public ownership and institutes a socialist plan to serve the needs of the millions not the billionaires.
Undoubtedly there was plenty in the announcements at Labour Party conference reaffirming the pledges in Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto to please many workers and young people. The call was made for a general election, and if he fights on a bold programme incorporating these pledges, then a Corbyn-led Labour government could be on the cards.
But the question we posed in the Socialist’s editorial last week still stands: after the Labour Party conference, is it equipped to lead the fight against austerity?
While Jeremy Corbyn delivered what many members say was his best speech yet, unfortunately the whole tenor of the speech was about unity and compromise with the Labour Party right wing.
“If we are to get the chance to put those values into practice in government we are going to need unity to do it. We are on a journey together and can only complete it together… Labour is a broad church and can be broader still.”
Corbyn’s unexpected victory in the leadership election in 2015 opened up the possibility of undoing the Blairite transformation of the Labour Party into a pro-capitalist party safe for big business. It became two parties in one, with the majority of new members supporting an anti-austerity position, representing the potential for a new mass socialist party, but with the vast majority of MPs and councillors - the Blairite representatives of capitalist interests - still in place, setting out to either oust Jeremy Corbyn or undermine him at every turn.
Most recently this has meant a relentless campaign of accusations of racism and anti-Semitism. Over the summer, there was open talk of the right wing splitting away to form a new party, particularly around the idea of a ‘people’s vote’ to re-run the EU referendum.
The view of those around Corbyn and McDonnell is that in order to win government power they have to prevent a right wing split away. And in the run-up to conference, the mood music appeared to point in the direction of the right wing deciding to stay in the party, for now.
Deputy leader Tom Watson was praised in gushing terms in the right-wing Evening Standard for saying “centrists need to stay to make Jeremy Corbyn a better prime minister”. At a right-wing Progress fringe event, Blairite MP Stella Creasy declared: “if you’re here to tell me that because of this mess we should give up, walk away from Labour, well then jog on…”
But it would be an enormous mistake to think that this indicates an acceptance of Corbyn’s anti-austerity position, or that emollient words will bring their unremitting attacks to an end. The right are weighing up how best to prevent a Corbyn government carrying out policies that challenge the interests of capitalism, which includes making judgements about how much support they currently have. They weigh up whether to split away or try to remove Corbyn as leader, whether to act before or after a general election, or whether to employ the ‘anaconda’ policy Watson boasted of in 2015, to encircle Corbyn to prevent socialist policies being enacted.
The capitalists, including the Blairites, would rather the Tories stayed in power. But the Tories are in such a desperate state over Brexit, especially since the rejection of May’s Chequers proposals by EU leaders in Saltzburg, that a section of the capitalists are drawing the conclusion that a Corbyn government could be tolerated - if it were severely restrained.
The tone of unity and compromise with the right, set at the conference is music to their ears. The Guardian newspaper warmly approved of a move from last year’s “policies of the past” to “radical forward thinking”. Paul Mason said on Newsnight following Corbyn’s speech, “the Labour Party has had two years of moving left, and at this conference it stopped moving left”.
In an echo of Ed Miliband’s ‘responsible capitalism’, and with Blairite columnist Polly Toynbee nodding along approvingly, Mason drew a distinction between companies like Uber and Amazon “that exploit their workers and destroy social cohesion”, and companies like Airbus and BMW (currently threatening to remove jobs from the country) that “do deals with their workers and respect their employees”.
John McDonnell made the same point in his speech to conference: “There are millions of businesses out there which deserve our respect and we will always support them. They are responsible, ethical entrepreneurs, who pay their taxes and support our community.”
McDonnell proposed “large companies to transfer shares into an Inclusive Ownership Fund. The shares will be held and managed collectively by the workers. The shareholding will give workers the same rights as other shareholders to have a say over the direction of their company. And dividend payments will be made directly to the workers from the fund. Payments could be up to £500 a year.”
Far from the workers’ ownership, control and management that democratic socialist nationalisation would entail, in reality, this is window dressing, leaving the capitalist owners with the upper hand and bolstering the idea of a unity of interests between workers and the bosses. No wonder Corbyn could declare “this is nothing for business to be afraid of”. In fact, socialism was only mentioned once in his speech, in relation to the NHS.
Hence a relatively warm response from Martin Kettle in the Guardian: “Labour’s many factions, interest groups and traditions are… mostly managing to work together in a surprisingly pragmatic way…If the party of today was the fully-Corbynised body that some claim, there would be little room or appetite in it for the habits of pragmatism, compromise or experimentation. Yet there is still that appetite.”
That ‘appetite’ was also shown in the Brexit debate. Corbyn made the case for a “Brexit for the many not the few” and called for a general election to achieve it. But Blairite Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said Remain could be an option in a referendum. Unite’s Steve Turner, recognising that millions of workers would feel betrayed by such a development, argued that “despite what Keir Starmer might have said earlier, it’s a public vote on the terms of our departure”.
The Socialist has explained previously that the only answer to the chaos of a Tory-led Brexit, in which more attacks will rain down on the working class, is to fight for a pro-worker, anti-austerity, socialist, internationalist Brexit. Only this, which would entail many of the policies Corbyn and McDonnell outlined last week, can answer both the genuine concerns of workers who voted Leave and the concerns of young people who see themselves as Remainers from an internationalist point of view.
The compromises made in the democracy review (see ‘Fight for a democratic, socialist Labour Party’ at socialistparty.org.uk) should be seen in this light. Instead of bringing in democratic mandatory reselection for MP candidates, which would allow Blairites to be deselected, a watered-down version of the current trigger ballot system has been put in place - still an extra hurdle to get over before a democratic selection can take place.
Any hope that this compromise would quieten Blairite MPs, some of whom are facing no confidence votes from their members, was immediately shown to be misplaced. Ilford North MP Mike Gapes, who previously claimed to be agonising every day over whether to leave Labour and described it as a “horrible place to be”, immediately leapt into the press to complain of a purge.
Unfortunately, despite Unite having a policy of supporting mandatory reselection, amongst the trade unions only the FBU spoke up to support a debate on reselection. Momentum spokespeople dishonestly went to the press to say the democracy review outcome “falls well short… key proposals were watered down or blocked”. But until the eleventh hour they actively opposed the Socialist Party when we argued for mandatory reselection and, in fact, their representatives on Labour’s national executive committee were party to the compromise.
There can be no shortcuts: to fight the Blairites and for a socialist alternative to austerity, requires action and organisation by the working class.