Despite it being anticipated in all the preceding polls, there were still many expressions of ‘surprise’ at the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. Previous leaders Kinnock, Blair and Brown had all warned that the election of Corbyn would mean that Labour would lose the 2020 general election and could be out of power for a generation. After Corbyn’s speech to the Labour Party Conference he was accused of only speaking to the ‘activists’ and it was widely claimed that, under his leadership, Labour would only be a party of protest.
The elevation of Corbyn was not an accident, but it can only be understood in terms of the overall political needs of British capitalism.
The myth of anti-austerity
In the General Election in May the distinction between the varieties of austerity on offer from the major parties was even less clear than usual. Against the policies undertaken by the Conservative/LibDem Coalition, Labour offered little more than ‘Austerity Lite’. After the election Labour in parliament proceeded to support new cuts in welfare introduced by the new Tory government. It was against this background that Corbyn stood as an opponent of austerity who puts forward fairness and equality, along with growth and state intervention, as an alternative to the brutality of a government that favours the few, not the many.
Comparisons were justifiably made with the Greek populist government of Syriza. Syriza also advertises itself as being against austerity, although it should be recalled that, after winning a clear majority against the bailout conditions proposed by the ‘troika’, Syriza then accepted an even more stringent programme of austerity than had been agreed by previous governments of right and left. However, the idea that Corbyn’s emergence expresses a similar rejection of austerity as that trumpeted by Syriza, and by Podemos in Spain, remains popular. It is tied up with the notion that austerity is a political choice, and not something imposed on all capitalist governments by the reality of the capitalist economic crisis.
While state capitalism is at the heart of the governing regime of every country in the modern world, Corbyn and the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have made explicit their commitment to the strengthening of the role of the capitalist state in all aspects of economic and social life in the UK. Plans for state investment, for ‘peoples’ quantitative easing’, for the nationalisation of banks, the re-nationalisation of the railways, and similar policies, show that the domination of capital in Britain is safe in their hands. It’s true that the shadow energy minister has said that Labour “don’t want to nationalise energy. We want to do something far more radical. We want to democratise it.” But this apparently means that “There should be nothing to stop every community in this country owning its own clean energy power station” - which still seems to be a populist green variation on the same basic theme.
To prove that they are not ‘deficit deniers’, the new Corbyn leadership has signed up to Chancellor George Osborne’s fiscal charter and insists that Britain must ‘live within its means’. Corbyn and McDonnell have also appointed an economic advisory panel including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, fashionable author Thomas Piketty, and former Bank of England monetary policy committee member Danny Blanchflower, to provide ideas for the reforming of the role of the capitalist state. This can only mean minor modifications in an economic system that is based on the exploitation of the labour power of the working class.
At the level of British imperialism Corbyn has been much criticised for saying that, if he were to be Prime Minister, he would not use nuclear weapons. This should be put into context. In his speech to the Labour Conference he did say that “Britain does need strong, modern military and security forces” and that “British values … are the fundamental reason why I love this country and its people.” There can be no challenging his patriotism. His support for “the authority of international law and international institutions” demonstrates a support for the imperialist set-up that is the basis for international relations. As for nuclear weapons, his favourable words towards the policies of US President Obama reveal no antagonism towards the Commander in Chief in charge of the greatest nuclear force on the planet.
However, opposition to nuclear weapons is, at root, as important a part of Corbyn’s appeal as the ‘opposition to austerity’. All the attacks on the new Labour leader from mainstream media, saying how ‘dangerous’ his policies are, only go to boost his radical image. This is reinforced by the claims of the left. At the Labour Conference Matt Wrack, the leader of the Fire Brigades Union, said that Corbyn and McDonnell “represent a serious challenge to the establishment, in reality to the British ruling class” and that “MI5, Special Branch and the CIA are all watching this conference, and watching what is going on in the shadow cabinet, with the aim of undermining it.” Socialist Worker (15/9/15) agreed that “Corbyn faces opposition from the vast majority of his fellow MPs as well as from the ruling class and the majority of the media. They will do anything to bring him down.” Left and right agree that Corbyn is a threat to the status quo. And many people have been attracted to the Labour party, or persuaded to return to it, because of illusions that somehow Corbyn is a refreshing change or represents a return to socialist basics, rather than being a typical conformist product of the Labour Party machine.
In reality a Corbyn-led Labour Party will perform a useful function as part of capitalism’s political apparatus. In the face of deepening cuts in services and other attacks on living standards, the ruling class is aware that there is the possibility of discontent from those who are most affected. This does not need to be on the scale of widespread unrest for it to be a concern for the bourgeoisie. Labour will be able to present itself as a radical alternative for those who are the victims of a continuing programme of austerity and impoverishment. At this stage the existence of a ‘party of protest’ (which doesn’t challenge the fundamentals of the capitalist system, only points to its impact on ‘the many’) will serve British capitalism well.
Labour’s long history as a pillar of capitalism
Over the last hundred years the Labour Party has shown itself to be an essential part of capitalism’s superstructure, both in government and opposition.
In 1914, alongside social democratic parties across Europe, Labour, along with the unions, came to the aid of British imperialism, acting as a recruiter for the bloodbath of the First World War and standing against workers’ actions that would undermine the war effort. In the face of mutinies and the unrest that followed the war Labour acted as a pole of responsibility; and in 1918 it adopted a constitution with the explicit commitment to nationalisation and other state capitalist measures that had already characterised the management of social life during wartime. Against the aspirations of those who had been inspired by the revolution in Russia it offered stability, state control and opposition to social upheaval.
Throughout the inter-war period Labour offered ‘socialist planning’ against the anarchy of capitalist competition. In the 1930s, alongside Conservative mavericks like Winston Churchill, it stood against the policy of appeasement and for preparation for a war against German imperialism. During the Second World War Labour was a key constituent of the war-time Coalition which meant it slipped naturally into government in 1945.
The government of Clement Attlee from 1945-51 is often presented as a golden age for the Labour Party. In practice it presided over a period of great austerity, where troops and states of emergency were used against striking workers, when the role of the state was reinforced in many areas of economic and social life, when British imperialism continued to deploy its military forces and tried to develop nuclear weapons, and when Britain was a loyal lieutenant in the American-dominated imperialist bloc.
The subsequent Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan were able to replace Conservative administrations at key points in history. The 1974 Labour government was brought in against a wave of struggles, promoting illusions that it would be different to its predecessors. In fact, in the 1970s, Labour and the unions held down wages with the imposition of their Social Contract. Under Callaghan began the monetarist policies, the programme of cuts in public spending, that were later taken up by Margaret Thatcher. The strikes and demonstrations of the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79 were against a Labour, not a Conservative government.
In the 1980s Labour in opposition made ‘radical’ critiques of Thatcherism, providing a so-called ‘alternative’ at a time when workers were embarking on waves of massive struggles. Subsequently, the governments of Blair and Brown played their part in the management of the capitalist economy; at the level of international relations the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were further evidence of Labour’s commitment to the militarist core of imperialist conflict.
This is the history of the Labour Party’s defence of British values over the last century, as a party of government and as a party in opposition. In the period to come, when attacks on the working class could lead to a questioning of the very basis of society, and not just the policies of particular governments, Corbyn’s Labour Party will prove a valuable weapon for the bourgeoisie in Britain.