The Labour Party, that last year was hopelessly divided and looking as if it might split, today presents itself as the new normal, a government in waiting. This is taking place in the context of Brexit on the one hand, and a situation where we see other left wing forces and personalities around the world, whether Sanders in the US Democratic Party, or Podemos in Spain and Melanchon in France, that have grown at the expense of the Socialist Parties. So what is the real state of the party led by Jeremy Corbyn? And who benefits from its actions, the working class or the capitalist state?
Promising to undo the damage done by austerity, to close the gap between rich and poor, to increase tax on the top 1% of earners and, at least until the election, to scrap and repay tuition fees, it has mobilised many young workers to register to vote, and even to join the party. Led by a man who has visited many picket lines and was welcomed as a “socialist” by the Socialist Workers’ Party when elected to the leadership, it sounds – and is – too good to be true. Corbyn’s long record as a ‘radical’, complete with previous MI5 investigation of most of his advisors, underlines and emphasises his credentials, but as Paul Mason shows, recalling his days as a full-on Trotskyist, this is false: “The idea that the left, the miners and various environmental groups wanted to ‘destroy the democratic system’ in the 80s was pure paranoia. ... what we wanted was a left Labour government.... a new kind of radical social democracy stands on the brink of government. It wants to save British capitalism from wage stagnation, grotesque inequalities of wealth and the kamikaze mission of a no-deal Brexit. .... It has boosted democratic engagement, especially among the young, by building the biggest mass political party in Europe” (Our emphasis).
In other words it wants to save capitalism from those policies likely to create discontent and to provide a harmless channel for the discontent that does arise. This is why the Labour Party has played a key role for capitalism in opposition as well as in government, as we can see from its role over the last century. In fact, it can be more effective in responding to discontent within the working class when in opposition, since it does not have to impose austerity at the same time. In opposition it has tended to elect more left wing leaders, such as Corbyn today, or Michael Foot in the 1980s, as opposed to the likes of Blair or Brown in government, and to display more ‘radical’ policies. Policies such as spending more on health and education, and even the police, paid for either by taxing the rich, or as Dennis Skinner so helpfully explained, “we’re going to borrow it. ... When the private sector expands where do you think they get their money from? They borrow it.” And the renationalisation of railways etc, when the contract comes up for renewal. These policies hark back to the 1945 Atlee government that is so beloved of the left because of it nationalised parts of the economy and set up the National Health Service – actions which can only be called “socialist” by forgetting that they flowed from the needs of capitalist reconstruction after the war, whatever government was elected, and the Conservative government of the 1950s had no thought of reversing them. They were policies of a capitalist state which had just waged a devastating imperialist war. Some Labour leaders in opposition, such as Foot and Corbyn, have a long record of campaigning against nuclear weapons, but this has never been more than window dressing in a party that has consistently supported all the UK’s imperialist wars since 1914, whether in or out of government, and has never put in question its nuclear arsenal when in office.
Greater difficulty in political control
However, Corbyn is leading the Labour Party in a new situation in which there is a much greater tendency to fragmentation internationally, and in which the ruling class is finding it more difficult to control the political situation. The old USSR has broken up, as has Yugoslavia, and more recently we see calls for independence in Scotland and Catalonia. The Trump election and the Brexit referendum result also show the difficulty our ruling class has in getting the electoral results it wants.
In relation to Brexit, it is easy for Labour to point to the “chaos” in the government, to call for a Brexit for jobs, and to promise to unite the Leave and Remain voters, but it remains a difficult and divisive issue for Labour as well, so much so that the party congress vote on the issue was cancelled. It is hardly surprising to find the Labour Party divided on an issue that divides the whole of the UK bourgeoisie. Corbyn, following a tradition of Labour nationalism, was always a reluctant and half-hearted Remainer during the referendum campaign, and he is happy with Brexit to the extent that it gives more leeway for state capitalist policies - not only nationalisation but also favouring British suppliers for nationalised industries which would not be allowed in the EU. The local authority in Preston is “inspiring” in carrying out such policies by encouraging businesses to buy locally and set up co-operatives that “begin to democratise the economy”. But unfortunately the real inspiration for Preston is that “you have to be clever in austerity” when the annual spending on services has been cut by a third. These are absolutely not policies that help the working class.
We will not speculate about whether there is likely to be a Labour government, or even an election, soon, but remaining vague on such a key policy issue as Brexit is the privilege of opposition.
Another aspect of the greater tendency to fragmentation and loss of control can be seen in the changes taking place in long-established political forces. One example we see of this is the way the left forces are now split in France and Spain between the traditional Socialist Party and Melanchon and Podemos respectively. This tendency underlines the seriousness of the divisions in the Labour Party at the time of the parliamentary party’s vote of no confidence in Corbyn and the subsequent leadership challenge. It is a sign of the strength of the UK bourgeoisie and its two party system in parliament that the Labour Party has held together as a ‘broad church’, in contrast to the marked decline in several Socialist Parties in Europe. Despite the fiasco of the Brexit referendum and all the pressures on the political system, we should not underestimate the ability of the UK bourgeoisie.
The other side of the new political difficulties we can see in many countries is the rise of right wing and populist forces, such as the NF in France, AfD in Germany, and Trump in the USA. Here, the rise of UKIP with its xenophobia and little Englander ideas was one of the factors, alongside a longstanding Euroscepticism particularly in the Tory party, which pushed the government into the referendum and Brexit. We can see the efforts made internationally to deal with this problem in the elections this year, most dramatically with Macron’s new party, République en Marche, in France. Despite the record of Labour governments on immigration policy, the Labour Party is perceived as being a way to fight such xenophobic populism, and this is part of its attraction to many, particularly young urban proletarians.
Another important strength of the Labour Party in dealing with discontent is its close historical link to the trade unions, particularly emphasised by the left of the party and when it is in opposition. Corbyn’s close association with Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union is a good example. This not only provides a power base for some politicians on the left of the party, but is an important resource for the bourgeoisie. The trade unions continue to be the major arm for monitoring discontent in the working class for the bourgeoisie and to containing it in limited, divided, demonstrations and strikes. Through the Unite union the Labour Party, and the bourgeoisie as a whole, have been made aware of the anger of public sector workers against the long continues 1% pay cap and the fact that continuing it would necessarily lead to disruptions. In addition, mobilisation through the “grass roots” of Momentum has a very important role in supporting Corbyn, and allows the party to respond to the discontent of an important part of the working class, particularly young workers, offering them a false perspective of change through electing a Labour government.
The Labour Party is not and never has been a revolutionary party, and since the First World War it has been an integral part of the capitalist state. It has nothing to offer the working class but the illusions that it can speak on their behalf, when in reality it is one of the strongholds of the ruling class’ political apparatus, with an important role in responding to and dissipating discontent through providing false alternatives. Alex, 21.10.17
. The Economist, 21-27 October.