2015. What year! In February we attended a meeting of Left Platform in Central London. The idea was to gather Socialists from around the UK together in order to ensure the pro market/ anti Union faction in the Labour Party did not have it all their own way if and when Ed Miliband was handed the keys to Number Ten as (as all the polls predicted) the Leader of a minority Labour Government working in loose association with a band of small parties such as the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid, the Greens and even the DUP. The thought of a majority Tory Government did not even register on the radar. Some of us even predicted the possibility of a Lab/ Tory pro Austerity coalition! Given Ed Balls’ utterances and attacks on the poor this may not have seemed such a pie in the sky scenario as you would imagine.
One of the speakers back in February was Jeremy Corbyn. Michael Meacher and conference organiser John McDonnell along with Katy Clark and Ian Lavery were the only members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who I ever heard speaking out against the Austerity lie during the last Parliament. And when our local Councillors Dean Kirk, Gill Kennett and Gary Wearing refused to vote for a cuts and privatisation budget they were castigated and vilified by local Labour apparatchiks and expelled from the Labour Party. Corbyn and especially John McDonnell supported them and John made a 500 mile round trip to Hull in February 2014 to lend his support, telling a mass meeting at the Mercure Hotel that, “Labour Councillors were right not to vote for a cuts budget that hurt working people” That meant a lot to our campaign here that national politicians were interested, supportive and not afraid to speak up on behalf of people putting principles before personal political considerations.
If during the course of that February meeting in London someone had suggested that Corbyn would be Labour Leader in just seven months time, elected with a landslide then they would have been advised to have a sit down with a nice cup of tea. No one predicted this. I bet not even leading local Corbyn Campaign manager, the irrepressible and always optimistic George McManus can have really believed in his heart of hearts on the day Corbyn declared, that this would be the result. 500/1 was the opinion of the bookies. But it happened, and how. Of the 442,664 votes cast Corbyn secured a staggering 59.5%.
The irony is this. Under Ed Miliband the Party leadership changed the voting system for the leader by abolishing the electoral college which gave the Unions considerable clout. Indeed Miliband had only defeated David Miliband, the Blairite choice due to the Union section of the college supporting him. David had secured a majority with the rank and file CLP votes and had the backing of the PLP. But this had not been enough. The new system was intended to neuter the Unions by allowing members of the Public (who were considered to be more centrist) to pay £3 and register to vote. many of the members, me included, opposed this change and mandated our delegate to the Special Conference earlier in the year to vote against.
What few of us had taken into account was the incredible backlash to the patently unfair election result. The Tories were back with a majority but only 24% of the electorate had voted for this scenario. The resentment was palpable with 1/4 million taking to the streets on June 20th as part of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity demo in London. People wanted to fight back and Corbyn’s rejection of New Labour/ Tory Lite politics struck a chord.
I had spent 31 years in the Labour Party playing, “the long game”. This involved thinking about the bigger picture and campaigning “to transform the Labour Party into a Socialist body which reflects all sections of the Working Class”. (That’s the statement on the Labour Representation Committee card, a pressure group within the Labour Party which we convened to support the anti cuts agenda locally). Having lost a seat for Labour on East Riding Council, and seeing the writing on the wall for the Labour Party I publically backed Hull Red Labour and having already resigned was expelled from the Labour Party on 17th June, presumably to prevent me voting in the leadership election. I can’t argue with that outcome.
My reasoning was that the Labour Party could not, and would not ever stand up for the needs of the working class. It’s sheer resistance to opposing Austerity, and in Hull it’s enthusiasm for cuts and privatisation (the councillors get to sit on the new boards, and are well remunerated for it) meant that it equivocated on basic issues such Welfare cuts, and the NHS sell off. It took six months for them to reject the Bedroom Tax, and the lack of support for an anti TTIP campaign to stop the NHS being sold off to overseas corporations showed a lack of moral courage and back bone, with just a handful of exceptions. Ed Miliband’s refusal to meet with, let alone support the Doncaster Care workers in his own backyard summed up the moribund nature of his tenure as Labour Leader.
I stand by this analysis. In addition Parties that seek to reform rather than totally reject Austerity and ultimately Capitalism are doomed to failure as their supporters become disillusioned and cynical that politics can ever be a force for good. Syriza in Greece are set to lose the election next week for precisely this reason. “I don’t want to reform Capitalism, I want to smash it”. Bob Crow’s sentiments perhaps best sum up my attitude. Reform of a system that is inherently flawed, unscientific and takes no account of the needs of everyday people is impossible.
The Parliamentary system is a cesspool of petty corruption and is as far removed from the lives of the people as it was pre the 1832 Reform Act. I fear how ever well meant attempt to reform it and then introduce a democratically planned economy is doomed to failure largely in part to the array of vested interests railed against a Socialist surge. However the the fear of the establishment was vocalised by Michael Fallon. Yesterday the Defence Secretary described Corbyn as a, “threat to National Security”. That’s code for, “the status quo”, or so we hope at any rate!
One thing needs to made clear at this point. Tony Benn said that, “The Labour Party has never been a Socialist Party, but it does have Socialists in it”. Labour in power did many great things initiating what Danny Marten calls the “Slow Revolution” in our book, “Through Red Lenses” (we prefer you buy it from Waterstones rather than a certain site named after a river). From the 1924 Housing Act, through the foundation of the NHS in 1948, the social reform of the Jenkins 1960’s era, the 1976 equalities Acts, the minimum wage to SureStart Labour has sought a better way for the UK. But ultimately it can only seek to blunt the sharpest edges of Capitalism. Whilst inequality of opportunity and a chaotic free market reign it is impossible to reform Society in a way that delivers the best outcomes for people.
Therefore what Corbyn should seek to do is to create a new party with the surge in support for Socialism. From the wreckage of May 7th Labour can rise and be part of that surge which has come from below. There are a number of serious concerns regarding Corbyn, not least his flirtation with the anti working class killers of Sinn Fein/ IRA but, as George always rightly exhorts us to do, we must see the bigger picture. The surge isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn personally. It’s about a grass roots popular uprising against Austerity and it’s cause, that of Capitalism’s inability to solve our problems be they economic or societal. The question is can this be delivered by the current Labour Party morphing into a new Workers Party, and can it reach out to create a Broad Left surge by including others on the Left from the Unions and other Parties?
Clearly the proof will be whether or not Labour Councils catch the mood and start organising to defeat Austerity, and whether or not they seek to reverse the privatisation agenda.
Whatever happens the positivity of the Corbyn campaign and it’s ability to draw mass, new and young participation in politics must be nurtured to build a movement to sweep this fetid and putrid system that worships money at all costs, clean away.