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Shockwaves from the world economic crisis continue to shake the British political establishment. In 2014, there was the narrowly defeated referendum on Scottish independence. In 2015, there was the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. 2016 saw the elemental Brexit vote, in which millions defied the apocalyptic warnings of the ruling class. And 2017 saw Corbyn’s Labour come within a whisper of winning a general election. 2017 was also the year of the disaster at Grenfell Tower, a fire that left 71 people dead and hundreds homeless – an entirely avoidable tragedy that represents a turning point in the esteem of unregulated capitalism.
Instability is the new normal in British politics. Under Tony Blair, the Labour Party (then rebranded as “New Labour”) became a reliable substitute for the Tories. But now no party of the ruling classes is able to govern in the old way.
Massive anger against years of austerity, privatisation and war have found political expression in the widely-backed leadership of Corbyn. The Labour Party has subsequently grown to be the biggest social democratic party in Europe with more than 600,000 members. But despite this it has not yet realised its potential as a mass party of the working class.
In effect, there are two Labour Parties in one. On the one hand, there is the anti-austerity leadership and the mass of Corbyn supporters. On the other hand, there is the overwhelmingly Blairite Parliamentary Labour Party (the MPs) and the thousands of elected officials at local government level (the Councillors).
These latter groups are a potent hangover from New Labour and operate as a fifth column for big business and the capitalist class. They are obdurately opposed to socialist ideas and continue to use their position – supported by the Tories and the capitalist press – to wage war on Corbyn and his supporters. Despite this, Corbyn’s socialist policies continue to get an echo across broad swathes of British society, particularly amongst the young.
Brexit continues to dominate the headlines in Britain. It is now widely accepted that the EU referendum was (above all) a means of passing verdict on the status-quo. Bourgeois politicians and so-called “experts” – who had spent the last 10 years attacking the living standards of ordinary people – advised a remain vote. But for the majority, the referendum was seen as a stick with which to beat precisely those establishment figures.
Although the official Leave and Remain campaigns were dominated by the political right, Brexit opens up a number of opportunities for the labour movement. As some on the left predicted, the Brexit vote sent the Tories into an existential crisis (their party is split deeply over the issue), who were then forced to call a general election in order to shore up their vote ahead of Brexit negotiations. The Tories massively underestimated the popularity of Corbyn’s policies and, consequently, now hang on to power by a thread.
The prospect of a Corbyn-led government coming to power (following another general election) is now a real possibility. At present, Labour’s manifesto is very limited – it is not yet of a classically reformist character (and it is certainly not revolutionary as the press would have you believe). But if his programme of nationalisation and state intervention is to become more sweeping, as will soon become necessary, then EU laws prohibiting state monopolies (such as Articles 107-9 of the Lisbon Treaty) could become a serious obstacle. In this case, leaving the EU could be an objective necessity for an incoming socialist government. This was the position taken by some of the more far-sighted elements of the left during the EU referendum.
Significantly, the Blairites in the Labour Party are also aware of this. The EU is one of the key fronts on which they are battling Corbyn. They are committed to remaining within the EU, or at least within the Single Market. The Blairites cynically use the language of internationalism to attempt to manipulate newly politicised layers of young people, including many Corbyn supporters, who have illusions in the EU.
But when right-wing Labour speaks of internationalism it is not talking about workers solidarity, but of the right of big business to move freely across the EU and, where they are met with strong unionised workforces, to import migrant labour in order to drive down wages. This is one of the reasons – along with the constant smears against Corbyn – why their ideas are unable to gain traction amongst a majority of Labour members. (Revealingly Corbyn himself has always been an outspoken opponent of the bosses’ EU but was forced to climbdown from this position due to pressure from the right-wing of his party.)
The Trade Union Movement
The Tories’ losses at the 2017 general election have placed them in an incredibly weak position. They were only able to gain a parliamentary majority at all because of a dodgy deal with the bigoted Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); and as has been proven on issues such as NHS cuts, the DUP, whose-voter base is made up mostly of working class Protestants, are an unreliable ally. This has provided fertile ground for forcing the government into retreat on a variety of issues.
One obstacle to removing the Tories from power is the conservative trade union leadership. Trade union density in Britain is relatively low, with little more than 6million workers involved in the movement (compared with 13million in 1979). This is in part because of the loss of heavy industry over the last 35 years, as well as the loss of around 1million public sector jobs since the beginning of the financial crisis. The rise of the gig economy (e.g. zero-hour-contracts) is also a factor. But low trade union density also flows from the role of right-wing trade union leaders in subverting our movement, by bowing down before neoliberal counter-reforms instead of fighting for their members.
Perhaps the most significant recent example of this was seen during the 2011 public sector pension dispute, when as many as 3million workers took strike action against the government. Leaders of the TUC and UNISON, however, poured water on any further struggle by “accepting the government strategy of entering sectoral negotiations without securing common collective agreements of the core issues”. This effectively isolated the smaller left-led trade unions (such as PCS, RMT, POA, and others), who, after a brief and valiant struggle, were forced to beat a retreat. This betrayal was carried out with the full support of Labour’s then leader Ed Miliband.
But the leadership of the trade union movement stands in stark contrast to an increasingly angry working class. A recent academic report revealed that an estimated 120,000 people have died since 2010 because of funding cuts to Social Care and the NHS. Alongside news of the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers – international tax avoidance scandals which have been directly linked to Theresa May and other senior politicians – this has created a potentially explosive situation. Just last year saw the biggest ever demonstration in defence of the health service. Britain is also currently in the midst of the most prolonged strike-waves that Higher Education has ever seen. And in contrast with New Labour leaders, Corbyn has been outspoken in his support for the striking university workers.
At present, Corbyn is the figure around which this movement is beginning to come together. This is why the political establishment are currently utilising every resource at their disposal (both inside and outside the Labour Party) to discredit him. They fear that a powerful movement of workers and young people could push Corbyn further to the left than he ever intended to go. One of the main tasks of the present period is, therefore, to push for the full democratisation of the Labour Party – including the readmission of expelled socialists and the reintroduction of mandatory reselection – which would enable pro-working-class MPs to replace the current pro-big business ones. Failure to address this issue could prevent the election of a Labour government (if the right-wing saboteurs are successful in their campaign, for instance). It could also result in the election of a Labour Party that is effectively paralysed by insurmountable divisions.