The Struggle against retreat from socialist policies: the candidates – Rebecca Long Bailey

With most of the likely leadership candidates announced, we intend to publish over the coming weeks an analysis of each candidate standing in the election, how well they represent the interests of the working class, which direction they are likely to take the party and its program in. We start with Rebecca Long Bailey, and as the presumed ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate for the left, we dedicate more space to analysing her program.

Shortly before the New Year, Long Bailey penned an article for The Guardian to announce her intention to stand as leader of the Labour Party. Long Bailey was set to be anointed Corbyn’s successor by the left establishment in the party and trade unions, only to fumble the crown into the gutter. A rumoured rift with John McDonnell, who was set to endorse Long Bailey but now swears neutrality, makes clear that Long Bailey is leaning on other parts of the party for her leadership bid. What seemed likely to be an almost Vatican-like coronation, is turning into a calamity of her own making.

The turgid article announcing her campaign is somehow mostly guff or a complete (deliberate?) misreading of history. In order to justify the slogan ‘progressive patriotism’ Long Bailey invokes the boycott of cotton imported from the Confederate states by Lancashire cotton mill workers in the 1860s. Exactly how the Lancashire mill workers were acting ‘patriotically’ to support Lincoln against the Confederates is a mystery only Long Bailey has the answer to. During the US Civil War, the British ruling class materially supported the Confederate south with supplies and arms (including full blown warships like the CSS Alabama), and had a direct stake in ensuring the millions of human beings held in brutal slavery in the American south were kept in chains. Anti-slavery revolts, such as the Jamaican Baptist War, were in living memory at the time and British colonial control in the Caribbean was balanced on top of a brutal system of racial apartheid – the same system which would be picked up and developed in the southern states after the Civil War ended. The British bourgeoisie was sitting on a powder keg in the Caribbean, and the sparks flying off the US Civil War threatened to ignite a revolt across the region.

The situation in Britain was hardly better. The Chartist movement was even more recent than the Baptist War, and had come almost to the brink of an armed uprising by the working class in Britain. Faced with the blockade of American plantation cotton, without raw material to work up for sale, the British bourgeois – good patriots all – turfed the Lancashire workers into the street and left them to starve. When the despair of these workers and their families reached fever pitch, breaking out into riot, the bourgeois patriots sent in the army for the soldiers to do their patriotic duty: read the Riot Act and threaten to cut down the workers in the streets. We must also ask Long Bailey – was it the same sense of patriotism which helped sectarian bigot William Murphy incite the Lancashire workers to riot against Irish Catholic workers in 1868? This ‘patriotism’ is precisely the poison poured into the ear of the working class in order to divide us against each other. It helped keep us chained to the mills in the 1800s, just as it is used to divide us today. The danger is Long Bailey understands this, but is trying to convince us the opposite is true.

The boycott of Southern cotton was not ‘patriotism’, but an act of internationalist working class solidarity with the workers in the Northern states and the slaves held in chains in the South. To dress this up in a Union Jack is to disgrace the sacrifice – all too literal – of the Lancashire mill workers. Long Bailey is committing the gross error of attempting to compete with the Tory nationalist stance on Brexit. In the words of Fred Hampton, we can’t fight fire with fire; we fight fire with water. Hurling patriotism back at the Tories will leave us burned; we can only fight Tory flag waving nationalism with worker internationalism.

This ugly phrase ‘progressive patriotism’ bears all the hallmarks of the focus grouped monstrosities of the Blair period. What it means politically is a riddle worthy of the sphinx. Does it mean a future Prime Minister Long Bailey would use the correct gender pronouns when she orders drone strikes in Yemen? Perhaps she will paint ‘ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn’ on the cruise missiles fired at schools and hospitals in Damascus? Which principles would Long Bailey be defending if she launched nuclear weapons, exterminating millions of people in a fraction of a second – the progressive principles or the patriotic?

Where did Long Bailey pick up this drivel? None other than the Fabians, “the crucible of pragmatic practical policy making” (don’t laugh). Here is where the connection comes in between Long Bailey and her ‘fixer’, Alex Halligan, labelled a Stalinist by the reactionary British press. Halligan appears to be a Fabian from the Unite bureaucracy, not a Stalinist – though their hatred of Trotskyists runs as deep. This particular bit of charlatanism has been doing the rounds with the Fabians for at least the years since this speech by ex-Blairite government minister John Denham, delivered in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Denham now peddles his wares at a Winchester University think-tank advocating English nationalism, but with a smile to go with the immigration controls.

For Long Bailey – and the Fabians – the word ‘progressive’ has the virtue that, politically, it means nothing, therefore one can do nothing and ‘honestly’ say you’ve stood up for your ‘progressive principles’. It serves as no more than the cloth with which to polish the turd of ‘patriotism’, before handing it over to us.

‘Patriotism’, on the other hand, is all too rich in meaning. In an imperialist state like Britain – especially one which has seen the collapse of its empire, and grapples with the centrifugal tendencies driving the desire for national self-determination in Scotland and Northern Ireland – the old ‘patriotic’ chauvinist poison still festers in the veins of parts of the population, including the working class. It is the task of the political party of the working class to work tirelessly to raise the political understanding of the workers – including to understand that all the racist drivel in the press is intended to keep us enslaved. The Blairites – including the likes of Tom Watson and Jess Phillips – gleefully whipped up Islamophobic and anti-immigrant ‘patriotism’ to serve their own political ends. In doing this they laid the groundwork for the racist provocations used both in the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election to be more effective in splitting the working-class vote against Labour. Especially now, with an openly xenophobic Tory party in government pushing through their program based on nationalist sentiment, this little word becomes the cut through which the poison spreads and intensifies in the Labour party and the ranks of the working class. This slogan would be a disaster for our movement, and must be driven out.

Such is the utter lack of faith of even supposedly ‘left’ members of the PLP that one election loss can lead them to losing all hope of the working class ever challenging capitalism. Instead, they try to kiss the backside of the ruling class in order to gain a kinder, gentler capitalism – an impossible task.

Faced with backsliding of this magnitude it actually pains us that we are forced to restate the most elementary facts of working-class politics. Their nationalism is for the protection of their narrow class interests – their profits – against the encroachment of foreign capitalist competition. Our internationalism is based on the fundamental unity of the working class. The workers speak thousands of languages, pray in hundreds of religions and live in every part of the world. Despite this a worker in any factory, office or warehouse in Britain shares infinitely more in common with the French refinery workers on strike today, with unemployed Arab protestors on the streets of Baghdad and Beirut, with Chileans resisting Piñera’s regime than they ever will with any British bourgeois. Any shared language, ethnicity or geography is no more than simply accidental.

Having used the left cover of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, Long Bailey has ditched Corbynism – now that it can’t push her career forward – in favour of a shift to the right-wing of the party. She then invokes this ‘progressive patriotism’ as her opening gambit for leadership in an article for a newspaper she obviously believes will be read by the kind of activists who are likely to support her. More than that, this is in a newspaper which has done anything and everything to support the right wing of the PLP against Corbyn, and against the members.

This draws towards its bitter conclusion the process partially begun by Corbyn himself between 2017-2019. A moribund left in the PLP, revived and hauled onto its feet by the pro-Corbyn surge of 2015 and 2016, actively demobilised this same insurgent movement against the right-wing of the party. Clutching at their own illusions in solutions through parliament – the idea that any and all problems can be solved by a vote of 50% plus one, and the working class wheeled on stage only when it wasn’t an embarrassment to the ‘leadership’ – Corbyn, McDonnell and the rest ended up effectively delivering themselves as hostages to the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They had the base they needed, but turned to the base they wanted in the PLP and the party machinery. A critical point in this was Corbyn using his political authority in the party to lean on the unions at the 2018 party conference in order to shut down the introduction of ‘Open Selection’ procedures. Instead of using their base in the membership, and Corbyn’s enormous political authority after the 2017 general election, to clean out all the careerists and carpet-baggers from the PLP, they made one concession after another, sacrificed one member after another, all to mollify the very people sabotaging the party and attacking the members. This process culminated in the 2019 election defeat.

Now this has advanced to the stage that, rather than bringing the party bureaucracy and the right wing of the PLP back inside the ‘broad church’ (a myth if ever there was one), Long Bailey is instead adopting the politics and methods of the old right-wing, with the ‘Green New Deal’ policies bolted on as an afterthought. Down this road lies neo-Blairism: the old pro-business imperialism but with solar panels.


Stuart Leigh – 1 January 2020

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