The Struggle against a return to the center ground

“It is an old and historically established maxim that obsolete social forces, nominally still in possession of all the attributes of power and continuing to vegetate long after the basis of their existence has rotted away, inasmuch as the heirs are quarrelling among themselves over the inheritance even before the obituary notice has been printed and the testament read — that these forces once more summon all their strength before their agony of death, pass from the defensive to the offensive, challenge instead of giving way, and seek to draw the most extreme conclusions from premises which have not only been put in question but already condemned.” – Marx

A five year campaign of sabotage, slander and mudslinging has brought the leader’s office back under the control of the right wing of the Labour party. From day one of the Corbyn leadership, through the days of the ‘chicken coup’, this has been the objective of the likes of Watson, Smith, Cooper et al.

But it will all be for nought. The right wing have what will prove to be a pyrrhic victory of the past over the present. While the right in the PLP were in disloyal opposition to Corbyn they could blame him for every failure and take credit for every success. Now the onus is on them. The level of expectation placed in them by a working class that is suffering blow after blow will be ramped up. Meanwhile their support base in the party and society will be massively undermined by these crises which will disproportionately affect the better off sections of the working class holding managing and administration positions as well as the sections of the middle classes who support Labour. There is no doubt the poorest sections of the class will suffer, but we are accustomed to managing – in one way or another – to get through the hardship. For the better off layers who might have avoided the worst in 2008-09, the experiences to come will radicalise some and demoralise others. Either way, the ground will evaporate beneath Starmer’s feet, and the workers will move politically far to the left of what Corbynism offered, and they will do this through the Labour party.

In a relatively normal period, all other things being equal, the plan of the right wing of the party – of retaking the leadership in order then to begin purging the socialist wing of the party and taking party policy back to the pro-business, so-called centre ground of politics (the place where Change UK went to die) – might have found some limited, temporary successes. The eruption of possibly the worst crisis in the history of capitalism has sent every plan dreamt up by the likes of Mandelson, Campbell and their puppets in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) up in smoke.

Before these twin crises, the economic collapse of capitalism and a health pandemic, broke out, many amongst the left of the party will have been disoriented, demoralised and uncertain where to turn next after the sheer scale of the defeat in the General Election of 2019. On an empirical basis, it struck many that the party would swing back to the right again, that the Corbyn period was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the left, and that we were faced with five years of a Tory government. The economic crisis that broke out with the emergence of the Covid-19 emergency has turned the entire world situation on its head.

This leadership contest will go down in history as the dullest and least eventful election in labour movement history. What better proof could there be of this than the true winner of the election – ‘none of the above’. 293,420 members, affiliates or supporters did not vote – comfortably more than Starmer’s 275,780, and twice the rate of abstention in both the 2015 and 2016 leader elections. Nor should we let Long-Bailey off the hook – managing to mobilise less than half the number of votes than Corbyn received in either 2015 or 2016, gathering fewer even than Owen Smith during the ‘chicken coup’.

Both the enormous rate of abstention and the tediousness of the campaigns can be accounted for by the very outlook of the various candidates. For all of them it was not a case of going forward and continuing to challenge capitalism but of retreating to safer more acceptable form of capitalism, whether attempting to go back to the years of the 1970s post war boom, the years before the pre 2008 credit crunch or to the years of the stabilisation of that crisis pre 2019.This outlook left labour members cold and fell flat with the working class as a whole which gave the whole contest its underwhelming feel in marked contrast to the vibrant and exciting contests in 2015 and 2016 that generated so much enthusiasm in the wider working class. For example, less than 14,000 people signed up to be a registered supporter compared to more than 180,000 in 2016.

We have, however, learned far more about each candidate in the last five weeks of the escalating crisis than we ever did in the last five years of the relatively calmer period. Faced with a crisis of the scale of Covid-19, what did each do? Did they hammer home the catastrophic failures of the government on PPE and NHS funding? Did they show actual political leadership on the question of closing non-essential workplaces? Or did they retreat into their political comfort zone of being glorified social workers, offering legal advice and twitter posts from the comfort of their constituency office? These crises are only beginning to unfurl themselves and they will now determine the lives of workers, their consciousness and political outlook in a way that the Brexit debate never did. All three of the candidates failed this first important test, being able to recognize a changed situation and provide leadership on the way forward.

It has been demonstrated beyond any possible dispute in the last two weeks that the Labour manifesto for the 2019 election was far from being the delusional leftist utopianism that the right in the party declared it to be. Compared to the measures announced by the Tories in one press conference, it was actually timidity of the meekest type, seeking as it did to patch up capitalism and to curb some of the worst aspects of the system. In order to save capitalism, Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak spent in one day more than 6 times what his Labour counterpart John McDonnell was going to spend in 5 years. Quite where this leaves Starmer’s new shadow chancellor who we can expect to present plans for the fiscally prudent and responsible management of the capitalist system, is anyone’s guess. What is clear is the entire basis of their politics and economic policies has long since evaporated. Here we have a textbook example of those who believed themselves to be the most practical, level headed realists actually being the most unrealistic of utopian fantasists.

The right of the party presently grouped around the new leader Keir Starmer represents the continuity of the policies of “Nu Labour” that took power in the vastly different conditions of the credit boom of the 1990s. Finance capital, shouldering aside the regulations introduced after the great depression, was given free reign to ”grow the economy” and New Labour was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Meanwhile, the idea that planning or the state would play any role in developing the economy was banished to the dustbin of history. That this approach has completely failed is patently obvious to anyone who has even the most remote knowledge of the events of 2008 when the financial system collapsed threatening to bring down the whole capitalist system and state intervention, a supposed relic of the past, was used to save the capitalist from certain ruin with the money of the people paying off the debts of the capitalist but leaving their profits and property untouched.

These right wingers were expert exponents of social distancing long before Covid-19 made such methods generally necessary. When they last controlled the party, every step was taken to distance themselves as far away as possible from the working class – not only in person but also politically and in terms of living standards. Existing in and being completely absorbed by the Westminster bubble of wealth and power, their view of the wider world outside that bubble is distorted and unrealistic. After Corbyn’s victory, they holed up in the PLP and the party machinery stubbornly resisting any and all attempts to move the Labour anywhere that might threaten their careers – towards the left and away from a non-existent centre ground. Their Micawberish hopes that “something will turn up” were finally fulfilled with the devastating defeat at the 2019 General Election.

Five years ago they thought that the victory of Corbyn was some kind of fluke, an alliance of deranged Trotskyists and malicious Tories who somehow took them by surprise. A year later they counted themselves lucky to escape with their skins intact after attempting a Palace of Westminster coup against him. Now after all this time chafing against the leadership and the ranks of the party from the back benches and the recesses of the party machine they finally saw their chance to put matters right by putting themselves back in charge of the Labour Party. They have done so without a thought as to what they would do if they actually did take power again other than “robustly holding the government to account”. This empty phrase mongering seems to mean that rather than challenging the Tory’s schemes, they plan to play the loyal office clerk, scrutinising every line of the relevant legislation dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s to correct any oversights. No new policies any different to those of Corbyn and the left have been proposed, at least not any that they dare put forward to the membership before they have swindled them out of their votes and actually hold power. The sun hadn’t even set on the day of his election, and Starmer is scurrying to provide “left” cover to the Tory government. Even their tame media, feeling the pressure of their readers and viewers, are beginning to question the lack of PPE, tests, medicine and ventilators. Just as their lapdogs in the press look like turning on them, in rides Sir Keir – their knight in shining armour.

The position of the working class today is totally different from that which emerged from the general election defeat of December 2019. All of the calculations the right wing made on that basis have been rendered meaningless. Whether they recognise this is another matter entirely. For us Marxists it is not exactly a revelation to find that the key workers in capitalism, the ones who make society work are not the hedge fund manager, the commodity broker or the billionaires but the van driver, the supermarket worker and the millions categorised as un or semi skilled workers who are working around the clock to support the efforts of our class brothers and sisters grafting day and night in the hospitals. Look hard enough, and we find stories of workers increasing production in spite – or more likely because – of the desertion of the managers to “work from home” until the danger ceases. For the key workers themselves it is coming as a considerable surprise to find out for themselves how vital they are in the life of society. Having for decades been dismissed and belittled, now they are discovering reserves of self-confidence and self-esteem that not one of the capitalist commentators would ever have imagined only a few momentus weeks ago.

The turn-out to clap for the NHS and key workers was an act of solidarity from the wider working class with far greater active support in working class neighbourhoods than in the middle class areas where some complained of being bored at home. The expression of this solidarity will not be confined in the future to merely clapping and nor will it evaporate when the health situation stabilises. In this new atmosphere the attempts of Starmer and his cohorts in the PLP to wage a campaign of knightly chivalry against the perceived injustice done to the right wing careerists from the left in the party will be as futile as their fictional counterparts, the knight Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza tilting against windmills and believing they were slaying giants. Just as health and social care workers, indeed all key workers, are staying at their posts and redoubling their efforts it is necessary for all members of the left to stay in the party and fight against this temporary setback. We must have confidence in the working class and its ability to reclaim its political party and trade unions as a first step in the struggle to transform society from the current one based on greed to a new era that will be based on people’s need.

The Struggle – 4 April 2020

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