Widening fractures

Issue: 152

Alex Callinicos

The political situation in Britain is defined by the fractures that have opened up over Brexit and in the Labour Party. This journal supported a vote to leave the European Union on 23 June for two main reasons—first, and as a matter of principle, we oppose the EU as an engine for imposing neoliberalism in increasingly authoritarian forms, and, secondly, Brexit would cause a major crisis for British and, to a lesser degree, world capitalism. This latter judgement has been vindicated by developments since the referendum.1

It’s important to understand the nature of this crisis. The issue isn’t the impact of Brexit on economic growth in Britain—a subject of much argument among mainstream politicians and commentators in the past few months. The truth is that one can argue the toss about this: on the one hand, the surprise result had an immediate negative impact on what Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits”—ie confidence among consumers and investors—that might cut spending and growth; on the other hand, the sharp fall in the exchange rate of the pound seems to have boosted exports and growth (though it may push up inflation in the longer run).

No, the real problem lies in the disruption Brexit might cause to the global positioning of British capitalism and thereby to the dominant capitalist networks. Britain’s somewhat ambiguous location—in the EU but not in the eurozone, loyal junior partner to the United States and site of the biggest international financial centre—means that it has the capacity to send destabilising ripples across the world economy. The US is already feeling the effects of Britain’s eclipse in Brussels. Within days of the vote, the EU’s development of its own military capabilities was back on the agenda, a move hitherto blocked by London’s opposition to any initiatives outside the ambit of NATO. And—contrary to the predictions of left Remain supporters, the Brexit vote may prove to be the final straw for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) being negotiated between the US and the EU.

As for the EU itself, as Susan Watkins puts it:

at a stroke, it loses an eighth of its population, a sixth of its GDP, half its nuclear-arms cache and a seat on the UN Security Council—its diminution mocked in the Chinese media as the decline of the West. More alarming for the custodians of the Union is the example the English vote sets to other dissident electorates.2

Even Jean-Claude Juncker, the bibulous, bullying president of the European Commission, has admitted that Brexit represents an “existential crisis” for the EU.3 But what path to take after Britain leaves will exacerbate the already profound divisions among member states. The dwindling band of federalists are pressing for further integration while the Eastern and Central Europeans are demanding cuts in Brussels’ powers, the governments of the two key states, Germany and France, are running scared in the face of the Eurosceptic challenges from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Front National respectively and Italy is increasingly restive over the Commission’s efforts to control its fiscal policy.

Hard or soft Brexit?

No surprise then, that at her first major international outing, the G20 summit in Hangzhou in early September, Theresa May found herself under strong pressure, notably from Barack Obama and the Japanese government, to ensure that Brexit is as soft as possible—that is, that Britain’s departure from the EU should change things as little as possible. This is a bit of a problem for May since, whatever else the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU on 23 June had in mind, they wanted things to change. Elsewhere in this journal Charlie Kimber analyses the reasons why Brexit triumphed on 23 June. But it’s worth underlining the results of a detailed study of voting patterns conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath.

Their main finding was that “the poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000 per year, were much more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest households, as were the unemployed, people in low-skilled and manual occupations, people who feel that their financial situation has worsened, and those with no qualifications”. The strongest single predictor of how an individual voted was their educational qualifications, themselves largely a proxy for socio-economic position. Goodwin and Heath also found that highly qualified people in “low-skill areas” were much more likely to vote Leave than their counterparts in “high-skill areas”, reflecting, they argue, how a sense of lack of opportunities can permeate entire communities. Brexit thus revealed “a country that is deeply divided along not only social but also geographical lines”.4

The referendum rejected the EU, but it was also a vote of no confidence in the state of British society. Often this was articulated in reactionary, Little Englander and indeed racist terms. It’s important to recognise that one impact of the Brexit vote has been to give confidence to racists and to cause widespread fear among Black and Minority Ethnic and Eastern European communities, particularly because of the uptick in racist attacks. But it’s also important not to accept the conclusion drawn by the pro-Remain majority on the British left that the Leave victory was simply a racist vote. As Kimber shows, the consciousness behind the vote was far more mixed and ambivalent.

This argument isn’t necessarily a comforting one. In one of his most important notes, “Analysis of Situations. Relations of Force”, Antonio Gramsci argues that every situation can be analysed at a number of different levels, starting from the “organic movements (relatively permanent)” arising from the fundamental economic structure of the forces and relations of production and concluding with

movements that may be termed “conjunctural” (and which appear as occasional, immediate, almost accidental). Conjunctural phenomena too depend on organic movements to be sure, but they do not have any very far-reaching historical significance; they give rise to political criticism of a minor, day-to-day character, which has as its subject top political leaders and personalities with direct governmental responsibilities.5

But, Gramsci goes on to argue, a key mediating dimension between structure and conjuncture is “the relation of political forces; in other words, an evaluation of the degree of homogeneity, self-awareness, and organisation attained by the various social classes”.6 The relation of political forces in the referendum was very unfavourable to the radical left. The majority, along with the bulk of trade union officialdom, offered more or less radical versions of the pro-EU case being put by the leaderships of all the major parties (with the exception of UKIP) and by most serious capitalist interests in Britain. The minority that called for a Leave vote largely waged a principled campaign, chiefly in the shape of Lexit, opposing the EU on an internationalist and anti-capitalist basis, but it was too weak to make its voice heard on the national stage. This allowed the Tory right and UKIP to pose as the spokespeople of the poor and marginalised, whom the left largely failed to represent. Rather than quarrelling over how we voted on 23 June, it would be more sensible to recognise this shared failure.

Does this mean that the effect of the referendum has been to push Britain sharply to the right, as many pro-Remain leftists claim? Not at all. To see this we have to move to the level of the “conjunctural”, that of “top political leaders and personalities with direct governmental responsibility”. David Cameron’s abrupt exit from 10 Downing Street (followed last month by his retirement from the House of Commons) allowed May, who sat out the referendum as an almost silent Remain supporter, to seize the premiership. In this she was aided by the bungling of the leaders of the supposedly triumphant pro-Leave Tories—Boris Johnson and Michael Gove taking each other out like characters in the final scene of a Tarantino movie, and the equally hapless Andrea Leadsom blowing herself away in the space of a weekend. Further to the right, UKIP, which should have been well placed to capitalise on victory in a referendum it helped to achieve, has instead imploded.

May has sought to put her stamp on the new government, notably by clearing out the remnants of Cameron’s Notting Hill set, headed by George Osborne. Her decision to expand grammar schools suggests that politically she is somewhat to the right of Cameron, though one probably shouldn’t overstate this. She has scrapped Osborne’s target of a budget surplus by 2019-20 (though the spending cuts he initiated continue to roll on).

Her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy offered a rationale for May’s relentless invocation of “ordinary working class people” when, after Iain Duncan Smith resigned from the cabinet in March, he contrasted him with his opponent in government Osborne:

The two men represent, in Tim Montgomerie’s dichotomy, the two approaches of the modern Party: Easterhouse modernisation, which focuses on fighting the kind of poverty found on the Glasgow estate after which it is named, and Soho modernisation, which is all about social liberalism.

Easterhouse and Soho are useful labels, but they represent a false choice for the Party… Instead of these polarising approaches, I have always felt we should have a different model, that might—to extend Tim’s language—be called Erdington modernisation, named after the working class area of Birmingham. With this approach, of course we would still help the very poor and of course we would fight injustices based on gender, race and sexuality, but the Party would adopt a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people…

These people have modest means, but they work hard, they want to stand on their own two feet, and they want to give their children the best start in life they can. They are natural conservatives for precisely the reason that the stakes they have are small. They want stability, certainty, and steady leadership by politicians who have their interests at heart. In particular, they are suspicious of politicians making big promises and dismissive of excitable talk about radical policies. To them, radicalism means risk, and they know they are the ones who lose out when radicalism turns to rot.7

So “ordinary working people” turn out to be the conservative section of the working class who, rejecting any kind of collective solution, have traditionally embraced individualism and voted Conservative with a capital C. One can understand how returning to grammar schools might appeal to this constituency, though it’s hard to see it having much appeal to the Labour supporters for whom May’s harping on about “ordinary working people” is sometimes interpreted as being a play.

In any case, it is very unlikely that May’s personal political agenda will dominate her government. She is going to be preoccupied with managing the struggle unleashed by Brexit between antagonistic forces, crucially within the cabinet. Despite the self-immolation of the Leave leaders in the struggle to succeed Cameron, she confronts a Tory right reinvigorated by the referendum victory and pressing for a hard Brexit—as complete a break as possible from the EU, which will allow Britain to float free as a global free market trading power. For the likes of Nigel Lawson, Brexit offers “a historic opportunity…to finish the job which Margaret Thatcher started”.8 The hard Brexiteers have launched a pressure group called Change Britain, sponsored by Johnson, Gove, Lawson, and the Labour MP Gisela Stuart.

From this perspective, the EU is an obstacle to pressing ahead with further neoliberal “reforms”. While in continental Europe, the EU, first with the Single European Act of 1986, then with Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), and most recently with austerity, has provided the mechanism through which neoliberalism has been imposed. In Britain, however, the shift in a free market direction preceded these changes and took place at the national level, most decisively under Thatcher. During the 1990s, the role that the drive towards EMU, initiated by the federalist president of the European Commission Jacques Delors and confirmed by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, played in Thatcher’s downfall encouraged the Tory right to brand the EU as a bureaucratic corporatist monolith suffocating free enterprise.9 The eurozone catastrophe served to reinforce this view, even though it is crystal clear that the debt crisis in Ireland and the Mediterranean has been used to extract further neoliberal socio-economic restructuring.

It is in any case crucial to understand that this ultra-Thatcherite conception is not shared by the dominant capitalist interests in Britain. They are in mourning over the referendum result and are determined to minimise the effects of Brexit. Already the lines of battle are becoming clear. One key issue is whether Britain will remain in the Single Market—whose introduction was very much a British project (Hugo Young called it “a fusion between the visions of Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors for the future of Europe”).10 Britain regularly tops the European league table for foreign direct investment because it offers corporate-friendly access to the Single Market. Fear that this access is under threat helps to explain the Japanese demarche in early September. The Financial Times explains:

Before June, Japanese companies barely had to think about where they should set up in Europe. The answer, in most cases, was Britain.

Over the past five decades, about 1,000 Japanese firms have used the UK in effect as a springboard into Europe… For Japan, it is not only future investments in the UK—in areas such as nuclear energy, autos, public transport, the internet-of-things and pharmaceuticals—that Brexit has put at risk. It has also hung a question mark over existing factories that employ some 140,000 British workers.

Japan Inc’s doubts were expressed in a 15-page memo published over the weekend that included a list of safeguards, including single market access and harmonised regulations, Tokyo is seeking in order to avoid an exodus.11

Many Japanese companies—for example, the car firms Nissan, Honda and Toyota—specialise in producing and exporting goods. But the Single Market is in services as well as goods. This is crucial to the British economy, which in the first quarter of 2013 ran a €10.2 billion surplus on intra-EU trade in services (while Germany had a €26.5 billion deficit) as well as an €89 billion surplus in extra-EU trade in services.12 These surpluses, along with the profits of foreign investment, are crucial in helping to counter-balance Britain’s chronic deficit in international trade in goods. British services exports are inseparable from the role of the City, since financial services and insurance play the predominant role.13

But now the City’s pre-eminence in European finance is under multiple threats thanks to Brexit: it may lose access to the Single Market; banks based in London may be deprived of their “passport” rights to operate in the EU; and continental financial centres such as Frankfurt and Paris are certain to seek to topple the City’s dominance of trade in the euro and poach some of its other business. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, nearly 5,500 UK-registered companies have passports issued by the European Commission to access the EU market. Interestingly, 8,000 companies based elsewhere in the EU have passports to operate in the UK. This reflects the centrality of London: in 2012 almost 80 percent of capital markets and investment banking activity in the rest of the EU was managed and executed in the UK.14 But Nicolas Véron of the Bruegel think tank predicts that “the City is likely to decline in absolute size, and even more so in relative terms as global financial activity can be expected to keep expanding overall”.15

As far as the EU is concerned, access to the Single Market is inseparable from free movement of labour. Thus Norway and Switzerland, non-EU states that participate in the Single Market, are required to give free movement to EU citizens (though Switzerland is trying to qualify this). The insistence on free movement is partly ideological and political—the so-called “four freedoms” of movement (goods, labour, services and capital) form the institutional substance of the EU, though of course, as Céline Cantat argues elsewhere in this issue, this doesn’t stop the EU erecting more and more barriers to migrants.16 But there are also economic arguments that free movement of services can’t work without free movement of people.

Martin Sandbu argues that the Brexiteers’ claim that it is in the EU’s interest to offer Britain a favourable trade deal applies much less in the case of services than of goods (where Britain has a deficit with the rest of the EU):

Information services will often have two important characteristics. First, they involve large economies of scale and benefit from geographic clustering which improves the flow of knowledge and know-how. Second, they will often exist in order precisely to serve the needs of a large market in goods (and the other types of services)—as is obvious with, for example, international banking and commercial law. But that means the economies they serve will be at the mercy—both in terms of cost and in terms of the effects of the financial industry in particular—of geographically clustered service centres in which their own nationals’ ability to work or set up shop is limited or zero.17

Nevertheless, the Brexiteers have been allowed to define the referendum result as the rejection of free movement of labour. Despicably, right-wing Labour MPs who campaigned for Remain are now selling the pass on free movement. Rachel Reeves, for example, has written: “Immigration controls and ending free movement has to be a red line post-Brexit—otherwise we will be holding the voters in contempt”.18 So politicians from both sides of the Brexit divide are mounting new attacks on the rights of millions of European workers in Britain, and thereby helping to legitimise the post-referendum surge in racist attacks on East Europeans. This underlines the importance of the anti-racist campaigning that Stand Up to Racism is increasingly driving. This must now include the new front of defending free movement.

The Tory Brexiteers don’t seem to be too worried about losing the Single Market. International trade secretary Liam Fox has already called for Britain to leave the EU’s Customs Union, which he says is a prerequisite for him to negotiate new trade deals with the United States, Canada, Australia, India and so on. But he is being opposed by chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, who argues this could lead to the reintroduction of “hard borders” between Britain and the EU, at a high cost to British exporters.

Negotiating a new trade deal with the EU on whatever terms could take much longer than the two year lead-up to departure from the Union laid down in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The Financial Times expresses widespread ruling class concerns that

there will be a hiatus between the point at which Britain formally leaves the EU and the point at which an EU Free Trade agreement comes into force… This would leave Britain in a dangerous position. The country would face, among other things, immediate tariffs on its exports to the EU, bureaucratic customs checks and loss of passporting rights for services. Some politicians compare it to falling off a cliff edge.19

Having bested them in the race to succeed Cameron, May gave three leaders of the Leave campaign plum jobs—in addition to Fox in a new Department for International Trade, Johnson in the Foreign Office and David Davies in another new Department, for Exiting the European Union. Handing over to the Brexiteers responsibility for negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU seems like setting a fairly obvious trap, and all three have enough form to suggest that they may fall out collectively and foul up individually. But it is a recipe for a divided cabinet. Reporting on the row over leaving the Customs Union, the Financial Times commented:

The fact that the cabinet is still grappling with such a fundamental question—and that it remains unresolved—shows the depth of ministerial divisions over Britain’s post-Brexit trading stance. But this debate also gives us some insight into Mrs May’s position. After all, Mr Hammond and the Treasury are unlikely to be able to hold their ground on this matter if they did not have some backing from the prime minister.

“There is one issue where the prime minister and chancellor do not see completely eye-to-eye and that is when to press Article 50,” a senior government figure tells me. “She wants to press the button early next year while he is arguing that we should wait longer. But when it comes to the content of Britain’s negotiating position, they both recognise—unlike others—the need to retain the fullest possible access to Europe’s single market”.20

Substantive negotiations with the EU may in any case have to await the outcome of next year’s French presidential and German parliamentary elections. EU leaders will also be caught between contradictory pressures—to minimise the disruption caused by Brexit, to discourage any other member states from leaving, and to accommodate increasingly vocal anti-EU forces in their own domestic scenes.

But May has a particularly tortuous path to tread between the demands of big capital and the dreams of the Tory right. In the circumstances it’s not particularly surprising that she has ruled out calling a snap election. The combination of May’s honeymoon and Labour’s troubles might deliver a big parliamentary majority for the Tories. But this would increase her difficulties, by swelling the number of Europhobic backbenchers striving for a free market Utopia beyond the EU. The fact that the present House of Commons has an anti-Brexit majority increases May’s room for manoeuvre. Either way, the façade of stability she has imposed on an increasingly febrile Tory party is unlikely to last.

Dual power in the Labour Party

Brexit also figures in the second key feature of the political situation—the struggle between Jeremy Corbyn and the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The pretext for the “chicken coup” against him—first mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet and a vote of no confidence, then a direct challenge to his position as leader—was his alleged failure to campaign sufficiently enthusiastically for Remain. A more rational political calculation might reckon that Corbyn’s refusal to withdraw his criticisms of the EU in the lead-up to 23 June would position him well to reconnect with the millions of traditional Labour supporters who voted Leave. But many in the PLP may have feared that this stance, together with the implosion of the Tory party, might dangerously increase his credibility as an alternative prime minister. Certainly Corbyn’s opponents must take the lion’s share of the blame for Labour’s subsequent slide in the polls.

The PLP seems to have relied on the mass resignations demoralising Corbyn into capitulation. Then, when this failed, they fumbled over who to run against him, ending up with the weaker of the two challengers. The sheer ineptitude of the revolt suggests that ideology played a big role. The vehemence with which Corbyn’s opponents have challenged him over Syria, Trident and Brexit shows the extent to which the Labour right—which now extends beyond the Blairite hard core to incorporate followers of Gordon Brown (such as Tom Watson, the witch-hunting deputy leader) and elements of the soft left—have essentially chosen as their ground the defence of the New Labour legacy.

Their problem is that the ground is shifting under them. Arrogantly affirming their ownership of the Labour Party (see the endless declarations that “this is our party”), they resemble nothing more than Anglo-Irish absentee landlords during the War of Independence, blissfully unaware that their tenants are revolting and their country houses are in flames. Since the 2015 general election, Labour Party membership has grown from around 200,000 members to (in July this year) 515,000 members and affiliated supporters plus another 180,000 registered supporters.21

This influx, overwhelmingly of Corbyn supporters, has made the structures of the Labour Party the vehicle of a mass movement that, whatever the uncertainties about what it is in favour of, rejects the New Labour embrace of neoliberalism and imperialism. The Corbyn phenomenon has been compared with the new left parties elsewhere in Europe, and to Bernie Sanders’s insurgency within the Democratic Party in the United States. The fact that Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state have challenged social democratic parties like Labour does not undermine the comparison. The universal long-term decay of social democracy, thanks paradoxically to the Blairites’ success in pressing for the party leader to be elected on a one person one vote basis, made Labour open to capture by a rebellion against the social liberalism that came to define the centre left in the Tony Blair era.

Watson’s clumsy attempt at witch-hunting—“there are some old hands twisting young arms in this process, and I’m under no illusions about what’s going on. They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that’s how Trotsky entryists operate”—demonstrated the Labour right’s complete incomprehension of how Labour has changed.22 The best efforts of the Labour Party apparatus, egged on by Watson, to purge Corbyn supporters were insufficient to stop him overwhelming his inept opponent Owen Smith. Corbyn won an increased overall majority (62 percent compared to 59 percent the year before), with substantial majorities in the three categories of members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The hapless right-wing attempt to topple him has actually strengthened Corbyn, mobilising his base and thereby promoting Labour’s transformation into a mass party of the left. After the result was announced the Guardian grudgingly conceded that “Labour is now unquestionably a changed party”.23

Corbyn’s re-election means, however, that the condition of disequilibrium created by the profound antagonism between him and the Labour right will continue. The old power structure, in which the axis between the PLP and the trade union bureaucracy could contain left-wing surges among the membership, has broken down. In its place we have a situation of dual power between Corbyn, legitimised by the support of a growing mass membership, and the PLP, with the trade union leaders hovering in the background as power brokers.

The disequilibrium will continue in part because the right has retreated from its earlier threats to split Labour. It was never clear where it would get the activists and money required for such a project, and May’s defeat of the Brexiteers reduced to zero any chance of pro-EU Tories breaking away to form a new centre party. For some of the PLP, not splitting implies a limited truce with Corbyn. The Telegraph reported in the lead-up to the Labour Party conference:

with polls suggesting that Mr Corbyn is on course to win next week’s leadership election easily, a number of former shadow ministers are preparing the ground to return to work with him.

They will demand a list of assurances from Mr Corbyn as a sign of his goodwill before pledging their support.

These include allowing them greater say in the running of the shadow cabinet, giving his support to a return to shadow cabinet elections, and dropping the threat that MPs who opposed his leadership will face de-selection.24

According to the same report, the MPs would also insist on Corbyn dropping the so-called “McDonnell amendment”—ie the proposal by shadow chancellor John McDonnell to reduce the proportion of Labour MPs and MEPs required to nominate a leadership candidate from 15 to 5 percent. All in all, this is a funny kind of truce. The right seems hugely to overestimate its power, in the light not merely of Corbyn’s victory over Smith but also the clean sweep of his supporters in the elections to the Labour National Executive Committee. It’s as if, at the end of the American Civil War in April 1865, the defeated Southern army had insisted as a condition of surrendering at Appomattox that the North restore slavery. But some of the Blairites aren’t prepared to offer even such a dubious truce. Luke Akehurst, general secretary of the right-wing camarilla Labour First, has said that, after Smith’s defeat, “we will just have another leadership election again and we will carry on having leadership elections until we get a sensible result”.25

It would therefore be potentially a fatal mistake for Corbyn to follow his re-election with substantial concessions to the right. It’s clear that they are not open to genuine reconciliation. Wasting time trying to get the right onside carries a real danger that Corbyn will lose impetus and demoralise his own supporters. Fortunately, he has rebuffed Watson’s attempt to restore the leadership electoral college dominated by MPs and trade union bureaucrats and to give back control over choosing the Shadow Cabinet to the PLP.

But, in the lead-up to the conference the Corbyn team was reported to be courting ex-shadow ministers such as Dan Jarvis. (The fact that the notably wooden Jarvis, whose only claim to fame is his service in Blair’s wars as a Para officer, is widely touted as a future party leader is an indication of the extent to which New Labour is running on empty.) Corbyn explained: “I’m very confident we are as a party coming together. And I’m obviously having discussions with lots of colleagues. And there will be a full team in place to take on this government and provide very effective opposition”.26

Instead of pursuing this kind of broad church approach, Corbynism needs to become a real movement with the ideological coherence and practical heft really to take Labour in a different direction. This won’t be so easy. The obstacles are partly practical. I referred above to Corbyn supporters as a “mass movement” but in fact the picture isn’t so simple. In the huge rallies he addressed all over the country during the summer, Corbynism certainly felt like a mass movement. But this movement so far has been most politically effective when taking part in the essentially atomised activity of voting for Corbyn online.

Jean-Paul Sartre famously distinguished what he called the “series”—a social gathering such as a bus queue or a radio audience, where individuals are essentially isolated from one another, bound together by their passive dependence on something outside them—from the “fused group”. Sartre describes the latter as “the sudden resurrection of freedom”, when a change in the situation brings people together in a moment of collective action (he gives the example of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789).27 The Corbynites are more than a mere series—they share their support for Corbyn and (very importantly) they are aware that they share it. This sense of communality is reinforced through the very effective use of social media by the Corbyn team and by the rallies. But they certainly aren’t a fused group.

This is a crucial point of difficulty for Corbyn. His traditional functions as leader of the Labour Party (and of Her Majesty’s Opposition) are concentrated in Parliament and on the mass media. But these are two very hostile terrains, where he is relatively weak and surrounded by enemies. Where he is strong is in his support among the mass membership, but this is diffuse and atomised. Momentum is now making a serious effort to organise at least part of Corbyn’s base through initiatives such as its fringe conference during the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, “A World Transformed”.

This makes a lot of sense, but the question is how to turn even a successful conference into sustained organisation in working class communities that can widen support for Corbyn and his policies. The more Momentum tries to do this, the more the Labour right will attack it as a “party within a party”, undercutting Corbyn’s efforts at conciliation. Moreover, real organisation has to be built on struggle. But what should the focus of the struggle be? Against the right within the Labour Party, say by deselecting the most obnoxious MPs?

Even if the Momentum leadership were willing to take such a provocative approach, it’s not clear how many Corbyn supporters are likely to be motivated to pursue the weary, highly bureaucratic struggle against the right in constituency and branch meetings. The alternative is a more outward looking orientation towards resistance to austerity, racism and war. Since these issues are what have drawn people behind Corbyn, this approach is far more likely to transform Corbynism into a real mass movement. But it won’t avoid conflicts with the right. One obvious point of tension is the role played by Labour councils in implementing spending cuts.

It follows that building a mass movement can’t be separated from giving Corbynism a more defined ideological profile. The renewed inner-party struggle has forced Corbyn in this direction. In mid-September he gave a speech at Bloomberg that illustrated both the strengths and weaknesses of his policies:

The overwhelming fact of the vote to Leave the EU is that the status quo is no longer an option… In voting Leave, in communities across the country [sic] rejected the status quo that had failed them.

This is the failure of an entire economic model to provide the chances and opportunities to a generation of our people.

It is an economic model that has discarded good jobs and stripped whole communities of their pride.28

So Corbyn refused to engage in the mainstream mourning over Brexit (epitomised in Owen Smith’s ridiculous call for a second referendum). This is a potentially very powerful riposte to the Tory right’s call to complete the Thatcherite revolution, one that argues instead that Brexit requires a break with neoliberalism. The same idea is expressed in Corbyn’s call for a deal that keeps Britain in the Single Market but minus “state aid rules and requirements to liberalise and privatise public services”. But the detail of his economic programme is standard post-crash social democratic fare—a £500 billion programme of infrastructure investment, an industrial strategy overseen by a new National Investment Bank, support for cooperatives, a National Education Service…

There’s not much here that Owen Smith or Ed Miliband would dissent from. Even Theresa May is rehabilitating industrial strategy after the laissez-faire of the Thatcher, New Labour and Cameron years. Commenting on a speech by McDonnell calling for “new economics” at a conference earlier this year, Michael Roberts writes: “What was this new economics? Well, I’m afraid it was not new but really a rehash of old Keynesian arguments and policy proposals. As McDonnell said, the aim was to ‘transform capitalism’ with new rules and state intervention, not to replace it”. Roberts argues that instead “Labour needs to develop a programme to replace capitalism by bringing into public ownership the major banks and business sectors under democratic control to be integrated into a plan for investment in people’s needs not profit”.29

Having been involved in Labour left politics for 40 years, Corbyn and McDonnell will be familiar with this kind of criticism—indeed they probably agree with it. The reason why they have adopted this much more timid programme is almost certainly a preoccupation with “credibility” and “electability”. This is reflected in the very name McDonnell gave to his “Fiscal Credibility Rule”, which commits a future Labour government to keeping current spending in balance over a five-year period and borrowing only to finance investment. When he announced it in March, the LabourList blog commented:

While the economics of McDonnell’s speech—deficit reduction and borrowing for investment in infrastructure—is not radically dissimilar to the Miliband and Balls approach, the most striking aspect of today’s speech seems to be in rhetoric. By talking about “fiscal credibility” and “discipline”, McDonnell is adopting the language of the existing economic narrative. Corbyn often speaks of wanting to “change the conversation”—but it appears the leadership are attempting to change the way we think about things, rather than how we speak about them.30

All of this underlines the simple fact that under Corbyn and McDonnell Labour remains an electoral party, competing in an arena where the political agenda is set by the neoliberal political elite and its interlocutors in the corporate media and big business more generally. Labour’s left-wing leadership will be judged, like any other, by its success in winning votes. The support of the main trade union leaders (with the exception of the GMB) has been critical in allowing Corbyn to carry on in defiance of the PLP revolt.

This support no doubt reflects a number of factors—in the case of some unions (such as Unite and the Communication Workers Union) genuine political agreement, pressure from rank and file activists (among whom Corbyn is popular), and a sense that the Labour right has nothing very inspiring in the way of personalities or policies to offer. But it isn’t a blank cheque. At the very minimum, the trade union leaders’ need for an electorally successful Labour Party will push towards Corbyn the chimaeras of peace with the PLP and “credibility” in the bourgeois political scene.

All this begs the question of what would happen if Corbyn and McDonnell were to cross the electoral hurdle and make it to Downing Street—apparently an implausible prospect now, but something that can’t be ruled out given the newfound propensity of British politics to produce the unexpected. Even their relatively modest economic programme would encounter formidable resistance from a capitalist class bruised by Brexit and geared to operating globally under minimal government constraint. Where would a left-wing Labour government get the strength to defy capital? This is an old question given fresh life by the depressing capitulation of the Syriza government in Greece to waterboarding by the EU. The answer can only come through the development now of a mass movement behind the Corbyn leadership. But, as we have already seen, this can only be achieved in defiance of the rules of the parliamentary game inside and outside Labour.

In other words, the Corbyn phenomenon—like Syriza before it—has not suspended the classic dilemmas of reform and revolution. This truth, and the vacillations of Corbyn and McDonnell, underline the need to maintain an independent revolutionary socialist organisation that is free from the compromises imposed by constitutional convention and intra-party manoeuvring. But this isn’t a justification of bombastic flag-waving. On the contrary, the real test for revolutionary socialists will lie in the degree to which they are able to unite with all those who’ve rallied to Labour under Corbyn.

This means standing together against the common enemy of the Labour right. But probably more important is the promotion of struggles that transcend the conflict within Labour—above all against the rising tide of racism. The referendum result hasn’t simply given more racists more confidence. It has created new fronts of struggle—above all to defend the free movement of labour after Brexit. One of Corbyn’s most admirable stances has been his refusal to join in the anti-migrant rhetoric that hitherto has dominated all the mainstream parties. The development of Stand Up to Racism into a mass movement defending migrants and refugees will strengthen his hand. More importantly, it will help to ensure that it isn’t the right that sets the agenda in Britain after Brexit.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism


1 Callinicos, 2015 and 2016, and Choonara, 2016.

2 Watkins, 2016, p27.

3 Brunsden, 2016.

4 Goodwin and Heath, 2016.

5 Gramsci, 1971, p177.

6 Gramsci, 1971, p181.

7 Timothy, 2016. Timothy is referring here to Montgomerie, 2005.

8 BBC News, 2016.

9 Young, 1998.

10 Young, 1998, p333.

11 Harding, Campbell, and Noonan, 2016.

13 Norfield, 2016.

14 Noonan and Brunsden, 2016.

15 Véron, 2016.

16 Barnard, 2016.

17 Sandbu, 2016.

18 Bennett, 2016.

19 Blitz, 2016b.

20 Blitz, 2016a.

21 Keen and Audickas, 2016, pp11 and 13.

22 Aitkenhead, 2016.

23 Asthana, 2016.

24 Ross, 2016.

25 Clark, 2016.

26 Waugh, 2016.

27 Sartre, 1982, p401, and more generally, Book II.

28 Corbyn, 2016.

29 Roberts, 2016.

30 Pope, 2016. But see the interesting discussion of the post-Keynesian thinking behind the Fiscal Credibility Rule in Mason, 2016.


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