A house divided: Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party

Mark L Thomas

Something remarkable happened over the summer of 2015. Immediately after Ed Miliband resigned following Labour’s defeat in the general election, the grip exercised by Blairism over the Labour Party had seemed set to continue grimly on. The field competing for the Labour leadership was confined to various shades of uninspiring Blairites, with the supposedly “left” candidate, Andy Burnham, rushing to distance himself from the unions. Even after Jeremy Corbyn threw his hat in the ring, most (including Corbyn himself) assumed he would be soundly beaten.

But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the grip of Blairism seemed to snap. Corbyn’s dramatic victory in the contest for Labour leader has broken apart the dominance exercised by an ideology that didn’t simply accept neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad but had at the centre of its political appeal the claim that only such a programme could command the support of the majority of the working class at the polls.

Now an open socialist has been elected as Labour leader, standing on a programme that included: opposition to austerity, “public ownership of railways and in the energy sector”, “no more illegal wars”, an end to the Trident nuclear weapon programme, an end to privatisation in health, an end to scapegoating of migrants and the abolition of student fees and the restoration of grants.1

One crucial effect of Labour’s long march to the right in the 1980s, reaching its apogee in Tony Blair, was that it enabled the construction of a very narrow political consensus at the top of British society. This centred around a combination of the notion that globalisation required the market to have ever greater sway at home and an insistence on the pivotal role of Britain’s long-term alliance with US imperialism abroad. Both were underpinned by an appeal to the “national interest” and accompanied by an insistence that class was irrelevant to British society. Such a consensus between the dominant parties at Westminster also reinforced its acceptance across a huge swathe of “opinion formers” in the media, much of intellectual life, across the plethora of think tanks and research bodies that surround parliamentary parties and business. It helped create a “common sense” worldview that could then be projected as the settled view of the whole of society with any challenges to it marginalised and presented as extreme, outdated and utopian.

It was a myth that it did so. Survey after survey, including the government’s authoritative annual British Social Attitudes survey, showed that “Old Labour” ideas about equality, class and curbing the excesses of the market through state intervention, including nationalisation, still retained wide appeal.2 But in the absence of widespread working class militancy, such views often remained latent, hidden beneath the neoliberal mainstream consensus. This helped reinforce a sense of marginalisation among the left in British society, a belief that the left were an isolated minority unable to command widespread appeal for their views. Such views received their most concentrated form in the Labour Party, with its overwhelming orientation on the ballot box and broad electoral appeal, rather than forms of extra-parliamentary struggle and understanding of the significance of mobilising even a militant minority.

The rise of Blairism, its widespread if reluctant acceptance among large numbers of Labour members and supporters, was a product of defeat. The successive electoral defeats Labour suffered at the ballot box at the hands of Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and 1987, and then John Major in 1992, pushed Labour to the right, first under Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and finally Tony Blair. These electoral setbacks were ultimately a reflection of a series of major defeats inflicted on the working class in a number of key industrial confrontations of which the 1984-5 miners’ strike was only the most significant.

As workers lost confidence in their own collective power, Labour’s ability to rebuild its electoral appeal faltered. The conclusions drawn, not just by the leadership but by wide numbers who had initially been influenced by Bennism and the left, was to lower their expectations and conclude that the working class had accepted Thatcher’s appeal to individualistic ideas.

Among a minority this led to open acceptance of the ideas of Blairism, but probably among the greater number it led to a sort of self-denying ordinance among whole layers of working class activists in the unions and in Labour’s local parties that their left wing ideas were shared by a minority at best and that electoral victory could only be gained by denying those ideas and appealing to the “centre-ground”.

Two developments seem to have now converged to break the hold of such views over the Labour Party: a new generation has emerged unscarred by the defeats of the 1980s. Anyone aged under 30, for example, wasn’t even born when Labour lost the 1983 election; anyone under 18 wasn’t alive when Blair won in 1997. Instead all they have known is the failure of Blair and New Labour, not the limitations of “Old Labour”. Secondly, the self-denying ordinance of an older generation of activists, many returning to Labour after drifting away, has broken. Instead they feel the need for a Labour leadership that challenges rather than capitulates to Tory ideas and neoliberal austerity.

The result is a surge of confidence on the left, a sense that socialism is back as a political current capable of shaping the debate in British society. The suffocating pro-market mainstream consensus has dramatically fractured. But what are the prospects for a Corbyn-led Labour Party—can he survive the fury of the Labour right with its base in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)? How can the desire for a real opposition to austerity, war and racism, so effectively mobilised by Corbyn, be translated into a real shift in the balance of class forces? Can this be done within the framework of the Labour Party as so much of the left now hope?

Why Corbyn won

Timetable of key events in the Labour leadership campaign

7 May

General election

8 May

Labour loses and Ed Miliband resigns as Labour leader

10-14 May

Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh and Chuka Ummuna announce they are standing. Ummuna withdraws after 3 days

3 June

Jeremy Corbyn announces he will stand for Labour leader

12 June

Creagh withdraws, leaving Kendall as the sole hard Blairite candidate

15 June

Corbyn just squeezes onto the ballot with 36 nominations out of 232 Labour MPs

5 July

Unite executive endorses Corbyn

15 July

New Statesman reports that “private polling” puts Corbyn up to 15 percent ahead

22 July

A YouGov poll in the Times puts Corbyn ahead in both first preferences and the final run off

29 July

Unison recommends a vote for Corbyn, not Cooper as expected

12 September

Corbyn elected as Labour leader with nearly 60 percent of the vote

How do we explain Corbyn’s victory, something no one saw coming? It is all the more remarkable if we compare his vote in 2015 to the vote of Diane Abbott, the hard left’s standard-bearer in the 2010 Labour leadership election. Abbott, like Corbyn, had little base in the PLP and only got on the ballot paper after other MPs “lent” her their nominations to “broaden the debate” and to show that there was a space for the left in the Labour Party, though a subordinate one. But there the similarities end.

Abbott, 2010

Corbyn, 2015




Registered Supporters





Even the apparently more favourable contrast between the vote in the affiliated category for Corbyn and Abbott is misleading. Following the Collins Review in 2014, the Labour Party made significant changes to the way the leadership is elected. As well as introducing the new category of “registered supporter” where non-party members could receive a vote for £3, members of trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party now have actively to “opt in” and agree to support “Labour’s aims and values” rather than being automatically entitled to vote as they were in the past.

This resulted in a huge drop in the numbers both entitled to vote and actually voting. In 2010 some 2.7 million ballot papers were distributed to affiliated supporters (overwhelmingly composed of trade unionists)
and 211,234 voted. In 2015, 148,182 were balloted and 71,546 voted in this category. So Corbyn won 57.68 percent of those who voted in the affiliated category, while Abbott won just 4.09 percent. In fact, in the light of Abbott’s performance, no wonder the small group of left Labour MPs hesitated before even deciding to put up a candidate.

What had changed between 2010 and 2015? Certainly not the organisational strength of the left within the Labour Party. The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, traditionally the grouping of the Labour hard left in parliament, had only nine members after the May 2015 elections—and two of those seem to have nominated Andy Burnham rather than Corbyn for the leadership! Nor was there any obvious sign of increased Labour left activity or growth among the wider party membership in the run up to the leadership elections. So what had happened since 2010?

The sharpening of an anti-austerity mood and the resilience of social democratic ideas

There was a feeling among wide layers of people on the left and in the working class movement that the welfare state, and the NHS in particular, the jewel in the crown of post-war social democracy, was facing an existential crisis. And Labour seemed increasingly unable and unwilling to defend it. This mood fed into the wave of post-election protests across England and Wales that culminated in the huge People’s Assembly demonstration against austerity in central London on 20 June, six weeks after the election. Effectively Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader became a rebellion against the Parliamentary Labour Party, overriding any immediate electoral considerations especially as the next general election is not due till 2020.

The protests mark a desire for an effective opposition to the Tories and austerity. The failure of the existing parliamentary party to offer such a challenge was powerfully symbolised during the leadership campaign by Labour’s decision to abstain on the government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which included £12 billion of further benefit cuts. Corbyn rebelled and voted against the bill; all three other leadership contenders abstained.

The impact of Syriza

The shift in the international, and especially European, political climate also fed into the upheaval inside the Labour Party. In 2010 the ­acceptance by social democratic governments and oppositions in Portugal, Italy, the Spanish state and Greece, as well as across northern Europe and Scandinavia, that austerity was the only credible response to the banking crisis and Great Recession of 2008-9, served to reinforce the arguments by the Labour leadership that no other policy was possible.

By 2015, the picture looked significantly different, with major cracks in the austerity consensus appearing. Above all, the excitement surrounding the election in January 2015 of the radical left party Syriza, on a clear anti-austerity programme, altered the horizons of what seemed possible. And Syriza did not seem isolated—the dramatic rise from nowhere of Podemos in the Spanish state, the surge in support for Sinn Féin largely thanks to its opposition to austerity and for the socialist left in the Republic of Ireland (in a country where the left has long being marginalised) and the successes of the Red Green Alliance in Denmark all amplified this mood that “social liberalism” did not simply have to be accepted, however sullenly. If the left could reject austerity in a string of countries across Europe and as a result win an enthusiastic and large following, why not in Britain?

The success of the Scottish National Party

The results of the general election also reinforced a sense for many that Britain was not immune to such developments and that anti-austerity politics and a more radical stance in general could deliver electorally—indeed that not adopting such an approach increasingly carried an electoral price for Labour. The SNP’s devastating victory in Scotland increased its seats in Westminster from six to 56, while Labour went from having 41 to a single MP (in a country where Labour had won the majority of MPs at every election since 1964). This seemed for any serious observer to be connected with the SNP’s at least verbal opposition to austerity and Trident nuclear weapons and the mass movement unleashed by the referendum on Scottish independence last September. By contrast Labour had not only campaigned in the referendum for the Unionist status quo but did so on the same platforms as the Tories.

The loss of authority of the Labour right

Labour is above all an electoral party. Its central objective is to win enough votes to form a government allowing it to implement its policies and improve the lives of the majority. The leadership of the party ultimately derives its authority from being able to deliver electoral success. Blair’s dominance of the Labour Party rested on the three successive general election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Blair in fact presided over the loss of nearly 4 million votes between the first and final of those victories, with the largest ­haemorrhage of votes coming even before the invasion of Iraq. But he was able to win each time because the Tories were so widely despised—the legacy of their 18 years in office after 1979.

As a result, large numbers of Labour supporters were willing to put up with Blair’s pro-market policies as the necessary price of appealing to the “centre ground” ie the supposed right wing majority in British society. Even the union leaders, often angry and bitter at Blair’s treatment of them and occasionally willing to fire shots across his bows (defeating him, for example, over the use of the Private Finance Initiative to fund public services or over NHS foundation hospitals at Labour conferences in 2002 and 2003), in practice accepted his leadership as necessary, blunting their challenge to him. Labour supporters who couldn’t stomach Blair simply left, rather than launch any serious campaign to challenge or replace him. Blair was only removed after a large number of once loyal MPs finally grasped that he had become an electoral liability in the wake of the Iraq debacle, but even then only to engage in a “coronation” of Gordon Brown, the other key architect of New Labour.4

The picture after May 2015 was very different. The Labour right had now presided over two successive election defeats. Gordon Brown bailed out the banks (and bankers) and lost another 950,000 votes in 2010. Labour’s vote of 8.606 million was only a shade higher than its performance at the disastrous 1983 election under Michael Foot, widely held up inside the party as “proof” that Labour cannot win votes if it moves left. And this time the Tories had finally convinced just enough people that they were no longer the “nasty party” of old and crept back into office, though only thanks to a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats (the Tory vote in 2010 was still nearly 3.5 million less than John Major had received in 1992).

Ed Miliband, a former minister under Brown, did represent a small first crack in the New Labour hegemony. Miliband tried to position himself as representing a break from both New Labour’s uncritical endorsement of US imperialism (apologising for Iraq) and the market (attacking some companies as “predators”). Miliband was also willing to give occasional expression to class feeling, so for example, he attacked the Tories for ignoring a cost of living crisis and promised a temporary cap on energy price rises. But his constant concessions to Blairite demands that he prove Labour’s “fiscal credibility” by accepting austerity increasingly drowned out such limited breaks from the past and Labour was left offering little real challenge to the Tories’ insistence on austerity and rolling back the welfare state still further.

The result was another defeat. All the retreats, concessions, sacrifices of radical policies had only resulted in the return of the Tories with a free hand to deepen their onslaught. The authority of the Labour right—resting on the claim that it alone, unlike the “self-indulgent” left, understood how to win elections and “deliver results”—was further undermined.

One figure who embodied this draining of credibility is John McTernan. McTernan, a combative former adviser to Tony Blair, was the person who described those Labour MPs who nominated Corbyn without actually supporting his leadership bid as “morons” who “need their heads felt” for allowing someone supposedly unelectable onto the ballot paper.5 Yet what of McTernan’s own track record for “electability”? His most recent post was as chief of staff to Jim Murphy, the hard Blairite Scottish Labour leader. As John Prescott tweeted, “Who the heck is John McTernan? He advised in Scotland and we lost… He has no authority”.6

In these circumstances, a section of the PLP felt they had to allow some expression of this left mood, hence, a surprising gaggle of MPs “lending” nominations to Corbyn to “broaden the debate” and keep a layer of the left in Labour instead of letting them drift out to the SNP or Greens, confident, of course, that Corbyn would be comfortably defeated and his ideas exposed as weak and without wide appeal.7 However, in politics as in war, if the pressure has reached a certain point, sometimes a breach in the enemy’s defences is all that is required for insurgent forces to pour through and inflict a sudden, stunning defeat.

The result leaves a paradox. The dramatic revival of left reformism as a major pole of attraction, has elsewhere largely taken the form of parties breaking through to the left of the main established parliamentary social democratic parties, such as Syriza or Die Linke in Germany, or entirely new forces like Podemos. Yet in Britain this process has occurred within a party born over a century ago, in part a reflection of the fact that alternatives to Labour from the left such as Respect in the mid-2000s, have been unable decisively to break through, however promising they might be.

One consequence, however, is that Labour is likely to be a bitter battleground between the new, enthusiastic—if largely unorganised—Labour left, and the old, the forces of the Labour right, concentrated in a parliamentary party shaped by decades of right wing dominance.

From backbench activist to unexpected leader

Corbyn’s own personal position and qualities also contributed to his success, with his very marginalisation inside the Labour Party over the last 30 years being transformed into his biggest asset as someone uncompromised by the party’s Faustian deal with neoliberalism. He is an unassuming but dedicated figure who has demonstrably put principle over career and who seems free of any temptation towards self-aggrandisement.

Corbyn initially developed a career in the labour movement through two of its traditional channels, the unions and local government. He worked successively for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Makers, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and the National Union of Public Employees (all now either defunct or merged into other unions). In 1974, aged just 24, he was elected as a Labour councillor in Haringey, North London.8

Corbyn strongly identified with the Labour left, helping to organise Tony Benn’s bid to become deputy leader in 1981. Benn lost by a whisker, winning 49.4 percent to Denis Healey’s 50.4 percent. This was the high-water mark of Labour’s swing to the left after the defeat of the 1974-9 Labour government. After this narrow defeat Benn’s backers in the left trade union bureaucracy retreated from any further challenge for the leadership of the party.

Corbyn was first elected to parliament for Islington North in the general election which followed in 1983. Labour’s humiliation in that election was the signal for a further sharp shift to the right inside the Labour Party under its new leader, Neil Kinnock who replaced Michael Foot.9

Labour’s moving right show saw a swathe of former Bennites abandon the left and make peace with the Labour right. Some like David Blunkett, a key figure in the 1980s municipal left as leader of Sheffield council (famously dubbed the “Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire”), ended up as front rank figures in Blair’s government. Blunkett attacked teachers and championed the market in schools as education secretary, later pursuing authoritarian policies and demonising refugees as home secretary.

Corbyn went against the stream, however, remaining loyal both to the ideas of Bennism and to Benn personally, the figurehead of the Labour left until his death in 2014.10 This left Corbyn, a serial rebel against the Labour whip, marginalised inside the Parliamentary Labour Party with the path to the front bench and ministerial office effectively closed.

Instead Corbyn immersed himself in a succession of ­extra-parliamentary causes and movements. For decades he has been a familiar figure on any picket line or in any progressive campaign, however small, in Islington. But overall his main focus seems to have been anti-imperialism and international solidarity, from the fight to end the racist apartheid system in South Africa to Latin America solidarity campaigns, opposition to British repression in Northern Ireland, campaigns for Palestinian freedom, nuclear disarmament and opposition to the Iraq war including participation in the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition. At times he seems to have been effectively a full-time activist who made the occasional speech in parliament!11 Corbyn’s orientation on extra-parliamentary campaigns and movements has also encouraged, in a context shaped until very recently by the weakness of the Labour left, a willingness to work with the socialist left outside Labour, including the ­revolutionary left.

But Corbyn is not, of course, a revolutionary. He is committed to change through parliamentary means, the classic hallmark of reformism. The comments he made in a TV interview with Andrew Marr shortly after his election as Labour leader probably reflect the position he has always held: “I am not in favour of violence on the streets or insurrection. I believe in doing things through persuasive democratic means. That is what we have a democratic political structure for. People have spent their lives fighting for democracy”.12

In other words, extra-parliamentary movements, however important they are to Corbyn, are not seen as a potential alternative source of power to parliament but as part of the necessary means of democratic persuasion.13

The strategy of the Labour right

The Labour right is at its weakest for three decades. The hard Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, was humiliated with just 4.5 percent of the vote for Labour leader, while the two “softer” Blairites (both former ministers and close allies of Gordon Brown), Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, managed less than two fifths of the vote between them.

But the Labour right’s concentration inside the parliamentary party gives them a continued base from which to launch counter-attacks on Corbyn and the left. The PLP is effectively autonomous from the wide Labour Party membership. But this is not simply because of its current right wing make-up. It has long roots inside the Labour Party and reflects the very nature of Labour as a reformist party committed to a parliamentary approach above all. As one observer noted in the 1960s: “The term ‘The Labour Party’ is properly applied only to the mass organisation of the party outside Parliament; it supports in Parliament a distinct and separate organisation, ‘The Parliamentary Labour Party’”.14

Labour’s very first electoral breakthrough in 1906, when 29 Labour MPs were returned, immediately provoked a power struggle over who was sovereign inside the party: the MPs or the party conference? The first act of those 29 MPs was to create the PLP. And as Cliff and Gluckstein note, “from the moment of its birth the PLP asserted its right to ignore the membership”.15

The 1907 Labour Conference passed a resolution that declared that “the time and method of giving effect to [Conference decisions] are left to the Party in the House [of Commons] in conjunction with the National Executive”. As Cliff and Gluckstein comment, “This gave the PLP all it wanted”.16 And even Keir Hardie could write in the same year that “rigidly laying down the lines which the party must follow…is the road to ruin. If the party in the House of Commons is to succeed it must be free to select its own course…only those on the spot, whose finger is on the pulse of Parliament, can decide… No conference meeting at Hull or Belfast or Derby or Newcastle can undertake this task”.17

This reflects the logic of reformism. If parliament is key to social change and its claim to represent the will of the people is supreme, then dominance of the MPs is inevitable whatever the formal democratic niceties inside the Labour Party.

The independence of the PLP is the “holiest of holies” inside the Labour Party. Hence the bitter fight over the issue of mandatory reselection of MPs in the early 1980s, one of the issues that prompted the split away of a section of the right to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), hence the moves by John Smith to weaken the influence of the unions over the selection of parliamentary candidates, hence too the bitter conflict over the role of Unite in the selection of Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Falkirk in 2013. This saw the police called in over claims—which essentially turned out to be baseless—of corrupt manipulation by Unite to get its favoured candidate chosen and resulted in the establishment of the Collins Review which further sought to curb union influence (even if this backfired rather spectacularly).

This explains the continued confidence of the Labour right to seek to undermine the democratic decision of the membership to elect Corbyn. However, the size of his mandate makes a direct immediate attempt to overthrow him probably too risky in the short term. So Peter Mandelson has instead invoked a “long haul” to oust Corbyn who, though a “loser”, must be proved such at the polls: “the public will decide Labour’s future and it would be wrong to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict”.18

But this does not imply passive waiting. Instead the right’s strategy centres on trying to force a series of retreats on Corbyn from the programme he was elected on and to fight a proxy battle targeting some of his key allies to weaken his authority. Luke Akehurst, the current secretary of Labour First, a self-described “moderate” (ie right wing) Labour group, has provided a candid outline of this approach in articles published on the Labour List website and elsewhere.19 He suggests that there won’t be a right wing split from Labour: “Labour will stick together. There won’t be an SDP-type breakaway (unless there are sectarian attempts to deselect MPs).” Given the failure of the SDP-Liberal Alliance to break through in the 1980s despite polling over 7 million votes and the parlous current state of the Lib Dems, a split is hardly an appetising prospect.20 Akehurst also shares Mandelson’s rejection of any immediate call to remove Corbyn: “The vast majority of the PLP realises it has to accept the huge democratic mandate Corbyn just got.” Any attempt to trigger a new leadership election (which would require just 20 percent of Labour MPs to initiate) would be “a pointless and indeed self-destructive exercise”.21

Instead, under the watchword of “party unity” the approach is to demand “concessions and compromises” between Corbyn and the non-Corbynite majority in the PLP. Such concessions are, of course, mainly to be extracted from Corbyn. For Akehurst the major concession made by the Labour right is that some of them agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet at all! But, he notes, this was done in a way that secured a series of concessions from Corbyn. These included:

Clarification that Labour will campaign for a Yes vote in the EU referendum; Clarification that he won’t be seeking to take the UK out of NATO; Acceptance that he can’t force MPs to vote against Trident renewal next year; Disavowal of proposals to bring back mandatory reselection of MPs; Appointment of moderates to all the key positions in the Shadow Foreign Affairs and Shadow Defence teams, including Maria Eagle, a multilateralist, as shadow defence secretary; Reappointment of the top team in the Whips’ office—Rosie Winterton, Alan Campbell and Mark Tami, who are trusted and respected by MPs.22

Akehurst adds: “It’s notable that almost all of these concessions have related to foreign and defence policy where the disagreements are profound ones where the two sides simply have different moral principles”; on domestic policy Corbyn will have a freer hand. And “longer-term, Corbyn’s leadership will sink or swim inside the party on whether it works electorally”.23

The aim of the Labour right appears to be relentlessly to pressurise Corbyn, to blame him if Labour stumbles at the polls and prepare directly to challenge him if the mood of the party shifts against him.

“Beware your friends”: Corbyn and the union bureaucracy

“My advice to Jeremy is, beware your friends—of those who are fearful of not taking things too far in the confrontation with the powers that be”—Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister.24

If the Parliamentary Labour Party is dominated by the Labour right, unreconciled to Corbyn’s victory and biding their time to remove him, can Corbyn at least look to allies among the unions to act as a counterweight?

Corbyn certainly had the backing of key unions, with the two biggest, Unite and even more surprisingly, Unison, endorsing him. This provided Corbyn with significant early credibility in his campaign for Labour leader and helped establish his position as a serious contender. The CWU, ASLEF, TSSA and the bakers’ union BFAWU also backed Corbyn, as did symbolically two unions which disaffiliated from the party in the early 2000s under Blair, the RMT and the FBU. Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS civil servants’ union which has never been affiliated to Labour, also personally backed Corbyn and appeared alongside him at his campaign rallies.25 Such union support for Corbyn was not universal. The shop workers’ union USDAW, long an ally of the Labour right, endorsed Burnham, and the GMB, the third biggest affiliate after Unite and Unison, decided not to back any candidate.

The unions remain a significant force inside the Labour Party even after the Collins reforms, the latest of a long series of measures to curtail their formal influence. The unions retain 50 percent of the vote at Labour’s conference and 12 of the 33 places on the party’s National Executive Committee. And especially after corporate donors and wealthy individuals abandoned Labour after it lost office in 2010, the unions remain the party’s biggest financial backers.26

What will be the relationship between Corbyn, the Labour Party and the unions? The danger is that they will be cautious and wavering “friends” who at points pressure him to retreat from the bold programme he was elected as leader on. Already we have seen some signs of this. So it was widely reported that Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, urged Corbyn not to appoint John McDonnell as the shadow chancellor. Unite together with the GMB effectively stymied moves at the Labour conference shortly after Corbyn was elected to shift Labour policy to opposition not support for Trident renewal.

The overall role that the union bureaucracy plays inside the Labour Party has been obscured by the long dominance of Blairism, with the union leaders frequently to the left of the Labour leadership and indeed sometimes openly clashing with it. Yet this masks the overall conservative role of the union leaders in the party, which is not reducible to the influence of individual right wing union leaders, but is rather a product of the social function that the union full-time machine performs.

It is often argued that Labour was created by the unions—this is true in as far as it goes, but is too limited. The Labour Party was rather the creation of the trade union bureaucracy, the full-time union apparatus, to pursue its interests in parliament, not least as an alternative to the risks of collective struggle from below.27 The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct social layer with separate interests from the rank and file membership of the unions. Pete Goodwin, a former contributor to this journal, gave a good outline of this role in an analysis of Labour in the early 1980s:

These full-time union officials are by no means mere passive instruments of their membership. They occupy a distinct social position. All are, by definition, taken away from the shop floor. All have higher status than their members and most have higher income too. All are professional negotiators, or as the radical American sociologist C Wright Mills once put it, “managers of discontent”. All have a stake in existing society, but a stake that depends on their articulating the grievances and maintaining the organisation of their members.28

In industrial struggles the consequences are clear. Even the most right wing union leaders have, on occasion, to support strikes, for fear of losing control of their membership altogether. But even the most left wing union leaders are worried about workers’ struggles going “too far” and putting at risk the organisation their status depends upon:

The role of the full-time union officials on their home ground is therefore, ultimately, conservative. It is the same within their creation, the Labour Party. Throughout the history of their party the union leaders have generally sustained its “responsible” parliamentary leadership, both in opposition, and, even more, in office.29

Historically the union bureaucracy has repeatedly been willing to use its weight inside the Labour Party to discipline the left if it saw this as a threat to its interests or to Labour’s electoral prospects. So the union vote was used to drive the Communist Party out of Labour in the 1920s, to shut down the left wing Socialist League in the 1930s, to defeat Aneurin Bevan and his supporters in the 1950s and to launch the witch-hunt against Militant in the 1980s. But just as the union bureaucracy has set limits to the leftward moves inside the party, it has also at times clashed with the party’s parliamentary leadership where it moves too far to the right:

There have been times when union officialdom as a whole has fallen out with Labour’s parliamentary leadership: when [Ramsay] MacDonald pushed cuts in unemployment benefit too far in 1931; when [Hugh] Gaitskell tried to weaken the link with the unions in 1959; over [Harold] Wilson’s proposed trade union legislation in 1969; and because of the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79. At these times the union leaders have shifted leftward, used left rhetoric and left wing currents within the party to pull the parliamentary leadership into line.

But as Goodwin also notes, such left swings by sections, at least, of the union bureaucracy have invariably been followed by moves to stop things going “too far” by “reverting to their normal conservative posture and using their block votes at conference to vote the left down”.30

Owen Jones, close to the Unite leadership, has given expression to the kind of thinking that the union leaders may approach the Corbyn leadership with:

“Socialism is the language of priorities”, as Nye Bevan put it. Yes, we can look at polls and say, look, the vast majority support public ownership of rail. But while most certainly do agree with that, it will be eclipsed by other priorities. The focus must surely be on bread-and-butter concerns, like jobs, health, education, public services, housing, and so on…

Concerns about immigration cannot be addressed by sticking our fingers in our ears, or only emphasising the benefits of immigration… Huge amounts of efforts have to [be] expended into winning over working class voters plumping for UKIP… UKIP voters must be love-bombed, not treated as closet racists, but as people who feel abandoned by the political elite and who have burning concerns on issues ranging from housing to jobs…

A Corbyn-led government has to pick its battles, because it already has enough of them. Take NATO: the merits of membership are so far from the mainstream of political debate, it would be pointless and self-defeating to pick a fight over it. Instead, Labour should suggest a more constructive role for Britain within the Alliance…

Labour needs a strategy for local government cuts. Refusing to implement them is not going to work—the Tories will simply sweep in and enforce their own. Instead, there needs to be a national strategy agreed by Labour councils to protest cuts and emphasise they are imposed by the Westminster government.31

This is the logic of electoralism and a continuing half-acceptance of the Blairite argument that the majority of the population is simply too conservative to accept a radical message and therefore the left should avoid challenging those ideas too hard. It is more than likely that even those union leaders that backed Corbyn share such a view.

The danger is that the cautious approach of the union leaders, even those who backed Corbyn, can play into the hands of the Labour right. Any retreat by Corbyn from his programme risks demobilising his supporters and strengthens the hand of the parliamentary party to contain Corbyn. And ultimately the union bureaucracy shares with the parliamentary party a desire to be electorally successful; after all their goal is a Labour government that can promote their interests—and if Corbyn is seen as unable to deliver at the polls, they may at some point abandon him.

Unstable compound: Corbyn and Labour

The Labour Party is now a battleground marked if not by full-scale civil war then by repeated skirmishes between the right, ensconced inside the parliamentary party, and Corbyn.

In this the hypocrisy of the Labour right knows no bounds. After decades of relentlessly lecturing the left about the need to shut up in the name of party unity and because “divided parties lose elections”, open public defiance of Corbyn has been an almost daily event. This reaches far into the shadow cabinet itself. So when Corbyn told the TUC a few days after he was elected as leader that he supported scrapping the cap on welfare benefits introduced by the Tories, the shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith immediately appeared on Newsnight to contradict this, insisting Labour was only opposed to the government plan to reduce the cap even further from £26,000 to £23,000, “because I don’t think the country would support us saying we were in favour of unfettered spending”.32

Many of the most flagrant attacks on Corbyn have been over foreign policy, especially over Corbyn’s opposition to Trident. In response to Corbyn, a longstanding CND member, telling a radio interviewer that he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons, Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, publicly criticised him and was backed up behind the scenes by a string of shadow cabinet members. Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB, even suggested that Corbyn might have to consider resigning over the question.33 And Eagle loudly proclaimed that abolishing Trident was not Labour’s policy at Westminster, playing straight into the SNP’s hands.34

Then, after a rather sinister intervention by the current head of the British military, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, who told a TV ­interview that he would be “worried” if Corbyn was elected as prime minister because of his opposition to nuclear weapons, Eagle responded by saying she understood Houghton’s concerns. And when the Scottish Labour Party conference voted to support scrapping Trident, Kevan Jones, shadow defence minister, turned to the Daily Telegraph to pen an article saying this would not affect Labour’s policy at Westminster.35

The revolt against Corbyn even provoked Simon Danczuk, the publicity seeking Labour MP for Rochdale (and who seems to be on friendly terms with UKIP leader Nigel Farage), to feel able to declare that he was willing to stand as a “stalking horse” candidate against Corbyn if Labour does badly at next May’s elections in local government, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.36

Labour MPs have also lined up to attack the launch of Momentum, a project to organise pro-Corbyn supporters, issuing dark warnings about the establishment of “parties within parties” and the supposed threat of the left moving to “purge” MPs on the Labour right. Yet for years organisations such as Progress and Labour First have operated inside the Labour Party to promote the views of the right, organise their supporters and, in the case of Progress, seek to influence the selection of parliamentary candidates. It has been the right, not the left, which has to date sought to exclude people from the party, including targeting Corbyn’s appointments to his advisory team. Left winger Andrew Fischer, Corbyn’s head of policy, was suspended from the party after a number of MPs made much play of an old tweet of Fischer’s that called for a vote for a Class War candidate several months before the general election (where Fischer by all accounts campaigned for the Labour candidate). Yet Frank Field told the New Statesman that any MPs who were deselected by Corbyn supporters should provoke an immediate by-election and stand as “independent Labour” and “a whole pile of us will go down there to campaign for them. They can’t expel 60 of us. Momentum ought to know that they’re not the only pair of wide eyes in the business. We’re not powerless”.37 No MPs called for Field to be disciplined.

Corbyn and McDonnell face a choice. Do they seek boldly to defend their programme and mobilise their supporters to impose the democratic will of the membership on the parliamentary party, through shifting policy at next year’s party conference, moving to challenge for parliamentary selections, de-selecting disloyal MPs, etc? This is the road to open civil war in the Labour Party. Or do they seek to reach some accommodation with at least the softer elements of the Labour right? But the price that would be demanded would inevitably be at least some retreats from the programme Corbyn stood on in the leadership campaign.

Over the first couple of months of Corbyn’s leadership the signs point, to an attempt to do both. So Corbyn and McDonnell have pushed forward where some degree of wider consensus exists for example over opposing austerity and rail renationalisation, but Corbyn’s initial talk of renationalising the energy companies seems to have been dropped in favour of “community owned power stations”,38 and the policy of abolishing student tuition fees has been put out to a policy review.39 Corbyn is sticking to his principles, and mandate, over Trident but is likely to concede a “free vote” over the issue if it is put before parliament. There have also been no calls for Labour councils to refuse to implement the cuts and set illegal budgets.

Meanwhile, the establishment of Momentum does suggest that there will be an attempt to organise the new forces on the left inside Labour with the aim of strengthening Corbyn’s position in the future. Momentum was launched in early October with a number of newly elected pro-Corbyn Labour MPs, such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon and Kate Osamor, acting as its initial directors. These MPs are all outside the shadow cabinet and formally independent of Corbyn. But as part of Momentum’s coordinated media launch supportive statements endorsing Momentum appeared from both John McDonnell and Corbyn himself, giving it an “official” imprint (something reinforced by Osamor’s appointment as one of Corbyn’s private parliamentary secretaries).40

Describing itself as a grassroots network aiming to create “a mass movement for change, for real progressive change in every town and city”, Momentum seems to be looking in two directions. One (unnamed) spokesman told the Guardian when it was launched that the aim was to link up “people outside the Labour Party as well as inside. We are associated with the Labour Party, and incredibly supportive of it, but not under its control”.41 This involved an accurate recognition that central to Corbyn’s success has been drawing on the mass movements that emerged outside Labour and then swept into the party, propelling Corbyn to the Labour leadership. And in a number of areas socialists outside the Labour Party have been able to participate in Momentum meetings and productively discuss areas for joint extra-parliamentary mobilisations.

But Momentum does also seek to translate the huge support for Corbyn into a counterweight to the Labour right within the party, aiming to “transform the Labour Party into a more democratic party with the policies and collective will to make that change”. This raises the question of whether Momentum will seek primarily to operate on the terrain of the internal structures of the Labour Party, focusing on winning policy resolutions and candidate selection battles and so on, or aim to help build mass movements in collaboration with forces outside Labour.

Immediately coming under attack from the Labour right and sections of the media for associating with the extra-parliamentary left, Momentum issued a “code of ethics” which emphasised its links to Labour, possibly suggesting a retreat from the perspective of looking outwards. But it would be a real mistake for Momentum to become focused on winning a lengthy, bitter internal fight inside the Labour Party rather than seeking to build and mobilise extra-parliamentary struggles.

It is precisely through such struggles that not only can the Tories be effectively challenged in the here and now, but that Corbyn’s position inside the Labour Party can be most effectively strengthened. A mass movement re-emerging over opposition to Trident and nuclear weapons, an eruption of housing protests, the rebellion by junior doctors over unsocial hours turning into a wider revolt in the NHS, the huge mood of solidarity around refugees developing into a deep-rooted mass movement—such developments would immeasurably strengthen Corbyn. Corbyn and some of those around him do see some of this and his willingness to identify with refugee solidarity and Stand Up to Racism, for example, is significant. But will an orientation towards extra-parliamentary mobilisation be the focus for Momentum and the new Labour left?

The Labour left also, ultimately, shares with the Labour right a common concern with electability, even as they argue over how best to achieve this. After all, their goal is the election of a Labour government to implement progressive policies. In a situation of mass struggles and widespread radicalisation among the working class, the right is even prepared to use the left’s enthusiastic activists and programme to win office—even if later the need to provide “responsible” government that limits any challenge to capitalism may require the disciplining, or even a split with the left (in effect the path trodden by Alexis Tsipras and Syriza over the last few years).

But where a left wing programme seems unable to command an electoral majority, a much more likely situation if the overall level of struggle and collective resistance in the working class is low, the Labour left can feel pressured to retreat and to abandon at least the most “unpopular” parts of its programme.

Bombing Syria, shooting at Corbyn

The drive by David Cameron for Britain to participate in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria in the wake of the 13 November attacks in Paris served to deepen and accelerate all the conflicts inside Labour.

In response to Corbyn’s opposition to airstrikes, the aggressiveness of sections of the Labour right towards him reached new heights as they seized on an opportunity to try to humiliate him. Faced with opposition from inside the shadow cabinet, Corbyn did attempt to mobilise his supporters to put pressure on pro-war Labour MPs, emailing Labour members to put the case against bombing. But confronted with the threat of mass resignations from the shadow cabinet, Corbyn shied away from imposing a whip and allowed a free vote.42

Corbyn, in other words, was pulled between confronting the Labour right through mobilising his mass support among the wider party membership and a desire to preserve unity with at least a sizeable section of the Labour right. Corbyn’s position was, however, boosted by the rekindling of the anti-war movement, which suddenly saw an influx of a new generation of young activists taking to the streets in protests called by the Stop the War coalition.

While these protests were not on the scale of the huge demonstrations of 2003, they did serve to invoke the spectre of Iraq. And public opinion shifted towards scepticism over British participation in yet another war in the Middle East with Peter Kellner of YouGov noting on 2 December that polls suggested that “in just seven days, five million people have joined the ranks of those opposed to air strikes in Syria”.43

A majority of Labour MPs did eventually vote against the bombing. Together with Labour’s comfortable victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election, despite wild claims that UKIP would inflict revenge on Corbyn for his anti-war views, this did seem to offer a breathing space to Corbyn. But 66 Labour MPs did openly defy him by voting for bombing, led by Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, in a much-hyped speech that invoked the traditions of socialist internationalism to justify British militarism.

A hard pro-imperialist bloc opposed to Corbyn has thus begun to crystallise inside the PLP. And many of those, like Andy Burnham, who voted against bombing, were adamantly opposed to any moves to discipline those Labour MPs who did back Cameron. If Corbyn is tempted to believe he can work with such “softer” elements of the Labour right, it is clear that the price they will extract is to shield the most aggressive opponents to Corbyn within the PLP.

The nature of reformism

For a generation the Labour Party has been dominated by a very right wing form of reformism, at best claiming to be able to channel some of the fruits of “the enterprise of the market and rigours of competition” into improved public services (even as these too were ever more subject to the “discipline” of the market).

In fact, many on the left regarded New Labour not as a reformist project at all but just another right wing, pro-capitalist party, like the Tories, and this was coupled with much talk of “the end of social democracy”. In terms of ideology this was largely true, but it missed the way the social base of the Labour Party, its ties to the unions and roots in working class life even if eroded, still meant it was a very different type of party to the openly pro-capitalist Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.

Nevertheless, reformism has always been a much richer, broader and more deeply rooted phenomenon than its Blairite manifestation. Reformism involves a combination of two contradictory poles. Cliff and Gluckstein offer a succinct statement about the nature of reformism, that it:

combines acceptance of the basic tenets of the system with elements of protest against it. The key element of ruling class ideology is the concept of the nation uniting all people within it. The key element in struggle against capitalism is class consciousness. Labour tries to combine the two by channelling working class aspirations through the institutions of the national state, such as parliament.44

Reformism’s rejection of at least some elements of the status quo and its search for change to improve the conditions of the exploited majority in society—the working class—coupled with an acceptance of the overall framework of capitalist society as inevitable, “natural” and permanent gives rise to a desire for change within capitalism, rather than its overthrow. This is the essence of reformism.

Such an outlook, held still by the majority of the working class in Britain, is not a product of manipulation from the top by the Labour Party or the union leaders, but is rooted in workers’ own experience under ­capitalism most of the time:

On the one hand, they are brought up in capitalist society and take many of its notions for granted. On the other hand, they have experiences of collective struggles in which they stand together and change the world a little to their own advantage. Some of these experiences are direct ones they have had personally. Others are conveyed from one generation to the next within workplaces, communities and organisations such as trade unions… So the mind of the average worker contains elements that look to the future and the values of collective struggle and organisation, as well as elements that pull back to the past, towards class society and its prejudices.45

The contradictory nature of reformism—partial rejection but overall acceptance of the system—means that it can both express class consciousness and blunt and contain it, stopping it developing towards a total rejection of the system—we still need bosses, workers can’t run society, radical movements shouldn’t go “too far”, the state can be used to challenge capital, etc. Such ideas can be mobilised by reformist politicians and trade union leaders to limit and derail mass movements from below that have the potential to turn into much bigger challenges to the system.

The balance between the two poles of reformism, the expression and containment of class consciousness, is not fixed once and for all, but is fluid. If Blairism and new Labour represented a strong emphasis on the element of containment and acceptance of the dynamics of the system with only traces of class feeling, left reformism involves the strengthening of the pole of class expression without, however, overthrowing the other pole of acceptance of the framework of the system.

Reformism with reforms?

If a Corbyn-led Labour government did get elected on an anti-austerity platform, could it deliver real gains? Is a revival of “reformism with reforms” achievable within the framework of contemporary capitalism?

One immediate question that must be faced is the fate of Syriza. Its transformation, within months, from a beacon of hope in the wake of its general election victory, to the soon to be enforcer of an even more brutal ­austerity than its predecessors, surely poses huge questions for the fate of any left government’s prospects. Part of answering this question depends on whether austerity, and more broadly neoliberalism, is seen as reversible without the defeat of capitalism, and therefore in some sense not in the interests of at least major sections of capital. John McDonnell told the Labour Party conference, “Austerity is not an economic necessity, it’s a political choice”.46

This is ambiguous at best. While austerity does involve a bitter struggle over which class in society will bear the burden of the economic crisis, austerity cannot be reduced to a mere subjective ideological preference by the Tories or particularly aggressive sections of capital.47 Indeed underlying the shift to neoliberalism has been a crisis of profitability across the advanced capitalist system since the mid-1970s. The consequent reorganisation of capital in response, especially the growing significance of production across borders, the increased role of debt, finance and speculation, the intensified pressure on workers’ wages, including the “social wage” (welfare and services) and the intensification of work—all hallmarks of neoliberalism—are not an ­aberration but reflect the logic of the system attempting to restore, with only partial success to date, the profitability of capital.

The historical conditions that produced the 1945 Labour government and the post-war boom no longer exist. Genuine reforms from government are dependent on the health of the system—they cannot be simply selected from a historical menu (do you want a Clement Attlee or a Tony Blair government?) through willpower and ideological inclination.48

The question of the restoration of profitability is equally the obstacle facing hopes for a Keynesian-style programme of state-sponsored economic expansion. If this was achievable—expanding demand allowing both wages and profits to be boosted—this would clearly attenuate class tensions over paying for the crisis, giving a reforming left government more room for manoeuvre and space to deliver tangible gains for workers. But British capitalism has a chronically weak level of business investment, crucial for any serious sustainable economic expansion—this either requires further drives to boost profitability, and raising the share of wages threatens this, or the state taking over the investment decisions of major firms. As the Marxist economist Michael Roberts points out, while “Corbynomics” has included a welcome plan to renationalise the railways and talk of returning the majority of recently-privatised Royal Mail shares to public ownership, this would still leave “swathes of key British economic operations in the hands of profit-seeking companies”:

What about the rest of transport: deregulated buses in the big cities; and all the British companies that used to be part of the public sector? What about British Petroleum, British Airways; British Telecom; British Gas; British Aerospace; the electricity and water boards; Transco; Rolls Royce, British Steel, let alone British Coal? And there are the major strategic sectors that should be part of what is called in Labour parlance “the commanding heights of the economy”: the major pharma and auto companies, now mostly in foreign hands where any profits end up overseas.49

Even the hugely popular call by John McDonnell for a real assault on the “tax gap”—the huge amounts of legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion practised by big business—will require more than simply a change of government or even the law. Again Roberts makes the obvious point that:

as long as corporations are private entities beholden to their shareholders, both domestic and foreign, and are not publicly owned, they will seek to maximise their profits. Avoiding and evading tax is a big part of doing that. Indeed, evidence shows that if it were not for government’s continually lowering corporate taxes (not raising them as Corbyn plans) and turning a blind eye to abuses, then corporate profitability would be seriously impaired and would thus reduce even the level of investment that is currently taking place.

Without taking control over big firms, even significantly reducing the “tax gap”—and therefore providing scope to increase public spending, ie by ending university tuition fees and providing universal free childcare—is liable to prove elusive.

Any real moves towards what the Labour programme for the 1974 general election—which Labour won—called “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families” must be expected to be met with fierce hostility from capital, matched by an ability to mobilise vast undemocratic power, backed by the state. This was of course exactly the fate of the Wilson/Callaghan government in 1974-9 which faced orchestrated capital flight and investment strikes with the connivance of the Bank of England, forcing it into the arms of the IMF in 1976 and the adoption of “monetarist” (ie neoliberal) measures three years before Thatcher was elected.

In such circumstances, and there is little reason to believe the picture facing a Corbyn government would much differ, reforms in the interests of the working class must necessarily involve major class confrontation and the mobilisation from below of workers’ collective power to paralyse production. A few socialist ministers would not be able to withstand the huge pressures of capital. But this involves a different political orientation to the belief that via the ballot box a left government can use a democratic mandate to deliver from above.

The criticism of Syriza put forward by the Socialist Workers Party and our co-thinkers in SEK in Greece is not that it failed to organise an insurrection but that it was unable to deliver on its own programme of anti-austerity reforms. A period of capitalist crisis, not just the immediate post-2008 crisis but the longer period of instability lasting decades produced by weak profitability, means that reforms increasingly depend on mass direct confrontation and bitter class battles, that is, the methods that point in the direction of revolutionary action.

Corbyn, left reformism and revolutionaries

“Separate yourselves from Turati [the leading Italian reformist], and then make an alliance with him”—Antonio Gramsci, recalling Lenin’s advice to Italian Communists.50

How should revolutionary socialists relate to the hundreds of thousands of people enthused by Corbyn’s sudden emergence as Labour leader? The victory of a left reformist current at the head of the Labour Party is highly contradictory. On the one hand, it gives such ideas a powerful social weight capable of reshaping the political agenda and offers the promise of a real alternative to the Tories and a fight against austerity, war and racism. But to realise that desire, to develop it and turn it into a real movement capable of shifting the balance of class forces, win real gains for workers and start to transform working class self-confidence, cannot be done without confronting crucial obstacles that will block such developments and act as a brake on the radicalisation expressed in Corbyn’s victory. Above all, the pole of left reformism that still accepts working within the overall framework of capitalism and its institutions, most importantly the notion that the existing state can be used as a lever for social transformation in the face of opposition from capital, is a notion that will, at key points, blunt and contain workers’ advances.

Revolutionaries must retain their political and organisational independence from left reformism

Revolutionary Marxists insist that the battle for reforms is most effectively waged via self-activity from below and especially through the mobilisation of working class power at the point of production; that is, through direct confrontation rather than methods that rely on negotiation from above. The key arena is the class struggle outside of parliament.

Such ideas are held by a minority. This minority must assemble in its own organisation so as to be able to develop common theoretical traditions and to discuss and then collectively implement common activity and intervention into the class struggle, in turn allowing the testing of its ideas, the development of leaders and the building of wider roots in the working class. Crucially, it must retain a capacity for autonomous initiatives.

This does not rule out revolutionaries participating in wider radical left initiatives even where these are led by left reformist forces, on the condition that they are able to retain their political and organisational independence. So, for example, the revolutionary socialists grouped around Marx21 in Germany are part of Die Linke. But the weight of the trade union bureaucracy, the deep integration of the Parliamentary Labour Party into the state, a process that has roots going back nearly a century, and the lack of space for an independent revolutionary left to operate in the open, rule this out in regard to the Labour Party.

Revolutionaries take sides with the left reformists when they are in conflict with right reformists

Revolutionaries are not neutral in the battle between right wing reformists, who insist that little challenge can be given to the system, and left reformists who do give expression to class feeling, who articulate a desire for real change and who use some anti-capitalist arguments to challenge the defenders of the system. In doing so they can help give socialist arguments a much wider currency and give confidence not just to the left but to the wider working class movement. When Jeremy Corbyn rejects the case for austerity or puts forward arguments against nuclear weapons, these get a much wider hearing in society. We stand together with Corbyn and his supporters when the Labour right echo the media and denounce such arguments as utopian or incoherent.

Any retreat by Corbyn either in the name of “party unity” or ­electability from the programme he was elected on as leader risks confusing and demoralising his supporters.

Insistence on the centrality of struggle outside parliament

The key to social change remains through collective struggle from below. Every advance in the struggle creates a greater self-confidence among layers of workers, so weakening the hold of right wing ideas. This in turn is Corbyn’s best defence of his position against the Labour right. So, for example, a mass movement emerging over opposition to Trident, or in defence of the NHS, would weaken the Tories, pull public opinion to the left and boost Labour’s electoral prospects in turn.

But if the mass of Corbyn’s supporters are simply drawn into bitter internal battles over Labour policy and candidate selections, in practice their focus will not be mobilising in workplaces and working class communities but on arguing with the right wing in Constituency Labour Parties, at committee meetings and so on. Paradoxically, this can weaken, not strengthen, Corbyn’s position.

A constant search to apply the method of the united front

Revolutionaries have to engage in a persistent effort to work alongside any section of Corbyn’s supporters in Labour in common activity and struggle. This can both strengthen the potential for resistance and provide an opportunity to discuss and debate how the desire for real change can be achieved with those enthusiastic about Corbyn.

The election of Corbyn to the Labour leadership offers the scope for united front activities between revolutionaries and reformists around concrete initiatives on an even bigger scale than we have witnessed in the recent past. The appearance by Corbyn at a packed Stand Up to Racism rally in central London in early November in defence of refugees, an initiative the SWP is an important part of, significantly boosts the weight of that campaign and draws in wider forces.

But alongside greater united front possibilities goes the need for greater ideological clarity. There is a contrast between the current situation and the high-point of Stop the War, for example. In 2002-4 the SWP worked with Corbyn as we seek to do today. But then he was part of the marginalised Labour left in a campaign against a war being waged by a Labour prime minister with the result that tens of thousands of people left the Labour Party. The argument that Labour was not the way forward was easy. But even then it was never true that simply being the best activists was automatically enough to pull people towards revolutionary politics, ­especially in a context where working class power was rarely visible. Patient argument and discussion were required.

Today, where nearly 200,000 people have joined the Labour Party and it is now led by a socialist who stands for challenging neoliberalism and ­imperialism, the pull towards Labour is very powerful. This places a premium on revolutionaries knowing how to combine working with Corbyn supporters in common struggles with also pursuing a friendly argument about the forms of struggle, politics and organisation that can most effectively lead us forward.

Leon Trotsky, writing in the midst of a sharp swing to the left by social democracy across Europe in the mid-1930s, argued that it was crucial for revolutionaries not to stand aside from reformist workers and denounce the hopes they place in left social democracy as pointless, but instead to identify strongly with their desire to challenge capital and fight for improvements in workers’ conditions without, however, giving ground to any notion that social democracy’s parliamentary orientation can deliver: “We share the difficulties of the struggle but not the illusions”.51 Trotsky translated this approach into the need for revolutionaries to pursue a dual approach, combining “ideological intransigence”—because we do not share the illusion in left reformism and must warn workers about its limitations—with a “flexible united front policy” because we want to share the difficulties, to unite in struggle and prove in practice how the obstacles workers face can be overcome.52 Such an approach remains indispensable today.


2: See Thomas, 2013.

3: Wintour and Watt, 2015.

4: Blair’s support for the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 proved the straw that broke the camel’s back even for many MPs who had loyally voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—see Harman, 2006.

6: The Scotsman, 2015. Prescott himself, a great bellwether inside Labour, exemplifies the rise and fall of Blairite hegemony inside the Labour Party. A former working class trade union militant in the shipping industry, by the early 1980s he was a key figure in the parliamentary “soft left”, an influential layer which broke from Tony Benn and moved to the right under Neil Kinnock’s leadership. Prescott went on to play a key role in persuading Labour to accept, first, John Smith’s “One Member, One Vote” reforms in 1993 that sought to erode union influence over the selection of parliamentary candidates, and then, Blair’s replacement of the old pro-nationalisation Clause 4 of the party’s constitution in favour of an explicitly pro-market statement. Prescott was Blair’s deputy for the entire period of premiership and loyally backed the Iraq invasion. He is now to be found attacking Blair, including over Iraq, and even offering some defence of Corbyn.

7: One of the MPs who nominated Corbyn was Frank Field, firmly on the right of the party. Field defended his decision by arguing that it was necessary to openly take on “deficit-deniers” like Corbyn who wanted to move the party away from supporting austerity, a position he called an “emotional spasm”—Williamson and Murphy, 2015.

8: Wheeler, 2015.

9: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, pp345-355.

10: The Guardian noted that Corbyn for many years would visit Benn’s home in Holland Park on Sundays to take part in political discussions with Marxist academics Ralph Miliband and Robin Blackburn, Tariq Ali, former Labour Party general secretary Jim Mortimer and others—Boffey, 2015.

11: I first came across Corbyn in 1991, when he was the speaker at a meeting against the first Iraq war I had helped organise at Charing Cross Hospital where I then worked. I remember feeling embarrassed at the modest size of the meeting, but Corbyn was exemplary and helped give confidence to everyone who was there.

12: Wintour, 2015a.

13: John McDonnell, who together with Corbyn was the key figure in the Labour left in parliament after Benn stepped down in 2001, and is now Corbyn’s key ally as shadow chancellor in the largely hostile shadow cabinet, had a different set of experiences in the 1980s to Corbyn. He too worked initially for trade unions (as a researcher for the National Union of Mineworkers and then the TUC in the late 1970s and early 1980s), before standing as a councillor. But McDonnell did not enter parliament until 1997. Instead he was a central participant in the battles of the municipal left and the fight over rate-capping between left-led Labour councils and the Thatcher government in the mid-1980s.

McDonnell was elected to the old Greater London Council (GLC) in 1981, when Labour retook control from the Tories. Under Ken Livingstone’s left Labour leadership McDonnell became the GLC chair of finance, overseeing a budget of £3 billion, and was appointed deputy leader. As this conflict came to a head in the wake of the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, he argued for a policy of continued defiance to Thatcher and the law, and clashed with Ken Livingstone, who favoured retreat. McDonnell lost and was removed from the deputy leadership post. The GLC was abolished by Thatcher the following year.

14: McKenzie, 1963, quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p39.

15: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p40.

16: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p40.

17: Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p41.

18: Quoted in Hughes, 2015. This was less than two weeks after Corbyn had been elected as leader.

19: Akehurst is a former national chair of Labour Students, chief whip for Hackney Labour councillors and a Labour NEC member. He describes himself as a “supporter of Europe, NATO/nuclear deterrence, Israel”.

20: Though there clearly has been some discussion of this option. A piece in the Financial Times suggested as much, though it was written before Corbyn won with a huge mandate. “It also remains possible that anti-Corbynite Labour MPs (the majority of them) could try to remove him within a year or two. In extreme circumstances, there are more than enough wealthy centre-left donors who dislike the Tories, to say nothing of millions of voters in a country in which there is not a Tory majority in the popular vote, to organise the formation of a new, mainstream alternative party”—Martin, 2015.

21: Akehurst, 2015.

22: Akehurst, 2015.

23: Akehurst, 2015.

24: Varoufakis, 2015.

25: Though Labour refused Serwotka’s application to vote as a registered supporter, see Mason, 2015.

26: Pickard, 2015a. Between May 2010 and December 2014 the unions gave Labour over £48 million, with Unite alone stumping up over £18 million pounds, according to the electoral commission.

27: See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, especially chapter two, “Out of the Bowels of the TUC”.

28: Goodwin, 1983.

29: Goodwin, 1983, p27.

30: Goodwin, 1983, p28.

31: Jones, Owen, 2015.

32: Go to www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-34267755

33: Watt, Wintour and Mason, 2015.

34: Wintour, 2015c.

35: Jones, Kevan, 2015.

36: “Corbyn faces leadership challenge from Labour MP if May elections disappoint”—Observer, 2015.

37: Eaton, 2015a.

38: Pickard, 2015b

39: Adams, 2015.

40: Wintour, 2015b.

41: Wintour, 2015b.

42: Eaton, 2015b.

44: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p2.

45: Harman, 2007, pp60-63.

46: Elliott, 2015.

47: For a discussion of the weaknesses of such accounts of neoliberalism, see Harman, 2008.

48: For an assessment of the 1945 Labour government, including the limits of its achievements, see Ralph Miliband’s classic study—Miliband, 2009, pp272-317.

49: Roberts, 2015.

50: Gramsci, 1978, p380.

51: Trotsky, 1934a.

52: Trotsky, 1934b.


Adams, Richard, 2015, “Jeremy Corbyn Tuition Fee Abolition Pledge Vies with Other Policies”, Guardian (2 October), www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/02/jeremy-corbyn-promise-scrap-tuition-fees-vies-with-higher-education-policies

Akehurst, Luke, 2015, “What’s Going to Happen to a Corbyn-led Labour party”, Labour List (22 September), http://labourlist.org/2015/09/whats-going-to-happen-to-a-corbyn-led-labour-party

Boffey, Daniel, 2015, “Jeremy Corbyn’s World: His Friends, Supporters, Mentors and Influences”, Guardian (15 August), www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/15/jeremy-corbyn-world-supporters-mentors-influences

Cliff, Tony, and Donny Gluckstein, 1988, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks).

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