The challenges facing Corbyn

The performance of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in the General Election astonished most mainstream observers. For the last twenty years at least, it’s been the common sense of such commentators that left-wing ideas are unpopular. Yet it was May who suffered a disastrous setback – leaving her so weakened that Labour has a real chance of winning the next election, and we may not have to wait five years until that happens.

The possibility of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister is enormously exciting. But it also raises many questions about the challenges he would face both within the Labour Party, from the state machine and elsewhere. In an article written before the election result was declared, Tom Haines-Doran assesses some of those challenges.

Jeremy Corbyn in front of a fire engine

Photo: Steve Eason

The Parliamentary Labour Party

The first and most obvious difficulty that Corbyn and his supporters face in trying to push forward a modern social democratic agenda is his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). If anything, this problem would likely intensify in government. It is well-known that since his election as leader Corbyn has faced subterfuge and treachery at every turn from the vast majority of Labour MPs in one form or another. It has only been since the announcement of the snap general election that this has quietened down, as MPs began to worry about the effect of their relentless guff on their own positions in parliament.

The PLP has always exerted considerable power over the party as a whole, and has often felt able to ignore the Labour Party conference, whose votes are in constitutional terms merely ‘advisory’. The main reason for this is Labour’s electoral focus. By necessity, the focus of party politics has to be on either winning or keeping power in the House of Commons. Labour MPs are elected in two different ways: once in their selection as the Labour constituency candidate, and again by voters in a general or by-election. Corbyn’s PLP opponents have used this to argue that they are not just answerable to the party membership, but also to the wider electorate. This makes it very difficult for the Labour left to transform the political character of the PLP in a timeframe relevant to the pace of broader political change. Corbyn will need to continue to resist compromise with the PLP, but it will always be an uphill struggle.

The trade union bureaucracy

While rightly denouncing the cowardice of these individual MPs, and noting their own lack of collective political direction and organisation, one must also realise that to a certain extent the right of the Labour Party has always presented problems for those wishing to turn it towards a more radical agenda. The strategy of left Labour Party activists has always been to seek alliances and common cause with those more wedded to the status quo. Partly, this is as a result of the British electoral system, whose “first past the post” calculations favour ‘broad church’ alliances of class fractions and political ideologies.

More importantly, the necessity for alliance-building stems from the party’s relationship with the trade unions. The Labour Party traces its roots back to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, when a group of trade unions joined forces with socialist political organisations in order to increase worker representation in parliament. As well as providing much of the funding for the party, the trade unions have had significant influence on internal party decision-making through the union “block voting” system. At times this has meant that policies that benefit workers have been implemented by Labour governments. However, crucially, these block votes have been exercised by the leadership of the unions, rather than by union members themselves.

This is a problem when it comes to policy formation in the Labour Party. Union leaderships – otherwise known at the trade union bureaucracy – occupy a contradictory position in society. They are neither bosses nor workers, but people whose job it is to mediate and negotiate between the demands of workers and their employers. This means that as well as leading workers’ struggles they also act as a safety valve, relieving the pressure on bosses when workers’ power begins to test the capacity of capitalism to cope with it. In political terms, this translates as a strategy of winning reforms through the Labour Party when possible, but also agreeing to hold back struggles that begin to threaten the party’s management of the economy.

Such an analysis seems to contradict the experience of the last couple of years. Ed Miliband’s leadership introduced a ‘one member one vote’ system in leadership elections, which unwittingly helped pave the way for Corbyn’s Labour leadership victory. The last time the left of the Labour Party came close to leading the party was in the 1981 deputy leadership election, when Tony Benn only lost to centrist Denis Healey thanks to the trade union block vote. It must be understood that Miliband’s introduction of ‘one member one vote’ was part of a drive to finish the job started by his predecessors of marginalising the unions from the Labour Party. This helps explain why the majority of affiliated unions backed Corbyn in the leadership elections, encouraging their members to vote for him on an individual basis. However, anyone who has followed the statements of Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey will have noticed vacillations in his support for Corbyn in recent months – which is partly as a reflection of Unite’s ‘partnership’ approach of cooperation with major employers in many sectors. Such conservatism from what are supposed to be some of Corbyn’s closest allies will continue to act as a drag on Corbyn’s more radical plans.

The state

The challenges to Corbyn’s agenda  outlined above would pale in comparison should he ever win the office of prime minister. The House of Commons is but a small part of the extensive ensemble of powerful institutions that make up the British state. This makes it difficult to implement policies out of step with received establishment nostrums. It was for this very reason that Margaret Thatcher and her small group of fellow neoliberals made it a priority at the beginning of her premiership to rid the civil service, and especially the treasury, of key staff, who were overwhelmingly committed to an ideology of Keynesian state intervention. It was only after an extended period of reshaping the civil service that Thatcher could have any confidence that policies such as privatisation would be carried out. Aside from the civil service, a left Labour government would also come up against opposition from other powerful arms of the state: the judiciary, unelected quasi-governmental bodies (such as the Office for Budget Responsibility), the Bank of England and the House of Lords.

The kind of peace agenda Corbyn has in mind would also rattle the army and security services. One should take seriously the threats of “mutiny” made by an anonymous senior British
Army general shortly after Corbyn became Labour leader – not as an indication of any real plans to do so, but as a measure of the armed forces’ determination to keep more progressive plans for the repressive part of the state off the political agenda. That Corbyn has been forced to concede much territory on NATO and nuclear weapons, having spent a lifetime campaigning against them, is a stark illustration of the bind that a prospective left Labour government would find itself in. Once elected, Labour assumes responsibility for the safety and integrity of the British state. Over the years, this means that even progressive Labour governments have defended state interests, supporting the British Empire, opposing Scottish independence, and acting ‘tough’ on immigration.

Finally, there is the issue of the state and local politics. One of the reasons the Labour Party had been estimated as rank outsiders in the general election was its poor showing in the May 2017 local elections. While not as bad as many had predicted, these results showed a continuing trend away from voting Labour on the local scale. There are many reasons for this, including the austerity cuts to funding for local authorities that have been targeted at Labour-controlled councils by recent Conservative and coalition governments. However, it is also true that Labour accepts the need to manage capitalism and keep within the bounds of British law. This necessitates Labour councils abiding by budget constraints, whatever the consequences for local services. It has led to a deep distrust of local Labour administrations by working class voters, one that could take many years to repair.

In certain metropolitan areas, such as Greater Manchester, Labour has ruled unchallenged by other political forces, despite a considerable buildup of apathy and resentment towards council leaders. Much the same could be said of the politics of Scotland, where working class voters who traditionally backed Labour have switched to the Scottish National Party as a result of their shift leftwards to rake up the anti-austerity vote. Even with promised increases in council funding, Corbyn and his allies would face a huge battle to detoxify or remove established Labour cliques in metropolitan areas, and an ever larger one to breathe some radical fire into the husk of Scottish Labour.

The capitalists

Any radical left-wing government needs to attain the acceptance, or at least acquiescence, of the major fractions of the capitalist class to its programme. This has even been true of the most
radical of Labour governments. Clement Atlee’s administration, elected in 1945, has been Labour’s most radical, creating the welfare state as we know it and nationalising swathes of the ‘commanding heights’ of national industry. This unique opportunity to reform British capitalism was presented by increasing left-wing sentiment during the Second World War. But crucially, it also came at a time when the industrial bourgeoisie was very weak and in need of state rescue and direction – and was thus more prepared than usual to accept a social compromise.

By far the most important component of the modern British economy is the ‘service’ sector, of which financial services play a pivotal role. The City of London has long been a key node in the international financial system, largely as a result of its central importance to British imperialism – whose profits from financial transactions were always at least as important as those derived directly from pillage and plunder. The financial sector has taken on even greater importance in the neoliberal era, with Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ of financial deregulation in 1983 marking a watershed moment. Financial services, and industries that support the financial sector or recycle elements of its profit, have largely taken over from manufacturing and resource extraction, which previously provided the backbone of employment in many areas of the country. This necessitates any left government’s reassurance and support for the City and its associated economy.

In an increasingly financialised economy, the measurement of risk by investors and credit ratings agencies becomes ever more important. Priced into these assessments are ‘political risk’, meaning a political judgment on the likelihood of state actors to provide the kind of institutional and legal framework that creates stability and certainty among investors. We have witnessed elements of this in Labour’s proposed approach to Brexit. While Labour has rightly stressed the need to defend workers’ rights and environmental protections, it also seeks to protect the rights of UK-based firms to offer financial services to the rest of Europe. But Labour’s plans to renationalise utilities and transport could easily spook international investors, whose profits have increasingly relied on state-backed forms of financial extraction: revenue streams derived from private finance initiatives (PFIs), user charges for essential services, private rental and land banking income from the housing sector. Labour’s plans would pit them against an international financial system addicted to the bounties produced by privatisation and social insecurity.

Even when finance is put to one side, the need to simultaneously grow the economy while passing reforms that benefit the working class is a difficult challenge for any well-meaning left government. The problem is that these two aims are more often than not incongruent under capitalism. Increased growth rests on the increased exploitation of labour, either through attacking working conditions or pay, or through investing in labour-saving technologies that increase productivity per worker. While the post-war Keynesian consensus was built on increasing wages (and ‘social wages’ in the form of government-paid social services), these settlements amounted to diminishing chunks of an ever-growing pie. Increased productivity in the economy helped to square the circle.

But this approach hit a brick wall in 1966 during Harold Wilson’s Labour government, which had been elected on a radical manifesto, as inflation spiralled and investment stagnated. The result was an unpopular ‘incomes policy’ imposed by Wilson to attempt to restore economic growth through the suppression of wages. Labour’s 1997-2010 governments took a different approach. Instead of increased taxation of profits, the idea was to loosen financial regulation still further in order to bolster growth and spending through individual and household borrowing on the one hand, and private borrowing by the state (through PFIs and similar) to pay for social services on the other. Of course, this neoliberal approach to solving the problem of growth and living standards came crashing down with the financial crisis beginning in 2007. The latest Labour manifesto marks a significant return to the Keynesian approach of public investment and wealth redistribution. However, it seems unlikely that such an approach would be successful without a major turn in fortunes in a sluggish global economy currently enmeshed by productivity and investment crises.

Left-wing Labourism: doomed to failure?

So far, so depressing, – particularly given the spectacular campaign that Corbyn and those mobilised to his cause have mustered. In the last edition of rs21’s magazine, Pat Stack noted that electoral politics is a necessarily limited form of working class struggle, as compared to strikes, for example. This is absolutely correct in principle – because of their potential intensity in combating capital head-on, and the necessity of organising workers across sexual, racial and gender lines, social movements such as strikes can have a much more profound and long-lasting
change on their participants. Workers in struggle exercise a much fuller range of abilities and power than workers as voters ever will. Stack was also careful to add that greater social movement participation would only strengthen Corbyn’s project, expanding the potential for it to improve conditions outside of the electoral arena.

I would like to put it slightly differently, especially in light of the experiences I have had campaigning for Labour in marginal constituencies in the north of England. In this campaign I met dozens of people who were new to canvassing, many of whom were new to political activity entirely. If Labour does well in this election it will be in no small part due to a whole subsection of Britain’s working class taking to the streets and social media to spread a message of hope and real social change. At the same time, it feels as if some of the larger-scale campaigns we have seen in recent years have been sucked into Labour Party and electoral activity to their own detriment. Given the terrible state of the British far left, and the working class movement in general, that is entirely understandable. Now, the challenge is for those of us outside Labour to work out how we can begin to translate some of the effervescence and enthusiasm seen in the election campaign into social movements more centred around workplaces and communities, before the energy dissipates as electioneering winds down. For this we need to be bold – recognising the changed political atmosphere which we inhabit, and not scared to try new things.

All of the reactionary forces and structures described in this article will bear down on Labour’s new left offensive sooner or later. We therefore need desperately to build mass social movements that organise workers in our workplaces, democratise our unions, and reject racist, anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiments. We need to think about what demands we should prioritise, ones that Labourism can at its best support, but can never fulfil on its own. The Labour left are on the offensive. Now it is time for the broader working class to catch up and take that struggle beyond its limitations.


This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of rs21 magazine.

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