Jeremy Corbyn has been under sustained attack from most of the media, all the Tories, most Liberal Democrats and a significant number of Labour MPs, Labour Peers and Blairite and other former government ministers. Never has any party leader been subjected to such an unrelenting bombardment from virtually the whole of the Westminster political establishment and their loyal echoes in the media. Compared to this, the attempted character assassination of his predecessor, Ed Miliband, which was bad enough, was mild indeed. The fact that Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party with an unprecedented majority of votes cast and that he enjoys the enthusiastic support of the great majority of the vastly increased membership the party has achieved since his election, is of no concern or interest to his critics and detractors. For them, real politics is about what happens in parliament or the relationship between government and corporate power nationally and internationally. The popular movement that supports Corbyn is written off as a bunch of know-nothing extremists or dupes. This attitude was succinctly expressed by Prime Minister Cameron just prior to the House of Commons vote on bombing Syria. He described Labour MPs who intended to vote against the Tory government’s motion as a bunch of “terrorist sympathisers.” For good measure Corbyn himself was denounced by Cameron as a “Britain-hating terrorist sympathiser.” It is beginning to become clear that the anti-Corbyn forces inside the Labour party, concentrated largely in the parliamentary party, are determined to get rid of him as soon as they feel they have a realistic opportunity of doing so. Does any of this matter?
Fortunately most people on the Left who take such matters seriously, think it does matter. There are however some on the fringes of the left who take a different view. Their assessment of the move to the left that Corbyn’s election to the leadership represents runs something like this: The Labour party is not and never was a socialist party. It is a social-democratic party and can never be a vehicle for socialist transformation or socialist revolution. The differences between its “left” and “right” wings are insignificant. Its history as a parliamentary party committed to working exclusively through parliament, proves that at best, in circumstances far more favourable than those existing at present, Labour governments may have been able to introduce worthwhile reforms such as nationalization of some industries and creation of a national health service. But those people in the Labour party who believe it can bring about socialism in Britain are fooling themselves and the British people. They are therefore misleaders. In some versions of this analysis, such people – and they include Corbyn – must be exposed as they are objectively and possibly also subjectively agents of capitalism and imperialism – supporters, or even representatives of the “class enemy.” This is a view held by anarchists. But also some who claim to be Marxist-Leninists take a similar view. To pay undue attention to shifts of power or balance in the Labour party can, they argue, only serve to foster the illusion that there might be a parliamentary road to socialism when what needs to be done is to build a genuine, revolutionary party which will, when the time is ripe, seize power and install the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The problem, it may be argued, is that just as the Labour party has, since its foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century, failed to take Britain a jot nearer to socialism, so the Communist party (1920 – 1991) and its numerous groupuscule offshoots since then have likewise failed to make the slightest impact in that direction either. Certainly the Communist party (CPGB) for many years punched above its weight in the Labour movement in this country and from the 1930s to the 1980s provided much effective militant trade union leadership in many industrial struggles. But never, in any circumstances, even during the years of mass unemployment during the Great Depression of the inter-war years, did the party come anywhere near taking power in Britain. Now, after the financial crash of 2008 followed by the slowest recovery on record and the most draconian austerity, there has been minimal resistance from the extra-parliamentary left. A greatly weakened trade union movement has seldom been able to make a real impact. Effective industrial action has been restricted to strikes by the minority of key workers who have remained unionised, including, ironically those in middle class professions such as junior doctors.
None of this is intended to suggest that the failure to bring about radical change in the direction of socialism has been the fault of sectarian policies on the part of extra-parliamentary leftists. Neither is the failure, as has often been claimed by sectarians on the left, due to “betrayal” by “renegades” and “turn-coats.” More than anything, the failure to make a serious impact in countries like Britain has been due to objective circumstances, primarily the persisting and all-pervasive ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie over all aspects of the capitalist state and the atomization of traditional working class communities due to de-industrialization. But essentially the sectarian leftist view which regards social-democratic parties and all social democrats, whether right or left, simply as agents of capitalism and therefore to be treated as enemies, leads to the conclusion that the only principled response is either to engage in one form or another of direct action regardless of the absence of a support base, or to pontificate from the sidelines about myriad instances of “betrayal” real or imagined, while urging the need for a revolutionary party.
This column has pulled no punches in the past about the nature of the British Labour party. But it has also argued that left-sectarian dogmas such as bedevilled the Communist International in the late 1920s and early thirties, leading to the communist parties’ denouncing all social democrats as “social fascists” was a disastrous mistake for which the working class movement paid dearly during the rise of real fascism. The claim (in paragraph two, above, outlining one variety of left-sectarian response to Corbyn’s leadership) that the Labour party is not and never was a genuine socialist party is not meant as a caricature. It follows from the analysis made in the 1960s by Ralph Miliband in his book Parliamentary Socialism. The objection is to the inferences some draw from this. The deep divisions in the party over Corbyn’s leadership and the direction he and his supporters want to take, should not be ignored or shrugged off as of no importance. These differences came to a head over the division in the House of Commons on the 3rd of December following the debate on the government’s motion calling for the bombing of Syria.
December 3rd: Parliament votes to bomb ISIS in Syria
Let’s start with 2003. There are close similarities between the debate that resulted in parliament voting for war against Iraq then, and the December 3rd 2015 decision to bomb Syria. Cameron’s speech might almost have been modelled on Blair’s. More than one participant (not only from the Labour benches) compared Blair’s use of the “dodgy dossier” claiming that Hussein had WMDs capable of hitting Britain 45 minutes after being launched, to Cameron’s preposterous claim that there were 70,000 armed “moderates” amongst Assad’s opponents who were potential allies of the Western interventionists, keen to bring freedom and democracy to Syria. During and after his rallying call for bombing, the prime minister was repeatedly challenged by MPs from the Labour benches and the SNP to retract his slanderous charge against Corbyn and his supporters that they were sympathisers with terrorism. He pointedly refused to apologise. Cameron would not have agreed to a debate and a vote had he not been certain of a majority in favour of bombing. As the government only has an overall majority of 12 and about 15 Tories were thought to be opposed to the motion calling for bombing, he needed a substantial number of labour MPs to back him. All 56 Scottish Nationalist MPs were committed to vote against bombing. A wafer-thin majority would not have been enough for Cameron to claim that it was a convincing show of national unity. Blair had said much the same in 2003. The same calls for support for “our brave fighting forces” as were made in 2003 were heard again after December 3rd. In 2003, 139 Labour MPs voted against the war but 139 Tories voted for it. 15 of them voted against, as did the Lib Dems and the small number of Scottish and Welsh nationali sts and the SDLP in Northern Ireland. This gave Blair a majority of 263. Just as Blair had to rely on the votes of the Tory opposition to achieve his majority for invading Iraq, so Cameron needed Labour votes for the bombing Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn was under enormous pressure from some members of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) to allow opposition MPs a free vote rather than impose a whip. It was hinted that more than half his shadow cabinet would resign if he didn’t. He succumbed to the pressure. The result was that 66 Labour MPs voted with the Tory government. They included 11 members of the shadow cabinet which numbers 27. The outcome was never in doubt: 397 MPs voted for air strikes; 223 against. The level of the debate was generally mediocre. Cameron’s style is that of a slick practitioner of public relations skills, which is hardly surprising as that is what he is. For those whose minds are conditioned to be persuaded by superficial sound bites, he is persuasive. He owes a lot to Tony Blair. He had nothing of serious substance to say and made no effort to explain what the strategic purpose of bombing might be. Corbyn’s presentational skills are of a different kind, completely lacking in demagogy or rhetorical flourish. His response to Cameron was serious, articulate and challenging. But he was constantly interrupted, shouted at and barracked from the Tory benches. He had less than fulsome support from his own front bench and much of his trenchant criticism of the government’s case was allowed to go without substantive support from the Labour back benches. Interestingly, some of the best interventions in the debate came from the SNP, whose former leader, Alex Salmond, spoke powerfully and persuasively against British involvement in bombing, warning that it would not be forgotten in Scotland where opposition to the government is stronger than ever. More surprisingly, another very powerful anti-bombing intervention came from right-wing libertarian Tory David Davies who is a strong opponent of the universal surveillance powers of GCHQ and a fierce critic of David Cameron.
Hilary Benn and the spectre of Fascism
But the speech that gripped the House of Commons on December 3rd and claimed the attention of the media the following day was neither Cameron’s nor Corbyn’s, nor those of any other participant. It was the speech winding up the debate, made from the Labour front bench by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn. It was followed by spontaneous applause from both sides of the House. There is no denying that it was a bravura performance. But it was an opportunistic, calculatedly emotive appeal, aimed primarily at members of his own party who may still have been undecided about how to vote, to persuade them to support Cameron and the Tories in their determination to enlist Britain on the side of the U.S. and France in bombing ISIS in Syria. His appeal may be summed up in one phrase: We must fight Fascism! Hilary Benn is the son of Tony Benn, one of the few consistently left wing Labour MPs, who died last year at the age of 89. He was an excellent speaker who left parliament in 2001 in order, as he put it, to devote himself to “serious politics.” He was a close friend of Jeremy Corbyn’s. Hilary Benn inherits some of his father’s remarkable rhetorical ability.
There is a deep irony in the applause that came from the Tory benches at the end of his speech. He had made an emotional reference to the selfless heroism of the British battalion of the international brigades who volunteered to fight in Spain against Franco and fascism in the 1930s. Voting to join the US and France in their bombing campaign in Syria, was, he claimed, to follow in their footsteps because ISIS today is the equivalent of fascism in the 1930s. The Tories who cheered will almost certainly have known that their predecessors in government during the years of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, champions of appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini, demonised the anti-fascists of the International Brigades as “reds” working in the service of Moscow. Hilary Benn certainly knew this. He and his supporters, both Tory and Labour, must also be aware that British volunteers who have gone to enrol with the Kurdish PKK, (Kurdistan Workers Party) to actually take up arms and fight ISIS on the ground in Syria, face prosecution in Britain as terrorists. They might genuinely be likened to the volunteers who went to Spain. An 18 year old girl has just been jailed for 21 months for attempting to go to Syria to fight ISIS terrorists. Britain’s NATO ally, Turkey, has tried its best to annihilate from the air not ISIS terrorists, but the PKK that is fighting them.
Will Corbyn Survive?
In recent weeks it has looked increasingly as though consideration is being given to a coup to oust Corbyn from the leadership. The tone of so many of his critics, including many in the PLP has become increasingly hostile. A comparison of the voting records of Labour MPs on the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the bombing of Syria in 2015, shows that of those still in parliament, many who voted with the Tories to bomb Syria in December 2015 also voted for the Iraq war. Some of the most prominent are Alan Johnson, Angela Eagle, Frank Field, Margaret Beckett and Hilary Benn. Even if one wanted to be over-generous and forgive them for falling for Blair’s duplicity, they cannot be excused now for a repeat performance in support of the Tories, the consequences of which are likely to prove equally disastrous.*
Corbyn’s enemies were clearly expecting that the Oldham by-election which took place last week (December 3rd) would result in Labour’s majority in a solidly safe seat being slashed from 15,000 to around 2,000. Such a result could have given the green light to those seeking to topple him. Actually, the seat was held with a majority of 11,000 on a turn-out of 40%, which, for a British by-election is not bad. Labour actually increased its share of the vote to 62.27% - up 7% from the general election. This has rather taken the wind out of the sails of Corbyn’s would-be assassins, who are now claiming that the result should be read in purely local terms and is due solely to the popularity of the candidate who was leader of the council.
But those who seek to oust him will bide their time. It is now obvious that in the media and the cross-party Westminster political establishment, including political columnists in liberal papers such as The Guardian and The Observer, a pervasive hostility towards him is emerging. The personal attacks and demands that he dissociate himself from the mass membership of the Labour party and the extra-parliamentary organizations that support him, clearly demonstrate that his opponents are fundamentally opposed to the popular movement that has rallied to him andthe radical left direction he is trying to pursue. They do not regard any of this as “serious politics.” A left social-democratic, anti austerity, anti-war movement that seeks to put an end to the disastrous course in domestic and foreign policy that has brought so much misery and chaos to Britain and much of the rest of the world, is too much for them. The liberal pundits of the right and “centre-left” are also afraid for their own professional futures as political correspondents, commentators, and experts. They do not want to upset the apple cart on which they have been riding so comfortably for so long.
It is not yet possible to predict what will happen. The pressure on Corby will intensify and he and his supporters, in parliament and outside, will need all the resilience they can muster to withstand it and come through.
*This is part of the statement was issued by the Stop the War Coalition on 3rd December
“We are pleased that a large majority of Labour MPs voted with their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to oppose this Tory war. However, we feel the speeches and votes of pro-war labour MPs show how little they understand the lessons of Iraq and other previous wars. Like the Bourbons they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. None of the wars launched by the UK and US from Afghanistan in 2001, through Iraq in 2003 to Libya in 2011, has yet ended. Millions still suffer from those decisions – today’s vote will add millions more.”