Can Jeremy Corbyn shift British Labour?

Jeremy Corbyn’s phenomenal victory in the British Labour leadership race, with 60 per cent of the vote and support from UNITE and eight other unions, has created irreconcilable tensions in British politics.

There are rich lessons for socialists, in Australia and Britain.

The media and the political establishment are horrified by Corbyn’s popularity. It is a dramatic demonstration that the “social democratic” beliefs that they worked to banish from mainstream politics over the last 40 years are alive and well.

Corbyn’s victory is a clear indication that a majority of people reject neo-liberal policies.

His push to increase the top tax rate to 75 per cent is backed by 56 per cent of people. In Australia, 64 per cent (and 72 per cent of ALP voters) say big business should pay more tax.

Corbyn’s platform includes renationalising the railways. In Australia 70 per cent of people think privatisation mainly benefits the corporate sector.

It is the fact that social democratic parties like British Labour and the ALP have abandoned Corbyn-style policies that explains their decline and collapse in membership since the 1980s. Corbyn’s win is a full-frontal assault on Blairism (and its Australian variant)—and all power to it!


Since the 1980s, successive leaderships of Labor-style parties have driven through privatisations, competition policy, productivity-based pay and restrictions on the right to strike. The only “reforms” they have implemented are ones that actually worsen workers’ lives.

Many on the left assume that decades of Labor betrayals have killed off workers’ hopes for progress through parliament. But social democratic parties like the ALP did not create reformism. It continues to be nourished by the conditions of alienated work under capitalism, even when reformism’s official representatives have embraced neo-liberalism.

An Essential poll last year showed that while 45 per cent of people believe that Labor represents the working class; only 4 per cent think the Liberals represent workers. Labor’s connection to the unions means that it remains a potential vehicle for reformist hopes despite the history of Labor governments attacking their supporters and the tiny policy differences between Liberal and Labor since the 1980s.

Corbyn isolated

So far Corbyn’s rise seems to be spurring activism, with 50,000 on the streets for refugees, doctors rallying against NHS cuts and 100,000 demonstrating at the Tory convention in Manchester in the first week of October.

There is a window of opportunity for the enthusiasm surrounding Corbyn to be translated into the anti-austerity struggle.

But the logic of Corbyn’s role as Labour leader is already drawing energy away from the public meetings and union support that got him elected, towards parliamentary battles and internal party struggles.

Labour’s Blairite majority of MPs (210 of the 230 elected Labour MPs are hostile to Corbyn) have begun waging a campaign to destabilise him.

The immediate focus of the fight is war. The Labour majority is determined to assert the party’s support for British imperialism against Corbyn’s long-running anti-war stance. Half of Corbyn’s cabinet support bombing Syria and Labour MPs have already met with Tory PM David Cameron to pledge support for British airstrikes.

Less than 1 per cent of the union delegates at Labour’s conference supported his attempts to overturn support for Trident, Britain’s $200 billion nuclear missile program. This included unions central to Corbyn’s leadership victory.

Corbyn’s isolation inside Labour is leading him to increasingly talk of party unity and party democratic processes. But the compromises needed to maintain unity with the Blairites poison the hopes millions hold in Corbyn.

The politics matters. Corbyn’s supporters are not getting the tools they need to build the case against Trident, bombing Syria, or British imperialism itself.

Corbyn glossed over his defeat on Trident as a victory for “party democracy”, fudged why he didn’t sing “God Save the Queen” and back-tracked when he was pressed on the rights of Iraqis to resist British occupation during the Iraq war.

Corbyn’s party and establishment opponents will seize on any fudges and press even harder for concessions.

Corbyn needs to fight the right inside the Labour Party, but crucially that fight needs to be taken outside Parliament. It was hundreds of thousands outside the sclerotic structures of the Labour Party that got Corbyn elected. Sixty thousand new members have joined Labour since he was elected leader.

For socialists, the task is to turn the Corbyn supporters into activists in the unions, the anti-war movement and anti-austerity battles. That is the only way Corbyn will win the fight inside Labour. It is the only way to win the fight against the Tories.

By Jean Parker


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