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Labour: the new political centre ground

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Labour’s Brighton conference was a confirmation that, thanks to a general election in which Labour saw a net gain of 31 seats and the Tories lost their overall majority, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party is now unchallenged. This should not have been surprising in a party where electoral success comes first, second and third as far as most MPs are concerned. Half the venom the PLP directed at him for 18 months was because they thought they might lose their seats.

So Brighton was a triumph with frequent standing ovations. 1200 mainly left wing delegates packed out the biggest conference in recent memory. In from the cold was Jon Lansman’s Momentum, formerly derided as a rabble.

Jeremy Corbyn said after the general election that Labour had “moved the political centre”. This is true in the sense that the Tories have had to stop talking about austerity. But it does beg the question “has Corbyn moved more towards the centre” ?

By dumping free movement, committing to Trident and Nato, and dispensing with his original bold programme of taking the key sectors of the economy into democratic ownership, Corbyn is signalling that his version of social-democracy is no threat to the fundamental interests of British capitalism.

True, Corbyn’s speech was full of the old rhetoric of democratic socialism and left Labourism, whose aim is:

“Not simply to redistribute within a system that isn’t delivering for most people but to transform that system. So we set out not only how we would protect public services but also how we would rebuild and invest in our economy, with a publicly-owned engine of sustainable growth, driven by national and regional investment banks, to generate good jobs and prosperity in every region and nation.”

The right wing, personified by Tom Watson, has already concluded an armistice, if not surrender, endorsing or showing no opposition to Corbyn strengthening his support on the National Executive Committee, NEC. We should not forget however that it retains control of the party apparatus, local campaign forums and the disciplinary machinery, and Katy Clark’s democracy review is unlikely to seriously challenge that.

For many, the most significant part of Corbyn’s speech was a long-overdue commitment to launch “... a review of social housing policy - its building, planning, regulation and management” tasked with proposing “a radical programme of action to next year’s conference”. Of course, a review is not yet a pledge to build council housing on a scale to end the waiting lists. We need to work on this at local and national level with hard figures of what we need and how we can tax the mansions to build the council houses.

Corbyn also pledged that Labour will ensure that “people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before. ... councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place”. This is not a view shared by the Labour councils in many London boroughs.

The theme of being “a government in waiting” dominated proceedings. But these pledges need not wait till we have a Labour government. Labour councils should embody as much as possible of the new housing policy in next year’s local government manifestos – and members should demand that Momentum and the leadership ensure that happens.

Many will welcome the security of Labour’s left leadership following the turmoil of coups and purges. But conference clearly demonstrated that, with the end of the period of civil war, Labour now needs an independent and critically minded grassroots in the trade unions and the party.

Without such a movement, the pace and scale of change will be determined by the back room stitch ups and compromises between Labour’s new establishment and the party’s most conservative components in the trade union bureaucracy, the PLP and local councils.

In the months to come, we need to ensure that Conference’s policy pledges feature prominently in both local government and general election manifestos. John McDonnell’s comments that Labour is ‘wargaming’ responses to capitalist sabotage played well with an audience of activists, but are not taken seriously by the bosses.

A Labour government committed to serious reforms will face resistance if its reforms materially change the wealth, power or privileges of the capitalist class, and there are policy responses that we should prepare the party for now:

In the face of vested interests seeking to undermine a Labour government, we will need to impose exchange controls to prevent capital flight, expropriate the financial institutions and the investment houses; index wages to inflation to prevent plummeting real wages; immediately convoke emergency meetings up and down the country towards the development of an emergency economic plan to maintain production and meet people’s needs directly without recourse to market mechanisms.

The real answer to capitalist sabotage of a Labour government is for a Labour government to break with the capitalists. To complete this break, what is needed is a social force more powerful than the bankers and the CEOs: the working class who the bosses can’t live without, but who can do away with the exploiter class to reshape society along revolutionary, democratic and collective lines.

This is the threat, the total loss of power, that Labour has to confront the billionaires with, if it wants to force serious concessions, that is, taxation of their unearned wealth to restore the NHS, fund a national education service, solve the housing crisis, put an end to military adventures and help address the humanitarian and ecological disasters across the world.

And if we can do that, then why stop there? Why not change the system fundamentally and permanently?