UK: Corbyn’s Second Victory; Results and Prospects
For the second time in less than a year, Jeremy Corbyn won the election for the Leader of the Labour Party by a landslide. He increased his share of the vote from 59.2 to 61.8 percent, with 313,209 votes. His victory came on top of left wing candidates winning all six places for constituency representatives on the Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) giving the Left a narrow majority.
The results of the leadership election, announced on September 28, the day before Labour's annual conference opened in Liverpool, underlined the support for Corbyn in all three of the Party's voting divisions; individual members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters. On top of that, 15,000 new members joined in the 24 hours after the announcement of his victory.
The conference itself, however, did not reflect those members' views. On the contrary, it revealed the continued grip of the Right wing of the Party. Tom Watson, the anti-Corbyn Deputy Leader, proposed a last minute rule change to allow the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties to nominate one committee member each. Since both parties are still dominated by the Right wing, this meant adding two right wingers, effectively negating the NEC election result. This was carried by a sizeable majority. How could this happen?
Delegates to conference were elected from their branches at least six months ago and had to have at least a year's membership at that time. That meant that new members, who have flooded into the party since June 2015, were not represented. In addition, most union delegations voted for the proposal, without any input from the members of those unions, who clearly voted for Corbyn in the leadership election. Even Unite, the most solidly pro-Corbyn of the big unions, abstained on the vote.
The continued power of the Right was also demonstrated by the undemocratic stage management of conference. This ensured that motions from branches calling for investigation of the widespread suspensions of members during the leadership election were ruled out of order. In turn, that means that there will be no serious check on Watson and the Party’s General Secretary, Iain McNicol, continuing to suspend local parties and individual members.
More generally, the fact that contentious motions and policy resolutions were kept off the agenda meant that conference had virtually no real debates on key policies such as renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system, reselecting MPs or the record of Labour councils making cuts.
In his leader's speech, Jeremy Corbyn did emphasise the importance of rejecting austerity and make a series of pledges to build council houses, create a national education system and democratise policy making in the party. Partly because right wing delegates boycotted the final session, including the GMB union’s entire delegation, Corbyn supporters dominated the audience and gave him a rapturous standing ovation. The TV cameras, however, picked up the stony faces of the right wing MPs and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
The conclusion is clear; the dual power in the Party between the members, who are overwhelmingly for Corbyn and the MPs, councillors and officials who are overwhelmingly against him, will continue. Despite all the appeals for unity, it is almost certain that the Right will not relent in trying to undermine Corbyn and use their bureaucratic stranglehold to punish and persecute his supporters in the rank and file.
Clearly, it would be sheer cant or self-delusion for the Left to imagine that they have got anything but a hard fight on their hands to gain control of the Party bodies over the coming year. But, that is only one side of the story, the Right's success at conference was essentially a rearguard action. Big as Corbyn's victory was, the defeat of the Right would have been even more humiliating if 130,000 new members had been able to vote, and next year they can.
Equally, the thousands whose memberships were suspended over petty issues like non-registration of new addresses, are not likely to forget how they have been treated. The huge increase in membership has also resolved a long-standing problem for Labour, lack of funding. Even McNicol has admitted that the party is in its strongest financial position “for generations”.
All of this is certainly a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s own strength of character in standing up to an unprecedented welter of abuse and rank disloyalty from MPs and officials, but it was also a victory for the huge volunteer movement that campaigned tirelessly over the summer to stop the old Party Establishment overturning the “Corbyn Revolution”.
The problem for the Labour Right is that the ordinary members are heartily sick of their disloyalty ever since Corbyn was first elected. In particular, they are outraged that their hostility to Corbyn meant they let the Tories off the hook after the Brexit vote clearly left them divided and floundering.
The Right remains associated with all the policies that Party members want to reject. Its message is that of Tony Blair; to win power, Labour must win over Tory and Lib-Dem voters by adopting Tory and Lib-Dem policies. At the same time, it must pander to the racist agitation of the tabloid press against immigration. They ignore the inconvenient little fact that Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband tried this in 2010 and 2015 and both times it failed. That is precisely why we have Theresa May in Downing Street today.
Even more fundamentally, the Right hate the very idea of a party that is active not just in electioneering but also in mobilising militant resistance to the Tories in the workplaces, in the communities and on the streets. In short, they hate the idea of a party of the class struggle.
They sneer at class struggle as mere “protest” and contrast it to their “realistic” strategy for a “party of power”. They forget that it is only by campaigning to stop every reactionary measure the Tories try to impose that we can expose their real aims and attract larger and larger sections of the working and middle classes.
They forget that it was just such mass protests that stopped Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax and brought down the Tories' strongest leader for generations, when all their fine parliamentary speeches had made no impact at all. They fear like the plague a situation in which the members determine the Party's policy and its MPs and councillors are obliged to carry it out. Above all, they hate the idea that the Party should openly and proudly proclaim that it is what its name says, the Party of Labour, that is, of the working class.
Right Strikes Back
Emboldened by the Right's control of conference, Tom Watson made clear where their sympathies lie; “In the past, big businesses were too easily cast as predators. We meant to say that we would stand up to the abuse of corporate power as the Tories never will. But we ended up sounding like we were anti-business; anti-prosperity; anti-success. We’re not, and we never have been. Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy. Money’s not the problem. Business isn’t bad. The real world is more complicated than that, as any practical trade unionist will tell you. Businesses are where people work. The private sector’s what generates the money to pay for our schools and hospitals”.
If that was not enough to make clear their determination to resist any change in the Party, he went on to espouse the legacy of Tony Blair; “I don’t know why we’ve been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our own record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won’t win elections like that and we need to win elections.” Of course, the Right wing loved this and gave him repeated standing ovations.
What the policy emphases of the Party would be if the Right were allowed to control campaigning was made all too clear by several of their key speakers; Chuka Umuna, former shadow business secretary, stressed, “...the importance of us illustrating that we are as patriotic as anyone else. And that’s why things like your national anthem, support for the armed services and all these things, we should never, ever, allow those to be the exclusive preserve of the Conservatives.”
Even more poisonous were the calls for immigration controls and criticism of ethnic minority communities. Andy Burnham, retiring shadow Home Secretary, made clear that when he talked of “change” in immigration controls, what he meant was, “an end to the free movement of labour”. This remains one of the key demands of the whole right wing of British politics and was a central message of the “Brexit” campaign.
Not to be outdone, Chuka Umunna, returned to the Blue Labour (blue, it should be remembered is the traditional colour of the Tory Party!) theme that the party should be tough on immigration. At a Fabian Society fringe meeting in Liverpool, he argued that immigrants should be forced to stop leading “parallel lives” and that “not getting involved in the community is not an option. There should be an expectation that you become part of the community”.
Quite rightly, Jeremy Corbyn took aim at these reactionary ideas in his Leader's speech at the end of conference, “It isn’t migrants that drive down wages, it’s exploitative employers and the politicians who deregulate the labour market and rip up trade union rights. It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS, it only keeps going because of the migrant nurses and doctors who come here, filling the gaps left by politicians who have failed to invest in training.”
In reality, those who play with patriotism, English nationalism and anti-immigration will get their fingers burnt, and badly. Those ideas divide the working class and make it easier for the bosses and their Tory government to force through their austerity programmes, their privatisations and their tax breaks for the rich. Those are the policies that have left whole areas of the country in poverty and out of work and fuelled the rise of UKIP. As an electoral strategy, making concessions would be disastrous as well as unprincipled; if immigration is a problem why would people not vote for the Right wing parties who have always said that?
Immediately after his re-election, Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC, “What I want is a more open party and we need to look at democracy and involvement of members in all aspects of decision making. There’s a lot of thirst for change out there. I want more power for members, more power for supporters, so that we have policies that have support throughout the whole party.”
That is a good summary of what is still necessary in the Labour Party, despite Corbyn's victory. The only way to make those changes is not only to keep up the recruitment of new members but to ensure their active involvement in campaigning around the policies on which he was elected. A politically aroused and conscious mass membership is a force the Right cannot match.