Britain - Corbyn does the trick for the Labour party

Autumn 2017

So Jeremy Corbyn has done it. He has managed to turn around the Labour Party, refurbish it and make it "electable". It may not have been in time for May's 8 June snap election, but still. This is what explains the silence of the wolves - those former Blair and/or Brown supporters who have been out to get him in since he won the leadership contest in 2015. Because of course, they have smelt the coffee.

The September Party conference was considered by all - including Corbyn's many critics - to be a triumph. More like a pop concert than a conference perhaps, but nevertheless everyone was amazed at the youthful energy, the huge and unprecedented attendance (13,000) and the many recreational and educational sideshows. Like the "World Transformed" event, with its large cast of well-seasoned and oiled left-reformist figures from Ken Loach and Hilary Wainright to visitors from the US, like Naomi Klein (social activist and anti-globalisation writer who wrote "No Logo") and David Harvey (the "Marxist geographer" from New York City University)...

Now Corbyn is officially prime minister in waiting. As the right-wing bosses' monthly, the Economist wrote, on the eve of the Labour Party conference : "Not even Jeremy Corbyn could quite picture himself as leader of the Labour Party when he ran for the job in 2015. After he became leader, few could see him surviving a general election. Now, with the Conservatives' majority freshly wiped out and the prime minister struggling to unite her party around a single vision of Brexit, the unthinkable image of a left-wing firebrand in 10 Downing Street is increasingly plausible. Bookmakers have him as favourite to be Britain's next prime minister. Labour need win only seven seats from the Tories to give Mr Corbyn the chance to form a ruling coalition. He will be received at next week's Labour Party conference as a prime minister in waiting."

And then the Financial Times chimed in on behalf of "enlightened" British capital: "What a difference a year makes... Mr Corbyn's 75-minute speech capped a remarkable turnaround from the sorry shambles of last year, when he was facing open rebellion from Labour MPs and dismal poll ratings. This year, the 68-year-old had one simple and increasingly credible message: the 'biggest political party in western Europe' is now ready for government. Business has shuddered at the prospect. The CBI employers' organisation has warned that if the party carries out its left-wing prospectus, investors will run for the hills. This week has confirmed Mr Corbyn is in total command of a party that he has turned into a vibrant, young and radical movement."

The successful transformation project is evident too, in the media's reporting of Corbyn's performance in the weekly Prime Minister Question Time in Parliament. While before the latest turn of events, it was actively hostile, damning, and ridiculing, journalists now tell us that he "performed well" and even "beat" Theresa May.

Why not commit to the needed social welfare?

To give an example, which also says it all about the policy restrictions Corbyn has agreed to, we are told by the press that Corbyn "slammed" Theresa May over the Universal Credit welfare reform roll-out. Its implementation has been so delayed and is such a complete mash-up, that it has left many desperate/vulnerable unemployed and disabled people without a penny for weeks, if not months. However the targets of this government's austerity have been told they can only attempt to query their penury if they phone the department helpline - at a cost of 55p a minute!

Did Corbyn condemn this new system of welfare benefits out of hand? Not at all. It was the cost of that phone call that Corbyn chose to condemn. Of course that was all he really could do, given that he has not committed a future Labour government to reverse all welfare cuts and stop all sanctions immediately. Labour's slogan "for the many not the few" is in reality, re-phrased as : "for the many, but only in so far as it will allow us to govern..."

It can be recalled that this issue has been a moot point for Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell. They were very quick to come up with "free education for all" including the abolition of university fees, during the election campaign. But they would not commit themselves to reverse all the cuts to the social welfare system - which in the last 10 years since the banking crash, has seen a de facto return to the means testing and ugly meanness of the 1930s. Something which Ken Loach's film, "I, Daniel Blake" illustrates all too poignantly.

But Labour's manifesto did not explicitly say that Labour would end the social benefits freeze, even if Corbyn said it in public. Likewise, Corbyn spoke about a £2bn fund to "revise how Universal Credit works" - but not not to scrap it and, for instance, launch an entirely new system which addresses needs. Labour's policy was always to accept this simplified system - simplified, merely to make it cheap! Cuts to Universal Credit work allowances would thus be reviewed not scrapped, £30-a-week cuts to disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will be reversed, but the very nasty work capability assessment regime to decide whether someone is eligible for ESA in the first place is not to be scrapped? Of course it is likely that Labour's Debbie Abrahams, who is now the shadow Work and Pensions minister, gets the point that this is what's needed. But given that the welfare system is designed to save money at the expense of the poorest, within it, she will, perhaps apologetically, but nevertheless, find her hands tied.

It is significant that although the manifesto's social policies on education, social security, housing, health and social care are considered by human rights activists to be "among its strongest features", there is no explicit mention of social rights, except for a single reference to the right to education. So there, one is brought back to the manifesto's headline attraction, the promise to abolish university fees - designed to appeal to a certain (more likely to vote) layer of youth. It has obviously worked to some extent at least, given the profile of the attendees at the Labour conference - which was apparently confirmed throughout the proceedings by the regular interjection of the audience singing "oh Jeremy Corbyn".

So what about Brexit?

When the May government's domestic policy is so inept, the bonus handed to Corbyn in the form of the utter shambles around May's Brexit negotiations and the bitter wrangling going on inside the Tory party should be like a free ticket. But Corbyn was unable to use it. Because the official Labour position on Brexit is more or less exactly the same as May's official policy: "try to land softly"... In other words, try to achieve a soft Brexit. Labour's Keir Starmer, the former public prosecutor and legal eagle would only be more friendly apparently - but compared to David Davis, he has nothing more to offer.

Of course, Corbyn has so far succeeded (after much difficulty) in an area where May has so far failed - he has kept Labour's Remain dissenters (who roughly correspond to the Blairite faction) quiet in public and thus he has managed to maintain an impression of party unity on the issue.

At the conference the vital and urgent issue of Brexit was not initially on the table for a vote by delegates, even though it was allowed to be debated on the floor. The excuse was that the delegates had chosen other more important bread and butter issues to be taken to the vote like housing and the NHS. The public was meant to be impressed by this example of conference-floor democracy. But the obvious reason for this (said to be engineered by Momentum, the left-wing fringe group which has supplied much of the fuel for the Corbyn campaign) was so as not to open up a split and more importantly, not to embarrass Corbyn whose own personal stand on the issue is so ambiguous.

Just like May, Corbyn wants to have his cake and eat it. His pro-Brexit policy may be packaged differently, but it is just as divisive: while "welcoming" EU workers who are already in Britain, he opposes the free movement of workers across borders. He wants the EU's billions to carry on feeding the profits of the City, but not EU plumbers, construction workers and nurses to be free to come and work here!

In short, Corbyn is offering Labour's services to the City to oversee - or even, maybe, deliver - the Brexit it wants. And by preventing any real debate on the issue at his party conference, he has proved that, unlike May, he won't allow dissenters to get in his way!

In the end, due to chatter in the media about the "fear" of debate, Labour's Brexit policy was put to a conference vote. The statement is one-and-a-half pages long and is utterly non-specific, just asking for the best of all possible worlds...

To quote it in summary: "Labour is clear that we need tariff - and impediment-free trading relationship with the EU. Labour's priority is an outcome that puts jobs, living standards and the economy first. ...The precise institutional form of the new trading and customs relationship needs to be determined by negotiation. Labour will not support any future arrangements that see the introduction of a hard border or which restricts free movement between Ireland and the UK."

The MPs who previously wanted to bite Corbyn's head off, literally, like the Eagle sisters, Owen Smith, Tom Watson etc., are now keeping their own heads down, since they have been re-elected and feel their seats are safe (and that, rather than policy, is, after all, their main concern). Some have been retained in their Shadow Cabinet seats, as is the case for Watson and Smith, but the deal is for them to keep up united appearances, even if they have to grit their teeth.

Of course what has helped - and this perhaps is one of the sweeteners offered for biting their tongues - is a National Executive Committee ruling that there would be no "mandatory reselection" of MPs between elections - meaning that those who felt insecure after they briefed against Corbyn (like Angela Eagle) last year, have now had their minds set at rest. But what will guarantee that this remains the case?

New rules to keep the party going

For one thing, Corbyn has now succeeded in changing the Labour Party rulebook. He has managed to get a new-look executive and to reduce the power of MPs - that is the parliamentary Labour Party - so that they won't ever again be able to have such disproportionate weight in leadership elections.

The amendment to the rule governing the Labour leader selection process was actually initially put forward by John McDonnell even if finally proposed by the TSSA (railway staff) union. McDonnell had tried to stand for the leadership in 2007 and had failed to get enough nominations to even get on the ballot. It required 15% of Labour MPs and MEPs to back a candidate - which today would mean the backing of 42 as a minimum. Corbyn only just managed it in 2015 when he was elected, because some MPs seconded him for the sake of the contest, never in their wildest dreams imagining that he would actually win.

But from now onwards, the nominations threshold will be reduced to 10% of MPs (and there should be no MEPs after 2019 anyway, after Brexit) which in today's context is just 28.

The other "big" change is the make-up of the Labour Party executive committee which has 35 members, some nominated and others elected. It is still the party's main policy and decision-making body, despite the fact that many of Corbyn's new supporters are probably of the opinion that the party conference should regain some the decision-making powers it used to have in the past. Ironically Labour Party conference was always caricatured in the 1970s and 1980s because at the time (before Blair's anti-trade union rule changes) the so-called "block vote" allowed the leaderships of the unions to command easy majorities.

So the latest rule change means that 9 instead of 6 delegates would represent the constituency parties. In effect this means that 9 executive delegates represent the 600,000 Labour Party constituency members... A seemingly paltry concession made to the unprecedented leap in membership. Another seat has also been given to the trade unions - 13 instead of 12 delegates will represent the 12 main affiliated unions and their 3m members. This change is supposed to be a step forward for party "democracy" but exactly how is hard to see.

Corbyn's "team" has also proposed that his political secretary, Katy Clark, should do an overall structural review which would allow "the 500,000 members who showed such energy, enthusiasm and dedication during the last election" to have more of a say in Labour's affairs...

Plans to create a second female deputy leader and to cut the Parliamentary Party's leadership nominations to 5% were scrapped to the relief of Labour's so-called "centre", like Richard Angell who is the director of the "Progress" Labour group.

OK in the pop-star stakes

Labour policy has become more radical on some issues but toned down on others. The Party "staff" seems to be following the trends among voters very carefully in fact.

The latest YouGov/the Times poll places Corbyn neck and neck with Theresa May at 33% for choice as prime minister. Of course it means that more - 35% - "don't know" who would be the best PM. But nevertheless it is an enormous upward swing compared to the minus 14 points score which Corbyn got just before the 8 June election!

So what has changed in policy terms, since the big boost given to Corbyn's leadership of the party in the election aftermath? Has he toned down his "left-wing" rhetoric in order to become so much more acceptable, as some would expect?

It is true that Labour made a point of coming up with "new ideas" for its conference. But then, it was easy to draw up the list of emergency measures which would be needed - in the here and now - to reduce the burden weighing on the working class.

Renationalising all of the former public utilities, including the previously promised rail and postal services, which are all being used by their private owners to racketeer the working class? Of course! Abolishing zero-hours and other casual contracts used by the bosses to drive wages down? That goes without saying! A massive programme of state-funded social housing against today's housing crisis? An obvious need!

Certainly there has always been a positive response to the idea of renationalisation, especially of the railways. Those who responded to this perhaps did not realise that this renationalisation is only meant to happen when current franchises run out, and these can be anything from 10 to 22 years!

And now this renationalisation policy has been extended to include the utilities and also to include a "review" of existing PFI deals (Public Finance Initiative) and a termination of the PFI policy for the future - that is the use of private funding and management of public projects. What is more, McDonnell has also responded to criticism over plans to compensate the private racketeers concerned - by saying this will be considered on a case by case basis and if they have been bad performers they will not be compensated, especially one can assume in the case of PFI in the NHS.

Of course, McDonnell can offer to review all kinds of existing policies but the proof of the pudding will be in the implementation, if and when Labour does succeed in winning the next election. But these promises wouldn't materialise before 2022 at the earliest, when and if Corbyn is elected - if they ever do.

Workers need a party of their own

Corbyn's promises may sound like a big change from the Blairite business-management style. But this is only true in form, not in content. His plans involve all sorts of protection for capitalist profits - for instance, whatever McDonnell may say now, there will be compensation for those same sharks who have been making a killing by milking public services for so long!

In any case, against the backdrop of a capitalist crisis with no end in sight, such promises are of no use to the working class. It is now that workers need to start regaining the ground lost over the past decade. And it is now that preparations have to be made to fight any attempt to turn the screw of exploitation even further, using the on-going crisis as a pretext, or the fallout of Brexit, or, more likely, both.

Yes, it is now, and not in 5 year's time, that the bosses' use of casual jobs to undermine pay and conditions needs to be terminated. It is now that decent homes need to be made available, which ordinary people can afford, with controlled rents. It is now that many more recruits in public services are required, to stop the degradation that is crippling the NHS, Transport and Education, among others.

As for wages, it is now that they need to be protected against Brexit inflation. Already many of the large retailers and service companies are making Brexit-related cuts in jobs - like Asda and Aldi blaming the slowdown in consumption, and Monarch Airlines, blaming the Brexit fall in the pound.

It is obvious that the working class needs a party of its own which is independent of the capitalists and their politicians of whichever brand. The Labour Party - however radical sounding it might be under its current leadership - is not such a party and never has been. It is a product of this system and can only operate within it because that is what it is designed for. The capitalist class needs to have a party to dupe workers into participating in the system rather than bring it crashing down. This is why it allows parties such as Labour to be part of its system.

In this year of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, workers could do no better than to take their example from the courage of those Russian workers who fought to end the rule of capitalism. They began the task and it is up to the working class today, to finish it. To build a party which is prepared to unite workers' ranks, across all divisions, whether sectional or national, in order to help organise their collective strength and get the most out of it. Because, ultimately, it is only the collective strength of the working class which can and will shape the future!