Why Labour lost the elections, and where we go from here

This article was also published by Telesur English on 21 December, 2019.

The UK parliamentary election of 12 December was a disaster for the working class and for oppressed communities; a defeat for the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, women, LGBT+ people, migrants and Muslims; a defeat for a planet that needs rescuing from climate catastrophe; a defeat for a world crying out for an end to imperialist warmongering and aggression.

Labour went into the election with a powerful manifesto – a set of commitments that would have made life significantly better for millions of people, a platform from which to develop a peace-oriented multilateral foreign policy, a Green New Deal that could turn Britain into a trailblazer in the global fight against climate breakdown. Had Labour emerged victorious from the elections, the British government would have been led by some of the most consistent socialists in the country’s history; people who have fought against all types of discrimination and injustice their whole lives; people who taken the side of the oppressed and challenged the elite; people who have stood in solidarity with Palestine, Ireland, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Tragically, Labour lost 60 seats and the Conservatives ended up with an overall majority of 80 seats (in spite of only having increased its vote share by 1.2 percent). This gives the Tories a commanding position from which to deepen austerity, deepen the racist ‘hostile environment’, form a comprehensive economic/political/military alignment with Trump’s US, and push through a neoliberal Brexit that impoverishes the many and enriches the few.

Did we go wrong over Brexit?

It’s only natural that Labour members and supporters now embark on a period of reflection and soul-searching. Why did we lose so badly, in spite of our great policies and in spite of how close we came to winning power at the last election in 2017? In spite of the energetic campaigning of thousands of activists around the country; in spite of ringing endorsements from the the likes of Stormzy, Akala, Brian Eno, Rob Delaney, Benjamin Zephaniah and Ronan Bennett?

One explanation that’s proving popular within the socialist left is that it was a fatal error to adopt a position of negotiating a new Brexit deal and then putting that to a referendum. The logic goes that, in 2017, we went into the election having promised to honour the results of the Brexit referendum, and we performed well. In 2019, we went into the election committed to a second referendum, and we did badly, ergo we should have stuck to our previous position on Brexit.

If only politics were so simple. The first rule of statistical analysis is that correlation isn’t causation. Labour’s Brexit policy changed and we performed poorly in the election, but there are many other moving parts to consider. We could just as factually state that in 2017 we went into the election without a commitment to free broadband, and we did well. In 2019, we had a policy of free broadband, and we did badly. Should we therefore deduce that our refusal to engage with voters’ concerns over fibre-optic technology was the cause of our defeat?

What’s true is that, although Labour lost far more votes to pro-Remain parties than pro-Leave parties, the bulk of the seats that were lost were in majority Leave-voting constituencies, particularly in the Midlands and the North. It’s possible that some of these could have been saved if we’d had a clearly pro-Brexit position, but only possible. We don’t know if voters would have supported a ‘Labour Brexit’ which sought to somewhat mitigate the racism and free market fundamentalism of the Tory Brexit project (albeit still pandering to xenophobia by seeking to end EU freedom of movement). The right-wing press would certainly have found ways to present this as a ‘sell-out’ and to insist that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Then there’s the awkward fact that, even though the overall electorate in these constituencies voted to leave the EU, the majority of Labour voters favour remaining.

Plus it’s clear there were other factors in these constituencies’ desertion of Labour. Labour has been losing support in these areas for the best part of two decades, the result of general disillusionment with the status quo, the declining influence of trade unions (along with declining industries), some anaemic or downright reactionary MPs, ambivalent councils, a feeling that “Labour has taken us for granted for too long”, and a rising tide of xenophobic propaganda that has sought to blame immigrants for decaying living standards.

Another factor to consider is that there are dozens of marginals that could easily have been lost if Labour had a more pro-Brexit position, and indeed dozens of marginals that might have been won if Labour had a more anti-Brexit position. After all, for 28 percent of Labour voters, “stopping Brexit” was one of their top three reasons for voting Labour.

The polling trajectory throughout 2019 certainly doesn’t correspond with the hypothesis that Labour would have won the election had it adopted a more pro-Brexit position: from a high of 37 percent at the beginning of the year, Labour’s share went into decline as the original date for departing the EU – 29 March – approached. Labour received a pitiful 13 percent of the vote in the EU elections in May, and Labour’s general election polling reached its nadir of 25 percent during the period it was in talks with the Tories to try and reach some agreement over Brexit. Labour’s share started to increase after the party conference in September (at which the final position on Brexit was agreed) and then rose rapidly during the campaign, reaching 33 percent. This increase came specifically at the cost of the Liberal Democrats, whose vote share fell from 21 percent to 12 percent over the course of the campaign. Obviously this transfer of votes from Lib Dems to Labour wouldn’t have taken place if Labour had gone into the election with an unambiguously pro-Brexit stance.

Labour’s policy of negotiating a ‘soft’ Brexit deal (that retained Customs Union membership and protected workers’ rights) and subjecting that deal to a referendum was a mature and reasonable position for a party whose membership and voters are pro-Remain by a significant margin. In a situation where there are bitter divisions over Brexit throughout the Labour Party and the country as a whole, Labour’s position paved a road to unity and compromise. It took a damaging neoliberal Tory Brexit off the table, but it didn’t follow the flagrantly undemocratic Liberal Democrat pledge to scrap the original referendum altogether. Although the media tried to portray the policy as confusing and complicated, in reality it was perfectly simple, albeit without the vacuous soundbite quality of ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Not every battle is winnable. The election was called specifically to resolve the issue of Brexit, which is something that divides Labour’s support base and that doesn’t meaningfully divide the Tory support base. Boris Johnson used his first months in office to impose pro-Brexit message discipline on his MPs; he then called an election knowing full well that Labour’s support would be split, that Labour’s unifying policy hadn’t had long enough to gain broad support, and that the chillingly mendacious message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ would resonate with a significant part of the public that’s sick to the back teeth with endless parliamentary dilly-dallying. In that sense, Britain leaving the EU has acquired a symbolic power not unlike Donald Trump’s border wall.

Could Labour have won the election?

In these elections the ruling class employed a much more systematic and sophisticated approach to ensuring defeat for the Labour left. This approach had two main aspects: electoral strategy and media bias.

The success of the ruling class’s electoral strategy can be seen by the fact that the Tory vote only increased by 1.2 percent, but their share of parliamentary seats increased by 15 percent (from 317 to 365). Boris Johnson’s campaign team clearly targeted its energies and advertising spend in certain key constituencies. In this the Tories received enormous help from Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party didn’t target any Conservative-held seats and instead focused on driving Labour’s vote down in marginals with a significant number of pro-Brexit Labour voters. The Brexit Party won a similar proportion of the vote to UKIP in 2017, but this time its strategy was carefully calculated to help secure a Boris Johnson majority, as instructed by Donald Trump.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems and Greens stood against Labour in lots of marginals, although the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreed not to stand against each other in 60 seats. The first Labour loss announced on election night was Blyth Valley, where the Green vote of 1,146 was larger than the difference between the Tory and Labour votes. In Kensington, Emma Dent Coad – one of the best Labour MPs – was defeated by a margin of 150, with the Greens taking 535 votes and the Lib Dems running a very high profile campaign, again with the result of gifting the seat to the Tories.

It’s obviously the case that Jeremy Corbyn is unacceptable to a British ruling class that wants to continue austerity, that doesn’t want to see a meaningful redistribution of wealth, and that does want to continue fighting imperialist wars. That class identified Corbynism as an existential threat and, as the oldest and most experienced ruling class in history (albeit now showing signs of senile decay) went all out to stop it, using all the tricks in their book, their spooks, the right-wing press and the Chief Rabbi, not to mention the right wing of the Labour Party itself.

The media campaign against Corbyn was utterly vicious and relentless. In the words of the journalist and historian Mark Curtis, it “went far beyond anything against any previous Labour leader. It was surely the biggest propaganda campaign in UK history.” Shadow transport minister Andy McDonald stated that “never in my lifetime have I known any single individual so demonised and vilified, so grotesquely and so unfairly.” Corbyn was relentlessly slandered as an anti-semite and a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, constantly described as weak, wavering, vacillating, uncharismatic, unpatriotic. Unquestionably this hate campaign – which wasn’t by any means limited to the Tory press, but also reared its ugly head in the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman – had an impact.

Labour’s position certainly hasn’t been improved by the state of the parliamentary party, with so many MPs devoting the last four years to desperately trying to undermine Corbyn and oppose the shift to the left that has taken place under his leadership. This created a sense of chaos and disunity that was very easy for the media to leverage. This is very much the case in some Labour ‘heartlands’ seats like Barrow-in-Furness, where John Woodcock claimed that Corbyn “would pose a clear risk to UK national security as prime minister.” In Bassetlaw, John Mann – before resigning from the party and being made a baron – continuously called on Corbyn to step down. The outgoing MP for Dudley North, Ian Austin, called for a vote for the Tories. Needless to say, these three seats were all lost to the Tories.

In an election that was timed carefully to leverage ‘Brexit fatigue’, with a relentless propaganda campaign across the board, and with a hard-right Conservative Party that has been able to consolidate all public opinion from centre-right to all-out fascist, it was incredibly difficult for Labour to do well. We were up against the nexus of money and power, and the balance of forces didn’t allow us to break it.

Consolidating the left

All progressive opinion in this country has coalesced around the left Labour project led by Jeremy Corbyn. All reactionary opinion has coalesced around a hard right Conservative project inspired by Donald Trump.

Corbynism has put Labour back on the map as a meaningful political force, at a time when left-of-centre parties are in decline throughout most of Europe. The Corbyn leadership has uniquely combined a radical domestic economic policy with an internationalist, anti-war and anti-racist agenda. This agenda has proven hugely popular, as shown by the 2017 election results. The latest election is a significant setback, but that setback has taken place in specific circumstances that we need to understand.

Needless to say it hasn’t taken Tony Blair long to offer his opinion as to how Labour’s fortunes can be improved: “The takeover of the Labour party by the far left turned it into a glorified protest movement with cult trimmings, utterly incapable of being a credible government… Corbyn personified politically an idea, a brand, of quasi-revolutionary socialism, mixing far-left economic policy with deep hostility to western foreign policy. This never has appealed to traditional Labour voters, never will appeal to them, and represented for them a combination of misguided ideology and terminal ineptitude that they found insulting.”

Blair thinks that the situation demands a return to Blairism – quelle surprise. Yet this message won’t resonate with Labour’s membership, most of which joined the party after Corbyn’s emergence as front-runner for party leader in 2015. The problem with Blair’s take is that it’s a wilful misrepresentation of the facts. The policies of this “glorified protest movement” are both popular and credible. What kind of idiot wouldn’t support ending austerity, introducing a £10 per hour minimum wage, ending zero-hour contracts, reversing the privatisation of the NHS, nationalising water and energy, investing properly in healthcare and education, building hundreds of thousands of council homes, and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in green energy and environmental conservation? To reverse Labour’s shift to the left in favour of pallid centrism would be to commit political suicide.

More insidious is the emerging ‘Blue Labour’ trend that is broadly accepting of an economic struggle against neoliberalism but that wants to push the party towards social conservatism and British nationalism. This narrative is exemplified by defeated Don Valley MP Caroline Flint’s complaint that the voters consider Jeremy Corbyn to be “too leftwing, unpatriotic, against the armed forces.” Blue Labour want to see the party drinking once more from Controls on Immigration mugs, rejecting internationalism, joyously waving the Union Jack and watching the Queen’s Christmas speech at 3pm on the dot.

This force says that Corbynism can’t win in the North and the Midlands because it’s too London-centric, too focused on ‘metropolitan’ values. This is a dog whistle. It means the Labour left is resolute in its fight against racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia; it means that Corbynism is internationalist and anti-war; it means that the current generation of Labour leadership isn’t willing to scapegoat immigrants, nor does it have fond feelings of nostalgia for the British Empire. It is precisely this profoundly important shift that has won Labour a wider support base than it has ever had, particularly among oppressed communities.

There’s been a loud chorus of voices, both on the left and right of the Labour Party, for Labour to reorient itself back to its ‘heartlands’ in the Midlands and North, for it to more specifically address the needs of the industrial (or post-industrial) working class outside the big cities. These workers are based in towns where manufacturing has largely collapsed and where reasonably well-paying and stable jobs in industry have been replaced by call centres, Amazon warehouses and Universal Credit. They’re often particularly susceptible to anti-immigration arguments because of the scarcity of dignified work (and often a lack of exposure to actual minority communities); that is, capitalist economics makes people more susceptible to capitalist propaganda. Many such towns have traditionally had relatively large numbers of young people in the armed forces (also related to the scarcity of dignified work), and therefore Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent opposition to Britain’s imperial adventures doesn’t go down well.

As history has shown time and time again, you don’t defeat backward ideas by pandering to them. In truth, Labour under Corbyn has already started to address the needs of these communities, most importantly pledging to end austerity, build council housing, reverse privatisation, invest in healthcare and education, and create hundreds of thousands of dignified jobs in the green energy sector. That platform represents a huge ‘reorientation’ to the needs of the entire working class. With time and patient work, and in an election that wasn’t fought almost exclusively over Brexit, that reorientation should win support. What Labour mustn’t do is to abandon those progressive parts of Corbynism that are supposedly toxic to the stereotyped Workington Man. Corbynism differs from ‘Old Labour’ specifically in its internationalism, in its opposition to wars, in its rejection of empire nostalgia, and in its consistent fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. This is what makes Labour in its current incarnation qualitatively different; this is what has mobilised the most progressive sections of the working class; this is what inspires people like Stormzy or Akala to vote for the first time in their lives. For those of us seeking to build a socialist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist mass movement, protecting and developing Corbynism is essential.

There are many thousands of people that campaigned for a Corbyn-led government, and millions of people that voted for it. We hoped we’d be able to fight for desperately-needed change with the help of a radical Labour government led by longstanding comrades of the left, anti-war, anti-austerity and anti-racist movements. That dream has died for the foreseeable future, but the struggle hasn’t; the main focus simply shifts back to the streets, communities and workplaces. What we’ve built is a radical movement of almost unprecedented scale in Britain: hundreds of thousands of people united around a platform that’s anti-neoliberal, anti-war, anti-racist and pro-planet. We must now engage in the campaigning, grassroots activism and political education we need to move forward. Consolidating this movement is the key question for now, as we prepare to resist a period of deep reaction.

The Tories have the parliamentary majority they require to deliver a hard Brexit and to comprehensively align Britain with US economic and military policy. There are massive fights ahead in relation to workers’ rights, protecting the planet, and resisting the racist divide and rule strategy that will inevitably accompany the general attack on the working class. Our movement must bounce back from the blow it’s suffered, and must put its experience and talents at the service of this struggle.

Vote Labour on 12 December

It would be unforgivably irresponsible not to vote Labour next Thursday, and not to persuade your friends, family and contacts to do the same. This will most likely be the most important election of our generation. Here’s what’s at stake:

THE PLANET. Labour has a clear commitment to cutting out greenhouse gas emissions. Not just rhetoric, but an actual Green New Deal that invests massively in renewables, electric vehicles, public transport, afforestation and research; a government that doesn’t pander to the fossil fuel lobby and that opposes resource wars; a government that can set an example for the other capitalist countries which have done so much to create the climate crisis and so little to fix it.

ENDING AUSTERITY. Austerity has led to literally tens of thousands of deaths since its introduction. It has deepened poverty and misery. Labour’s unambiguous commitment is to reverse austerity and to properly fund health care, education, housing, disability benefits, unemployment benefits, care for the elderly, and youth services.

BREXIT. Labour’s proposal for resolving Brexit is the only correct one: negotiate a reasonable Brexit deal with the EU that retains customs union membership and preserves workers’ rights; then put this deal to a referendum, with Remain as the other option. This is a fair and mature solution, and neither outcome is disastrous, unlike Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, which will be a carnival of neoliberalism, deregulation and racism.

THE NHS. Only Labour will reverse the privatisation of the NHS and protect its future. Labour’s manifesto commitments include bringing all PFI contracts back in house, bringing outsourced services back in house, increasing NHS funding by over 4 percent per year, and establishing a publicly-owned generic drug company. By paying dignified wages (and by dropping disgusting racist immigration targets), a Labour government will be able to attract and retain more doctors, nurses and other health workers.

OPPOSING WARS AND EMBRACING MULTIPOLARITY. Boris Johnson is a puppet of Donald Trump, and can be expected to be a MAGA stooge. If the US goes to war with Iran, Tory Britain will join in. Tory Britain will join in the trade war on China (Johnson has already given the US a veto over Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G infrastructure!). Tory Britain will most likely pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. On the other hand, the Labour leadership and membership are against imperialist wars and in favour of a more balanced, multipolar world. A Corbyn-led Labour government can be reasonably expected to play a helpful role in global affairs.

ENDING HOMELESSNESS. Labour is committed to building at least 100,000 new council homes every year, to introducing caps on private rent, to ending rough sleeping within five years, to vastly increasing support for the homeless in the meantime, and to turning the council funding taps back on so that local councils are able to build homes and provided decent accommodation to those that need it.

FIXING EDUCATION, YOUTH SERVICES AND CHILDCARE. The Labour manifesto promises to: abolish university tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants; bring academies and free schools back into public control; provide up to six years of free adult education; provide 30 hours of free pre-school education a week from the age of 2; make free school meals available to all primary school children; rebuild youth services and re-open youth centres; invest in, and secure the long-term future of, libraries (800 of which have been closed down since 2010).

REDUCING POVERTY. Labour are pledging to introduce a minimum wage of £10 per hour for everyone aged 16 and over. The manifesto also promises to set up Universal Basic Income pilot. Labour will ban zero-hour contracts and mandate that all employees have full employment rights from day one on the job. Most importantly, Labour’s policy is to repeal all anti-trade union legislation, promote union membership, and strengthen union rights.

TACKLING DISCRIMINATION. The Tories have consistently played the divide-and-rule game in order to push their pro-rich agenda. If they get a majority and a hard Brexit, this will only get worse. They’ll deepen the hostile environment and make life increasingly miserable for immigrants and non-white people. Labour will end the hostile environment, will end ‘no recourse to public funds’, will introduce measures to educate people about the legacy of colonialism, will actively address institutionalised racism, will celebrate the contribution of immigrants to British society. Labour in power will champion the specific needs of women, of disabled people, of LBGT+ people.

And what’s the alternative? What happens if Boris Johnson gets a majority? We’ll be subjected to a Tory Brexit, meaning that Britain comes out of the EU customs union and goes running to the US for a free trade deal. That inevitably means more privatisation, more deregulation, more austerity, more attacks on trade unions, more attacks on workers’ rights. It will be the beginning of the end for the NHS. The hostile environment will get even more hostile. Meanwhile Britain will be pulled into ever-closer military and political alignment with the US – with potentially disastrous consequences for the planet in terms of war and climate change. In summary, everything will get worse.

Britain NEEDS a radical Labour government. What it’s offering isn’t a revolution, it isn’t socialism, it isn’t working class power and social ownership of the means of production. The current balance of forces simply doesn’t allow for that. But Labour’s manifesto represents a significant transfer of wealth and power from rich to poor. It’s a comprehensive package of reforms that will improve life for millions of people, will help save the planet, will contribute to the creation of a multipolar world, will empower millions, and will boost the unity, experience and fighting strength of working class and progressive forces in Britain.

Of course, the struggle doesn’t end with the elections. If we win, we’re going to be faced with an angry and desperate capitalist class that will stop at nothing to undermine us. There’ll be many more battles to be fought. But it’s far better to be in that situation than to not be in that situation! And whatever happens, in the course of struggle we’ll learn from our experiences.

So let’s go all out to get a radical Labour government.

A Left Labour government would weaken imperialism and work for peace

This article was originally published by Telesur English on 31 October, 2019.

A left Labour government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, would constitute an unprecedented opportunity for the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements. It would put our ideas at the heart of government, and in so doing could start to turn Britain into a force for peace and justice in the world. Furthermore it would provide inspiration to progressive and working class movements elsewhere in Europe and in North America, potentially setting off a snowball effect contributing to the construction of a more peaceful, multipolar world.

That is to say, there’s a lot at stake; a lot to lose if we make too many serious mistakes. We need to understand all the different forces at play, in their historical contexts and trajectories. This article focuses on the transition that’s taking place within the Labour Party.

What’s changed about the Labour Party? Why couldn’t this article have been written about Labour in the Ed Miliband era, or the Gordon Brown era, or the Tony Blair era, the Neil Kinnock era, or indeed the much-vaunted Clement Attlee era? What it comes down to is that, for the first time, Labour has a leadership which, in addition to being pro-working class and pro-poor, is solidly anti-imperialist, anti-war and anti-racist. And what’s more, these positions are backed up by the bulk of the membership.

The present leadership team has a well-known record of opposing imperialist wars. Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell are among the very small handful of MPs that loudly stood up against war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya and in Syria. Jeremy Corbyn has been a prominent member – Chair for several years – of the Stop the War Coalition since its inception in 2001. He’s been involved with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for decades. All three of them have supported progressive movements and governments in Latin America – in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua. They’re longstanding supporters of Irish unity and self-determination – a key anti-colonial litmus test for the British left. As everyone knows, Corbyn was an energetic campaigner against apartheid in South Africa. The three of them are lifelong campaigners against racism. They oppose Nato, they oppose nuclear weapons.

What might this mean at a practical level?

Perhaps the simplest way to think about the practical implications of having veterans of the anti-war movement at the highest levels of government is to consider whether, when Britain was deciding whether to go to war against Iraq in 2003, it would have been better if the final decision lay with Jeremy Corbyn rather than Tony Blair.

This isn’t an entirely abstract thought. The Trump regime is ramping up the pressure against Iran at the moment. Whereas an Atlanticist hard-Brexiteering Tory government would fall in line without hesitation, it’s clear that a left Labour government would do everything it could to diffuse tensions, to avoid war, to oppose sanctions, and to bring all parties back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It would work to reduce tensions with Russia. It would oppose regime change efforts in Venezuela. It would be much less likely to take aggressive action against Syria or Korea. It would pursue fair and balanced relationships with Africa, Asia, Latin America.

Environmental justice

It might not seem relevant, but it’s worth mentioning that the Labour Party also has excellent policies in relation to the environment, and the policies announced at the recent conference are among the most advanced in the world.

This is actually connected with issues of anti-imperialism, in that the climate crisis is something that’s been caused almost entirely by western imperialist countries, that have gone round the world finding, extracting and burning fossil fuels that they’ve used to power their own economic development.

For one thing, those natural resources – typically fossil fuels – are often secured by means of war or political destabilisation. It’s hardly a coincidence that Iraq, Libya and Venezuela have some of the largest known petroleum reserves on the planet.

But another aspect of climate crisis is that the areas of the world that are set to suffer most, indeed that are already suffering, from the climate crisis are the countries of the Global South – countries that have had practically zero role in creating the crisis in the first place. It’s estimated that people in the least-developed countries are 80 times more likely to be subjected to a catastrophic climate event than people in OECD countries.

So doing everything within our power to prevent climate breakdown is a debt we owe to the world, and it’s extremely positive that Labour has adopted the Green New Deal. In his speech at the party conference this year, along with a policy of making green technologies available cheap or free to the countries of the Global South – specifically referred to by John McDonnell in his speech to party conference this year as a form of reparations. It’s certainly hard to imagine the Tories or Lib Dems offering anything along those lines.

Not business as usual

All this is very much not business as usual for the Labour Party. The dominant ideology in Labour has always been what Lenin called ‘social chauvinism’ or ‘social imperialism’: pursuing reforms and improvements for workers at home whilst accepting and supporting imperialist domination abroad. Lenin described the basic economics of this as follows: “The capitalists can devote a part of their profits (from exploiting the world) to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries.”

In assessing Labour’s historical role, this analysis resonates. Labour governments have won some important gains on behalf of ordinary people in Britain, but they’ve also tended to side with the British ruling class when it comes to its militarist, imperialist role in the world.

We sometimes talk about the ‘Spirit of 45’, the Clement Attlee government of 1945 to 1951, as being the pinnacle of achievement for Labour in power. And certainly there were some hugely important steps forward in those years – in particular, the building of millions of council homes and the establishment of the NHS, which is something we should all be grateful for (and passionately defend).

But alongside all this, the Attlee government also co-founded Nato, developed nuclear weapons to threaten the Soviet Union, drowned the Greek revolution in blood, callously and cynically presided over the carnage that accompanied the partition of the South Asian sub continent, openly pushed a racist policy to expel the Arab population from Palestine, waged a vicious war against the independence movement in Malaya, and participated in the Korean War, that forgotten ‘peacetime’ episode the cost the lives of around 3 million Korean and Chinese people. Nor did this government show any inclination to stand up against racism; indeed Attlee looked into the possibility of having the Empire Windrush diverted to East Africa, describing the voyage as an “incursion”.

Roots of Labour imperialism

Why have the Labour Party and British labour movement tended to side with imperialism? We can conceive of this trend in terms of a softly-softly approach to improving the lives of British workers. Really it’s a form of class collaboration. We don’t want to scare the ruling class, we don’t want to affect anyone’s profits, we don’t want to dismantle capitalism, we’re happy for the rich to be ‘wealth creators’ and ‘job creators’, but we do want a few extras for the people we represent: the British working class, or at least the better-off sections of the British working class. That means going along with imperialism, with colonialism, with war, with the military-industrial complex, so there’s more profit in the system and therefore more that can be shared out.

This comes down to basic economics. Capitalism doesn’t wage war and engage in domination for the fun of it, or because of some strange psychopathology connecting wealth and violence. The quest for profits demands growth. Successful economies expand their operations, they capture foreign markets, they find more sources of raw materials, they find more sources of cheap labour. Slavery, colonialism, the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, policy famines from Ireland to India, the Opium Wars, can all be explained in terms of capital’s need to reproduce itself, to constantly grow bigger. And a lot of British workers have benefitted to some degree from all of that.

In more recent times, imperialism has tended to manifest itself primarily through the military-industrial complex, whereby capitalist states use war (and the production of weapons of death and destruction) in order to spend their way out of an economic crisis. In the midst of a crisis of overproduction, capitalism requires something to invest in, and what better than war? What a boost the Iraq War has been to arms manufacturers, military service providers, contracting companies – to Bechtel, to McDonnell Douglas, to Raytheon. Their shareholders are living well today.

So when Labour has sided with imperialism, it has been following a path of class collaboration. Thankfully, there is another path towards a better life for ordinary people, and that is class struggle, where we demand better conditions, better pay, better jobs, education, healthcare, housing, more democracy, more involvement in the running of our own lives. We don’t really care about capitalist profit. We’ll happily nationalise companies and whole industries if they can’t be run profitably and at the same time provide a decent standard of living to their workers.

And what’s more, we don’t sell out workers in other countries. Particularly in a world of globalised production, these are our allies. We don’t fall for divide-and-rule tactics, but rather we close ranks with national minority communities at home. The more unity we have, the stronger we are, the more effectively we can wage class struggle against capital.

This is the fundamental strategic divide. Class collaboration versus class struggle. And that’s the real significance of having a Labour leadership that opposes war, imperialism and racism, that opposes the military-industrial complex, that opposes nuclear weapons and NATO.

And it’s important to remember that these policies and ideas aren’t limited to the top leadership of the Labour Party. Labour’s membership has increased over 2.5-fold since 2015. It is the largest political party in Western Europe. And anti-imperialist, anti-war, anti-racist policies are popular at grassroots level. Even many of the trade unions are starting to shift in the direction of class struggle, and that means shifting in a direction of internationalism, breaking out from the ideological umbrella of the ruling class and taking up a position of solidarity with the workers and oppressed peoples of the world.

So there’s some convergence between the leadership and the membership of the Labour Party in relation to anti-war and anti-imperialist ideas.

Why’s this shift happening now?

Part of the reason for the shift described above is that the ‘postwar consensus’ has broken down under the weight of the neoliberal onslaught since the late 1970s. The balance of power has moved towards the ruling class, which has has been pursuing free market fundamentalist economic policies that have created an ever-wider gap between rich and poor.

It’s not entirely coincidental that this economic offensive gained momentum in the same period that the Soviet Union and the European people’s democracies were starting to stagnate. Workers in the capitalist countries had won concessions such as free healthcare, social housing and decent pay; they fought for these things and we rightly celebrate that fight, but one of the reasons the ruling classes gave way on some of these issues was the looming threat of the example provided by the socialist world.

The Soviet Union and European people’s democracies, for all their contradictions and flaws, had comprehensive social insurance systems, full employment and a high quality of education. They were able to eradicate malnutrition and homelessness, and in so doing solve certain problems that even the most advanced capitalist society had never – and still hasn’t to this day – been able to solve. So this dynamic affected the balance of forces within capitalist society. In the period of decline and collapse of European socialism, the owners of capital became more confident and aggressive in pursuit of their own interests.

The share of GDP that goes to the working class is now lower than it was in the 1930s. The rich get richer every year, but conditions for the working class are getting worse all the time. In Britain, life expectancy is actually starting to fall. Austerity, unemployment and underemployment have put millions of people into poverty, missing meals, living in unhygienic and inadequate housing. There are currently around a million people in this country working zero-hour contracts. They literally don’t know, week to week, if they’ll be able to pay their rent or put food on the table.

To a considerable degree, moving from a position of class collaboration towards a position of class struggle reflects the fact that, increasingly, class collaboration isn’t working. If the unions are getting more militant, if hundreds of thousands of people are mobilised to get involved with Labour and to support Corbyn’s anti-war platform, this reflects changing economic and political realities.


There’s a lot to play for. The anti-war and anti-imperialist movements in Britain are closer to power than they’ve ever been. Of course there are problems, there are contradictions, there are weaknesses. Labour’s MPs are still largely the same as they were before Corbyn became leader. Some of these MPs are old-fashioned social democrats who want a slightly bigger slice of the pie for workers; actually those are the better ones. Far too many Labour MPs are Blairite neoliberals who don’t identify with workers at all. We face their continued hostility, along with that of the billionaire media.

Nonetheless, we’re in a very promising situation and there is a political trajectory within Labour that we need to defend and consolidate. Hopefully this dichotomy of class collaboration versus class struggle is a helpful way to conceptualise what’s going on in the Labour Party and the wider progressive movement.

Brexit is an attack on the working class

This post was updated on 7 April to reflect the updated situation and to include some discussion on the impact of Brexit on Ireland.

The date set for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, 29 March 2019, is now in the past. The Brexit deadline has been extended, and is likely to be extended again. MPs can’t agree on what a deal should look like, only that the deal presented by the government isn’t very good. Labour and the Tories are in negotiations with a view to finding common ground on a softer Brexit, but at the time of writing we still don’t have much clue what the outcome will be. Will Theresa May finally be able to get her deal through parliament? Might we leave with a ‘Norway-plus’ type of arrangement, retaining membership of the Customs Union and potentially the Single Market? Might we leave without a deal, leading to probable economic crisis and social chaos? Or could there be a lengthy postponement, or could the whole thing be cancelled?

Absurdly, much of this uncertainty comes down to seemingly insurmountable divisions within the Conservative Party, and to the government’s prioritisation of its own petty interests over those of the British people – not to mention a desperation on the part of the British ruling class to keep Jeremy Corbyn as far as possible from 10 Downing Street.

Of course, those of us on the left can’t control what ruthless Tory Brexiters do. What we can and should do is develop a reasonable, coherent strategy of our own; a strategy with the power to unite a wide array of forces with the critical mass to defeat the anti-democratic and anti-popular machinations of the Tories and their chums on the extreme right. In so doing, we can avert disaster and strengthen the position of the working class.

A united strategy needs to be based on a detailed and realistic understanding of what Brexit is and what class forces it represents. As it stands, this understanding is largely absent. The ‘remain’ side of the debate has been dominated by liberal/centrist voices, including the likes of Tony Blair, Chuka Umunna and others trying to leverage the political crisis to weaken Corbyn. The bulk of the non-Labour left – including the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party, Counterfire, the Socialist Workers Party – has been promoting a ‘Lexit’ line based on a combination of misunderstanding and wishful thinking, and in some cases with a dose of chauvinism. Even within the Labour left and the trade unions, there’s a reluctance to really articulate a coherent progressive vision (or systematic opposition to Tory Brexit) owing to worries about alienating people in pro-Brexit Labour-voting constituencies.

Without this understanding and the strategy that flows from it, we’re sleepwalking into a nightmare that will strengthen the most reactionary elements of the ruling class and that could set back progressive forces for a generation.

This article will attempt to show that the Brexit project serves the interests of a tiny finance-capitalist elite; that it represents an attack on working class conditions and unity; that it strengthens rather than weakens imperialism; that it will lead to greater inequality and poverty; that it is, in fact, a neoliberal scam that could have a devastating impact on the poorer sections of British society.

Neoliberalism on steroids

From the point of view of the millionaires who funded the leave campaign, the purpose of Brexit is to allow business to escape the public protections the EU provides. (George Monbiot)

Millions of people voted for Brexit. Their motivations were many and complex – including an amorphous idea of “taking back control”, old-fashioned xenophobia and anti-immigrant scapegoating, as well as a healthy middle finger to the smug status quo so amply represented by then-prime minister David Cameron. Very few of them voted for neoliberalism or deepening austerity; very few thought that the important thing was to reduce restrictions on big business such that it can exploit more ruthlessly and generate ever more fabulous profits. As Fintan O’Toole points out: “for most of those who voted for it, Brexit means a ‘return to the nation state’. But for many of those behind it, there is a very different ideal. They use this language because it is the only one that is politically viable. But for them the exit from the EU is really a prelude to the exit from the nation state into a world where the rich are truly free because they are truly stateless” (Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, Apollo, 2019).

For many left-wing supporters of Brexit, the whole point is to break with neoliberalism, not strengthen it. They see the EU as the standard-bearer of free-market fundamentalism in the present era, forgetting that, within Europe, Britain was the first country to enthusiastically venture into the brave new world of massive deregulation. In the early 1980s, it was Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Bob Hawke that led the neoliberal charge. Indeed, it took quite a long time to convince continental Europeans to pick up the baton. While Britain participated in the process of European integration through the development of the European Economic Community (EEC) and then the EU, this participation was always reluctant and partial, precisely because of British capital’s distrust for the relatively softer, more regulated version of capitalism pursued on the continent. Nothing could reconcile Thatcher and her friends to the concept of a “platform of guaranteed social rights”.

Even today, after a quarter of a century of deepening alignment with the new economic orthodoxy, France and Germany are far less ‘business-friendly’ environments than Britain (both charge around 30 percent corporation tax, for example). While the UK ranks 7th globally in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, Germany ranks 24th and France 71st.

The EU mandates a level of protection for workers, it restricts off-shoring and tax avoidance, and it attempts to regulate the activities of the big banks. When the EU proposed a ‘Tobin tax’ on financial transactions in 2013, it was the British government that led the opposition to anything that limited the profits of the mega-rich. Boris Johnson, then London’s mayor, was viciously opposed to any increase in the EU’s regulatory reach: “We cannot allow jobs, growth and livelihoods to be jeopardised by those in the EU who mistakenly view financial services as an easy target.”

Jeremy Corbyn was 100 percent correct when he pointed out that “people in this country face many problems, from insecure jobs, low pay and unaffordable housing to stagnating living standards, environmental degradation, and the responsibility for them lies in 10 Downing Street, not in Brussels.”

‘Taking back control’ doesn’t mean assigning any new powers to the ordinary people of Britain. It means reducing EU regulations on British business. The idea isn’t even to reassign these powers to Whitehall but to get rid of them altogether. In a world where multinational corporations and financial institutions are too big to be subjected to any meaningful pressure by national governments like the UK, freeing themselves from supranational regulatory bodies like the EU means freeing themselves from oversight. It’s not just ‘small government’, it’s no government.

Few have articulated this fundamentalist Thatcherite vision more clearly than Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and president of the fanatically pro-Brexit ‘Conservatives for Britain’ pressure group. Writing in the Financial Times in September 2016, he complains bitterly that while “the Thatcher government of the 1980s transformed the British economy … through a thoroughgoing programme of supply side reform, of which judicious deregulation was a critically important part”, this process was limited by the “growing corpus of EU regulation”. Now, however, “Brexit gives us the opportunity to address this; to make the UK the most dynamic and freest country in the whole of Europe: in a word, to finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started”.

The Brexit engineers are involved in the construction of a Thatcherite neoliberal paradise that will bring fabulous profits to a few capitalist buccaneers, and ever-increasing misery to those at the bottom of society.

A boost for the Atlanticists

Brexit was not, to my mind at least, a choice between the EU and ‘independence’, but a choice between staying part of a flawed union or choosing to deepen ties with the American Empire and continue the ‘Americanisation’ of the British economy. If Britons wish to learn what a US-style healthcare service looks like, they are free to talk to any poor American (Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, Two Roads, 2018).

There’s a widespread assumption that the British ruling class is overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit. This is not the case; the ruling class is deeply divided on Brexit. The line of division is essentially between a relatively European-aligned section of British capitalism and a relatively US-aligned ‘Atlanticist’ section. This reflects deeper economic and strategic divisions: the Atlanticist ruling class is more connected to finance capital, to the military-industrial complex, and to Big Oil; its political orientation is closer to an openly aggressive, racist Trump-ism than to the relatively more sophisticated approach of Obama or Merkel. The last time this division was manifested so starkly was in 2003, when the British ruling class was split as to whether to join the US war on Iraq or to support the French/German position against the war.

The leading pro-Brexit politicians – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, Liam Fox, Dominic Raab, Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Baker – are all noted Atlanticists. Liam Fox for example has consistently maintained a pro-US orientation, including strongly favouring close military alliance. His charity, Atlantic Bridge, exists to promote close coordination between the Conservative Party and the hard-right Tea Party nutcases in the Republican Party. Boris Johnson is a wholehearted supporter of Making America Great Again, close with both Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Trump, Bannon and John Bolton are all fond supporters of the Brexit project, as is Rupert Murdoch. The multi-millionaire financiers of the Brexit campaign – people like Arron Banks, Peter Hargreaves, Peter Cruddas, Stuart Wheeler, Michael Hintze, Martin Bellamy, Jon Moynihan and Robert Hiscox – all favour closer links with the US. They are certainly not motivated by any overarching desire to weaken imperialism or empower the working class.

Brexit is a key component of Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy. It’s instructive that the Heritage Foundation, a highly influential neoliberal think-tank in the US and a major force in the Trump administration, has lobbied for Brexit over the course of over a decade on the basis that it will strengthen the US’ hand in the global economy and help to weaken the EU. British political analyst TJ Coles gives a helpful summary of Heritage’s changing attitude towards the EU: “The Heritage Foundation describes America’s initial interest in a United Europe as a bulwark against the Soviet Union… As there is now no Soviet Union, there is no need for a United Europe. A regulated European Union, which erects barriers to US products and services (such as labels identifying genetically-modified foods and regulations against privatisation) is bad for America’s corporate profits. After the financial crisis of 2008, Europe’s central command in Brussels started regulating financial markets in an effort to prevent another crash. The Heritage Foundation report analyses America’s efforts to use Britain as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to push through state deregulation in Europe. As Britain was not powerful enough to do this, America felt that a weakened Europe would better serve its financial and trade interests” (The Great Brexit Swindle, Clairview, 2016).

Leaving the EU Single Market, Britain will not suddenly become a major economic player in its own right; its economic strength and geographic location make that impossible. With the imposition of tariffs between Britain and its biggest trading partner, Britain will be forced to look elsewhere for a major trade deal. That means, first of all, a ‘free trade agreement’ with the US, the terms of which will be dictated by the latter. As Tom O’Leary writes, “the terms of negotiations between the UK and US will reflect the real relationship of forces between the two economies. The US economy is approximately 6.5 times greater than the UK economy… For the Trump negotiators, there are ten economies in the world whose GDP is greater than or more or less equal to that of the UK (on a PPP basis). It will be the UK which is desperate for a deal, not Trump… Any new deal is unlikely to compensate for the lost trade with the EU and will come at a significant price, in terms of workers’ rights, environmental protections, consumer safeguards and the privatisation of UK public services.”

Deepening division of the working class

It is sometimes easier to blame the EU, or worse to blame foreigners, than to face up to our own problems. At the head of which right now is a Conservative Government that is failing the people of Britain (Jeremy Corbyn, April 2016).

Polling has consistently shown that anti-immigration sentiment was the one of the key motivating factors in the Brexit referendum. A fairly typical study found that nearly three-quarters of Leave-voters were worried about immigration levels. Brexit campaigners shamelessly leveraged this latent xenophobia, with Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘breaking point’ poster being a particularly nasty example, along with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove repeatedly using Turkey’s aspiration of EU membership as a pro-Brexit scarecrow. As Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out, “One didn’t need especially keen hearing to pick that up as code for 80 million Muslims entering Christendom.”

This type of message was particularly effective, since it was essentially a reiteration of the racist language of the Tory mainstream. A study by Kings College London found that media coverage of immigration issues “more than tripled during the ten-week Brexit campaign, rising faster than any other political issue and appearing on 99 front pages, compared with 82 about the economy. Most of these front pages (79) were published by pro-leave newspapers.”

Although Theresa May campaigned (very half-heartedly) to remain in the EU, she didn’t feel strongly enough about it to counter anti-immigrant propaganda, instead choosing to suppress multiple studies showing that immigration doesn’t lead to lower wages. Plus of course she was the architect of the ‘go home’ vans, the hostile environment, and the chief culprit of the Windrush debacle. The Remain campaign was mainly defensive on the issue of immigration, choosing not to promote an anti-racist narrative. Of the prominent Remain supporters, it was only Jeremy Corbyn and his close circle in the shadow cabinet – along with the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru – that actively defended immigration. When they did so, they were either ignored or ridiculed by the press.

Fintan O’Toole writes that the Brexit vote “depended on an ostensibly improbable alliance between Sunderland and Gloucestershire, between hard old steel towns and rolling Cotswold hills, between people with tattooed arms and golf club buffers” (op cit). This unlikely convergence was mediated by decades of anti-immigrant rhetoric; of old-fashioned scapegoating that blamed immigrants for the problems of capitalism.

Survey data indicates that a significant majority of the British population would like immigration numbers to be reduced, presumably believing – incorrectly – that immigration adversely impacts quality of life. This prejudice contributed more than any other single factor to the Leave vote; there’s absolutely no chance a majority would have voted for Brexit were it not for the promise of reduced immigration. This was recognised by Britain’s ethnic minority communities, which invariably voted in large majorities to remain in the EU. The racism of the Brexit campaign is demonstrated with appalling clarity by the staggering increase in hate crime incidents in the weeks following the referendum.

Taking charge of the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May made it clear from the beginning that her priority was to restrict freedom of movement. Brexit means Brexit means xenophobia.

This xenophobia is not of course exclusively connected to Brexit; it was leveraged by the Brexiters in order to win the referendum, but it has a broader political purpose for capitalism: preventing unity of a multicultural multi-ethnic working class. The specific form of racism surrounding the Brexit campaign also chimes with cultural changes in Britain in recent decades. The brutal, flagrant racism that was meted out in previous decades to Irish, Jews, African Caribbeans, Asians and others is no longer socially acceptable in the way it was. Instead we have what Ambalavaner Sivanandan described as ‘xeno-racism’ – “it is racism in substance, but ‘xeno’ in form. It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white.” Those immigrants “coming over here and taking our jobs” are nowadays less likely to be Asians and Caribbeans, but rather Romanian and Polish – not to mention Nigel Farage’s asylum seekers and Boris Johnson’s Turkish EU citizens. Brexit has managed to both leverage and deepen this racism, and in so doing has strengthened the hand of the most reactionary elements of British society.

Brexit will make workers poorer

Brexit will harm large sections of the British economy, and the cost of this damage will inevitably be borne by the working class, since the owners of capital can more easily shift their investments to those areas that aren’t affected. As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady notes: “Other EU countries buy huge amounts of British goods and services. But if it’s harder to sell what the UK makes in Europe, big global firms are likely scale down their operations. That would result in big job losses, especially in sectors like manufacturing where half of exports go the EU.” These manufacturing jobs, threatened by Brexit, are typically paid significantly better than their service sector equivalents, so “even if jobs lost were replaced, we’ll be left with worse jobs on lower wages.”

The EU is Britain’s largest trading partner, constituting 44 percent of exports and 53 percent of imports. The TUC estimates that over three million jobs in Britain are linked to trade with the EU. Outside the EU single market, it will be more difficult to sell products and services made in Britain and to buy products and services from elsewhere. In the short term, this puts essential imports such as food and medicine at risk – Britain imports around 40 percent of its food, for example, and the vast majority of this comes from the EU. In the longer term, it leads to reduced productivity and reduced participation in the international division of labour. Tom O’Leary writes that, post-Brexit, “the economy will be operating behind a series of tariff and non-tariff barriers as others protect their markets. All of these will make the economy less competitive and will increase costs.” This cannot but have a detrimental effect on living standards.

EU funding in Britain will end immediately with Brexit. This will have a disproportionate impact on the poorer regions of the UK, particularly in Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even more significant would be the effect on public finances due to businesses closing or moving away from Britain, as well as from reduced immigration. The Economist puts the case bluntly: “Britain exports old, creaky people and imports young, taxpaying ones. More than 100,000 British pensioners live it up in sunny Spain; meanwhile, up to 100,000 working-age Spaniards brave the British cold… The government’s fiscal watchdog suggests that by the mid-2060s, with annual net migration of about 100,000, public debt would be roughly 30 percentage points higher than if that figure were 200,000. Taking back control comes with a whopping bill.” Beyond fiscal revenue, reduced immigration means a lack of people to do important work. For example, the staffing crisis in the NHS is expected to get much worse with Brexit.

For the myriad flaws of the EU, membership has brought some crucial benefits to British workers. As Jeremy Corbyn has pointed out, “there was no limit on working time for workers in Britain until the Working Time Directive, which also provided for rest breaks. Our rights to annual leave were underpinned by the EU too; we would not have a right to 28 days’ leave without that membership.” EU regulations mean that part-time workers (predominantly women) have equal rights with full-time workers; that a million temporary workers have the same rights as permanent workers. Freedom of movement means that these terms can’t (legally) be undercut within the EU – so ending freedom of movement would significantly deepen the ‘hostile environment’ in terms of labour rights for immigrants.

In the same 2016 speech, Corbyn pointed out that the most ruthless exploitation in Britain is not the result of EU neoliberal policy; in fact most EU countries are far better than Britain in terms of workers’ rights. “If we want to stop insecurity at work and the exploitation of zero hours contracts why don’t we do what other European countries have done and ban them? Zero hours contracts are not permitted in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Spain.”

Outside the customs union, Britain will need to negotiate major trade deals. The most prominent of these is with the US, which will be well placed to exact horrific terms, including opening up much more of the NHS and education system to privatisation. As TJ Coles writes, “a Britain unshackled from Europe would strengthen US-UK relations and weaken the EU in preparation for a regulatory assault by the US” (op cit).

Post-Brexit trade deals will almost certainly mean opening up the British market for dangerous produce. As it stands, the EU bans the import of US-produced items such as hormone-treated pork and beef, genetically-modified cereals, and chlorine-washed chicken. US capital and its Tory allies are desperate to put an end to these restrictions, and Brexit gives them the perfect opportunity.

Brexit means worse conditions for workers. More casualisation, more privatisation, less regulation, less union power, fewer restrictions on big business. This is exactly why a significant section of the British ruling class is so keen on Brexit, and why the rest of us should resolutely oppose it.

EU state aid rules are not the problem

The proponents of Lexit, both within and outside the Labour Party, have built their case primarily on the idea that EU regulations regarding state aid to industry will stand in the way of a programme of state-led investment and nationalisation. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has unfortunately lent credence to this theory.

There are three major problems with this. The first is a simple practical matter: Jeremy Corbyn is not the prime minister, and Labour is not in government. Efforts to change that situation are welcome and necessary, but it is very likely the Tories that will be implementing Brexit, and the Brexit they have in mind has nothing whatsoever to do with nationalisation and the redistribution of wealth. Quite the opposite. However problematic the EU state aid rules might be, the British post-Brexit government is highly unlikely to replace them with anything better.

The second problem is that Labour’s ‘Soft Brexit’ wouldn’t release Britain from EU state aid rules. The Labour leadership has repeatedly stated that its Brexit vision includes continued membership of a comprehensive customs union with the EU. The chances of the EU signing up to such a deal whilst allowing exemptions on its core elements are approximately nil.

The last obvious problem with the idea that EU state aid rules get in the way of public ownership is that it’s not actually true. Britain’s relentless privatisation over the course of the last 40 years has been pushed by successive British governments; it has been cooked up in Whitehall, not Brussels. In fact, as TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes notes, “Britain spends far less than the EU average on state aid. If Britain were to match the proportion of spending of Denmark it would mean an extra £24 billion a year; if Britain matched Hungary, we would spend an additional £34 billion.”

George Peretz QC, a barrister specialising in public law and tax issues, writes that, “as far as nationalisation is concerned, EU law raises no objection. Anyone who knows the continent knows that in most countries most operators in the sectors mentioned by Corbyn [postal services, water, railways and banks] are state-owned… Many member states have been able to provide large subsidies to their rail and postal operators to ensure high quality universal services… What the state aid rules prevent is ill-targeted aid, such as the money repeatedly thrown down the black holes of national flag carriers or tax exemptions given to large multinational companies in return for locating in the state concerned.” In short, the EU state aid rules would have little or no impact on the progressive programme of state-led investment envisaged by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Britain leaving the EU will not weaken imperialism

Another Lexit idea is that the EU – an organisation composed of capitalist countries – will be diminished by the UK’s departure, and therefore imperialism as a whole will be weaker. This rather ignores the fact that Britain was an imperialist country before joining the EU and will remain an imperialist country once it leaves. Because the UK will, for reasons described above, lean more towards the US (which by any reasonable definition represents the most aggressive form of imperialism on the planet in the present era), the balance of forces between imperialist blocs will be shifted somewhat, but not in a way that benefits the masses of the world seeking to free themselves from neocolonial domination.

Laughably, some of the leading Brexiters have talked about Britain’s departure from the EU paving the way for the establishment of an ‘Empire 2.0’ built on stronger trading links within the Anglosphere and the Commonwealth. This is the stuff of sheer nostalgic fantasy. In truth, as pointed out by Tottenham MP David Lammy, “leaving the EU will not free us from the injustices of global capitalism: it will make us subordinate to Trump’s US.” Britain is not a major player in the global economy any more; Brexit has come a century or so too late for these nutty delusions. If an ‘Empire 2.0’ were to come into being, “its centre would not be in London but in Washington. It would be an American, not a British empire” (O’Toole, op cit).

In foreign policy terms, Brexit stands to push Britain towards a more aggressively reactionary position. Ministers are already talking about how they’ll be able to ramp up sanctions against Russia, for example. Aligned to Trump’s US, Britain would be under intense pressure to join the sanctions regime against Iran, to support US policy on trade with China, and to scale back participation in global environmental cooperation. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has made it all too clear that “Brexit represents an opportunity for Britain to boost its global military standing in response to the threats posed by Russia and China”.

From a strategic anti-imperialist point of view, a relatively stronger EU and relatively weaker US would constitute a more favourable balance of forces; this much was recognised by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015: “China hopes to see a prosperous Europe and a united EU, and hopes Britain, as an important member of the EU, can play an even more positive and constructive role in the promoting the deepening development of China-EU ties.” The subtext is clear enough: a US-dominated unipolar world is the most dangerous possible scenario.

There is also the profoundly important issue of Ireland to consider. Brexit poses a serious threat to the Irish economy in both north and south, to the Good Friday Agreement, and to the wider cause of Irish unity and self-determination. The peace process has turned the hard border into a soft border, with an increasingly integrated economy and a much-reduced presence of the British armed forces on the streets of the north. These streams have fed into a powerful (albeit slow and winding) river headed towards peaceful reunification.

Brexit will inevitably affect economic cooperation between north and south, and, if the hard-Brexiters get their way, could well dismantle all the progress of the last two decades. A land border and customs checks would be extremely disruptive and would contravene the terms of the GFA. This would lead to rising dissatisfaction and, very likely, increased sectarian tensions. With a coalition of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Conservative and Unionist Party in power in Westminster – probably with an even more nutty right-wing leadership than at present – we could well see an increased presence of the UK armed forces, under the direction of an emboldened, militantly unionist government that wouldn’t hesitate to employ any measure in defence of the union. Various commentators have noted that a no-deal Brexit could mean a return to direct rule. There’s nothing anti-imperialist about that.

Remain and reform

None of this is to claim for the EU any progressive nature. The precursor organisation to the EU was formed as a bulwark against Soviet socialism and to represent the interests of US-dominated western capitalism in Europe. The need to provide European workers with an alternative to socialism meant that the European Economic Community tended to promote a relatively benign, social-democratic form of capitalism. With the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and its Central/East European allies, the neoliberal consensus seeped out of the Anglosphere and into the heart of Europe. As Fintan O’Toole writes: “Being angry about the European Union isn’t a psychosis – it’s a mark of sanity. Indeed, anyone who is not disillusioned with the EU is suffering from delusions. The slow torturing of one of its own member states, Greece, was just the most extreme expression of a desire to blame the debtor countries alone for the great crisis that hit the Eurozone in 2008” (op cit).

However, as noted above, the neoliberal consensus was not invented by the EU, and the EU is not responsible for imposing it on Britain. Within the EU, leftists in Britain are better placed to fight free-market fundamentalism across the continent. In the words of Manuel Cortes: “Solidarity means standing shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers in socialist parties across the EU demanding a Europe for the many as an integral part of building a better world.” This was precisely the meaning of Corbyn’s “Remain and Reform” slogan. There are plenty of examples of a progressive agenda being successfully advanced within the EU; indeed, the various protections for workers currently embodied in EU regulations were won through continent-wide class struggle.

Where do we go from here?

The progressive project represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party could provide the basis for an unprecedented unity in this country. The NHS and the welfare state are among the best things the British people have created. We are well placed to expand and innovate in these areas, along with green energy, poverty alleviation, inequality reduction and scientific research; we can develop a global outlook that embraces multipolarity and opposes war. But any prospects for a successful socialist-oriented government in Britain would be seriously undermined by a Tory Brexit that would be accompanied by economic crisis, deep social divisions and a foreign policy designed by John Bolton.

It would be much better to remain in the EU than to proceed with this hard-right scam. It is the duty of all socialists and progressive people to do everything within their power to avoid a “hard Brexit” or a “no-deal Brexit”. Preferably this means remaining in the EU, but if this isn’t possible, we should work towards Brino – Brexit in name only. Labour has taken some steps towards that sort of position, pushing for a comprehensive, permanent customs union with the EU. However, the EU negotiators have repeatedly made clear that any customs union would be conditional on maintaining free movement of labour. The next critically important step for the Labour leadership and the trade unions is to unambiguously accept freedom of movement. That shouldn’t be difficult, because freedom of movement is a fundamentally positive thing. It benefits both immigrants and non-immigrants. The numbers show again and again that immigrants are net contributors to the economy. Indeed, our economy is heavily reliant on immigration. With freedom of movement, immigrants coming here from the EU are protected by EU-wide labour legislation which means they can’t be ruthlessly exploited at the levels British capital would like. If those protections were taken away, it would drive down wages and conditions for everyone. And besides the economic aspect, there is the basic political principle of promoting maximum unity of the working class. Any sheepishness or caginess about this issue feeds into a growing, dangerous trend of racism and xenophobia.

We should recognise the Brexit project as a multi-pronged attack on the working class, and we should take all necessary measures to defend ourselves against it.

Book review: Simon Hannah – A Party with Socialists in it: a History of the Labour Left

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 03 March 2018.

Simon Hannah’s recently-released book ‘A Party with Socialists in it: a History of the Labour Left’ provides a timely, concise and very readable account of the ongoing struggle between left and right within Labour.

The title is inspired by Tony Benn’s comment that “the Labour Party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it”, and the text charts the attempts of those socialists to promote their vision over the course of the past 118 years. This fight has been taken on by numerous parties, groups and factions, including the Independent Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist League, the Socialist Fellowship, the Young Socialists, Militant and the Socialist Campaign Group. Hannah details how such efforts have in the past been frustrated by ‘pragmatic’ right-wingers, who until recently dominated the commanding heights of the party.

The author also describes the various Labour governments, led by Ramsay MacDonald (1924, 1929-31), Clement Attlee (1945-51), Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76), James Callaghan (1976-79), Tony Blair (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-10). Analysing these administrations without rose-tinted glasses, Hannah demonstrates that they tended to controlled by the right and were focussed more on keeping British capitalism happy than on winning meaningful gains for the working class. Even the much-celebrated Attlee government was generally committed to the capitalist consensus, and its historic gains (the establishment of the NHS and the building of thousands of council homes) were deeply compromised by its enthusiastic support for the creation of Nato and its role in the genocidal war on Korea.

Studying the long, tortuous and often torturous journey of the Labour left, it becomes increasingly clear that socialists within and around Labour have never been in a better position than they currently are. Previously, even when leftists have held key leadership positions, they have never managed to win control of the party machine and the support of the unions. As Ralph Miliband once bitterly noted, “the ‘broad church’ of Labour only functioned effectively in the past because one side – the right and centre – determined the nature of the services that were to be held, and excluded or threatened with exclusion any clergy too deviant in its dissent.” (Socialist Advance in Britain, 1983)

Today’s situation is therefore unprecedented. The membership has grown from 150,000 in 2014 to almost 600,000 today, and these new members are largely progressive and committed. Furthermore, the party is becoming more democratic and responsive to the membership – unlike in the Kinnock and Blair years, when constituencies, branches and activists were treated with contempt.

Meanwhile, key trade unions have shifted to the left in response to austerity and the betrayals of Blairism. Most unions have therefore thrown their weight behind Corbyn and his team. This is an important development, as the unions have tended to be a force of centrist ‘moderation’ within Labour, resisting the more radical, anti-racist and anti-imperialist views put forward by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott.

The surprisingly good showing for Labour in the 2017 general election has forced most Labour MPs to stop (or at least pause) their attempts to get rid of Jeremy. The left now has a majority on the National Executive Committee and is establishing its leadership at the constituency and branch levels. For the first time, socialism is becoming hegemonic within Labour.

Crucially, the left also has a large activist base. Hannah makes the important point that Corbyn was well-known in the wider progressive movement long before the 2015 leadership election, and that the camaraderie that had developed between left Labourites and the thousands of anti-war and anti-austerity activists has its roots in the work of the Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly, among other groups and campaigns.

This all adds up to an opportunity that is too good to throw away.

The book would be improved by the removal of a couple of left-sectarian shibboleths (Soviet socialism was “bureaucratised and killed” by Stalin in the mid-1920s, apparently, and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was subjected to a “red scare” led by the Momentum leadership around John Lansman). These notwithstanding, it is a very readable and well-researched history, and could hardly be more relevant for the political moment we are living through and participating in.

Ten reasons you should vote for Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister

  1. He hates racism of all kinds. Actually genuinely hates it, not just pretending. He’s done more against it than any of us, working to support oppressed communities, taking asylum cases to the Home Office, campaigning tirelessly on behalf of the victims of racism, xenophobia and religious discrimination.

  2. He hates war. Again, he’s done more against it than the vast majority of us. Wouldn’t it be good if the person making the final decision about whether to bomb a country was the same person that can be heard in Trafalgar Square shouting “No war for oil”?

  3. He wants to save the NHS. Not just because you can’t talk openly about wanting to privatise the NHS, but because he genuinely believes in excellent free healthcare available to all. Labour’s manifesto pledges will roll back the privatisation measures of the last few decades and will ensure proper funding for the health service. This is not unimportant. Millions of people rely on the NHS. If it goes down the toilet, we’re all screwed.

  4. He is a believer in social housing and has a proud track record of working to support the homeless. Labour has pledged to build half a million council homes over the course of the coming parliament. That alone is something worth voting for, if you are someone that cares about the lives of ordinary people.

  5. He has always supported comprehensive free education. Ending tuition fees, restoring maintenance grants, restoring the EMA, increasing state school funding, free school meals for all primary school kids: these are major democratising measures. Wealthy people will get a decent education regardless, but working class people can’t learn if they’re not getting enough to eat, or if their classes are overcrowded, or if they’re in “sink schools”, or if they can’t afford to go onto higher education. The privatisation and suffocation of the education system is a means to maintain power in the hands of the elite, so fighting back against it is essential.

  6. He hates imperialism and likes socialism. He has demanded that the brutal history of the British Empire be taught in our schools. He has worked to end British occupation of Ireland and Israeli occupation of Palestine. He energetically campaigned against apartheid. He has long been a leading member of Cuba Solidarity, Venezuela Solidarity and Palestine Solidarity.

  7. He thinks it’s a good idea to make rich people and big businesses pay more taxes to support a solid welfare state and investment. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s obviously sensible and good. And the fact that this idea has now become mainstream – basically as a result of the work Jeremy and others have done – represents a significant advance in the class consciousness of British (probably more accurately: English) people. It’s the start of rolling back neoliberalism and austerity.

  8. He has a far more sensible approach to opposing terrorism than the Theresa Mays and Tony Blairs of this world. He understands that Britain is deeply involved in the spread of sectarian terror, through its wars in Iraq and Libya, through its sponsorship of regime change in Syria, through its extensive connections with (and arms sales to) Saudi Arabia and other reactionary states. Making Britain safe from terrorism means overhauling British foreign policy.

  9. He loves music, art, sport and theatre and strongly believes in funding and promoting them so that all children have the opportunity to get into them. This is crucial in terms of developing a new type of British culture and identity that is diverse, vibrant and forward-facing.

  10. He’s actually a really nice guy. A small thing, but it would be so unusual to have a PM that wasn’t an unpleasant person.

So go out and vote. If not for yourself, do it so that children can go to school and uni, so that old people can turn their heating on this winter, so that Syrian civilians aren’t murdered by British-financed terrorists, so that homeless people get a chance at a better life, so that disabled people get the support that allows them to lead a dignified life, so that unemployed people get work, so that workers can unionise and fight for their rights, so that we can all live in a slightly better, more just, more tolerant society. It’s not socialism, but it’s an awful lot better than what we’re going to see if Theresa May gets her landslide.

Jeremy and his team will face endless obstacles in power, we all know that. The ruling class will fight with everything that it’s got to prevent the implementation of a progressive platform. But much better to have people who actually want to do a good job, and that we can put pressure on to come good on their commitments. Go vote!

Immigration is a blessing for Britain. Don’t let xenophobic myths determine how you vote in the general election.

Tories resorting to xenophobia

It’s difficult to imagine an election campaign less imaginative and effective than the one the Conservative Party has been waging. Conversely, Labour’s campaign has been both convincing and compelling. Even in the eyes of many Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn was “unelectable and undesirable” just a couple of months ago, and yet, with just a few days to go until polling day, Labour are closing the gap on the Tories. When the election was announced, the YouGov poll had the Conservatives on 44 percent to Labour’s 23 percent. The most recent YouGov poll (at the time of writing), has the Conservatives on 42 percent and Labour on 38 percent, and there’s a very real chance that Theresa May will lose her majority. The days of Corbyn’s unelectability are well and truly over, to such a degree that even the Guardian has temporarily put its Blairism on the shelf and come out in support of Labour.

In a state of shock, the right-wing press and Tory campaign managers are pulling out all the stops to demonise Jeremy Corbyn and prove that he doesn’t care about the British people: he met with the IRA to try and push forward the peace process in Ireland; he has consistently voiced his reluctance to kill millions of people with nuclear weapons; he is “a pacifist relic of the 1970s, in hock to the trade unions”; and his shadow Home Secretary seems to perfectly well understand that Britain is systemically racist. Worst of all, he is not fanatically anti-immigrant, which apparently means he doesn’t want to protect British jobs and services.

The charge on immigration has been led by Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, The Sun. Corbyn is accused of “plotting to allow thousands of unskilled migrants to enter Britain.” Even worse, he has been outed for having made a speech in 2013 in which he described a racist anti-immigration crackdown as, well, racist. Shockingly for some, it seems that “Mr Corbyn has no intention of reducing the current sky high levels of immigration”.

Thankfully the reliably strong and steady Theresa May is here to save the day: “I want to ensure we are controlling migration, because too-high uncontrolled migration puts pressure on our public services, but it also lowers wages at the lower end of the income scale. I want to ensure we control migration. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party want uncontrolled migration.”

On this basis, the Tory election manifesto pledges to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 a year. A Conservative government will “work to reduce asylum claims” rather than doing the right thing and accepting more refugees; it will increase the minimum earnings required for a family member visa; and it will raise the Immigration Health Surcharge for foreigners using the NHS from £200 to £600.

By contrast, Labour “will not offer false promises on immigration targets or sow division by scapegoating migrants because we know where that leads.” The Labour manifesto (which clearly represents a compromise between the central leadership – particularly Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, both longstanding campaigners for immigrant rights – and more right-wing elements) calls for “fair rules and reasonable management of migration”, without setting any target. The manifesto commits a Labour government to getting rid of the family member minimum income visa threshold, and to reinstating the Migrant Impact Fund. It promises that “Labour will not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures.”

Is immigration bad for Britain?

That immigration has shattered social solidarity, driven down living standards, fuelled job insecurity and imposed a completely intolerable burden on the civic infrastructure” has become received opinion for a large part of the British population. This is hardly surprising, given that it’s a viewpoint constantly reinforced by the media and politicians. However, it’s worthwhile taking a more serious look into whether it’s actually true.

Does immigration drive down wages? Inasmuch as there’s a simple answer to this question, it’s “no”. Diane Abbott puts it well: “Immigrants in and of themselves do not cause low wages. Predatory employers, deregulated labour markets and weakened trade unions – they cause low wages.”

At the most simplistic level of analysis, it’s obviously true that an increased workforce can have the effect of reducing wages through the usual action of supply and demand – higher supply of labour leads to reduced price of labour (wages). However, immigration also changes that balance in a different direction, by widening the market for the product of labour (goods and services), thereby increasing labour demand. Economists are almost unanimously agreed that this positive effect far outweighs any negative effect. Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, writes: “Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike.”

The overall effect of immigration is to increase wages and create jobs. Giovanni Peri, labour economics expert at the University of California, argues that the average US worker earns around $5,000 more than they would have done were it not for the immigration to the US since 1990. “As young immigrants with low schooling levels take manually intensive construction jobs, the construction companies that employ them have opportunities to expand. This increases the demand for construction supervisors, coordinators, designers, and so on. Those are occupations with greater communication intensity and are typically staffed by US-born workers who have moved away from manual construction jobs. This complementary task specialisation typically pushes US-born workers toward better-paying jobs, enhances the efficiency of production, and creates jobs.”

At the individual level, there are no doubt cases where an immigrant labourer is willing to work for a lower wage than their British counterpart and thereby deprives the latter of a job, but these cases are relatively rare, and the solution is to demand decent wages and conditions for all workers. In general, where wages go down and jobs disappear, this is a function not of immigration but of casualisation, economic deregulation, de-industrialisation, ruthless profiteering, mechanisation and other macroeconomic factors.

And what about public services? Is immigration placing an intolerable burden on the housing, education, health and benefits systems? Again, the answer is no. There is now a fairly large body of research on the fiscal impact of immigration, all of which says roughly the same thing: immigrants are generally net contributors to the British economy, paying more into the system in taxes than they take out by accessing public services… In 2009 the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London found that migrants from the A8 countries of central and eastern Europe who joined the EU in 2004 were 60 per cent less likely than native-born Brits to claim benefits, and 58 per cent less likely to live in council housing.”

Public services are suffering because they receive insufficient investment, not because of excessive demand from people born outside the UK. Incidentally, if there were greater investment in services, there would also be more jobs – good, socially useful, dignified ones at that.

Philippe Legrain contributes another argument which is more subtle but equally important: the diversity of skills, opinions, traditions and needs that immigrants bring is a significant contributor to economic growth.

It is precisely because newcomers are different that they are so beneficial, since their differences tend to complement local needs and conditions. They may have skills that not enough Britons have, like medical training or fluency in Mandarin. They may have contacts that open opportunities for trade and investment as the centre of gravity of the global economy shifts east and south. They may be more willing to do gruelling jobs that most British people with higher living standards, education levels or aspirations spurn, like picking strawberries or caring for the elderly. They may simply be young and hard-working, a huge bonus for an ageing society with a shrinking local workforce and increasing numbers of pensioners to pay for. Having moved once, they tend to be more willing to move again, enabling the job market to cope better with change. And their diverse perspectives and experiences help provoke new ideas, while their dynamism tends to make them more entrepreneurial than most.

In advanced economies like Britain’s, sustained rises in living standards come from finding new and better ways of doing things and deploying them across the economy… Innovation mostly emerges from creative collisions between people – and two heads are only better than one if they think differently. A growing volume of research shows that groups with a diverse range of perspectives can solve problems – such as developing new medicines, designing computer games and providing original management advice – better and faster than like-minded experts…

Thus immigrants make the economy more dynamic – and far from putting unbearable pressure on jobs, public services and housing, they help improve the locals’ lot. Newcomers create jobs as well as filling them – when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work. Polish builders create jobs for British architects, supervisors and suppliers of building materials. Overall, migrants tend to boost local wages, precisely because of those complementarities. Falling real wages in recent years are due to the crisis, not immigration.

As Richard Osborne puts it in his book Up The British, “Immigration and refugees can quite conceivably be seen as the motor of cultural and intellectual energy in the British experience over the centuries”.

In summary, immigration is profoundly valuable for British society, and to significantly reduce it would be to commit economic suicide. Even the Economist, hardly a bastion of progressive political opinion, notes that, according to calculations by the government’s fiscal watchdog, reducing annual net migration to 100,000 (as per the Tory manifesto pledge) would increase public debt by the mid-2060s. “Taking back control comes with a whopping bill.”

The only way forward is to reject all forms of racism and xenophobia

It’s hardly surprising that anti-immigrant views are so widespread: media and governments in the capitalist countries have been systematically scapegoating immigrants for decades, and now the economic crisis has people fighting over scraps. That’s how xenophobia has become ‘populist’. The mainstream media consistently exaggerates the extent and the negative effects of immigration. Gary Younge points out that “three-quarters of Britons think immigration should be reduced. That’s hardly surprising. They think migrants comprise 31% of the UK’s population; the actual number is 13%. If you think something’s twice the size it really is, you’re bound to find it frightening.”

The purpose of this scapegoating and scaremongering is obvious enough: to distract people from the real reasons that things are getting worse. Karl Marx, analysing the “immigrant problem” in England around 150 years ago, painted a very vidid – and eerily familiar – picture:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

Racism and xenophobia create division, and division prevents the working class from waging effective class struggle – at a time when the ruling class is waging that class struggle relentlessly. As Tom O’Leary points out, “in the OECD economies the proportion of workers in part-time employment has risen from 5.4% in 1960 to over 20% in 2015. Union densities were 35.6% in 1975 and had fallen to less than half that, just 16.7% by 2014. It is not workers outside the advanced industrialised countries who have lowered wages in the G20 countries. It is the capitalist class in the G20 which has robbed workers of a greater proportion of the value they create”.

A Labour government will undoubtedly be a boost for all workers; it will demand more tax from the wealthy and invest it in public services, job creation and infrastructure. It can also be relied upon to be less awful than the Tories on the question of immigration. However, the Labour Party is still an arena for the fight against racism and xenophobia, as many of its high-profile MPs (including Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper) have joined the idiotic chorus demanding stricter immigration controls.

We should be struggling wholeheartedly against ruthless exploitation, against deregulation, against an economy that is absurdly skewed in favour of finance capital, against zero-hour contracts, against unemployment, against tax-dodging, for investment, for a living wage, for council housing, for more funding to the health and education services, against every form of oppression faced on a daily basis by workers. Division along the lines of race, religion or nationality weakens that struggle, and that is precisely its utility to the capitalist class. Without unity, we are consigned to a state of permanent defeat.

Jeremy Corbyn the “snivelling IRA fanboy”: empire nostalgia in the British general election

Theresa May must have thought that calling a snap general election was a political masterstroke. A landslide victory promised to give her government some legitimacy and shore up support for a hard Brexit that emphasised xenophobia over economic sense. Furthermore, a Tory landslide would make it very difficult for Jeremy Corbyn to continue as leader of the Labour Party, and therefore could well put an end to Corbyn’s project of turning Labour into a vehicle for the interests of ordinary people. Such an outcome could kill meaningful parliamentary opposition for a generation.

Unfortunately for May’s plan, Labour is waging an extremely effective campaign. A newly-invigorated party, with an engaged membership and the most progressive election manifesto Britain has seen in decades (if not ever), is campaigning up and down the country and getting its message out to millions of people.

Unable to answer the Labour resurgence with popular policies (unsurprisingly, the Tory manifesto offers a toxic cocktail of austerity, deregulation, attacks on the working class, and commitment to a foreign policy designed in Washington by Team Trump), the right-wing press has resorted to one of its favourite techniques: trying to smear Corbyn and his colleagues on the basis of being associated with the IRA, Hamas, Cuba, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Hugo Chávez or whatever other bogeyman.

Over the last couple of days, Corbyn’s longstanding support for the aims of Irish republicanism has been the subject of much scrutiny in the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Times and the Telegraph. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been labelled as “snivelling IRA fanboys”. The same media outlets have also attempted to turn Diane Abbott’s comment of 30 years ago that “every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us“ into a major scandal.

This sort of thing is comfortable home ground for the right-wing media. They can’t say much against renationalising the railways, or ending tuition fees, or building hundreds of thousands of homes, or implementing a £10 per hour minimum wage, or increasing funding to the NHS – so instead they repeat the tired narrative of Corbyn and his allies “siding with Britain’s enemies” and being “soft on terrorism”. The Tories meanwhile get to paint themselves as the patriotic party, the party the defends Britain’s foreign policy interests; the party that will Make Britain Great Again, if you will.

Corbyn’s longstanding support for Irish reunification and for the end of British domination over Ireland – along with his stand against imperialist wars, his opposition to NATO, his support for Palestinian self-determination, and his apparent unwillingness to kill millions of people in a nuclear strike – gets to the heart of a major cultural conflict that lies just beneath the surface of Britain’s collective political consciousness.

Britannia rule the waves

An awful lot of people continue to suffer under the delusions of a Rule-Britannia ideology that lets people believe in the inherent superiority of their nation, whilst diverting their attention from the fact that the economy is in a mess, communities across the country have been devastated by unemployment, de-industrialisation and inequality, the cost of housing is absurd, and the welfare state is being hollowed out.

This empire nostalgia is a problem of frightening dimensions; one that must be solved if Britain is going to find its place in a modern, multipolar world. Polls show that most British people still have a favourable view of empire. Former Prime Minister David Cameron famously said “we should be proud of our empire rule”. Last year, Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox called for an “Empire 2.0”. Therefore it’s not too difficult to weaponise this potent mix of ignorance and reactionary nationalism against Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott – awful people that want to take away the one thing that makes us feel good about ourselves: our natural superiority over other nations, religions and races.

A national discussion about the legacy of empire is long overdue. Just as we quite rightly expect that Germans today will acknowledge the extent of the crimes committed by the Nazi government in the 1930s and 1940s, we should also expect British people to understand and acknowledge the appalling crimes committed by the Empire. Britain was a major player in the conquest of the Americas and in the transatlantic slave trade, which generated much of the vast wealth that allowed Britain to conquer India and much of Africa. Millions died in India as a result of imperial policy-driven famines. Thousands of Kenyans were rounded up in concentration camps and tortured. Britain fought wars for its right to freely export opium (produced by forced labour in India) on the Chinese people. From South Africa to Kenya to Jamaica to India to Ireland to Iraq to Palestine, opponents of British colonial rule were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

The truth about British rule in Ireland

Among British people there is shocking ignorance in relation to British rule in Ireland. The Empire started in Ireland, with English rule going back to the 12th century. English/British rule in Ireland has been cruel, brutal and exploitative, and Irish people fought courageously against it from the beginning. Perhaps the episode that best encapsulates the nature of Britain’s treatment of Ireland is the Great Famine of the late 1840s, in which at least a million died and millions more were forced to emigrate. This was an artificial famine, in that there wasn’t an absolute shortage of food but rather a failure of the one crop that the local population subsisted on (potatoes constituted around 60% of Irish food consumption). Other crops that didn’t fail continued to be exported for the purpose of generating profits in London. The colonial authorities could have intervened to stop the famine but they chose not to do so, committed as they were to the idea that English money is worth more than Irish life.

It was clear by the early 20th century that British rule in Ireland couldn’t continue indefinitely. In the general election of 1918, Sinn Féin won by a landslide in Ireland. The Irish stepped up their armed struggle for independence, and in 1921 Britain was forced to grant partial independence to the southern 26 counties, which became known as the Irish Free State. However, Britain insisted on maintaining the six counties in the north – where it had established a pro-union majority – as part of the United Kingdom.

In the six counties, London continued to rule with a heavy hand, enforcing a system of privilege for the loyalist community and systematic oppression of the nationalist community. Those in the north that have fought against the injustice of British rule have been met with prison, torture, extra-judicial killings, human rights violations and massacres – most famously Bloody Sunday.

Towards a post-Empire identity

Such is the cold hard truth about the British Empire. It doesn’t sit very well with the British self-image of benevolence, dignity and ‘fair play’, but we must understand it and face up to it. Britain needs to find its place in the world and develop a new sense of identity built on justice, diversity and inclusiveness, along with a foreign policy that abhors war and colonialism and treats other nations as equals and partners. This chimes with the type of modern Britain that millions of decent people want to see.

It’s a big project that will take a long time to complete, but a government led by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell would at least be an important step in the right direction.

Jeremy Corbyn and the possibilities for building a lasting socialist and anti-imperialist movement

This wasn’t supposed to happen. When Jeremy Corbyn announced, a few months ago, that he was throwing his hat in the ring for the Labour leadership contest, many – myself included – were sceptical. The whole project seemed irrelevant and hopeless; even if he did get sufficient MP nominations to get on the ballot, everybody knew that his candidature would end in ignominious defeat. The episode was set to provide yet more proof (as if any were needed) that the entire ‘left Labour’ project was long past its sell-by date.

The bookmakers, whose predictions are generally far more reliable than those of the left commentariat, gave Corbyn odds of 200-1 against (thereby producing quite a windfall for a few startlingly over-optimistic British socialists).

Then something very strange and unprecedented happened; something that nobody could have predicted. Ordinary people around the country became interested in the campaign, excited at the possibility – no matter how remote – of having an old-fashioned leftist as leader of the opposition. Thousands of people joined the Labour Party. Tens of thousands signed up as registered supporters, specifically in order to vote for Corbyn. The unfaltering vitriol of the mainstream press – including much of its supposedly left-leaning branch – and the impassioned pleas of Blair, Brown and the rest of the Labour grandees proved totally ineffective in stemming the tide of popular support for the Corbyn campaign (in the case of Blair and Mandelson, their contributions only served to heighten Corbyn’s popularity!). Huge numbers of people signed up to help out, manning phone lines, distributing leaflets, building websites, spreading the word on social media.

Corbyn’s campaign meetings, nearly a hundred of them, were all packed. Many times he had to address overspill rooms – including, in London, speaking to a crowd outside from atop a fire engine provided by the Fire Brigades Union. The buzz surrounding the campaign was reminiscent of the excitement surrounding the Scottish independence referendum last year. For many young people in England, the Corbyn leadership campaign represented the first time in their lives that anything within the realm of mainstream politics had felt interesting, relevant and worthy of their participation. The result was a landslide victory for Corbyn, the election of the most left-wing leader in Labour’s history, and a reversal of many decades of near-universal conservatism in the general political narrative.

There are too many variables to predict what will happen in the coming months and years, but what we can say for sure is that the emergence of a socialist, anti-monarchist, anti-Nato, anti-nuclear, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-neoliberal, veteran campaigner as leader of the parliamentary opposition in Britain is a hugely significant moment. As Seumas Milne notes: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. The political conformity entrenched during the years of unchallenged neoliberalism has been broken.”

Why did Corbyn win?

What has changed? How is it possible that veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn could win the Labour leadership in 2015 – by a landslide – when veteran left-winger Diane Abbott only received 7% of the votes in 2010, or when veteran left-winger John McDonnell couldn’t get sufficient nominations to stand against Gordon Brown in 2007, or when veteran left-winger Tony Benn was defeated by an embarrassing margin in 1983?

There are a few key aspects that need to be considered.

  • Vast swathes of people are feeling more and more alienated, and are struggling economically to an ever greater degree. People have increasingly had enough of the vindictive neoliberalism that has dominated British politics for so long. The policies of ‘austerity’ are starting to impact people’s livelihoods in a very real way. Those hit worst are the most vulnerable, oppressed and disenfranchised: the immigrants, ethnic minorities, low-paid workers, casual workers, unemployed, disabled. But there is also a significant layer of the middle class that is being ‘proletarianised’ – no longer can people expect free education and a range of decent employment opportunities to choose from after university; nor can they expect any sort of affordable housing. A clear majority now faces declining living standards and prospects for the future, and Corbyn’s plain-speaking anti-austerity platform speaks to the needs of that majority far more effectively than the Tories, Lib Dems or New Labourites.

  • The last general election was a wake-up call. The resounding failure of Ed Miliband’s half-hearted, apologetically centre-left stance made it all too clear that people are not interested in a political process where, as Craig Murray puts it, “if the range of possible political programmes were placed on a linear scale from 1 to 100, the Labour and Conservative parties offer you the choice between 81 and 84.” The result of Labour’s pathetic platform is that we’ve ended up with “one of the most uncaring, uncompromising and out of touch governments that the UK has seen since Thatcher”. Furthermore, the Scottish independence referendum and the SNP’s extraordinary performance north of the border in the general election amply demonstrated that there is an appetite for anti-austerity, anti-war, left-of-Labour politics; that to adopt progressive stances is not to be unelectable.

  • There is emerging, belatedly, an understanding of the profoundly elitist and anti-popular nature of neoliberalism – the ‘free market’ capitalism that promotes economic growth via unrestrained exploitation. Twenty years ago, with the Soviet Union and its East European allies out of the way, and with a globalised ‘end of history’ declared, international capital no longer felt the need to pander even to the relatively tame social democracy offered by the likes of the Labour left. This was shoved aside in favour of a Thatcherite neoliberalism that, in the words of Stuart Hall, “evolved a broad hegemonic basis for its authority, deep philosophical foundations, as well as an effective popular strategy; that was… grounded in a radical remodelling of state and economy and a new neo-liberal common sense.” The workers and oppressed were deemed irrelevant. Mainstream politics was converted into the undisguised (as opposed to somewhat disguised) representation of the finance capitalist elite.

More recently, in response to a massive global recession for which the poor have been made to pay (while the banks are bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars), a global fightback against neoliberalism has finally started to grow. This movement has been spearheaded by the wave of progressive governments in Latin America, but is also expressed in different ways by, for example, the rise of the Occupy movement; the coming to power of the Syriza government in Greece; the increasing popularity of Sinn Fein, SNP, Podemos, Die Linke, the Portuguese Communist Party, Portugal’s Left Bloc and other forces. This is the global context in which Corbyn’s victory should be understood.

On top of all that, the people around Corbyn have waged a highly effective and energetic campaign that has tapped into popular sentiment, building a momentum that has proven incredibly resilient in the face of the slander campaign being waged by the mainstream press.

It certainly helps that, in a political world that has become synonymous with corruption, dishonesty, spin, inhumanity and cynical self-interest, Corbyn stands out among mainstream politicians as being consistently principled, genuine, compassionate and honest. He’s a life-long activist against the worst injustices of capitalism, against racism, and against war. He has campaigned for policies that most reasonable people agree with: against wars, against austerity, against the bedroom tax, against privatisation, for taxing the rich, for a living wage, for the NHS, for welcoming refugees. As an MP over three decades, he has an admirable record of standing up for the poor and marginalised.

What does Corbyn stand for?

Corbyn’s election victory and the hype surrounding his campaign are more a reflection of Corbyn as an individual than of the Labour Party as such. The term ‘Corbynmania’ expresses this fairly clearly; after all, what other Labour leader can you imagine inspiring such a level of ‘mania’? Labour’s deeply uninspiring election platform was roundly rejected by the voters in May, handing David Cameron a majority government. ‘Corbynmania’ has arisen in spite of, rather than because of, the Labour Party’s record, and indeed it wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Corbyn’s record of voting against the party whip.

So to the extent that people are inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, what sort of political consciousness does this represent? What is the political framework associated with Corbyn?

The policies Corbyn is best known for are: opposing austerity; supporting the poor; supporting immigrants; opposing racism; protecting welfare; opposing war; opposing nuclear weapons; promoting re-nationalisation of key areas of the economy; protecting trade union rights; building social housing; ending homelessness; supporting public education and healthcare; exiting NATO; working for a united Ireland; supporting Palestine and progressive Latin America.

Corbyn isn’t proposing the overthrow of capitalism (more’s the pity!). His economic programme is not based on putting an end to the system of exploitation of man by man; rather, it expresses an anti-neoliberal vision that shifts the burden of crisis from the oppressed to the oppressors and which puts an end to savage cuts. His manifesto calls – in somewhat fluffy style – for “a fairer, kinder Britain based on innovation, decent jobs and decent public services.” Cuts should be reversed, important industries should be (re-)nationalised, the rich should pay their taxes, and cash should be printed in order to fund infrastructure spending.

Hardly extreme. As economist Michael Burke points out: “Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is NOT proposing extremist economics. His policy aims to promote growth through increased public investment, funded by progressive reform of the current taxation system, and attacking the abuses of the £93 billion in annual payments for ‘corporate welfare’ in subsidies, bribes and incentives to the private sector. At the same time he opposes any attempt to make workers and the poor pay for the crisis and rightly argues that the deficit would close naturally with stronger growth”.

Corbyn’s appointment of Thomas Piketty, Ann Pettifor and Joseph Stigiltz to his economic advisory team indicates that his agenda is about building a credible consensus – within the framework of capitalist economics – for Keynesianism and against austerity. While this is by no means a Marxist programme, it represents a significant break with anything put forward by the political mainstream, and is clearly unacceptable to bulk of the British ruling class, which has worked feverishly to establish neoliberalism as an ideological norm, and which is irretrievably hostile to redistributive economics of any sort.

Foreign policy is another area where Corbyn’s platform resonates with a huge number of British people who oppose Britain’s wars of domination. His leadership election pledge on foreign policy reads:

No more illegal wars; a foreign policy that prioritises justice and assistance. Replacing Trident not with a new generation of nuclear weapons but jobs that retain the communities’ skills.

Corbyn is strongly opposed to any British military involvement in Syria, which the Cameron government is pushing strongly for. He correctly notes that a western bombing campaign actually feeds into the growth of Isis (“I don’t think going on a bombing campaign in Syria is going to bring about their defeat. I think it would make them stronger.”). He has also said that Labour should apologise for the destruction of Iraq, and suggested that Tony Blair could be convicted of war crimes. He opposes Britain’s membership of Nato and the west’s increasingly hostile position vis-a-vis Russia, noting that Nato has been “the major driver for the remilitarisation of central Europe”. He believes that “Britain’s role in international affairs needs to change to the promotion of conflict resolution and co-operation rather than using UK forces to achieve regime change”.

Being ‘tough on immigration’ is considered essential for anyone hoping to be elected to a position of power in England. Pandering to a racist, xenophobic, scape-goating agenda is par for the course – as exemplified by Labour’s notorious anti-immigration mug that appeared in the run-up to the last general election. In that context, Jeremy’s pro-immigration and pro-refugee stance is a breath of fresh air and is something that has won him support. Pointing to the racism and hypocrisy implicit in the mainstream narrative on immigration, Corbyn asks in a recent interview: “Are we actually going to see sort of armed guards all around Europe keeping out the poor and the desperate? Some of whom are victims of impoverishment which is a product of a whole lot of economic circumstances. Some are victims of wars which we have been involved with such as Iraq and the bombing of Libya… At the end of the Second World War there was a coming together of all of the wealthy nations to accept very large numbers of refugees because they saw that as a humanitarian crisis. Is it different because so many of these people come from Africa as opposed to Europe?”

The class enemy goes berserk

Predictably, the mainstream media machine has gone into overdrive in its attempts to bury the movement building around Corbyn. Britain’s newspaper columns have, since the very beginning of the Labour leadership campaign, been given over to an army of Corbyn detractors, from the right-wing fruitcakes of the Daily Mail to the (bulk of the) supposedly left-liberal luvvies of the Guardian. In an almost touching display of unity, the defenders of the imperialist status quo have got together to publicly fret about the possibility of Corbyn’s election ushering in an era of “class hatred, the indulgence of unionised labour, and the Soviet-style handing out of favours to party loyalists on the council payrolls.”

Who better than Boris Johnson to state the case against Corbyn?

“Can this be happening? Are they really proposing that Her Majesty’s Opposition should be led by Jeremy Corbyn? He believes in higher taxes and a bigger deficit, and kowtowing to the unions, and abandoning all attempts to introduce competition or academic rigour in schools – let alone reforming welfare. He is a Sinn Fein-loving, monarchy-baiting, Israel-bashing believer in unilateral nuclear disarmament.”

jcgaThe press have had a field day denouncing Corbyn over his long-standing relations with Sinn Fein; his support for revolutionary Venezuela; his involvement in the Stop the War Coalition, Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Palestine Solidarity Campaign; his stated belief that Hezbollah and Hamas are a necessary part of any valid Middle East peace process. The mad zionists of the Jewish Chronicle lost no time in slinging slanderous accusations of anti-semitism. But of course all this was nothing in comparison to the quantity of mud hurled when he appeared at a Battle of Britain commemoration and failed to sing along with God Save the Queen!

David Cameron apparently worries that, “by leaving Nato, as Jeremy Corbyn suggests, or by comparing American soldiers to Isil … it will make Britain less secure.” Chancellor George Osborne believes that Corbyn’s election will create “an unholy alliance of Labour’s leftwing insurgents and the Scottish nationalists” that would pose a threat to Britain’s national security. It seems this is such a serious concern that there have even been rumblings of a military coup in the event that a Labour government was elected under Corbyn’s leadership.

The level of class hatred directed at Corbyn by the capitalist elite and their media tells us how much of a threat they seem him as.

Possibilities for the working class and oppressed

That the most left-wing, avowedly socialist member of parliament should be elected leader of the numerically largest political party in the country reflects a certain rising level of consciousness of the masses. In world-historic terms, this is still a long way from being a revolutionary consciousness, but ‘you can only start from where you are’. Every step forward is valuable and presents an opportunity for further advance. The sudden appearance of a leftist agenda at the very least creates space in which socialist and anti-imperialist voices can be heard, and in which radical ideas can flourish. For those who have lived through very tough decades of rightward drift in Britain and elsewhere, such space is clearly full of possibility. A recent statement by the US-based Party for Socialism and Liberation puts it well:

“Along with the dramatic rise of new mass movements against austerity throughout Europe, as well as progressive movements in the US, Latin America and elsewhere, it has become clear that the long period of reaction that began in the late 1970s and greatly accelerated under Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States is drawing to a close. A new period of resistance to monopoly capitalism/imperialism is opening up, potentially leading to a revival of not only the trade unions but the revolutionary workers’ movement throughout the world. That this initial revival of anti-capitalism and socialism is being frequently, although not exclusively, expressed through the vehicle of electoral politics is to be expected in the first stage.”

What is perhaps most surprising is that such a progressive sentiment has attached itself to a Labour Party leadership contest. Arguably, this is to a certain degree coincidental. In different circumstances, a rising movement against neoliberalism and war might have attached itself to a process outside the Labour Party (as indeed it has done in Scotland), or it might not have found expression at all within mainstream politics. But the fact is that the left in England has not thus far been able to build a viable organisation to the left of Labour with the capacity to attract and mobilise large numbers of people; with the ability to tap into a spontaneously developing movement. Jeremy’s campaign arrived in the right place at the right time to provide a vehicle for a movement which, while ideologically diverse and lacking coherence, cohesion, strategy and leadership, is united by its opposition to neoliberalism, to austerity, to racism, to xenophobia and to war.

To what extent meaningful change can be brought about via the Labour Party is a difficult and highly controversial topic. The Labour Party has a long history of treachery and imperialism; of doing the bidding of the capitalists under a ‘left’ cloak. It’s perfectly clear that Labour isn’t a vehicle for socialism. However, an important point to consider is that Labour is in a process of change, and, for the first time in many decades, it is moving to the left rather than to the right.

Tens of thousands of new members have joined, the vast majority of them with a view to supporting Corbyn’s platform (it’s estimated that membership has doubled since May’s general election). Corbyn has stated his intention to democratise the party, reducing the decision-making power of the Parliamentary Labour Party and empowering the conference and the constituency branches. He has also said that he’d like to see membership to increase to around half a million (it’s currently around 360,000 and rising fast). At what point does quantity turn into quality? At what point can we say that Labour has become a fundamentally different organisation to the New Labour of Blair and Brown?

Corbyn is in such an unusual position – elected with a huge majority but in a tiny minority of progressive MPs within the Parliamentary Labour Party – that he really has no choice but to grow and strengthen the grassroots membership in order to consolidate his position. Hence the Labour Party has become a crucial arena of class struggle; a place where a political battle is taking place between a pro-neoliberal, pro-imperialist right which has grown accustomed to tightly holding the reins, and a small but growing socialist-oriented left that’s been able to capture the party leadership. This will be one of the key political struggles of our era.

If Corbyn and his team can succeed in fighting off the party bureaucracy and sinister manoevrings of the Blairites, it’s possible we could see a Labour government elected in 2020 with a clear popular mandate to end austerity, stop British participation in imperialist wars, fight against racism and xenophobia, and defend the welfare state. This would be of obvious benefit to the poor of this country; it would also benefit those countries that suffer as a result of British imperialist policy; and it would also provide a boon for other anti-austerity, left-oriented governments and movements in Europe and further afield. Such a development, particularly in a major imperialist centre like Britain, would significantly affect the global balance of forces in a way that is favourable to our side.

Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the next general election, with Corbyn as the leader of the opposition, some room opens up for opposing imperialist and neoliberal policy in a practical way. Although there is a natural tension between a Corbyn-led Labour and the SNP – with Corbyn attempting to win back support in Scotland, and the SNP concerned at his ability to do just that – there is the chance of building a large parliamentary opposition that could disrupt the government’s viciously anti-poor agenda and put obstacles in the way of its military adventures. As Mhairi Black said in her maiden speech to the House of Commons:

“No matter how much I may wish it, the SNP is not the sole opposition to this Government, but nor is the Labour party. It is together with all the parties on these benches that we must form an opposition, and in order to be effective we must oppose not abstain. Let us come together, let us be that opposition, let us be that signpost of a better society. Ultimately people are needing a voice, people are needing help, let’s give them it.”

Is such an opposition worth having? You can answer the question by looking at how much the political establishment doesn’t want it to happen.

jchcDiscussing the potential role of the European working class movement, Samora Machel – pre-eminent leader of the Mozambican Revolution – said: “Progress by the representative movements of the European labouring masses, development in the trends that strive for unity of the progressive forces within capitalist society, are tending to weaken imperialism and so contribute to our common success.” This is a good example of revolutionary pragmatism from someone that doesn’t have the luxury of indulging in consequence-free ultra-left posturing. Socialist and progressive states of the so-called third world understand the value of having relatively progressive people and organisations in positions of power in the imperialist countries. Any brake applied to the most vicious and militaristic imperialism constitutes a tangible boost to the global struggle against imperialism. In the words of Argentina’s ambassador to the UK (and close confidant of Hugo Chávez) Alicia Castro: “Chávez rooted us in the basis of the widest possible unity – unity with anyone with the slightest chance of joining forces against imperialism.

It makes sense, then, that Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest has been greeted with pleasant surprise by such diverse organisations and individuals as the President of Argentina, the Russian ambassador to the UK, Syriza, Sinn Féin, and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias; or that news outlets such as Telesur, RT, Press TV and Prensa Latina have been largely positive in their coverage. Limitations notwithstanding, the movement around Corbyn presents significant possibilities that we can’t afford to ignore.

Limitations of Corbyn and left Labour

None of this is to say that Corbyn and the movement around him are devoid of weaknesses and limitations; nothing could be further from the truth. Corbyn is not Lenin, or Chávez, or Allende, or indeed Lula. His socialism is old-Labour clause-four socialism, which is not really socialism in any scientific sense of the word, but rather a Keynesian capitalism which seeks to reduce class conflict by somewhat improving the conditions of the oppressed. Historically, this type of ‘socialism’ has, in the imperialist countries, generally been connected with social chauvinism: support for ruling class foreign policy, on the basis that the profits derived from colonialism and neocolonialism provide the economic basis for improved living conditions at home. That is to say: social democracy has a deep-rooted historical connection with imperialist bribery.

gcsaSo what to make of Corbyn’s anti-imperialism? It’s good and bad. He has always been a strong supporter of a united Ireland – a key issue for the British left, and something that many get wrong. He is a solid supporter of Palestine, and an admirer of the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions. He was very active in the campaigns against South African apartheid and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (a close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher) in Chile.

On other key issues, his anti-imperialism is overshadowed by a human rights-oriented left liberalism. In a world where China and Russia constitute the undisputed economic and military leadership of the fightback against Nato hegemony, and where all progressive states – from Venezuela to South Africa – are to a greater or lesser extent rallying round that leadership, it’s a shame that Corbyn has nothing positive to say in relation to either China or Russia. Indeed, he is a supporter of the CIA-linked ‘Free Tibet’ campaign – arguably the central plank of the west’s anti-China propaganda strategy.

However, there’s no need to over-emphasise these concerns in relation to Russia and China. On the most important question regarding Russia, Corbyn is actually ahead of much of the left, in terms of understanding the quasi-fascist nature of the Ukrainian regime (“The far-right is now sitting in government in Ukraine. The origins of the Ukrainian far-right go back to those who welcomed the nazi invasion in 1941 and acted as allies of the invaders”) and the predatory imperialist nature of Nato’s eastward expansion. Meanwhile, if nothing else, simple economic pragmatism should help to improve Corbyn’s position on China.

Corbyn opposes Scottish independence. I, like Craig Murray, “am quite sure his opposition is not of the Britnat imperialist variety”, given his lifelong support of Irish republicanism. The simple fact is that it would be political suicide for Corbyn to sign up to Scottish independence at a time when he is pushing Labour in the direction of policies that are supported by a far higher percentage of the Scottish population than the English population. That said, he has stated that Scottish Labour MPs should have a free vote on independence. The key thing for the moment is to build an oppositional consensus against austerity, xenophobia and war, as discussed above.

Of course, if Corbyn is far from fantastic on matters anti-imperialist, it goes without saying that his political party as a whole is a lot worse. Labour is an imperialist party with a horrific record of participation in British colonialism and neocolonialism. It doesn’t stop being imperialist overnight just because its membership have managed to elect a decent human being to the leadership. In playing down the imperialist history of his party, Corbyn creates illusions in that party, focussing on building consensus against austerity rather than around broader anti-imperialism.

But such is the challenge for those that understand the world at a deeper-than-surface level: to find ways to educate and agitate such that a rising progressive sentiment is channelled towards a real, lasting, effective socialist and anti-imperialist movement. The point is to appreciate the value and significance of Corbyn without deifying him or looking to him to provide a grand strategy for overthrowing capitalism and imperialism.

To defend or denounce

“The whole task of the communists is to be able to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them by artificial and childishly ‘left’ slogans.” (Lenin)

The left in Britain finds itself in a new and entirely unexpected situation; a situation that calls not for dogmatic sloganeering but for a creative application of revolutionary understanding, and an updating of strategies and tactics to take new developments into account.

In Corbyn, we have a decent sort of person who strongly identifies with the oppressed, and whose basic policy base is progressive and worthy of support, even if his party won’t let him implement much of it. What’s more, the people – hundreds of thousands of them – attracted by Corbyn’s policies are exactly the type of people that should be won over to better, more consistent socialist and anti-imperialist politics.

To what extent is it possible to influence, mobilise and educate this constituency? Certainly not all the people inspired by Corbyn are salt-of-the-earth workers or disenfranchised immigrant youth; probably a majority would be considered ‘middle class’, and would in the past have stuck with safe, middle-of-the-road liberal politics. However, as described above, modern capitalism is ‘proletarianising’ vast numbers of people. The impoverishment and concomitant radicalisation of the middle class is not a new phenomenon; indeed it is one of the processes on which the possibility of winning socialism in the imperialist countries is predicated.

Corbyn’s campaign has created a huge wave of enthusiasm among hundreds of thousands of people for whom ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ are not dirty words; who want to defend migrants’ rights; who want to defend free education, healthcare, disability allowances; who do not support British participation in imperialist wars; who hate ‘austerity’ economics; who are willing to fight racism; who want to put preservation of the planet before the creation of profit; who have seen the SNP campaigning on a platform significantly to the left of Labour and who want something similar in England. That all these thousands of people getting on board with the Corbyn campaign haven’t been put off by the media’s hate propaganda indicates that they can’t simply be dismissed as weak-kneed liberals.

Therefore it should be obvious enough that, rather than pouring contempt on these people for their inevitable weaknesses, the thing to do is to understand those weaknesses and seek to overcome them through education and shared experience in class struggle. As the PSL statement quoted above notes: “The British and US rulers are supremely class conscious, and are all too aware that the deep assault against the living standards of the working classes could dynamically awaken a new generation to mass struggle. They are keenly aware that a fire of fightback and resistance once lit can spread outside of their control and be the basis for a revival of revolutionary socialism far outside the limits of social democracy.”

The choice for those to the left of Corbyn is clear: join in with the class enemy in denouncing Corbyn and pouring cold water on the movement building around him; or defend Corbyn, engage with his constituency, and attempt to develop this movement into something of lasting value.

After all, what are the alternatives available in terms of attempting to build a socialist movement in Britain? As it stands, there is no mass movement to the left of Corbyn. There are dozens of small revolutionary organisations, but these are all but invisible to the vast majority of the population. In the painfully backward situation we’re in, with socialist, communist and anti-imperialist forces in disarray, there isn’t anything commendable about leaving parliamentary politics to the Blairs, Camerons and Farages so that they can carry on running their for-us-by-us millionaire governments with impunity.

Does Jeremy Corbyn create illusions in the Labour Party? Well, yes. But this is hardly the most pressing political problem for the left at this moment. And support for Corbyn does not preclude, or get in the way of, or diminish the need for, building a revolutionary alternative. Do we need to re-build an anti-imperialist, socialist, communist movement? Without a doubt! But we can hardly blame Corbyn for the fact that we haven’t managed it thus far.

The ruling class attack on Corbyn and on the ‘left Labour’ project he leads will be vindictive and persistent. The blows will come from all angles – not least from the inevitably ‘inclusive’ shadow cabinet and the right-wing-dominated Parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and others are being, and will continue to be, subjected to the wrath and ridicule of the press. The class enemy will not rest until Labour is back in ‘safe hands’ and the movement against neoliberalism and war fizzles out.

It is critical that we disrupt this agenda; that we defend Corbyn, his limitations notwithstanding; that we explore ways to push forward this growing movement and political consciousness. Time to defend what has been gained, and work out how to build on it.