The trade unions and the working class have re-taken the Labour Party! An enormous beginning has been made to regain the working-class representation in Parliament that in the years since the Blairite coup in 1994 has been more or less absent.
That is the fundamental meaning of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader on 12 September. The influx of 150,000 new members — including individual members politically activated by the trade unions — has the same meaning, as well as being a tremendous expression of the hunger for a radical alternative to both the Tories and the Blairite Labour Party.
This is the second time since Labour’s general election defeat in 2010 that the unions have asserted themselves inside the Labour Party. Essentially it was the unions who elevated Ed Miliband, the former Blair minister, to the leadership of the Labour Party. Miliband made occasional timid half-strangled noises that were more “old Labour” than Blairite.
There is nothing timid, half-hearted, or half-strangled about Jeremy Corbyn and his politics, or about John McDonnell, whom he has appointed as Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. To an enormous degree this is a new political party.
The immediate big problem for those driving to restore a real Labour Party is the Parliamentary Labour Party. The hard-core Blairites are boycotting Corbyn. A majority of the MPs are hostile to this new Labour Party.
The size of Corbyn’s majority inhibits them, limits their options, and may hold them in check for a while. They have a raucous press, TV, and radio to back them and express their opinion and feeling.
The Labour Party now taking shape can’t win an election, they say. Thus they exert pressure on the party to stay within the broad neo-Thatcherite framework that has monopolised British politics, including the Labour Party, for more than a quarter of a century.
A Labour Party publicly discussing and disputing its politics cannot win the electoral support Labour needs, they insist. Here they exert pressure against the democratic discussion and policy formation in which the Labour Party must now engage.
British politics has been an arid wasteland for so long because the political parties, and more and more so up to the eruption of politics in the Labour Party now, have eschewed internal discussion and debate, that is democracy within the parties. The parties have been seen, and rightly, as only machines by way of which gangs of careerist scoundrels fight each other for office.
Breaking out of that framework is a precondition for reversing the widespread mass numbness, indifference, or hostility to politics.
It is also the way to restore something like democracy in the country itself. What is democracy when all the main scene-dominating parties have, essentially, identical politics?
Who says a democratic, politically alive, Labour Party can’t win a majority of the electorate? Who says winning elections is, or should be, the primary consideration, before principles?
One consequence of the Blairite experience has been to demonstrate the futility of politics that is only depoliticised gang warfare. “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” That’s true for parties as well as for individuals.
Getting rid of the Tory government is properly of great concern to the labour movement. Turning them out to put in a bunch of pale pink Tories (and that is what the Blairites and most of the MPs are) is a labour for fools.
The unions are showing that they are ceasing to be political fools and bag-carriers for self-serving politicians. As someone almost asphyxiated needs oxygen, so the labour movement desperately needs the period of political discussion and reorientation that is now opening up.
The tremendous influx of new members — another 30,000 joined in three days after Corbyn’s election — shows that the Corbyn Labour Party can reach out to people, and therefore that it can win a general election.
It can educate the electorate, instead of accommodating to the establishment and press political consensus. It can be productive, transforming and building opinion -- instead of being parasitic on bourgeois-manufactured “public opinion”, private polls, triangulation, and all the rest of it.
There was a time when political parties did that. Labour did it in the 1930s and 40s, and out of that came the welfare state and the NHS. Gladstone’s Liberals did it on Home Rule for Ireland: in 1865-6 Gladstone set out to educate public opinion, losing office because of that and winning it again, now with a mandate for Home Rule, six years later.
The Tory-Unionists did it at the beginning of the 20th century when they launched a “crusade” to replace the entrenched common wisdom for free trade by what they called “tariff reform”.
A democratic system where that sort of exercise is not done, where political parties do nothing but pander to the entrenched dogmas and myths of " public opinion" — that is a democracy that is atrophying.
The neo-Thatcherite conventional wisdom of Tories, Lib-Dems, and Blairites needs to be challenged, and it can be beaten.
An invigorated opposition to the new Tory anti-strike legislation is the urgent immediate need now. So is a powerful campaign to defend the NHS and against the life-robbing bandits of the pharmaceutical companies.
There is probably a mass movement for sorting out the railway system there for the focusing and organising.
The deeper involvement of new members and supporters of Labour in the party is probably best achieved by mobilising them in action on these and other such issues.
The new Labour Party should join with the unions in unionisation campaigns in, for example, the fast food industry. There are other areas where unionisation is long overdue. Picket McDonalds!
The opening up of democratic discussion in and around the Labour Party on issues such as the European Union and the Middle East, now unavoidable, is good as well as being necessary.
Even before the current round of new anti-union legislation, Britain has the worst, the most restrictive and illiberal, union legislation in the European Union. Working-class support for a campaign against Britain’s anti-union laws is there for the asking, across the EU.
The alternative to campaigning within the EU to change and democratise the EU is a regression to the old Europe of nation-states that triggered two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. Sane labour movement people will not choose such a regression: instead, together with workers across the EU, they will campaign and fight to transform the EU.
The Arab-Muslim-Israeli conflict is politically and morally an issue of tremendous importance for the labour movement. A campaign is necessary to advocate and fight for the only just, and the only practicable, solution, by way of two states, a Palestinian Arab state side by side with Israel, both of them fully independent. It is the absence of such a mainstream campaign that allows the “revolutionary” pseudo-left to infect young people, whose good instinct makes them back the Palestinians against Israel, with an “anti-Zionism” so absolute that it becomes support for the destruction of the Jewish state, and is a form of anti-semitism.
If that is to be discussed now in the broad labour movement, as it will have to be given the past involvement of Jeremy Corbyn — who says he is for “two states” — with some of the “absolute anti-Zionist” organisations.
The new members of the Labour Party are a new “left”, politically amorphous and in many respects inchoate. They offers the serious left great opportunities for discussion and political-educational work.
Most important in integrating the new draft of members will be the Labour youth organisation. At present it is small and feeble. Socialists should urge the Corbyn leadership immediately to relaunch a proper youth movement.
Compare the present left influx into the Labour Party with the Bennite left that erupted after Labour lost the 1979 general election to Thatcher. One importance difference is that in 1979 there was a strong activist network in the local Labour Parties. The body of the Labour Party had been vocally opposed to the Labour government for years before 1979.
That provided a frame into which newcomers — and there were many of them, though not as many as today — could be integrated. Today’s pre-influx Labour Party is pretty much a withered shell, and many of its activists are people with political jobs in the Blair machine. It will be harder to integrate newcomers, though a campaigning Labour Party can do it: campaigning local Labour Parties can do it.
Politically, things are much better now. To the Bennite left, it was a basic article of faith to advocate British withdrawal from the European Union. The dominant model they had of socialism was the “Alternative Economic Strategy”, a combination of the sort of semi-planning done in the Stalinist states and nostalgia for Britain’s World War Two economic controls. Large swathes of the left were Stalinist, with a big or a little “s”. It was very hard to convince people then that a lot of what passed for “left” was pernicious nonsense.
For instance, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979, and the colonial war Russia waged for a decade, called forth a strong current of vocal USSR-loyalists in the Labour Party, including among MPs. That was a measure of the political left then. Tony Benn’s Chesterfield constituency Labour Party, with Benn's support, wrote a friendly letter to the Russian dictator Brezhnev on the premise that he was for peace.
Today all that old left has, politically, more or less vanished.
On the other hand, the old left had a strong working-class and labour-movement culture that has now receded into the past.
At that time the official Labour youth movement was a lot bigger than the current Young Labour, but it had been for a decade, with the connivance of the Labour Party leadership, under the control of the “Militant” sect (today the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal), which educated young people into a synthetic ideology that identified socialism with the nationalisation of the big monopolies by the British bourgeois state and preached the idea that the Stalinist states were a sort of “first installment” of working-class socialism. They backed the Russians in Afghanistan all through the 1980s.
Their ideas amounted to a strange non-Marxist, even non-working-class, idea of socialism, and a non-socialist idea of “Marxism”. (They always proclaimed themselves “the Marxists”).
It will be much easier to talk serious working-class politics with the newcomers now than it was to clear away the political debris of the 1970s.