Since the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU on the 23rd June something like a phoney war has existed between the UK government and the European Union. The atmosphere has been tense but for the most part customary civilities have been observed in the discourses between British and other European ministers and leaders. Nevertheless everyone is aware that things cannot continue like this. Sooner or later a crunch will come and the tense standoff will be at an end. For the moment the different sides are keeping their powder dry and eyeing one another with distrust and suspicion.
Theresa May knows that the fissures in the Tory government cannot be concealed for long and that the inevitable failure to achieve the mutually contradictory objectives of (a) keeping Britain in the EU single market, and (b) stopping or severely restricting the free movement of EU labour into Britain, will open them up. Failure to control EU immigration will re-ignite the rage of the Tory right and the millions who voted for UKIP, and denial of access to the single market will have a devastating impact on the economy. The EU power elites know that if the favoured position demanded by the UK government is granted it will strengthen the Europhobe far right nationalists in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere and make it impossible to hold together the fragile structures of a Euro zone already weakened by the crisis in Greece and the looming financial crisis in Italy. Therefore they have no choice but to hold firm. The survival of Merkel and the pro-EU mainstream parties in France depend upon it.
The impact of Brexit on the Labour Party
In Britain the outcome of the referendum brought to a head the crisis in the Labour party that has become more acute since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership last year. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most serious situation the party has experienced since its near-decimation as a parliamentary force by the betrayal of its then leader, James Ramsay MacDonald at the time of the Great Depression in 1931. Although the media – or to be more precise, those sections of the media that have anything remotely serious to say about it – have begun to talk about an ‘existential crisis’ for the party, no attempt has been made to relate it to the wider context of the deepening crisis of finance monopoly capitalism in Europe and beyond. What is presented as a crisis of leadership in the Labour party is actually something far more profound than that; it is a crisis of social democracy itself. It is coming to a head, or has already come to a head, in many of the European countries where social democratic parties, in and out of government, have been part of the political mainstream for most of the twentieth century.
Since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, supposedly social democratic parties have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt their inability to provide a buffer for the working classes against the depredations of neo-liberal capitalism. Worse than that, formally social democratic parties have shown themselves to be enthusiastic agencies in the service of de-regulated, globalized capital. This was most clearly evident in the dominance of New Labour in Britain from 1997 to 2010. The misleading designation ‘left of centre’ accorded such parties by the media cannot disguise the fact that in all essentials they are virtually indistinguishable from those described as ‘right of centre.’ David Cameron is an admirer of Tony Blair and was pleased to be described as ‘Blair Mark 2’ or ‘Heir to Blair’. In parts of southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal) new movements, largely unencumbered by close association with social democratic parties, have emerged on the left. They often lack clear perspectives and direction, which can render them susceptible to schism and manipulation. But they express the determination of millions who for years have suffered the harsh effects of severe austerity, the indignity of long term unemployment and exclusion, to sweep such intolerable conditions away and build a better future. In Britain, this revolt has taken place inside the Labour party.
Of course what cannot be ignored is that in many countries, including Britain, the failure of neo-liberalism to reverse the long term economic stagnation of the monopoly capitalist system has resulted in a comparable upsurge of rage among large sections of disenfranchised workers who have been assigned to the scrap-heap. They have abandoned the traditional parties of social democracy in droves and turned to xenophobic nationalist parties of the extreme right. Stirred up by the anti-immigrant diatribes of the tabloid media, many are ready to vent their anger and resentment at their plight on migrant workers. This was a significant factor in producing the referendum vote to leave the EU. The refusal of the mainstream parliamentary parties to address their grievances, however misplaced they may have been, simply deepened their cynicism about the Westminster ‘system’ and professional politicians as a whole. In the 2015 general election the UK Independence party (UKIP) amassed nearly four million votes but due to the peculiarities of the ‘first past the post’ British electoral system, won only one seat in the Westminster parliament. UKIP is still the third largest party in Britain. Given that its main objective – taking Britain out of the EU – has been achieved, support for the party might be expected to decline rapidly. But if, as seems quite possible, the present government is either unable or unwilling to fulfil its promise that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, then the future for UKIP might look much more promising.
But assessing what the future may hold for the Labour party is much more problematic. The dominant political and corporate elites in Britain, and the broadcasting and print media that generally support them do not want to destroy the Labour party. They want to ensure that it continues to play the part it has done for more than one hundred years, namely, when in office to act responsibly as Her Majesty’s government, and when out of office to be Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, but in either case to uphold the political and economic status quo. Since its displacement of the Liberals after the First World War Labour remained, in and out of office, a social democratic party dominated almost always by its right wing. Its transformation in the mid-1990s into ‘New Labour’ signified more than a revised name; essentially it ceased to be a social democratic party any more. Disguised by the deceptive and vacuous claim to be committed to some nebulous ‘Third Way’, Blair and his acolytes had captured the party for the neo-liberal enterprise. (An almost identical shift occurred within the US Democratic party, led by the so-called Clintonites, although the roots of the shift were visible for decades.—Eds.)
Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party in 2015 has been dealt with in earlier articles so does not need to be reprised here. From the moment prior to his election when it became clear that he would win with a huge majority over his nearest rival, the attacks on him began. Since then they have only grown in intensity. Despite the fact that he campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, after June 23rd most of the Remain supporters in parliament (including the majority of Labour MPs) and in the media, came close to accusing him of deliberately sabotaging the campaign. He was held responsible for the desertion of millions of traditional Labour voters to Brexit. Theresa May’s absence from the scene and total silence in the lead-up to the referendum, despite her putative commitment to the Remain camp, was conveniently ignored. Her subsequent willingness as PM to embrace the Brexit cause with alacrity has passed without criticism. Corbyn’s supposed dereliction of responsibility in failing to deliver the Labour vote for Remain, became the casus belli for a coup involving many of his back-benchers, to remove him as leader. This proved to be an incompetent attempt and has failed. But he still faces a challenge to his leadership. Despite the overwhelming hostility he faces from the majority of Labour MPs and from most of the media, he is likely to defeat his challenger and retain the leadership. But before considering the implications of this for the future of the Labour party it is worth commenting on the intensity of these relentless attacks on him.
The Media and the Political Establishment against Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn is hardly a revolutionary socialist. He has always regarded himself as a socialist in that long tradition of British Labour politicians, intellectuals and parliamentarians including such illustrious figures as Jenny Lee, Ellen Wilkinson, Nye Bevan, Konni Zilliacus, GDH Cole and Harold Laski – all left-wing social democrats who referred to themselves as democratic socialists. Corbyn’s politics are not to the left of these. The remedies he proposes to deal with Britain’s current parlous economic state and grotesque inequalities are certainly not Marxist – they are Keynesian; the sort of fiscal and monetary policies advocated by Joseph Stiglitz, and by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. But judging by the ferocious response of the mainstream political establishment one would think that he was advocating the violent overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviets. The level of vicious, personalised hostility, unrestrained abuse, deliberate misrepresentation and distortion in the mainstream political and media attacks on him is almost beyond belief. The right wing press has always indulged in this sort of character assassination of prominent Labour politicians going back to Aneurin Bevan in the 1940s, to Michael Foot Neil Kinnock and most recently Ed Miliband. But nothing like the treatment accorded to Corbyn has been witnessed before. All pretence at balance and honesty has been abandoned in favour of the most unashamed lies and crude propaganda. This has not been confined to the usual corporate media outlets with a track record in this sort of slanderous stuff like The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Telegraph but has extended to The Guardian, Observer and the BBC. [Again, the degeneracy of the bourgeois press in Britain mirrors the utter degeneracy of the Western press in general, led by the US conglomerates, all of which is yet another indication of systemic rot, or the advanced state of putrefaction of the global capitalist system and its democratic conceits. The job done by the corporate mainstream media on Russia and Putin, for example, responds to the same indecent standards. —Editors)
Recent research by the Media Reform Coalition at the London School of Economics has highlighted some of the most egregious examples: 60% of all articles in the mainstream press were negative while only 13% were positive; Corbyn was ceaselessly mocked for his looks, his life-style, his failure to sing the national anthem and to bow sufficiently obsequiously to the Queen. He was accused of being unpatriotic, unelectable and having links to terrorists – i.e. the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. The BBC television political correspondent, Laura Kuensberg (who accused Corbyn of deliberately sabotaging the Remain campaign on the basis of no evidence) coordinated the resignation of a Corbyn appointee from the shadow cabinet to appear on TV just prior to prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons in order to do maximum damage to the party leader. The much publicised accusations of widespread anti-Semitism in the Labour party (see more below) turned out on close investigation to have little or no basis in fact. These are just a few examples of distortion and biased opinion that has been presented as unassailable fact since Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the party. [We can only imagine what these jackals would do with a genuine revolutionary government!—Eds.]
Jeremy Corbyn now stands condemned by most of the media, most members of the parliamentary Labour party and most members of all the other parties in both houses of parliament. The whole political establishment insists that he is a disaster and must go. But he continues to address huge gatherings of enthusiastic supporters up and down the country. Most of these are studiously ignored by the media. What he actually says generally goes unreported and when it is reported it is usually distorted. According to some estimates, since the failed coup to remove him, 60,000 new members joined in one week bringing the total membership to over 450,000. This makes the Labour party the largest social democratic party in Europe. Although his opponents in the party claim that he is losing support among the grass roots membership, this is likely to be wishful thinking on their part. Corbyn is all but certain to defeat his challenger, Owen Smith, in the new election that has been forced upon him. In the extremely unlikely event that Smith defeats him this will not result in the ‘return to normal’ that the PLP majority want to see. Such a result could only be imagined on the basis of a blatantly undemocratic disenfranchisement of thousands of the new members. If Corbyn wins again as is expected, what will happen then? Whichever way things go a split in the party cannot be ruled out. The optimistic hope of Corbyn, his parliamentary supporters and his huge support base in the party outside parliament, is that the majority of the PLP will accept defeat and, however grudgingly, get behind him. But this seems unlikely.
Here, in some concluding remarks, it is worth referring to one of the most serious studies of the history of the Labour party ever written: Parliamentary Socialism : A study in the Politics of Labour. By Ralph Miliband, who was one of Britain’s foremost Marxist scholars. His book, published 55 years ago in 1961, argued that Labour was from its inception essentially a parliamentary party that had never been prepared to initiate or support any form of extra-parliamentary mass action by the working class and its allies that might pose a serious threat to the pre-eminence of parliament and the political and economic status quo. As such, even in its post-war heyday, it never moved beyond the bounds of reform and reformism. In foreign policy it followed in the footsteps of its Tory predecessors. Miliband seemed reticent to assert categorically that Labour would never be prepared or able to break out of its reformist mould. The closest he came to it was in his book’s prescient concluding paragraph, which is reproduced below as an appendix. It may just be that Corbyn’s intervention at this juncture, in this deepening crisis of global capitalism from which Britain cannot isolate itself, could be a first step in the building of a new mass movement so sorely needed to challenge the power of the ruling elites.
“If the Labour Party were to become such a [radical socialist] party it would be subject to attacks infinitely more fierce than it has had to endure for many a day, from the Conservative interests and a Conservative Press whose present yearning for a ‘virile Opposition’ would instantly vanish, and also from former members who would feel impelled to turn against it and denounce its policies and deeds. But against this it would elicit and enlist the kind of devotion and support which a consolidating Labour Party now finds it increasingly difficult to engender. It is well to resist the urge to prophecy. But it does not seem unduly rash to suggest that the alternative to its becoming such a party is the kind of slow but sure decline which – deservedly – affects parties that have ceased to serve any distinctive political purpose.”
Ralph Miliband: Parliamentary Socialism. 1961.
Letter to The Guardian, July 5th 2016 (Unpublished)
During the Home Affairs select committee interrogation of Jeremy Corbyn about the claims of widespread anti-Semitism in the Labour party, the chairman, Keith Vaz [Labour MP for Leicester East] repeated the widely circulated but false accusation that in his remarks at a press conference launching the party’s report on the subject, Corbyn had likened Jews who supported Israel to Muslims who supported Islamic State (Isis). It was clear to anyone who attended the meeting, and confirmed by the filmed record, that he said that Jews were “no more responsible for the actions of Israel than Muslims were for the various self-styled Islamic states and organizations.” He clearly meant such states as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. Corbyn was asked to apologize for something he had never said.
As far as I am aware Keith Vaz has never apologized for his participation in 1989 in a 3,000 strong demonstration against Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses. Vaz, the main speaker at the demonstration, hailed it as “one of the great days in the history of Islam in Britain.” At this and many other similar demonstrations, Rushdie was burned in effigy along with copies of his book. Sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, he was forced to spend many years in hiding. Isn’t it time Keith Vaz apologized to Salman Rushdie?
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