The Brexit Election
Vote Labour—Break with reformism!
The 12 December general election, triggered by parliamentary paralysis over “Brexit,” is taking place in the context of a deeply divided ruling class. The “Remain” faction—traditionally associated with finance capitalists and multinationals which favour continued participation in the French-German imperialist consortium that is the European Union, is facing off with a Brexit faction chiefly composed of smaller enterprises anxious to escape troublesome EU regulations and eager for a closer alignment with the US. The workers’ movement has no essential interest in this dispute, as we noted at the time of the 2016 referendum:
“Marxists do not advocate that the exploiters pursue a policy of either protectionism or free trade. In their quest for profits the capitalists can use either option to attack the historic gains of the workers’ movement.”
– 1917, no. 39
The intra-bourgeois quarrel over the future of British imperialism is taking place within the context of a profound social polarisation characterised by rising popular anxiety at the effects of the austerity programme introduced in the aftermath of the 2007 economic crash which has created a level of poverty not seen for almost a century. It is estimated that there are 320,000 homeless people in Britain. NBC News reported that almost a third of all children in the fifth largest economy in the world are living below the poverty line. Poverty-related diseases, long thought to have been wiped out, are making a comeback. Real wages fell by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2015, more than anywhere else in Europe, except Greece.
Many workers with full-time employment are forced to use food banks to make ends meet as zero-hour contracts continue to rise. While some 14 million people in Britain are living in poverty, those at the top have seen their incomes soar. According to the Independent (19 July 2019), “On average, Britain’s 600 or so aristocratic families are now as wealthy as their Victorian forebears at the height of Britain’s imperial expansion.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s project of aligning Britain more closely with the US is expected to be accompanied by an increase in xenophobia and immigrant-bashing, tax-cuts for the rich, privatisation of pieces of the NHS, and gutting workers’ rights and environmental protections. To muddy the waters Johnson has been making disingenuous noises about new investments in public healthcare and social services. But a Reddit dump of documents detailing six rounds of talks between the Conservative government and US authorities revealed that privatising healthcare was high on the Tory agenda. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, dismissed Johnson’s complaint that Russian hackers were responsible for leaking the information as an “advanced stage of rather belated conspiracy theories by the prime minister,” and observed:
”When we released the documents, at no stage did the prime minister or anybody deny that those documents were real, deny the arguments that we put forward. And if there has been no discussion with the USA about access to our health markets, if all that is wrong, how come after a week they still haven’t said that?”
– Outlook, 7 December 2019
With popular living standards eroding, the economy slowing and a major global downturn looming, the incumbent Tories should be in big trouble. Yet their political competitors have not been able to gain much traction in an election called to settle the issue of Brexit. Theresa May was forced out as prime minister after failing to win Parliament’s endorsement for the deal she negotiated with Brussels. Johnson, unable to do any better, is going to the polls hoping to emerge with a clear mandate to leave.
With the Labour Party itself divided on Brexit, Corbyn has tried to find a middle ground by promising to negotiate a new agreement with Brussels to be ratified in another referendum, with voters having the choice of voting to remain in the EU. Corbyn hoped that this would allow him to turn the election into a referendum on the Conservatives’ unpopular record of austerity. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Scottish National Party (SNP) have all chosen to focus their campaigns on opposition to the Tories’ Brexit plan. When rightist Labour “realists” floated the idea of an anti-Tory coalition Corbyn stoutly responded: “There will be no pacts, no coalition and if Labour is the largest party it will seek to form a government on that basis.”
Labour is a “bourgeois workers party,” i.e., a party organically linked to the working class through the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy from which it traditionally received much of its funding. When Labour stands independently and presents itself as the champion of the exploited and oppressed, as it is in this election, revolutionaries can offer “critical support”— advocating voting for the social democrats in order to put them into office where their claims to represent the interests of their working-class base will be exposed by the pro-capitalist policies they will inevitably implement.
In this election there is a huge popular appetite for relief from the brutal austerity of recent decades and Corbyn, with his traditional social-democratic Keynesian rhetoric which excited genuine mass enthusiasm four years ago, still enjoys substantial working-class support. Labour’s election manifesto contains a series of proposals aimed at raising workers’ living standards, while massively reducing carbon emissions through retrofitting houses and shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Corbyn has promised that workers in carbon-heavy industries would be reemployed as part of the million new jobs that are supposedly going to be created by Labour’s Green New Deal.
Labour promises to renationalise rail and water, while taking over internet providers and guaranteeing free fibre-cable broadband throughout Britain. Corbyn has also stated that Labour will expand the NHS and reverse the steps towards privatisation of healthcare that began with Tony Blair; increase the minimum wage; “Repeal anti-trade union legislation including the Trade Union Act 2016 and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions;” and transfer 10 per cent of shares in industrial enterprises to their employees. This Christmas wish list is topped off with a pledge to build at least 150,000 housing units every year.
These proposals all fall well within the historic mainstream of Labourism and only appear “radical” by contrast to the neo-liberalism of recent decades. If Corbyn manages to win the election his cabinet ministers will soon be busy explaining why the party is unable to deliver on most of their promises. The exception would likely be the pledge to shore up the state repressive apparatus by “rebuild[ing] the whole police workforce” and spending “at least 2% of GDP on defence”, including on “the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent”.
While proposing to raise taxes on multi-national corporations and those with incomes over £80,000 a year, Corbyn, in his speech to the Confederation of British Industry, informed his audience that he is not “anti-business,” and promised that “if a Labour government is elected on 12th December, you’re going to see more investment than you ever dreamt of” (Labour List, 18 November 2019). Yet despite these assurances, a lot of wealthy people supposedly have contingency plans to move funds out of the country if Corbyn manages to get the keys to 10 Downing Street.
Corbyn’s promises of future radical reform must be weighed against his record of fruitlessly attempting to conciliate the party’s right wing and his timid legalistic injunction that local Labour councils must implement cuts dictated by the Tories. The most appalling evidence of Corbyn’s weakness in the face of rightist pressure is capitulation to the filthy smears about Labour as a bastion of anti-Semitism purveyed by the Guardian and other pro-Zionist entities.
Kate Ramsden, a Labour candidate for the Scottish constituency of Gordon was forced to stand down for a blogpost she wrote during Israel’s brutal 2014 assault on Gaza:
“In an apparent reference to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, Miss Ramsden wrote of Israel: ‘Like many abusers, unable to reflect on their own abuse, and ending up recreating it in the abuse of others, exerting their power on those weaker than themselves because once they were the powerless.’
“Labour election candidate Kate Ramsden…quit after it emerged she had compared the actions of Israel to those of a child abuser.
“The Unison union official also wrote: ‘To me the Israeli state is like an abused child who becomes an abusive adult.’”
– DistinctToday, 7 November 2019
To characterise this entirely sensible analogy as “anti-semitic” is as cynical as it is absurd. In an equally pathological move, the Labour leadership temporarily suspended Derby North MP Chris Williamson from the party for the following “anti-semitic” observation:
“The party that’s done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party.
“I’ve got to say I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that because in my opinion… we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic.”
– Yorkshire Post, 26 February 2019
Williamson was punished for telling the simple truth. Anyone with an ounce of political decency is compelled to agree with South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu’s famous comparison of Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians to the treatment of South Africa’s black majority by the white-supremacist apartheid regime. The campaign to smear the Labour Party as a nest of anti-Jewish bigots, conducted with the active cooperation of the Blairite fifth column, is clearly intended to prevent a Labour electoral victory and thereby set the stage for removing Corbyn, long known for his support for Palestinian rights, as party leader.
Corbynite ‘Trotskyists’ – Retailers of Labourite illusions
Many of Britain’s self-proclaimed Trotskyist organisations openly anticipate that Corbyn is unlikely to deliver on many of the promises in Labour’s election manifesto, but nonetheless propose that he initiate various radical anti-capitalist measures. The deep-entryist Labourites of Socialist Appeal (British section of the International Marxist Tendency-IMT) suggest that after getting elected a Corbyn government could pass emergency legislation and move to eliminate capitalism:
“The only way a Labour government can put an end to this nightmare is to introduce bold socialist measures to take over the economy. This means nationalisation of the banks, finance houses, land and the giant corporations that dominate our economy.
“This should be done by introducing emergency legislation. There should be no compensation to the fat cats. Industry must be planned under democratic workers’ control and management. This would allow us to run the economy on the basis of need and not profit.”
—Socialist Appeal, 21 November 2019
The Socialist Party (SP—which broke with the IMT a quarter of a century ago) sees the Blairite wing of Labour as the chief obstacle to the party taking a socialist turn. Having rashly written off Labour as a purely capitalist party when it split with the IMT, the SP was caught flat-footed by the resurgence of working-class enthusiasm that propelled Corbyn into the party’s leadership. In an attempt to save face, the SP leadership suggests that if Corbyn and his supporters drive out the Blairites, Labour could once again become a political instrument for advancing workers’ interests:
“More profoundly, the ruling class will not so lightly give up the chance to reassert the control of the Labour brand it exercised under New Labour, and to snuff out the possibility Corbyn’s leadership gives for a revival of working-class political representation through the Labour Party.”
—Socialism Today, 22 November 2019
The SP’s enthusiasm for a showdown between Corbyn and the New Labour leftovers is motivated by an appetite to return to the glory days of the Militant Tendency’s deep entry in Labour:
“While it [a Blairite split] would forestall that immediate possibility and leave Jeremy Corbyn at the head of a smaller parliamentary group, it would create new opportunities for Labour to develop as a mass workers’ party vying for power in the future, within which a clear socialist programme could find an ever-wider audience.
“The Socialist Party would do everything to assist in this necessary transformation, including applying to affiliate once again.”
Pending their return to Labour’s bosom, the Taaffeites offer a few helpful suggestions on how Corbyn might improve his image in the eyes of worker militants:
“…Jeremy Corbyn must seize the chance to show how he is the real alternative for workers.
* * *
“Corbyn has the opportunity to align himself with the workers in dispute and to hammer home what his programme would do to better workers’ lives. He must embrace this fightback.”
—The Socialist, 13 November 2019
Supporters of Socialist Alternative (who recently parted with Taaffe in an acrimonious split) take an essentially similar approach, advocating that Labour accompany its electoral campaign with a mass popular mobilisation to “take on the bosses”:
“We need to mobilise now to kick out the Tories on the 12th December. The Labour manifesto does have the potential to generate enthusiasm and spur people out into the streets and in workplaces to fight for it. But we also need that movement armed with a bold socialist programme to take on the bosses after the election.”
—Socialist Alternative, 21 November 2019
Red Flag, British section of the League for the Fifth International, which is also eager to see Labour move to the left, proposes that a Corbyn parliamentary majority could be transformed into “a real workers’ government” through “democratising” the trade unions. Easier said than done—ousting the current entrenched pro-imperialist bureaucracy, of which the Labour Party is merely the parliamentary shadow, would require a titanic political struggle led by a new class-struggle leadership. But Red Flag presents it all as a relatively straightforward matter of democratic reform:
“We have to be clear that transforming a Labour government into a real workers’ government will need the mobilisation of the unions and whole working class communities, building up a counter-power to the capitalist state and superseding it by one based on, and accountable to, the working class and its organisations. For that, those organisations themselves need to be thoroughly democratised to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that leaves them passive and inactive.”
—Red Flag, 7 November 2019
The 19 November issue of Socialist Worker proposes that a Corbyn electoral victory will require “a huge battle in workplaces and communities to deliver the kind of change that Corbyn is demanding.” It also observes that carrying out a genuinely socialist transformation will mean taking on the capitalists: “This tiny minority of bankers and bosses aren’t going [to] hand over their power—we will have to take it from them.” This represents a shift from previous speculation by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leadership that Corbyn’s reformist project would likely produce a demoralising defeat for British workers just as Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza government had in Greece (see: ‘A house divided: Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’ and ‘Two faces of reformism’). As the election approached, Socialist Worker began to play down the likelihood of Corbyn betraying and instead began projecting the election of a Labour government as a potential step towards social revolution.
This approach has nothing in common with the tactic of critical electoral support advocated by Lenin and Trotsky. The key task for Marxists is not to create illusions in the potential for agencies of the bosses within the workers’ movement (like the Labour Party) to transmogrify into revolutionary instruments but rather to help the more militant and politically conscious Labour supporters to free themselves from the straightjacket of parliamentary reformism in order to take the road leading to revolutionary mass action.
Corbyn gained the leadership of Labour because a huge number of British workers were eager to fight the reactionary neo-liberal agenda pushed by both New Labour and the Tories. Corbyn’s record of refusing to launch a serious struggle against his party’s poisonous rightist minority guarantees that if elected he will not even attempt to seriously infringe on the prerogatives of those at the top of the social pyramid. The victims of capitalist rule can never make any significant gains if they play by the bosses’ rules. And that is what Corbyn’s brand of legalistic reformism boils down to.
Millions of Labour supporters do not agree with this assessment, which is why the election of a government headed by Corbyn has the potential to put illusions about the viability of reformism to the test. This is why we call for a vote for Labour on 12 December. If Corbyn gets elected his government’s actions will quickly expose the impossibility of expecting to find a parliamentary road to the socialist future. The limits imposed on a Labour government by capitalist legality—limits which Corbyn has made clear he will not attempt to transgress—can help militant workers come to understand that their interests can only be advanced by combatting the bosses, rather than conciliating them.
British society is undergoing a wrenching social crisis which seems likely to intensify in the near future, with or without Brexit. The first duty of Marxists is to describe the situation as it is, without projecting fantasies of the “revolutionary” potential of the pro-capitalist reformists.
“One must seek a way to the reformist masses not through the favour of their leaders, but against the leaders, because opportunist leaders represent not the masses but merely their backwardness, their servile instincts and, finally, their confusion. But the masses have other, progressive, revolutionary traits that strive to find political expression. The future of the masses is most clearly counterposed to their past in the struggle of programmes, parties, slogans and leaders. Instinctively working masses are always ‘for unity.’ But besides class instinct there is also political wisdom. Harsh experience teaches the workers that a break with reformism is the prerequisite for real unity, which is possible only in revolutionary action. Political experience teaches all the better and faster, the more firmly, logically, convincingly and clearly the revolutionary party interprets the experience to the masses.”
—Leon Trotsky, For the Fourth International, 6 August 1934
An egalitarian social order capable of ensuring a decent life for all requires the revolutionary expropriation of capitalist property and the shattering of the police and military apparatuses that exist to protect it. Such a struggle requires a wholesale break with Labourite reformism in favour of the construction of a revolutionary instrument modelled on the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky that led the Russian working class to victory in October 1917.