by Eric Segal
The world has been turned upside down by the pandemic, which has speeded up all the contradictions of the capitalist system. Capitalism is inflicting misery on the global population and, despite huge technological advances, it has failed to raise the material conditions of the world population. Capitalism has nothing to offer, and so the task for the working class is to build mass socialist parties that offer a clear socialist alternative to capitalism.
The latest government figures on child poverty, published for 2018/19, show that 4.2 million under-16s live below the poverty line: 30 per cent of the UK’s child population. This compares with 3.6 million — or 27 per cent — in 2011/12, meaning 600,000 more children were in poverty in the later period. More than half of these children — over two million — are under fives, and a third live in single-parent families. In 2018/19 44,710 under 16s in Kent were living in absolute low-income families.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour ignited an explosion of support among young people, with hundreds of thousands mobilising in the 2017 general election. However, the recent Labour Party national executive committee (NEC) election gave a picture of youth involvement in the party today. Like the Tory Party, Labour’s active membership is now dominated by a predominantly middle-class pensioner layer.
The suspension of Corbyn showed the determination of the right-wing Blairites to annihilate the last vestiges of ‘Corbynism’ — as the Socialist Party warned would be the case. Corbyn has broken no rule and for the Labour Party general secretary to suspend him for stating that antisemitism within Labour has been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’ is an incredible attack by the right wing of the party.
Since Keir Starmer was elected leader many have left Labour, tearing up their membership cards in protest, and it has been reported that staff from all departments at Labour HQ have been moved to dealing with resignations, such are their numbers. In response, leading figures on the Labour left, including Corbyn, John McDonnell and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, have pleaded with those who are angry to stick with the party and to stay calm.
Members who are resigning have a clearer idea of the reality facing the Labour left than the leaders appealing for calm. Seven leaders of affiliated trade unions, including McCluskey, have produced a joint statement opposing Corbyn’s suspension, but its only proposal for action is to plead with Starmer to work with them on finding a ‘fairer, unifying way forward’. The last five years have shown beyond any doubt that this strategy is doomed to failure. Under Corbyn, Labour was not transformed into a workers’ party but remained two parties in one, with a pro-capitalist right that continued to dominate the Labour machine and a potential anti-austerity party around Corbyn.
The right were only forced to retreat by standing up to them, not by pleading for unity. Unlike the leadership of Momentum — supposedly set up to build support for Corbyn’s policies but which retreated at every stage — the leadership of Unite, the biggest affiliated trade union, did sometimes play that role. But the opportunity to transform Labour into an anti-austerity socialist party was thrown away as endless compromises were made with the pro-capitalist right of the party in the hope of pacifying them.
Starmer was therefore able to walk into the leadership of a party already dominated by his co-thinkers. Mandatory reselection of MPs has not been introduced and the democratisation of the party, including the restoration of the role of the trade unions, was never carried out. The biggest rebellion of Labour MPs since then has been the 34 MPs who voted against the ‘spy-cops’ bill, which gives state agents the right to break the law while spying on socialists and trade unionists.
This shows how small the left of the parliamentary Labour Party still is, five years after Corbyn’s initial leadership victory. Even before Corbyn’s suspension, the left had been remorselessly removed by Starmer from any positions they still held. Now, given further confidence by the passivity of the leaders of the Labour left, Starmer and those around him are trying to grind the left into the dust.
Constituency Labour parties have been banned from passing motions that criticise October’s Equality & Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism in Labour or Corbyn’s suspension. Starmer is determined to demonstrate to the capitalist class that Labour is once again ‘New Labour’ and can be relied upon to act in the interests of the rich.
While popular fury against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s incompetence is growing, Starmer sees his role not in harnessing working-class anger to fight for socialist policies but the exact opposite. He is auditioning to be a more competent representative of the capitalist class in government should Johnson be forced out.
Starmer’s trenchant opposition to teaching unions’ demands that schools close during the new lockdown is the latest example of his backing for the agenda of big business rather than the workers’ movement. Appealing to Starmer to reverse his decision, Len McCluskey emphasised the importance of party unity. But unity is only an asset if it’s built around a programme that is in the interests of the working class. The only unity Starmer will accept is on the basis of the complete and utter capitulation of the left: not even able to make the mildest criticism of his pro-capitalist agenda.
The working class in Britain are facing a resurgent virus, a lockdown, and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and to leave them without any political voice would be a serious dereliction of duty. Instead of pleading with Starmer, left trade unions should immediately institute a call for a conference: a council of war of the workers’ movement, inside and outside of the Labour Party, to fight this attack and to discuss how to ensure workers have a vehicle that does fight for their interests. While that discussion takes place, not a penny should be paid by the affiliated trade unions to the Labour leadership.
The Socialist Party argues that what is required now is for the left trade unions to found a new mass workers’ party with a socialist programme.
Some will argue that it would be better for the left trade unions to stay inside Labour and use their social and financial weight to launch a campaign to try and pull the party back to the left.
There is no question that serious opposition to the right would be an improvement on the current policy of supplication. But having failed to transform Labour into a mass democratic workers’ party while Corbyn was leader, we do not think it can be accomplished now.
The unions’ financial weight is limited, with annual union affiliation fees accounting for under 15 per cent of the party’s income. In addition, the tens of thousands of people who were inspired by Corbyn’s election to become active are now thoroughly demoralised by the retreats and defeats of the last half decade.
The development of a new workers’ party would do more to fight for workers’ interests at the ballot box — and also to turn the heat up on Starmer and the Labour right — than would be possible with a campaign within the confines of the Labour Party. However, if a lead does not come from the top, there will be many workers and young people who will be prepared to take steps in that direction. The Socialist Party is fighting for a new mass workers’ party, and appeals to all those who agree to join us in that struggle, including those tearing up their Labour Party membership cards in disgust.
As a starting point, the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition (Tusc), which involves the RMT transport workers’ union, the Socialist Party and others, is back in action and preparing to stand in elections next May against pro-capitalist, pro-cuts Labour candidates. Local steering committees involving representatives from trade-union branches and community campaigns are starting to be formed. The rest of the labour movement — the left union leaders in particular — must act. The determination of the right to make Labour safe for capitalism could not be clearer.
If now is not the time for similar determination from the left to fight for a mass workers’ party, when is?
Eric Segal has been an active trade unionist and socialist since leaving school at 15 to become an apprentice.
Eric was instrumental in building a strong union base for the Refugee Legal Centre, where he worked for 10 years. After a bitter fight, it was forced to close due to cuts in funding by successive governments.
Eric is proud to have helped build the campaign to try to elect Robbie Segal, a Marxist, as general secretary of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw that resulted in her gaining over 40 per cent of the vote. He continues to represent Unite the Union members in his capacity as an accredited support companion.
He joined the Labour Party as a socialist, and as youth officer he built an active, combative Labour Party Young Socialists branch in Folkestone. He joined Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in the 1970s, and was expelled from the Labour Party some 30 years ago. Eric served as secretary of the Kent Anti-Poll Tax Federation and was jailed for non-payment of the poll tax. He continues to be an active member of the Socialist Party.
Eric was also active in building the local trades union council in Folkestone and is the secretary of the campaigning, fighting South East Kent TUC.
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