The limits of Corbyn’s Labour: social democracy and the radical left

Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election to the leadership of the Labour Party on an increased vote is a significant victory for the left in the Labour Party and for progressive politics in Britain. It is a victory that everyone on the left celebrates.

It demonstrates the strength of support that exists for changing the politics of the Labour Party: for shifting the balance of power within our society, away from the political and economic elites towards the majority, to empower and enfranchise the working class and communities hardest hit by the long run attacks upon the welfare state.
It is absolutely clear that Corbyn seeks to bring significant change to the Labour Party: to restore its foundational commitment to the interests and advancement of the working class, to defend and extend its greatest achievement – the welfare state, and to make headway where previously there has been little progress – in making Labour a champion of international peace and justice, against British economic interventionism, war and nuclear weapons. All those who seek advance for this agenda wish to support Corbyn and his allies in bringing change to the Labour Party so it can implement some, or all, of these policies.
The influx of new members into the Labour Party to support Corbyn’s political vision has been remarkable. Yet obstacles to the implementation of extensive change in the Labour Party are considerable, as has been seen over the last year.  Both the British establishment and its counterparts within the Labour Party have fought to undermine Corbyn and remove him from office. This has failed but the strength of the right in the party’s apparatus and structures has obstructed much of the work he would wish to do.  But there are also a number of other historical and political factors which militate against the kind of extensive change that some on the far left would wish to see.

The 10 Pledges ‘To Rebuild And Transform Britain’

The Labour Party has always been a broad church politically, never predominantly the preserve of the left. As Corbyn demonstrated in his speech at the recent Labour Party conference, uniting the party means political pledges which are acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the party – progressive, but very much in the Labour tradition, as we can see here:
"1. Full employment and an economy that works for all
We will create a million good quality jobs across our regions and nations and guarantee a decent job for all. By investing £500 billion in infrastructure, manufacturing and new industries backed up by a publicly-owned National Investment Bank and regional banks we will build a high skilled, high tech, low carbon economy that ends austerity and leaves no one and nowhere left behind. We will invest in the high speed broadband, energy, transport and homes that our country needs and allow good businesses to thrive, and support a new generation of co-operative enterprises.
2. A secure homes guarantee
We will build a million new homes in five years, with at least half a million council homes, through our public investment strategy. We will end insecurity for private renters by introducing rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights, and increase access to affordable home ownership.
3. Security at work
We will give people stronger employment rights from day one in a job, end exploitative zero hours contracts and create new sectoral collective bargaining rights, including mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees. We will create new employment and trade union rights to bring security to the workplace and win better pay and conditions for everyone. We will strengthen working people’s representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise so that working people have a real voice at work. And we will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe.
4. Secure our NHS and social care
We will end health service privatisation and bring services into a secure, publicly-provided NHS. We will integrate the NHS and social care for older and disabled people, funding dignity across the board and ensure parity for mental health services.
5. A national education service, open to all
We will build a new National Education Service, open to all throughout their lives. We will create universal public childcare to give all children a good start in life, allowing greater sharing of caring responsibilities and removing barriers to women participating in the labour market. We will bring about the progressive restoration of free education for all; and guarantee quality apprenticeships and adult skills training.
6. Action to secure our environment
We will act to protect the future of our planet, with social justice at the heart of our environment policies, and take our fair share of action to meet the Paris climate agreement – starting by getting on track with our Climate Change Act goals. We will accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and drive the expansion of the green industries and jobs of the future, using our National Investment Bank to invest in public and community-owned renewable energy. We will deliver clean energy and curb energy bill rises for households – energy for the 60 million, not the big 6 energy companies. We will defend and extend the environmental protections gained from the EU.
7. Put the public back into our economy and services
We will rebuild public services and expand democratic participation, put the public back into our economy, give people a real say in their local communities, and increase local and regional democracy. We will rebuild our economy with public investment to deliver wealth for all, across our regions and nations in a genuinely mixed economy. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services, increase access to leisure, arts and sports across the country and expand our publicly-controlled bus network. We will bring our railways into public ownership and build democratic social control over our energy.
8. Cut income and wealth inequality
We will build a progressive tax system so that wealth and the highest earners are fairly taxed, act against executive pay excess and shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid – FTSE 100 CEOs are now paid 183 times the wage of the average UK worker, and Britain’s wages are the most unequal in Europe. We will act to create a more equal society, boost the incomes of the poorest and close the gender pay gap.
9. Action to secure an equal society
We will ensure that the human rights of all citizens are respected and all are protected from discrimination and prejudice. We will take action to tackle violence against women and girls, racism and discrimination on the basis of faith, and secure real equality for LGBT and disabled people. We will defend the Human Rights Act and we will guarantee full rights for EU citizens living and working in Britain – and not allow them to be used as pawns in Brexit negotiations.
10. Peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy
We will put conflict resolution and human rights at the heart of foreign policy, commit to working through the United Nations, end support for aggressive wars of intervention and back effective action to alleviate the refugee crisis. British foreign policy has long failed to be either truly independent or internationally co-operative, making the country less safe and reducing our diplomatic and moral authority. We will build human rights and social justice into trade policy, honour our international treaty obligations on nuclear disarmament and encourage others to do the same."
All these are excellent commitments and the restoration of the Labour Party to this political programme is very much to be welcomed.
However, policies supported by Jeremy Corbyn and the left that are not tolerated by the right, such as anti-war, anti-Trident, anti-NATO have been sidelined or rejected, in line with Labour policies throughout most of its existence. The commitment in Corbyn’s final pledge to nuclear disarmament is rendered meaningless by the current Labour leadership’s decision not to oppose the government’s decision to build a replacement for Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system, in spite of majority opposition to it from the membership. Post-war Labour prime minister Attlee, whose government introduced the welfare state, also helped found NATO and committed Britain to nuclear weapons, and there are those in the Corbyn leadership, as well as in the trade unions, the PLP and across the membership who either genuinely support this perspective, or condone it in order to achieve change on more ‘mainstream’ issues like rail re-nationalisation. Other issues are also highly contested and structural obstacles exist to progressive change – such as the rule change voted at the recent conference, preventing Labour councillors from voting against cuts budgets thereby allowing the situation to continue where many working class people and communities see Labour as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
So the question facing Labour is not whether it can become an anti-capitalist party of the radical left. That is not within the framework of what is politically possible. Political intervention from the far left with that in mind will damage Corbyn’s prospects for achieving change within the Labour Party.  The question is whether his leadership can succeed in recovering Labour for a social democratic reform agenda. Such a development would be unprecedented and of enormous political significance, across Europe and beyond, potentially impacting on other similar parties across Europe – the SDP in Germany, the Socialist Party in France.
Since the 1990s, all nominally social democratic parties have embraced neo-liberalism. Blair consolidated that process in Britain as Jospin did in France and Schroeder did in Germany and countless others elsewhere. Nowhere has this political process yet been reversed. The possibility exists in Britain because, owing to the first past the post electoral system, no numerically significant radical left party has emerged to present an anti-neo-liberal alternative the like of which we have seen across Europe and elsewhere globally. Thus Corbyn has been the recipient of much of the anti-establishment, anti-neo-liberal sentiment which has brought significant electoral support to parties like Podemos and Syriza. If Corbyn can harness this desire for change to restore social democracy to the Labour Party that will be an enormous advance for the people of Britain, with a potential impact on mass social democratic parties beyond our national boundaries. The social democratic space in British politics needs to be occupied once again by a mass party capable of government.

The postion of Left Unity

Many on the left have opted to join the Labour Party in order to support this development. Others take the view that in addition to the struggle to restore the Labour Party to its original remit and ethos, it is also crucial for an alternative left politics to be expressed – anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist – as it has been in politics in Britain and globally, for a century or more. The purpose of this is not just to set out the extent of what is possible and necessary for a real transformation of society and human, economic and social relations, but to be able to pursue in practical terms the politics that this vision represents.  This political space, to the left of social democracy, also needs to be occupied – in Britain, as it is across Europe and beyond. Left Unity is part of that radical left current, with parties and movements across Europe, acting in solidarity and recognising that the problems we face in Britain cannot be solved on a national basis. They are systemic problems that the working class internationally is organising against and we are part of that process.
A clear political expression of anti-capitalist principles and policies is an essential part of the political spectrum and the experience of the last two centuries shows this political analysis to be correct and to be widely supported internationally. Our opposition to imperialism is also crucial: a clear voice against war and nuclear weapons; for Britain to play a different role in the world based on justice and equality between states, not perpetuating neo-colonialism. Our voice is also necessary against racism and discrimination, for migrants, refugees and free movement, for the rights not only of workers from all countries, but of women and girls, of disabled people and all those suffering as a result of the brutal policies inflicted by ruling classes here and internationally.
Above all, Left Unity’s position is not just about stating the case for an alternative, it is about taking action, working wherever we can in our communities, with our class within and beyond our national boundaries, against austerity, against the sanctions, against the racist attacks and discrimination. There are diverse ways of contributing to the struggle for a just and equal society and this is ours.
Partly based on an article at: