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Class War in the U.K. Labour Party

As inequalities in wealth expand, many working people are losing ground, with some falling out of the “middle class.” Classes have become more clearly defined, raising the possibility for outbreaks of class struggle. The Bernie Sanders campaign represented a small step in this direction as Sanders polemicised against the 1%. But the turmoil in the Labour Party of the U.K., triggered by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to head the Party, could alter the balance of forces in the U.K. and possibly throughout Europe. Corbyn has championed an anti-austerity, pro-working class platform. Of course, one gets no hint of the significance of this development from the mainstream media.

First, some background. Jeremy Corbyn has been a member of Parliament for decades and steadfastly stood on a radical left platform. He has opposed British imperialism and neo-liberalism, meaning that he is against privatizing government services, lowering corporate taxes, reducing funding to government programs, deregulating corporations, and diluting the rights of labor. He has adopted a platform that supports the working class, not the powerful corporations. He has marched with striking health care workers, spoken in support of protesting teachers, helped lead the anti-war movement, and defended immigrants.

Corbyn, however, has played the role of a rebel within the Labour Party. Under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Labour Party, like other social democratic parties in Europe, abandoned most of their principles and embraced capitalism, including the pro-corporate, neo-liberal agenda as well as British imperialism. Blair was a leading proponent of the Iraq War, for which he has been strongly rebuked by the recently released Chilcot report.

Nine months ago, when the Labour Party was in the process of choosing a new leader, Corbyn indicated interest in running for the position. But in order to qualify as a candidate, he had to be endorsed by a minimum number of Labour Party members of Parliament. Unfortunately, many established Labour Party leaders are loyal supporters of Tony Blair. Most of them, to one degree or another, have embraced the neo-liberal corporate agenda.

Corbyn faced an uphill battle in his quest to run in the Labour Party election. He had a few enthusiastic supporters among Labour Party members of Parliament, but most were hostile. Finally, some Labour members of Parliament gave him their endorsement, simply to promote a democratic contest, even though they would never vote for him themselves. So, with only seconds to spare, Corbyn became a candidate. None of the established Labour Party leaders gave him any chance to win.

But to the amazement of all, Corbyn not only won, but with 60 percent of the vote he won with a historically high margin. This stunning victory was in part made possible by recent changes in voting procedures that were introduced to reduce the influence of labor unions within the Labour Party. It meant that by paying a small fee, individuals could immediately join the Party and vote in the election. As a result and because of enthusiasm around Corbyn, two hundred thousand joined, doubling the number of Labour Party members, and they overwhelmingly voted for Corbyn.

Almost immediately after Corbyn’s victory, members of the Labour Party who are pro-corporate members of Parliament conspired to depose him. Tony Blair supplied aid and offered blessings. They started referring to Corbyn as “unelectable,” were he to run in a national, general election. But when local elections took place, although Corbyn’s critics predicted loses, the Labour Party not only held ground but gained some.

Then the referendum on membership in the European Union provided the conspirators with a new pretext for an attack. Corbyn campaigned to remain in the European Union, but when the remain-side lost and the majority voted to leave (Brexit), the Labor Party conservative stalwarts blamed Corbyn for the defeat, even though two-thirds of Labour Party members voted to remain. Tony Blair went out of his way in a New York Times op-ed to describe Corbyn’s performance in the referendum as “lukewarm.” The plotters’ new mantra for Corbyn was “incompetent.”

Not surprisingly, the U.K. mainstream media repeated this accusation uncritically. Even David Brooks of The New York Times jumped on the bandwagon, calling Corbyn an “incompetent, inexperienced outsider” without providing any evidence other than the vote of no confidence by an overwhelming majority of the Labour Party members of Parliament. The idea that such a vote could have been politically motivated by class interests was simply beyond the reach of David Brooks’ imagination.

But politics is the crux of the matter. Corbyn’s working-class platform is simply unacceptable to many of the old guard Labour Party parliamentarians who have made their peace with the corporate class and have decided that the working class must sacrifice to ensure the success of their employers. However, politicians who side with corporations seldom do so explicitly. They hide behind lies and ambiguities because they still need the votes of working people to win elections. When they run for office, they make vague promises to working people. Behind closed doors, they assure corporations of their loyalty. Corbyn’s Labour Party parliament critics consequently did not criticize his politics; they attacked his personal qualifications. And the mainstream media dutifully reported these attacks without demanding evidence or without ever questioning political motives.

The coup seemed to be gaining strength. One Parliamentary Labour Party member after another resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet with carefully orchestrated timing to make it look as if a trickle was turning into a raging torrent. The conspirators clamored for Corbyn’s resignation.

Corbyn simply refused, noting that he had an overwhelming mandate from the rank-and-file membership of the Labour Party. And although some credit must go to him personally, Corbyn is not standing alone. His political platform has generated excitement and a movement among working people. Once he became a candidate to head the Labour Party, an organization called Momentum quickly formed to lend support. Momentum is a separate organization but supports the Labour Party and especially supports Corbyn. It calls for redistributing wealth to the many, putting people and the planet before profit, ending discrimination, ending austerity, reversing privatization, strengthening labor rights, providing decent housing for all, etc.

Once it was clear after Brexit that the anti-Corbyn attempted coup had shifted into high gear, Momentum organized pro-Corbyn demonstrations across the country, including a rally of 10,000 in London. In this short period its membership doubled to 12,000. These members are political activists and hence can play a crucial role in influencing the course of politics.

Meanwhile, membership in the Labour Party has also soared since Brexit. Because of the turmoil surrounding Corbyn, an additional hundred thousand joined, with a clear majority of them supporting Corbyn. And all the major unions have pledged him their support.

For now, the coup has failed. Given that Corbyn refused to resign, options of the Labour Party opponents have run out. Even they acknowledged that if Corbyn were to run again for head of the Labour Party, he would undoubtedly win.

But this only ends the first battle of this new class war in the U.K. More is yet to come.

 

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

March 18, 2019
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