Should Jeremy Corbyn stand as an independent in Islington North? Should socialists stand candidates against Labour generally and against Keir Starmer specifically? Should socialists be calling for a new workers’ party? If so, what sort of party?
None of these questions can be answered without first answering the questions that all socialists have to consider. What is our aim as socialists? How do we achieve it? I have attempted to answer these questions in my previous article What is Socialism?
Capitalism is incapable of solving any of the multiple crises facing humanity – economic crisis, with growing inequality, wars, and climate catastrophe. These are all the product of capitalism.
The ultimate goal of socialists has to be the creation of a new, socialist world, in which capitalism has been abolished, classes and inequality have disappeared, in which there is no state and all of the world’s resources are held in common and planned for the needs of all.
How do we achieve this? By building mass socialist parties across the world which emblazon this aim on their banners, clearly setting it out in their party programmes and persuading all sections of the working class of the necessity and possibility of transforming society in their own interests.
If we always have the ultimate goal firmly in mind, along with the strategic objective of building mass socialist parties, then dealing with episodic developments can be considered in terms of how they help or hinder. All tactical considerations of the socialist movement should be subordinated to the overarching objective of sweeping away the private ownership of the means of production, i.e. capitalism.
Our aim is socialism, or communism, [I use the terms interchangeably] as Marx and Engels argued. This does not mean a ‘mixed economy’ in which there is partial nationalisation, with the rest of the economy in private hands, and with the undemocratic state left in place to act in the interests of the present ruling class. Nor does it mean the ‘communism’ we saw in the former Soviet Union and similar states, or in China today. These were a Stalinised perversion of communism/socialism, in which the working class had no say in what was done, or how. China is, in my opinion, a capitalist economy, regardless of the name of the ruling party.
How does any of this help us to answer the questions at the head of this article? I argue that it puts things into the necessary perspective.
Should Corbyn stand?
The decision of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a parliamentary candidate for Labour is one more example of the trampling of members’ democratic rights by Starmer and his right-wing allies who now control the party. It is also indicative of a determination and ruthlessness to act against the left in a way that was unfortunately completely absent from Corbyn and his advisors when they were in control. Corbyn is the architect of his own predicament. He missed the chance to sweep out the right, and they are now using his failure to sweep out the left, suspending and expelling individual members, imposing selection short-lists, and banning socialist groups. The right, acting in the interests of big business, wants to ensure that nothing like the left-wing resurgence under Corbyn can happen again.
All socialists and democrats, inside and outside of the Labour Party, should rally to defend Corbyn against his exclusion and demand that the decision be overturned, allowing the local LP members in Islington North to choose who they want.
From comments Corbyn has made, it looks like he will stand as an independent candidate against the ‘official’ imposed Labour candidate. No doubt he will stand on the basis of the 2017 and 2019 party manifestos. It seems that he will follow the approach of Ken Livingstone, who successfully stood as an independent candidate for Mayor of London in 2000 and was later readmitted into the party by then leader Tony Blair. He was re-elected as London Mayor in 2004, this time as the Labour candidate.
If this is correct, it means that Corbyn is not at all interested in setting up a new party. He will advise his supporters inside the Labour Party not to say or do anything to jeopardise their membership, i.e. not to back him publicly. He will seek to use his popularity outside the Labour Party to draw in masses of canvassers into Islington North.
Those supporters are now being encouraged to join his Peace and Justice Project. This is not a project for a new party. It is a limited company, with Corbyn and Baroness Christine Blower as directors. It is a project to maintain Corbyn’s public and international profile and to get him back into parliament. Its website is called https://thecorbynproject.com It has appointed ‘Patrons’. Its members have no say over what is done. It appears to be little more than a Jeremy Corbyn fan club. This is not what we need.
More importantly, it shows that the hundreds of thousands who are looking to Corbyn as some sort of springboard to a new party will be sorely disappointed. Corbyn is politically and personally wedded to the Labour Party in the same way as Tony Benn was. If Corbyn is returned to parliament in Islington North, what will happen to his supporters outside of the Labour Party? Will they re-join? Will they be allowed to? Would they want to?
The building of a new socialist party cannot be based on the personal plight of one person, even someone as popular as Jeremy Corby. The issue is much bigger than whether Corbyn gets back into parliament or not. Whether he stands or not, whether he wins or not, are not the decisive questions. The key question is whether we can win more people to support a fundamental socialist programme to challenge capitalism, rather than the reformism of Corbyn and the two manifestos, which aim only to win some concessions without changing the system. Where possible, Marxists should be involved in campaigns to defend Corbyn, but make the arguments about the limitations of his project and programme.
There is a widespread call from Corbyn supporters who have left the Labour Party to set up a new party. Sometimes this is more specifically a call for a new workers’ party. This is supported by a section of Marxists. The shared approach is to call on the unions to break from Labour and to form a new party, which will draw into it the best, most militant sections of the working class. In this way, they aim to repeat the process that led to the formation of the Labour Party in 1900. That is the problem. It would recreate a party based on a liberal, reformist programme in which Marxists are the minority.
The majority of those calling for a new party do so on the basis of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, which I argue are completely inadequate. They are not socialist programmes. They are programmes for implementing reforms within capitalism. Some Marxists argue that a full socialist programme can be won in the process of the new party’s formation and are putting out a call for union organisations to support a conference to discuss the proposal.
However, there is no prospect of any union disaffiliating from the Labour Party in the near future, notwithstanding any opposition that they may have to Starmer’s leadership. The unions’ leaderships are waiting and hoping for a Labour victory at the next general election, expecting some gains to be obtained. They are not going to break now. Nor are they going to risk disaffiliation by backing Corbyn in Islington North.
If Labour wins the next general election there will inevitably be clashes between the unions and the Labour government, as Labour will act in the interests of capitalism. Minor concessions may be made but battles over pay, conditions, and broader social and political issues will develop. So long as the unions are affiliated to Labour, these battles will, once again, find some expression within the Labour Party. That is why it is wrong to suggest that Labour is dead. It will remain a site of political and ideological struggle so long as the unions are affiliated and has the electoral support of large sections of the working class. The unions and individual socialists should not abandon the field of battle prematurely, particularly if there is no political alternative to join. They must take the fight to Starmer.
Those socialists who remain inside the Labour Party have to organise to fight for socialist policies and democracy. Staying in, doing nothing, and waiting for a change in the weather is not enough. This requires a new organisation or movement of Labour Party members. Momentum has demonstrated its complete incapacity to give a lead on any of the important issues.
Transform the unions
I query the approach that places the creation of a new party based on the trade unions. Of course, trade unions are vital working-class organisations. All socialists should, where possible, be members of a union. But we are faced with the substantial obstacle to socialist change in the form of the union bureaucracy, whether of the right or the left.
With a few notable exceptions the trade union bureaucracies have narrow outlooks, looking at industrial issues from the limited perspective of their own union, rather than the interest of the working class as a whole. Thus we have the deplorable position of the 2022 TUC Congress passing a motion proposed by the GMB which called for greater state expenditure on arms production. The motion was only narrowly carried, but it was carried with the support of Unite (my own union), which is generally perceived as being on the left.
We need a revolution within the unions to democratise the union structures, making full-time officials and elected representatives at all levels more representative, accountable and recallable. Officials should be on the average wage of those they represent. To call on the unions as they now stand to set up a new party is simply to ask for the perennial problems within the Labour Party to be repeated in a new organisation. It should be remembered that at the 2018 Labour Party conference only the Fire Brigades Union and the Bakers’ union supported the call for open selection. Len McLuskey and Unite supported Corbyn’s call for this to be opposed and for a more ineffective and limited trigger process to be adopted instead, with Howard Beckett speaking in support from the floor.
From small beginnings
We need a new mass socialist party. This cannot be conjured out of thin air. It has to be built patiently, but urgently. It will be started by those who are convinced of this strategy, and this will inevitably involve small numbers at first.
Any new socialist party must be completely democratic and be committed to a clear socialist programme. It would work to win recruits from the trade unions, including from the union leaderships but it could not hand a power of veto over policy to union leaders who might undemocratically use their power to thwart or undermine the party’s socialist programme. In essence, any new party based on the trade unions, rather than on individual socialist trade union members, would simply repeat all the problems over democratic control of the programme that we have seen over 120 years of the Labour Party.
If a new left-wing party were formed by Corbyn supporters then Marxists would have to engage with it, to try to influence its membership and its programme, pushing it further and further towards a clear position of breaking with capitalism.
Where does this leave us in terms of upcoming elections? Those in Labour will support Labour candidates. Privately they may vote for more left-wing socialist candidates. Those outside of Labour may look to see who is to the left of Starmers’ candidates. However, the present pick-and-mix approach of TUSC and others is a strategy without any serious purpose. A serious purpose can only be the formation of a genuine, democratic socialist party.
Insofar as any electoral challenge is based on a clear socialist programme and is part of a strategic objective of building a new clearly defined socialist party, this would clearly be a positive step in winning workers and young people to a worthwhile project, even if small and relatively weak to start. Standing candidates in elections would be an essential part of building a socialist party. But without that party-building purpose, standing candidates to obtain small electoral votes is guaranteed to demoralise rather than to inspire.
For all the reasons set out above I am also of the opinion that the campaign to find a candidate to stand against Starmer in his own constituency is not a serious way forward. The main questions remain: what is the programme on which that candidate would stand? Who will articulate it? How does it fit into the campaign for socialists to work together on a clear socialist programme. It can’t just be about giving Starmer a dig in the ribs.
Where does this leave Marxists? We should organise as Marxists. We should present our ideas in as many different arenas as possible. For the next period this will primarily be outside of the Labour Party, but we must not ignore it. We should engage in all struggles of the working class to raise the ideas of socialism/communism. We should work together with others on the left who do not agree with our full socialist programme to build campaigns and to advance specific aims and, in doing so, seek to persuade them of the need for a fundamental break with capitalism.
There are several Marxist groups in the UK at present. But they all work separately from one another. There are in addition many thousands, I would estimate, of Marxists who are not in any organisation at this time. We need to find a way to draw those ‘independent’ Marxists together to discuss the possibility of working in a more coherent and organised way. We need to raise the possibility of all Marxists, including the groups, of coming together to create a single, unified socialist/communist party, akin to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.
That would be a huge step forward. If you want to get involved, please contact us.