Left-wing British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s relaunch of his campaign since the start of the year has seen him take a more combative and pro-active approach in putting forward his anti-austerity, anti-war agenda. In doing so, he has engaged more with the media.
Corbyn and his key allies are well aware that they are operating in an extremely hostile and difficult environment. The overall political situation is dominated by Brexit and Donald Trump’s election and there are continued attempts by the Parliamentary Labour Party majority to undermine the veteran socialist’s leadership. Most recently, this took the shape of resignations by the sitting MPs in Copeland and Stoke Central.
It is no surprise that Labour is paying the price in opinion polls.
There is, however, one issue — free movement of people across borders — on which he made a serious error in his speech in Peterborough on January 10. Corbyn said he was not wedded to free movement.
The referendum campaign and its aftermath unleashed racist attacks and the normalisation of racism the like of which we have not seen in Britain for generations. This reactionary development is also reflected and reinforced by Trump’s election and by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s commitment to “hard Brexit” and the UKIPisation of the Conservative Party.
Migration is an issue on which there have always been differences among Corbyn’s supporters. Corbyn’s speech came in the wake of Unite union leader Len McCluskey’s disgraceful article in The Morning Star in which he describes support for free movement as ultra-left utopianism.
With the McCluskey-led Unite being a key backer of Corbyn, this probably put pressure on the Labour leader. However, McCluskey has always been to Corbyn’s right on the question.
Labour MP and Corbyn ally Dianne Abbott’s earlier article in The Morning Star was so far the best defence of Corbyn’s position on migration from the Labour front bench.
All of this underlines that there is a battle going on in the Corbyn camp on this question, sharper than on any other issue. Socialists should strongly back the position argued by Abbott and push for Corbyn to vigorously defend free movement. If Corbyn is to form a government after elections set for 2020, it will be on the basis of him holding a firm line and putting forward a radical left program.
Corbyn’s overall program of anti-austerity, anti-war, pro social justice and pro-migrant policies — which he has been defending and extending — remains unacceptable to the ruling class. This is shown by the continued attacks on him by the media and Labour right.
Despite this, he has been doing an effective job. Other than the Peterborough speech, probably the most important examples of Corbyn’s interventions in the new year were his speech to the Fabian Society on January 14 and his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC the next day.
On both occasions, Corbyn returned to his previous principled stance on migration, stressing the positive contribution of migrants.
On Marr, he responded to the interviewer asking if he wanted to see fewer migrants by saying: “What I have been talking about all along is ending gross levels of exploitation and the undercutting [of wages] that goes on — let’s not blame migrants but look instead at an economic system that has created this injustice and levels of inequality.”
On both occasions, Corbyn edged beyond his previous anti-austerity approach, which points out that there is an alternative to making the poor pay for the crisis with fewer services and higher prices without wage rises, to one which talks more about the system.
Corbyn told the Fabians: “People across this country feel the system is rigged against them, that it’s just not right.” He pointed to “cuts to capital gains tax, to inheritance tax, ditching the 50p rate, slashing corporation tax and reducing the levy on the banks”, and said: “We will make sure the corporations and the richest pay their fair share of taxes.”
On Marr, he said that “the very wealthiest in this country outsource and offshore their profits into tax havens around the world, that we have been privatising services for a very long time, that we have a growing gap between the richest and the poorest and that we have a political system that leaves a lot of people behind.”
He then spoke about Labour’s plans for a constitutional convention. On the National Health Service, he pointed to the extent of privatisation of the public service.
Corbyn pointed out that cuts to corporation tax and the top rate of income tax steal £70 billion from NHS and said Labour would commit to adequate funding for social care by ending such cuts.
These comments followed an aspect of his Peterborough speech that has received less attention than his awful statement on free movement. In the speech, he talked about the need to cut inequality and put forward the idea of a pay cap as one way of doing so, as part of a raft of measures.
In the following days, this was made concrete by focusing on a cap in the pay of those at the top of firms with which the government has contracts. It proved a popular policy in subsequent opinion polls.
Corbyn does sometimes talk about wages, incomes and wealth interchangeably, and does not talk enough about income tax and scarcely mentions land taxes. However, the difference is huge between what he says and what has been said by all previous Labour leaders in living memory.
Team Corbyn’s economic approach, however, appears to still be committed to the fiscal credibility rule that excludes borrowing for current spending in “social infrastructure” — such as education and health care — and to the independence of the central bank. This excludes using the Bank of England to buy government bonds directly.
These remain key weaknesses that need to be challenged due to the brake they put on his radical agenda.
Other key themes in his recent interventions include his most open support for industrial action since he was first elected leader. He supported the rail worker strikes on January 10 and said he would be happy to join picket lines. When Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan branded a January 9 strike on the London Underground “unnecessary”, Corbyn took the counter view.
On January 12, Corbyn made an implied criticism of the mayor by urging him to reopen ticket offices — the issue at the centre of the strike action. Further, Corbyn underlined on Marr his commitment to repealing the anti-union laws. In particular, he pointed out: “Sympathy action is legal in most other countries, it should also be legal here.”
Behind all of this lies the spectre of the by-elections in Copeland and Stoke Central. When Corbyn was asked by Marr if he would be “toast” if they lost those by-elections, he said: “You’re making the assumption that everything is a problem.
“It’s an opportunity to challenge the government on the NHS. It’s an opportunity to challenge them on the chaos of Brexit. It’s an opportunity to challenge them on the housing shortage. It’s an opportunity to challenge them on zero-hours contracts. That’s what we’re going to be doing.”
Similar approaches were taken by Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn ally John McDonnell, who strongly asserted that Corbyn would lead Labour into the next election, and Abbott in media interviews on January 21.
Clearly these are key by-elections in the context of a difficult political situation, and ones which Labour will be doing well to hold. However, all of this underlines the way Team Corbyn has set out a strategy in the new year to rebuild Labour’s credibility over the next year and beyond.
[Abridged from SocialistResistance.org.]