Britain: Corbyn’s suspension and the socialist project

November 13, 2020
Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Manchester in November last year. Photo: Jeremy Corbyn CC by 2.0

At the end of October, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the British Labour Party. He faces the possibility of expulsion.

Corbyn led the party for nearly five years, until April this year, when he stepped down to continue his three-decades-plus work as a socialist parliamentarian.

Current Labour leader Keir Starmer’s reason to suspend Corbyn was, ostensibly, that he had said that when he was leader, a range of media outlets and political figures had “dramatically overstated” the extent of anti-Semitism in the party “for political reasons”.

Corbyn noted that one result of the antisemitism accusations against his leadership had been polling findings in which voters said they thought there had been complaints of anti-Semitism against one-third of the party’s 500,000 members, when the actual rate was about one in 300.

Corbyn was speaking after the publication of a report by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which had examined complaints about anti-Semitism and their handling in the Labour Party.

The report’s findings on anti-Semitic breaches of the country’s equality laws within the party only confirmed the truth of what Corbyn had said. The EHRC found up to 20 breaches among the party’s several thousand officials and representatives — for whom the party was, in that sense, responsible — and, perhaps, hundreds of members engaging in some kind of anti-Semitic activity.

The EHRC also criticised the party’s past failure to provide appropriate training to those handling complaints and the involvement of Corbyn’s office in the party’s consideration of some complaints, in particular in March and April 2018. This reflected how most of the party’s old organisational apparatus, in particular, and in this case, at the national level, had remained in place after Corbyn’s election as leader.

These paid party officials opposed Corbyn or, as leaked evidence has suggested, actively sabotaged his leadership through setting their own priorities in the 2017 election — thus missing the massive swing to Labour that followed the publication of its radical For the Many manifesto — and poor procedure, inaction and falsifying reports about action on anti-Semitism complaints.

The party’s old national organisational regime was not replaced until April 2018. Before that, Corbyn explained, his team had "acted to speed up, not hinder the process": this admittedly poses an administrative problem of apprehended bias.

Corbyn supporter Jennie Formby then became the party’s general secretary and was able to improve the complaint handling process. Formby resigned in May, and Starmer proposed a new general secretary, who is now backing him.

Corbyn did and continues to oppose anti-Semitism, as he does all forms of racism. Veteran anti-Apartheid activists have been among those making public statements in his defence. He plans to contest the “political intervention” to suspend him.

A range of figures on Labour’s left, in and around the re-formed parliamentary Socialist Campaign Group and the grassroots Momentum have spoken out, including Diane Abbott, Ian Lavery and Laura Smith. They argue Corbyn’s suspension threatens the socialist project to win power and meet the hopes of the many to improve their lives, and the need for a politics which won’t retreat from radical solutions to the massive problems that capitalism has created around the world.

Corbyn has been solid in his support for Palestinian national rights for decades, and a critic of the Israeli state for its seizure of Palestinian land and its attacks on, exclusion and oppression of Palestinian people.

Perhaps this is why the pro-capitalist power bloc, consisting of assorted right-wingers and “third way” supporters in Labour and the social movements, thought of smearing him as an anti-Semitism supporter, even though making that association tars all Jewish people with the crimes of the Israeli state. But they could have — in fact, they had — tried other ways to bring him down and would have persisted in that.

That the specific attacks against Corbyn flow into a broader stream of opposition to the struggle for socialism brings into question the views expressed by some on the left — within and outside Labour — that Corbyn should have rejected all compromises and should now lead the formation of a new, unambiguously socialist, party.

Because, to be clear:

First, Corbyn’s successes in winning two Labour leadership elections and advancing a relatively radical political platform were founded on the hundreds of thousands of people who joined the party in 2015 and 2016 and campaigned for it in the 2017 and 2019 general elections.

They saw he had a chance to lead and supported him because he has consistently taken principled stances against austerity, and for human rights, within a broader framework of socialist politics, upholding social movements and the public provision of services and human welfare.

In the 2017 election, Corbyn, his small group of parliamentary allies and his party supporters at last had a proper chance to present this politics to people generally. The party almost won government, with 40% of the vote.

Secondly, Corbyn’s difficulties and — for the moment — defeat, have stemmed from both the outright opportunists found in huge numbers among Labour MPs and officials who did nothing but attack him, and the “honest” opportunists who supported Corbyn, yet smothered his leadership by opposing Brexit despite the result of the 2016 referendum, even when Corbyn pointed out that opposing a democratic decision was undemocratic and would be unacceptable to many. The latter included almost certainly a majority of Labour members and some Labour MPs: Starmer, who was publicly loyal to Corbyn after 2016, became the most prominent of these MPs.

Socialists will not win government or, if they do, will struggle to implement socialist policies, while opportunists of all stripes drag at their heels within a party. To break from opportunism, a line will need to be drawn at some point, across which no compromise will be possible.

But, when? If the left criticism of a Corbynism confined to the Labour Party will be right sometime, has that time come now?

Corbyn was elected as the parliamentary leader of a parliamentary party. He used that "pedestal" to introduce socialist ideas to millions, an achievement that no independent party in Britain has come near to. But this didn’t mean the newly-won members had become a mass organising force. The old organisational apparatus took three years to oust, and only after that could new party organising units be established.

Meanwhile, probably five-sixths of the party’s MPs were ready to walk out, given a common provocation, such as enforcing compulsory pre-selection. The consequences for a radical parliamentary leader without a self-organising party membership base would probably have been dire. Compromises by Corbyn’s leadership group prevented that — the small parliamentary split, when it came, was electorally inconsequential — although the end result was still sharp defeat, because independent workers’ power in the party had still not been built.

The answer to “when?” is presumably found in the moment that an effective new party can be formed. It might come from defensive action, such as Corbyn has said he will pursue, but whatever the source, it will be one in which the huge numbers of Corbyn supporters can gain confidence and experience.

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