Greens activist: Jeremy Corbyn's exciting rise brings openings, challenges

Friday, October 30, 2015


Jeremy Corbyn's success is one sign, and perhaps the most dramatic, of a wider movement challenging the British establishment.

Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour Party leader has already had a dramatic effect on British politics.

All of us on the left in Britain need to ask how we can support him — and consider what the long term implications of his success may be. Those outside Britain, especially on the green left, need to ask whether there are lessons that can be learned.

During the 1980s and '90s, the left inside the Labour Party was increasingly marginalised, culminating in Tony Blair's victory. Blair's enthusiastic support for the disastrous Iraq War meant that the remaining socialists in the party generally exited it, either joining the Greens, other left groups or becoming inactive.

Corbyn and his close ally John McDonnell — now shadow chancellor — stubbornly hung on as Labour Party members of parliament, but were without influence. Corbyn's 59% win was astonishing. It is difficult to think of a similar example of a social democratic party that has moved sharply to the right electing a far-left leader.

Those of us on the British left view Corbyn and McDonnell as friends; for decades they have been enthusiastically supporting demonstrations, picket lines and left events. Their politics is the politics of most left-wing activists and ecosocialists in Britain.

Whereas new left-wing populist parties have emerged, like Podemos in Spain, Corbyn has, essentially by accident, captured Labor for the Occupy generation. If the Australian Labour Party suddenly elected as leader an MP with a long record of working with Green Left Weekly, the situation would be the same.

No one on the left predicted that a Corbyn victory was possible — Corbyn himself had no idea of his likely success.

Rapid progress

However his victory has led to rapid progress.

In recent days, David Cameron's Conservative government was defeated in a vote to withdraw tax credits which would have plunged millions into poverty. Instead of compromising on austerity with Cameron's government, the Parliamentary Labour Party with Corbyn as leader is putting up real opposition.

Corbyn has strongly attacked the British government's long-standing support for Saudi Arabia. He criticised allying with a country that brutally executes many of its citizens and is now, with the aid of Britain, bombing civilians in a brutal war in Yemen. As a result, the government has pulled out of a prison building deal in the country and the Saudi ambassador has howled with protest against Corbyn.

Corbyn is, without debate, the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had. For example, although the Clement Attlee government elected in 1945 implemented progressive reforms around welfare, created the National Health Service and more, it was nonetheless pro-nuclear and happily supported British imperialism.

Labour has famously been more influenced by Methodism than Marxism. This is all changing. In one of his first statements as Labour's shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, McDonnell boldly noted “Marx is back”.

The project is about radical democracy. This is having an impact in a country where the reigning monarch can inspect parliamentary business, the upper house of parliament is unelected and the costumes and rituals of centuries illustrate the archaic elitism of British governance.

Corbyn has crowd-sourced questions to ask at Prime Minister's Question Time, avoids ceremonial events to be with local voters and promotes a “people's” brand of politics.

It would be possible to wax lyrical Corbyn and McDonnell's ecosocialist politics. They have worked closely with the Green Party's only MP, Caroline Lucas, have supported the Trade Union Climate Campaign and supported many environmental struggles, including opposition to fracking.

Deep dissatisfaction

However, it would be wrong to see them as a pair of socialist superheroes. The forces that have changed British politics are wider than two individuals.

Equally, given the huge power of the British elite, we must be sober about their chances of success. The prize of not only winning the 2020 elections, but using such a victory to transform Britain is distant.

Corbyn's victory was a product of deep dissatisfaction about British politics' elitist orientation and neoliberal consensus.

Earlier signs of this dissatisfaction include the “Green surge”, with Green Party membership rising from 12,000 to 70,000 members last year; the huge Scottish National Party victory in winning all but three Scottish seats in the May general election; and a growing anti-austerity movement.

Corbyn's success is one sign, and perhaps the most dramatic, of a wider movement challenging the British establishment. But if Corbyn fails, there will be other manifestations.

Failure is possible -- the success of recent weeks may not be enough.

Patrick Harvie, the co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party (SGP), summarised Corbyn's relationship with Labour and the Greens at the SGP's October conference in Glasgow. Harvie noted that Corbyn had “more in common with Greens than the Parliamentary Labour Party” and that Labour was like a huge oil tanker.

Harvie said the Greens supported Corbyn's attempt to turn Labour left, but that they must be cautious about whether he would succeed.

It is possible, if one looks hard, to identify political differences with Corbyn from a Green Party point of view. But, ultimately, that is beside the point. What is an issue is whether Corbyn's politics, which are so close to the Greens and other left groups, can become Labour's politics.

Greens are feeling cooperative. The Scottish Greens conference also featured a meeting between left activists in the SNP, Scottish Labour and new Scottish left party RISE.

Lucas hopes electoral pacts with different left parties can be used to defeat the Conservative government.

Right-wing power

However, the British media is dominated by the right, who have gone into overdrive to demonise Corbyn. The Conservative government has introduced new election rules that take millions of voters, especially young people, off the electoral roll.

Anti-union laws are being brought in to weaken the left. With close links to the arms industry, bankers and hedge funds, the Tories can hugely outspend their opponents.

In short, Corbyn could be defeated. Yet at the very worst, Corbyn has already changed British politics for the better. From the Blairites, whose leadership candidate Liz Kendall gained just 4.5%, to the Saudis, his challenge has had material results.

Greens need to keep on organising. If Corbyn transforms Labour, we shall be able to work closely with the party. If Corbyn's challenge is defeated, we can provide an alternative. British politics has the potential to be transformed, but we should have no illusions about how difficult this will be.

[Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales and a long-standing Marxist in the party. His latest book is Economics After Capitalism (Pluto).]

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