Rise of Jeremy Corbyn spreads hope, but the left's fight just begun

September 18, 2015
Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn's platform includes renationalising privatised industries like rail and energy, abolishing university fees and expanding

When veteran left-wing activist and MP Jeremy Corbyn entered the race for British Labour Party leader, sparked by former leader Ed Miliban's resignation in May, he did so reluctantly on grounds it was “his turn” to be the “token socialist”.

But in a stark sign of the depths of anger at brutal anti-poor austerity and disillusionment with mainstream politics, Corbyn was declared the overwhelming victor on September 12 with almost 60% of the vote – more than a quarter of a million votes in total. His nearest opponent got 19%.

After a campaign generating huge enthusiasm involving mass meetings of thousands of largely young supporters, Corbyn won the vote in all three voter categories – Labour members, trade union affiliates and the new category of “registered supporters”.

His platform includes renationalising privatised industries like rail and energy, abolishing university fees, defending and expanding universal health care, rent controls, building public housing and a program of public spending.

Crucially, he wants to abolish Britain's Trident nuclear weapons program, opposes imperialist wars and wants to open Britain's borders to refugees.

From an Australian perspective, Corbyn's rise is stunning. It seems impossible to imagine Labor leader Bill Shorten enthusing his closest relatives, let alone huge numbers of youth. It is as hard to imagine a principled figure like Corbyn – who has fought for social justice unrelentingly for decades – emerging from the ALP.

Corbyn's first act as party leader was to address a huge pro-refugee rights demonstration that day.

Speaking to a large crowd in London, Corbyn hailed the “popular uprising in favour of decency and humanity in our society”.

Video: Jeremy Corbyn speech at #RefugeesWelcome rally in full. Channel 4 News.

Corbyn said: “I am beyond appalled at the way so many and so much of our media over so long, endlessly describe desperate people in desperate situations as ‘the problem' ...

“They’re victims of war, they’re victims of environmental degradation, they’re victims of poverty, they’re victims of human rights abuses all over the world.

“We have a responsibility as one of many countries that signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Right to Asylum. We are a country that is a member, obviously, of the UN, but also of the Refugee Council and the Human Rights Council ...

“I also say that we need to have a thought as to why people end up in such desperate situations ... in moments of clamour and moments of fervour, decisions are made – go here, invade there, bomb there, do this, do that …

“So surely, surely, surely, our objectives ought to be to find peaceful solutions to the problems of this world; to spend our resources on helping people not hindering people; and to try and bring about that world of decency, human rights and justice.”

Compare this with the efforts of the ALP in the face of racist scaremongering over comparatively tiny amounts of asylum seekers seeking to find safety in this country. The difference between the morality that drives Corbyn and the opportunism that drives the ALP politicos is clear.

But in some ways that was the point. Corbyn won despite the sustained hostility not just of the corporate media, but a party machine run by Britain's Bill Shortens and Anthony Albaneses – which used bureaucratic measures to deny thousands of people the chance to vote for Corbyn.

They failed and the failure represents a big defeat for the “New Labour” project initiated by Tony Blair two decades ago. In fact, it was the first time in at least two decades a leader of one of Britain's two major parties stood clearly for reversing the class warfare wrought by Margaret Thatcher.

Blair-led New Labour, which dropped Labour's historic “socialist objective”, combined pushing the disastrous and criminal war on Iraq over the opposition of millions with policies that served the big banks at the expense of the majority.

The Iraq war helped pave the way for the rise of groups like ISIS out of the Middle East chaos, while deregulation helped lead to the financial crisis in 2008 – responded to by the then-Labour government with bail-outs while ordinary people have been forced to carry the cost.

Corbyn's rise is an expression of the same spirit of rebellion that marked the Scottish referendum for independence last year – and the Scottish National Party's near total wipe out of Labour in Scotland in May.

The reasons are not hard to find. Austerity measures – justified by the economic crisis caused by big banks that received billions in taxpayer funds - has devastated public services and the living standards of the majority.

On top of billions in spending cuts already introduced, this year's budget slashed welfare spending by 12 billion pounds.

More than one-in-four British children are living in poverty, Unicef said in October last year. There was also 19% rise in British citizens hospitalised for malnutrition over the past 12 months.

The challenges facing Corbyn are huge. Only a small minority of Labour MPs agree with his policies, and the Labour machine he heads is set up to facilitate the interests of opportunist careerists, not be a vehicle for radical change.

The corporate media attacks will only grow - and they are already feverishly ridiculous.

When Corbyn was shown not singing "God Save the Queen" at a remembrance event for the Battle of Britain, media outrage at his "disrespect" was predictable (if hypocritical, as actually starting illegal wars for corporate interests would seem more disrespectful to soldiers).

But complaints that Corbyn had snubbed women in appointing his shadow cabinet were bizarre, given that the 16 women out of 31 positions in his frontbench meets his promise of at least 50% female representation. It is the highest percentage of women frontbenchers in British history.

But media attacks will be just the start. Faced with the threat of a Corbyn-led government, economic elites will resort to the sort of extreme financial blackmail that brought Greece's banking system to its knees after the left-wing SYRIZA government was elected In January.

Even if a Corbyn-led government is elected, it will find itself at the head of a deeply undemocratic, but powerful state apparatus built up over centuries with the aim of blocking radical change.

The danger does not simply lie in Corbyn being brought down, but also in the pressure to “moderate” his message and adapt to the status quo, watering down his pro-people policies in a bid the come to terms with powerful opponents.

But defeat or co-option are not the only possible outcomes. Corbyn’s campaign has enthused hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of British people who desperately want an alternative.

There are already moves by Corbyn-led Labour to encourage popular participation in politics. Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Jon Trickett says Labour will organise a series of citizens’ assemblies across the country.

Trickett said he had been asked by Corbyn to help develop a “new constitutional and political framework for Britain by reaching out beyond Westminster and the Labour party”, LabourList.org said.

“We want the ordinary people of our country to engage,” said Trickett. “And we want to build a movement of citizen’s assemblies, reaching across all the parties and none, into every community.”

If the enthusiasm for Corbyn and desire for change can be mobilised and organised – expressed not just in passive support for Corbyn but on the streets, communities and workplaces – then a mass movement can create a counter-power capable of pushing back establishment opposition to Corbyn’s program.

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