Note from the LeftEast editors: The following is an analysis by long-time Toronto-based anti-poverty organizer John Clarke, about the implications of a Corbyn victory as leader of the British Labour Party for the fight against austerity in both the UK and in Canada (where a social-democratic party with a new ‘third way’ leadership is slated to win in the upcoming federal election this October).
It would be hard to credibly deny that the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party has significant implications at a time when so many people (and not just in the UK) are looking for a way forward in the struggle against austerity. I’m going to try and look at those implications but should stress I write this in a personal capacity, since I rather doubt that Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is going to feel the need to take a position on UK party politics.
Let me start by setting some limits. Nothing has happened that should lead us to think that capitalism’s last moment will take the form of a parliamentary vote. Politically, Corbyn can be viewed as a left reformist and, as such, he is not advocating or preparing for social transformation but, rather, a course of action that might well have been followed by a Labour Government prior to the neoliberal decades. The test, I think, is a more limited but still very important question of whether his election to Party leader offers important openings in the struggle to challenge the austerity agenda.
We should also understand that, as astounding as this development may be, it is still extremely fragile. Corbyn is now going to be operating in a hostile environment, to say the least. During his campaign, he did a class breakdown of the Parliamentary Labour Party (the caucus of MPs) and showed that the domination of Oxbridge schooled careerists is almost as overwhelming among Labour MPs as is the case with the Tories. His allies among the Labour MPs are in a minority, the Party establishment is not on his side and the external forces arrayed against him are powerful and considerable. Of course, he’s anything but isolated and powerless but he is going to face major attacks aimed at undermining him or, even worse, forcing him to accept a place within the austerity consensus.
The real significance of the Corbyn victory seems to me to lie in two areas. Firstly, as I just suggested, the whole Blairite ‘Third Way’ has been challenged and the Labour Party has elected a leader who rejects the notion that there is no alternative to austerity. The Tories had fully expected to intensify their attacks on poor and working class people with only a tame Labour Party ‘opposition’ that accepted these attacks but issued mild appeals for it all to be done in a way that was a bit nicer. This is no longer how things will play out for them and they are worried by the implications of this development.
Secondly, however, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn happened because the working class base of the Labour Party rebelled and voted against the political professionals who had taken control. People are joining the Party in droves since he was elected and they are doing so because they are looking for a way to fight back. The real danger for the Tories and the architects of austerity is that the opposition they will now face in the House of Commons will spill over into the streets, as workers and communities under attack are inspired to raise the level of social mobilisation.
I have spoken to several people who have suggested that this has happened inside the British Labour Party but it couldn’t happen here because the New Democratic Party (NDP) has so thoroughly accepted the demands of the austerity agenda. This, however, misses the fact that the Labour Party appeared, up until this astounding development, to be even more far gone than the NDP. In the last election, they launched their campaign under a banner calling for immigration controls and, once they had lost to the Tories, refused to challenge their brutal ‘welfare reform bill’. Corbyn is part of a small socialist grouping among the MPs, known as the Campaign Group and nothing was happening in the Labour Party, certainly not at Westminster, that gave any hint of what would happen once Corbyn entered the leadership race. The rebellion at the base was everything.
The NDP is certainly in the firm grip of a Blairite leadership at the moment and there don’t appear to be any present openings for that to change. As the federal election unfolds, candidates are purged for mildly criticising Israel, suggesting that fossil fuels should be left in the ground is political apostasy, and the Party has been outflanked on the left by the Liberals on the issue of deficit reduction. Some bitter experiences lie ahead. If the Mulcair leadership goes down to defeat (as happened in the Ontario elections) because of its move into the realms of right wing populism, a reckoning may soon follow. If Mulcair becomes the first NDP Prime Minister in Canadian history, his austerity course will profoundly shock and appall the Party rank and file. Either way, a challenge to the NDP’s acceptance of the austerity consensus, while it can’t be predicted, neither can it be ruled out.
These are very volatile times when we frequently find ourselves dealing with the unprecedented. The argument that social democracy had simply become ‘reformism without reforms’ and degenerated into a useless junior partner in the austerity operation appeared extremely convincing. However, people are looking for an alternative and a means to fight back and suddenly the Labour Party, seemingly rendered utterly docile, becomes a place where an unexpected struggle breaks out. Very possibly, it won’t play out that way here but, in a period of crisis, with our organisational capacities so low and our movements still weak, upsurges can occur and possibilities open up where we hadn’t expected. The election of Jeremy Corbyn and the developments that flow from it are of enormous importance and we in Canada need to pay the closest attention to them.
John Clarke has been involved in Ontario anti poverty movements since the 1980s, when he helped to form the London Union of Unemployed Workers. He moved to Toronto in 1990 to be part of the newly formed Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and has been part of OCAP ever since.