For the first time in a generation, the Labour Party is offering British workers the appearance of a real choice at the ballot box on 8 June. Labour is presenting policies that stand in stark contrast to the Conservative record of privatising and underfunding health and education, attacking trade-union rights, imposing the bedroom tax, closing children’s centres and cutting welfare benefits for families, young people, the sick and the disabled. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party promises to ban zero-hours contracts, build more social housing, get rid of tuition fees, increase funding to education and the NHS, renationalise the railways, increase the minimum wage and tax the wealthy – all policies aimed at reducing the vast disparities between rich and poor in 21st century Britain.
The media mouthpieces of the ruling class alternate between hostility and dismissiveness, with a study from the London School of Economics on press coverage of Corbyn finding ‘a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy’. Despite this, many working people have enthusiastically joined Labour to support him in two leadership contests (see ‘Vote Corbyn, Break with Reformism!’). Although not particularly radical in the context of Labour’s programme throughout its history, Corbyn’s policies represent a break with the party’s recent pro-austerity trajectory. Under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, Labour hardly even pretended to fight for workers’ interests, and few, if any, politically advanced workers saw it as a real alternative to the Tories. Marxists, therefore, had no reason to call for votes to Labour (see ‘Spoil your Ballot! No Choice for Workers in 2015!’).
Today, workers are turning or returning to Labour because they think Corbyn offers something different – a willingness to defend past gains and possibly win new ones. As Marxists, we do not share these illusions, but we are calling for a Labour vote in this election in order to test Corbyn’s project – a test we expect will show that even under the leadership of an avowed left-winger, Labour cannot deliver substantial and lasting improvements for the working class.
Corbyn genuinely believes that equality and peace can be achieved under capitalism through the parliamentary activity of a broad social-democratic party. That is why he stuck with Labour under Blair, often voting with his conscience but nevertheless propping up a government that launched an imperialist attack on Iraq, maintained anti-union laws and oversaw the creeping privatisation of health and education. As leader, he has conciliated the right wing of the party, perhaps naively hoping they might reciprocate. His faith in capitalism is underlined by his promise to put more cops on the street, despite their role as racist defenders of property and privilege. He has betrayed his longstanding opposition to British imperialism’s Trident nuclear programme through a series of flip-flops. He instructed Labour-led councils to implement the Tory-imposed cuts that he now denounces on the campaign trail. He failed to defend Ken Livingstone and others from bogus charges of antisemitism by right-wing witch hunters. Nor did he back efforts in Momentum to oppose Blairites at all levels of the party. All this adds up to putting ‘party unity’ ahead of realising his policy goals.
It is no surprise that most of the self-proclaimed revolutionary left are enthusiastically supporting Corbyn and Labour – often throwing in a bit of mild criticism but mainly imploring him to push things further to the left.
The Socialist Party calls for Corbyn to promote ‘bold socialist policies’, no doubt hoping everyone has forgotten that until recently they had denounced Labour as a purely bourgeois party – a position that sits oddly beside their current promotion of Corbyn as a potential agent of radical change. The Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) suggests that even the existing policies will do if only we work hard enough: ‘the left should argue for Labour to emphasise the best, boldest, most radical of its existing policies and campaign for them vigorously’ (workersliberty.org).
Red Flag strikes a more radical posture: ‘we can ensure that the election campaign speeds up the process of creating the one thing we need most: a consistent anti-austerity, socialist and internationalist party of the working class, one that can fight for an alternative not just to Theresa May’s Tory nightmare, but to the system that underpins it’ (redflagonline.org).
Corbyn’s proposals certainly offer more to workers than Tory austerity, but it is foolish to pretend that a ‘bolder’ version of his reformism could ever threaten capitalism. In their enthusiasm, all of these organisations dance around the fact that Corbyn’s social-democratic programme cannot deliver lasting improvements for working people and the oppressed. His docility towards his Tory and Blairite opponents already signals that, if elected, he will be unable or unwilling to follow through on his promises, inadequate as they are. Faced with significant numbers of Labour MPs who oppose the progressive policies he would like to implement (some of whom are granting him at best lukewarm support during the election campaign), it is likely that Corbyn, as prime minister, would try to meet them half way by further watering down his programme. Such a show of weakness would only embolden the right wing to challenge his leadership or even bring down the government.
Even if Corbyn managed to control the Labour right, the combined forces of big business, the media, the judiciary and the political establishment would conspire to block his plans at every step. In extreme circumstances, this could even mean direct action by the agencies of state repression, as a senior general threatened in 2015 (Guardian).
Corbyn’s reforms, if implemented, could bring some temporary relief to workers, the poor and other oppressed sectors of society. But it will never be enough. Big business will not allow its state to be used to encroach upon the rule of capital – the prerequisite to even beginning to address the needs of the vast majority of the population. We want Labour to win this election because exposing this fundamental flaw in the left Labourite vision will make the politically advanced layers of the working class more receptive to the Marxist case for revolutionary socialist change.
Corbyn’s Labour loyalism has disposed him to reject increasingly vocal and profoundly mistaken calls for a ‘progressive alliance’ with the bourgeois Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and/or the Greens against the Tories. He will face a dilemma if Labour emerges with the most seats but without a working majority – a scenario in which the pressure to form a coalition with one or more ‘lesser evil’ capitalist parties would be immense. Some of Corbyn’s ostensibly revolutionary supporters such as Socialist Resistance are already advocating such a capitulation: ‘It is crucial that Labour is prepared to work in a progressive alliance with other anti-austerity parties in Parliament (i.e. the Greens, SNP and Plaid) in order to form a government if that is necessary’ (socialistresistance.org).
If Corbyn follows this advice, or indicates an intent to do so, he will betray the whole premise upon which the Labour Party was formed: the necessity for independent working-class political action. In that case, there would be no reason to offer any sort of support to Labour.
Tony Blair and many others advocating a ‘progressive alliance’ are not so much concerned with ‘getting the Tories out’ as ‘stopping Brexit’. The Lib Dems aspire to pick up enough of the Remain vote to be able to rerun the referendum. Theresa May is seeking a mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’ in order to continue and intensify Tory austerity policies. Corbyn favours a modified Brexit in which Britain remains in the single market and EU citizens maintain their status. Workers have no essential interest at stake in the ruling class squabbles over Brexit – all options are formulated to make British capitalism work better (see ‘The Devil or the Deep Blue Sea?’).
Labour’s call for a Brexit with Britain remaining in the single market is echoed by two left organisations that advocated a vote for Remain. The AWL advises that ‘Labour could argue for opposition to the Tories’ Brexit plans, for defence of free movement and migrants’ rights, for remaining in the single market’ (workersliberty.org). Red Flag declares that a Labour government ‘should at least commit to membership of the single market, preserving freedom of movement and ending the opt-outs and loopholes which allow bosses to exploit British and migrant workers’ (redflagonline.org). On the other hand, the left Brexiters of the Socialist Party oppose remaining in the single market if that means ‘acceptance of its neoliberal rules’ (socialistworld.net).
Such concern for the trade policy of British capital is a matter of course for social democrats, but Marxists do not advocate that the exploiters pursue a policy of either protectionism or free trade. In their quest for profits the capitalists can use either option to attack the historic gains of the workers’ movement.
The Spartacist League, regretting their previous enthusiasm for Corbyn, confesses that ‘our own newspaper accommodated to Corbyn by prettifying his line on the reactionary EU’. They claim that ‘Corbyn betrayed when it mattered by crossing the class line and serving the bourgeoisie in campaigning for the EU’ (icl-fi.org).
There is no class line between Leave and Remain. It is abundantly clear that neither the capitalist EU that has viciously attacked workers in Greece and elsewhere nor a xenophobic ‘little England’ wing of the ruling class offer anything positive for British workers.
For most of the British left, voting Labour is just business as usual, a permanent strategy pursued whether or not workers have illusions that a Labour victory will make a difference. Revolutionaries do not issue a blank cheque for every election, but instead withdraw support when the social democrats betray their base.
We advocate a vote for Labour in this election to expose the contradiction between what Corbyn’s working-class base expects him to do and what his reformist, pro-capitalist politics will actually mean. The key task for British revolutionaries is to break the most class-conscious workers away from social democracy and win them to the perspective of building a workers’ party committed to smashing capitalism, rather than endure the endless futility of tinkering with it.