The trade union and left-Labour leaders who came into the limelight with the cost-of-living crisis were not born yesterday. Now that Dave Ward, Mick Lynch, Zarah Sultana MP, joined by Corbyn and others are saying “enough is enough” and “we’re going to be standing up for ourselves”, it may be wise to look at what they actually stood up for on the key political issues of the last few years.
Part I: The Corbyn years
The left Labour MPs, trade union leaders and most “socialists” wholeheartedly supported Corbyn from beginning to end and Jeremy remains the hope and model for many. There is a profound sense of denial around Corbyn. While he gained the leadership of Labour by riding a wave of built-up discontent in the country, his leadership was an absolute debacle. On one question after another, he betrayed. Opposing NATO? Dropped. Trident? Dropped. The European Union? Not only dropped, but he campaigned for “remain”! The goal of many leftists today is to revive the “Corbyn spirit” — or Corbyn himself — but it might be a good thing to reflect on exactly what went wrong.
There are all sorts of explanations on the left for Corbyn’s demise: “the right wing was too strong”, “Corbyn was too nice”, “he should have formed another party”, etc. All of these simply avoid the main problem: it was Corbyn’s political programme from the start that led him to betray the working class on one question after another.
Corbyn’s programme had nothing exceptional; it was classic left-Labour parliamentary socialism. His popularity stemmed from a real pent-up loathing of the Blairites, their austerity and wars, which catapulted him to Labour leader and potentially to future prime minister. But Corbyn’s parliamentary socialist programme is based on administering British capitalism, not overthrowing it. And if one is to manage the affairs of the British bourgeoisie, one cannot be for scrapping Trident, cutting the armed forces or questioning NATO. One cannot oppose the monarchy or let Scotland go. The bourgeoisie will not let some Labourite prime minister nationalise their industries and take their profits without fighting like hell. So Corbyn either had to confront the ruling class and Blairites or capitulate.
In such a situation, there can be no middle ground: either you stand for the overthrow of the exploiters by the working class — that is the only way to successfully confront the rulers — or you bend. Corbyn bent. Not because he was weak-willed, but because his parliamentary Labourite programme was not based on the material interests of the working class. It was based on vague notions of “peace” and “social justice”, on the supremacy of Parliament, the rule of law and, of course, the unity of the Labour Party. In short, Corbyn capitulated because his left-Labourite programme seeks to reconcile the working class with the bourgeoisie.
Today, disgruntled with Sir Keir Starmer, the Enough is Enough campaign, left Labourites and their socialist tails have as their maximum aim a repeat of the Corbyn experience, which can only amount to a repeat of the same debacle. The working class needs this like a hole in the head. The lesson of the Corbyn years is precisely that workers and youth, if they want socialism, need leaders fighting for a revolution. This requires breaking from the Labourite reformist programme of Corbyn.
Part II: The pandemic
Everyone knows that the lockdowns intensified Britain’s economic mayhem. Workers lost their jobs by the millions and were locked in their homes for months. Those at work faced speed-ups, pay cuts and anti-union attacks, all in the name of “saving lives” and “national unity”. Everyone knows what a nightmare that was. But everyone also thinks that this was the only choice: “What else could we do? It was painful but necessary.” That is true only if you believe the capitalists or their mouthpieces in Labour and the trade unions.
Faced with massive attacks by the bosses, unsafe working conditions, an NHS on the verge of collapse, crumbling schools and decrepit housing, it is a lie that nothing could have been done but to stay home or “sacrifice” by overworking yourself to death for the good of the nation. There needed to be a fight! Against lockdowns, for unions to control safety at work, for a massive reinvestment in the NHS, for safe and modern schools and housing now! But instead, the whole TUC, the Labour Party (from Starmer to Corbyn) and even all the other groups who claim to be socialist demanded more and longer lockdowns! The leaders of the working class rallied behind Queen and Country, cancelling strike actions (CWU leader Dave Ward cancelled a strike at Royal Mail in the “national interest”) and tying workers’ hands behind their backs while the bosses smashed them. A total betrayal of the working class!
Faced with a major health and social crisis, socialists had to seize the situation, organise a fightback and advance the struggle to put workers in charge of society, not support the measures of the reactionary bourgeoisie!
Part III: The war in Ukraine
Since the start of the war, the British ruling class has been the most rabidly pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine and warmongering of all. This war is about which gang of thugs will pillage Ukraine: the Russian capitalists or the British, US and NATO/EU imperialists. Supporting Ukraine means supporting the British rulers, who want a “fair share” in the imperialist pillage of that country. It is essential for the working class to oppose this. How? Not with tepid calls for “peace” and “diplomacy” which can only mean a ceasefire between capitalist robbers. And it’s not enough to merely point out that NATO might be responsible — obviously they are guilty. What is needed are workers actions against NATO, against sanctions on Russia and against British imperialism. We need cheap gas: the Russians have some! Crucially, workers here must advocate that Ukrainian and Russian workers turn their weapons against both the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. That is the only socialist position.
But the leaders of the workers movement have all rallied behind the British bourgeoisie and NATO’s aims. The Labour lefts all embraced the Ukrainian government’s cause, in tandem with the Tories. And when Sultana and other left-Labour MPs co-signed a letter tepidly criticising NATO in February, they all repudiated it as soon as Keir demanded so. If they can’t find a backbone against Starmer, they won’t find one to stand against the British ruling class! In March, Unite leader Sharon Graham (lauded as a new “militant”) proudly mobilised Unite dockers to refuse to unload ships transporting Russian oil. This was literally carrying out Boris Johnson’s diktat! How can the working class mount an offensive against the bosses here if its own leaders serve as foot-soldiers for the bosses’ pillage abroad?
Part IV: The Queen’s death
As the highest representative of the British ruling class and empire died, these “socialist” MPs and so-called working class leaders all sang the praises of Her Majesty and criminally cancelled strike actions out of respect for the Royals.
Labourites like Corbyn or Lynch have no problem claiming to be “republicans” in “normal times”, ie when saying this has no real implications. But as the Monarch dies, opposing the monarchy actually becomes a concrete and burning question for the class struggle. Are workers going to fight against the destruction of their standard of living, and connect this struggle to the need to abolish the monarchy and the whole system that oppresses them? Or are they going to stand down and bow to the Crown? As our article on the front page shows, the Labour lefts have opted for the latter.
Whether it’s support to Corbyn’s reformism and betrayals, to lockdowns and national unity during the pandemic, to British imperialism over Ukraine or bowing to the monarchy, left Labourism betrayed workers at every turn. To go forward, the working class needs a big clean-up in its house, and fast. Dump the Labour traitors, dump the bureaucrats left and right — for revolutionary leadership!