UK Labour Party conference begins under leadership of Corbyn

Few conferences in recent memory will be followed as carefully as that of the UK’s Labour Party, which begins today. It is the first to be held under Jeremy Corbyn, who won the leadership of the Labour Party in a landslide vote just two weeks ago.

Corbyn won by promising to oppose austerity and steer Labour to the left, which animated several hundred thousand to sign up as Labour supporters to secure his victory. As a result of this groundswell of opposition to the Conservative government’s attacks on working people and the rightward lurch of Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, this year’s party conference will likely see votes on issues such as privatisation, opposing benefit cuts and the Trident nuclear weapons system.

The media is filled with intense speculation about possible revolts by the Blair wing in the party, but such predictions were dampened after Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s closest political confidante, released a private paper stating that those on the right of the party should wait for the public to form a negative view of Corbyn before attempting to oust him. They were in for a “long haul during which time the atmosphere in the party will become increasingly acrimonious at branch and constituency levels,” he said.

Corbyn still faces the opposition of almost the whole of his own cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is stressing, therefore, that conference decisions should be binding, rather than advisory as insisted on by his opponents. No doubt, the next few days will see many conflicts, but whatever “victories” Corbyn secures will be pyrrhic given his refusal to contemplate a struggle to drive the right wing out of the party.

The Blair and Brownites are a despised and hated minority. But they have the backing of the ruling class, its media and the Tories in the fight to discredit and drive out Corbyn and his supporters. They may calculate that their weakened position does not allow for a frontal assault, but they will do everything and anything to maintain Labour as a pro-business and pro-war party.

Their greatest political advantage lies in the opponent they face, Corbyn. At every juncture, he stresses the political imperative of maintaining party unity at all costs, even under conditions where he is backed by many thousands of ordinary members.

His brief time at the helm has seen one political retreat after another, especially whenever he has been attacked by the media. Corbyn was attacked for not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain commemoration, while his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, came under fire for making statements supportive of the IRA. In response, both issued humble apologies.

Corbyn has cancelled plans to address the Stop the War Coalition and announced his resignation as its chairman. He also announced that he will not be speaking at a conference fringe meeting alongside representatives of Sinn Fein, but will be speaking at a Labour Friends of Israel event.

Regarding policy, after initially threatening that “anti-worker” policies on the part of the European Union might lead him to campaign for an exit, he reassured the media that he now could not see a situation where that would be likely.

On Trident, he has stressed that his personal opposition notwithstanding, “we’re not going to divide and ruin ourselves as a party over this.” There is no talk anymore of leaving NATO.

The most significant concession is his promise of a free vote on whether to back air strikes against Syria. Given his appointment of a shadow cabinet dominated by pro-war figures such as Hilary Benn, this all but guarantees the Conservatives will be able to secure a “yes” vote as early as next month.

By way of an apologia for Corbyn’s retreats on such fundamental questions, Michael Chessum argued in the New Statesman, “[W]hat Corbyn needs is the growth of a mass movement against austerity, and a message of hope for people’s lives. Trident may enthuse an activist base, but it is housing, poverty and street-by-street activism that will bring about the movement we need… Corbyn needs to get back onto the front foot. That means moving back onto the terrain of social policy and economics—and quickly.”

This suggests that Corbyn’s retreats will somehow not impact on his promises to oppose austerity. But that too is not the case. He has stated that his opposition to the government’s benefits cap is a personal one and was subject to review by the party. More important still, he declared, “The policy is that we work within the total budget of £120 billion” dictated by the Tories.

What price then Corbyn’s stated policy of a “ People’s Quantitative Easing ” as a means of reflating the economy and creating jobs? McDonnell trailed his own conference speech with an exclusive interview with the Guardian in which he declared that he would tell the Labour conference that Britain “will vote in favour of a new fiscal charter” proposed by Tory Chancellor George Osborne, which commits the government to delivering an overall surplus by 2019-20 and running an overall budget surplus in “normal times.”

“We accept we are going to have to live within our means and we always will do—full stop,” he said. “We are not deficit deniers.”

McDonnell claims that he would take a “radically different approach” to deficit reduction in that Labour would “ease the burden on low- and middle-income earners” and exempt spending on vital infrastructure projects. But given that any extra money is supposed to come largely from clamping down on tax avoidance, as was pledged by Syriza in Greece, along with £80 billion to £100 billion from scrapping Trident, this is a promise of “jam tomorrow” that does nothing to alleviate the suffering of millions of working people today.

McDonnell and Corbyn have, in addition, lowered their proposed new higher income tax for the wealthy from 60 percent to 50 percent—the same level pledged by Labour under Ed Miliband.

Even if one were to accept that Corbyn is genuine in his striving to transform Labour—a party that has defended imperialism for more than a century—into an instrument that defends working people, how can this be reconciled with keeping a vicious right-wing cabal at the very heart of the party’s leadership?

His lack of seriousness on this issue only reflects the impotence of his broader political perspective. Political and social life in Britain and internationally is dictated by a super-rich elite, whose power cannot be defeated by passing a few resolutions at conference or even laws in parliament. It demands rather the systematic mobilisation of the working class in an industrial and political struggle against the major corporations and banks and their political stooges across the political spectrum.

If Corbyn is not prepared to deal with a handful of discredited party apparatchiks, who are widely despised even within Labour’s own ranks, how can he be trusted to lead what must be a life-and-death struggle against the financial oligarchy?

One week before the Labour Party conference was due to start, an anonymous serving general used the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times to threaten a mutiny in the event of the election of a Corbyn government, in order to defeat its plans for Trident and defence cuts by “whatever means possible, fair or foul.”

Three days later, Corbyn finally broke his silence on this sinister development, in an interview with the New Statesman. But not even the threat of a coup stirred him to opposition. All he could manage was: “I don’t know who this general was and apparently he’s been told off by his superiors already, and I hope so. We live in a democracy and I think it’s surprising that somebody would make those kinds of statements.”

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[15 August 2015]