July 17, 2016

Struggle in Labour Party: Defending Corbyn

Shatam Ray

NOW that enough time has passed with Britain voting to leave the European Union (EU) without any major catastrophe occurring (frankly, should we even be surprised that a former imperial power still thinks that squabbles between its cabinet members and parliamentary backbenchers would lead to the end of the world, ‘as we know it’?), it may be a good time to think about what ‘Brexit’ means for political action, especially on the Left. The result of the British referendum should have hardly been surprising. The political conceit around which European Union itself was premised is frankly outmoded and outdated. Moreover, the full frontal attack of contemporary capitalism, under the guise of globalisation, on the lives of the veritable ‘99%’, must be the backdrop against which the British working class voting pattern must be read. However, one fallout of Brexit has been unanticipated: the vicious coup attempted against Labor Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

To be sure, the Parliamentary Labor Party (PLP) looked askance at having a man much to their Left as the leader of their Party. They were uncomfortable by Corbyn’s Leftist rhetoric, his refusal of ‘conventional politics’ and most importantly, his soaring popularity among Labor grassroots members and allied trade unions. Most of the parliamentarians in the Party continue to be dyed-in-wool Blairites. Corbyn’s victory was a genuine shock to this class. The vote to leave Britain was never on Corbyn’s agenda though in the past he had articulated Eurosceptic views. However, his views have been consistent in their reasoning – anti austerity, falling working class wages, working and living conditions – and only a devious propagandist would present Corbyn’s views as corresponding to those on the xenophobic right; most prominently, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Even their arguments about the falling electoral viability of a Labor under Corbyn are hardly convincing. Labor has won big in the recent mayoral elections including the much talked-about London Mayoral elections of Sadiq Khan. They won in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford as well as by-elections where they managed to increase their vote share and have maintained their hold over the Welsh government. It is ironic that ‘Red’ Ed Miliband is now being brought back from the Labor gallows by the right faction to convince Corbyn supporters of their diminished electoral prospects – less than a year after Miliband spectacularly botched up the Labor election campaign.

The trumped up charge against Corbyn is that he did not really rally in favor of the ‘remain’ vote. This could have been a little more convincing had Corbyn’s own constituency, Islington not overwhelmingly voted ‘remain’ or if we ignore that the Labor votes (for remain) fell embarrassingly below 50 percent in constituencies represented by the anti-Corbyn camp. The most prominent being Angela Eagle’s (seen till recently as the leading unity candidate of the anti-Corbyn faction) constituency in Wallasey where only a little over 40 percent of the Labor voters, voted ‘remain’. Within a week of the Brexit results, 60,000 new members joined the Labor Party and in the ensuing amateurish coup drama, Momentum, the most significant grassroots organisation of the party as well as virtually all trade unions, like Unite have extended support to the embattled Corbyn. And while 172 PLP members did manage to pass a vote of no confidence against Corbyn (a procedure that has no legal standing in the Labor constitution), 40 MPs supported him against 35 that had initially voted for him in the leadership elections 10 months back.

Let us be clear on one thing – the PLP does not have a problem with Corbyn alone, it has a problem with the people that he seem to represent and the key shifts that they are pushing for in the national economic order. The vote to leave the EU was a rejection of globalisation and the ‘common sense’ that it seems to represent. The Economist seemed to be saying as much when it confesses, “Unless…the global order works for their (ordinary people) benefit, Brexit risks becoming just the start of an unraveling of globalisation and the prosperity it has created.”

Most publications have gone on an overdrive to make it seem as if the Brexit vote represents a tussle between liberalism and xenophobic bigotry. While there have been disturbing instances of anti-immigrant and racist crimes in the wake of the referendum, let us not buy into the simplistic causality being established in this instance. The growing popularity of right wing parties/leaders, from Jean and Marie Le Pen’s National Front (in France), Golden Dawn (in Greece), Donald Trump (in the US) and UKIP are living evidence of long-standing simmering discontent that finds an unfortunate expression in xenophobic, ultra-nationalist groupings. The crisis in liberalism that is being bemoaned is not something that has come from without but one whose seeds liberalism has always carried within. The era of European empires was, after all, built on the premise of ‘bringing’ liberalism.

Anyone following the (other) surprise victory of Syriza in Greece will recall at the manner in which EU elite recoiled at the prospect of an anti-austerity political formation gaining traction. Yanis Varoufakis, the then finance minister of Greece, has subsequently spoken against the anti-democratic and arrogant nature that constitutes the kernel of EU politicos and policymakers. But even now, such is the delusion of pro-globalisation liberals that they have conveniently identified a class of technocrats as the root cause of EU’s crisis. In this narrative, technocrats - often appointed from Brussels - came with their heartless prognosis which disenfranchised millions and created the disaffection towards the political behemoth that is EU. In this argument, all we need is a change of heart (maybe sack couple of technocrats) and liberalism will prosper again. What advocates of such a line fail to see is that their own solution is informed in the very technocratic logic that they seem to denounce.

And it is this very narrative that Corbyn has the potential to disrupt. The problem is that PLP and the entire political class on the right is a mere extension of the anti-democratic EU elite that Varoufakis has talked about – entitled and deeply suspicious of popular expressions. In another instance, Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president was forced to step down due to an orchestrated coup by the political elites. Rousseff, a former Marxist guerilla and an elected leader of the Worker’s Party (PT), had a long list of unconvincing charges against her. The most serious one that no one will ever admit is that she is not a Paulista (someone from Sao Paulo), a shorthand really in Brazil for the entitled elite.

The Brexit has revealed an ugly side that virtually all societies contain and try their best to conceal. It is easy to make this vote into a liberal-versus-conservative argument. But one can evince from history many occasions where liberalism has merely acquiesced and groveled in front of an ascendant right wing. Only an organised Left can counter the right. Only a strong Left can remind us that Brexit is a rejection of economic structures that engender inequality and mass dispossession through using harmless words such as austerity. Hence, the upcoming negotiations of a Europe-less Britain must be carried out with questions of income, livelihood and interracial dignity in the forefront. It is an opportunity where the Left can emerge ascendant with its own vision out of this crisis while the Tories are busy imploding. And while it is easy to read this vote as a triumph of narrow nationalism, most on the Left must articulate it as a reinvigoration of internationalism. It is for this reason, Jeremy Corbyn must be defended by the ordinary membership of Labor and the working class. It is for this, international Left must see the stakes in the survival of Corbyn.