Corbyn Lost Labour Party Elites, But Won Over Voters
“Corbyn has proven that there is a way forward for the Labour Party,” says Leo Panitch, a professor at York University–but it isn’t the future the Blairites envisioned
Aaron Maté It’s the Real News, I’m Eric [inaudible 00:00:08]. Jeremy Corbyn says his Labour Party’s election performance is a rebuke of neoliberal austerity.
Jeremy Corbyn: Politics has changed and politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before because what’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics, they’ve had quite enough of cuts in public expenditure, underfunding in our health service, underfunding in our schools and our education service and not giving our young people the chance they deserve in our society.
Aaron Maté Corbyn’s view that politics has changed, especially applies to his own party. The Labour Party establishment, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has fought Corbyn since he won the leadership two years ago. The Blair Writes, as they’re known, has predicted Corbyn would end Labour but after Corbyn’s strong showing on Thursday, it could be the Blair Wright’s whose time has ended.
Leo Panitch is a professor of Political Science at York University and author of the Making of a Global Capitalism. Professor Panitch, welcome.
Leo Panitch: Happy to talk to you.
Aaron Maté Thanks for joining. Let’s talk about what Corbyn pulled off here, especially in the context of facing so much resistance from the establishment of his own party.
Leo Panitch: Well, it’s absolutely historic and it’s a tremendous vindication of the Labour left and of socialists generally, in Britain and elsewhere.
I wrote a book called The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour that traced the attempt in the Labour Party that Corbyn grew up with in the 1970s to democratize the party, to make MPs members of Parliament responsible to the people who nominated them and elected them rather than be responsible to the IMF and the city of London with financiers. It was out of that campaign, led by Tony Benn, a very close friend of Corbyn’s, and I met Corbyn 40 years ago through Benn, that the 1983 Labour Party manifesto, which was called the longest suicide note in history by the Labour Center and Write articulated a vision for a democratic, socialist politics that would be an alternative to the neoliberal globalization that was ushered in initially by Thatcher. To see, after that whole process was so defeated and marginalized, not only the Blair Writes but by the center-left and centrist Labour MPs who couldn’t imagine anything beyond the limited cramped welfare state.
So remarkable that this has now been revised after it was so badly defeated. Tony Benn must be smiling in his grave. Jeremy Corbyn has proven that there is a way forward, as Bernie Sanders did to some extent in the last election in the United States.
Aaron Maté Well, one Tony who is not smiling is Tony Blair. He brought in this third-way politic in the ’90s and helped lead the pushback against Corbyn after he won the leadership two years ago. Talk about the resistance that Corbyn was up against from people like Tony Blair.
Leo Panitch: Well, it was enormous. They were incredulous that he could win the leadership of the Labour Party. As I said before, it wasn’t only the Blair Writes, it was people who considered themselves much more progressive and were troubled by Blair’s embrace of deregulation and finance-led capitalism and the Iraq war, but they were also conventional politicians, career representatives straight out of Oxford and Cambridge who would be dropped into working-class constituencies as Labour candidates by the party apparatus. They were simply convinced that someone of Corbyn’s ideology and interest and lack of your conventional media smarts could possibly be taken seriously as a leader of the Labour Party. Some of them even joined the nomination list for I’m thinking, “Well, it’s a good thing the whole of the Party together that there’s a voice from the left,” and to their astonishment, he was swept into the leadership. 300,000 people joined the party, mostly young people, and this brought him into the leadership, and then they were determined not to cooperate with him.
That determination went very deep and they were constantly leaking, as I often put it, into the public urinal against him in order to embarrass him and, usually presenting him as a loony-lefty for calling for things like he was elected on or did so well on yesterday, free tuition for higher education, a reversal of austerity, a return to local authorities of the basic resources they need in order for schools not to be starved of what they need to have a proper education for kids etcetera, etcetera, and they did this again. They attempt to unseat him again last year when they decided he wasn’t enthusiastic enough in the referendum campaign about Brexit. He had some criticisms of the neoliberal European Union, and right after that, again and again. It wasn’t only the Blair Writes, it was led, in fact, by Hillary Benn, Tony Ben’s own son who’s been always on the trade union center-left of the party, who did this partly over the [inaudible 00:06:35], partly over him not supporting intervention in Syria.
This has been a revolt from the type of establishment you know in the United States very well, that dominates the Democratic Party and that were the super-delegates of the Democratic Party convention. But you’re right, the Blair Writes were particularly incensed, particularly tidy to the media that thinks there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization. What has happened is that that third-way politics, represented by Clinton as well as Blair … and Blair followed Clinton in this, but also represented by [inaudible 00:07:23] in France etcetera, has utterly collapsed, and you’ve seen a de-legitimation of all of those institutions that have brought us neoliberal globalism and all of its inequalities, insecurities and other devastations.
Aaron Maté Just to give people a sense of the kind of inter-party resistance that Corbyn faced, I want to go to a clip from Channel 4 news, collecting statements from Labour MPs attacking Corbyn.
Speaker 4: Think, if Jeremy leads us into a general election, we face, say, a 1931-style wipe out for the Labour Party.
Speaker 5: Well, Labour would be in no shape whatever to fight-
Speaker 6: Absolutely, not. There’s a real risk we would get absolutely wiped out, and what we know of … We’ve seen Jeremy Corbyn in a position of leadership for some time, he cannot do the job. If he is a decent man, he should do the decent thing and go.
Speaker 7: I’ve see over the last 12 months, Jeremy Corbyn, as the leader of our party. He’s failed to win the trust and respect of the British people, he’s failed to organize an effective team-
Speaker 8: Jeremy at one point said, “I think we are, at the moment, an effective position,” and there was just an intake of breath in the room because we clearly are not. It just shows how out of touch he really is.
Speaker 9: The idea that Labour can go from the position that Jeremy Corbyn strikes to victory is absolutely ludicrous.
Speaker 10: No, it’s not!
Speaker 9: It’s completely preposterous.
Speaker 10: It’s not!
Speaker 11: I think Jeremy should now realize that he’s lost the competence entirely of the Parliamentary Labour Part, and most importantly it’s own senior from bench. It can’t carry on.
Aaron Maté Professor Panitch, that’s a sample of some of the criticism and resistance that Corbyn faced from his own party. You mentioned earlier this grassroots effort to bring more people into the party, especially young people, I believe now Labour is the largest political party in Europe because of it. How do Corbyn and his people go about building that grassroots effort? What did they do?
Leo Panitch: Well, some of it was spontaneous, some of it was the effort of some people who had been very active in the campaign for Labour Party democracy in the ’70s and early ’80s to link themselves up with young people with great skills in social media. They use that very, very effectively to build this organization called momentum and, more broadly, an enthusiasm for what Corbyn represented. That enthusiasm is partly based on the fact that he’s not your conventional politician. I mean, he’s so uncharismatic that he makes Bernie Sanders look charismatic.
But it’s also to do with his opposition to nuclear weapons, in the British case the Trident submarine, it has to do with his being a very great leader of the Stop the Work coalition, it has to do with the consistent opposition that he is articulated to cutbacks in social services and welfare and benefits and education, etcetera. That has simply galvanized people because he’s been so down to earth and sincere in this respect, doing this without all of the triangulated language that politicians normally engage in, and the Blair Writes were particularly good at. That has had an enormous effect.
Now, that one needs to say that the party apparatus, the full-time staff in the party, have been more worried about, “My goodness, some of these young people may be radicals. We need to make sure that we don’t let any radicals into the party.” They indeed went around trying to expel people or not letting people join. A lot of their skills in this respect go all the way back to the anticommunism of the Cold War.
So, the party apparatus also has not been on Corbyn’s side, the General Secretary of the party has rather been, at best, a lukewarm supporter, but at worst, actively engaged in trying to undermine this attempt to revive the Labour Party at the base, and this is going to be needed.
If we are not to have euphoria upon his election … and I do think it’s likely in 6 or 12 or 18 months we will see a Labour government, if we’re not to have euphoria as happened in Greece when the first radical-left government in Europe, the only one, was elected after the crisis began, and then have terrible disappointment and charges of traitor and so on coming from the left, what is going to have to happen is that the people who vote for him, who support him, are going to have to become mobilizers and educators of the population so they understand the terrific struggle that will be involved in trying to see these progressive policies through, whether they’re social policies, economic policies or foreign policies or an ecological one. In the British case, that will come not only from outside, it’ll come even more from the inside, from the financial institutions in the city of London, which is the main international place in which the American banks operate, it will come from the scurrilous British press, the owner of Fox News, Murdoch, sunk his roots after left England, in the British media and the Times and, above all, in the sun that the working-class readership reads. It makes the most rabid right-winged radio look tepid in its attacks on Corbyn and on the left. You can imagine what they’ll do when they actually are in government and are trying to carry through some real reforms.
The next 6 to 12 or 18 months are going to be really needed to turn the party apparatus and then the party branches into adequate vehicles for Corbyn being able to get the support to see through what is in the Labour Party manifesto, which is very progressive in all kinds of respects, that’s oologically in terms of taking it to public ownership the railways again, as well as in terms of reversing austerity and introducing, let’s say, a free tuition for post-secondary education.
The opposition to this will be terrific, and the time is needed, it’s not yet there for the party itself to become the kind of vehicle that supports this.
Aaron Maté Professor, that comparison you make there, Greece is really important, especially because in the case of Greece, most of the pressure came from the outside, from the European Union and Greece’s creditors. In this case, though it might be easier for Corbyn because if the pressure is from the inside, then the solidarity of people on the inside could make a difference, whereas in the case of Greece, they’re, essentially, prone to what happens to them from the outside, right?
Leo Panitch: I think that’s a very good point. I think that’s a very good point, but of course, it will take the form of collaboration between the ruling class inside and the forces outside. They will engage in a run on the pound that will make it look like it’s foreigners who are taking capital out of Britain, when in fact it’s as much domestic financiers who are doing so. They will encourage, as indeed they did against the Labour government in the 1970s, they will encourage the American treasury to sick the IMF on the government and there’ll be plenty in the European Union, not least the Germans, who, of course, did not want the Greeks to set an example. That was their main concern. Not least, the Germans will not want Corbyn to set an example.
That said, I think you’re right. I think there are much greater resources in Britain obviously, then there were in Greece. On the other hand, as we began this conversation, there are far more people unenthusiastic about the Labour Party manifesto and about what Corbyn wants to do inside the Labour Party elite than they were in the [inaudible 00:16:53] case. There will be internal enemies that they’ll have to cope with. As someone said very wisely in a little video clip on who Corbyn was, “[inaudible 00:17:08] is not his enemy, she’s his opponent. His real enemies are inside the Labour Party.”
Aaron Maté Leo Panitch, giving us a lot to think about there when it comes to Corbyn’s internal and external challenges and how they could possibly be faced. Professor Leo Panitch is a professor of Political Science at York University, author of the Making of Global Capitalism. Professor Panitch, thank you.
Leo Panitch: Great to talk to you.
Aaron Maté Thank you for joining us on the Real News.