Confident Corbyn Puts Tories on Notice at Labour Party Conference
Corbyn’s message is shifting the ground of British politics says Labour scholar Leo Panitch
Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
In Brighton, UK, the Labour Party conference for 2017 came to an end with its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s address.
Jeremy Corbyn: Against all predictions, in June we won the largest increase in the Labour vote since 1945, and achieved Labour’s best vote for a generation. It’s a result which has put the Tories on notice, and Labour on the threshold of power. Yes, we didn’t do quite well enough and we remain in opposition, for now. But we’ve become a government in waiting, and our message to the whole country could not be clearer. Labour is ready.
Sharmini Peries: Joining us to discuss Corbyn’s address is Leo Panitch. Leo is senior scholar and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at York University. He’s the editor of the recently released 2018 Socialist Register titled “Rethinking Democracy.” Thanks for joining us, Leo.
Leo Panitch: Hi, Sharmini.
Sharmini Peries: Leo, let’s start with your initial reaction to Corbyn’s speech.
Leo Panitch: It was a great speech. full of confidence. When he was first surprisingly elected leader just over two years ago, he wasn’t used to being in the limelight in that way, and his speech was often halting. But he’s a conviction politician and now that he has the wind behind him and he has strong evidence that his message is in fact shifting the ground of British politics, he is full of confidence. It was a brilliant speech. He made a number of speeches like that, which were televised, at the beginning of the election campaign and that had an electrifying effect on the campaign.
Sharmini Peries: Leo, one of the many things he said is that he pushed for a radically different and alternative economic position to that of the current government. Can you discuss some of the policies Corbyn pushed for?
Leo Panitch: Yeah. They’re laid out in the Labour Party Manifesto, but to some extent he went further. He only mentioned in passing what had been stressed earlier in the week by other shadow ministers. But the most important of which is a public investment bank, a national one, supplemented by regional investment banks where the public sector, the government, would take the lead in investment. Addressing the fact that everywhere since the 2008 crisis, there’s been a recovery of profits but not a recovery of investment. He says that a Labour government will take the lead in that.
He also says that they will re-nationalize some key industries: railway, water. energy. Moreover, that many public services that were expanded through the public sector, through what is known as Private Finance Initiatives, the equivalent of PPPs in North America, will be clawed back. They’ve been inefficiently developed, this is hospitals, this is the NHS, this is schools, etc.
That’s the centerpiece of it, it’s not socialism. Those of us who wish Corbyn the best should not put ourselves in the position of imagining it’s going to be easy. The reaction, even though it’s not socialism, from the Confederation of British Industry, from the city, from the banks, have already been, “Oh my god. This is going to undermine private enterprise,” It’s far from that, but they will face enormous opposition. We shouldn’t put the kind of emphasis on what they can immediately achieve that would lead us to then be disappointed in a way we were when Syriza was elected in Greece.
We need to realize their limitations, and when he says, “We’re ready”, you just had him quoted as saying, “We’re ready for government”, they’re not ready. Who could be ready to take on the kind of powers that be? They haven’t built yet, although they, as he said, massively shifted the center ground of British politics. That was the most important element of his speech. He isn’t yet ready. They haven’t built the base in the Labour party, branches in the trade unions, to win the kind of support from people when, if I can use the expression,” the crap will hit the fan,” when all of the opposition to even these relatively moderate attempts to increase the state’s public sector role in the economy, will be opposed by both foreign and domestic capital.
Sharmini Peries: Now Leo, in his speech he mentioned the word Brexit almost 15 times. This is a part of what he had to say.
Jeremy Corbyn: As Democratic Socialists, we accept and respect the referendum result. But respect for a democratic decision does not mean giving a green light to recklessness. Tory Brexit agenda that would plunge Britain into a Trump style race to the bottom in rights and corporate taxes.
Sharmini Peries: Did Corbyn outline any concrete differences between a Brexit led by Labour Party, and that of the Tories?
Leo Panitch: Yes. He said explicitly, “We will not blame immigrants for the economic problems of Britain.” He said that very explicitly, and laid it on the Tories for making that kind of argument. He said, “Leaving Europe is not about leaving the European economy.” What it is about is removing the restrictions that a neo-liberal Europe would put on the type of public sector interventions, investment, that they’re trying to talk about. Obviously, what he is doing is, and he has enormous space to do it now, walking a tightrope. Speaking to those who rejected Europe, but not speaking to them in a way that rejects Europe because of migration, labor migration. But rejects Europe because it’s neo-liberal.
At the same time, he needs to speak to those who want to remain, who are internationalists. He said very explicitly that Europeans now living in Britain will be given the full rights of British citizens. He said that it was the Labour Party that had been arguing for a long transition period, which May has no adopted. He’s appealing to both sides and he’s in perfect position to do so. This is one of the reasons Labour did so well in the election.
Sharmini Peries: Leo, Corbyn made a very important statement about how the party should position itself. Let’s listen.
Jeremy Corbyn: Conference, it’s often said that elections can only be won from the center ground. All right. In a way that’s not wrong, so long as it’s clear that the political center of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable. Nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is, because they know everything as you know. It shifts as people’s expectations and experiences changed and political space is opened up.
Sharmini Peries: Leo, what did he mean by that? Elections can be only won from center ground?
Leo Panitch: What he says is “…that’s not wrong, so long as it’s clear that the center ground isn’t fixed forever, or unmovable.” This is exactly what The Real News’ position is. The mainstream media treats the center ground as though it is something fixed. It’s the status quo. It’s the current consensus. The whole point about being a socialist politician is to believe that you can influence people. That you can make socialists. That you can show them that socialist policies, socialist ideas, socialist vision is in their interest.
As Tony Benn once said when he was asked what he wanted to do as a politician, he said, “I want to make socialists”. Now, most politicians of course run away from that. But Corbyn says what we’ve managed to do is offer people a clear choice, and because we’ve done that, politics has finally caught up with the crash of 2008. In a sense, that’s what Trump did. It’s of course what Bernie did. The difference is that where Bernie didn’t win the Democratic Party, Corbyn did, and he’s proving that this can be effective. In fact, Hillary Clinton in her appalling book has a passage at the end that admits that Sanders was right in this respect.
Sharmini Peries: Finally Leo, in terms of foreign policy, Corbyn had this to say:
Jeremy Corbyn: But we also know that terrorism is thriving, in a world that, frankly, our governments have helped to shape. With its failed states, military interventions, and occupations. Where millions of people are forced to flee conflict or hunger. We have to do better and swap the knee jerk response of another bombing campaign for long term help to solve the conflict, rather than fuel them.
Sharmini Peries: All right, Leo. This is a real departure from usual Labour Party positioning on terrorism and of course war, and the UK’s role in all of this. Your thoughts on that?
Leo Panitch: I think to be fair, Ed Miliband already distanced himself from the Blair-ite support of the Bush invasion of Iraq, which is the source of much of this. That’s why he was elected leader. Corbyn carried that much further, and before the election, you may remember there was an appalling terrorist bombing in Manchester at a concert where many young people were killed. Corbyn’s response to that was exactly what he just said in that speech. Many people thought, “Oh, well that’s going to kill the Labour Party”. Not at all. It shows that what I was saying that was most important in the speech, that you can shift the center ground, is in fact true. That’s what he did. Speaking to people in a way that led them to understand that our policies, our foreign policies, our imperialist foreign policies are often at the root of the chaos that is the modern capitalist world.
That was very effective, but he said other things as well that are very significant. Not least of which, he pointed to the appalling situation of the Palestinians, the need for a two state solution. In a context where he has been attacked for being an antisemite, and the Labour Party was defensive of that. That is, he’s the furthest thing from an antisemite. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. But the attack was simply because he’s prepared to speak to Palestinian rights and the need for a two state solution and is therefore called an antisemite. Rather than back off, he repeated that. That was courageous. That was important. That was perhaps the most important thing that was in that foreign policy speech. I must say, Miliband, who’s Jewish, was also called an antisemite. This is a very very important departure.
The other important thing was that he took such a great distance and was so critical at some length of Trump’s speech at the United Nations and called on the British Government to condemn it. They’ve only done so in a mealy-mouthed way. That too was a very very important element of that speech.
Sharmini Peries: Overall, Leo, how does this position Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn as its leader going forward?
Leo Panitch: It positions them very well, but provided that it lights a fire under the young activists, under the momentum people to go ahead and in fact turn Labour Party branches into centers of working class life, into arenas where people, when they’re in trouble, go looking for help. Where they learn how to do politics themselves, how to engage in democracy. It’s important if the unions are moved to put their money where their mouth is. To hire organizers to engage in the political mobilization and education of their members behind a radical and I’d say even more radical program than Labour is now pushing, because it is going to have to be more radical in the face of the opposition that it’s going to run into from both domestic and international capital.
Sharmini Peries: All right, Leo. I thank you so much for joining us today and look forward to having you back. Because I think the Labour Party will only continue to gain momentum.
Leo Panitch: Great to talk to you, Sharmini. Especially about this.
Sharmini Peries: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.