Jeremy Corbyn: A very British coup?

Jeremy Corbyn

If age is not on your side you might well remember the 1982 novel by Chris Mullins to which this post’s title alludes. A solidly left-wing and principled leader of the Labour Party becomes prime minister and sets in motion a cabal of secret service agents, high-level mandarins and establishment aristocrats conspiring to plot his downfall.

Well…Jeremy Corbin isn’t quite that far, but he seems set to do a version of it within the Labour Party. Those ‘senior figures’ within Labour – like Harriet Harmon and most of Corbyn’s other current competitors –  rather shot themselves in the foot when they initiated the ‘open forum’ that allowed Jeremy Corbyn to be propelled into the front running position he now occupies. His core supporters are firmly rooted in the values of what is now called Old Labour, as a contrast to New Labour, that banal and mediocre media transformation atop the policy transformation that saw Blair and Co., shift the party firmly in line with dominant neo-liberal ideology. Whatever New Labour is supposed to represent its very existence attempts to drop the guillotine on the party’s prior history, declaring its entire raison d’etre to be outmoded and out of line with the politics (though in truth they mean the economic hegemony) of the modern world.

Jeremy Corbyn has taken to the podium to tell us that this is nonsense, and he has a lot of willing listeners. These are not just disgruntled old pre-Kinnock Labourites, they are young people too; those who may have voted for Blair in 1997, or who were too young to vote and really are ‘Blair’s children’. What they all share is the disillusionment produced from those three Labour governments that oversaw monumental lies leading to war, a near-complete hollowing-out of social infrastructure, financial corruption and ending ignominiously in financial meltdown. Not content with having presided over this, the very same repertory of rotating faces is now trying to pretend that they offer something different. These are people who served in Blair governments and were touted as the new faces of New Labour. The Blair coup fully integrated the view that there is one way to win elections (because this is all they care about) and that is to court plutocrats and media-moguls and rub-shoulders, in a friendly way, with the people and institutions that Labour as a party was created to moderate.

In his book Feeding Frenzy Will Self remarked that “Never before has style so fantastically glossed substance.” That was New Labour’s real legacy for politics, a media realignment achieved by a full-scale in-house demolition project. Instead of holding principles and damn the media, the line was taken that it is the media that wins an election. It is the media that shapes public opinion and any party seeking office has to be in line with the ideological interests that now saturate the corporate media. In 1997 it was tempting to believe that some sacrifice was worth it just to end Tory rule and perhaps undo at least some of the damage of their privatisation frenzy and corporate cronyism. Never was an electorate so misguided as in 1997.

In Chris Mullins’s book the protagonist is a character modelled upon Tony Benn who at the time had just lost the deputy leadership to Denis Healy (by 1%) and had come in fourth in the leadership contest of 1976. Like Corbyn now, Tony Benn was always popular with grass roots Labour activists, but his fate in terms of leadership positions shows just how difficult it is for a principled politician to secure the position that directs the party; let alone capture the wide support that leads to 10 Downing Street. Generation upon generation of the regular voting public has been persuaded that anyone like Tony Benn is ‘bad for business’ and business (specifically dancing to its tune) is really all that matters. Under this supposed home truth everything has to be sacrificed to market ideology, or in reality a hegemony of massive corporations, banking giants and other financial institutions who cajole and blackmail any government not following orders. More usually its representatives hop back and forth between boardroom and Westminster. Tony Benn kept his principles and eventually became a back bench ‘voice of reason’ and fierce critic. Jeremy Corbyn has already been a back bench voice of reason and fierce critic for some time, so it’s interesting to see his ascent.

Radio 4’s The Report recently produced a programme about the ‘Corbyn effect’ and looked at the sorts of people supporting his leadership bid. It focused on two young people, essentially disillusioned young people produced during the Blair era who see those years in much the same way my generation saw Thatcher; which is a poor show indeed for the Labour Party. My generation also saw a Labour Party out of office for nearly twenty years, but at the time, despite the desperation and dashed hope, it mattered that you took a genuine stand rather than buying into the club just to be able to make some paltry difference, like New Labour eventually did.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins, the Labour Party will have a crisis on its hands because the rest of the shadow cabinet is largely made up of Blairites or Blair-lites who have fully signed up to the so-called new paradigm of British politics. The middle-class voters wooed to Labour by Blair (those who haven’t already gone back either to the Conservatives or onwards to UKIP) are a new generation of people who have no clue about class or a ‘right-left divide’ because they’ve been weaned on a culture of individualism and personal consumption of everything including political needs. It remains to be seen if enough damage has been done by Thatcher-Blair-Cameron to have pushed these people far enough, through austerity, housing shortages, unemployment and political corruption, to be able to accept a principled left-wing Labour Leader as man whose vision they can share. In Mullins’s book the status quo is maintained and his hero is removed by the establishment.

Whither strike action?

The proposed strike by British Airways staff has thrown up several interesting tidbits. Apart from all the usual  stories about hard-working families having their holidays ruined and how a strike will cripple the barely-recovering British economy, there is the question of: strike, yes or no? Well, over 90% of the workers at BA said ‘yes’, if the management backs out of a solution, but of course, as every Tory politician who can get in front of a tv camera is squawking, they would be because the unionised workers are greedy and inflexible and basically just left-wing economic terrorists who run the government..yada yada….

Anyone who has been snoozing since about 1985 will need to be informed that, in contrast to what the usual Conservative Party repertory performance suggests, the unions have very little clout with the current Labour government. The illusion lies in the idea (from both union supporters and their opposition) that the departure of Blair and his associated –ism has allowed the Labour party to return to old Labour values, and that the carpet has been rolled out for the unions. The truth of the matter is that 30 years of neo-liberalism has dented the idea and meaning of what unions and strikes are and what they are for. So that people complaining about a not being able to catch the train to work for three days causes the BBC news crews to go trawling around Britain’s train stations to see how many people they can find who will say “disgusting” or “shambles” or “scandalous to the economy” on camera. Of course in calmer moments, when the trains are running, many of the same people support the right to strike and would oppose it being challenged by the law; not to mention how many people wish they had joined some sort of union when career-wise they are shafted into next week by some corporation.

On the BBC’s Question Time programme this evening,  the Tory shadow health secretary Andrew Langley betrayed the  true view that sits badly-disguised among the Conservative Party, a view that has never gone away despite the slick airbrushing and the campaign to  soften the old Tory image: that they would like to outlaw striking. Those were his words: that strike action is “outdated”.

Unfortunately, capitalist big business leaving its workforces with no other leverage than strikes has not gone out of fashion, but this is something men like Langley will always fail to grasp. Gordon Brown’s position is even more spectacular in that he is not only tremblingly supportive of the management, but that he is also a fully paid-up member of the union (UNISON) which has actually called the strike; which must mean that he supports striking in principle and gets to appear all indignant when David Cameron encourages strike breaking and crossing the picket lines.

So aside from the consistent, yet deceitful, Conservatives, we have a contradictory situation where ‘in principle‘ people support the right to strike, but no-one seems to think it should happen or be used as leverage. A situation where people know that big business has a power that otherwise easily overwhelms workforces and where government protection and regulation is notoriously weak, but that strikes are ‘holding the public to ransom‘. As usual in politics, the mind boggles.

The question of whether strike action will take place is not settled, despite the go-ahead vote. It may, as is the popular view, be that BA staff have chosen the wrong moment for strike action: in the recovery period of a recession when others are facing  job and pay cuts with little chance of a turnaround soon. The Tory and big business supporters are making big capital of that and peddling it as not only a argument against this strike, but against strikes full-stop.

The only ‘argument’ against unionism in the developed world is that workers demanding their due, leads to businesses hot-footing it to places where people are not unionised where they can be in cahoots with the governments who will keep it that way by force if necessary, for the right price. In BA’s case this is not really an option, so they need all the anti-union feeling they can get, playing on the  ideas that unions  ‘stifle growth’  and all the rest of the usual newspeak used to push the views of neo-liberalism as the natural state of affairs under threat. Whether it’s from a Labour or Conservative-dominated Downing Street, the 30-year plan to put unions out to pasture comes one step closer.

Wilders makes gains in Dutch local elections

Geert Wilders, who is perhaps better known for his anti-Islam stance (and his hair) than for any other policy, has made significant gains in two Gemeentes (councils) in the Netherlands. Candidates for his party the PVV, de Partij Voor Vrijheid (freedom Party) made gains in Almere and in the Hague, the Netherlands’ seat of parliament. This is being treated as a prediction for the possible outcome of the general election which takes place in three months.

It is difficult to extrapolate from success in only two councils, which may have been carefully chosen by the PVV on the strength of how much anti-Islam feeling can be generated in a particular area, but it is a sign that cultural tensions that have simmered in the Netherlands are capable of being translated into votes. Wilders’ stance on the integration of Islam into the Netherlands, and the threat he claims it poses for the country (and western democracy in general) has received sympathy among some who feel multiculturalism has failed.

Less highlighted is the ordinary neo-liberal economic programme of Wilders, which hankers for cuts to social spending and tax cutting policies; the PVV is mostly seen as an ‘anti-Islam’ platform.

In the Hague demonstrations were already taking place, with people gathering to protest the possible gains of Wilders manifesting itself into a ban on the Muslim veil. As part of the protest many of the protesters arrived wearing improvised headscarves.

Nationally, gains were also made for the GreenLeft and also smaller parties like the ‘liberal’ D66 and in some cases also the socialist party.

Zimmer Frame Workforce: EU-wide pension hikes

Spanish unions, among others, have already called  their strikes —  the result of numerous grievances, mainly soaring unemployment in the aftermath of the recession. What sparked-off the strike however, was the socialist government’s request (at the January World Economic Forum in Davos) that workers should delay retirement and instead draw pensions at age 67, rather than 65.

The Zapatero government is about as socialist/social democratic as it gets in conventional government, yet despite vocal criticism of the banking and business sectors for their part in the credit crash, there is still eventually the same dumping of responsibility onto the workforce – the entire workforce, including those with no hand in the credit markets, no crazy mortgage history or maxed-out credit cards. The explanation is the same explanation that has been rattling around for some years: that the budget deficits can’t allow generous pensions anymore as the pension-age population swells and the youth workforce shrinks. This isn’t just a national concern for Spain, it is emerging everywhere; just this month the troubled Greek government announced its retirement-age raise and centre-right sections of the recently-collapsed Dutch coalition have been officially pushing for the same sort of raise for the last two years.

The EU has been pushing member states to move in this direction for some time now. At a press conference on Tuesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso insisted that every EU member country needed to reform its pension system by raising the retirement age. The same call was made by Silvio Berlusconi at the beginning of February. There is clearly a crisis in the cost and affordability of state pension systems, but there appears to be a constant reiteration that raising the retirement age is the ONLY and unavoidable solution.

In the Netherlands, the Socialist Party leader Agnes Kant made a debate speech on this very issue. Considering the problem of cost, she pointed  to the continued support of banks, the continued policies of levying of paltry taxes on banks and corporations, who seem to never fill up their share of the social coffers. Above all criticism was levelled at the unfairness of forcing people in heavy jobs such as construction to keep on working to what is now getting closer to age 70; just to ensure they receive a full pension. It seems that the EU’s policy-planners have failed to factor in ideas like steel workers who began their careers aged 14-16 and who are now feeling pretty tired and looking forward to some sort of retirement.

The groups of the lowest-paid manual workers are notoriously also the groups with shorter life-expectancies and higher occurrences of ill-health. Some of those people might not make it to 60, let alone 67. Kant’s simple proposal was that 65 should remain the official retirement age, but with a clause that would allow any people who are able and willing to keep on working past that age should they choose to. Unfortunately, the heavy-presence of the centre-right (and the increasingly impotent Labour Party) could do no more than ask whether or not the socialists were willing to assent to discussing the age raise, without bothering themselves to answer any of the criticisms.

As the problem of longer life-expectancies all round (though more so among the better-off) continues in tandem with the almost  universal policies of shrinking and destroying social provision, while at the same time championing an economic system that dodges taxes as it pays million-dollar bonuses, the social pensions problem is one that won’t be going away soon. However, the solutions have by no means been exhausted; in fact there has only ever been the one proposal on the discussion table, and the EU intends to make sure it stays that way.

Car ploughs into crowd during Dutch royal celebrations

Netherlands, Apeldoorn

During the celebrations for  Queen Beatrix’s birthday, a two-day national holiday in the Netherlands known as ‘Queen’s Day’, 14 people have been injured when a car drove into the crowds. It has been assumed that the car attempted to drive into the passing royal motorcade and instead ended up driving into bystanders watching the royal parade.

The emergency services, already on hand for the celebrations, began re-animating some of the victims and others have been transported to hospital. The driver of the car has also been hospitalised.

Where’s the unity and organisation?

handringIt’s easy to belittle the G20 protests and write them off as a largely ineffectual blip, but in trying to defend them some unpalatable questions actually do need to be asked and answered—concerning both unity and organisation on the socialist left. The question is old and often asked: where is the actual left-wing unity? What does it even mean to be socialist when there are governmental parties like Britain’s Labour Party, pretending to social justice, yet fully dedicated to money markets, privatisation, presiding over a rise in the rich-poor gap, and corruptly getting into bed with big business; and socialist parties drifting off into one-issue obsessions like anti-racism and the Iraq war. Who are the socialists anymore? It’s probably a big mistake to even suppose that socialism is any longer a shared definition among those who use it to describe their own political allegiences.

Organisation in socialism, and its problems,  is not new, but it has been forgotten, to the point where people are having to re-learn what socialists experienced in the ’20s and ’30s. For a while there has been a lot of talk about re-invigoration and a ‘socialism for the 21st century’, and there are times when it starts to sound something like the claptrap of a marketing exercise. In the face of the never-arrived-at revolution (or the über revolution imagined as the final assault) columnists and lecturers on sabbaticals write  reams of drivel about the many kinds of revolution that have already taken place if only we could see them; small overthrows in one half of a tiny country; consumer revolutions and consumer power. Yet for all that, when we are not kidding ourselves that widespread worker solidarity is still alive and well, and that socially we have moved into an atomized culture predicated upon an obsession with individual freedoms right or wrong, we know that really the world is still in the grip of powerful elites and corporate capitalism and back-room business-government corruption plotting all manner of assaults on nations, races,  workers, consumers and whatever else, in the name of  maintaining the power that maintains ruthless financial gain.

The industry of three-author journal articles asking “whither socialism”, has absolutely no tangible connection with child labour, bad housing, failed justice or poverty; half of them don’t even seem remotely interested in the collapse of capitalism as a realistic prospect, just as a theoretical model; if the revolution were to arrive their existence would be in tatters, this industry thrives on “the  struggle”. The population at large gets jelly-kneed when the prospect of fallen banks, and hence lost pensions and retirement villas, are on the horizon, because (and this is the plain truth) hardly anyone can visualise a real alternative to the economic system under which we live.

These micro-revolutions, the tiny food-growing collectives, allowed to exist because they pose no threat to agribusiness; the local cries for better recycling; mini-victories in one social housing complex, are not meaningless, they only deserve admiration, but they are not going to bring Corporate Uncle Sam to his knees. Likewise for the fantasies of the ‘market anarchists’ that somehow if they have some little island of mutual free-trade, then it stands to reason that everyone else will follow suit, remains on the drawing board as much as the mocked, never-arrived at revolution.

Socialism, under attack from prophets of neo-liberal capitalism and libertarian hokum, has grown embarrassed of calling for worker solidarity, for strikes, for abolishing the wage-system, especially the possibility of armed struggle and a dozen other fundamental socialist principles. The parties and movements are increasingly peopled by individuals who believe that all overthrows can be necessarily bloodless, that force is not needed, that the ogres of corporate capitalism will give up their money trees without a fight if we all sit down and sing songs and wave candles, the desire for only velvet revolutions (and look at Prague now, another same-old capitalist city in a unified neo-liberal Europe).

Are we, as one recent essay claimed, really still “appreciating” the resilience of American-style capitalism? Or are we just confused,  aghast and extremely annoyed, at the “revelation” that the economic system is not very resilient at all and only stays afloat with a lot of  help and money, like a child on a bicycle with stabilisers? As socialists, we’ve done the journey through the Communist Manifesto and understand how the capitalist mode of production demolished feudal society, but are we really admiring how capitalism ‘picked itself up and dusted itself off’ after another nasty fall? The socialism I know should be rubbing its hands with glee, urging and hoping for the system to collapse, turning off its life support. THe G20 protests reflect the lack of real unity perfectly: a mass of people protested, but a mass is not organised unity.

Police fears over G20 and a ‘summer of unrest’

As 100,000 protestors marched into Dublin last Saturday, showing contempt for what many see as a deliberate shifting of the burden of recession onto working people, London’s Superintendent David Hartshorn of the Public Order Policing branch expressed a general concern over the coming G20 summit in April. He implied that the ‘usual hardline anarchists’ would stir up protest by capitalising on the public disillusionment with current economic conditions:

What police do believe is that there has been a re-emergence of some known activists who may attempt to once again become part of the protest scene in London…plus with environmental and economic issues affecting more people, this may broaden the appeal of demonstration.

As governments sit back and allow the private sector to cut jobs and salaries, whilst at the same time writing out cheques for them, public bitterness has grown. As yet the strikes and protests have been localised and contained, but , fragmented as they are in a global context, they are getting more frequent and larger. Yet, due in part to a distinct lack of genuine organised labour, it has been managed by deal-making with union leaders and by appealing to people on a platform of ‘everyone having to make sacrifices’. However, the only sacrifices that appear to be being made are those by ordinary working people and small to middle-sized business collapsing in succession as the banks continue to hold back lending.

As the economic trouble shows no real signs of abatement, it’s an interesting question as to how much convincing the people who are not ‘hardline anarchists’ will actually need in order to bring them to protest; perhaps Hartshorn will have more natural anarchists on his hands than he thinks.  Demonstrations are already organised for March 28: a “Put People First” march through London, coordinated by unions, charities and anti-poverty campaigns. If the tide of resentment rises, the world’s lackeys of the status quo(a.k.a. the police) may be in for far worse than they anticipate when April comes.

Photocredit: Wikipedia-Muji Tra