Recently, I was at an anti-fascist conference in London. The comrades there were young, excited, with a range of views from Labour loyalists to anarchists. I heard a discussion begin which I’ve not heard anywhere else. If Labour comes in, I suggested, expect the far-right to organise; Corbyn is their hate figure. Yes, a comrade from Greece accepted, they hate him. But if the left is in government, we can’t stand down our forces.
She’s right. After 2 and a half years of Corbynism, we can start to predict with some certainty what a Labour government will be like:
+ To a greater extent than any previous Labour government will be open to policies suggested by the social movements. From blacklisting to autism, Labour figures have pledged to take on board our campaigns.
But being “open to”, is not the same as actually using the state. It can mean a range of things, from in the best cases introducing legislation, to in a middling case providing public, spoken support (in the style of those Labour cabinet ministers of the 1970s who would stood on innumerable picket lines, but declined every opportunity to actually legislate for beleaguered workers), to signalling goodwill but not doing anything more than signalling.
Politics will not stop at the moment Labour is elected. In office, Labour will have a limited amount of parliamentary time, a limited amount of good-will and it will have to choose – while also being subject to lobbying against action from the unions, the Labour right, the press and increasingly (as the government goes on) from capital.
+ Repeatedly, a Corbyn Labour government will give opportunities for people to put pressure on it. Corbyn will welcome that dynamic. But, it also likely, that he will require the pressure to come through the Labour Party. (The recent campaign against the HDV in Haringey may turn out to be a good example; it was a mass movement, but the “mass” aspect was mediated through the Labour Party. The old Labour councillors lost control when hundreds of people streamed along to Labour selection meetings and voted against them.) Expect under Labour repeated polls of the membership, and conference votes which put demands on the leadership. Corbyn and McDonnell, to their credit, want to be subject to demands and know that reforms will only be introduced under pressure.
+ When Labour starts to choose which parts of its programme to introduce, the key force in the Labour Party will be the trade unions, or more precisely UNITE, which already has the casting votes on the NEC, controls Corbyn’s office, and will soon control the key position of General Secretary in the Labour Party. UNITE’s politics are Milibandish: the union swung to supporting Corbyn late in 2015. In practice, therefore, there is already a veto of Labour policy on + nuclear weapons + nuclear power and + immigration. Indeed, this is part of a general problem under which Corbyn, in order to build up a team has been compelled to draw on the existing Left and has acquired our weaknesses (e.g. over Syria). He takes up our best and our worst and he is shaped by them both. UNITE is by far the most important part of this. If you think Corbyn’s government will be unilateralist, you aren’t listening closely enough to him. Before he was leader of the Labour party, Corbyn was the closest figure we had in parliament to a supporter of free movement. As leader, he has given multiple speeches insisting that free movement will end and blaming (in line with the policy of the UNITE leadership) migrants for lowering wages. A Corbyn government will reluctantly, agonisingly and with as much kindness as the leadership can supply go along with the positions he has argued for ever since he became Labour – i.e. a slow reduction in migration to the UK. His position in the Labour Party, and his dependence on UNITE, will prevent Corbyn as PM from doing anything better.
+ We all have an idea of how Labour governs from the left: i.e. the party adopts policies, *persuades* voters of their need, and then relies on popular approval to act as a counterweight to the pressure from the right. This will not happen under Labour – policies will not be communicated in advance. The public will not be prepared for left-wing government. In the last two years there have only been two periods where the leadership articulated coherent policies – during the initial phase of his 2015 leadership campaign – and again, after the negotiation of the manifesto, during the election campaign. What is Labour’s policy on student loans? What is Labour’s policy on the EU? Is it still Labour policy, as Corbyn argued in 2015, that there should be right to buy for private tenants? It’s impossible to know because on each of these policies, Labour figures have made a flurry of proposals. The priority has been positioning, not policy. Ideas have been raised, dropped, exchanged for others. I am not being critical – Labour has been under enormous pressure, Corbyn has been vastly better than any under Labour leader would be. All I am saying is that no-one will know in advance of a Labour government what Labour’s priorities really are; Labour will not have a programme for the first 100 days. Now, positioning is not trivial – it may enable Labour to introduce radical policies quickly in response to emergency situations – but in the absence of prepared policies the likelihood is that for most of its period in office Labour will feel significantly more like “politics as usual” than most of my friends expect.
+ Finally, Labour will face a new and unfamiliar form of political pressure – hostility not merely from the press, the Labour right, within Parliament, but also (and for the first time) from the international markets. I expect that Labour will enjoy a longer honeymoon than any government since 1945 (being seen to have been sensible on Brexit will buy Labour an opportunity space; and many kinds of capital would do very well under a McDonnellite expansion of our national infrastructure). But at some time, and with increasing force as Labour gets in – expect opposition to potential policies such as confiscation of unused land to build council houses. The longer Labour is in and the more Corbyn tried to do, the harder government will be.
None of these are arguments against Corbynism, they are ways of saying rather that even if Corbyn doesn’t feel much like the Syriza government of which the comrade warned us: it will still be a project of reform, i.e. negotiated change, and there will be more defeats than victories.
If there are victories, they will come about because the movements have needs which last longer than any Labour government. And because people (whether in Labour or outside) see beyond the leadership and continue to press and put demands on it. Even the best of Labour leaderships will need people outside, putting demands on them.