by Andrew Murray writing in Wednesday 16 September issue of Unity! published daily for delegates to the 2015 Trade Union Congress
“THERE ARE decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”, as Lenin said.
The British labour movement is today at the start of weeks when decades-worth of developments are poised to happen.
On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn’s sensational election as Labour leader entirely transforms the political situation in the country, placing a socialist at the head of the Party for the first time in decades (or ever, depending on definition).
On the other the Tory government has initiated a legal and administrative assault designed to destroy the labour movement as an organised force in industrial and political life once and for all. This includes, but is not confined to, the Trade Union Bill published this week.
Corbyn’s election brings to an end one set of arguments on the left – in Labour or out, build a left alternative or vote Labour – and starts another set.
It took a mass campaign involving tens of thousands of people, particularly the young, and ultimately over a quarter of a million votes in the leadership election, to demonstrate that talk of setting up a “British Syriza” or a “new workers party” misreads British working-class realities.
The campaign which coalesced around Corbyn’s candidacy could not have come together in a different party political context, a point already tested to destruction and beyond through negative example. That understanding needs to be reflected in the decisions and choices of everyone on the left regarding campaigning and elections in the coming period.
Bluntly – this is an historic opportunity for socialists to project their ideas and policies to the widest public, with the weight of the Labour Party behind them, a prospect which would have been hard to imagine ten years ago, with Tony Blair in his pomp.
That will mean powerful mass campaigning against austerity and war, building an external movement which can compensate for the new leadership’s uncertain support, to put it mildly, within the parliamentary Labour Party.
And it will mean unity – an end to divisive manoeuvres which cheer the heart of the sectarian but leave the public cold, and a determination to avoid shouting “sell-out” at the first disappointment or difficult passage in the struggle.
The prize is the election of a “left Labour government” in 2020 or earlier if the Tories’ fragile parliamentary position can be undermined – a long-heralded prospect which has sometimes seemed as unlikely as encountering a unicorn.
The headwinds blowing against the movement will be formidable. Even before Jeremy Corbyn’s election hove into view as a prospect, the Tories were unveiling an ambitious programme to, broadly, sabotage democracy and destroy the labour movement.
Parliament to be shrunk on the basis of a flawed electoral register. The BBC to be browbeaten. And, above all, workers’ collective rights to be almost entirely stripped from them, while unions are to be starved of funds and denied a political voice, not incidentally pushing the Labour Party towards bankruptcy. Free speech and free association are collateral damage of this onslaught, something which affects sections of the people far beyond the ranks of organised labour.
This sets the scene for weeks and months in which indeed decades need to happen. A mass struggle for democracy and against austerity and looming war needs to be built as the most urgent priority, dwarfing the important efforts already made.
Two features can distinguish this new movement from those which have preceded it. First, it can walk on two legs, with mass struggle on the streets complemented by a strong left voice in parliament – on the front benches, no less. And second, it can hold out the prospect of replacing this reactionary class-war administration with one which differs not in this or that managerial detail, but which offers a genuine alternative to capitalist slump and war and would if elected pose the old question – who will rule whom?
Andrew Murray is a leader of the Stop the War Coalition and has served on the TUC General Council. He is a regular contributor to 21centurymanifesto
read the full issue