Saturday 15 April 2017

Corbyn's Labour: resigned to failure?

A new poll puts the Tories 21% ahead of Labour. 46% vs 25% is a staggering gap between the two big parties. There's no denying that - for anyone on the left - the poll is awful.

Let's put it in perspective and think things through a bit.

Such a huge gap is likely to be a one-off, but gaps of around 15% are a pattern. That will perhaps continue for a little while. It's not yet clear, though, that such awful polling is matched in real elections. Local council elections on 4 May will clarify that one.

The Tories are still benefiting from Theresa May replacing David Cameron, and from Ukip's decline (this latest poll has Ukip on just 9%). May's mixture of populist nationalistic discourse and rhetoric suggesting a gentler approach to austerity, combined with her shrewd political positioning around Brexit, has given the Tories a fresh lease of life. That can probably work - reasonably well at least - for a while, but it's safe to assume that the rhetoric will increasingly clash with reality.

It isn't credible for anyone to claim that such poor Labour polling is an inevitable consequence of Corbyn's leadership. After all, between March and June last year the gap was typically just 3 or 4 percentage points.

Things changed after the double whammy of last summer's failed anti-Corbyn coup (by his parliamentary colleagues) and the Tories' rejuvenation under May. The relentless attacks on Corbyn have done great damage. It should be obvious that a deeply divided party is not an attractive proposition to voters.

It's also unlikely that Corbyn's left-ish policies are to blame. There is plenty of evidence that many Labour policies - especially those associated with Corbyn's more left-wing stance - are popular. This includes the latest raft of policies. This would suggest that something else is going wrong for Labour, e.g. the policies are not yet getting through properly to millions of people, they aren't seen as adding up to a coherent 'narrative' etc.

The argument from some quarters is that what's needed is a new leader. But Corbyn was faring much better until last June, as reflected in polling on parties' projected vote shares and also on the party leaders' approval ratings. Many popular policies are associated with his leadership. However, it's undoubtedly true that his personal ratings are currently very poor.

The problem, though, is that none of the critics have any alternative to offer. There are not currently any credible candidates on the left (this could change) and a more right-wing leader would herald a shift rightwards in policy, even if their supporters claimed otherwise. For anyone on the left, maintaining Corbyn as leader is - for now - therefore bound up with defending any sort of left-wing advance in the Labour Party. In the current climate the leadership question is fundamentally political, not personal.

The idea - also popular in some circles - that a shift rightwards is precisely what's needed is undermined by international comparisons. Look - most obviously - at the awful ratings for the Socialist Party in France. There is little reason to believe that a leader from the Right of the Labour Party, with a more 'moderate' policy platform, would be faring any better than Corbyn-led Labour is faring.

So, what next? It is very likely that the polling gap will - to some extent - close over the next 3 years. It's unlikely - when you think about longer-term trends and patterns (eg the Tories last got above 38% in a general election in 1992), the problems that almost certainly lie ahead for the government etc - that the Tories would actually win a thumping huge victory in a general election.

In addition, it's likely that a left-ish Labour Party would increase its support in the course of fighting a general election campaign. See the effect on left-wing candidate Melenchon's support since the presidential campaign got underway in France. Labour would likely increase its support as a result of the mass exposure that comes from a campaign, if (and it's a big if) it goes to the polls with bold, left-wing policies. It also has the advantages of more money and more members, largely as a result of Corbyn's two successful bids for the leadership.

These are no grounds for complacency. We may well see the gap closing, but not enough to stop another Tory majority in 2020. But some perspective is helpful. It's certainly an over-reaction when commentators claim that Labour can write off any chance of winning even in 2025. That kind of blinkered short-term impressionism hugely underestimates how much things can change, especially in times as volatile as our own .

Labour is more likely to close that gap if there's more of the popular left-ish policies that we've seen announced recently, such as a £10 an hour minimum wage and free school meals for all primary-school children. This needs to be reinforced by a relentless focus over time on promoting those policies.

It will also help if there's a reasonable degree of at least appearing united, with less of the sabotage and undermining from the Right. The left leadership has a lot of control of the first two points; it has little control, at least directly, over that last one.

Such a path for Labour is more likely to become reality if there's a broader groundswell of pressure in a leftwards direction. That's partly about the internal Labour Party conflicts - from candidate selections to conference votes to the NEC composition - but in very large part it's about how the struggle evolves beyond those intra-Labour debates.

The extent to which Brexit becomes a hugely contested process, with the left making waves, isn't just down to Corbyn and his closest allies. The NHS and school cuts are the two most obviously explosive issues. These could become real battlegrounds where we see May overstretching herself and facing mass opposition. If mass movements are built and sustained around these issues - and potentially others - it will have an effect in the sphere of electoral politics.

This will be amplified if we move to large-scale strike action. And that's especially so if pay becomes an area of generalised opposition across the public sector (a genuine possiblity, though far from inevitable). That's more likely to happen if we see inflation rise, and if there are other economic problems, but it depends partly on what we as a movement choose to do.

What's clear is that the prospects for the project of shifting Labour to the left - and such a party winning widespread public consent - will depend partly on Labour's left leadership charting a bold way ahead, but also on the growth of extra-parliamentary opposition. We need to rise to new levels of combativity, co-ordination and coherence in fighting the Tories across a range of issues - in parliament, in the workplaces and on the streets.


Book review: Is Technology Good for Education?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Neil Selwyn’s provocatively-titled Is Technology Good for Education? Perhaps it would be a boldly contrarian attempt to answer the question in the negative. That is a proposition I would be unlikely to sympathise with, as it seems self-evident that there are many positive educational uses of technology and the potential for this to be developed further.

Knowing it to be written by an academic - Selwyn is a professor of education in Australia - there was also the anxiety, familiar to many of us who are classroom teachers, that it would prove to be overly abstract and disconnected from many of the realities of working in education.

As it turns out the book is indeed willing to challenge orthodoxies – incisively and thoughtfully - but it is mercifully free of shallow contrarianism. Its short answer to the question is ‘yes and no – it’s complicated’, with a concerted effort to move beyond  polarised stances towards the issues.

Selwyn subjects a series of claims about the value and effectiveness of technology for educational purposes to scrutiny, highlighting the positive effects and outlining points of agreement before explaining the problems. A spirit of questioning scepticism pervades the whole endeavour. As to my fears about the academic nature of the work, this clear and accessible book is in fact simultaneously a very general critique and a useful framework for approaching practical issues around technology in educational settings.

The twin starting points are the dramatic rise of digital technology’s place in education (which itself is an expression of a broader social phenomenon) and the arguments, claims and sometimes outright myths that have accompanied this rise. The author sets himself the task of interrogating the major claims made by politicians, corporate marketing departments and sometimes educationalists, comparing them to reality and probing the forces behind the changes we genuinely do see taking place in education.

He strips away the hype – the field of ed-tech is as awash with grand claims as much as other fields of technological change – to take a sober look at what changes technology are bringing about and, equally, what remains the same. He probes the substance beyond the excitable spin.

Selwyn writes about a range of educational settings, outlining how digital technology has become an integral part of life in schools, colleges and universities (largely in the developed world), and also surveying the rapid rise of online alternatives to formal education, for example the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that allow some people to pursue further study without attending an institution.

One of Selwyn’s repeated concerns is to examine who actually benefits from recent developments, rather than taking claims at face value. The issue of MOOCs is a good example: he cites research indicating that those who are already well-educated are far more likely to access such courses than those with lower levels of formal education. This brings into question the fashionable idea that such courses are egalitarian or democratising, bringing education to those who otherwise wouldn’t access it.

The main body of the book is a series of chapters probing four major types of claim made for ed-tech, namely that it: makes education more democratic and inclusive; personalises learning for individuals; enables education to become more ‘calculable’ (measurement and tracking of all sorts of data); commercialises education.

A recurring question is: who benefits? It is important to search out the agendas underpinning many of the changes being promoted and identify who gains from them. Whose interests are being served, and whose interests are being ignored?

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that a great deal of this field is driven by corporations (the educational technology sector is now huge business and the book contains some eye opening statistics to illustrate this). This doesn’t mean that every proposed innovation is inherently worthless. It does, however, prompt the need for critical attention towards who gains, who loses, and whether corporate values are necessarily aligned with what is best for education and for those whom education is meant to serve.

Selwyn is particularly astute about the ways in which much ed-tech rhetoric (and often practice) dovetails with the contemporary neoliberal mantras of choice, competition and the aspirational individual in a supposedly meritocratic world. This is a much-needed reminder that we should be thinking seriously about the values of education – what we want it to achieve, who and what it is for – and examining critically how they match (or don’t match) many of the innovations advocated by business interests.

It is easy to assume that ‘personalised learning’ is a virtuous thing. It must be better, surely, if education is tailored towards individuals and their particular needs, interests and aspirations. There is much to be said for that, but in various ways the reality is more complicated. For example, as Selwyn puts it, ‘if we are all immersed in our personalised learning journeys, what implications might this have for education as a supportive, social and shared endeavour?’ (p.77).

The notion of ‘personalised learning’ rubs up, in tension, against more collective and mutually supportive aspects of the educational process. This is also a trend that is bound up with viewing education in terms of ‘product’ – measurable, pre-defined, isolated – which reflects larger social trends. And it raises difficult questions about how we make education more equitable, as the old, established inequalities tend to be reproduced when the values of the ‘free market’ reign.

Although largely a work of critique, Is Technology Good for Education? concludes with a chapter that presents the author’s constructive proposals for making things better: for maximising the potential of new technological developments, and aligning them with what is best for the pursuit of education and a more equal, just society. This involves moving beyond a narrow concept of ‘effectiveness’ by thinking seriously about what kind of education is desirable, what values and aims we ought to pursue, and how that is part of striving for a better society. It is a political, not exclusively educational, vision, as it must inevitably be: educational practices are part of society and education will always be politically contested.

Selwyn’s particular proposals are shaped by a humane commitment to broadening and deepening the experience of education (it’s much more than a saleable product in the market, and it’s a profoundly social and critical endeavour); a vigorous defence of public education, and in some ways a plea for its extension; and the vision of making education, like society as a whole, more egalitarian. His book is a valuable contribution to thinking about the realities of contemporary education and how we might plot a way forward.

This review first appeared at Counterfire.


Sunday 1 January 2017

Political predictions for 2017

Yes, it's that time again. As I've done for the last few years, I'm risking embarrassment by making a series of political predictions for the year ahead. The focus is on British politics and the usual caveats apply: these are intended as accurate predictions, not aspirations or wishes; they are not to be taken too seriously; and you are very welcome to disagree! 

As usual, I'm simply outlining the predictions without any particular explanation. I am aware that if one or two of these prove to be wrong, several others are likely to be knocked out of kilter too. That's what happened in 2016 as a result of wrongly predicting that the EU referendum would result in a vote to remain (that, in turn, had something of a domino effect). 

1. There will be no early general election. 

2. Article 50 will be triggered in the second half of the year. Freedom of movement will be the source of continued political debate, with sharp divisions on the issue in the Labour Party helping the Tories push through new proposed restrictions on immigration. 

3. Boris Johnson will be demoted from the role of foreign secretary. Michael Gove will return to the Cabinet (unlike Nicky Morgan and Iain Duncan Smith). 

4. Health and education will be important political battlegrounds, but the Tories will quietly climb down on the whole issue of grammar schools. 

5. Labour will go a long way to closing the polling gap with the Tories within a few months, establishing a pattern of being around 6% behind the governing party in polls of voting share (compared to recent polls indicating Tory leads of 13% or 14% over Labour). 

6. Jeremy Corbyn will continue as Labour leader, with no further leadership elections, and party membership will stabilise between 600,000 and 700,000 members. 

7. Labour will retain its Copeland seat in Cumbria, winning the by-election with a lead of at least 5% over the Tory challenger. 

8. Len McCluskey will be re-elected general secretary of Unite by a comfortable margin - over right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne - on a turnout of between 15% and 20%. 

9. Ukip will continue to do fairly badly in polls - it has suffered a significant decline over the last two years - showing no signs of revival under Paul Nuttall (who will continue as leader throughout 2017). Douglas Carswell will continue to be a Ukip MP, but he will also continue to function as maverick independent, and Arron Banks will distance himself from the party. 

10. The Lib Dems will continue to languish in the polls and show little sign of revival. 

11. The SNP will continue its slight tilt to the right, tending to emphasise its credentials as a respectable party of Scottish capitalism. There will still, however, be no revival for Scottish Labour whatsoever. 

12. There will be a modest but important increase in the prevalence of strikes, with the wave of December 2016 strikes proving something of a harbinger, resulting in a number of good settlements for striking workers (if not outright victories). 

13. The Green Party will continue the pivot the right which has characterised it since Corbyn's ascendancy to the Labour leadership, and even more markedly since the EU referendum campaign. The party's right wing (or liberal wing) will flourish, while its left wing will be marginalised. 

14. Momentum will continue to be plagued by factional in-fighting in the early part of 2017, but settling down after that, and will play a modest role in the prospects of the Labour left; many left-wingers in the party will bypass it and instead focus directly on the party's own structures and activities (though the Right will often continue to defeat the Left at constituency level due to greater activist numbers, rootedness and organisation). 

15. There will be no growth in the British far right - whether in its electoral or street-fighting versions - and it will continue to be largely irrelevant and marginal.


Friday 23 December 2016

2016: an unpredictable year

For the last few years I have published my political predictions on New Year's Day. The focus of my 2016 predictions was entirely on British politics, with the exception of my prediction for the US presidential election (which I regarded as too big to ignore).

This is always half-serious and half a bit of fun. In as much as it should be taken seriously, it's as an opportunity to take stock of current trends in politics. It is only possible to make predictions for the year ahead if you think about what is already happening and try to identify the most significant elements.

I've just looked back at my New Year's Day 2016 predictions to evaluate how the year has actually turned out compared to my predictions. As you might expect, many of my predictions proved to be wide of the mark! 

Here's a run-down of all 15 predictions and how things actually turned out. 

1. Labour's Sadiq Khan will very narrowly win May's election for London Mayor, defeating Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith by a tiny margin. 

The reality: Correct result, but I underestimated the margin of victory for Labour. If you also consider point 3 below the intriguing thing is that Labour has in fact had a better 2016 electorally than I predicted. However, my prediction on opinion polling (see below) was seriously over-optimistic for Labour. 

2. The SNP will win an even bigger majority at Holyrood than it possesses already, going from 69 seats won in 2011 to 75 in May's elections to the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Labour will fail to make any recovery from its polling lows. New left-wing formation RISE will fail to win any regional list seats, but the Green Party will win six regional list seats. 

The reality: I slightly mis-judged how well the SNP would do in May, though I was right to forecast a year of continued dominance of Scottish politics by the party (and also right to forecast a wretched year for Scottish Labour, disappointment for Rise and some cause for cheer by Scottish Greens). 

3. Labour will lose around 120 of the 1200 seats it is defending in May's local council elections. 

The reality: Labour actually did better than that. It's worth recalling, by the way, that many mainstream commentators forecast losses of around 500 seats when making their predictions for 2016. 

4. Jeremy Corbyn will survive a fresh wave of internal Party attacks in May, continuing to be Labour leader throughout 2016. He will be assisted by Labour victory in the election for London mayor, compensating for less heartening news in the Scottish and local elections. 

The reality: Corbyn is indeed still leader and he did indeed survive the predicted attacks (and my assessment of the impact of May's elections was essentially correct). What this misses, though, is the fact that a second leadership election took place. This was triggered by the Leave victory in the EU referendum... 

5. The EU referendum will be held in the autumn and the IN campaign will win, with over 55% of the vote share. 

The reality: The big example of a wrong prediction - and the one that shapes almost everything else I got wrong. It's a reminder of what rapid change there's been during 2016 that at the start of the year we didn't even know for sure that there would be a referendum this year. 

6. Labour Party membership will stabilise at around 400,000 members. Labour will make a little progress in opinion polling, being almost level with the Tories on vote share by the end of 2016.

The reality: a very contradictory result here, as I underestimated the membership surge but considerably overestimated how Labour would be doing in the polls (although I was basically correct if you just look at the first few months of 2016 - it was the referendum and its aftershocks that opened up a big Tory polling lead). Again: these are all knock-on effects, directly or indirectly, of the referendum result - a great moment of rupture.

7. The Lib Dems will fail to make any recovery in its polling or electoral fortunes, continuing to be the irrelevant footnote to British politics that it has been since last May's Westminster wipeout. 

The reality: Correct prediction.

8. The Green Party of England and Wales will struggle to appear politically relevant, its right wing will become stronger, and the party will fare badly in London's elections in May. There will be a small decline in its membership.

The reality: Correct prediction.  

9. Ukip's slow decline will continue, with the divisions between leader Nigel Farage and sole MP Douglas Carswell becoming so acute that the latter leaves Ukip altogether before the EU referendum takes place. Funding will dry up almost entirely and membership will fall slightly. 

The reality: Broadly correct, but wrong on the specific detail concerning Carswell (though the wider point, i.e. predicting toxic in-fighting in Ukip, was proved in style).

10. Jeremy Corbyn will undertake a minor reshuffle of his shadow cabinet in January. It won't involve changes quite as drastic as widely predicted. Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle and Michael Dugher will be removed from the shadow cabinet, though Angela Eagle will remain, and Rosie Winterton will be removed as Chief Whip.

The reality: the attempted coup in June re-shaped the composition of the shadow cabinet, something I obviously didn't predict.
11. Momentum will establish itself as a significant grouping for the Labour left, but will struggle to find a meaningful cause to galvanise left-wing party members into action, while being overly focused on internal party matters and repeatedly subjected to attacks in the media. 

The reality: Correct. I'll basically repeat this prediction for 2017 (and the same goes for points 7 and 8 above).

12. By the end of 2016 George Osborne will emerge as clear frontrunner in the race to be next Tory leader, ahead of Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Osborne will gain from the fact that there will be no fresh economic crisis, either in Britain or in any other major economy, despite underlying problems. Inflation in Britain will remain low and there will be a slight fall in unemployment. 

The reality: as already mentioned, the EU referendum result led to unforeseen upheavals. The shifts in personnel on the Tory front bench have been greater than anticipated. The fall of Cameron and Osborne was an especially cheering aspect of the year.

13. The Chilcot report will be published in the autumn and be damning about Tony Blair and other senior government figures of the time.

The reality: It was published a little earlier than I anticipated, but I was right to anticipate a damning report (a rather controversial view 12 months ago, when many people on the left were forecasting a hollow establishment stitch-up). Another of the best pieces of news in 2016 and a victory for campaigners.

14. Junior doctors will take strike action and win their dispute with the government, though there will otherwise be no significant national strike action by public sector unions on pay, pensions or any other issue. 

The reality: I was half-right and half-wrong. Sadly, the wrong way round to what I'd like! The junior doctors failed to win and there has been little in the way of significant national strike action (the current strike wave is a hopeful sign, but is not of the type I was referring to here).

15. Hillary Clinton will be selected as the Democratic nominee for US president. Donald Trump will be selected as the Republican nominee. Clinton will go on to comfortably defeat Trump in November's election, winning around 55% of the vote share. 

The reality: Clinton did indeed win the popular vote, but not by such a healthy margin - and the electoral college balance led to Trump's victory. This is the other major upset of the year along with the EU referendum result. 

What overall conclusions can be drawn here?

There are a number of political trends that were discernible 12 months ago - and where I got things largely, if not entirely, right.

I'm thinking of things like Lib Dem stagnation, the Greens' modest rightwards shift, the SNP's hegemony of Scottish politics, Ukip's modest but unmistakable decline, the continuance of low levels of strike action (by historic standards), Momentum's contradictory mix of strengths and weaknesses, the marginalisation of the radical left, and the Labour Party's combination of left-wing leadership, success in its metropolitan heartlands and right-wing PLP hostility.

All of these were my forecasts a year ago. Sure enough, that's how things have turned out.

But the big upset was the EU referendum. That doesn't just make my specific prediction on the referendum result wrong. 

It was the decisive factor in shaping several other erroneous forecasts: failing to predict a second Labour leadership election and also the further rise in Labour Party membership or the fall in Labour's poll ratings (both of which were consequences of the coup and leadership election), and of course failing to predict the replacement of Cameron and Osborne by May and Hammond. 

The referendum result can therefore be seen as a moment of rupture and crisis - a turning point. It had contradictory consequences, and will continue to do so. Yet the list above is also surely a reminder that many trends and tendencies pre-date the referendum, and have been little affected by it.

This exercise is also a reminder that - for all the doom and gloom in some quarters - 2016 has turned out not that differently to expected: a lot of continuity, with changes both of a positive and negative nature. Obviously any assessment depends on your perspective: a Leave-supporting activist on the radical left (like me) naturally sees things differently to a pro-EU, anti-Corbyn, centre-left liberal (for whom 2016 has indeed been a very bad year).

I will be recklessly making predictions again on New Year's Day 2017.


Thursday 22 December 2016

The labour movement and the migration debate

Andy Burnham's recent call for increased immigration controls was a harbinger of what we can expect from politicians on the Labour Party's right wing in 2017. His article was as cogently and persuasively expressed a piece as you will ever get from someone arguing for restrictions on freedom of movement, using left wing and pro-working class rhetoric.

Burnham predictably treated the Leave vote in this summer's referendum on EU membership as the basis for a 'rethink' on freedom of movement. However, his targets and conclusions are wrong.

Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have all put forward much better views. They acknowledge there is exploitation of migrant labour (and yes, they say, this is part of pushing down pay and conditions for all workers). But we won't deal with that by restricting migration.
Migrants themselves are not responsible for pushing down wages or cutting public services. It is governments and employers using immigration as an excuse to pursue a race to the bottom or make cuts. We need to deal with the exploitation and also enhance workers' rights, increase the living wage, invest in jobs, and so on. In the process of putting forward such demands and policies we can challenge the prevalent scapegoating and redirect attention to the real causes of poverty, inequality and social injustice.

As these leading Labour figures recognise, a solid and persuasive response to the migration debate requires more than just the reiteration of anti-racist positions on migrants' rights, freedom of movement etc (vital as that is!). It's also necessary to articulate a positive economic alternative to failed Tory austerity, resonating with millions of people's concerns and needs.
Labour is in a mess on this issue because for every good utterance by the aforementioned leading figures there is an undermining intervention from someone like Burnham or Stephen Kinnock. Most people don't have a clue where Labour stands and the party looks divided and directionless (because it is). Lots of people enthused by Corbyn - many of whom have joined the Labour Party - are disoriented and anxious as a result.

There is a closely related debate in the trade union movement. This reflects the logic of Labour electoralism (among a layer of Labour-affiliated union officials), but also the limits of trade union consciousness (seeing things in narrow economic terms, trying to reflect the mixed consciousness of union members etc).

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey may have been mis-represented to some extent by the Guardian, but his real views are nonetheless ambiguous, offering too much ground to those characterising immigration as a threat. Such fudge offers no way forward.
The section of McCluskey's piece to do with immigration was a mess because he was fudging the issue and desperately trying to appeal to conflicting tendencies at the same time. He is a sincere anti-racist who wants to resist the scapegoating of migrants, but he's also highly vulnerable to the pressures of both Labour electoralism (which dictate 'you must abandon freedom of movement to appeal to voters') and being general secretary of a large trade union whose members have very diverse views.

Such a confused and contradictory stance satisfies nobody and achieves nothing. He needs political clarity and consistency, sticking to a position of defending freedom of movement on clear anti-racist, class-based and internationalist grounds.
The left can chart a way forward, but it requires a principled, coherent approach. It starts with acceptance of the referendum result (irrespective of how you voted), as anything else would be a great boost to the hard Right, and a sharp focus on what kind of Brexit we have. This is a deeply contested process, with the Tories weak and incoherent, presenting the left with opportunities as well as dangers.

It requires a principled anti-racist politics that defends migrants' rights and freedom of movement, challenges exploitation of migrant workers, and confronts the exclusion of people from beyond Fortress Europe.
This anti-racism can be combined with the championing of a positive alternative around jobs, public services, pay and housing. The labour movement - both the Labour Party and a more combative trade union movement - has to offer real material change, using the rupture of Brexit as an opportunity to promote a rupture with several years of Tory austerity and decades of neoliberal policies.


Saturday 15 October 2016

From Iraq to Syria: a checklist for pro-war commentators

Hands up if you agree with Nick Cohen
It's been a week for banging the drums of war and attacking the anti-war movement in the British media. So, what can we expect from Nick Cohen - that most reliable of pro-Western intervention commentators - in his Observer column tomorrow? Here is a list of his favourite motifs.

1) Claim the contemporary Left has nothing in common with what the Left was like when he was a lad

2) Brand the British Left, including Jeremy Corbyn, as 'anti-West'

3) Denounce prominent anti-war figures for appearing on Iranian television

4) Accuse the anti-war movement of supporting Russia (without a scrap of evidence)

5) Reaffirm his caricature of opponents of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as Saddam apologists, while forgetting to mention how disastrous the whole thing was

6) Describe the anti-war movement as supportive of both Assad and Hezbollah (again without any concern for evidence)

7) Say that the problem in Syria is that there hasn't been enough Western bombing

8) Imply that antisemitism is one of the motivations for the British Left's political positions

9) Suggest the British Left is basically the same as the nationalist far right

10) Attack the US left for being just as bad as Corbyn.

Actually, I've already read the column online and he does all of them. Another weekend, another piece of regurgitated rubbish from Nick Cohen.

Yes, it's Groundhog Day for anyone reading the Iraq War's most tenacious cheerleader. Cohen is one of that select band of pro-Iraq war commentators who still hasn't shown even a hint of contrition after propagandising for such a disastrous war. No humility, no apologies, no lessons learned.

It is strange, too, that this beacon of humanitarian concern for the victims of aggressive imperialism has nothing to say about the latest chaotic developments in Libya, or the fresh miseries Saudi Arabia and the US are inflicting on Yemen, or indeed the disturbing new revelations of US knowledge about Saudi and Qatari arming of Isis jihadists. What conveniently selective vision he has.


Words not deeds: why won't Stop the War's critics take to the streets?

Another day passes without those who apparently want to protest at the Russian Embassy actually calling a protest outside the Russian Embassy.

It was on Tuesday that British foreign secretary Boris Johnson berated the Stop the War Coalition - a coalition dedicated to opposing British foreign policy - for not doing what the British foreign secretary would like it to do. A flurry of commentary, echoing Johnson's rhetoric, has predictably followed in the British press.

Protests are what they want, right? So why don't they call a protest? Why do they instead pour scorn on Stop the War Coalition for not calling such a protest?

If an organisation is not pursuing the aims you would like it to, stop bleating about it and do something yourself. Launch a campaign. Call a protest.

So, why aren't they? Why are the Freedlands of this world whinging repetitively about other people not doing what they want, instead of actually doing something themselves?

Three reasons:

1) They know that such a protest would in fact lend support to the drive to escalated Western intervention in Syria. They can claim it wouldn't - as Jonathan Freedland does - but deep down they know better than that.

The context is inter-imperialist conflict over Syria. Therefore a protest at the Russian Embassy in London would become useful propaganda for US/UK military intervention.

2) They are not actually interested in doing anything useful. Their interest is instead in smearing anti-war voices. It's the age-old trick of painting anti-war activists as in league with the enemy (in this case Russia).

The aim is to get lodged in public consciousness the idea that Stop the War and Jeremy Corbyn are essentially apologists for a foreign regime, and thus not sufficiently patriotic to shape British foreign policy. And of course it's the threat of Britain's second party of government (Labour) adopting a foreign policy that's independent of US imperialism that really terrifies them.

3) They know they would be branded hypocrites. Many of these people were supporters of previous interventions. Even those who opposed the invasion of Iraq are likely to have supported the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan or Libya (or both). Many of them backed the vote for bombing Syria last December.

Stop the War has repeatedly called it right, while these people have got it wrong. In opposing a further escalation of foreign intervention in Syria, Stop the War is again getting it right. More bombing is no solution for the besieged and suffering people in Aleppo.

This is a slightly edited version of an article first published on Counterfire.


Monday 10 October 2016

What strategy for Jeremy Corbyn?

Pic: Guy Smallman
I wrote this article a couple of days before Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as leader of the Labour Party. It was published on Counterfire at the time, but I didn't get around to re-posting it here.

As it's still entirely relevant, however, I thought I'd re-blog it here (without any alterations). You may wish to compare it to developments we have seen over the last two weeks or so.


It looks very likely that Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party. Despite the constant media vilification, the exclusion of over 100,000 members from the ballot, and the further purging of many Corbyn-backing members, the left-wing incumbent is still expected to be announced the winner on Saturday.

The leadership election only happened because of the actions of Labour MPs. 172 of them - by far the majority - voted 'no confidence' in their leader at the end of June. This was accompanied by 65 front bench resignations, including 20 shadow cabinet members.

From failed coup to leadership election

The purpose of the coup was to force Corbyn to resign. He stood his ground. Hence the leadership challenge from Owen Smith, forcing an election that most party members didn't want (and, if the latest reports are to be believed, even Owen Smith didn’t want).

These events have provided a powerful illustration of the fundamental source of conflict in today's Labour Party. A left-leaning membership - with newer members particularly likely to support Corbyn - is massively at odds with a parliamentary party dominated by the right wing. The political gulf between Corbyn and the majority of Labour MPs is huge: they are in fact closer, politically, to the Tories.

Similar right-wingers dominate the Labour Party apparatus too. This right-wing bloc inside the parliamentary group and the apparatus is closely connected to a sympathetic media and other elements of the British establishment. Smith was the fall guy: he agreed to have his name put forward, and he contested the leadership with superficially left-ish rhetoric. But the real movers and shakers are firmly on Labour’s right wing. They have already kept their distance from Smith – after Saturday they will conveniently forget he ever existed.

All of this creates tremendous uncertainty about what happens next. The divisions run so deep that the very existence of a single, unitary Labour Party is seriously in doubt. Many MPs are determined to block Corbyn and reverse the left's considerable advances over the last year. A breakaway is an option, but its prospects would be poor.

The hostile MPs have already resorted to a range of anti-democratic manoeuvres, together with constant undermining of their leader. There is every reason to believe this will continue – and it could even escalate.

Which way for Labour?

It is in this context that a debate is taking place about how Jeremy Corbyn, and those around him on the Labour left, should build on the expected success in winning the leadership for a second time. Put crudely: should Corbyn's team focus on conciliation and bridge-building ('unity at all costs'), wooing the recalcitrant MPs with policy compromises and shadow cabinet positions, or should the left assert itself and appeal to Corbyn's second mandate as the basis for a serious shift leftwards in the Labour Party?

A lengthy new piece by Owen Jones is the most detailed and cogent expression of the first view, but it is merely one example of the current thinking among a layer of Labour-aligned commentators and activists (seemingly also amongst a layer of senior union officials too). Three major strands to this debate can be discerned: Should the front bench be recomposed on a broad basis? Should there be major policy compromises with the right wing? Should there be a conciliatory approach to the party bureaucracy?

The 'unity at all costs' perspective essentially says the following: many of the MPs who previously resigned should be actively encouraged to re-join Labour's front bench team. There should be compromises on contentious issues, especially in the field of foreign policy, and a stress on lowest common denominator points of broad agreement.

The apparatus, meanwhile, should perhaps be tinkered with, but largely left unchanged (this last point has taken concrete form with deputy leader Tom Watson’s cynical manoeuvres in this week’s national executive meeting, designed to put fresh obstacles in Corbyn’s way).

The alternative case from much of the left - inside and outside the Labour Party - begins by recognising that the bulk of the PLP is resolutely opposed to what Corbyn stands for on political grounds. The hostility is not – contrary to some claims – primarily about ‘leadership’ or ‘competence’ or ‘media strategy’. These lines of attack on Corbyn are proxies for opposition to his politics. With this is mind, the focus should be on further advancing principled left-wing politics rather than obsessing over which anti-Corbyn MPs can be wooed into re-joining the shadow cabinet.

The ‘broad church’ strategy

The fact is that the previous attempt to have a shadow cabinet encompassing the full political range of the PLP ended in failure. Jones, for one, urges a repeat of this effort, but fails to explain why it should prove any more successful than last time. The Commons debate on bombing Syria was a particularly stark illustration. There was a farcical situation when the Leader of the Opposition opened Labour’s contribution to the debate with an anti-war speech, but the shadow foreign secretary closed it with a pro-war speech that drew enthusiastic cheers from the Tory benches.

If Labour is to provide any sort of meaningful or coherent opposition to the government, there must be no return to such a paralysing mess. The current, broadly left-wing, shadow cabinet is fairly politically cohesive and contains figures – like shadow health secretary Diane Abbott and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner – who can offer a serious challenge to the Tories (unlike their deeply underwhelming predecessors, Heidi Alexander and Lucy Powell respectively).

Of course it’s true that there will be a thin layer of MPs – among those who resigned in June – who can plausibly be part of a Labour front bench promoting Corbyn’s left-wing policies. But these are in the minority – and the emphasis should be on them showing remorse for their behaviour, not on the left pleading with them.

But it is fanciful to imagine that most of those hostile MPs can be brought into the tent without them pulling it down from the inside. For example, Jones makes a rather bizarre case for accepting the very right-wing MP Wes Streeting – who earned his stripes in the National Union of Students bureaucracy, spent a year working for Blairite group Progress after graduating from Cambridge, backed Liz Kendall for leader last summer and stoked the attacks on Corbyn over spurious claims of antisemitism.

Such a broad church is unsustainable. If we have learnt anything from the conflicts inside the Labour Party over the last twelve months, it is surely that.

Irreconcilable political differences

The question of front bench personnel is closely tied to the question of compromises on policy. It’s true that the 172 MPs who voted ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn are not a homogeneous bloc. Most of them, however, are hostile to Corbyn’s politics and want substantial policy concessions. The pressure for this will be relentless. It would be na├»ve to think that there is a high level of agreement, across the PLP, on most domestic political questions.

The area where the differences run deepest, though, is undoubtedly foreign policy. It would be disastrous for Corbyn to capitulate to his right-wing critics in a bid for ‘unity’. The recent parliamentary committee report damning David Cameron for the disastrous military intervention in Libya is yet another vindication for Corbyn and the left.

Foreign policy is a field where Corbyn is stronger than the likes of Jones are prepared to concede. His critics should be instructed to get behind a genuinely refreshing and serious approach to international relations that represents a sharp break from the ‘New Labour’ past. Labour’s leader has been proven right again and again. That provides a credible basis on which to build.

As well as sticking with broadly left-wing personnel and pursuing a coherent and credible left-wing political vision, the Corbyn leadership will need to initiate thoroughgoing democratisation of the Labour Party. Having lost the political argument, the right wing is seeking to use every bureaucratic method at its disposal to weaken and ultimately crush the current left-wing leadership. Tom Watson’s tactics at this week’s Labour NEC meeting indicate that this will continue.

It is clear, therefore, that the left leadership of the Labour Party is at a crossroads. It can pursue compromise after compromise, thus demoralising supporters and weakening opposition to the Tories. Or it can treat the re-election of Corbyn, and the mandate it will bring, as a bridgehead towards far-reaching political transformation.

Either way there will be conflict, but the latter approach allows the left to shape the debate and emerge stronger.


Sunday 28 August 2016

Imperialism in the 21st century

A review of John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation and Capitalism's Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2016).

Over the last forty years, global capitalism has increasingly been shaped by the core tenets of neoliberalism. The neoliberal counter-revolution emerged as a response to the return of economic crisis in the 1970s, and to the power of working class and anti-colonial movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was geared towards the interests of wealthy and corporate elites, at the expense of the vast majority of working class and oppressed people worldwide. The divisions between the 1% and the 99% have become ever more acute, with the most extraordinary and ostentatious wealth for a tiny elite alongside hardship, insecurity and poverty for many people.

Cuts, privatisation, deregulation, trade liberalisation and outsourcing were all components of a wider political offensive. Consequently, exploitation has intensified, inequality has grown, and democracy has been hollowed out. This involved a massive effort to defeat trade-union opposition and break the resistance and organisations of the working class. Though largely successful in those terms, this capitalist offensive has fuelled economic crisis, social polarisation and a political backlash that takes various forms.

The rise of neoliberalism happened at the same time as capitalism expanded, and entrenched itself in new territories, becoming a truly dominant global system. The end of the Cold War gave particular impetus to the neoliberal mantras of free trade and globalisation, so that neoliberal policymaking has – with concerted pressure from supra-national institutions dominated by the interests of big capital in the Global North – become globally hegemonic.

This dominance was captured by Margaret Thatcher’s line, ‘there is no alternative’ in the 1980s and, a little later, by Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘the end of history’, suggesting that the upheavals of 1989-91 marked a final and conclusive victory for Western-style capitalism.

The capitalist crisis which unfolded from 2007/08 illustrated the failures of neoliberalism to resolve the deeper, long-term problems inherent in the system. Indeed, key elements of neoliberalism - like the growth of a deregulated finance sector and the increasing dependence on outsourcing - were vital factors in sharpening, deepening and prolonging that crisis. John Smith dubs this ‘capitalism’s final crisis’, both because he argues there is no plausible exit from the crisis (within the confines of capitalism) and because of the ecological dimension of capitalist crisis, which threatens the planet’s future.

Smith’s book, which compresses many years of research into a little over three hundred pages, is, first and foremost, an account of contemporary global capitalism in the wake of decades of neoliberalism. A British-based Marxist and activist, Smith has previously published very little (this is his first book) but he draws on his own extensive PhD research and on an even longer period of researching, and thinking about, the main issues. It contains a formidable array of evidence, with an assured grasp of the economic data, to support the main arguments.

Smith eloquently conveys the huge extent to which capitalism has changed as a result of neoliberal trends. The book is genuinely global in its focus, examining the main global trends and documenting the impact of a Western-dominated (and grossly unequal) system on the poorer parts of the world. It is also a savage indictment of the phenomena he describes, graphically revealing the human misery associated with the appalling working conditions - poverty pay, long hours, unsafe conditions and insecurity - dominating the lives of millions of working-class people.

Smith also develops a particular argument about global exploitation and inequality. He demonstrates with a wealth of data that the whole system has increasingly come to depend on the ‘super exploitation’ of impoverished workers in the ‘developing world’.

This exploitation generates massive surplus value for corporations based in the more developed global North. He provocatively argues that even many Marxist writers have underestimated the scale and significance of such ‘super exploitation’ for the global system, failing to give proper attention to the role of outsourcing in capitalist profitability. He offers a wealth of evidence that outsourcing, which involves corporations moving their operations to poorer countries with cheap labour to maximise profits, has grown enormously, and that neoliberal capitalism depends upon it.

It follows that not only has the working class grown globally, but also that the working class in the poorer nations has become more integral to the fortunes of global capitalism, and, therefore, more integral to the prospects for working-class struggle and emancipation. Neoliberalism’s restructuring of capitalism and recomposition of the global working class consequently has implications for anti-capitalist resistance and the challenge of re-building working-class strength. The book’s focus is largely on working-class people as the objects of social and economic transformation, but Smith clearly sees those victims of exploitation and neoliberal upheaval as the agents of social change too.

This is a very wide-ranging and ambitious book, but the opening chapter on the global commodity proves to be a shrewd entrance point to an exploration of several interrelated themes. The fact that today’s mass commodities rest upon super exploitation in the South – hidden from consumers’ view – is Smith’s starting point. He writes, in some detail, about three exemplary global commodities in twenty-first-century capitalism: the T-shirt, the Apple iPhone, and coffee.

Smith exposes the highly exploitative, and at times horrific, working conditions behind these commodities, for example the extremely low-paid work in dangerous conditions undertaken by mainly young, female workers in the garments sweatshops of Bangladesh. It is demonstrated beyond doubt that powerful corporations based in the North, especially the US, are the beneficiaries of this exploitation, and are responsible for the terrible conditions endured by workers. The relationship between capitalism in the ‘core countries’ and the labour done by these workers is carefully unpicked.

This vivid sketching of key commodities – chosen as exemplars, not for any exceptional reasons – brings to life what could threaten to be rather dry, economic material, humanising the economic processes under discussion. It is supported, later in the book, by analysis of labour conditions in the Global South: a very revealing interrogation of the everyday working conditions of vast numbers of workers, and how those conditions feed the profits of major corporations.

The massive increase in female workers - and their integration into the market and the acute nature of their exploitation – is an especially important element of this transformation in the working class. Smith is also astute about the role of migrant labour in contemporary capitalism, exploring how wealthier states (and their business elites) profit from migrant workers at the same time as using immigration controls to police the boundaries between the Global North and the Global South, which helps sustain inequalities.

One of Smith’s main arguments is that outsourcing is at the heart of corporate globalisation. Furthermore, he suggests that this has too often been overlooked as an absolutely central part of neoliberalism. When viewed as a global phenomenon, he argues, it becomes obvious that outsourcing has been integral to capital’s exploitation of labour in the neoliberal era. Corporations based in the North have increasingly focused on cheap Southern labour – sometimes on a huge scale – to address problems of profitability and to remain competitive.

As Smith writes:
‘Ultra-low wages are not the only factor attracting profit-hungry Western firms to newly industrializing countries … they are also attracted by the flexibility of the workers, the absence of independent unions, the relative ease with which they can be forced to submit to working days as long as those described by Marx and Engels in mid-nineteenth-century England, and the intensity with which they can work’ (p.24).
The example of Apple (and other electronic) products, which depend on a vast complex of workplaces in Shenzhen, China, and massive levels of exploitation of those who work there, is offered as a powerful case study. This kind of outsourcing is at the core of the ‘imperialism’ of the book’s title: it perpetuates a systematically unequal relationship of super-exploitation of Southern workers by Northern-based capital.

Globalisation is revealed as a process of domination, not some mutually beneficial exchange, or spur to development in newly industrial countries, as the apostles of neoliberalism like to claim. Neoliberal globalisation is in reality imperialism without colonies.

The relationship between the Global North and the Global South is fundamental to twenty-first-century imperialism. At a theoretical level, one of Smith’s main concerns is to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the concept of imperialism, as developed by Lenin and others a century ago, and the ways in which our world continues to be structured in uneven and unequal ways by the richest and most economically advanced states. The book is therefore, among other things, a useful contribution to a Marxist understanding of what it means to talk about imperialism today.

Finally, Smith argues convincingly that the roots of the capitalist crisis since 2007/08 are in global production. He bases his analysis of the crisis in ‘the two principal measures that allowed the imperialist economies to escape, for a while, the crises of the 1970s – the enormous expansion of debt and the epochal global shift of production to low-wage countries’ (p.280). These therapies became pathologies for the system. He explains why nothing, within the constraints of capitalism, can now be done to ‘prevent a protracted, calamitous global depression’ (p.313).

This doesn’t mean that book is gloomy or fatalistic. Quite the opposite: it points to the enormous potential for fresh revolts by a greatly expanded, and exploited, working class. As the author concludes:
‘The southward shift of the working class, the reinforcement of the working class in imperialist countries through migration from oppressed nations, and the influx of women into wage labour in all countries means that the working class now much more closely resembles the face of humanity, greatly strengthening its chances of prevailing in coming battles’ (p.314).


Tuesday 16 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and the myth of the eighties revival

Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn
It has become a predictable and tedious mantra of the Labour Right, and its legions of media commentators, that Jeremy Corbyn's rise to the leadership of the Labour Party - and the support he continues to receive from a growing membership - is a return to the 1980s. 

In particular it is the 1980-83 period that MPs and columnists have in mind, suggesting that current developments are a re-run of Michael Foot's leadership and the rise of Bennism during the early years of Margaret Thatcher's Tory governments.

This is meant, of course, in an entirely pejorative sense. That era is safely classified as a disastrous one to which Labour cannot possibly return, climaxing in the catastrophe of the 1983 general election.

It is tempting to dismiss such analogies as irrelevant nonsense. But the arguments do need to be refuted. It also makes sense, more generally, to return to that era as a means of understanding the Labour Party's evolution and as a guide to making sense of Labour's opportunities and challenges today.

Refuting the myths

Paul Mason's article refuting the alleged parallels between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot is therefore timely and welcome. He correctly points out that the Labour left's boom was at the same time as a broader right-wing shift in British politics, a time when Thatcherism (though very far from universally popular) was relatively strong. Although he doesn't mention it, the rightwards-moving split which led to the founding of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and a good electoral showing for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 was another manifestation of this.

The situation today is quite different. As Mason notes, neoliberalism is discredited. There is a crisis of the neoliberal political centre and, while right-wing forces can capitalise on that, it is clearly an opening for the left. The current surge in Labour membership is not something seen in the early 1980s and it indicates a wider enthusiasm for an alternative to a politically bankrupt status quo. It's worth adding, too, that there is greater sympathy for the left among the trade unions - whether at the level of leadership or grassroots - than was witnessed during the Bennism years.

In fact the left has been more successful recently than in the early 1980s. Foot was, as Mason remarks, a compromise candidate not a triumph for the left. His time as leader was characterised by vacillation, incoherence and lurches between left and right (for example, he expressed ardent support for the Falklands War, seeking to outflank Thatcher in belligerent jingoism).

The more left-wing current around Tony Benn garnered a lot of success, mainly among grassroots members, but was ultimately unsuccessful: Benn may have lost only extremely narrowly to right-winger Denis Healey in the 1981 deputy leadership race, but it was a defeat nonetheless. This time around, the left has actually won a leadership election - comfortably - and now looks set to do so again.

During the Foot era the Labour left appeared to be faring well but it was short-lived, had shallow roots, and the longer-term trajectory was very much to the right. The poor result in 1983 was widely interpreted as showing the folly of left-wing policies; the conclusion was that Labour needed to adapt itself to Thatcherism. Neil Kinnock came from a left-wing background and used this credibilty to co-opt a 'soft left' layer which had previously backed Benn, but his entire period as leader was a slow march to the right.

With every election defeat - 1987 then 1992 - the proponents of this rightwards shift were strengthened, and the left became ever more marginalised (symbolised by a dismal vote for Benn in the 1988 leadership election). Big defeats for the organised working class - above all the Miners' Strike of 1984-85 - reinforced the power of the right wing, in both the Labour Party and the union movement.

The massive anti-poll tax movement threatened to tip the balance the other way, yet it found only a faint echo in the upper echelons of the Labour Party. Also, the eastern European revolutions and collapse of the Soviet Union were utilised to argue that socialism was finished, neoliberalism was triumphant, and there was no alternative. Tony Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994 took the process even further.

Paul Mason's article recognises that 'Corbynism' has emerged in very different circumstances to Bennism and must be understood in that context: it is a vibrant and hopeful response to discredited neoliberal policies which have eroded the post-war settlement of public services and a strong welfare state, accentuated inequality and hollowed out democracy. It is not even slightly an exercise in nostalgia or an irrational psychological spasm (as the likes of Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland are fond of arguing), but a materially grounded and entirely reasonable response to changed realities.

But the article also raises some questions and difficulties that really need thinking through. There are three in particular.

Political and industrial struggles

Firstly, Mason's assessment of the relationship between political struggle and industrial struggle in the 1980s is problematic. He writes:

'The leftism we carried with us into the Winter Gardens in 1980 had its origins in the syndicalism of ordinary workers in the 1970s. To the shop stewards I met in the years between Benn’s 1980 speech and the miners’ strike, Labour politics were a sideshow. The unions had achieved control of many workplaces and – it seemed – could go on calling the shots. In the year Benn made his electrifying speech, the steelworkers’ union had just won a double-digit pay rise in an all-out strike.'

This exaggerates the strength of the unions at that time. The bigger story of the steelworkers in that period was that they lost - and there were consequently mass closures of steel works. The even bigger picture was one of rising unemployment and an assault on manufacturing, combined with a major Tory and employer offensive against the unions which scored many successes. There were major strikes throughout the decade, but most were defeats and this eroded workers' confidence and strengthened the grip of a conservative union bureaucracy.

The 'political upturn' of Bennism was, then, to a certain extent shaped by the downturn in industrial struggle by the unions. There was a substantial element of people looking to Labour, and a stronger Labour left, as compensation for the weaknesses on the industrial front. But the deeper direction of travel was to the right precisely because of the big picture of repeated defeats of workers' struggles against a backdrop of unemployment and insecurity. Any shift to the left inside the Labour Party was therefore likely to be short-lived.

The other major factor driving the Labour left's resurgence was the bitter experience of the Labour governments of 1974-79, led by Harold Wilson then Jim Callaghan, which had caused massive disillusionment. This period was in fact the birth pangs of neoliberalism: Labour politicians were in office but not in power, obliged by the return of capitalist economic crisis and the demands of international capitalism to repeatedly inflict public spending cuts and wage freezes on their own supporters.

One response to this experience was a shift to the left, embodied by a politician - Tony Benn - who had learnt from his own experience of ministerial office how powerful the obstacles to even mild social protections (never mind positive reforms) could be.

Workplace and social issues

This question of the relevance of industrial struggle leads on to a second problem with Mason's arguments. He writes: 'Today, work is much less central to the left project, and for a variety of reasons. It is precarious, hard to organise. Also, the things the left wants to achieve have become more social, less industrial. There is, on the left, an implicit understanding of political philosopher Toni Negri’s claim: that the “factory” is now the whole of society,and the subject of change is everybody – especially the networked youth.'

This is wrong at both ends. Mason is underestimating the significance of 'social' struggles' in the past, while underestimating the significance of work-related issues and struggles today. It is true that workers' struggles dominated the 1970s, but they were never the whole picture.

In the 1970s and early 1980s there was a range of other struggles from rent strikes and housing campaigns to the women's liberation movement and large demonstrations defending abortion rights, from the Anti Nazi League and black community struggles to the Right to Work Campaign's marches against unemployment, from the Anti Apartheid Movement's resurgence after the Soweto Uprising in 1976 to CND's mass protests in the early 1980s.

If we look at the history of the British labour movement there have often been links between economic, work-based struggles and wider political or social movements. Chartism united democratic demands and economic grievances. The mass protests of the Irish and unemployed, and in defence of free speech, in the 1880s fed into the explosive wave of militant workers' struggles known as the New Unionism. The Great Unrest of 1911-14 was simultaneous with suffragettes' protests and turmoil over Ireland. Rent strikes accompanied the workers' strikes of Red Clydeside during World War One and in its aftermath. And so on.

But it's also wrong to dismiss the politics of work in 2016. Many of Corbyn's most resonant and appealing policies are to do with the world of work, whether it is pledging to repeal the Trade Union Act and other anti-union legislation, ending poverty pay and zero hours contracts, investing in job creation, the promise of a National Investment Bank, or many other policies and ideas the Labour leader has talked about recently. The world of work is in fact at the centre of his political alternative.

This political vision encompasses policies - like funded childcare - that directly link the 'work' world with the 'social' world. It would be a mistake to separate and juxtapose 'work' and 'social', just as it's a mistake to downplay the importance of people's conditions and experiences of work.

As for workers' struggles, it is true that we have had 25 years of historically low levels of strike action. The emphasis on electoral politics by so much of the left is explained partly by the long-term weaknesses in the unions. But if the breakthroughs associated with Corbyn are to be sustained - never mind built on - then this will have to change. The hopeful green shoots we've seen this year - junior doctors, national teachers' strike, railway strikes and so on - will have to bloom into something bigger. Electoral politics alone will not suffice.

Many of Mason's 'networked youth' are workers - and others will become workers in time. They will be stronger if organised collectively in combative trade unions. The strengths of social movements and the tremendous enthusiasm around Corbyn need to be used to fuel more powerful union organisation and a renewal of workplace resistance.

Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition  

Thirdly, there is Mason's claim: 'This generation, by contrast, understands that the most revolutionary thing you can do to neoliberalism is to put a party in government that dismantles it.'

This contains an important ingredient of truth. The ambition and political generalisation involved in seeking to transform Labour into a left-wing party and get it into government represents, in some ways, an advance. Over the last year there has been a lifting of the left's sights generally - a sense of actually shaping mainstream political debate and being a relevant force to be reckoned with.

But this raising of the stakes brings big, important issues to the fore and gives them an acute practical relevance they haven't had for generations. The question of the limits of electing a government opposed to neoliberalism is one such issue. Mason makes this revealing comment:

'The rule of law is stronger now. Everybody involved in the Bennite movement sensed that Britain’s legal institutions were so weak, its police, security services and judiciary so politicised, its constitution so malleable, that the scenario in Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup was not paranoia. Today, though the secret state is large, it is under much stronger legislative control. Should a leftwing Labour party come to power – either on its own or in coalition with left nationalists – it is likely to be able to govern relatively free of politicised sabotage from the state.'

This demonstrates admirable optimism of the will, but lacks the necessary complement of pessimism of the intellect. It seems rather naive to assume that the secret security state no longer has the potential power it used to possess. It is certainly wrong to suggest that other elements of the state are less 'politicised' than three decades ago - all the evidence surely runs against that assertion. And that's before we get on to the role of the media or the power of finance, big business and their institutions, both at national and international levels.

The power of both the state and of corporations remains huge. It won't be broken simply by electing a Corbyn-led government. Whether we’re talking about this side of such a government or after its formation, there is an undeniable need for mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation. This is a vital counterweight to the power of the nation state, media, transnational institutions, the City of London and big business.

The Labour Party’s membership surge and leftwards shift in the grassroots, with a left-wing leader, are very important and hopeful breakthroughs. But it would be a grave error to reduce the movement to the Labour Party, or to put all our eggs in the electoral basket.

Corbyn’s initial success, in being elected party leader, was fuelled by the protest movements of the last 15 years (above all the anti-war and anti-austerity movements) and Corbyn’s strong association with those movements and with numerous workplace disputes. Last June’s huge national demonstration, organised by the People’s Assembly, was one key catalyst in Corbyn’s rise to the leadership.

As Corbyn himself repeatedly insists, this is about a movement of people not simply the role of a solitary leader. That movement is not confined to members of the Labour Party and its activities cannot be confined to internal Labour Party struggles and electioneering. In the last 12 months there have been numerous campaigns, protest movements and strikes: from protests against bombing Syria to the Convoy to Calais in solidarity with refugees, from the fresh wave of Black Lives Matter protests to strikes by junior doctors, teachers and railway workers.

The impact of these campaigns and strikes is amplified by having a left-wing Labour leadership. Sometimes this is explicit, for example when Jeremy Corbyn voiced support for County Durham’s teaching assistants, overwhelmingly women workers campaigning for fair pay, or when Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, have popped up at picket lines for the junior doctors.

Equally importantly, such extra parliamentary struggles strengthen the left inside Labour. The protests against bombing Syria, February’s national Scrap Trident demonstration and the strikes are all examples of this. There will be many more to come.

Transforming society

If we are going to achieve real social change – against the might of the British political class, the establishment and the state – we need to make advances on all fronts, and bring them together in a concerted offensive. In particular, the breakthroughs in the Labour Party not only require sustaining but need to be used as a lever to promote a more combative labour movement. Ultimately, there must be a willingness to confront our powerful enemies and not be limited by the constraints of parliament.

This broad perspective draws attention to something else. Revolutionary socialists have been much derided lately, with a red scare about ‘Trotskyists’ by Labour’s right wing. Some on the Labour left have sadly echoed the derision towards socialists outside the Labour Party (even Mason lapses into this, with his concluding reference to ‘re-enactment groups from 20th-century Marxism’).

But one of the most important lessons of history is that revolutionary socialists – with a general anti-capitalist perspective and a deep commitment to extra-parliamentary forms of struggle – have a crucial role to play. It is the radical left that has a formidable record of initiating and shaping a great many different struggles on the streets and in the workplaces. It has always had a larger strategic vision than the internal battles of the Labour Party and winning votes, with a relentless focus on self-activity and mass mobilisation.

This radical left also has a political vision that goes beyond the limits of parliament and of reforming a crisis-ridden system. In the current period, this can underpin an independent left-wing politics that is impervious to the huge pressures of holding the Labour Party together, of appeasing right-wingers and of narrow, ‘centre ground’-chasing electoralism. 

Such independent politics also require independent organisation, with anti-capitalist activists grouped together and operating independently of Labour. These elements are as necessary as they ever were.