Notes from the front – of the week 8/12/2015


Oldham result earns Corbyn a breather – now time to push home the advantage

As the dust settles after the Parliamentary vote on bombing Syria and the outcome of the Oldham by-election, where have these developments left Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and what are the priorities now?

Despite the setback of being forced to accept an illogical ‘free vote’ on bombing Syria, the fact that Corbyn emerged with a majority in the PLP and the Shadow Cabinet as well as in the Party membership and then saw a magnificent vote for Labour in the Oldham by-election has strengthened his position.

Corbyn went through the first half of last week in what looked like an increasingly fragile position. Opposition in the Shadow Cabinet and his own camp to a whip on Syria meant that Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary, summed up the debate on bombing against the line of the Leader with Corbyn able to do nothing but listen. The right were exultant.

The right and the majority of the media tried to drive home this apparent advantage over Corbyn with a campaign for Benn to replace Corbyn as leader, justified by the farcical claim that his closing speech had demonstrated what was needed in a ‘real’ opposition leader. The absurdity of arguing that Benn proved his powers of opposition by not opposing the government at all seemed lost on the over-excitable ranks of most of the commentariat.

Or rather perhaps unwittingly exposed the type of opposition they actually want – one that votes with the Tory government on all the most important issues.

But then they were brought down to earth, first by the Oldham by-election result, compounded by the rapid unravelling of the logic of the decision to bomb Syria.

The Oldham election not only safely returned a Labour MP to Parliament, but saw Labour gather up an increased share of the vote. There was a substantial 8.4 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour.

Normally the BBC reports by-election swings, but on this occasion it failed to, no doubt because of its significance. Six months after a general election Labour’s 8.4 per cent swing against the government suggests the former is doing well and latter badly.

The UKIP share of the vote also rose, but entirely at a cost to the Tories, not Labour.

On Syria, by Thursday, two days after the vote, Cameron was already announcing the Syria campaign would be long and difficult – actually because the bombing offers no solution to the situation on the ground. The Murdoch press, which had been gung-ho for bombing two days before, ran front pages exposing the lie of Cameron’s claim there were 70,000 ‘moderate’ troops ready to fight ISIS – because Murdoch is campaigning for the US and its allies to put ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria, but problematic for Cameron nonetheless.

Public opinion also showed rapidly declining support for the bombing campaign. YouGov pollsters found that net support for bombing had fallen from 39 per cent to 8 per cent between 24 November and 3 December, a fall of 31 per cent in a little over a week. Among Labour voters support fell from net 26 per cent to net 22 per cent against in the same period, a shift of 48 per cent and a powerful endorsement of Corbyn’s position!

At the same time a witch-hunting media campaign aimed at Corbyn supporters claiming there had been widespread bullying, intimidation and threats from those lobbying MPs to vote against the bombing fell spectacularly apart. Tory MP Lucy Allan was exposed as having faked a death threat in an email from a constituent. Right-wing, pro-bombing Labour MP Stella Creasy had to clarify that a lobby of her constituency office had in fact been entirely peaceful and not a protest at her home, contrary to initial reports. Then Tom Watson, the deputy leader, had to apologise and retract his call for those who had participated in public lobbying of their MPs against the bombing to be expelled from the Labour Party.

All these factors taken together now mean that a coup or direct challenge to the Corbyn leadership, which the right was touting as an imminent possibility – primarily on the basis of believing their own propaganda that Labour would get a bad result in Oldham – has been put off for the time being.

In fact a real attempt at a direct assault by the right is probably not possible now until after the elections in May 2016, the next scheduled political test of the leadership. No new by-elections are slated and the vote on Trident, which will provoke similar struggles in the PLP as the vote on Syria, is not due until after May.

Of course, the right is absolutely determined to get rid of Corbyn and will seize on every issue to try to swing the situation back in their favour, aided and abetted by the Tories and media. So there is no space for the left to relax its vigilance.

Since the Oldham result the right have launched a campaign to discredit the Stop the War coalition with the demand that Corbyn withdraw from attending its forthcoming fundraising meal. Unlike the right-wing MPs and Tory media, the Stop the War coalition has been proved right on all its fundamental campaigns: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. A couple of misjudgements on articles it has posted on its website are very minor issues relative to the huge issues of the wars it has got correct.

Overall, following Oldham, the Corbyn leadership has a breathing space to get its strategy on an even keel after the storms of recent weeks.

This should be used to take the offensive on austerity and economic policy, hold the government and Labour pro-bombing MPs closely to account as the situation in Syria unravels, and to start clarifying the situation around the rules for leadership elections to ensure that the right cannot pull an undemocratic trick and exclude Corbyn from the ballot in the context of a future leadership challenge.

The window to drive ahead on these issues will not last forever, and some new event may rapidly give the right a space to resume the offensive. Therefore as much should be driven forward now as is possible and necessary.

Defend the Venezuelan revolution!

The victory of the US-sponsored opposition in Venezuela’s 6 December parliamentary elections is a significant advance for the forces working to overturn the Venezuelan revolution and reverse its gains.

At the time of writing, 165 of the 167 seats have been declared; with the opposition MUD taking 107 seats, indigenous representatives 3 seats and the Chavistas (PSUV) 55.

For the first time in 17 years the counter-revolution will control the National Assembly and use it to attempt to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.

Having more than a three-fifths majority of the parliament MUD will be able to pass laws, remove the Vice President and ministers and organise a recall referendum aimed at ousting President Maduro.

If, when all seats are declared, the opposition holds two-thirds of the parliament (112 seats) they could call a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution and propose constitutional reforms via a referendum.

The right wing will also use its parliamentary control to change Venezuela’s international relations and to damage the left in the region, in particular Cuba.

The Venezuelan revolution now faces an intensified fight for its survival, which international solidarity must do its utmost to assist. As part of this, the left needs to take stock of why the PSUV has lost support.

The death of Hugo Chavez in 2013 deprived the revolution of its most authoritative popular leader.

Additionally the fall in the oil price, due to the global slow down, has badly hit Venezuela’s economy. GDP shrank last year and has continued to contract this year, undermining the population’s living standards.

Living standards have been vulnerable because the government has lacked a coherent economic policy to deal with the economic crisis affecting Latin America. It has not drawn on the lessons of China’s success in raising living standards at the fastest rate in the world. The principle lesson, which economists have previously pointed out, is that state investment plays the leading role in driving the economy forward.

The left must have an adequate economic policy to defend the Latin American revolution.

Front National rise can only be fought with anti-racism

The Front National was narrowly the largest party in the first round on the French regional elections on 6 December. But the widespread claim that they ‘won’ the election is false. The tally at the time of writing was that, “FN got about 28 per cent, ahead of the centre-right Republicans party led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, which polled just under 27 per cent, and the governing Socialist Party (PS), trailing with 23.5 per cent”, according to the BBC.

This represents a very large gain of 19 per cent for the FN compared to the same regional elections in 2010. But it is not a new phenomenon. The FN had performed strongly in the March 2015 departmental elections and has now gained a more modest 3 per cent from that time.

Hollande’s Partie Socialiste recovered by 10 per cent from its miserably poor showing in March. In reality, there is close to a three-way race among the big parties, with another 11 per cent of the vote going mainly to the Greens as well as the far left Front de Gauche.

Mainstream media promoting vile racist far right formations like the FN is nothing new. But the specific project is to create a bogeyman of the FN and so promote Sarkozy’s Republicans as the lesser evil. Unfortunately for big business interests in France the Republicans are in the doldrums and have not won an election since the European elections of 2009. So the aim is get the left to support Sarkozy.

Meanwhile the politics of the FN and Sarkozy have been converging on an authoritarian and racist agenda, mainly to the benefit of the FN.

This demonstrates that the FN’s politics can only be defeated with anti-racism. So it is an error for the Socialists to withdraw in favour of Sarkozy in two regions for the second round of voting on 13 December.

The real alternative is to pledge to tackle racism and discrimination instead of capitulating to it. A break with austerity is also needed in order to restore living standards generally. This would require an alliance of the PS with forces to its left and Greens to present a united anti-racist front. Instead there is likely to be great pressure to form a pro-Sarkozy bloc.