Notes from the front – of the week 24/9/2015


An excellent start from Jeremy Corbyn

In his first week as Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn racked up some significant achievements: he succeeded in assembling a frontbench parliamentary team and began on the task of setting out Labour’s changed orientation against austerity and presenting an alternative economic policy.

The core political task of the new Labour leadership, which was delivered on a range of issues in the first week, is to shift Labour’s framework to opposing the government’s attacks on people’s living standards, and away from disastrous decisions like abstaining on the welfare bill.

In the first week, rather than abstain on the Tories’ proposed £4.4bn cuts to in-work benefits, as the Labour right insisted on doing in July this year, the Corbyn-led party voted on 15 September against measures to take more than £1,000 a year from millions of families.

A new tone on workers’ rights and the trade unions was also struck by Corbyn’s pro-union speech at the TUC, followed the same day by a vigorous rejection of the government’s anti-Trade Union Bill that severely undermines the right to strike. Labour voted and argued against the Bill.

Corbyn’s performance at his first Prime Minister’s Questions as Labour Leader was widely praised for changing the childish, public school tone of the weekly event. Moreover he took the opportunity to attack the Tories on its housing policies, benefit cuts and poor mental health services.

Policies announced in the week included a shift by Labour on Academy and Free Schools to ensure they come under local democratic control.

The most decisive policy step however was the Labour leadership’s announcement of for an integrated public railway system, to be achieved by renationalising each privately operated route as its franchise expires.

By focussing public services, opposing cuts and defending trade union rights Corbyn is raising the most important issues to raise living standards. This is the type of agenda that Labour needs to set to advance electorally.

The absolutely central issue for the new leadership’s framework is to end austerity. The Tories are allowing private capital to dictate a policy that shifts resources from wage earners to shareholders by reducing government spending including on investment that would stimulate the economy. This is leading to stagnating economic growth, which is what is constraining government finance for welfare and the NHS and lies behind the deficit. Increased state investment is required to bring about expansion and increase the government’s income.

That is why the most important appointment Corbyn made to his team was John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor. Interviewed in the Guardian McDonnell said this had been a ‘difficult decision’ for both him and Corbyn, as there was a powerful lobby that the Corbyn leadership should concede to concerns that McDonnell was ‘too hard line’ and potentially ‘divisive’ in the role. They however took the entirely correct decision. It is essential that this key economy portfolio is held by a supporter of Corbyn as it is overwhelmingly the issue of opposing austerity that will define the new leadership.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s small support amongst Labour MPs, probably less than 20, he managed to appoint a complete 140 plus MPs to his frontbench, including for the first time a majority female Shadow Cabinet.

These initial successes have been achieved in the context of a continued right wing and media offensive against him, on every conceivable personal and political issue. The Ashcroft revelations about Cameron have provided a welcome lull in this offensive, but this will not last. The attacks on Corbyn and his team will be maintained because it is entirely unacceptable to capitalism for Britain’s main opposition party to be committed to ending austerity (as set out here).

The Labour right’s challenges to Corbyn’s policies – attacking him on third-rate issues, personal smears, and the wild threat of a military coup – are what are to be expected.

More than 60,000 new members joined the Labour Party in the ten days following Corbyn’s election, most of whom have joined to back him. Plus Corbyn won on 12 September with 59.5% of the 400,000 plus who voted. So Labour’s right wing understands that for the time being it cannot win a democratic leadership election, which is the right will be plotting how to have a coup.

There has been little time for Corbyn’s leadership to have much impact on popular opinion and therefore the initial polls and speculations in the media on the leadership’s electoral impact have little value. However, the Opinium poll reported in The Observer on 20 September, showing Labour had cut the Tory lead from 9 points in June to 5 points now is an important straw in the wind, even though it was reported to suggest that Corbyn has detrimentally effected Labour’s popularity.

The British left faces challenges it has never had before. It has won the leadership of a mass party and now aims to elect a Jeremy Corbyn led government. Capitalism assisted by its agents will do all it can to thwart this. So the left must it raise itself to the level of this responsibility.

Corbyn’s first week as Labour Leader has been an excellent start in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.


Greek elections: Syriza victory means right-wing is thwarted

Despite widespread forecasts that the Syriza government would fail, the general election result was a resounding victory with minimal loss of seats. Syriza will now be able to reform its coalition with the Independent Greeks. The right were unable to hide their disappointment and frustration, with Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament intemperately criticising the renewed coalition.

The project of the main pro-austerity forces has been to split off Syriza’s left wing and force the remainder into a coalition with To Potami, which is almost entirely a creature of the Europe Commission. That project has only been partly successful. While on the one hand the ex-Syriza breakaway Popular Unity, which rejected the latest Memorandum from the Troika, failed to pass the parliamentary threshold of 3%, on the other hand To Potami lost 6 seats to a revived PASOK, which gained 17.

Overall, Syriza secured 145 seats (including the 50 top-up seats for the largest party), just 4 fewer than in the January elections, while the main right-wing opposition New Democracy failed to make any headway losing one seat for a total of 75. The fascist Golden Dawn remains on 7% of the vote and gained just one seat at 18. The communist KKE was unchanged on 15 seats. The Syriza-Independent Greek coalition will have an initial overall majority of 10 deputies in the new parliament.

Syriza will remain reluctant instruments of Troika austerity and are likely to remain critics of it too. But austerity will be implemented by the new government under diktat from Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington. Unless there are new big struggles in Greece or elsewhere at least a section of Syriza’s mass base may easily become demoralised.

The necessary debate on a way out for the crisis is still in its infancy. In that context it is regrettable that Popular Unity did not win any parliamentary representation, even if the policy of returning to the drachma repeats the error of making the currency the principal issue rather than how to end austerity. The election shows that the bulk of the population wants to remain in the Euro and Syriza’s strong showing shows that demoralisation is not dominant, even if the turnout fell to a record low of 57%.

A defeat for Syriza would have been a big setback in Greece and would have been a defeat for the entire European anti-austerity left. For now, an even bigger defeat in Greece has been avoided.