JEREMY CORBYN’S STUNNING LEAD IN THE POLLS represents a huge leap forward for the left in the Labour Party – and demonstrates graphically that left policies and opposition to austerity are hugely popular across the labour and trade union movement, and across our natural electoral base. This apparently comes as a big shock to the Labour establishment and especially to New Labour which confidently predicted a lurch back to the right in the wake of Labour’s defeat in May.
Jeremy Corbyn’s lead is great news to all of us on the left – but it’s not entirely an accident either. Yes, it was a struggle to find enough Labour MPs prepared to nominate him – and many who did are not Corbyn supporters. But then the Parliamentary Labour Party has hardly represented the thinking of the wider party membership and supporters for some years.
The signs have been there for those who wanted to see it. From the loss of five million working class voters from 1997-2010, to the rise of UKIP and the collapse of Scottish Labour to the SNP, New Labour really has not been a vote winner for some time! The Labour Party leadership refused to listen to our calls for an anti-austerity message and a bold vision of jobs, sustainable growth and hope for working people, while New Labour’s stranglehold intellectually and organisationally has held the line on a right wing neo-liberal economic agenda, including “austerity-lite”.
This leadership election – the first ever using OMOV and with a credible left wing candidate allowed to stand – has at last given a voice to the wider labour and trade union movement to express its view. Jeremy’s huge success in the polls is a triumph for the work so many of us have been doing to develop an alternative to austerity.
Key to this shift in thinking has been the trade union movement, the democratic voice of working class people, which has been increasingly critical of the right of centre direction in Labour Party policy. From about 2005 onwards there has been a growing consensus at annual TUC Congress on a broad, left-of-centre policy outlook. This includes demands for real trade union freedom and workers’ rights, public investment in our infrastructure and state intervention in, and regulation of, the economy, a new council house building programme and the reversal of privatisation of public services.
More recently – and especially during the Coalition government 2010-2015 – it was the trade unions and the TUC which led the popular opposition to austerity. Huge rallies in London have attracted hundreds of thousands of trade unionists – but also students, young people and ordinary people who share our anti-austerity position but felt no mainstream political party expressed their views. The People’s Assembly which attracted an astonishing 250,000 to its 20 June London rally, was set up with trade union influence in a conscious attempt to broaden the alliance between trade unions and the wider community. Unite’s Community branches have embedded this community and trade union connection at a local level while trades councils – often working alongside the People’s Assembly and Unite Community – have led the protests against austerity in our towns and cities.
While the trade union movement as a whole has been building support for an alternative to austerity, Unite began a serious review of its actual relationship with the Labour Party. As the saying goes, “If you’re in a club and you don’t like it, you have two choices. Get out or change it”. Our most significant achievement has been to get Unite shop stewards and convenors selected as candidates to stand for Parliament. Had the Labour Party won the 2015 election we might have seen upwards of 40 new working class trade unionists elected. In the event we secured 26. Not only have we ensured the PLP has shifted to the left in this election, it’s also true that without them Jeremy Corbyn would not have received sufficient nominations to get on the ballot paper at all!
Even if he fails to win and comes second, the left’s voice in the Party cannot any longer be marginalised. The time is right to consolidate the various left tendencies in Labour (Unite, CLPD, LRC, Tribune, etc) into one co-ordinated Labour left organisation to counter New Labour’s “Progress”. We must ensure that the Labour left unites to win back democratic control of our Party; to embed a left political agenda in our policy framework; and crucially consolidate the massive expansion in support we have witnessed in the last few weeks. We have a real opportunity to re-engage with young people to build on the enthusiasm which exists for a fairer and more progressive future – with a revitalised Labour Party as the vehicle to achieve it.