Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, describes Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader as a political earthquake. It gives us enormous opportunities, which won’t last forever, he warns
If you are on the left, you would have to be a miserable old so-and-so (or an incorrigible sectarian) not to have been inspired by the resounding Corbyn victory on 12 September. It has been correctly described as a political earthquake. It has sent shockwaves through the political establishment.
The Corbyn revolt blew apart the narrative that there can be no alternative to the status quo, no alternative to austerity and growing inequality. A mass movement emerged based on the anger and frustration at establishment politics. It found huge support among the young and among many traditional Labour supporters, among trade union activists and among climate campaigners alike. It has presented us with the chance of a lifetime.
The entire political establishment is now out to destroy the Corbyn leadership. We have seen a sustained and very nasty press campaign which will continue and get worse. We hear the Prime Minister describe the Leader of the Opposition as a threat to national security. We have seen an anonymous general threatening direct action against a future Corbyn government.
Of more immediate concern are the attacks from within the Labour Party and the trade unions. The open criticism of the new Labour leader from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and from within his own Shadow Cabinet is unprecedented. Senior Labour figures, past and present, openly talk about the timing of a move against the leadership. Among some of the unions there have been rumblings, albeit more restrained due to the support Corbyn has among the rank and file. These are ominous warnings. We have the chance of a lifetime – but it won’t last forever.
Corbyn’s victory, and the appointment of John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, offer huge opportunities for our movement. We have a Labour leader who is unapologetic about being a trade unionist and supporting trade unions. The Blair/Brown government did nothing substantial to roll back the anti-union laws. That is just one of the many indictments of the New Labour years.
The Corbyn revolution provides a unique opportunity for the current generation of labour movement activists to shift politics in favour of our class. There is a huge amount to do but I would suggest three areas.
Firstly, we need a united left movement to defend Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their leading roles in the Labour Party, although such a movement needs to go beyond those currently involved in the Labour Party. The announcement of Momentum is potentially a very important step along this route. In the meantime campaigners are coming together across the country without any direction from above to build on the support for Jeremy’s campaign and to get organised at local level. Any structures which emerge have to be genuinely democratic and inclusive. One motivating feature of the Corbyn campaign was a rejection of the control-freakery of New Labour. Any new politics needs genuinely open debate and control by the rank and file.
Secondly, we need to renew and rebuild the rank and file leadership in our unions. It is fantastic that we have a Labour leader who will unapologetically speak up for our unions. This will give union members the confidence that there is real opposition in Parliament. But the battle is likely to take place largely outside of Westminster – in our workplaces and communities. There needs to be a genuine discussion about how a mass movement can be built which can challenge the anti-union legislation if the current Bill becomes law. That has been done before, but on the basis of a powerful shop stewards movement. Currently the attempts to organise such initiatives are fragmented and not up to the challenges we face. The Corbyn campaign can breathe new life into our unions – but only if people are prepared to break with sectarianism and build a genuine network at rank and file level. At the same time we have to call on the TUC to give a lead. Such calls will be hugely strengthened by the building of our unions at local level and the strengthening of our workplace organisation.
Thirdly, we need to develop the debate about political ideas. The Corbyn campaign cannot simply be about cheerleading for Jeremy. It also has to develop a genuine democratic debate about the political way forward for our movement. Some of these issues, such as Trident replacement or fiscal policy, are already at the centre of debate. We should welcome this opportunity and take advantage to argue for socialist policies. What sort of society do we want to live in? How can we develop and build democracy?
For example, the campaigns around tax justice have powerfully exposed the industrial scale abuse of the system by the rich and big business. But are we building a movement that simply asks people to pay their taxes? Or should our movement set out goals that aim to change things on a more fundamental level. Hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn into discussion about left wing politics. We should take the opportunity to make the case for socialism.