Speech Transcript: Jeremy Corbyn and the Fight Against Austerity Transcript of a talk given by Michael Collins at a public meeting in Derry on Wednesday 2nd of September.
Thanks for the opportunity to speak. Just to start, I’d like you to cast your mind back just four months ago to the Westminster election. I don’t know where you were, but I happened to be in the election count at Kings Hall in Belfast. I was there for the West Belfast Westminster Campaign. Our candidate Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit, as many of you know, polled extremely well, receiving 7000 votes almost 20% of the overall turnout. It was an astounding success, the best socialist vote in the North for decades, and a signal that radical left politics was alive and kicking. We were absolutely delighted with this result, over the moon, and went to bed very late that night, tired, but content with the idea that as Gerry said: “the left was back”.
A strange thing, however, occurred the next morning or more accurately the next afternoon, when I woke after a late night. I had a quick glance on Facebook, and to be honest, was shocked to see a mood of despondency across many of the lefties I was friends with. The reason, of course, wasn’t anything to do with Gerry’s election. It was to do with the fact that after five years of Tory austerity; the Tories had just won again.
The idea that Cameron would be in again, would be able to attack more people, to attack the vulnerable, to attack the workers and Trade Unions, was an absolute sickner. I have to say I had the strange feeling that I’d been the victim of a heist, the hope that we felt just hours before in the Kings Hall being snatched away as we saw Cameron and his cronies gloat over their victory. I’m sure many of you felt like that as well.
And I’m sure many of you felt just as bad as I did, when we read the explanations from the newspapers as to why they thought Labour had lost. Some of you might know or remember that in 1992, after years of a Tory government, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party lost the election, and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper had a headline saying: “It was the Sun that won it”, because his newspapers had backed the Tories. Well if there was a headline that would sum up the right wing media’s explanation of Labour’s loss in 2015 it would have been: “It was the left wing policies that lost it.” Or so the media claimed.
The argument from the right was that Miliband had been too left wing, that the majority of people didn’t support left wing policies and that’s why the Tories had got in. Of course this was absolute nonsense. Firstly, the Tories won the election with only 36% of the vote, with probably half of the electorate not voting at all. It ridiculous to suggest then that they can claim the support of the majority of people, or that the majority of people support right wing politics, because their vote was so low in terms of the overall population. It’s interesting to compare, for example, the Tory victory of 2015, with the 1945 general election in Britain, which many people consider the most left wing Westminster election, when Labour won a landslide vote and introduced the Welfare state and the NHS. Even in that election, the Tories got 40% of the vote in a landslide defeat, higher that the vote than they got in 2015 when they won. So the victory was hardly a runaway success for the Tories and was in many ways a reflection of the undemocratic ‘First Past the Post’ system, as well.
But this idea that the population had moved to the right was also a nonsense, because if you look at Scotland, there the SNP had a massive landslide victory, with policies that were more left wing than Ed Milibands, or verbally at least, much more radical sounding. But it was also a nonsense because surveys have shown for years that the vast majority of people support traditional left wing policies, like the renationalisation of the railways, more Trade Union rights, and higher taxes on the rich and fat cat corporations. In truth, Red Ed wasn’t very red at all. In fact on questions like immigration his party disgracefully attempted to out-UKIP UKIP. You won’t have found it anywhere in the press, but the truth is that Labour lost the election not because they were too left wing, but because they weren’t left wing enough. People often talk about personalities in politics, and try and explain Labour’s loss as a result of Ed Miliband’s personality; that he was boring, bland, unimaginative and dishonest. But when you think of it, how people describe Ed Miliband’s personality is just a reflection of the kind of politics that Labour put forward; boring, bland, unimaginative and dishonest. The truth was, that the majority of people weren’t Tory or right wing, they just had no vehicle, or at least no tangible or viable vehicle, that could genuinely express their hopes and desires for a better society. To be honest I think many of us thought that Labour was dead, that they were heading in the direction that Pasok in Greece went, or that the Irish Labour Party, fingers crossed, will go in the next election; oblivion.
But truth be told, no viable or tangible group existed inside parliament that was outside of the Labour Party, in the way that you could point to with groups like People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance in Ireland. So there was a seething anger, a growing discontent, and an increasing yearning for an opposition to the Tories, to austerity, and for a new kind of politics. But there was also a political vacuum. It’s not always possible to predict where, or how, new movements emerge. And let’s face it, very few of us predicted that it would begin to emerge in the Labour leadership contest. After all John McDonnell, a left wing Labour MP, had stood in the last leadership contest and had been completely drowned out by all the nonsense surrounding the Miliband sibling rivalry.
But it has emerged. The growth of support for Jeremey Corbyn has been incredible, and is a reflection of that bubbling anger beneath the surface. Corbyn himself has been at it for a long time. He was elected as MP in 1983 for Islington North and is a long time left wing member of the Labour Party. He has a history of activism behind him, involving himself in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, supporting the campaign for Nuclear disarmament, and supporting the Miners’ strike when the Labour leadership backed Thatcher. He is a long standing Labour rebel, voting against the leadership over 500 times in his time as a politician. He once even petitioned Tony Blair to have the Queen removed from Buckingham Palace into a ‘more modest accommodation’.
He is a supporter of traditional left wing politics. He campaigns for an end to austerity, for the renationalisation of railways, to keep services in public hands. He talks about taxing the rich, about making Britain a more equal society. Good left wing ideas that the vast majority of people have always supported, but which haven’t had any reflection in the big parties during, or outside of, election time.
But significantly as well, Corbyn has been a consistent anti-imperialist. A staunch opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has also opposed more recent military adventures in the Middle East, Syria and Lybia etc, voted against the Falkland’s War, and was a sharp critic of the British Army’s role here in the North. A reminder, if needed, that whilst we should never stop criticising the horrible role of British imperialism, we should not forget as well that a significant portion, if not the majority of ordinary working class people in Britain, had no truck with or did not support these wars. Significant too, is Corbyn’s opposition to racism and we cannot underestimate, given the rise of UKIP, and the scaremongering of the Tories, how significant it is to have a voice in these debates that will stand up for the rights of migrants.
Corbyn has of course also come under a vicious and sustained assault by the right wing media. There’s not a day goes by where some sort of ‘Jeremy Corbyn Ate My Hamster’, or ‘Jeremy Corbyn Stole My Homework’, or ‘Jeremy Corbyn Left the Toilet Seat Up, story doesn’t appear in the press. But despite the steadfast efforts of the press, the Blairites and the media, Jeremy Corbyn is on the verge of victory in this election. The left has been through a long period of defeat, and because of this there is usually two gut responses from people at moments like this. One response, because of our years of defeat, is to be cynical. To say that we’ve seen it all before; ‘He’ll sell us out like the rest of them’, ‘Sure what’s the point?’ Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Jeremy Corbyn is some sort of socialist Saint, or that we should be uncritical, but we have to start from the point of how positive this is, and how opportunities for socialist politics are beginning to grow.
Another gut reaction, however, because of the years of defeat, because we’re so desperate for a victory, and perhaps because of the right wing onslaught on Corbyn is that we just drop our critical facilities and become fawning supporters of Corbyn. We should never do this, and as a Left should always be able to combine our optimism with a realism and honesty about the political forces at play.
I start from a different perspective. It’s quite true that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to walk us into socialism, and even if he did, as Eugene Debbs said: if he walked us in, he could walk us back out again. But this being said, a Corbyn victory can only be a good thing for everyone on the left; whether you’re a socialist, a revolutionary, a reformist or whatever. It will raise people’s hopes for a different kind of politics. It will put socialist ideas back on the map. And it will raise the hopes of those who want to fight back, and want to challenge austerity. Obviously this Corbyn phenomenon raises many political and strategic questions, and whilst it would be mistake for us to think that we can prescribe everything beforehand, it would also be a folly to leave it all up to Jeremy Corbyn. I think we should discuss these strategic questions, and I’d be interested to hear what people think from the floor. Tonight, I want to raise what I think are three important implications for us here in this room.
The first is about how we get change in society. Jeremy Corbyn has been a supporter of popular protests over the years. He has been a supporter of the Stop the War Movement, supporter of the People’s Assembly, and he has also called for popular protests against austerity and the Tories. A Corbyn victory can feed into the movement against austerity. It can raise people’s hopes and give confidence to those who want to fight back in the streets, and in the workplaces. Fundamentally, the power to change the world lies with millions of ordinary people, and Corbyn can help raise their confidence. But unfortunately Corbyn can also be used as an excuse.
You see, we need action against the Tories now, we need communities and workplaces to come out in protest, and we need the Unions to be calling strikes against their austerity. We can’t simply wait another five years for Jeremy Corbyn to be elected as prime minister. And whilst Corbyn’s election will be extremely positive, it’s important that we do not allow the leaders of our Movement to simply say; ‘Wait for him to save us’. We need action now. And even if Jeremy Corbyn did get elected as Prime Minister, and even if he managed to get his labour MP’s to support a left wing programme, as the experience of Syriza shows us; it’s not certain that they will ever implement it, or be able to implement it, unless they are prepared to challenge the power of capitalism itself, and the power of the state that lies outside of parliament; in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, bankers, judges, generals and of course the mass corporations and media.
The second implication, I think, is the nature of the Labour Party itself. You see, if Jeremy Corbyn gets elected as leader, he will still have to face the vast majority of MP’s who are to his Right, and the mainly Blairite officials, who run the party and want to bring him down. Of course one possible option is that these people will swiftly depose of Corbyn, and get rid of him as leader. But it’s also possible, that in an effort to keep the Labour Party unified, Corbyn will attempt to compromise, and work with the right wing sections of the Labour Party. Who for example will he bring into his Shadow Cabinet? What will the party’s manifesto look like? If Corbyn compromises I think this would be a disaster, and will reenergise the right wing both inside the Labour Party, and those outside looking to attack him. I don’t think this is because of Corbyn himself, or because of the integrity of the man, and I’m not here to pass judgement on him personally. Instead I think it is because of the nature of the Labour Party itself, which has had for its entire existence a big working class base, and big working class support, but that has sought to ultimately compromise with the system rather than challenge it.
For this reason, there is obviously a debate out there about whether people should join the Labour Party. This is probably the first time we’ve been debating this for decades, as the party’s membership had been on decline for many years. In a sense this is a good thing, and reflects in some ways a growing politicisation of people. Some people will have no illusions in Labour, and will simply pay their £3 to vote for Corbyn and stick-it to the Blairites. In a sense I’ve no problem with this, but there is also a wider strategic question about thousands of people being sucked into an internal Labour Party struggle, with all the pressures that I just outlined, and with its long history of compromise and betrayed hope, when we so desperately need a radical left independent and out on the streets. So whilst I share with Jeremy Corbyn, and I’m sure many people here do, a lot of his politics. I don’t necessarily share his strategy; that the way to win Left wing politics is through the Labour Party. I don’t believe that you can reclaim Labour, in fact, I’m not even sure there is a genuinely socialist Labour Party from the past to reclaim. Even though it has moved to the right dramatically over the last twenty years, it was always what Lenin called a capitalist workers’ Party, in the sense that it contained in it the hopes and desires of millions of working class people, and often sought to improve their lot, but would not ultimately challenge the fundamental rule of capital. Nevertheless, a victory for Corbyn, or indeed a victory in the future for a Corbyn-led Labour Party, would still be a big step forward to those of us who want to see a fundamental revolutionary change in society. And we must find ways that everyone on the Left, whatever their opinion of Labour, can unite in struggle where is counts. The protest outside the Tory Party Conference on October 8th, being a good example of this. The third and last implication of Corbyn campaign, is for us here in the North of Ireland. The British Labour party does not stand here. And a Corbyn victory might well increase some calls for it to do so, from those that have long campaigned to get Labour to organise here. I’ve no big objection to Labour organising here. But frankly, im not sure it would have the kind of dramatic impact those who propose it think it would. I don’t think parachuting a party from Britain to here will necessarily work. If there is a Left to grow here, it will have to grow organically. Though as I understand it anyway, the local Labour party here supports Andy Burnham anyway.
The question for us isn’t how can we extend the British Labour Party to the North. The question is how we can create a movement here that reflects the same thing Corbynism does, the desire for Left wing politics and radical change that he is representing. In other words, how can we build a Radical Left, rooted in communities and viable and tangible enough that people think it has a shot. The Left here is very small. The British Left is debating whether Labour can be reclaimed, we don’t even have a Labour Party to reclaim. But there are reasons to be cheerful. I started this talk with the way we felt after Gerry Carroll’s vote. I think we were right to be optimistic then and we should be optimistic that we can repeat the result, not just in West Belfast, but here in Derry too, and across the North.
Of course we’ll face many challenges, and we’ll have to develop a strong political backbone to stay the course. That’s what being a Socialist today is about. Organising every day to help build a fightback, raising people’s confidence, but also working to reshape politics, and to build a new socialist tradition. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has raised our sights. But he hasn’t set the bar. We should look further and build a movement that really is capable of challenging the system that we live in.