Labour Party Leadership:  Fight for Policies Not Souls

By John Weeks

A Yawning Divide

Those following the internal conflict in the UK Labour Party repeatedly read that  it is a fight for the “soul” of the party.  This metaphysical reference to the contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith comes as part of the concerted campaign to depoliticize and divert from the basic issues at stake.  It may be that some or most of Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents within the party believe that the unfolding leadership contest involves something analogous to religious conversion.  The use of this evangelistic metaphor consciously to avoid policy debate is considerably more likely.

As I wrote is my last post, “the Corbyn Phenomenon”, the deep division in the Labour Party results from one major fissure, social democracy on the left of the crack and neoliberalism-lite on the right.  Initially narrow enough for a few politicians to straddle, over the last year the crack widened to breech and now a deep chasm for which the famous US union song “Which side are you on” applies in spades.

Almost thirty years ago Tony Blair and his supporters undertook a spectacularly successful conversion of official LP policy to neoliberalism.  Why, suddenly it seems, can a social democrat lead the party he made his own and none dare speak his name except to denounce him?

Therein lies the explanation for why the center-right of the Labour Party refuses to debate its political differences with the social democrat progressives, focusing instead on allegations of Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of leadership qualities including incompetence, lack of charisma and being “out of touch”.

A serious and frank discussion of policies would destroy Corbyn’s opponents within the party.  The social democrats at the party base that Blair disenfranchised have reasserted control of party policy.

How the Labour Party got here

Until quite recently the Labour Party (LP) functioned in a strictly hierarchical manner.  For decades LP members of Parliament selected the party leader.  A change in rules that assigned MPs, trade unions and members at the constituency level each a one-third share brought the victory in 2010 of the more progressive candidate (Ed Miliband) over the center-right candidate (his older brother David, now living in the United States).

Ed Miliband’s parliamentary party (PLP) had supported his opponent by a considerable majority and set out consciously to undermine his leadership.  He proved unable to shift the PLP toward social democratic policies.  This was obvious in the general election of May 2015 when official party policy endorsed a balanced fiscal budget.  However, he achieved one change that would undo the power of the center-right in the party.  He introduced one-person-one-vote for the party’s leaders.

The failure to block this change indicates out out-of-touch was the center-right with the grass roots.  However, the Miliband voting reform still required that a leadership candidate obtain the endorsement of at least 35 MPs.  So marginalized were the social democratic MPs that the late-day Blairites assumed that 35 would be an insurmountable obstacle to a progressive leadership challenge.

In every leadership contest for a generation the “far left” (aka committed social democrats) of the party put forward a candidate.  In May 2015 this small group of social democratic insurrectionist MPs (no more than a dozen) faced a serious constrain.  Their most prominent members had either served as the sacrificial lambs previously or were not available (one that I had the honor of knowing, Michael Meacher, would soon die of a sudden illness).

Jeremy Corbyn received one more than the minimum endorsements, making the cut literally at the last minute before the deadline.  At least two of his endorsers came from the center-right after much pleading from progressive MPs that the contest should have at least the appearance of inclusiveness.  The campaign proved remarkably policy focused.

Corbyn opposed austerity, and his three opponents endorsed it with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Corbyn opposed renewing the UK nuclear program; the other three endorsed renewal.  Corbyn advocated renationalization of the railroads and eliminating university fees.  His opponents ridiculed both policies.  Corbyn endorsed union rights without qualification, while his opponents adopted various degrees of equivocation.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.  At a meeting in September 2015 the results were announced.  Corbyn came first among four candidates with 59.9%, far ahead of his runner-up at 19.5%.  The most blatantly Blairite candidate came last with less than 5%.  Over 400,000 voted, three-quarters of the membership.

The Labour Party, social democratic at the base, elected a social democratic as leader for the first time in over thirty years with overwhelming support from unions and working class members.  The PLP remained overwhelmingly center-right.  The social democratic MPs had begrudgingly, if passively supported the party leadership under Blair and his short-lived successor Gordon Brown (even as the purge of progressives continued).  The leaders center-right quickly made it clear that Corbyn would find no loyalty or even civility from them.  The intra-party war began immediately upon Corbyn’s election.

Deposing Corbyn without an Election

Corbyn’s overwhelming victory among Labour Party members left center-right opponents with no obvious strategy for deposing him.  They did not accept his leadership, but they could not remove him through established party procedures.  By necessity they sought a combination of strategy and tactics that they hoped would force him to resign.

They could not force his resignation through debate over political issues because his policies reflected the views of the grassroots.  This left the anti-Corbyn MPs with only one tactic, to discredit Corbyn personally.  The tactic would prove an extremely difficult to implement successfully.  While Corbyn has faults as all humans do, like Bernie Sanders he suffers from none of those flaws that usually discredit a politician.

He lies modestly without a hint of corruption.  The closest his enemies have come to a case of corruption was the revelation that Corbyn supporter t-shirts were made by sweatshop labor, which he quickly denounced.  In one of those ironies no one could make up, Britain’s most right-wing newspaper burst with outrage over “poverty-stricken workers” (the support group distributing the shirts quickly changed supplier).  Try as they might, Corbyn’s opponents have found no evidence of sexual misconduct, that other variety of politician-slaying scandals (except in France).

The discrediting campaign shifted focus to allegations of “unelectability”.  This proved ineffective across the Labour grass roots, because electoral outcomes during the Corbyn months have been sufficiently ambiguous to produce no clear message.  However, the aggressiveness of the person attacks took a quantum leap after the English and Welsh electorates (but not the Scots or the Northern Irish) voted “out” in the referendum on EU membership.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who had bolted the Labour Party in the 1980s as part of a right-wing exodus, denounced Corbyn as “dismal, lifeless, spineless”.  A few days later prominent economist and editor-in-chief of the Guardian Sunday edition (The Observer) Will Hutton informed his readers that Corbyn was not a social democratic, but an ideologue committed to the overthrown of capitalism, not to its reform.

Various decisions by Labour Party’s politically split National Executive Committee make it unclear as to the number of eligible voters in the unfolding leadership contest.  None-the-less, polling suggests that Corbyn will achieve re-election with a strong majority.  Whether this is true, his opponents appear to believe it a strong possibility.  In response a major donor to the Labour Party funded a court case to have Corbyn excluded from the leadership race, a case being heard as I write (see discussion on the putatively neutral website of Labour MPs).

End of an Era?

The current leadership contest is not a re-run of 2015.  During last year’s leadership contest no one in the Labour Party realized the revolutionary impact of the Miliband voting reforms.  The surge of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn and his overwhelming victory came as surprise to opponents and supporters.

For an early campaign appearance his major strategist (John McDonnell now his shadow chancellor) urged booking a small room of less than 50 chairs to avoid embarrassment should few arrive.  Over 500 Labour Party members appeared at the provincial university venture, which required Corbyn to speak outdoors with a megaphone.

This time both sides come prepared for the conflict that will solidify in the Labour Party the new era of resurgent social democracy, or re-establish center-right leadership of the Blair period.  Should the later occur, on the surface British politics will return to a neoliberal consensus across the parties of England and Wales (but not Scotland where the social democratic Scottish National Party rules like a colossus).

On the assumption that legal challenges do not exclude Corbyn from the contest, the center-right campaign will be slanderous, venal and petty.  The fundamental source of this political degeneration is not the character failings on the anti-Corbyn forces (though these are many).  The center-right campaign will take this form because it cannot on peril of certain defeat enter into political debate, its fatal weakness.

In contrast, the Corbyn campaign will take the cliché-ridden “high ground”, stressing policies, not personalities.  Many of Corbyn’s devoted supporters have and will launch savage tweets against his opponent Owen Smith.  Corbyn himself and those in his campaign will avoid such trivialities.

Corbyn has the winning card and will play it repeatedly: that he and his shadow cabinet are social democrats.

John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and author of The Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy. Follow him Twitter: @johnweeks41.

Boycott the Rio Olympics to Defend Brazilian Democracy

By Thomas Palley

Reposted from Thomas Palley’s blog.

Terrible anti-democratic events are now unfolding in Brazil with the constitutional coup against President Dilma Rousseff, organized through a cooked-up impeachment trial.

The impeachment coup represents a naked attempt by corrupt neoliberal elements to seize power in Brazil. Make no mistake: it is a threat to democracy and social progress in Brazil, Latin America, and even the global community at large.

If Brazilian voices concur, the world should respond by boycotting the Rio Olympics scheduled for this August.

Background: the capture and perversion of Brazil’s war on corruption

The constitutional coup against President Rousseff represents a capture and perversion of Brazil’s war on political corruption. As is widely known, Brazil has been rocked by revelations of massive corruption centered on its national oil company, Petrobras, but extending far beyond.

Political corruption is endemic in Brazil and is a curse upon the country. As a consequence, governing without recourse to corruption is almost impossible as bribery and kickbacks have historically been the only way of passing legislation in Brazil’s fractured Congress.

To their shame, some members of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) government under President Lula succumbed to this curse. However, the PT’s involvement is a small fraction of the overall scandal, which infects the entirety of right-wing and business opposition parties far more extensively.

The opposition parties saw both threat and opportunity in the corruption scandal. The threat was exposure of their own pervasive corruption. The opportunity was the possibility of using the economic recession and the PT’s tainting to overthrow President Rousseff, thereby capturing government, blocking their own prosecution for corruption, and putting a stop to the social progress and reversal of income inequality the PT has achieved.

Zero evidence of Rousseff’s corruption

But try as they might, the opposition has found no evidence of corruption on the part of President Rousseff, something that may be unique in the presidential history of Brazil. A cynic might even say that is the real root of Rousseff’s political failure, as her honesty has likely turned the system against her.

Lacking evidence of corruption, the opposition has turned to impeaching Rousseff on grounds of violating technical budget laws in her prior term (2011-14), when she used temporary budget financing from the national development bank. This practice is known as “pedaling” and has been used before by governments, including that of President Fernando Cardoso. They were never sanctioned, yet Cardoso and his party now support impeachment.

The practice of budget pedaling was declared illegal by the Federal Court of Accounts in April 2015 and the Rousseff administration immediately moved to pay off its pedaling debts.

But rather than seeing that judgment as definitively clarifying permissible budget practice, the right-wing and business opposition that controls Brazil’s Congress has contrived to impeach President Rousseff for past budget technicality violations.

As evidenced by their own past budget practices and thievery, the impeachment is not aimed at correcting and preventing fiscal misappropriation. Instead, the goal is to exploit the decision to gain power that they could not secure at the ballot box.

Coup of the corrupt and vicious

The most egregious aspect of the process is that the impeachment has been led by persons already convicted of corruption or facing imminent conviction, along with vicious authoritarians and retrograde neoliberals.

Congressman Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of the Brazil’s lower house, has just been ordered to step down for taking $40 million in bribes.

Senator Renan Calheiros, President of Brazil’s upper house, has a history of being disciplined for ethical violations and is currently under investigation for taking numerous major kickback payments.

Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who was an outspoken lower house supporter of impeachment, dedicated his vote to Brazil’s past military dictatorship and the colonel who tortured Rousseff in the 1970s when she fought back against the dictatorship.

Interim president, Michel Temer, has already been disciplined for campaign finance violations that render him ineligible to run for office. He is also under investigation as part of the Petrobras scandal.

Temer, who is not a member of the PT, has appointed a viciously neoliberal cabinet. That means Brazil, which elected President Rousseff of the Workers’ Party in 2014, now has a neoliberal government.

The agriculture minister is Blairo Maggi, an agribusiness billionaire known as the “soy king”, who is said to have destroyed more rain forest than any living person.

The minister of justice, Alexandre de Moraes, has been an open advocate of police repression in the state of Sao Paulo, and he has also now been given charge of the human rights ministry.

The minister of institutional security (which includes Brazil’s CIA) is General Etchegoyen, whose father was identified by Brazil’s Truth Commission as responsible for murder and torture during the dictatorship. Etchegoyen dismissed those charges as “frivolous”.

Lastly, the minister of finance is Henrique Meirelles, former CEO of Bank of Boston and an advocate of the most extreme neoliberal financial policies.

This ugly cast of characters makes crystal clear what is happening in Brazil.

Boycott the Olympics

The impeachment coup represents a grave threat to democracy and social progress in Brazil and Latin America. Democratic civil society in Brazil urgently needs the world’s help. If opponents of the coup call for a boycott of the Rio Olympics, the global community of democracies should immediately sign on.

An Olympic boycott could be a beautiful and powerful action. It can brilliantly spotlight the culpability and corruption of the coup conspirators, while sending a global message in support of democracy.

Everyone knows Olympics and World Cups are both sporting and political events. Governments use these events to gain legitimacy, which means the Rio Olympics now risks conferring tacit approval on the coup against President Rousseff.

History provides evidence of past failures to help, and those failures illustrate the need for present action. The greatest failure was the 1936 Berlin Olympics that gave tacit to approval to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In 1978 the global community failed Argentina by participating in the World Cup at a time when Argentina’s dictators were brutally torturing and murdering Argentines by the thousands.

Stop the revival of anti-democratic Latin American politics

The stakes are high. Brazil is being closely watched by anti-democratic reactionary forces throughout Latin America. The global community must act vigorously to stop Brazil’s constitutional coup dead in its tracks.

Failure to do so will condemn Brazilian democracy and send a signal throughout the region legitimizing right-wing anti-democratic politics. That risks reviving the tragic cycle of political violence that has so injured Latin America in the recent past. Boycotting the Rio Olympics might help prevent that outcome.