Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance, who stood as a socialist republican and anti-Unionist candidate in Bermondsey in the General Election, makes his political assessment of the Corbyn campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party.





The fall and rise of Social Democracy and the re-division of the left

The incredible and unbelievable arrival of the movement to elect Jeremy Corbyn MP to be leader of the Labour Party has taken all the left by surprise. It is a happy shock and one to welcome. Its impact is yet to become clear but no doubt it will have a significant impact on the socialist movement. The Corbyn movement should not be seen as an isolated event but as part of a chain of events which reflect the course of the class struggle.

This blog will be a bit sketchy and I hope to follow up with a longer article. The question for us is how to make sense of the bigger picture and how will this change the political trajectory and prospects for the left in the UK. The Corbyn movement has to be seen in a longer term and short term context. So I will consider the period from the early 1990s to 2010, which covers the rise and fall of New Labour. Then I will look at the short term movement from the 2014 Scottish referendum to the 2015 general election and the rise of the Corbyn movement as a reaction to the Tory victory.

Liberal reformers, social democrats and communists

For the purpose of analysis I will use three terms – liberal democracy, social democracy and communism (Marxism). I will identify the Right wing of Labour as liberals, liberal reformers or liberal democrats. I will use the term ‘Social Democracy’ to refer to those who support some form of parliamentary democracy, public ownership including nationalisation, the welfare state, progressive taxation etc. This could be identified with the Labour left. Finally ‘Communism’ is those who want capitalism abolished on a global scale by world revolution. I would identify this with the original CPGB and the Trotskyists such as the SWP, the Militant Tendency now Socialist Party, and the old WRP and IMG.

There is more to these ideas than these brief indicators but this is sufficient for this article. For these purposes I am not interested in the debate over who are the True Communists or the True Social Democrats.

Labour 1981-1997

The working class movement has identified Labour with social democracy. But the situation is more complex. In the early 1980s the Labour Party was an all class popular front of liberals, social democrats and a communist fringe. It was always wedded to the British constitution and the practice of the Crown-in-Parliament or the Westminster system as it is called. It was the peculiar British form of social democracy with the 1945 Social Monarchy as a reference point. The Communist Party’s ‘British Road to Socialism’ was the clearest formulation of its strategy

1980-1997 saw the defeat of Social Democracy and the take over by the liberal reformers led by Blair and Brown. Labour became New Labour and social democracy was marginalised and the communist fringe driven out. It was only a short step for the New Labour liberals to embrace the neo-liberal project. Social democracy, sometimes called Old Labour, was made irrelevant to the New Labour Party.

The Left Project

The triumph of New Labour in 1997-1999 and the marginalisation of Social Democracy in the Labour Party (and the absence of the liquidated CPGB) led some on the left to seek realignments outside the Labour Party. The defensive position of the left in retreat produced the alliance of social democracy and communism. The united front formed around a national social democratic programme.

However the process interconnected with the national question and the arrival of the Scottish parliament. In England a section of the left formed the Socialist Labour Party (minus SWP and Socialist Party) and in Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party emerged from those active in the anti-poll tax movement. The Left Project divided in two – British and Scottish. We now had a British Road and a Scottish Road. Initially, neither of these two Left projects gave much concern to political democracy or republicanism. But the national question forced the Scottish left to rethink  these two issues.

The two Left projects have not so far been successful. The Socialist Labour Party, led by Scargill, failed and was replaced by the Socialist Alliance, Respect and now TUSC and Left Unity. Across the Scottish border, the SSP was the most successful aided by the advent of the Scottish parliament. But the SSP split and the Scottish left was derailed or demoralised.

On reflection these two projects might be called English and Scottish with the proviso that the English project sees itself as British. In ‘Britishness’ it sees internationalism and in Scottishness merely nationalism. By 2005, after the Iraq war, Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party were perhaps the best representatives of these trends.

The 2008 crisis and the end of New Labour

New Labour was popular in 1997 after defeating the Tories. By 2003 with the Iraq war disillusion had set in. The 2008 financial crisis was the beginning of the end of New Labour. The 2010 general election defeat registered its decline. Afterwards, Ed Miliband defeated his openly Blairite brother, David, because he turned to the left. It was the first signs that Social Democracy was making a come back in the Labour Party.

This is not to have illusions in Ed Miliband. He was the New Labour continuity candidate but New Labour in decline could only continue by appearing to distance himself from New Labour. We now had five years of Mili-Blair New Labour or One Nation (i.e. State) Labour. If Miliband had won then the trade union bureaucracy would have accepted this version of New Labour as the new normal. But he lost and the Tories were back waving the  anti-trade union stick.

The economic crisis made Social Democracy more popular but not yet in the Labour Party. It appeared through the Occupy movement, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and, if bizarrely, in the politics of UKIP but in a right wing racist form. The parliamentary Labour Party remained more or less opposed to social democracy. But it is now clear the rank and file membership had shifted and was now no longer prepared to accept New Labour or its degenerate forms.

From the Scottish referendum to the general election

The 2014 referendum was the most important political event the last decade. It took the national question not only into the consciousness of the Scottish people but into England, Wales and Ireland. In Scotland RIC put the Scottish Left back into national politics after the setback from the SSP split. It drew a sharper political demarcation between the monarchist SNP and the republican RIC movement. Had Scotland voted Yes this issue would become a central debate in the new Scotland.

However it also re-divided the Left in England into Unionist and Anti-Unionist. The former supported a No vote and the latter supported a Yes vote. A few stood on the fence. The important point is that Anti-Unionism is not simply a Scottish issue. The Scottish left had allies in England. Anti-Unionism was a focal point for realignment an Anglo-Scottish Anti-Unionist left versus an Anglo-Scottish British or Unionist left.

The impact of the Scottish referendum has to begin to redefine the Left Project in Scotland. It is being redefined in democratic terms. So on one side of the barricades is Labourism and Unionism and on the other is Republicanism and Anti-Unionism. Working class activists in Scotland and England are to be found on both sides of the barricades. This suggests there is a basis for a new internationalism between progressive democratic forces in England and Scotland.

In the 2015 general election I stood in Bermondsey as the first Anti-Unionist Republican Socialist candidate in England to make this point. The purpose of this was to identify a politics in England as an alternative to the Labour-Unionism of the British left in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Left Unity. In England Left Unionism is the problem not the answer.

The Corbyn movement

How does the Corbyn movement impact on the struggle over the social democratic programme between the Labourites and Republicans? First it shows that social democracy is reviving as a working class response to neo-liberal Tory-New Labour alliance. It is no coincidence that on June 20 there was a massive anti-Austerity demonstration in London with an estimated 250,000. There is no doubt that the militant mood it represented has fed into the Labour leadership.

However, if Corbyn wins it will reshape the Left Project. First in England it will make TUSC and Left Unity redundant. These projects will have to adopt an alternative to Labourism or shrink as their activists rejoin the social democratic Labour Party. Second in Scotland it will force the Scottish left to define its politics more clearly as a purely Scottish project or an internationalist one.

The Labour Party is such a big ship that it will pull every social democratic worker in its wake, not least the Scottish Labour Party, if it seems to be going in the right direction. So the Left Project is either a busted flush in the wake of the Corbyn movement or it is an opportunity for the creation of an independent alternative around the politics of Republicanism, anti-unionist Internationalism, Socialism and the environment.


Steve Freeman, 27.8.15


also see the following articles by Steve Freeman