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THE day after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Labour conference the Financial Times ran an editorial headlined “Corbyn’s Labour cannot be trusted to govern.”
This was not mainly voting guidance for big city investors, it was more a declaration of war. With the spectre of a Corbyn government haunting the British political scene, it is a major worry how little discussion there is on the left about the kind of kickback to expect if a Corbyn government gets elected.
Such complacency is nothing new. Britain has long self-presented as the cradle of democracy and the home of gradualism, compromise and the small, neutral state. Up to now much of the British left has bought this story and embraced gradual change through the institutions.
The problem is the story is a myth. For a start it ignores the brutal history of slavery, colonialism and imperial war that have formed the basis of British capitalist development. But it turns reality on its head in other ways.
Universal suffrage came relatively late to these islands. Far from being handed down by an enlightened elite, it was the outcome of massive social struggles.
The democracy campaigners who assembled at Peterloo, the great Chartist protests or the demonstrations that forced the second reform act of 1867 were often savagely beaten, regularly deported and occasionally killed by a ruling class deeply hostile to the popular vote.
Most of the institutions of the British state predate democracy and were designed first to oppose it and then to limit its impact. Sensing the ultimate arrival of the popular vote, more far-sighted members of the ruling class worked hard to ensure that democracy wouldn’t threaten property and profits.
When universal suffrage was conceded at last in 1928, Parliament’s powers had been firmly restricted. The administration of the country was in the hands of permanent professional civil servants recruited from public schools and Oxbridge with a thousand ties to the status quo. Any popular control over the economy was regarded as an affront.
Little has changed since then. For three decades after the second world war limited government economic intervention was grudgingly accepted, but the last 40 years has been the history of elite pushback against this post-war crossing of red lines. Thatcherism led to the opposite: a multi-level corporate takeover of the state.
Parliament is surrounded by unelected institutions with tremendous power, firmly linked to corporate elites and structured to maintain the existing order. Some on the left argue that Thatcher’s re-engineering of the state provides a blueprint in reverse for Corbynism. But this is not comparing like with like.
Thatcherism and the neoliberal turn she led was about the retooling of capital accumulation, not a challenge to class power. The British capitalist class did well out of the post war mixed economy, but it responded to the 1970s crisis by adopting a more predatory model of profit making. Opening up the state to private capital was a crucial part of what has been called the “financialisation” of the economy.
No significant elements of the ruling class seriously resisted Thatcher’s economic and political programme. Why should they? As Thatcher adviser Alan Budd said, the programme was “a very, very good way to raise unemployment and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes.” What was not to like?
The kind of economic policies outlined in Corbyn’s conference speech involve something different. Not just a significant redistribution of wealth — that’s bad enough — but the hint of a challenge to management’s right to manage and a sharp change in British foreign policy. In the words of the FT “a full-scale reorganisation of the economy that takes as its guiding star policies that were deemed extreme even in the 1970s.”
If these policies were pursued they would involve not just a redirection of British capitalism but an assault on many things the modern British corporate class hold dear.
We need to be honest with ourselves. In these circumstances, talk of a non-aggression pact or peaceful co-existence is wishful thinking. If Corbyn’s programme of intervention in the economy at home and non-intervention in wars abroad remains intact it would be broadly unacceptable to the corporate elites, the Bank of England and the Civil Service — not to speak of the more coercive elements of the state.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader there have been attempts by elements of the state and the Establishment to push back. Generals have threatened non-co-operation, MI6 initially refused even to meet him, bankers have issued dire warnings about disruption to the economy, civil servants have circulated false rumours about his ill health and elements at the BBC have sought to undermine his leadership, in particular exaggerating claims of anti-semitism in Corbyn’s Labour.
The right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party have taken up many of these attacks with enthusiasm, claiming Corbyn is unfit to govern, a security risk, out of touch with popular opinion and recycling the absurd claims that he is anti-semitic.
These attacks have had a big impact, confusing the public and forcing concessions from the leadership. But they are just a taster of what will happen if a Corbyn government gets elected.
Then we have to expect a much more concerted campaign. One thing we can learn from Thatcher is how she fought the class war against the unions and the wider working population. As her adviser Maurice Saatchi explained, their approach was “hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting.”
Every major reform is going to have to be fought for, not just in Parliament but in the streets and in the workplaces by the unions and the wider movements. There is going to be a co-ordinated assault on the whole project. To have a chance of dealing with it, we need to be preparing the extraparliamentary movements and the extraparliamentary left right now.
Chris Nineham’s new book, The British State: A Warning is out on Zero books on October 25.
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