The vote on the Tories’ welfare reform bill, which would see £12 billion cut from the welfare budget, has revealed the depths of servility to which the Blairite leaders of the Labour Party like Harriet Harman are prepared to stoop. At the same time, it has highlighted the contrast between the Blairite leadership candidates and Corbyn.
The vote on the Tories’ welfare reform bill, which would see £12 billion cut from the welfare budget, has revealed the depths of servility to which the Blairite leaders of the Labour Party like Harriet Harman are prepared to stoop. This issue has burst open the abscess at the heart of the Labour Party leadership, exposing the depth of rottenness that has set in: 184 members shamefully abstained on the Tory proposals. Meanwhile a fifth of the parliamentary party, 48 MPs, including many of the 2015 intake, rejected the leadership’s stance in one of the biggest Labour rebellions in recent years.
Labour leaders in the pocket of the Tories
The welfare reform bill that the Tories are currently pushing through parliament will see hundreds of thousands thrown into poverty overnight, whilst some of the poorest will be cast into penury. Disgracefully the Labour Party leadership have abstained themselves from putting up even a semblance of resistance. The role of opposition has fallen to others like the SNP, with 20-year-old SNP MP Mhairi Black giving an inspiring maiden speech in parliament against the Tory welfare proposals.
Instead of opposing Osborne’s cuts, “acting leader” Harriet Harman promised that she would “listen to public opinion” on benefit reform and instructed the Parliamentary Labour Party to abstain at the second reading of the bill. This “public opinion” that Harriet Harman has supposedly been listening to has been lifted straight from the pages of the Tory press. In the parliamentary bubble of Westminster, researchers and think tanks – whose job it is to apparently enquire as to the state of “public opinion” – abound. It is surprising then that Harman’s research seems to have gone no further than the latest episode of “Benefits Street” or the bile-filled pages of the Daily Mail.
It serves as an illustration of how far from the working class base of the party the Labour leaders have strayed when they claim to support “working families”; and yet at the same time they fail to see – or do not care to see – that it will be precisely this constituency that will suffer the most. Housing benefit, 90% of claimants for which are in work, will become completely inaccessible to the under-21s. The prospects of young adults being able to escape the family home and forge an independent existence will become an ever more distant dream. Cuts to tax credits alone will be estimated to hit 45% of working families. Amongst the most callous attacks are those aimed at the sick and disabled: ESA will receive a 30% cut. To all of this, and worse, the Labour Party leaders passively gave their criminal consent.
However, such treachery has served to sharpen the deep divisions that exist within the party. Whilst 184 Labour MPs effectively crossed the floor on this bill, another 48 correctly voted against. For the Blairites at the top of the party, this has opened a crisis that could not have exploded at a worse time. With the leadership contest in full swing, one candidate is pulling ahead in internal opinion polls and is ahead by a country mile with the general public: Jeremy Corbyn. Of all four candidates, only self-declared socialist and veteran anti-war activist, Corbyn, stood against the party line and with the working class. For the other three candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – their behaviour at this reading of the welfare bill should read as their epitaph: “when the Tories trampled the poorest and weakest underfoot, I abstained.”
Burnham’s insoluble contradiction
The Tory benches, for their part, have been crowing at the spectacle of the “sensible” Labour politicians standing aside and letting them get on with their dirty work. However, such celebration would be premature. The ruling class require the right-wing Labour leaders to maintain their stature in the eyes of working people, for in the future they must inevitably fall back on the ability of these leaders to marshal the labour movement through safe channels. However, as the Labour leaders heap discredit upon discredit over their own heads, the ruling class may find themselves resting on a vacuum as these grey, “respectable” Labour politicians find themselves despised by the public and by their own party members.
In an attempt to disentangle himself from the uncomfortable position that his behaviour has cast him in, Burnham immediately followed up Labour’s abysmal display with a most remarkable statement, “we cannot simply abstain(!) on a Bill that will penalise working families and increase child poverty”. This merely minutes after abstaining on precisely that very Bill! Betrayal quickly descended into farce. The response on social media, from ordinary party members and from the public, was immediate and relentlessly sardonic. A typical comment read: “I didn’t really get anything from all that waffle other than the fact that you have folded. What is the point? So, the thanks we get for voting for you, and other Labour MPs, is you completely disregard what any of us want and continue in your efforts to woo the Tory voters.”
Amongst the numerous comments, no small number came from people who claimed they previously intended to vote for Burnham but would now be switching to Corbyn in disgust. Clearly the welfare abstention has pushed the simmering anger at the aloof and disconnected party leaders to boiling point. Burnham, in particular, had developed an undeserved reputation as being in some way on the left, owed in no small part to the union leaders. Unite, in particular, have served to sow confusion by recommending a second preference vote for Burnham, amidst rumours that he was favoured by Len McCluskey himself. Now Burnham must be completely repudiated by the union leaders, and the campaign for Corbyn must be stepped up a thousand-fold.
Careerists and carpetbaggers
In a sign of how rattled the party leadership have become at the now very real prospect of a Corbyn victory, Tony Blair himself was wheeled out to intervene. In an act of desperation he viciously laid into Corbyn and the party’s left flank, even suggesting that anyone who harbours left wing ideals in their heart “ought to get a heart transplant”! The irony is that Blair is attacking the very wing of the party that defends the meagre reforms won under his aegis.
Owen Jones authored a comment piece on this irony. He ends however with a lament: “it is the left that is championing New Labour’s legacy, trying desperately to save it from the Tories. What a tragedy that many of Blair and Brown’s supporters do not want to do the same.” For us, as Marxists, we must note first that not only do we not “champion” Blair’s legacy – we completely repudiate it! However, there is no hint of tragedy in the behaviour of the Blairites. Rather, their behaviour now is entirely consistent with the interests they uphold. These careerists have always openly sided with the bourgeoisie and accept capitalism from start to finish.
What has changed is not the Blairites, but rather the epoch itself. At the height of the Blair years capitalism was experiencing a protracted boom. As such, it was possible for the ruling class to toss some crumbs down to the poor whilst the bosses and bankers continued to get marvellously rich. Now, however, that ceases to be the case and the system has entered a chronic condition of decline and disintegration. Instead, permanent austerity and crisis are the order of the day. Where once there were reforms, now there are only cuts and counter-reforms.
It is not the poor or benefit claimants who have created this crisis. Rather it is the supposed “wealth creators” at whose temple Blair and Brown worshiped: the bankers and capitalists. This class – which on top of the astronomical sums that they received in “bailouts” and are now receiving in generous handouts and tax cuts from the latest budget – are the real parasitic excrescence within society. The Blairites always stood on the side of the rich against the poor and the working class. Now that abscess within the party is clearly exposed and out in the open – and now we are presented with the opportunity to clear them out entirely.
Back Corbyn! Fight for socialism!
The Blairite creatures that currently dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party have made no secret of the fact they will refuse to serve under a Corbyn leadership. Others have openly talked about a coup or a right-wing split. In reality, there will be few tears shed by workers and youth if these right-wing careerists pack up and leave in search of a new arena for their pro-business ideas.
The trade union leaders must now throw their full weight behind the campaign to get Corbyn in as the next party leader. From here the party must be transformed from top to bottom, re-democratised and all the old Blairite cobwebs cleared out. If there is any attempt by the right-wing to sabotage a Corbyn-led Labour Party, then the unions must give their full backing to Corbyn and send the Blairites packing.
This, however, is not an end in itself. The crisis of reformism merely expresses a crisis of the capitalist system itself. Above all, the struggle for socialist ideas – based on the collective ownership and democratic control of the means of production as the only alternative to austerity – must be placed at the top of the agenda.