Democratic Socialism in the UK: YDSA, Corbyn’s Labour and the UK General Election

L-R: YDSA Co-chair Kristen Cervero, former YDSA co-chair Ajmal Alami, Labour MP John McDonnell, and former DSA NPC member Christian Bowe.

In September, YDSA’s former co-chair Ajmal Alami attended the Labour Party conference. Now, with the UK election fast approaching, he weighs in on this crucial moment for the UK left — and what the US left can learn from it.

The fight for a Labour government

With a general election in the UK tomorrow, Labour party members have been canvassing in numbers dwarfing 2017’s efforts to elect a Labour government then. Alongside the effort in the UK, DSA and YDSA members and chapters have been phonebanking to get in touch with voters and to encourage volunteers to canvass. NYU YDSA held a phonebank session alongside Labour International, and individual Y/DSA members across the country have started signing up through Momentum’s phonebanking system as well.

Just as in America with Sanders, this is no traditional election — this time, the question of class is on the table. For a decade now, Tory austerity and privatization has led to rising rates of poverty in the UK with the introduction of universal credit (a “universal” but means-tested aid system), the slow stealth privatization of the National Health Service, and other cuts. The rise of Corbyn and his Labour represents the merger of many movements into one — such as the anti-Iraq war protests of last decade and the student strikes over tuition hikes — moments where the British people began to reject the neoliberal order and its sinister logic, whether it’s Tony Blaire’s New Labour, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or the current Tory government.

Should they win, Labour is prepared to enact its manifesto on day one in government. At its recent annual conference, Labour passed some of its most ambitious party positions on various issues: a Green New Deal-type plan to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 as a part of their push for a “Green Industrial Revolution,” introducing a four-day work week while still maintaining wage rates, doing away with prescription charges within the NHS, and more. Their vision for government can be found in their manifesto, which includes a detailed plan for funding their transformative agenda.

For the past two years, Young Labour (the youth section of the Labour Party) has invited leaders from YDSA to come and speak at their party conferences, fostering a solidaristic relationship between the two organizations. I attended last year and this year as former co-chair, along with Kristen Cervero, our current co-chair. Because YDSA formally left the IUSY (the youth affiliate of the Socialist International) at our past summer convention, we should especially seek to strengthen our ties with the Labour party as they fight for — and soon hopefully under — a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, just as we wish to with a Sanders presidency, and start to renew our socialist internationalism. In practice, I believe that YDSA should seek to become a formal sister organization to Young Labour.

Labour Party Conference

Organizers put on a variety of events at the Labour Party conference, from Cuban and Venezuelan solidarity rallies to panels on the struggle for socialism in America and the UK. Most notable at these rallies and panels was the enthusiasm shown by members in directly relating these discussions back to the work they’re doing within the party to make Labour a fighting force on different fronts. The resurgence of a socialist culture within Labour that we’ve witnessed since Corbyn became party leader has proven how worthwhile it was that the socialists of older traditions like him and John McDonnell, among others, stuck out the wilderness years in order to catalyze a new movement for socialism — very much like Sanders has in America.

Green New Deal

American politics has made its own impression on members of the Labour Party. Organizers put forth two different composites (resolutions) to push for a Green New Deal, binding Labour to introduce legislation similar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s if in power. In the end, these two motions to back a Green New Deal were debated on the floor, with Labour For a Green New Deal committing to decarbonization by 2030 and the other not including the specific decarbonization year.

Journalist Ellie Mae O’Haegen described the votes in the Guardian

“The motions had a tricky journey to the conference floor. On one hand, the GMB union, which represents thousands of workers in the fossil-fuel industry, felt it could not support a 2030 target without a credible transition plan for its members. On the other, Labour for a Green New Deal, a grassroots organisation run on a voluntary basis by young Labour members, felt that the target was non-negotiable, because of the urgency of the situation.

And so two separate motions were debated, both were won, and in the end, neither contradicted the other. Instead, the GMB motion could be seen as a challenge to the Labour party and its grassroots activists to come up with a concrete plan to meet the 2030 target. The fact that both motions passed gives the party wriggle room to respond… 

GMB member Joseph Ghayouba spoke passionately about the miners’ strike, a scarring collective memory for the union movement, and a reminder of what happens when governments bring industries to a close without a plan for those working within them. This should be taken as an incentive for activists and unions to work together to flesh out the specifics of policy to ensure that workers, and the unions that represent them, are protected. But the thing that unites organised labour and young activists is a fundamental understanding that the system is broken. A Green New Deal is the opportunity for them to create something new.”

Brexit

Labour’s position on Brexit was also debated on the conference floor, between two composites on whether to campaign to remain, or for the party leadership to craft the best possible deal to leave the European Union that will be voted up or down by party members at a one-day special conference. Of these two, the latter won, and though while it gives Labour a somewhat flexible position that allows them to hold another referendum if the deal they create isn’t popular, it may present a challenge to winning the deindustrialized heartlands, where working class constituencies have witnessed firsthand the devastation of decline that the city of London didn’t experience in exactly the same way, given the fact that it transformed into a hub for finance capital in the shift away from industry. Even though Labour wants to create a deal first and foremost, opening the option to a second referendum overriding a previous mandate where much of the heartlands voted to leave complicates things.

Corbyn and others are also presented with different paths to building socialism depending on whether they remain in or leave the EU. If they leave the EU, many possibilities are on the table with regard to trade and trade deals, as they will most likely no longer be in the EU’s customs union (the institution that enables one of the EU’s four freedoms, the freedom of capital to move freely across borders of each EU nation-state). Labour will have to negotiate new deals with the EU and other countries to ensure that they’ll still be able to trade goods to their best ability that won’t hamper their economy. Most importantly, though, if they leave the EU they will gain the economic sovereignty that will permit them to fully nationalize industries, as the creation of state monopolies isn’t permitted within the EU, and also to restructure finance to a greater extent than while remaining an EU member state.

Should they remain in the EU and their deal fail, Labour will have to be ready to escape much of the same challenges faced by Syriza in Greece once coming to power, given they won’t have this economic sovereignty. Even while attempting to create a “lite” framework for their radical proposals, they will still be challenging the neoliberal hegemony of the European Union, and we should expect the most resistant pushback possible from the EU in attempts to prevent Labour from implementing their various national programs. Of course, a challenge to neoliberalism is very different than a rupture from neoliberalism – the question of remain is if Labour can win the war of attrition that capital will wage against it.

Socialist revival?

The Labour Party’s membership and culture have seen a rebirth of socialism once more; there are many lessons for us in DSA and YDSA to learn — and potentially emulate — from their experience. Of course, these aren’t things we can simply transfer one-to-one, given that we’re an organization (but one with mass political “character” and tens of thousands of members) and not a mass political party on the scale of Labour, currently Europe’s largest political party.

In the lead-up to Corbyn’s election, the extra-party group Momentum played a key role in electing Corbyn and pro-Corbyn members to party leadership and organizing for party reforms. Much of the Labour left have found their home within Momentum, using it as a tool to turn members out for elections and organizing for conference, but also a place to exchange ideas and to debate amongst the party’s left. Though Momentum is not the only hub for this sort of activity (there are other groups as well), it is perhaps the most significant of them given their impact on the party these past few years. In a way, these party groups fulfill the same roles that caucuses do in DSA, organizing for elections and serving other internal functions.

As a caucus member and partisan myself, I believe that DSA should be moving towards a party model and figuring out how we would create one. What’s allowed Labour to have immense power is not only Corbyn, but the fact that there is a coherent ideological Left backing him within the party and closely tied to his leadership. In America, this is something we deeply lack with Bernie and his presidential campaign. Though many noted socialists are crafting his policy and creating campaign strategy, our missing link to coordinating with him is the fact that we aren’t unified by a party. This will also make it easier to defend a Corbyn mandate in government than a Sanders mandate if he is elected President.

If elected, we should expect immense pushback against Corbyn. Labour Party members must be ready to organize to defend their newly earned mandate in their communities, but especially on the shop floor like never before. Capital has never ceded power easily for social democratic demands and planning — and surely capital has as many plans for day one of a Labour government as Labour itself does.

As Ralph Milliband wrote in “The Coup in Chile,” Marx also noted at the time of the Paris Commune, electoral victory only gives one the right to rule, not the power to rule. Unless one takes it for granted that this right to rule cannot, in these circumstances, ever be transmuted into the power to rule, it is at this point that the Left confronts complex questions which it has so far probed only very imperfectly: it is here that slogans, rhetoric and incantation have most readily been used as substitutes for the hard grind of realistic political cogitation. From this point of view, Chile offers some extremely important pointers and “lessons” as to what is, or perhaps what is not, to be done.

If Labour is elected this Thursday, they will be burdened with the double task of defending their democratic right to rule and organizing to transform it into a new mandate that grants them the power to rule. If they aren’t able to win a majority this Thursday, not all is lost. A mass movement has been built, Labour has grown to become Europe’s largest political party, and Corbyn as leader of the opposition has now outlasted three Tory Prime Ministers. Labour has already been winning a war of political attrition for years now — reforging the strength and consciousness of the working class is a long-term project, and regardless of what comes next, Labour has relaid the foundations for socialism that were nearly paved over by neoliberalism. This is only step one.


Ajmal Alami is the former co-chair of YDSA (2017-2019) and current co-chair of the southeast Regional Organizing Committee. He studies at Virginia Tech, and is a member of the College For All committee.

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