Sunday, 28 August 2016

Imperialism in the 21st century

A review of John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation and Capitalism's Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2016).

Over the last forty years, global capitalism has increasingly been shaped by the core tenets of neoliberalism. The neoliberal counter-revolution emerged as a response to the return of economic crisis in the 1970s, and to the power of working class and anti-colonial movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was geared towards the interests of wealthy and corporate elites, at the expense of the vast majority of working class and oppressed people worldwide. The divisions between the 1% and the 99% have become ever more acute, with the most extraordinary and ostentatious wealth for a tiny elite alongside hardship, insecurity and poverty for many people.

Cuts, privatisation, deregulation, trade liberalisation and outsourcing were all components of a wider political offensive. Consequently, exploitation has intensified, inequality has grown, and democracy has been hollowed out. This involved a massive effort to defeat trade-union opposition and break the resistance and organisations of the working class. Though largely successful in those terms, this capitalist offensive has fuelled economic crisis, social polarisation and a political backlash that takes various forms.

The rise of neoliberalism happened at the same time as capitalism expanded, and entrenched itself in new territories, becoming a truly dominant global system. The end of the Cold War gave particular impetus to the neoliberal mantras of free trade and globalisation, so that neoliberal policymaking has – with concerted pressure from supra-national institutions dominated by the interests of big capital in the Global North – become globally hegemonic.

This dominance was captured by Margaret Thatcher’s line, ‘there is no alternative’ in the 1980s and, a little later, by Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘the end of history’, suggesting that the upheavals of 1989-91 marked a final and conclusive victory for Western-style capitalism.

The capitalist crisis which unfolded from 2007/08 illustrated the failures of neoliberalism to resolve the deeper, long-term problems inherent in the system. Indeed, key elements of neoliberalism - like the growth of a deregulated finance sector and the increasing dependence on outsourcing - were vital factors in sharpening, deepening and prolonging that crisis. John Smith dubs this ‘capitalism’s final crisis’, both because he argues there is no plausible exit from the crisis (within the confines of capitalism) and because of the ecological dimension of capitalist crisis, which threatens the planet’s future.

Smith’s book, which compresses many years of research into a little over three hundred pages, is, first and foremost, an account of contemporary global capitalism in the wake of decades of neoliberalism. A British-based Marxist and activist, Smith has previously published very little (this is his first book) but he draws on his own extensive PhD research and on an even longer period of researching, and thinking about, the main issues. It contains a formidable array of evidence, with an assured grasp of the economic data, to support the main arguments.

Smith eloquently conveys the huge extent to which capitalism has changed as a result of neoliberal trends. The book is genuinely global in its focus, examining the main global trends and documenting the impact of a Western-dominated (and grossly unequal) system on the poorer parts of the world. It is also a savage indictment of the phenomena he describes, graphically revealing the human misery associated with the appalling working conditions - poverty pay, long hours, unsafe conditions and insecurity - dominating the lives of millions of working-class people.

Smith also develops a particular argument about global exploitation and inequality. He demonstrates with a wealth of data that the whole system has increasingly come to depend on the ‘super exploitation’ of impoverished workers in the ‘developing world’.

This exploitation generates massive surplus value for corporations based in the more developed global North. He provocatively argues that even many Marxist writers have underestimated the scale and significance of such ‘super exploitation’ for the global system, failing to give proper attention to the role of outsourcing in capitalist profitability. He offers a wealth of evidence that outsourcing, which involves corporations moving their operations to poorer countries with cheap labour to maximise profits, has grown enormously, and that neoliberal capitalism depends upon it.

It follows that not only has the working class grown globally, but also that the working class in the poorer nations has become more integral to the fortunes of global capitalism, and, therefore, more integral to the prospects for working-class struggle and emancipation. Neoliberalism’s restructuring of capitalism and recomposition of the global working class consequently has implications for anti-capitalist resistance and the challenge of re-building working-class strength. The book’s focus is largely on working-class people as the objects of social and economic transformation, but Smith clearly sees those victims of exploitation and neoliberal upheaval as the agents of social change too.

This is a very wide-ranging and ambitious book, but the opening chapter on the global commodity proves to be a shrewd entrance point to an exploration of several interrelated themes. The fact that today’s mass commodities rest upon super exploitation in the South – hidden from consumers’ view – is Smith’s starting point. He writes, in some detail, about three exemplary global commodities in twenty-first-century capitalism: the T-shirt, the Apple iPhone, and coffee.

Smith exposes the highly exploitative, and at times horrific, working conditions behind these commodities, for example the extremely low-paid work in dangerous conditions undertaken by mainly young, female workers in the garments sweatshops of Bangladesh. It is demonstrated beyond doubt that powerful corporations based in the North, especially the US, are the beneficiaries of this exploitation, and are responsible for the terrible conditions endured by workers. The relationship between capitalism in the ‘core countries’ and the labour done by these workers is carefully unpicked.

This vivid sketching of key commodities – chosen as exemplars, not for any exceptional reasons – brings to life what could threaten to be rather dry, economic material, humanising the economic processes under discussion. It is supported, later in the book, by analysis of labour conditions in the Global South: a very revealing interrogation of the everyday working conditions of vast numbers of workers, and how those conditions feed the profits of major corporations.

The massive increase in female workers - and their integration into the market and the acute nature of their exploitation – is an especially important element of this transformation in the working class. Smith is also astute about the role of migrant labour in contemporary capitalism, exploring how wealthier states (and their business elites) profit from migrant workers at the same time as using immigration controls to police the boundaries between the Global North and the Global South, which helps sustain inequalities.

One of Smith’s main arguments is that outsourcing is at the heart of corporate globalisation. Furthermore, he suggests that this has too often been overlooked as an absolutely central part of neoliberalism. When viewed as a global phenomenon, he argues, it becomes obvious that outsourcing has been integral to capital’s exploitation of labour in the neoliberal era. Corporations based in the North have increasingly focused on cheap Southern labour – sometimes on a huge scale – to address problems of profitability and to remain competitive.

As Smith writes:
‘Ultra-low wages are not the only factor attracting profit-hungry Western firms to newly industrializing countries … they are also attracted by the flexibility of the workers, the absence of independent unions, the relative ease with which they can be forced to submit to working days as long as those described by Marx and Engels in mid-nineteenth-century England, and the intensity with which they can work’ (p.24).
The example of Apple (and other electronic) products, which depend on a vast complex of workplaces in Shenzhen, China, and massive levels of exploitation of those who work there, is offered as a powerful case study. This kind of outsourcing is at the core of the ‘imperialism’ of the book’s title: it perpetuates a systematically unequal relationship of super-exploitation of Southern workers by Northern-based capital.

Globalisation is revealed as a process of domination, not some mutually beneficial exchange, or spur to development in newly industrial countries, as the apostles of neoliberalism like to claim. Neoliberal globalisation is in reality imperialism without colonies.

The relationship between the Global North and the Global South is fundamental to twenty-first-century imperialism. At a theoretical level, one of Smith’s main concerns is to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the concept of imperialism, as developed by Lenin and others a century ago, and the ways in which our world continues to be structured in uneven and unequal ways by the richest and most economically advanced states. The book is therefore, among other things, a useful contribution to a Marxist understanding of what it means to talk about imperialism today.

Finally, Smith argues convincingly that the roots of the capitalist crisis since 2007/08 are in global production. He bases his analysis of the crisis in ‘the two principal measures that allowed the imperialist economies to escape, for a while, the crises of the 1970s – the enormous expansion of debt and the epochal global shift of production to low-wage countries’ (p.280). These therapies became pathologies for the system. He explains why nothing, within the constraints of capitalism, can now be done to ‘prevent a protracted, calamitous global depression’ (p.313).

This doesn’t mean that book is gloomy or fatalistic. Quite the opposite: it points to the enormous potential for fresh revolts by a greatly expanded, and exploited, working class. As the author concludes:
‘The southward shift of the working class, the reinforcement of the working class in imperialist countries through migration from oppressed nations, and the influx of women into wage labour in all countries means that the working class now much more closely resembles the face of humanity, greatly strengthening its chances of prevailing in coming battles’ (p.314).


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and the myth of the eighties revival

Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn
It has become a predictable and tedious mantra of the Labour Right, and its legions of media commentators, that Jeremy Corbyn's rise to the leadership of the Labour Party - and the support he continues to receive from a growing membership - is a return to the 1980s. 

In particular it is the 1980-83 period that MPs and columnists have in mind, suggesting that current developments are a re-run of Michael Foot's leadership and the rise of Bennism during the early years of Margaret Thatcher's Tory governments.

This is meant, of course, in an entirely pejorative sense. That era is safely classified as a disastrous one to which Labour cannot possibly return, climaxing in the catastrophe of the 1983 general election.

It is tempting to dismiss such analogies as irrelevant nonsense. But the arguments do need to be refuted. It also makes sense, more generally, to return to that era as a means of understanding the Labour Party's evolution and as a guide to making sense of Labour's opportunities and challenges today.

Refuting the myths

Paul Mason's article refuting the alleged parallels between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot is therefore timely and welcome. He correctly points out that the Labour left's boom was at the same time as a broader right-wing shift in British politics, a time when Thatcherism (though very far from universally popular) was relatively strong. Although he doesn't mention it, the rightwards-moving split which led to the founding of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and a good electoral showing for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 was another manifestation of this.

The situation today is quite different. As Mason notes, neoliberalism is discredited. There is a crisis of the neoliberal political centre and, while right-wing forces can capitalise on that, it is clearly an opening for the left. The current surge in Labour membership is not something seen in the early 1980s and it indicates a wider enthusiasm for an alternative to a politically bankrupt status quo. It's worth adding, too, that there is greater sympathy for the left among the trade unions - whether at the level of leadership or grassroots - than was witnessed during the Bennism years.

In fact the left has been more successful recently than in the early 1980s. Foot was, as Mason remarks, a compromise candidate not a triumph for the left. His time as leader was characterised by vacillation, incoherence and lurches between left and right (for example, he expressed ardent support for the Falklands War, seeking to outflank Thatcher in belligerent jingoism).

The more left-wing current around Tony Benn garnered a lot of success, mainly among grassroots members, but was ultimately unsuccessful: Benn may have lost only extremely narrowly to right-winger Denis Healey in the 1981 deputy leadership race, but it was a defeat nonetheless. This time around, the left has actually won a leadership election - comfortably - and now looks set to do so again.

During the Foot era the Labour left appeared to be faring well but it was short-lived, had shallow roots, and the longer-term trajectory was very much to the right. The poor result in 1983 was widely interpreted as showing the folly of left-wing policies; the conclusion was that Labour needed to adapt itself to Thatcherism. Neil Kinnock came from a left-wing background and used this credibilty to co-opt a 'soft left' layer which had previously backed Benn, but his entire period as leader was a slow march to the right.

With every election defeat - 1987 then 1992 - the proponents of this rightwards shift were strengthened, and the left became ever more marginalised (symbolised by a dismal vote for Benn in the 1988 leadership election). Big defeats for the organised working class - above all the Miners' Strike of 1984-85 - reinforced the power of the right wing, in both the Labour Party and the union movement.

The massive anti-poll tax movement threatened to tip the balance the other way, yet it found only a faint echo in the upper echelons of the Labour Party. Also, the eastern European revolutions and collapse of the Soviet Union were utilised to argue that socialism was finished, neoliberalism was triumphant, and there was no alternative. Tony Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994 took the process even further.

Paul Mason's article recognises that 'Corbynism' has emerged in very different circumstances to Bennism and must be understood in that context: it is a vibrant and hopeful response to discredited neoliberal policies which have eroded the post-war settlement of public services and a strong welfare state, accentuated inequality and hollowed out democracy. It is not even slightly an exercise in nostalgia or an irrational psychological spasm (as the likes of Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland are fond of arguing), but a materially grounded and entirely reasonable response to changed realities.

But the article also raises some questions and difficulties that really need thinking through. There are three in particular.

Political and industrial struggles

Firstly, Mason's assessment of the relationship between political struggle and industrial struggle in the 1980s is problematic. He writes:

'The leftism we carried with us into the Winter Gardens in 1980 had its origins in the syndicalism of ordinary workers in the 1970s. To the shop stewards I met in the years between Benn’s 1980 speech and the miners’ strike, Labour politics were a sideshow. The unions had achieved control of many workplaces and – it seemed – could go on calling the shots. In the year Benn made his electrifying speech, the steelworkers’ union had just won a double-digit pay rise in an all-out strike.'

This exaggerates the strength of the unions at that time. The bigger story of the steelworkers in that period was that they lost - and there were consequently mass closures of steel works. The even bigger picture was one of rising unemployment and an assault on manufacturing, combined with a major Tory and employer offensive against the unions which scored many successes. There were major strikes throughout the decade, but most were defeats and this eroded workers' confidence and strengthened the grip of a conservative union bureaucracy.

The 'political upturn' of Bennism was, then, to a certain extent shaped by the downturn in industrial struggle by the unions. There was a substantial element of people looking to Labour, and a stronger Labour left, as compensation for the weaknesses on the industrial front. But the deeper direction of travel was to the right precisely because of the big picture of repeated defeats of workers' struggles against a backdrop of unemployment and insecurity. Any shift to the left inside the Labour Party was therefore likely to be short-lived.

The other major factor driving the Labour left's resurgence was the bitter experience of the Labour governments of 1974-79, led by Harold Wilson then Jim Callaghan, which had caused massive disillusionment. This period was in fact the birth pangs of neoliberalism: Labour politicians were in office but not in power, obliged by the return of capitalist economic crisis and the demands of international capitalism to repeatedly inflict public spending cuts and wage freezes on their own supporters.

One response to this experience was a shift to the left, embodied by a politician - Tony Benn - who had learnt from his own experience of ministerial office how powerful the obstacles to even mild social protections (never mind positive reforms) could be.

Workplace and social issues

This question of the relevance of industrial struggle leads on to a second problem with Mason's arguments. He writes: 'Today, work is much less central to the left project, and for a variety of reasons. It is precarious, hard to organise. Also, the things the left wants to achieve have become more social, less industrial. There is, on the left, an implicit understanding of political philosopher Toni Negri’s claim: that the “factory” is now the whole of society,and the subject of change is everybody – especially the networked youth.'

This is wrong at both ends. Mason is underestimating the significance of 'social' struggles' in the past, while underestimating the significance of work-related issues and struggles today. It is true that workers' struggles dominated the 1970s, but they were never the whole picture.

In the 1970s and early 1980s there was a range of other struggles from rent strikes and housing campaigns to the women's liberation movement and large demonstrations defending abortion rights, from the Anti Nazi League and black community struggles to the Right to Work Campaign's marches against unemployment, from the Anti Apartheid Movement's resurgence after the Soweto Uprising in 1976 to CND's mass protests in the early 1980s.

If we look at the history of the British labour movement there have often been links between economic, work-based struggles and wider political or social movements. Chartism united democratic demands and economic grievances. The mass protests of the Irish and unemployed, and in defence of free speech, in the 1880s fed into the explosive wave of militant workers' struggles known as the New Unionism. The Great Unrest of 1911-14 was simultaneous with suffragettes' protests and turmoil over Ireland. Rent strikes accompanied the workers' strikes of Red Clydeside during World War One and in its aftermath. And so on.

But it's also wrong to dismiss the politics of work in 2016. Many of Corbyn's most resonant and appealing policies are to do with the world of work, whether it is pledging to repeal the Trade Union Act and other anti-union legislation, ending poverty pay and zero hours contracts, investing in job creation, the promise of a National Investment Bank, or many other policies and ideas the Labour leader has talked about recently. The world of work is in fact at the centre of his political alternative.

This political vision encompasses policies - like funded childcare - that directly link the 'work' world with the 'social' world. It would be a mistake to separate and juxtapose 'work' and 'social', just as it's a mistake to downplay the importance of people's conditions and experiences of work.

As for workers' struggles, it is true that we have had 25 years of historically low levels of strike action. The emphasis on electoral politics by so much of the left is explained partly by the long-term weaknesses in the unions. But if the breakthroughs associated with Corbyn are to be sustained - never mind built on - then this will have to change. The hopeful green shoots we've seen this year - junior doctors, national teachers' strike, railway strikes and so on - will have to bloom into something bigger. Electoral politics alone will not suffice.

Many of Mason's 'networked youth' are workers - and others will become workers in time. They will be stronger if organised collectively in combative trade unions. The strengths of social movements and the tremendous enthusiasm around Corbyn need to be used to fuel more powerful union organisation and a renewal of workplace resistance.

Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition  

Thirdly, there is Mason's claim: 'This generation, by contrast, understands that the most revolutionary thing you can do to neoliberalism is to put a party in government that dismantles it.'

This contains an important ingredient of truth. The ambition and political generalisation involved in seeking to transform Labour into a left-wing party and get it into government represents, in some ways, an advance. Over the last year there has been a lifting of the left's sights generally - a sense of actually shaping mainstream political debate and being a relevant force to be reckoned with.

But this raising of the stakes brings big, important issues to the fore and gives them an acute practical relevance they haven't had for generations. The question of the limits of electing a government opposed to neoliberalism is one such issue. Mason makes this revealing comment:

'The rule of law is stronger now. Everybody involved in the Bennite movement sensed that Britain’s legal institutions were so weak, its police, security services and judiciary so politicised, its constitution so malleable, that the scenario in Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup was not paranoia. Today, though the secret state is large, it is under much stronger legislative control. Should a leftwing Labour party come to power – either on its own or in coalition with left nationalists – it is likely to be able to govern relatively free of politicised sabotage from the state.'

This demonstrates admirable optimism of the will, but lacks the necessary complement of pessimism of the intellect. It seems rather naive to assume that the secret security state no longer has the potential power it used to possess. It is certainly wrong to suggest that other elements of the state are less 'politicised' than three decades ago - all the evidence surely runs against that assertion. And that's before we get on to the role of the media or the power of finance, big business and their institutions, both at national and international levels.

The power of both the state and of corporations remains huge. It won't be broken simply by electing a Corbyn-led government. Whether we’re talking about this side of such a government or after its formation, there is an undeniable need for mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation. This is a vital counterweight to the power of the nation state, media, transnational institutions, the City of London and big business.

The Labour Party’s membership surge and leftwards shift in the grassroots, with a left-wing leader, are very important and hopeful breakthroughs. But it would be a grave error to reduce the movement to the Labour Party, or to put all our eggs in the electoral basket.

Corbyn’s initial success, in being elected party leader, was fuelled by the protest movements of the last 15 years (above all the anti-war and anti-austerity movements) and Corbyn’s strong association with those movements and with numerous workplace disputes. Last June’s huge national demonstration, organised by the People’s Assembly, was one key catalyst in Corbyn’s rise to the leadership.

As Corbyn himself repeatedly insists, this is about a movement of people not simply the role of a solitary leader. That movement is not confined to members of the Labour Party and its activities cannot be confined to internal Labour Party struggles and electioneering. In the last 12 months there have been numerous campaigns, protest movements and strikes: from protests against bombing Syria to the Convoy to Calais in solidarity with refugees, from the fresh wave of Black Lives Matter protests to strikes by junior doctors, teachers and railway workers.

The impact of these campaigns and strikes is amplified by having a left-wing Labour leadership. Sometimes this is explicit, for example when Jeremy Corbyn voiced support for County Durham’s teaching assistants, overwhelmingly women workers campaigning for fair pay, or when Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, have popped up at picket lines for the junior doctors.

Equally importantly, such extra parliamentary struggles strengthen the left inside Labour. The protests against bombing Syria, February’s national Scrap Trident demonstration and the strikes are all examples of this. There will be many more to come.

Transforming society

If we are going to achieve real social change – against the might of the British political class, the establishment and the state – we need to make advances on all fronts, and bring them together in a concerted offensive. In particular, the breakthroughs in the Labour Party not only require sustaining but need to be used as a lever to promote a more combative labour movement. Ultimately, there must be a willingness to confront our powerful enemies and not be limited by the constraints of parliament.

This broad perspective draws attention to something else. Revolutionary socialists have been much derided lately, with a red scare about ‘Trotskyists’ by Labour’s right wing. Some on the Labour left have sadly echoed the derision towards socialists outside the Labour Party (even Mason lapses into this, with his concluding reference to ‘re-enactment groups from 20th-century Marxism’).

But one of the most important lessons of history is that revolutionary socialists – with a general anti-capitalist perspective and a deep commitment to extra-parliamentary forms of struggle – have a crucial role to play. It is the radical left that has a formidable record of initiating and shaping a great many different struggles on the streets and in the workplaces. It has always had a larger strategic vision than the internal battles of the Labour Party and winning votes, with a relentless focus on self-activity and mass mobilisation.

This radical left also has a political vision that goes beyond the limits of parliament and of reforming a crisis-ridden system. In the current period, this can underpin an independent left-wing politics that is impervious to the huge pressures of holding the Labour Party together, of appeasing right-wingers and of narrow, ‘centre ground’-chasing electoralism. 

Such independent politics also require independent organisation, with anti-capitalist activists grouped together and operating independently of Labour. These elements are as necessary as they ever were.


Thursday, 28 July 2016

Keep Corbyn by keeping it radical

I think Jeremy Corbyn will win the Labour leadership election, but it isn't inevitable. In some ways it's a tougher challenge than last summer, when Corbyn was first elected. If Owen Smith is going to win it will be due to the wider political climate, a series of tactics by his campaign, and perhaps a few weaknesses on the part of Corbyn’s campaign.

Owen Smith's path to victory
Here's how I think that ‘worst case scenario’ of a defeat for Corbyn could plausibly happen. Constant media vilification of Corbyn, especially the allegations of abuse and intimidation by his supporters, could go some way to persuading some Labour Party members that it's just not worth holding on to him. They may largely agree with the current leader, but if this is what the media will continuously do to Labour if Corbyn continues in post then it's just not worth it.

This is reinforced by the constant mantra of insisting that Corbyn is unelectable. All the evidence is that Labour would do the same or worse in polls with Smith as leader, but poor polling for Labour (which we're seeing now) is still likely to help the challenger not the incumbent. All Labour members care about being electable.
Notice, too, that Smith (while largely stealing Corbyn's policies) has differentiated himself on immigration. This plays to the idea that on some issues Labour needs to get more in tune with existing public opinion to be electable.

Smith's adoption of many of Corbyn's policies may be unconvincing (and has been greeted with mockery) but this, too, could boost his challenge. He knows what he's doing. There's a layer of voters in this leadership election who could be persuaded that a Smith leadership would retain most of the Corbyn policies they like while being more media-friendly and plausibly prime ministerial.
If these policy pledges are the carrot, then the threat from most MPs of refusing to work with Corbyn is the stick. It is a powerful weapon: the 'no confidence' vote by MPs was overwhelming and the resignations by front benchers were sweeping, so everyone voting in this election knows that a vote for Corbyn will sustain the war between the leadership (backed by much of the membership) and the bulk of the PLP.

A desire to avoid that - and instead have a fully staffed and relatively cohesive front bench, with a leader who commands most MPs' support - could prevail. Labour is a parliamentary party: there is always a strong pull towards what works best in the logic of parliamentary realpolitik.
Finally, Smith's vow to fight for a second referendum on EU membership is a shrewd move. Most Labour members who support, or are inclined to support, Corbyn voted to remain in the EU. Smith is cynically seeking to exploit this in his favour. Corbyn - having been obliged to campaign for a remain position despite many of his own instincts – risks getting trapped in a rather weak position on this issue.

Also remember that Smith is the single challenger to Corbyn, whereas last time there were three candidates on the right. The Labour Right has become better organised and seems to have recruited many people to the £25 supporters’ scheme. It is also very well-funded, which will mean sustained and serious campaigning between now and September.
I don't think all of this will be enough to get Smith over the finishing line. But it could be. Even if it isn't enough for victory, we could see the challenger getting a large minority - over 40% - of votes, therefore emboldening the majority of the PLP. It would be a serious mistake for Corbyn supporters to complacently assume that he will be re-elected comfortably.

How can Corbyn guarantee victory?
Firstly, Corbyn's campaign needs to be relentless in promoting clear priority policies that can galvanise support and offer a bold alternative to a failed political status quo. This is what made the difference last summer - and it needs to be done again.

There is little political traction in complaining - however justifiably - about the behaviour of MPs or the party bureaucracy's dubious manoeuvres. The campaign will be won on politics. It needs to be outward-looking, political and concrete in offering alternative policies.
Secondly, the policy platform needs to be more bold and radical. If Smith can merrily steal most of Corbyn's 'softer' policies then simply repeating those policies will be insufficient.

This also reflects how the political landscape has shifted recently. Osborne's last major act as chancellor was to drop the fiscal targets that had served as a mantra for the government since 2010. Theresa May and her ministers are discussing economic stimulus, not simply obsessing over cuts.
The ground has shifted. Corbyn and McDonnell now need to decisively articulate bold policies for large-scale public investment in jobs, infrastructure, housing and public services. It means foregrounding such things as a national investment bank, public control of public assets (energy, transport etc), a massive house-building programme and investment in creating climate-friendly jobs.

The combination of the austerity project's obvious exhaustion and the vote to leave the EU has opened up a new set of possibilities. If Corbyn is going to unite working class people who voted Leave with those who voted Remain it will be on the basis of a version of Brexit that benefits the vast majority of people.
Putting forward ambitious, and joined-up, policies on jobs, housing and services is essential for undercutting the attempts to use the issue of immigration as a battering ram against the left. These economic policies need to be accompanied by a clear and unequivocal defence of migrants and their rights.

This need for radicalism also implies that there should be no compromise on those issues - like Trident renewal and freedom of movement - where some on the Labour left are advocating making concessions. Opposing Trident is the correct position for several reasons, one of which is that scrapping the hugely expensive programme would liberate funds for socially useful investment. The defence of migration is not so controversial when coupled with pledges of large-scale public investment - a working class politics that can undercut the racism and scapegoating.
Thirdly, there has to be a focus on public mobilisation - marches, protests, rallies - nationwide to galvanise support for Corbyn. The campaign can't be treated as merely an internal party battle. There's much more at stake than that. And once Corbyn has won re-election, there will be the broader challenges of resisting sustained attacks from not only Labour’s right wing but from the British state and ruling class, and of winning mass popular support for the politics represented by Corbyn.

Also, conducting the campaign purely on that ground is beneficial to Smith when we consider the balance of political forces inside the PLP and the powerful pull of parliamentary realpolitik inside the Labour Party. Corbyn's campaign needs to be treated, and pitched, as a political movement not simply a leadership campaign. There needs to be an appeal to the whole labour movement and an emphasis on active mobilisation, not simply casting a vote in the leadership election.
This is important for winning Corbyn's re-election. But it's even more important in laying the groundwork for life after the leadership election. It is through mass protest movements, re-building trade union strength and workers' resistance that we will win victories, re-shape politics and raise the prospect of a serious left-wing challenge to the neoliberal status quo. The pro-Corbyn mobilisations can be a springboard for further collective action, and a boost to anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-racist movements, not simply a tool for Corbyn's re-election.

Building a stronger left
The establishment pressure on Corbyn's leadership is so enormous that a sustained movement is needed in response. But it's more than that: popular mobilisations can build a left that is powerful in the field of extra-parliamentary struggle - strikes, direct action, protests - as well as Labour Party politics. This, in turn, acts as a constant pull to the left on the Labour Party, in which the conservative PLP (and the wider pressures of electoral politics) acts as a constant pull to the right.  

There's a constant danger that activism becomes trapped in the structures and routines of the Labour Party, and is limited to electioneering. Labour leftwingers need to work with a range of people to build independent, broad-based movements of resistance, and to strengthen the trade unions (which organise millions of people beyond Labour's ranks).
The Labour Party has mushroomed into a party of over half a million members. There are mass rallies taking place to support Corbyn. Nonetheless, there are many, many people outside Labour's ranks who will be involved in political activity through anti-cuts demonstrations, refugee solidarity work, housing campaigns, anti-racist protests, strikes by teachers, junior doctors and others, and many other campaigns and mobilisations.

The left as a whole will be stronger if it connects with these people, and treats such movements as the basis for developing a more influential left. This cannot be a left that is restricted to electoral politics, but one that links bold political demands with taking action on the streets and in the workplaces. This is the best way forward for anyone wanting an effective left-wing Labour Party, but also for the even larger and more important project of building a combative working class movement that can re-shape society.


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Corbyn vs the establishment: what's at stake

Jeremy Corbyn at the Durham Miners' Gala 2016
At the time of writing, there is a genuine possibility that a court ruling (due tomorrow) will declare that Jeremy Corbyn must seek MPs' and MEPs' nominations to be a leadership candidate. And it's perfectly possible that the Labour Party's bureaucracy - desperate to defeat Corbyn - will defer to the legal judgement and act accordingly.
If that happens it will generate, immediately, a massive crisis in the Labour Party, and very quickly some sort of split. After all, it is almost certain that Corbyn will not be able to get the required nominations: MPs who nominated him to 'broaden the debate' last summer are unlikely to repeat their mistake, and the determination of many MPs to remove Corbyn has grown.

The idea that a single wealthy party donor – one who despises the democratic will of members – could use the courts to overturn the elected leader’s right to an automatic place on the ballot would generate tremendous shock and anger.
It is more likely, though, that this bid will fail and the leadership election contested by Corbyn and Owen Smith will proceed. But the fact that this can even be a possibility reveals the extreme desperation of Labour's establishment to eliminate Corbyn, their willingness to trample over democracy and fair play, and their common interest with the British state in wishing to defeat the left.

A concerted assault on the left
A vital part of the background to the current turmoil is that most MPs assumed that the double whammy they engineered - of most MPs voting no confidence combined with dozens of front bench resignations - would force Corbyn out. In normal circumstances, a much lower 'no confidence' vote - and a much lower number of resignations - would be sufficient.

But these are not normal circumstances. Corbyn has the backing of a huge number of party members and supporters. The entire future of the Labour Party is at stake – a stark fact that is grasped by those on both sides. So Corbyn stayed - and surprised MPs, who see everything through the prism of pragmatic parliamentary politics, in the process.

The subsequent attacks on Corbyn, and on party democracy, have been less aimed at delivering a knockout punch (although the NEC meeting, where some hoped to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper, was such an attempt), and more about a war of attrition: constantly wearing down and demoralising Corbyn, those around him, and his supporters.

The absurd anti-democratic procedures -  from retrospectively removing large numbers of members from the leadership electoral roll, to hiking up the supporters' fee from £3 to £25, to generating a climate of suspicion about supposedly thuggish Corbyn supporters - are partly about rigging the election, but are more profoundly geared towards this war of attrition. 
Their hope is that a large layer of Labour members will conclude that - for all their sympathies with Corbyn and his politics - it just isn't worth it. Perhaps they will decide that it’s more important to have a functioning official Opposition and to hold the Labour Party together. The idea is that many of those with a vote in the leadership election will look at the scale and depth of opposition to Corbyn among his own parliamentary colleagues and conclude, very reluctantly, that a Smith victory is necessary if there's going to a fully-staffed front bench Opposition, with the backing of most MPs.

Corbyn vs Smith
It is widely assumed, especially on the left, that Jeremy Corbyn will win. I think that's likely, but I don't regard it as certain. And if he does win there's still a danger that it won't be with a commanding majority.

Labour Party members, affiliated members and registered supporters will be voting at home, in isolation, prey to all the pressures of relentless media vilification of Corbyn. Smith's campaign appears to be well-funded and able to use professional operations to largely compensate for a relative lack of activist enthusiasm (and the inability to replicate Corbyn's mass rallies). All of this can make a difference and we should not underestimate it.  
The pitching of Smith as 'soft left' and the constant barrage of smears against the left (for alleged abuse, intimidation etc) both need to be viewed in this context. Nobody seriously believes that Smith is at all left wing, just like nobody really believes the fantastical and baseless claims of abuse and intimidation. The point here is not to actually convince people that something is true.

The point is to disorientate and demoralise. It is to generate confusion and to make the whole leadership contest seem unpleasant and hostile, therefore encouraging people to simply keep out (or keep their distance from supporting Corbyn). It all creates a general sense of chaos and crisis in the Labour Party, which benefits Corbyn's right-wing opponents who style themselves as beacons of stability and a professional approach to politics.

One line of attack is the advocacy of ‘Corbynism without Corbyn’. It is not being suggested that someone from within the Corbynite ranks - like John McDonnell or Diane Abbott - takes over. Perish the thought! The whole point here is that someone who doesn't support Corbyn should replace him. That betrays what it's really about: ditching Corbyn's politics along with the man.
Owen Smith, Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn are not creatures of the 'soft left'. They're firmly on Labour's right wing. They are closer to the Tories than they are to Corbyn and the left, accepting the dominant assumptions of neoliberal politics (held up as an unarguable 'centre ground' of politics, regardless of whether public opinion accords with it).

British politics isn't split, first and foremost, between Tories and Labour. The split goes down Labour's middle, with the majority of its MPs oriented on establishment politics and the ideological and policy assumptions that go with it.
There is something of a precedent here. In the mid-1980s there was talk of 'Bennism without Benn'. It reflected the left's retreat, and the right's ascendancy, after Tony Benn was very narrowly defeated in the 1981 deputy leadership contest. What it really meant was re-orienting Benn's supporters to a shift rightwards under Neil Kinnock. Labour's long march to the right - under Kinnock then later Blair and Brown - gathered pace.

A wider political crisis
One argument doing the rounds is that the big Corbyn rallies are a kind of irrelevant bubble, reflecting nothing about wider society. He is merely preaching to the converted - a small minority - while ignoring everyone else.

I don't find that plausible. This isn't like the early 1980s, when Bennism was largely at odds with a rightwards shift in the working class and in society at large. The tremendous enthusiasm for Corbyn is the main political expression of developments in society that affect many millions of people.
There are different aspects to that wider political crisis, but fundamentally it's about widespread disaffection with several years of austerity policies and decades of neoliberalism, and (crucially) the long-term shift in the Labour Party towards the neoliberal centre.

There is a huge backlash against the dominant elements in the Parliamentary Labour Party because of their complicity in privatisation, cuts, war and scapegoating, first in office and later in extremely meek opposition. The Chilcot report reminded us of the single greatest reason why Tony Blair’s reputation turned to dust, but Iraq was always a lightning rod for a wider set of discontents and disappointments. This is no bubble.

Media commentators and Labour right-wingers are keen to point to polling which suggests that Labour is consistently several points behind the Tories. This is meant to prove Corbyn's unelectability. Yet the miracle is that the gap isn't bigger.
According to conventional political logic, a socialist leading Labour should have led to a collapse in its poll ratings. Combine this with the fact that Corbyn can't get together a full opposition front bench, as he's so isolated inside the PLP, and there's an impression among the public of massive disunity and conflict inside the Labour Party, it's astonishing that Labour's vote is holding up.

It partly reflects the historic resilience of Labour’s vote (in contrast, for example, to the Lib Dems, whose vote share fluctuates far more). But it surely also suggests that – despite massive media hostility and the deep splits in the PLP – Corbyn speaks to (and for) a real constituency of mass support.
We should also treat such polling with caution. Actual election results - whether May's local elections or various Westminster or council by-elections - have provided grounds for tentative hope. There are also a number of unknowns that could potentially strengthen Labour in a real general election. Turnout is one. The existence of a mass membership party, capable of delivering the political message in communities everywhere, is another.

This is not to mention the Tories currently gaining from the novelty of a new prime minister and shadow cabinet. It is likely the Tories will face considerable difficulties ahead, especially if current indications of economic problems turn into a long-term trend. Austerity has considerably less popular legitimacy than a year ago. 
Nothing to offer

The right wing of the Labour Party now has  nothing to offer. It has no coherent alternative policy offer and no new ideas. A strand of politics that had a certain amount of popular resonance – if never as authentically popular as newspaper columnists liked to proclaim - in the mid-1990s is much less persuasive now.

Owen Smith's campaign is caught between promising (unconvincingly) Continuity Corbynism and differentiating itself from Corbyn's leadership by meekly echoing Tory policies and rhetoric, for example on immigration and Trident. As much as possible, the campaign avoids politics altogether - focusing instead on vague insinuations about Corbyn supporters being guilty of intimidation and on blandly asserting that Corbyn is unelectable. No mention is made, naturally, of the MPs' own role in damaging Labour's electoral standing through its ceaseless plotting and undermining.
There is polling evidence to suggest that a Smith-led Labour Party would do nothing – at least nothing positive – for the party’s vote share. International comparisons are not favourable to the advocates of a rightwards turn either: in many European countries, the traditional parties of the centre left are in crisis precisely due to their role in administering or supporting cuts, privatisation and other neoliberal orthodoxies.

A split now seems very likely, though the time frame and balance of forces (who emerges stronger?) are very unpredictable. If Corbyn prevails in the leadership election, many MPs will be speculating about forming a breakaway parliamentary bloc - one that could, given the scale of opposition to the party's left leadership, be much larger than the SDP split which unfolded between 1981 and 1983.
It would no doubt attract some wealthy donors and much sympathetic media commentary, but such a bloc would lack a mass grassroots party behind it, have almost no trade union support, and (unlike the SDP in the 1983 election), struggle to gain votes.

One possibility is to continue sullenly grumbling on the backbenches, sniping at the leadership and undermining it in whatever ways are available. But this would probably just defer the inevitable split. The issue of deselection after the 2018 boundary changes would certainly come to the fore. It is unlikely that party members would tolerate recalcitrant MPs who they feel are not reflecting and representing their views.

Everything in flux
The long term is therefore unpredictable. The important thing at present is to rise to a number of urgent challenges and use the coming weeks and months to shape the left’s prospects. The first thing to grasp is that the unpredictability, flux and rapid pace of political upheaval means that a 2020 perspective – where all practical questions are shaped by the assumption of a general election in 2020 – is no good.

It may well be that there is no election for nearly four years, but making such an assumption would be foolish. However, even if there is no early election the focus on 2020 is damaging, as it encourages a focus on desperately seeking to patch up differences and maintain the unity of the Labour Party, with a view to fighting a general election on that basis. It allows concessions to Labour’s right wing, which threatens to disrupt and damage the momentum behind Corbyn’s left wing political vision.
It is also, in principle, right for socialists to call for an early general election and for the downfall of the current Tory government after such upheavals as the Leave victory in the EU referendum and the changes in personnel at the centre of government.

The other key point to grasp is that the defence of Corbyn’s leadership is integral to the prospects for left-wing politics in Britain today. This recognition is important for all socialists, whether in the Labour Party or not.
His position as Labour leader has enabled socialist arguments, so long marginalised, a place in mainstream debate. The growth in Labour membership, the campaigning for Corbyn’s re-election and the many public rallies and protests defending him all point to a very welcome renaissance of the left. This is about much more than one man – it’s a question of strengthening the impact of the movements against austerity, racism and war, and of developing a more influential left-wing pole in British politics.

The challenges for socialists
With these points in mind,  I suggest there are three key things to keep to the fore when building support for Jeremy Corbyn.

Firstly, the movement around Corbyn is at its most effective when it is radical and uncompromising. Politically this means holding firm to principled positions on issues like immigration and Trident. Some prominent supporters of Corbyn have wrongly given ground on such issues, but this only strengthens the Right as well as being wrong politically. It is far more persuasive to put forward coherent and consistent left-wing policies than to tack and turn according to whether or not you imagine something will be popular.
Secondly, it makes a big difference if the movement supporting Corbyn clearly and publicly articulates left-wing arguments and policies – reaching out to millions of people in doing so - rather than getting stuck in arguments about internal party democracy, allegations of abusive behaviour or the dubious issue of ‘electability’. All of these need to be addressed, but in developing a mass campaign the focus needs to be on political alternatives. The leadership campaign is an opportunity to champion the left-wing ideas that inspired so much hope and enthusiasm last summer. This is where we on the left are at our strongest.

Finally,  it’s also important to have a sharp focus on popular mobilisation – like protests and rallies - not merely treating this as an internal Labour Party battle. It’s bigger than that. Such mobilisations facilitate mass participation in the Corbyn campaign. They also provide a link between the campaign and broader grassroots social movements, feeding a two-way relationship between Labour’s left-wing leadership and the role of popular movements.
Ultimately, the social change we on the left want to see will come, above all, through mass activity in protest movements and trade unions, not simply (or even primarily) through the field of parliamentary politics. A victory for Corbyn will embolden the movements. It will, for example, give encouragement and hope to everyone building the national anti-austerity demonstration outside Tory Conference on 2 October, to teachers and junior doctors contemplating strike action in the autumn, and to anti-racists campaigning against Islamophobia or in defence of migrant rights or refugees.  


Friday, 27 May 2016

8 reasons why the Left should campaign to retain the Lords

Some people have expressed surprise at my decision to support retaining the House of Lords in the forthcoming referendum on its future. Scrapping this unelected chamber has, after all, long been the dominant position on the left, especially the radical left.

But such people, who remain dogmatically committed to what is now an obsolete position, are making a serious mistake by thinking politically when what we need is some sound tactical thinking. So here are my tactical reasons for urging a vote to keep the House of Lords:

1) The House of Lords provides some protection against the worst ravages of a Tory government. It opposed cuts to tax credits, for example. It opposed a number of elements of the Trade Union Bill. Do you really want the Tories to have free rein with nothing to moderate their worst excesses?

2) Better the devil you know. If David Cameron loses the referendum, he will surely be forced to resign. Boris Johnson is likely to take over and he is worse than Cameron. So let's hold our noses and vote the same way as Cameron and Osborne - to keep the House of Lords - and avoid tilting the balance of forces in British politics further to the right. And imagine how awful Johnson would be if there wasn't even the House of Lords to restrain him!

3) Some on the left say the House of Lords is undemocratic so we must scrap it. Well, of course it's undemocratic, but so are lots of other things. We have a weak democratic system generally - what's the point of getting rid of just one element of that while leaving everything else the same?

4) We should aim to reform the Lords, not abandon our whole parliamentary system to a Tory majority government. This reform project may be tough, but I believe Another Westminster is Possible. Obviously I'm going to remain extremely vague about how the House of Lords might be reformed - given its lack of democratic accountability - but where there's a will there's a way.

5) Whatever its faults, the House of Lords is one of the things that - through its stability, continuity and air of social harmony - has guaranteed that there has been no civil war on these islands since the 17th century (try not to think about Ireland here).

6) It is true that in the 1970s almost the entire Left opposed the House of Lords. But it's different now. We've had the triumph of Thatcherism and the unions are much, much weaker than 40 years ago. We can't rely on the unions to fight the Tories. The thin shelter of an elite, undemocratic institution is better than nothing.

7) Let's be honest: it's fairly harmless, isn't it? It's not like the House of Lords was responsible for skewing a transnational currency system to the benefit of the richer nations, imposing savage cuts on poorer nations, smashing an elected left-wing government or allowing thousands of refugees to drown in the Mediterranean. Now if people on the left argued for retaining an institution that had done all those things, it really would be daft!

8) Some left-wing critics say that the House of Lords demanding that workers in Scotland do a 6-day week until they drop dead is a reason to scrap it. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

In summary: let's not be tied to outdated shibboleths and instead think tactically. Vote to keep the House of Lords - Another Westminster is Possible, especially if we keep things exactly as they are.


Sunday, 8 May 2016

Spirit of Soweto: racism and rebellion 40 years on

A number of campaigners and educators - in partnership with the Martin Luther King Peace Committee - are organising a conference, to be held at Newcastle University on Saturday 18 June, titled 'Spirit of Soweto: racism and rebellion 40 years on'.

I am one of the organisers and it is supported by Newcastle Stop the War, North East People's Assembly, Newcastle Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Newcastle's Multilingual Library, Stand up to Racism (North East), Newcastle Unites and Unite Against Fascism (North East).

The conference is designed to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, which involved tens of thousands of black South African school students (in Soweto and beyond) protesting against racist apartheid policies in schools. This rebellion was greeted with large-scale massacres by state authorities.

It is universally seen as having been a turning point in the struggle to end apartheid, both through opposition inside the country and through the efforts of the global boycott and solidarity movement. The precise anniversary of the uprising starting is 16 June, so the conference takes place on the nearest Saturday.

One aim of the conference is to rediscover the history of what happened in Soweto in 1976 and examine its significance for the direction and success of the anti-apartheid movement. Furthermore, this will be used as a springboard for discussing a range of issues relating to racism (and non-violent resistance to it) more widely.

The event will specifically make links between history and the present day, learning and taking inspiration from South Africa four decades ago to nourish anti-racist and international solidarity movements in 2016.

Further details including speakers will be announced over the next few weeks, but the timetable is already available. The o
pening plenary session ('Soweto Uprising: a turning point in the struggle to end apartheid') focuses on the history, while the closing plenary ('Racism and rebellion today') brings things up to date: Islamophobia, immigration, the refugee crisis, and so on.

In between these sessions there will be several workshop options:
- The Soweto Uprising and the international solidarity movement
- Promoting peace, equality and anti-racism in schools
- Spirit of Soweto: poetry and music for social change
- Freedom City: when Martin Luther King came to Newcastle
- Apartheid in South Africa and Israel: boycott movements and justice
- Prevent agenda: Islamophobia in schools?

The event starts at 11am and concludes at 5pm. Tickets must be bought in advance and are available through the Spirit of Soweto Eventbrite page.

There will also be a special poetry night in Tyneside on Thursday 16 June, celebrating the anniversary, with details to follow.


Friday, 6 May 2016

Election results: Corbyn defies his critics

A few months ago, when political commentators looked ahead to 2016, there was a widespread prediction that Labour would suffer substantial losses in the council elections. Would it be 200 seats lost? Perhaps a little less, perhaps even more?
After all, these elections would be for seats previously contested in 2012, a mid-term peak for Ed Miliband, and it was assumed that Corbyn must be electorally unpopular. Yet Corbyn and Labour have defied the critics. The journalists and pundits have been left floundering, desperately trying to make the facts fit their narrative.
Local elections
There have been no significant losses for Labour in the council elections. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the manufactured media storm about allegations of antisemitism.

It is now clear that the media circus made no difference to Labour's vote. This must be exasperating for the small minority of hardline right-wing 'Bitterite' Labour MPs who hoped that poor results would trigger a challenge for the leadership, or at least gravely destabilise Corbyn's leadership.

Labour's vote has been sustained despite the widespread perception of the party as deeply divided, which is normally an electoral liability. It helps that the Tories are also divided, especially over the EU referendum. A section of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been determined to undermine - and in the longer term oust - Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But having made electability the central issue of contention, they have an unenviable task now it's become clear that a Corbyn-led Labour can do well at the ballot box.

In fact Labour's position was an improvement on the general election, while the Tories suffered. Critics of Corbyn say that it isn't enough: Labour should, they argue, be steaming ahead, and the current performance is insufficient to win at the next general election. But after just eight months in post (amidst very public internal divisions), and with four years to go until the next general election, it is clear that Corbyn is very much on the right track.


Zak Goldsmith's campaign for London mayor was perhaps the most racist election campaign by a mainstream political party in the UK for decades. It failed. Sadiq Khan was elected, returning the mayoralty to Labour after eight years with Tory Boris Johnson in the role.
Khan is reportedly the first Muslim mayor of a major city in western Europe. London is a multicultural city and a mainly working class city (though one with extraordinary inequality). Whatever the weaknesses of Khan himself, his victory is a welcome riposte to racists and an important breakthrough for Labour.
It marks the rejection of a grubby campaign, orchestrated from the top with the involvement of Tory central office and David Cameron's approval. It attempted to link Labour's candidate, by virtue of being a Muslim, to terrorism, painting him (and Corbyn) as a threat to security, even exploiting the memory of the London bombings in July 2005 for political advantage.
The Tories, in the final couple of weeks of the campaign, attempted to turn the London elections into a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn. The fact that Labour made a couple of gains on the London Assembly as well as winning the biggest prize suggests that's not the winning tactic that many inside the Westminster bubble assume it will be.

Labour's bad news came in Scotland. Corbyn's leadership has made no impact there. The decline of Scottish Labour has deep roots and appears to be irreversible.

Every election in Scotland - whether for Westminster, Holyrood or local government - now takes place through the prism of the independence debate. The campaign for independence, the referendum itself and its aftermath have transformed Scottish politics. For many voters, Labour is defined first and foremost as a pro-Union party.

Labour is now being squeezed by both the SNP (pro-independence and broadly social democratic) and the Tories (anti-independence and right-wing). There is a diminishing social base underpinning Labour in Scotland. Note, for example, how the SNP now commands much higher levels of support than Labour across much of Glasgow, historically a Labour heartland.

Scottish Labour's disastrous fate is a legacy of the New Labour years - during which support for the SNP grew - accentuated by the impact of campaigning with the Tories to preserve the Union. Scottish politics has for some years established its own distinct trajectory; it would be naive for anyone to think that a leftwards shift in the UK-wide Labour Party will make much difference (especially when Scottish Labour has failed to shift with it).

The SNP's (very narrow) failure to secure a majority in the Scottish Parliament was a surprise, though it remains the dominant party of Scottish politics, just as it was last May when 56 out of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats were won by the SNP. In a number of constituencies where the party was in second place, it looks like many pro-Union voters have voted tactically for whichever party was likely to block the SNP from winning the seat. 
It was also held back somewhat by political timidity, failing to generate the kind of enthusiasm witnessed last spring when - for the general election - the party focused heavily on being an anti-austerity, anti-Trident antidote to a moribund Westminster mainstream. Having failed to win an outright majority, the SNP will now rely on support from the pro-independence Scottish Greens, who had a good election night (winning 6 regional list seats).

There has been some media hype about the Tories overtaking Labour in Scotland. This is indeed a historic shift, but it is largely due to Labour's collapse and not an endorsement of the Tories. The Tory vote share is only a source of excitement for the Tories because it has, for some time, done so catastrophically badly in Scotland. There seems to be a hardening polarisation linked to the question of independence, with many pro-Union voters rallying to the Tories.
What next?
Jeremy Corbyn and the left are undoubtedly strengthened by the results. This is particularly reassuring after a difficult couple of weeks due to the media hysteria about antisemitism allegations, which have been handled by the Labour Party in a manner that has emboldened both Labour's right wing and the Tories.
The 'electability' question has not been entirely settled and there is a long way to go to forming a government in 2020. But the omens are reasonably good and the results are widely acknowledged to be a move in the right direction, even if much of the media (and the Bitterite MPs) are reluctant to accept this. Speculation about a 'coup' against Corbyn has quickly receded. His position is, probably for some time, fairly secure.
Nonetheless, the left-wing leadership of the Labour Party is fragile in many ways. There will still be great pressure to compromise from the right, with some associated with the left joining in the calls for compromise too. Such compromise would generate disillusionment among those enthused by Corbyn's rise and the alternative he espouses. It would increasingly demobilise Corbyn's own supporters.
The recent, highly successful, Jeremy Corbyn 4 Prime Minister events gave a sense of the continuing appetite for what Corbyn represents. There is a wide layer of people who will campaign around left-wing demands and policies, not just electorally but through campaigns and movements, if Corbyn, McDonnell and the left provide a lead.
This year has already seen big demonstrations against austerity, Trident and racism, and nationwide protests and rallies in solidarity with the striking junior doctors. Those movements need to be sustained and strengthened. Their impact is magnified when leading Labour figures participate in them. At the same time, the efforts of Corbyn and his allies to permanently shift Labour to the left are emboldened when large numbers of people take to the streets and demonstrate.
This week has also seen Tory U-turns or partial U-turns on accepting child refugees, negotiating with junior doctors and forced academies. They are weak - and cracking under pressure from both a left-led Labour Party and the wider protest movements and trade union movement. The EU referendum and the emerging scandal over spending on their general election campaigns in some seats threaten to deepen their crisis.
The Tories' greatest asset is the 'Bitterites', who repeatedly take the focus away from what the Tories are doing and undermine Corbyn's opposition to Tory attacks. Corbyn and allies need to get tougher with them and effectively marginalise them. The Tories' greatest threat comes from an alliance of Labour's left leadership and the movements on the streets. This alliance needs to become more powerful than ever.