Defying all expectations, the Labour Party has fought a dazzling election campaign and pulled off an extraordinary electoral triumph against the odds, writes Neil Faulkner.
Jeremy Corbyn emerged as the real leader of this election campaign inspiring tens of thousands of mainly young people at his enormous rallies.
It began with what we can only assume was a brilliant internal coup: the deliberate leaking of a radical manifesto before it could be eviscerated by the New Labour Right in the backrooms of the party. The Blairites were left fuming at the fait accompli.
Then, freed from the shackles of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn and his supporters took the country by storm, presenting a clear class-based argument backed by a raft of measures that amounted to the most radical programme put to the British electorate since the 1980s.
The effect was to rekindle the spirit of the Corbyn leadership campaigns, with mass election rallies of a kind unknown in decades, sweeping hundreds of thousands into what was, in effect, a radical social movement.
The ghastly Theresa May and the smarmy Tim Farron, who presided over the sort of vacuous cardboard-corporate campaigns which had become the neoliberal norm, were left looking stale and desiccated. Labour cut right through all the technocratic crap, the PR spin, the media scoffing, to reconnect with ordinary working people and the social crisis at the base of modern Britain.
Even so, it was not enough to win a majority. The Tories still managed to remain the largest party – even though their pitch was devoid of content, their leader a wooden non-entity, their campaign a catalogue of U-turns and misfires, and their image one that oozed greed, racism, and ignorance.
May is toast. It looks like some sort of May-led government will hobble forwards for a while, propped up by the DUP, Ulster’s Loyalist bigots, but the Tories will knife her sooner or later, and meantime, with a wafer-thin majority, the government could lose a critical vote in the Commons at any time. So much for ‘strong and stable’.
Corbyn – in terms of increased party vote-share – is among history’s most successful Labour leaders. The Blairites should also be toast. (But we should be in no doubt: normal disruption can be expected to resume shortly, once the New Labour apparatchiks have recovered from the shock and reconfigured their line.)
But when all is said and done, Labour does not have a majority. So we must first ask why.
Labour ran a class-based campaign which addressed the social crisis and sought the support of the working majority against the rich and powerful. The aim was to win power by offering – for the first time in 35 years – a package of reforms that would reverse a little of the grotesque inequality and injustice of the neoliberal era. The Tories offered snouts in the trough for the rich. Labour offered some real social improvement for the rest. Corbyn ought to have won a landslide.
But neoliberalism has inflicted terrible damage on the labour movement – on union membership, on workplace organisation, and on class identity and consciousness. The brutal reality of class oppression has never been more stark. But popular understanding of social experience in class terms has been eroded by a succession of defeats and retreats which has seen industries destroyed, jobs degraded, pay driven down, public services privatised, and welfare services cut to the bone. The unions have not been able to stop this. New Labour has not even tried. And the result is that class organisation – and the class consciousness it engenders – have been severely weakened.
There have always been working-class Tories. But back in the day – in the 1960s – two workers voted Labour for every one that voted Tory; nowadays it is one for one. The reason is simple. When Labour acts as a social-democratic reformist party – as it has done in the 2017 general election – it appeals to workers as workers, that is, on a class basis. The problem is that the proportion of workers who think of themselves as part of the working class in a political sense has fallen dramatically with the hollowing out of traditional working-class communities and the decline of labour organisation.
Basic class identity cannot be rebuilt in ten weeks. The damage done to our side over the last 35 years is real. We have our work cut out.
What saved Labour was a surge of new, mainly young supporters. Record numbers of young people registered and voted, many of them in shock from the Brexit result, many of them determined to use their vote this time to back a reformist programme against the racism and scapegoat politics of May’s party of millionaires.
The left-of-centre expression of neoliberalism is, of course, Blairism and New Labour. Blair’s impact has been huge. A Tory in all but name, he usurped control of a reformist party created by trade unionists and socialist activists and turned it into a political machine for driving through a programme of counter-reforms in the interests of the rich and big business.
Blair in the 1990s was the polar opposite of Atlee in the 1940s. Blair, for example, began the slow demolition and picking apart of the health-care system that had been the flagship reform of the Atlee government. Blair privatised where Atlee had nationalised.
The long-term effect has been massive damage to the relationship between the Labour Party and its traditional working-class electorate. On every measure, Blairism eroded that relationship – party membership slumped, Labour’s share of the popular vote slumped, the proportion of workers identifying with it as ‘their’ party slumped.
The Parliamentary Labour Party filled up with neoliberal careerists chanting Thatcherite mantras about the market, about the virtues of big business, about the wonders of competition. Most Labour MPs today are, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.
Thus the spectacle over the last two years of these people deliberately and relentlessly seeking to undermine the Corbyn leadership – even though, by historical standards, the left programme is far from radical. The 2017 manifesto was moderately Keynesian/expansionist in economics and mildly redistributive/reformist in social policy. The right-wing Labour chancellor Denis Healey increased the top rate of income tax from 75% to 83% in 1974. Left-wing shadow chancellor John McDonnell was proposing only a modest hike from 45% to 50%.
It is a measure of the deeply reactionary, pro-business, anti-union nature of the Parliamentary Labour Party that such relatively moderate proposals evoked howls of derision. It is a measure, too, of most Labour MPs’ boneheaded stupidity. They appeared to believe, quite sincerely, that the Labour Party would maximise its chances of electoral success by offering the working majority precisely nothing: that is, by simply peddling the austerity, privatisation, and greed represented by the Tories.
They seemed incapable of learning. The Labour Party’s richly deserved meltdown at the hands of the SNP in 2015 – an obvious consequence of its toadying to the rich, the bankers, and the corporations – was as mysterious to them as the revolt of ordinary members that subsequently catapulted Corbyn to the leadership. Perhaps now, with Corbyn’s 2017 general election result – in defiance, not least, of the doom-mongers and wreckers inside his own party – some rays of light will penetrate.
If neoliberalism has done terrible damage to the labour movement, the Blairites had done terrible damage to the ability of the Labour Party to sustain the allegiance of working people – even though we have been living through a period of acute economic and social crisis in which living standards have fallen, the cost of housing has soared, pensions and benefits have been cut, personal and household debt keeps on rising, and public services are decaying.
Then there is Brexit. Phil Hearse has analysed the mechanism at work here, and you could see it clearly as the election results rolled in. UKIP/Brexit has acted as a transmission belt, moving backward workers – people not organised, not class conscious, but somehow embittered against ‘them’ and therefore open to nationalism and racism – from Labour to the Tories.
The hollowing out of the traditional working-class communities and the decline of the labour movement has created the political space in which this mechanism operates. Its motor power is racism – the anti-migrant racism of Brexit and the anti-Muslim racism of the War on Terror. This is the scapegoat politics of the global capitalist crisis this time – just as anti-semitism and the ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ was the scapegoat politics of the 1930s.
That much of the British Left got this hopelessly wrong – and that some of it still persists with the catastrophic mistake of ‘Lexit’ and ‘People’s Brexit’ – means that the dominant form of racism in modern Britain has gone largely unchallenged. Instead of confronting the issue head-on by arguing that migrants are not to blame, that migrants are contributors to society, that all migrants are welcome here, the line has been to ‘respect’ the decision of Leave voters. We do not ‘respect’ a right-wing vote. We argue against it and try to win backward workers to a progressive position. Isn’t that the very essence of socialist political activity?
But the fact is that the Tories have lost their majority, they have no mandate, and there is a hung parliament. A majority of British people have voted for parties – whether it is mere rhetoric (as with the Liberal Democrats) or serious intent (as with Corbyn’s Labour) – which reject the Tory programme of austerity and privatisation, corporate power and rising inequality, and anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism. And, with the Tories toxic, a hung parliament means that bourgeois politics is in crisis.
Of exceptional significance is that Labour’s vote share, at 40%, fighting on its most radical manifesto since the 1980s, is only a fraction lower than the Tories’, on 42%. So the way forward is open.
The political elite should not be permitted to resume control through some backroom coalition of convenience that returns us to business as usual – as May is now attempting in alliance with Ulster’s Orange Order. We want the Tories out. We want to break the props. We want an end to austerity and attacks on working people. We want redistribution of wealth. We want the NHS renationalised. We want rents capped. We want tuition fees abolished. We want to make the rich and the corporations pay.
Now is the time to fight. Let’s take the mass movement for change around Corbyn onto the streets.
Neil Faulkner is the author of A Marxist History of the World and A People’s History of the Russian Revolution.
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