This is bigger than any of us could have imagined. This feels like a sea change in British politics, comparable with 1979, when Labour crashed to defeat, Thatcher stormed to power, and the neoliberal counter-revolution began.
James Callaghan, the Labour prime minister defeated in 1979, said to his advisor just before polling day, ‘There’s a sea change in politics. Whatever we do, this election is all about Mrs Thatcher.’ Thatcher went on to achieve the largest swing since the war.
There is a sea change now. The 2017 British general election has been all about Mr Corbyn – who has just achieved the biggest increase in party vote-share since the war.
A sea change: not just another election, but a turning of the tide, a massive underlying shift in British politics, a rebirth of reformism, of social democracy, of Labour as the radical popular movement it was always intended to be. We are witness to the beginning of a once-in-a-generation transformation of the whole political landscape.
An old friend has just texted to tell me that he has joined the Labour Party. He is among 150,000 who have joined since the general election, bringing party membership to a staggering 800,000. This means that one in 15 Labour voters is a party member. The comparable figures for the Tory Party are 150,000 and one in 90.
Another measure of the social-movement character of the Labour surge is its youth. A quarter of a million young people registered to vote in the run-up to the election. In the 18 to 34 age group as a whole, 63% voted Labour, compared with 27% Tory.
Media characterisation of the 2017 British general election as a ‘youth revolt’ is accurate. Groups of young people in towns across the country have been reported spontaneously chanting Jeremy Corbyn’s name. This 68-year-old socialist activist and former backbench MP has become the symbol of hope for a better, fairer, more decent world for hundreds of thousands of young people.
The young, the tolerant, and the idealistic voted Labour. The old, the complacent, and the xenophobic voted Tory. This election was about two nations and two visions of what our society should be like.
But there is more. We are witness to the rebirth of social-democratic reformism as a mass political movement in Britain. The Corbyn Revolution – let us call it that – is the British franchise of a worldwide phenomenon that has included Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Bernie Sanders campaign in the States, and the Jean-Luc Mélenchon campaign in France.
Each time, the mass reformist impulse flows into whichever is the most convenient vehicle – new leftist coalitions in some places, new radical parties in others, and sometimes, as in the States and here in Britain, into existing left-of-centre parties that had seemed rotted beyond hope.
The turnaround has been phenomenal. New Labour – for the time being – has been smashed. Right-wing opportunists like Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock – who have spent the last two years undermining the Corbyn leadership – are letting it be known that they would be willing to serve in the shadow cabinet.
It is to be hoped that Corbyn will be hard-headed enough to create a leadership that believes in the Labour manifesto, that is committed to social-democratic reform, and that seeks to represent the interests of ordinary working people – not the rich, the corporations, and their own careers.
The message of the general election could not be clearer: the Labour surge is an unequivocal rejection of the politics of people like Umunna and Kinnock. The 13 million people who voted Labour did so because the party leader is a socialist and its manifesto was a social-democratic programme of reform in the interests of the working majority. That should shape everything that follows.
Amid the post-election euphoria, we should not be under any illusions. If this is the turning of the tide, if the common people of Britain, led by the young, are finally in revolt against the grotesque inequalities and injustices of the neoliberal era – if the many are launching a fight-back against the few – we are going to face massive opposition from the rich, the banks, the corporations, the state, the media, and their political lickspittles.
Voting will not be enough. We will need a movement on the streets, on the estates, on the campuses, and in the workplaces. We will need to march, to strike, to take mass collective action.
First off, we need to smash the May government. It is a hard-right regime pushing austerity, privatisation, and a racist Brexit, propped up by the votes of Ulster’s misogynist, homophobic, anti-Catholic bigots. It is widely hated and desperately weak and unstable. Our task is to bring it down. Our task is to ensure that the neoliberal juggernaut – temporarily halted by this stunning election result and the rebirth of Labour as a mass social movement – never moves again.
Neil Faulkner is the author of A Marxist History of the World, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, and Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right.
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