Nick Wright argues that despite the disappointing end to the Corbyn era in 2019, the labour movement is not in a weaker place in terms of militancy, membership and motivation — and this can be translated into electoral success once again. This article first appeared in the Morning Star.
The political left in Britain is in confused disarray. The 2019 general election, although it saw the second highest total of Labour votes in five general elections, has demoralised many.
The Tories won 365 seats on 43.6 per cent of the total votes. Labour won 203 seats on 32.2 per cent. It took about 38,264 votes to elect a Tory and 50,836 to elect a Labour MP.
In Scotland it took 511,838 votes to elect Labour’s single MP (and a spectacularly useless one at that) and just 25,882 votes to elect an SNP MP. It took 100,048 votes to elect a Scottish Tory which might just concentrate Conservative minds on the possibilities that proportional representation offers.
For the thinking left, the defeat was not unexpected. The remorseless campaign to grind down the triumphant expectations that Labour’s stunning rise in popularity in the 2017 election engendered was a salutary lesson in the determination of our ruling class and its tribunes in Labour’s parliamentary ranks (and its machinery of party management) to place blunting socialist advance above all other objectives.
It took a tremendous effort to reconstitute the Tories as a credible party of government and no less to reduce Labour’s attractive power. That it did this by ruthless character assassination, media manipulation, internal subversion and a cynical play on the innocent aspirations of many Labour Party sympathisers is just a warning of what to expect when Labour next begins to challenge capitalist power and ownership.
It is past the time when we must put the wearying controversies about Brexit behind us. In practice all protagonists in the labour movement’s endless squabbling recognise that this is what ended Labour’s hopes.
The most class conscious left — a category that goes beyond those Labour MPs representing working class Brexit-voting electorates — lament it. Meanwhile what we might call the remaining Remain left grapple with these truths with a genuine degree of anguish.
Keir Starmer’s relentless efforts to ensure the Parliamentary Labour Party rallied behind the EU’s deal with British big business adds to the agony of those still retaining illusions about the EU — but ends illusions that under his leadership any challenge to capital can be expected.
Even in the midst of electoral defeat there is a lot in recent politics to give us reason for optimism. The changed balance of opinion about peace and war which came about in opposition to imperialism’s endless aggression is challenged by Nato’s new offensive against China and Russia — but there now exists a more solid anti-imperialist current in British politics than before.
The diverse campaigns against austerity and its effects — crystallised by the Peoples Assembly Against Austerity — have an enormous and proven potential to mobilise. Black Lives Matter is being transmuted into a diversified campaign to deepen the popular understanding of slavery and colonialism in the formation of the capitalist order in our country.
There is a rising strike wave and a sense that as life returns to normal the ground on which workplace struggles take place will change.
At the weekend I ran into a mate of mine who works as a stage hand. He tells a tale of forced staff cutbacks and concessions to employers as the lockdown has made London’s darkened theatres a playground for a new breed of ruthless managers. But, he says, when the doors open again to to paying audiences, theatre bosses are due for a sharp lesson in working-class power.
This is the case across industry and commerce as class consciousness is sharpened by a new awareness that we only find secure work when there is money to be made.
As these lines are written tens of thousands of teachers are online as the National Education Union formulates a powerful trade union response to the government’s irresponsibility in forcing schools to remain open as breeding grounds for the latest Covid-19 virus.
This alone shows how, even during the lockdown, the working-class movement has sharpened its social media skills and is pioneering new methods of mobilisation.
The failure of Labour’s official leadership to give a lead or even back working people who grapple with the deadly realities of the coronavirus pandemic is a clear sign that opposition to government policies must come, in the first instance, from working people organised in their trade unions and in their communities.
With eight out of 10 overall and a majority in all age groups, all regions and voters in three major parties wanting a lockdown, Labour’s hesitancy and indecision has allowed the Tories to grow its polling lead to 43 per cent over Labour’s 38 per cent.
Hapless ministers have come in for justified criticism for their serial stupidity in handling the Covid-19 crisis so far.
But the penny has dropped that there is no half-way house that enables production and profit-making to resume.
It is quite striking that Britain, better late than never, has begun to make the roll-out of the vaccination programme a priority.
At last and with a forced U-turn on schools, the government is taking lockdown seriously. Not as seriously as the expert medics, scientists, epidemiologists and psychologists want, but in doing so it has marginalised the lunatic libertarian fringe among the Tories.
As we see the subtle rehabilitation of Jeremy Hunt we can expect that the Tories will make a great play on their efforts to beat the virus to further consolidate their opinion poll lead.
Tuesday’s announcement by Rishi Sunak of a renewed programme of employment and business subsidies will put further pressure on the Tories to reprise their success in making working people pay for the 2008 capitalist crisis.
They aim on paying down the costs of the Covid recovery with a renewed austerity.
In building a broader working-class unity, organisational questions are essentially political. Our unions are increasingly and unevenly becoming the organised basis of resistance but this needs to be underpinned by a renewed effort to find new grounds for united action.
Post 2008, wages have stagnated while profits have risen and the rich been further enriched. A united campaign to win pay rises is just one basis for reviving optimism.
The Communications Workers Union is an exemplar here as its recent win on pay and reduced hours shows.
We are where we are on Britain’s exit from the EU. Where we no longer confront the employers or ministers able to hide behind the conditions that EU treaties impose on member states, we face different obstacles built into the new trade agreement negotiated by a Tory government that now represents an evolving consensus between big business and the banks and the EU’s dominant states.
That this is buttressed by the new US regime waiting in the wings is a reminder that the Atlantic alliance is as much a mechanism for economic control as it is a war fighting machine.
Where we once grappled with the pro-employer judgments of the European Court of Justice, we now directly face our ruling-class court system. Britain’s bourgeoisie rightly fears an insurgent working class and we have a long history of challenging British courts with industrial action.
The Tory government seems intent on intensifying the discontents of the nations that make up Britain and it finds willing partners in these diversions most particularly in Scotland. When Blairite Labour frittered away a powerful Labour heritage it left fissures among working people that can only be overcome by unity in action.
One third of the SNP’s substantially working-class base voted for Brexit and around 40 per cent of Scottish Labour voters favour independence.
Anyone who fetishises either independence from or membership of the Union or the EU is open to the criticism that they are neglecting basic working-class concerns around which unity must be found.
There are upcoming elections in 2021 including some delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In May 2021 English local councils and 13 directly elected mayors in England and 40 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales are up for election.
The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Sennedd have elections under a modified form of proportional representation, as does the London Assembly.
The deferred 2021 local government elections in Wales will take place in May 2022 under the single transferable proportional voting system, with 16 and 17 year olds and foreign citizens able to vote with the electoral roll enhanced by automatic registration.
Just one in three registered voters actually voted in the 2018 local elections while in some, mainly working-class areas it was barely one in four.
Part of this is down to distrust of politics, part to a sense that power and money has been taken from councils but much of it is because the voting system means millions of votes are wasted.
Two-thirds of Labour Party members and three of Labour’s affiliated unions back proportional voting. If contradictory views about PR exist in the labour and trade union movement it is undeniable that the current system does not work for the working class.
The Tories follow the US Republicans in trying to suppress the vote. While the single transferable vote is the system most guaranteed to provide a fully representative election result, each of these upcoming elections are an opportunity for the working class to claim the high ground of politics.