Here we are, on the cusp of ‘Tories Out’, a government-in-waiting willed into existence by a compliant media. An establishment Labour Party poised to assume stewardship of the British state. For the generation old enough to be aware of and feel the effects of Blairism but never lived through the excitement of 1997, this all means very little. However, the cost of this change in management was the wholesale sabotage of Labour under the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Many of us were brought into politics by the optimism around Corbyn and the tangible prospect of lasting social change that he seemed to represent. It was a project that tens of thousands felt belonged to them and were willing to defend. Not quite the masses in their millions, but representative of a deep degree of democratic engagement– one that far surpasses the level encouraged around election season by the powers that be.
In the run up to 1997, Labour encapsulated their promise to the nation with the election anthem Things Can Only Get Better– then worked over the next 25 years to convince us that things could, in fact, get worse. Perpetually cucked into embracing the mantras of scarcity; balancing the books; the budget must be sensible and the market must be free. New Labour was created then, and seems set to return.
Just last week, the party curtailed its already timid £28 billion-a-year commitment to “green investment”, quietly tipping off the financial press that it actually intends to spend that annual figure over the course of a five year parliamentary term. Why? Because the Tories said it was bad, the national debt would be too high. Starmer’s Labour Party signals ‘fiscal responsibility’ as its selling point to big business and crucially, understands the true meaning of the term: a euphemism for government deference to capital.
The practice of policy-making through unilateral leaks likewise betrays a return to the anti-popular politics of the likes of Alistair Campbell. A politics reminiscent of how New Labour ran the country the first time around: think-tanks and focus groups comprised of the professional class, handpicked by parliamentary custodians to say whatever is expedient to justify an economic strategy of expanded privatisation, compliance with global capital and consumption driven by readily available debt for working class people. In short, a society run by credentialed technocrats who know best. Britain’s party of labour has solidified the mission of unfettered neoliberalism that began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Of course, our Labour Party knows its place. It waits patiently in the wings, for the moment the establishment deems its time has come. It knows any role it once had as an expression of the political will of the organised working class, has long been dead. Even the Corbyn moment was not a bottom-up effort led by the kind of fighting trade unionists that once bestrode the party, but a top-down fluke that gave democratic expression to the millions of working class people battered by austerity. ‘One member-one vote’ provided a mode of leverage, that coupled with Jeremy Corbyn’s radical program, made for the rare possibility of a genuinely popular movement in Britain.
To spare yet another analysis of the Corbyn tragedy, the period can be summarised by the fact that the policies of the socialist project were deeply popular and shook the establishment to the core. The response was therefore, proportionate to the threat.
They fell back to mantras, hysterical smears and the assumptions programmed into us. For the entire period, it seemed like multiple stories every day, each more outlandish than the previous and presented with evermore sincerity by a regime media. Corbyn was a ‘radical communist’, communists were the Russians and the Russians are the enemy. He was a lily-livered pacifist, he couldn’t be trusted with the nukes and our sacred national security. Simultaneously, he was an IRA sympathiser, best mates with Hamas and moonlighted as a Czechoslovak spy.
This onslaught spilled over to the wider media culture. Every weekly comedy panel show on the television would make sure a vapid joke about Corbyn was aired. The BBC’s Panorama made a damning documentary out of misquotes and unverified anecdotes to present hundreds of thousands of ordinary Labour members as vicious racists. The establishment put a substantial investment of resources and manhours to ensure that ordinary workers waiting to start their shifts in the morning could read identical stories in the different newspapers stacked on canteen tables, about the disgraceful lefty running the Labour Party. Such was the saturation of character attack, and the determination of the establishment to make Corbyn unelectable, that the ruling class spent what must have been billions to suppress the idea that there’s money to spend.
They knew Corbyn’s policies were popular, so attacked the man but never broke him. Despite being an affluent hippy-dippy granddad (who definitely looks more in place on his allotment than in the struggle for state power), Jeremy Corbyn embodied the strength and resolve of the industrial working class. It took the organisation and mobilisation of the party’s professional class to finally defeat the Corbyn project. They exploited low levels of engagement in trade union democracy by the membership to sacrifice the party’s chance of victory on the altar of the European Union.
Within the Labour Party, the popular politics of redistributive economic change, were undermined by the deeply unpopular politics of the European free market. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer lined up with the likes of Alistair Campbell and the cringeworthy People’s Vote campaign to sabotage Labour’s prospects. Going into the 2019 election, Corbyn was successfully pressured by those around him to adopt a second referendum policy; electorally, it was the equivalent of asking the working class: have you considered the possibility that you are just stupid and bigoted?
The working class answered with a resounding no, and rightly refused to vote for the party that sold them out. Labour lost, Corbyn finally bowed to pressure to leave, and Keir Starmer took over. Four years on, towards the end of the sitting Government’s term, Starmer’s apparatchiks have successfully maneuvered against the possibility of entering another election with a suicidal second referendum policy, promoted by Alistair Campbell. After all, it was never about the EU. It wasn’t even about defending the legacy of pre-2008 neoliberalism like it was for Campbell. It was about defeating the radical programme of Corbyn’s Labour in the name of electability, signaling fiscal responsibility. A tacit acknowledgment of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of capitalism.
So, now that the sensible politicians have retaken Labour, we can study how a successful party is run. Starmer leads a party that has had to strip itself of its very politics in order to attain power, sustained on perpetual compromise instead. Compromise itself becomes the very politics and belief becomes naivety. Politics not as a vehicle for social change but an exercise in battering compliance into the hopeful. A symbiotic relationship with apathy, where the absence of hope sustains the careers of the faceless cretins fed into the party machine, who in turn dispel hopelessness into the population.
If Labour’s new friends in the establishment trumpet them into a semblance of power, the problem begins with what they do with it. They inherit the general crisis of capitalism and a population of people unwilling to accept the status quo Labour have bound themselves to. There are no policies any party, even Corbyn’s, could introduce to hold back the tides facing global capitalism. The end of the dominance of the petrodollar, the rise of China and the cultural malaise of the West will influence political decision making more than any manifesto or party conference.
The future of the Labour Party will be determined by the real, entrenched power that survives each metamorphosis British capitalism undergoes. The power that acts to save itself when under threat, perpetuating the generalised apathy that prevents the rise of dormant power in the population.
However, in closing down the establishment channels for popular discontent, working people fight now where they have real power, the workplace and the community. We now see the wave of mass industrial militancy and wide trade union participation so desperately missing in the Corbyn period. The act of going on strike itself is a deeper level of political participation than joining the Labour Party.
While lasting change at the ballot box has been scuppered, the majority of people still demand real change and are making deeper sacrifices to achieve it for themselves. It’s time to reject the apathy and malaise projected onto us by the establishment’s custodians in the Labour Party and find better leaders for the working class than Keir Starmer. The official leaders of Unite and the RMT have led our class in the absence of the Labour Party or a mass Communist Party. No doubt a wider berth of leadership is being developed in the thousands of workplace and community battles going on ignored by Labour.
In 1997, working people believed in the Labour government. It felt like things really were about to get better and in some ways, they did. The party’s defence of the detested neoliberal world order, has relegated it to a dependence on apathy, rather than hope. The possibility exists then for a mass political project than builds and projects power, rather than consigns us to dejection and victim-hood.
In 2023, no one is buying what Labour isn’t really selling and Keir Starmer faces an uncertain future if he is to lead a nation in decline. For him then, things can only get worse.
Michael Roch is a member of the YCL’s Lancashire branch.