This is no time for glib slogans. December’s election result is a serious setback. It clears the way for the most brutal Tory attacks yet seen on our living standards and our democratic rights, destroying the last remaining vestiges of the welfare state and plunging into despair a generation of youth desperate for the chance of a future. It also puts at risk the advances made in the last four years towards the reclamation of the Labour Party as the party of the working class.
There shouldn’t have been any doubt about the result. Labour was offering the most radical manifesto since 1945: a green industrial revolution; a council house-building programme; an end to student tuition charges; renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, railways and the post office; a universal right to justice; a £10 minimum wage; free broadband; free medical prescriptions; free lifelong education; free lifelong social care; the prospect of a four-day working week… and so much more.
And what were the Tories offering? Brexit, Brexit, and again Brexit; a continuation of zero-hours contracts, hunger and homelessness; and for prime minister, a vain, pompous, lazy, incompetent, arrogant, racist buffoon and puppet of the billionaires.
There is a scene in one of Lewis Carroll’s stories where the masses are rioting in the streets demanding: “Less Bread! More Taxes!”. In Victorian England, that was a piece of playful nonsense fantasy, along with Humpty Dumpty or the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. In 21st century Britain, the population have in real life elected a grotesque pantomime prime minister who could easily have walked straight out of Alice In Wonderland, promising that very same programme.
Opinion polls show that Labour’s 2019 manifesto policies were popular. It’s no wonder the frightened billionaires were hell-bent on keeping Labour out of power. In stark contrast to 1997, when Blair’s right-wing “New Labour” clique enjoyed lavish donations from big business and an endorsement from the press emperor Rupert Murdoch, this time the ruling class was desperate to prevent a Corbyn government. Yes, mistakes were made, as explained in other articles in this issue; but Labour lost above all because of the four-year barrage of poisonous filth hurled at its leader.
Let’s cut straight through the fog and put this result in context. Just as the media commentators lied shamelessly throughout the campaign, so too from the moment they announced the exit poll figures at 10 pm on 12th December they have willfully misrepresented the result with their constant mantra that this was “Labour’s worst performance since 1935”. They base this comparison solely on the number of MPs elected. (Even on that measure they are wrong: Labour won 202 seats this time, compared to 154 in 1935.) But how can they reconcile using this criterion with their constant dismissal in any other context of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system as unrepresentative of public opinion? (While there are flaws in any voting system, what is intrinsically undemocratic about the idea that each area should be represented by the candidate who wins the most votes?)
Surely the most obvious measure of a party’s popularity is how many votes it gets? The truth is that in this election, under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour won over ten million votes – more than under Miliband in 2015, Brown in 2010, or even Blair in 2005 – when he won! Labour also gained a higher percentage this time than in 2010 or 2015. Only in 2017 – also under Corbyn’s leadership – did Labour do even better. And at this election too, Labour still commanded a majority among those of working age, and an overwhelming majority of the youth.
Labour’s defeat was not an isolated phenomenon. Look around Europe at the downhill slide of all the traditional workers’ parties: the Swedish Social-Democrats at 22%, the German SPD at 20%, the French Socialist Party at 6%, the Italian Communist Party annihilated… In this context, under a left leadership Labour has done well to retain the loyalty of 32% of the electorate.
Labour’s collapse in some of its historic strongholds should not have come as a shock. Since the closure of the coal mines, shipyards and steelworks, Britain’s former industrial fortresses are reduced to ghost towns. Only five years ago, 41 out of 59 seats in Scotland were still held by Labour; now, three elections later, it clings on to just one. Just as it was a revolt against a corrupt provincial bureaucracy that wiped out Labour in Scotland, so likewise in Northern England, decades of decay and neglect had reduced the ageing population to rage and despair. The Scots had a national flag behind which to rally against London. Lacking the status of a nationality but no less determined to defy a remote and callous establishment, much of northern England voted to break from Brussels.
THERE IS NO THIRD WAY!
Corbyn’s defenestration should not be allowed to prompt a wave of demoralisation. There are no grounds for panic. Hundreds of thousands joined the Labour Party in recent years to support Corbyn and the left. Even if 90% of these now drop out, that still leaves tens of thousands of socialist campaigners. It was always going to be a long fight, and inevitably there will be setbacks along the way. But we don’t run away at the enemy’s first shot.
The result of the current leadership contest is still unknown. We applaud Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon for upholding at last the elementary democratic rights of the membership to determine party policy and to choose their own candidates to represent them at elections. A renewed witch-hunt based on yet more spurious anti-semitism frame-ups will only blow the Labour Party apart. Any attempt to wind the clock back to the years of “New Labour” will be doomed. Since the financial crash, there’s no room left for Blairism, “triangulation, a “third way”. Where are Chukka Umunna and his cohorts today? Why else did Tom Watson resign? What happened, come to that, to Jo Swinson, “our next prime minister” one day and not even an MP the next?
The historic task remains: to carry through to a conclusion the transformation of the Labour Party into a united socialist party. That’s what most of the membership want. Many of the Parliamentary Labour Party have been a disloyal impediment. Where there are irreconcilable and fundamental differences, there is nothing reprehensible about accepting the need for a parting of the ways.
AN ERA OF CRISIS
It would be electoral cretinism to imagine that this election result condemns us to five years of passive victimhood. This is not a terminal defeat; just another symptom of today’s extraordinarily volatility. We’ve entered into a new, stormy and dangerous era.
The Johnson government comes into office in the midst of a terminal crisis. It will prove helpless in coping with the multiple catastrophes lying ahead: the harsh economic consequences of a “hard Brexit”, a new worldwide financial crash, the coming tidal wave of discontent. The mass of the population will not stay tame or silent: the pauperized zero-hours workers, the cash-starved pensioners and disabled, the migrants and the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, above all the youth robbed of a future.
The “United Kingdom” of “Great Britain” will soon find itself reduced to a fragmented money-laundering offshore-island tax haven, with the secession of Scotland almost inevitable and steps towards Irish reunification far from unthinkable. In this context, the paroxysms of the royal family are symptomatic. The general dislike of Charles and Camilla, the disgrace of Prince Andrew, and the virtual abdication of Prince Harry are not accidental. Once the current sovereign is gone, a historic constitutional crisis ending in the collapse of the thousand-year-old monarchy is another distinct possibility.
The record of previous Tory prime ministers will hardly reassure Johnson. Heath, Major, Cameron and May all survived barely a single term of office. Even Thatcher found herself reviled soon after winning her third successive election. It will hardly console him to look across the globe either: just months after winning spectacular election victories, Modi in India faced two successive general strikes – the biggest in world history – and Scott Morrison found himself universally despised, with Australia literally in flames all around him.
Under a Johnson parliamentary dictatorship, years of volatility, conflict and crisis lie ahead. It could crash to its downfall amid an explosion of protest. Around the world, from Europe to Africa, the Middle East to Latin America, tens of thousands are marching on the streets, braving police bullets and in many cases overthrowing their oppressors. Britain is teetering on the edge of the turmoil into which countries throughout the world have plunged. Let Boris Johnson chortle in his moment of glory while he can. He least of all will be equipped to withstand the worldwide tsunami of revolution.