The Point
Last updated: 30 July 2017.

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Is Britain about to have its own October 'Revolution'?

Green Party Activist Adrian Cruden celebrates and analyses the tumultous events of the General Election...and sounds a small note of caution.

 

OCTOBER COUNTRY

“October is the fallen leaf, but it is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again.”

 -  Hal Borland 

I was driving home from the station after working with the Green Party in Sheffield Central, hard fought by our former leader Natalie Bennett, fatigued from the day and apprehensive of the night ahead, when the somehow ever-calming tones of Jim Naughtie announced the BBC/Sky Exit Poll. “The Conservatives will be the largest party, but will not have a majority…”

I whooped aloud. Yet, although the Corbyn surge had been palpable on the doorsteps and streets for at least the last fortnight, I still didn’t dare to assume anything. But later, at the Kirklees Met count in Huddersfield, the glum faces of the Tory workers cemented the fact that Mrs May’s great gamble to become the British Erdogan had failed and failed badly. In a borough where a few weeks earlier there had been talk of going from 3 Labour MPs and 1 Tory MP to 3 Tories and 1 Labour, the outcome ended up with a clean sweep for Corbyn: the stone faced Tory MP who lost and the would-bes who went home empty-handed lighting up at first-hand the unexpected outcomes that were popping up across the UK.

   Tories lose Colne Valley

Unexpected? Certainly at the start of the campaign, with the Blairites still sounding off and the Tories’ hubristically planning an electoral coup, the outcome we ended up with seemed fantastical. So the euphoria of a Tory Government denied its seemingly inevitable victory is both understandable and deserved. The blow to the Establishment, delivered by a coalition of young and old, reversing the divide-and-rule strategy propagated by the Tories post-Brexit, is substantial and to read of tearful Theresa anxiously awaiting the blessing of the Red Hand is a joyfully terrifying mix of farce and tragedy.

And yet, in the midst of left-wing celebration and a chipper Corbyn popping up everywhere to announce the end of the ancient regime, a note of caution which may surprise some of the more vocal celebrants.

Labour did not win the election. Labour remain a long way from reaching the level of support it needs to win outright. And if the Tories cling on long enough to implement the boundary changes, Labour will by default be even further away from the winning-post.

No problem, some will say, pointing to post-election polls showing Corbyn equal to May finally in popularity stakes and his party now six points ahead. Yet this ignores the long-established pattern of a short-lived swing in favour the outperformers in elections – just look back at the temporary rises in Lib Dem showings after by-election successes in the 1980s and 1990s, or UKIP’s after Euro-election advances through the 2000s. Whether in six weeks, six months or two years, there is little left for Labour to squeeze on the figures of last week, and arguably a further advance in Scotland could in fact propel the Tories back to an outright majority.

The headlines suggest that this election has seen the British electorate in England and Wales and even partially in Scotland, re-embrace the two-party politics of 1945 to 2010. The SNP shed 19 seats, UKIP evaporated, the Greens stalled on the Brighton ring-road and the #Libdemfightback didn’t get out of the paper bag. The 82% Tory/Labour showing was the highest since 1970.

            Were you still up for Clegg?

And yet, there can be little doubt of that electoral volatility has never been greater. Quite aside from the polls themselves, graphically outlining first the UKIP collapse into the arms of the Tories, followed by the rise of Labour, anyone on the ground could sense the swirling, changing instincts of many voters. From Ukippers in the former BNP strongholds in North Kirklees switching to strong and stable Brexiteer May before finally delivering near record majorities to Labour MPs; to Green switchers on polling day telling us in Labour-held Sheffield Central that they were “voting for Jeremy” (when in truth they were helping re-elect a profoundly anti-Corbynite MP), the absence of the tribalism beloved of political activists was decisively absent from many electors. While Labour had rebuffed Green and Nationalist offers of a progressive alliance against the Tories, it seemed many voters had decided to make their own. Ironically though in a slew of Scottish seats this handed SNP constituencies to the Tories, yet another cruel twist of our lottery of a voting system.

And this is where, now, the Left need to take stock. We may rightly ridicule the spectacle of the Coalition of Bigots for a few days or weeks yet. We may wonder if the DUP-sponsored regime will make it past the start of the Brexit negotiations; we may furiously fulminate at any return to Direct Rule in Northern Ireland as the Good Friday process unravels; and we may continue to try to will PM Corbyn into reality. But in truth, the Tories are as resilient as cockroaches at survival and it will likely take far more than “one more heave” to dislodge them in favour of a genuinely progressive government.

The greatest risk now is that Labour continue on a tribalist path which excludes all others. In Scotland, Dugdale’s proxy approval of tactical voting against the SNP rather than the Tories, as well as the backwash of the Corbyn surge itself, clearly boosted Conservative numbers in Westminster by as many as five or six of the seats lost by the Nationalists. There needs to be a recognition that Corbyn will need the SNP if he is indeed to ever walk into Number Ten.

In England, Labour’s refusal to even discuss a pact with the Greens may have cost them half a dozen new MPs by one analysis of seats where the Green vote exceeded the Tory majority over Labour. By contrast, the Greens’ decision to stand down unilaterally in Labour’s favour on nearly three dozen seats, and perhaps more controversially in a few for the Lib Dems, seems to have swung nine Tory seats to the opposition, decisively depriving the Theresa May of her majority.

 

                   Caroline Lucas campaigns

The time for a formal progressive alliance is almost certainly gone, as indeed it was as soon as Corbyn denounced the SNP and insisted Labour would try to unseat Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. The tragedy could yet be that by doing this, he has blunted the anti-Tory tide and buttressed his own detractors within his party, who remain largely in place and who will in due course re-emerge, while freezing out potential political soulmates. In any case Labour’s invocation of their constitutional requirement to always fight every election everywhere is a troubling sign of bureaucracy trumping the generosity of spirit that should be at the heart of a genuinely pluralist movement for social change.

Yet it would be pathetically sour grapes for those of us outside Labour to not welcome and celebrate the successes of last Thursday. The surge in the final fortnight was breath-taking and Jeremy Corbyn played every card right, his genuine radicalism shining through and striking a chord even with those Brexiteer ex-BNPers in Batley who hopefully all along were more raging against the effects of liberal capitalism than embracing the racism of Griffin and Farage. Just as the juxtaposition of Trump and Sanders’ voters in last year’s US elections showed that rightist populism is only effectively neutered by a socialist antidote, Corbyn’s rise, finally winning back a big chunk of the Kipper vote, shows we are on a journey leftwards. Still, it is one with a far from straight path and with the destination as yet unknown.

For underpinning the election outcome, the same concerns continue. The same shifting tectonic plates that threw up Cleggmania, Occupy St Paul’s, the BNP bounce, the IndyRef revolution and the SNP Westminster tsunami, the Green surge, the march of the EDL, the rise and fall of Ukip, Brexit and now Corbyn – all these remain in place, grinding up against each other to produce ever more unpredictable outcomes. And in this context the real danger is that, as quickly as the Corbynista tide surged forward, so it might ebb to who knows where. To paraphrase Marx, himself channelling his inner Shakespeare, all that is solid melts into the political air and Labour are no less vulnerable to that than any of the previous beneficiaries of the collapse of all that was once holy and profane.

Corbyn understandably wants another election by October; but we need a path not for the next four or five months or years – we need one that will take us on for four or five decades, creating a new socialist consensus for an equitable and sustainable society. As we face a world sliding into deeper and deeper crises around climate catastrophe, resource scarcity and millenarian violence, a party still with Blair, (Hilary) Benn, Dugdale and Tom Watson in its ranks is not yet the transformative answer to Rosa Luxemburg’s eternal question of socialism or barbarism.

Genuine change doesn’t come in a night nor in a fortnight, and the forces of reaction are already marshalling, and not only behind a row of Orange banners and badly tuned flutes. We need to urgently adopt a clear programme to engage and embed the genuine majority of progressive, if not yet radical, left voters in Britain. While the NHS and welfare may be urgent social concerns, absolute political priorities must be electoral reform, heavy regulation of campaign finance, state funding of political parties and democratisation of the mass media.

Only this way can we ensure that, once dislodged under our current system of pretend polls, the Tories and their ilk are driven permanently from power through genuine elections founded on the principle of equal votes and proportional representation. With all votes having the same value, the progressive majority will be able to turn once and for all to the dismantling of the power structures of crony capitalism with no drift to the antiseptic centre nor fear of a Tory regime re-installed by less than a quarter of the electorate. If such a democratic voting system was in place now, Jeremy Corbyn would have just announced his new Cabinet of Socialists, Greens and (temporarily, perhaps) Nationalists. Who knows, he might even have been clutching the repossession notice for the Palace as he kissed the Queen’s hand.

Let’s enjoy the Tories in trouble for a few days yet. We are privileged not only to be witnessing the lingering death of neoliberal capitalism, but to have the chance to participate in its final rites. The old certainties are gone indeed and the choices facing us are growing ever sharper, ever clearer. But euphoria can fade too easily into complacency and in the end deliver only defeat. Perhaps the biggest risk in the internet age is of faddism logging off in the absence of instant gratification. If we want our own October revolution, there’s still a lot of work to do.

So be ready, comrades, but persevere too - it might not be this October.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

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The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

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