The Point
Last updated: 11 December 2017.

...red sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Stiffen The Sinews, Summon Up The Blood: There's More To Come from Corbyn Yet

Scottish Corbyn supporter and YES voter, Bruce Wallace, looks at the scale of Corbyn's achievement, argues that Brexit played a role, and sets the stage for battles still to some.

“In terms of share of the vote, Labour’s result in June will draw comparisons with Michael Foot’s disastrous campaign against Margaret Thatcher in 1983.” – Former Labour MP Tom Harris, Daily Telegraph, 19 April. (Labour’s share in 1983 was 27.6 percent).

“The Conservatives are likely to gain a series of key target seats in the general election, capitalising on their strong position in the polls. An analysis of the 2015 general election results by the Telegraph has shown that around 58 seats in Labour’s North and Midlands heartlands are under threat due to the Brexit effect in the upcoming snap election on June 8.” – Ashley Kirk and Patrick Scott, “data journalists”, Telegraph, 2 June

“We have to face up to the fact that Brexit, in its own way, was a revolutionary act and the trouble with revolutions is that they tend to breed further revolutionary acts as a consequence.” − Dominic Grieve MP, Anti-Brexit campaigner and member of the Tory cabinet 2010-14,  Daily Politics 13 June 

In Beyond Brexit published just after the June 2016 EU referendum I wrote:

“In Britain, amidst the crisis of the Parliamentary Labour Party, we are experiencing a historical realignment of workers and young people in a new mass movement that is crystallising within the grassroots of the party. The traditional far left, which remains outside of the Labour Party, has been sidelined. It’s very difficult to say what will happen next. But if Corbyn survives as leader of the Labour Party, it cannot be ruled out that a new General Election will sweep out the Blairites and bring a radical reformist government into power: a Syriza moment in the world’s fifth largest economy”.

This hypothetical trajectory was the object of some mirth at the time and I’m loathe to say I told you so.  However, we need to move on…as Jeremy Corbyn is now within sight of political power just one year after the Brexit result!

With her coronation as Tory leader following the Brexit result in the referendum in June 2016, May appeared unassailable. But her disastrous result in the UK General Election revealed to all the venal decay at the heart of the Tory government. May was exposed as having her own camarilla closeted with her special advisors. She decided policy initiatives without even consulting her cabinet, and it was her decision alone to call the General Election after publicly stating, time and again, that she had no intention of doing so. Her mind was made up on a walking holiday with her husband somewhere in Snowdonia. The result, she assumed, was preordained - as Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ according to all the pundits, polls and most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

The Tory election strategy was based on the simple idea that May should declare this the Brexit election and call for a national endorsement of her leadership as she began Article 50 negotiations with the EU later this month.  Far from it being the Brexit election it will be forever known as “May’s folly”.

The Tory plan was to target a selected group of voters in key Labour marginals where there was a significant Brexit vote. They doubled down on winning over the UKIP vote and Labour Brexiters, seeing themselves as the natural representatives of jingoistic nativism. It was a no brainer that, as UKIP weren’t standing in many constituencies, their voters would automatically shift over to May as she bathed in the aura of Brexit. Add on the 13 percent UKIP vote and win Labour supporters who had voted Leave then the Tories would win by a landslide as Labour languished up to 20 percent behind in the polls.

Hence May’s verbal diarrhoea about the Tories being the real party of the working class as the hapless PM was teleported into northern Labour constituencies, like Halifax, where she launched her now notorious Dementia Tax U-turn manifesto only to become a national laughing stock.

It might not have been the Brexit election that May had hoped for, but it was Brexit that shaped the political dynamic…as it now mutated into almost everything but Brexit. Brexit was revolutionary in the sense that it was a revolt against the elites and the status quo where a majority in the UK voted against the position of every major political party save UKIP. It forced a major breech in the dam of the Blairite consensus that had dominated British politics for the last twenty years and, as I argued, opened up a significant opportunity for the left to pose an alternative. It had forced one Tory PM to resign and has now thrown a weak government into political and constitutional crisis after their reversal at the polls. The natural party of government can no longer govern as a majority and needs to rely on the DUP just to survive. What a nightmare (for everybody). 

Batley Women's Guild re-enact "The Strong and Stable Leadership of Theresa May"

The Tories completely misunderstood the meaning of Brexit. Rather than being the natural standard bearer for Brexit May was regarded as a typical representative of the political elite and even presented herself as the Strong and Stable continuity candidate of the status quo that Brexit had defied. Her real motivation for calling the election was to bolster support within her own party against Europhile MPs lukewarm about Brexit. It had absolutely no basis in terms of strengthening her position in the negotiations with the EU as Article 50 had triggered the process of leaving by the deadline of 2019, a full year before the end of the government term.

A welcome outcome for the elites would be the crushing of Corbyn and his resurgent Labour Party. If, as was widely predicted, Labour had an electoral wipe out like 1983 Corbyn would either be deposed by another internal coup or the LP would split. A Blairite plot for a split and the formation of a new centre left party was in process. In any case May was assured an easy win. It was just a question of how big?

An extraordinary achievement.

The effect of Brexit on UKIP was predictable and it quickly began to disintegrate after the referendum.  It was never an ideological political grouping but had built up a populist base of support made up mainly of both ex Tory and Labour voters opposed to EU membership. With Brexit decided upon UKIP supporters were bound to examine what was being offered by the other main parties in this election. And this time there was a distinctive choice on offer where many of UKIP’s policies, which are more to the left than most people think - apart from on immigration - cohered far closer to Labour’s electoral programme than the Tories. The result was a split in the UKIP vote along class lines.  So while the Tories benefited to some extent from the UKIP  collapse, so did Labour, especially in  traditional working class areas.

Take the constituency of Hartlepool for instance. In the 2016 referendum this was one of the most hardened Leave areas with 69.57 percent for Leave and only 30.43 percent for Remain. Ideal territory for a Tory coup you would think if the main issue was Brexit?  In 2015 there was a Labour majority of only 3,024 over UKIP who had gained 30.2 percent of the vote and the Tories on only 22.6 percent in third place. Hartlepool was held by Labour in 2017 with an increased majority of 7.650 against the Tories who came second. UKIP’s vote had practically halved. Labour was up to 52.5 percent with an increase of 16.9 percent. The Tories were up by 13.3 percent.

Portsmouth South was a Labour gain in solid Brexit territory, but the size of the surge to Labour was a staggering   21.5 percent with a 9.4 percent swing from the Tories to Labour. The UKIP vote had collapsed and obviously most of it went to Labour who had come third behind the Lib Dems in 2015. A detailed analysis of the election results is needed but they appear to support the point I made in Beyond Brexit that the working class, using the referendum as a conduit, had found a way to give the people it didn’t like (the Tory government and the political elites) a kicking . In the election the working class returned to Labour in droves to deny the Tories an outright victory. Rather than Labour being annihilated it emerged strengthened, while the Tory government has been plunged into another crisis.

40 percent of the vote usually automatically wins a majority but nevertheless it was still the biggest vote for Labour since Attlee’s historic victory in 1945 with Corbyn adding 3 million votes.

True Labour didn’t win a majority of seats and the Tory government continues, but under a zombie caretaker PM with a Tory party riven with division over Europe amidst rumours of an impending civil war. Politically, the result far outweighs the fact that the numbers were slightly against a Labour victory. It didn’t diminish the scale of Corbyn’s political triumph. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, rightly described the result as “an earthquake”.

 Policies Decisive

The leak of Labour’s manifesto a few days before the official launch, depicted by the MSM as showing that the Labour campaign was a shambles and that Corbyn planned to take Britain back to the 1970’s, actually had an electrifying effect. The BBC headlined the key policies such as nationalisation of the railways, post office, the national electricity grid, build 1,000,000 homes, £10 minimum wage, increased taxes on the rich, increases in corporation tax, the abolition of student tuition fees in England and Wales, a fully funded and non-privatised NHS, fully funded social care and the ending of the public sector pay freeze.

Far from damaging Labour it was their manifesto, usually just a footnote in the election process since Blair, that ignited the campaign for Labour. Not only were the electorate presented with a manifesto that attacked Tory austerity directly it also tore neo-liberal economic orthodoxy to shreds. It announced that class politics and socialism were back centre stage in British politics.

The manifesto contained policies that had significant majority public support but, more importantly, was in stark contrast to the Scrooge-like thin gruel of more austerity offered by the Tories; of vicious attacks on the disabled, pensioners, children and just about everybody who wasn’t a billionaire . This programme inspired the youth, workers and layers of the lower middle class expected to share the burden of a disintegrating health and education system. True, the manifesto was relatively modest in many ways - but commentators noted that it meant that it had not just buried Blairism, but that Thatcherism was dead too!

No longer did we have a Tory and Labour Party offering either austerity or austerity -lite. Now we had a struggle between the Tory hereditary foe of the working class in the form of May’s government and a Labour Party that had recovered its soul (except for the leadership in Scotland and Wales for specific reasons).

Corbyn was prepared to indulge in some realpolitik on nuclear weapons. It was a compromise with the Blairite right  to support the £167 billion cost of replacing Trident. Everybody knows Corbyn is opposed to Trident and he had voted against renewing the (non)independent nuclear deterrent in Parliament on a free vote, but it was LP policy to support it. Corbyn was standing as a Labour leader and throughout the campaign he presented party policy not his personal position. Although Labour’s defence policy will come under greater internal party scrutiny in the future, I’m sure.

And then there was the campaign itself.

Labour’s clear left anti-austerity programme created genuine enthusiasm, even fervour, amongst the working class. As the polls started to narrow, it became clear that people had at last seen hope that this brutal Tory government could be beaten. Tory campaign headquarters was warned via focus groups that Labour’s policies were proving very popular but this was ignored, along with critical polls that Labour was dramatically reducing the Tory lead.

Leon Trotsky wrote in 1938, of capitalists "tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed". Here the Tories totally underestimated what the movement for Corbyn, and the man himself, represented. Described by the MSM as “preaching to the   converted” Corbyn’s campaign in June energised a mass movement on the political plane in opposition to the Tories. Mass rallies, sometimes only at a day’s notice, had turnouts in the tens of thousands. Captain Ska’s  “Liar Liar” remix (you can’t trust her. Tories Out!) went to number two in the independent music charts (the BBC banned it) as the Tories tobogganed with their eyes closed towards an electoral disaster. They received the biggest shock in the history of British politics. All the better that it was completely unexpected.

Corbyn has now emerged as a Labour leader of profound historic significance, in the tradition of Thomas  Paine, John Bright, George Lansbury and Keir Hardie; a very British phenomena of the outsider, anti-establishment troublemaker who just won’t go away, no matter what’s thrown at him.

What about Scotland?

Alex Salmond was a victim of the Tory recovery − I would hardly call it a resurgence − in Scotland. I was a wee bit sorry to see this SNP big beast go, especially to a Tory, not least because he had some insight into the obstacles that Corbyn needs to overcome. He thought it wasn’t what lay before Corbyn that was the problem but what was “behind him”. In other words the Blairites of various hues within the PLP and the Labour apparatus generally. In England there was evidence of the party HQ funneling resources to anti-Corbyn candidates while Welsh Labour excluded pushing Corbyn in an autonomous campaign. Other Blairite candidates excluded any mention of Corbyn in their own campaigns only to be flabbergasted that their majorities had ballooned. A wave of faux contrition followed.

In Scotland, Kezia Dugdale distanced herself from Corbyn’s campaign and didn’t even attend his election rally in Glasgow. Labour in Scotland was not doing well in the early stages of the campaign. Then the Corbyn effect, based on the manifesto, took hold in Scotland, bypassing the bankrupt policy of Dugdale, which was to place the defence of the Union above all else. Instead of Labour getting 18 percent as polls had initially predicted they got 27 percent of the vote with big shifts in support back towards them from the SNP in the West of Scotland and Fife. They won seven seats but could have done much better, coming very close in a number of other constituencies.

There were many independence Yessers who gave their votes to Labour on the 8 June. They didn’t endorse Dugdale, but Corbyn and the manifesto. Imagine if Labour had campaigned recognizing the right of Scotland to be independent, and to be prepared to enter discussions with the Scottish government to examine our demand for greater devolution and independence? It could have transformed the political map of Scotland.

It still could transform the political map of Scotland.

Corbyn has a far more nuanced position on self-determination than the Unionist/Blairite cabal leading Scottish Labour. Yes, the manifesto opposed independence but that is still national Labour policy given that Scottish Labour is only an “accounting entity”: not an independent party of the Scottish working class but an extension of British Labour.  Conversely, the rabidly Unionist Dugdale leadership actively unites with the Scottish Tories in blocking the democratic demand of the Scottish nation for self- determination. 

The SNP suffered major reverses, mainly due to polarisation over the national question, which benefited the Tories in their traditional rural areas and that more than cancelled out the limited Labour recovery.

The SNP suffered partly because they were bound to lose ground after the freak result of 2015 where they nearly swept the board save for three seats but their policy of tying a second referendum to the question of Scotland’s membership of the EU has been a disaster.

Like the Tories they have put party before country and played with the possibility of an indyref2 when there is neither a majority in favor of it, nor a proven majority – as yet - in favor of independence. They are being exposed as endangering Scotland’s path to independence and showed themselves up as just another establishment party. Were Sturgeon to attempt to call a premature indyref2 successfully, which I now doubt she will achieve, it would be a major strategic blunder, putting back the chance of independence for decades. The Brexit decision is NOT the decisive issue on which a referendum should be called.

In my view socialists in Scotland have everything to gain from a Tory defeat in the next General Election and I do believe that Corbyn’s Labour Party can win it.  Only a 3 percent swing to Labour nationally could mean a Labour government, and for me that is a mouth watering prospect. Socialists in Scotland should reflect on what they can do to help him achieve it.

We await the next act of this enthralling political drama, whether it be on the parliamentary or extra-parliamentary plane, but burning questions remain. When will May be deposed? Who in the Tory party has the gravitas to take on Corbyn? What are the possibilities of another UK general election?

The Tories will attempt to cling on with RoboMay for as long as possible. They fear, rightly, that in another election, defeat is a real possibility.

All I can say is bring it on.

Tories Out! Viva Corbyn!

 

 

External links:

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