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  • Published in Analysis
Jeremy Corbyn at a protest in support of the junior doctors' strike. Photo: Flickr / Garry Kinght

Jeremy Corbyn at a protest in support of the junior doctors' strike. Photo: Flickr / Garry Kinght

John Rees on how to assess the election result 

Don't get me wrong, I know this is the most important election since 1979. Every last effort that can be made to maximise the vote for Jeremy Corbyn should be made.

One needs little imagination to foresee the understandable gulf between the euphoria that would greet a Labour victory and the depression that will be the result of a Tory victory. But before that moment overruns us it is worth thinking if either of these reactions are sensible or useful. 

The British establishment rarely reacts to its own successes and reverses in this way. It understands the long game. It persists in the face of adversity and it coldly exploits its victories. Or at least this is what it attempts.

One of the establishment's sons of Empire, Rudyard Kipling, expressed it best: 

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two imposters just the same.

So, let’s take a longer view.

What the election campaign has revealed

Elections illuminate the balance of class forces, but in the least direct light. The parliamentary process, party alignments, and distorted media coverage, all tend to obscure the class forces at work in elections. But this has been less true of this election than of most because Jeremy Corbyn and Labour's manifesto, represent a more direct challenge to the neo-liberal, neo-conservative dominant ideology than anything put before the British electorate by a major party for a generation.

That the election campaign has been a huge success for Labour, irrespective of the final outcome, is undeniable. But the success is due to the fact that a broad anti-austerity, anti-war consciousness pre-existed in very large sections of the working class. What the Corbyn campaign has done is to crystallise this consciousness and make it a polarising reality inside establishment politics.

That he has been able to do that so successfully utterly refutes some views that were given credence in the labour movement before the election.

The myth that Jeremy Corbyn is a weak leader and so unpopular that he should be replaced with someone 'with the same politics but more presentable' is surely dead. Corbyn has stuck to his principles and dealt with all the media could throw at him in a campaign which, uniquely, encompassed two terror attacks. Corbyn's history of activism stood him in good stead here. No other MP, except John McDonnell, has those reserves to draw on.

Another myth that should bite the dust is the idea that Jeremy should stay away from foreign policy and concentrate on domestic issues. Even if this were desirable or principled, and its neither, it simply isn't possible. The Tories love the chauvinism and nationalism that can be mobilised around war and talk of war. They are never going to say, 'OK guys just get on with nationalising rail and we won't mention Trident, war, or Islamophobia'. They will bring the fight to you even if you try to avoid it. But we shouldn't avoid it. The Tories are deeply unpopular over the issues connected with the War on Terror. And every time Jeremy has stood up to them over this, mostly recently over the links between the Libya war, the Saudi regime, and terror attacks, he neutralises the Tories and turns the fire back on them.

The third canard that has been exposed in recent weeks is that the election would be all about Brexit. This is what the Tories banked on. So did UKIP. And from the extreme Remainer side, it’s what the Lib Dems and the Greens banked on. Some on the left shared the EU obsession. They were all wrong. The electoral parties that made this the ground on which they fought have all declined in the polls, or flat-lined, as a result. Most of the electorate took the view that Brexit was decided at the referendum and that this election was about other, more important, things. To the degree that they wanted to discuss Brexit many thought Labour's People's Brexit was a sensible option, tying the domestic agenda to the EU exit plan.

The final dismal projection refuted by the course of the election campaign is that politics were irreversibly moving to the right, that Brexit and Trump were the same thing, and that fascism was imminent. It’s not that right wing tendencies aren't clearly present in modern politics. They obviously are. It’s the failure to see that this isn't the only, or dominant, story. What we face is polarisation on the left and the right, not a linear right wing evolution (let alone counter-revolution, the real meaning of fascism). Of course, from this polarisation the right could emerge victorious, but they haven't yet. And calling a defeat before the battle has been concluded makes victory harder. Panic and catastrophism are no help in the heat of battle.

There has however been a series of projections made at the time of the EU referendum that have proven correct. Counterfire and others argued that the result did not mark a wholesale or irreversible shift to the right. We said it would be the end of UKIP. We argued it would be the end of Cameron's prime ministership. We argued it would divide the Tories. And we argued that there would likely be an early election. This is how events have unfolded. So, what now?

Prospects

Win or lose, the Labour right have not gone away. As Corbyn surges in the polls even some of the Labour right, most recently Alan Johnson, who have been vitriolic in attacking him for months have decided they may have ‘underestimated him’. But even now some, step forward Jess Philips, cannot keep the bile down. If the election is lost it will be these people, more than any other single factor, who are to blame.

Further left, the Guardian has suddenly had a sub-Stalinist change of line. The editorial and the columnists are now loyally telling us that we must vote Corbyn to stop May… something that the Guardian’s daily attacks on Corbyn during his leadership, including by its most left-wing columnists, have made infinitely more difficult. 

The fair weather now effecting these friends will not last much longer than polling day. If Jeremy loses, the knives will be unsheathed again so quickly that you will barely see the blade glint in the sun before they are buried in his back.

But even if he loses, Corbyn should stay. This transformation of the left and of British politics is greater than any single election, no matter how important. No other figure does, or could in any foreseeable timescale, represent that transformation as well as Jeremy Corbyn. 

If he wins a very different array of forces will be brought on to the field to stop him. These will include forces that have not, or only partially, taken him on so far. Despite Tory incompetence in dealing with the police and security services, they will not be friends to a radical Labour government. Neither will the courts and the civil service. The media, the banks, and the representatives of corporate power will mount ever greater efforts to oppose, destabilise, muzzle, incorporate and suborn a Corbyn administration.

The Labour right will consciously aid such efforts. Indeed, they will be its public face. They will, in the end, as they did with the SDP in the 1980s, prefer to disable Labour by splitting it than accept a Corbyn programme.

This would be a tragedy since the Tory party is both politically extreme and divided. The Financial Times is already predicting civil war among the Tories if May gets less than a 50-seat majority. The election has deepened every problem that May thought it would solve.

It looks like the only certain outcome of the election at this point is that all minor parties will be irrelevant and that both major parties will be severely internally divided. Which brings us to the most important point.

Parliamentary politics are not all politics 

It was the mass anti-austerity and anti-war movements that created the mood expressed by the rise of Corbynism. This then flowed into the Labour Party. But Jeremy would not be running such a successful campaign if that mood were not far wider than the Labour Party. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of new left wing members of the Labour Party. But around 10 million people are just about to vote for the most left wing manifesto that has been put in front of them since 1983. Most of them are not, and will not become, Labour Party members

Their hopes and aspirations, needs and desires, will not and cannot be limited to electoral politics, never mind the endless and unwinnable war to control the Labour Party as currently constituted. And they cannot and should not have to wait.

Win or lose, extra-parliamentary struggle will be decisive in our future. The unions need rebuilding, the anti-austerity movement that has played a remarkable role in the campaign needs strengthening, and, with Trump in the White House, the Stop the War Coalition must be re-energised.

Each of these depends on their being, at their heart, a group of activists who are committed to working with a broad range opinion in the labour movement. But it also depends on those activists holding the view that power comes from below, from mass mobilisation, from militant action…not simply, or even mainly, through elections and parliamentary debates. Such a view is most consistently held by revolutionaries since they take the view that self-activity is not only the best way to wage the struggle today but the only effective way to transform society as a whole.

And for any current of opinion to be politically effective it must be organised. That is why we continue to build an organised group of revolutionary activists in Counterfire.

However important this election, it is merely the curtain raiser for a much more serious struggle.

John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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