Politics in this country has shifted decisively to the left, but we must make the most of it
We are living through an extraordinary political moment. The government and, more importantly, the whole ruling order are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy. And the working class are in the throes of a re-emergence of class consciousness in a manner whose only recent modern parallel is the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
Crises like these do not come along every five minutes. They emerge from a long process of incubation which involves successive phases of development. In this process, each phase impacts on, and combines with, the phase which follows it. Let’s try and sketch this development.
Long train coming
The radicalisation on which the entire current moment rests began in 1999 with the emergence of the global anti-capitalist movement in Seattle that year. It grew through the anti-war movement that resisted the Afghan and Iraq wars and the subsequent conflicts of the prolonged war on terror. The characteristic of this phase was growing mass antagonism to neo-conservative foreign policy and neo-liberal economic policy. This was further sharpened and focussed by the emergence of mass opposition to austerity after the 2008 financial crash.
The predominant organised forms of this resistance were social movements ranged against establishment political parties of both the traditional right and the Blairite social democratic centre. There was very little reflection of this anger within the electoral system of parliamentary politics. In fact, participation in both elections and electoral parties declined substantially in this phase. Ady Cousins analysed this process brilliantly in 'The Crisis of the British Regime'.
The mood of revolt only broke into electoral politics with the Scottish referendum in 2014. This was the first eruption of anger into the electoral sphere. It was rapidly followed by the huge rise in SNP membership and an uptick in Green party membership. We analysed this in 'The Return of the Party Member' and other articles.
But the really explosive effect of this turn of events was the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in the wake of the Tory victory in the 2015 general election. This, and the 2017 election success has, for the time being at least, routed the Blairite corps which had gutted the party of any pretensions to radicalism.
The Brexit vote, called by David Cameron to keep the Tory party united, provided an even greater rupture of the establishment system. The historic party of big business delivered a popular vote against the very policy which big business most wanted: to remain in the European Union.
Despite all the warnings of the left Remainers, the consequences of the Leave vote have been disastrous for the right. Cameron was gone within hours; UKIP has crashed and burnt; Cameron’s successor (who we were assured by the left Remainers would be strong and stable long before it became her mantra) is weak; an early general election (which we argued was likely) was indeed called; and that election, far from being Jeremy Corbyn’s nemesis, was a triumph for the left.
That election result
So, what were the factors behind the astonishing election result of 2017? The most widely canvassed explanation is that it was the youth vote that came out for Corbyn. There is an important element of truth in this. The numbers registering to vote between the election being called and the cutoff point for voter registration were the equivalent of 24 parliamentary constituencies. Not all of these were young people of course, but many were. And not all young people voted Labour, but a majority did. No doubt the youth vote divided on class lines.
But equally important was that Corbyn split the UKIP vote, denying the Tories all the electoral benefit of the collapse of the Farage project. This was because many UKIP voters backed the party because they mistook it for an anti-establishment force. When Corbyn provided a genuine rather than a fake anti-establishment option some third of UKIP voters backed it.
Social media has also been credited with a large part of the Corbyn victory. And this too is true in part. But let’s not forget the essential role played by an institution many thought to be stone-cold dead: the mass political rally. These were at the heart of the Corbyn victory, a daily proof of his popularity and a standing contrast to May’s media-managed, devotees-only appearances. Social media is at the end of the day only a means of communication. It needs something substantive to communicate. The rallies (and the radical manifesto) provided that content.
Nor should we forget that in a campaign which, unprecedentedly, encompassed two major terrorist attacks it was the anti-war politics, and Corbyn’s capacity to express them in such a charged political atmosphere, that not only neutralised a natural Tory line of attack but turned that very attack back on the Tories themselves. It was a seminal moment and Corbyn, facing down senior colleagues urging a more conservative line, emerged strengthened not weakened from it.
Finally, the unions played their part, perhaps none more so than the NUT. The focus on education, the groundbreaking online campaign over schools cuts, is credited with influencing 750,000 voters in this election. It was a political intervention which paid off handsomely.
Grenfell is not an accident
The Grenfell Tower inferno is a tragedy whose political effects are still unfolding. They will continue to do so for years to come. There is so much to learn here about the impact of free market economics in the housing sector, about the divide between rich and poor, about outsourcing and sub-contracting, about cuts and privatisation.
But perhaps more important than all this is the impact of the response of the local working class community. When government, both local and national, was paralysed, they acted. They cared when the government couldn’t care less. They organised when the government was disorganised. They spoke out eloquently when ministers were silenced by incompetence and cowardice.
A very palpable and, for the government, dangerous mood is abroad: it is the sense that working people are better than their rulers. Better organised, more articulate, more caring, more politically conscious, more moral.
Such moods usually only develop in very heightened industrial and political struggles, like the miners’ strike. But it stalking this government today, waiting for the chance to strike it down.
Parliamentary arithmetic will not provide an answer to the current political crisis. Even with the help of the bigots of the DUP, the Tories cannot construct a strong or stable government. But neither can Labour and any possible allies do so either. Only another election will break the log-jam.
But neither the Tories or the DUP are in any hurry for a new election in which they face serious defeat. So, just as it was the streets and the social movements that fuelled the rise of Corbynism in the first place, it now falls to the streets to drive the Tories from government and force a new election.
Mass protest, strikes, and demonstrations are now of the greatest importance. The unions must be rebuilt. Some 13 million people voted for Corbyn, yet only half that number are trade union members. That gap must be closed.
Both to get rid of the Tories and to defend any future Corbyn led government, the politics of mass mobilisation are vital.
Millions are waiting to end the Tory government and vote Corbyn into office. But waiting is our enemy. Waiting gives the establishment and the Tories time to regroup. Waiting gives the Labour right time to sharpen their knives and re-emerge to get rid of a leader they hate as a matter of principle. And the more successful he is, the more they want rid of him.
Counterfire has always believed, as revolutionaries must, that ordinary people have the power to run society for themselves; that change is never handed down; that it is never legislated into being, but won from below by mass struggle.
We want to see Corbyn succeed, to get as far and achieve as much as can possibly be achieved through elections. But this will not happen, nor can it be defended, without mass, independent, self-activity by working class people.
In adversity, Grenfell has shown what we are capable of achieving. Now we must unleash that power in an unstoppable movement that sweeps the Tories from power.
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.