The left have cemented their position within Labour, but we must build strength as a wider movement if we are to take on vested interests and really change society
Labour’s conference looks like being the first of his three as leader where Jeremy Corbyn will be treated as leader and not as some terrible interloper from the 1970s who is only there until the Blairites and Brownites regain their control. The right’s prospects look a forlorn hope indeed, as the left wins victories in ward and constituency Labour Parties, looks set to make a number of advances at the conference itself, and is mobilising rallies and a major The World Transformed event in Brighton this week.
So far, so good. The big reason for this is, of course, the election result in June, Labour’s continuing good showing in the polls, and the strength that this has given Jeremy and his supporters within the party. This is a transformation of Labour beyond what anyone would have expected a few years ago and a sign of a radical left-wing mood in Britain which Corbyn has put himself at the head of.
However, while we all celebrate these developments and think about what they mean for the left and the working class movement, we should never forget that the setback the whole of the political establishment suffered, as a result of the election, is, in their minds, only temporary, and they are planning what they can do to regain the initiative and to reassert business as usual in British politics. We should also be thinking ahead now to what challenges will face us, and how to we can take the movement forward to transform British society.
We’re still rather a long way from that, and there are a number of short and medium term dangers we need to think about. The first is the attempt, involving the ‘extreme centre’ regroupment, centring on the question of the EU. This involves a range of political forces but is crystallised by the efforts of Vince Cable to rehabilitate the Libdems and by Chukka Umunna’s attempts to do the same for the Blairites by focusing on the single market and the need to remain in it. The open letter published on the eve of conference wanting a strengthening of pro-EU policies is the latest gambit from them. Interestingly, as we saw with Tony Blair a couple of weeks ago, the Blairites are prepared to try to ditch the free movement of labour in order to make this politically compatible with the referendum outcome. The sacrosanct part of the single market for them is the right of big business to make as much money as possible, as smoothly as possible.
In reality they reflect the position of much of the British ruling class and political establishment, something which now unites Whitehall, parliament and the City: they all now back a continuity remain position, in effect hoping that the ineptitude of the Brexit process, the uncertainty it generates, and the sheer enormity of the task, will lead to Britain staying in the EU by default. This profoundly undemocratic approach bothers them not at all, nor apparently the spectre of a rebooted Farage post-Ukip party which can hope to take advantage of this contemptuous attitude. It is regrettable that the Labour position on this has been softened to accommodate the right, rather than maintaining the People’s Brexit which did Labour pretty well in the election. Theresa May’s Florence speech effectively adopts Labour’s current position – but of course, Labour’s committed Remainer right wing want to push for even more concessions. It is welcome that Jeremy Corbyn has refused to go along with the uncritical attitude of the party to the single market. Cue uproar in media and on the right, now complaining that there will be no vote at conference on this. These are people who had no problem with a lack of votes under Blair and Brown.
The second problem is connected: that since the election there have been many from all sides of the party who want Labour to adopt more of a ‘government in waiting’ stance, avoiding more controversial issues and compromising where possible. There are difficulties with this – pragmatically, it doesn’t work because your enemies come for you anyway, not least by claiming that you are being deceitful; and it is unprincipled, since it abandons long-held beliefs which can be justified by events.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the third one, which is how the left wins, not just a landslide election – which all of us will do everything we can to achieve – but wins on a more permanent basis. That means confronting the massive unelected powers and vested interests who own and control our society and who (as we are seeing over the referendum) simply see difficult votes as another problem to overcome. They will use their wealth, power, military and police, judges, monarchy, Lords, everything at their disposal, to destroy such a government.
That means above all that the left has to understand what it’s up against, and built a strong movement in support of Corbyn throughout the working class and on the left. This is not going to be concentrated in parliament, or even within the enlarged Labour Party. It will involve mass movements which can challenge the power of capital and the ruling class. Too few even on the left of Labour understand this, and there needs to be more commitment to building such movements and to deepening their roots.
It means also abandoning the left’s insularity on foreign policy – issues that Jeremy Corbyn understands completely. We cannot have a left domestic programme without fighting for a left international programme: against empire, war, militarism and arms sales, nuclear weapons. Even in The World Transformed, there is far too little discussion of these issues, and far too little understanding of the centrality of imperialism to British politics. While Labour has a left leader, it does not have a good record on many of these issues, from the war in Iraq to Palestine and decolonisation after the Second World War. But these issues impact on domestic politics all the time, and if left policies aren’t understood and fought for, they can lead to defeats on the domestic agenda as well. And with the deepening crisis in the Pacific, more conflict heralded over Iran, and now Trump achieving the hat trick by threatening Venezuela, these things aren’t going away.
Renaissance woman she is not
What is the point of Theresa May? She made a vacuous speech at the UN this week to a near-empty room. Then she went to beautiful Florence to speak to a room full of British journalists, where she was forced to eat humble pie over Brexit. She is beyond ridiculous, and surely everyone can see this. She may have bought herself some time at Tory conference by trying to paper over the cracks in her party, and because she was forced to go for a much softer longer term Brexit than she planned before the election. Don’t forget she launched her election campaign in April by saying that the EU was interfering in British politics. But her government is weak, divided and at the mercy of the EU27, all of whom have their own domestic interests in gaining political advantage over Britain. As I said above, she is increasingly a prisoner of the establishment consensus on Brexit. I’m sure she’s really looking forward to the People’s Assembly Take back Manchester protests this weekend.
The ghost of Franco stalks Catalonia
The incredible actions of the Spanish government against the Catalans holding an independence referendum next Sunday can only strengthen Catalonia’s desire for independence. The ruling PP party and the Guardia Civil (centralised police who are carrying out much of the repression) are closely identified with the Franco period. Catalan rights were brutally suppressed under Franco. Demonstrators are reportedly chanting ‘no pasaran’, the left slogan of the Spanish civil war. I notice that 'bastion of liberal democracy' the EU has not raised a voice in protest over this attempted coup against the regional government. Except to tell them that if they win independence they will have to reapply to join the EU. Whatever your views on Catalan independence, they surely have the right to vote on it. Solidarity with all of them.
London shouldn’t be open to Uber
I wrote my comments on Facebook about Uber before the weekend and won’t repeat them here, just to say, its whole aim is to undercut and drive others out of business, then increase its prices. It doesn’t do proper safety checks, has already forced closure of minicab firms, treats its drivers like dirt and lies a lot. I just don’t believe its statistics. As my friend Adrian Cousins has said, if there are 40,000 workers, this means 1 in every 200 Londoners is an Uber driver or worker. I don’t think so. US statistics also show that few Uber drivers stick with them for long.
However, the argument about jobs is a serious one. How about Transport for London retraining or re-employing the drivers, ensuring that standards of safety and work are met? There could also be cooperatives backed by the mayor and TFL. But jobs can’t be the only question – we’re in favour of closing down dirty restaurants, or dangerous workshops. The real answer then, is that there have to be socially provided alternatives on decent wages.
I don’t take black cabs often because they are expensive. I sometimes take one very late at night from Paddington back to my home in east London after public transport on the tube has stopped. They take around half an hour even then and cost £30-35, which I don’t think is excessive for a safe driver, one who knows the route, and who has been properly checked. I’m lucky in having good public transport, not being disabled or needing a cab most of the time for other reasons. But when we discuss these questions it can’t just be about us, it has to be about whether the companies and what they are doing are right or wrong, and whether we want to protect rights and standards. Otherwise, there would still be children sweeping chimneys.
Europe’s stable centre suddenly isn't anymore
Germany’s shock election result should worry everyone. The far-right AfD is a thoroughly unpleasant organisation with fascist elements. Its politics include total discrimination against Muslims, a return to ‘pride’ in the role of German soldiers during the Second World War, and insidious racist and nationalist politics. I was in Berlin during the election campaign and their posters seemed to be everywhere. There were two which stood out, one saying we prefer the bikini to the burka, the other a picture of a pregnant woman with the slogan saying if we want new Germans we can have our own. What immediately struck me was the sexualisation of this racism, aiming both at Muslim women and at the deep connection between racism and sexism which exists in society.
Everything must now be done to counter the AfD. They will have lots of seats in the Bundestag but they should never be treated as a respectable party. There should be no cooperation with them in mainstream politics, but also a mass campaign of demonstrations against them and a challenging of their ideas. The AfD themselves have used the streets, constantly heckling Merkel's rallies and demonstrating against migrants. It was good to see a demonstration against them on election night, but this must become a regular feature.
However, as we know with the far right, their success reflects a discontent which goes deeper than the immediate issues. On the surface, the main support of the AfD is over the issue of refugees and migrants, and of Muslims. But they did considerably better in the east of the country, scoring best in Saxony. This is the old DDR, reunified with the rest of Germany nearly three decades ago and promised all the benefits of western capitalism. It hasn't worked out like that, and unemployment, low wages and a depressed economy dominate.
This has proved fertile ground for the right, and the left party, Die Linke, lost support here. In the west, however, and in Berlin, it looks like it gained support. It is important that Die Linke builds a stronger pole of attraction to counter the right, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has done in France. This is particularly true since the main left party, the SPD, suffered as a result of a coalition with Merkel and its own past record of attacks on workers.
The bigger picture is this. Merkel was the strong centre of the EU. She isn't any longer, and in some ways resembles Theresa May. The EU is not the stable entity that those starry-eyed supporters of it suggest. If we look now at both France and Germany there are high levels of instability. Election results are highly volatile, but in every case reflect a massive discontent with the status quo and with establishment politicians. The EU has helped drive this discontent and is no bulwark against racism and the right, in fact, its policies encourage it.
The lesson from Germany is that this can be used by the right to make electoral advances. But the left can also challenge this narrative and try to give voice to that discontent which does not pander to racism. It underlines the importance of Jeremy Corbyn being successful, and of the strengthening of the left.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Scavenger capitalists - weekly briefing
- Look who isn't coming to dinner - weekly briefing
- The antidote to a very weak but very nasty government - weekly briefing
- Britain is hardening its foreign policy
- No one likes neoliberalism: the year that the mask slipped – weekly briefing
- The Irish Question, the EU and the debate about borders - weekly briefing
- Today’s fringe is tomorrow’s respectable racism - weekly briefing