Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Flickr/Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister was unthinkable for the Labour right, and demanding a second referendum was about destroying the Corbyn project, writes John Westmoreland

Judging from the posts on social media this morning our ex-miners have gone from being working class heroes to the proverbial “turkeys voting for Christmas”. Epithets like ‘traitors’, ‘morons’ and even ‘scabs’ are being aimed at people who see themselves as standing by their community, and who are prepared to wear their anti-Labour credentials as a badge of honour.

The truth is, no matter how unpalatable, that Johnson’s “Get Brexit done” is what persuaded many workers in the Labour heartlands to vote for parties other than Labour.

The breakdown of results for the three Doncaster constituencies shows that it was the Brexit Party which weakened Labour’s vote. Ex-miners clearly had some difficulty in voting Conservative. In all three Doncaster constituencies the vote for the Brexit Party is more or less equal to the votes lost by Labour. In all three cases there is a minor improvement in the Conservative vote. 

This tells us that the deciding factor was not the appeal of Boris Johnson, but the desire to reinforce Doncaster’s vote to leave the EU. There is little doubt that if Labour had stuck to upholding the result of the referendum and simultaneously fighting for social and economic justice, the results would be very different.

The view from the pithead

In the 1987 elections Doncaster’s mining villages were even more Labour than before the 1984-5 strike. Even though Labour’s support for the miners was pitiful in the strike, defeat meant that getting rid of Thatcher was crucial to the mining communities. On some streets in the mining villages every house had a Labour poster in the window.

But these days – thirty years on – the mining villages are desolate places. There is no major employer in most villages and social decay is evident. The opportunities for collective struggle is virtually non-existent, and workers feel their impotence more than their strength.

If Labour had put itself at the head of a fight for social justice during the years since Thatcher things would be different. But on every occasion the three Doncaster Labour MPs were missing, and Doncaster’s Labour Council never stood up to the cuts and marketization demanded from the Tories and New Labour in Westminster.

So whether we were fighting the hated Poll Tax, or marching against the war on Iraq, or fighting austerity and the closure of libraries, the three MPs were invariably missing in action. And we had a warning about what might happen. In 2009 Doncaster voted in Peter Davies, a far-right English Democrat, as mayor of Doncaster. This was partly because of a surge in support for the BNP, but mainly because the Labour Council was mired in a corruption scandal.  

There is little doubt that the vote to leave the EU in the referendum was fuelled by a feeling that Doncaster was sinking in a neoliberal quagmire, and that voting Leave would stick it to the Westminster careerists who craved business as usual. 

We are not racists!

When Doncaster voted to leave the EU by 64 per cent, we were immediately branded as uneducated racists. This was the view in the liberal media. However, the right wing media praised our wisdom and patriotism. Nobody ever bothered to find out what we really thought.

The People’s Vote campaign and Best for Doncaster exhibited utter contempt for all Leave voters, and Leave voters were not slow to condemn what they saw as stuck-up, middle class elitists.

Jeremy Corbyn, and socialists on the ground here, did not seek to get involved in the mutual slander. Brexit was turned into a tribal issue by the media and the right wing. 

I personally voted Leave – for socialist reasons. But my friend Trevor, who was a shop steward at the Case tractor plant back in the day, voted Remain – also for socialist reasons. In a vote led by two Tory factions – Johnson/Gove versus Cameron/Osborne – it was inevitable that the views of working class people would be shoe-horned into one or other right wing box. 

The 2017 Labour manifesto was exactly what was needed. A commitment to implement the result of the referendum and a commitment to progressive reforms worked. But the Blairite wing of the party were appalled that Corbyn should almost defeat the Tories, and the demand for a second referendum was a means of screwing Corbyn over.

Class politics

I do not know to what extent right wing social media output was responsible for swaying ex-miners to vote against Labour, but it was visible throughout. 

The right wing used an anti-Marxist class argument. Corbyn, they claimed, is part of a London elite. He is a privately educated millionaire. He despises workers who voted Leave and will sell us out. He cares more for immigrants than for us. This chimed with the media’s obsession with leadership, and Corbyn was portrayed as a weakling who could not stand up to the Remainiacs in his party.

These arguments came up on the door step time and again. The arguments about antisemitism or Corbyn’s alleged links to terrorists was very much a secondary issue. Instead what worked best was creating the idea of working class victimhood – from which only Farage or Johnson could deliver us.

This is the script used by the right throughout the decades, and by Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and Orban today.

The socialist appeal to working class solidarity against the EU bureaucracy and the establishment could have drawn the fangs of the right wing. But Labour’s compromise on Brexit was never going to be enough, even if surrounded by fantastic policy pledges, to break through the desperation and anger people feel on the ground.

Going forward we have to organise, in our communities, around the class issues that Johnson will never deliver on. We will have to fight like hell to stop Johnson’s unspoken and hidden agenda, and that means asserting the need for unity on the streets.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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