Jeremy Corbyn speaking for Global Justice Now. Source: Wikipedia Jeremy Corbyn speaking for Global Justice Now. Source: Wikipedia

As a tumultuous year in British politics comes to an end, Alex Snowdon takes a look at the implications for the year ahead

2015 was the worst of years and the best of years in British politics.

The cementing of Tory rule, thanks to the Tories’ somewhat unexpected general election victory in May, was the bad news. The good news was the upheaval in the Labour Party: since September we have had a Labour Party leader who actively and consistently opposes the Tories, signalling a renaissance for left-wing politics.

Which of these major developments – May’s bleak milestone or September’s more hopeful milestone – signposts a long-term epochal shift is not yet settled. British politics is at a crossroads. The long-term trajectory largely depends on what we do in 2016 – on whether we can successfully shift the political balance to the left.

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election was the biggest breakthrough for this country’s left in decades. It was a breakthrough for all of us, regardless of organisational affiliation. It represents a profound political shift in the labour movement and a defeat for the old neo-liberal orthodoxy in Westminster politics.

The Corbyn victory has been combined with a rapid growth in Labour Party membership (which has nearly doubled since May’s general election) and a leftwards shift in the Labour Party grassroots.
This provides an opening for left-wing politics and for advancing the social and political struggles that socialists care about.

There are undoubtedly obstacles to such advances: from the marginalisation of the left within the Parliamentary Labour Party to the Tory government’s attacks on democracy and workers’ rights, from the continuing low level of trade union struggle to the relatively unorganised, disparate character of Labour’s burgeoning left wing.

Nonetheless, these recent breakthroughs should be treated as a boost to our struggles against austerity, racism and war, and in pursuit of greater democracy, equality and social justice. The question of how to advance our aims is up for debate, but it seems obvious that relying solely on electoral politics is a non-starter.

The next general election isn’t until 2020. Local elections provide a barometer of public opinion, but in the wake of massive cuts to local government nobody could claim that councils possess the means to radically affect people’s lives. It is almost inevitable that Labour will fare badly in May’s Scottish parliament elections, as the Scottish political landscape has been transformed by the independence referendum and the SNP’s growing dominance.

The London mayoralty is winnable for Labour, but the election for it in May is hardly a UK-wide focus. The EU referendum, whenever it happens, will see Labour campaigning for the same outcome as the Tories, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens. For those socialists who are Labour members, these electoral battles will naturally be part of their activity in 2016, but making electoral politics the primary focus is barely even an option.

This is a paradox because the main form of recent advance for the left has been the Labour left membership surge and Corbyn’s rise to the leadership. Labour, for a great many, appears to be the obvious vehicle for left-wing politics and the obvious site of political struggle. But if the surge is to be turned into anything durable it surely means a huge focus on wider movements, avoiding the traps of being narrowly focused on elections or becoming preoccupied with internal party battles.

The left can therefore move forward in 2016 through sustained and serious campaigning on the biggest political issues of the day. This includes mobilising to stop the bombing of Syria and to scrap Trident, putting the case for investing in public services not wasting vast sums on weapons of mass destruction. It also means striving to turn the tide against Islamophobia and putting the arguments for welcoming refugees.

In the field of economic policy, Labour’s left turn is a boost to all those opposing austerity. We should take this as encouragement to our efforts to prevent further cuts to public services, social security, pay and pensions. It also creates greater space for putting alternatives to austerity, from the million climate jobs agenda to increasing taxes on the rich. A particular challenge for the unions is blocking the Trade Union Bill’s assault on workers’ rights, which is part of a wider anti-democratic offensive.

It is sometimes said that the Labour Right’s power currently resides inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, while Corbyn’s power is in the party grassroots. There’s much truth in this, but Corbyn’s base extends way beyond the Labour Party itself – and his strength depends as much on what happens in the movements and the unions as on the Labour Party’s internal battles. An excessive focus on internal party politics is, as Corbyn himself appears to recognise, no way to win arguments in the country at large.

The fate of Corbyn’s Labour won’t be determined purely by what does or doesn’t happen inside the Labour Party. Furthermore, the advancing of the left won’t simply happen through the Labour Party, especially as the focus of most political and social struggle shifts decisively away from the electoral field.

Pursuing our aims will depend on movements that unite Labour Party members and thousands of people outside Labour. It means going way beyond the limits of parliamentary politics: building mass movements of protest and re-building the power of trade unions.

Socialist politics – so long derided in the mainstream, yet now firmly part of the political conversation – must be at the core of these movements. It is through the power of protest, allied to the dramatic shift in mainstream Labour politics, that the left can demonstrate its relevance. This is how we can win real victories and pull the whole centre of political gravity to the left. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).