Labour rally, Islington. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Labour rally, Islington. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

As part of a series of opinion pieces on the election result, Brian Heron looks at where it went wrong for Labour

Labour’s defeat in the 2019 General Election is definitive. Labour is the only major party that reduced its votes across all of the UK countries, regions and towns since the 2017 election. Labour took approximately 10 million votes on the 12th of December. In 2017 it had achieved 13 million votes. While the Tories won more seats in Parliament, their overall 14 million votes were not much greater than Teresa May’s overall numbers in 2017. But their successful attack on the working class vote in England and Wales in the current election changed their pattern of votes into seats in Parliament. The 2019 election was not ‘won’ by the Tories, it was ‘lost’ by Labour.

However Labour’s loss of votes is not just the victim of smart footwork in key marginal constituencies, organised by the Tories electoral gurus. Nor was it just Labour’s late and lack-lustre approach to Brexit. Its 6% decline in many of the big cities speaks volumes that have not yet been fully understood. The core of Labour’s wholesale defeat goes deep; deeper than Labour’s obvious weakness about Brexit.

Starting at the very end of the election campaign, an odd contradiction emerged as Labour’s left leadership began to redefine themselves and the party that they were trying to build. In the last months of 2019, a new political language emerged on the Labour left. Labour was not now so much a party as a ‘movement’. Labour’s program was not a Manifesto so much as ‘a Transformation.’

It was all meant to reflect the large size and democratic power of Labour’s membership and the shift by Labour from narrow politics to a change in society. But two separate and largely contrary ideas began to circulate. The journalists poked away at cultish aspects of Momentum, Corbyn’s necessary support organisation that held back the impact of the large right-wing of Labour MPs. At the same time, barriers after barriers were being erected against possible political forces that might have been gathered, including some splits from the more radical parties and movements that were outside of Labour. There were openings to those making a big impact on society, as with the current wave of strikes, Extinction Rebellion and the ecology movement, the Greens, or the Peoples Assembly. Meanwhile the 2019 Manifesto had ‘transformed’ itself into an ideology, a new way of changing society. Yet it was an ideology that was meant to stand the ground with millions of people because it had a guaranteed budget!

So we had a ‘movement’ that drew lines against real possible movements – like the left that campaigns for a socialist Scotland; and a ‘Transformation’ that was defended to journalists as a successful European capitalist model, like Germany. Suddenly left-Labour had become an ideological circus – and utterly incomprehensible to millions. The success of the 2017 Labour Manifesto was in its definition. ‘End Austerity now’. And millions understood. They backed the state ownership of services. The NHS proved it worked. By 2019 defending the NHS had become who is offering the biggest money pile, and, and, and… Many voters lost their way between ‘Transformation’ and their day to day life. In the end they did not believe the ‘Transformation.’ They wanted it specific and straight. 

And that was the weakness. Make the successful 2017 Labour story again, but bigger and therefore better. Not so. The great changes that inspired populations across history, were those that sought for the political and economic ideas that rose to the level of the concrete. ‘Land, peace and bread’ said the Russian revolutionaries. ‘Now, win the peace’ said Attlee.

The self-created contradictions of Labour’s left have a fundamental origin in the contradiction of the Labour Party itself; in that the party as a whole shelters not one but two classes in society. It is encompassed, as a party, by a state and an economy that clashes against the interests of one of those classes. Most Labour MPs, officers and trade union leaders support Britain’s status quo. And that cannot and may not be ‘transformed’. It can only be broken out of. Even the left of the party can be soaked by Labour’s fundamental history of patriotism, defence of the state and Britain (not the people) first. This class problem at the core of the party, dominated by a big majority of MPs, can only now surface more furiously than ever.  It will try to finish what remains of Labour’s left – only, of course, trend up destroying the mass support, the energy and the effort that kept any real mass Labour Party alive.

A great deal of the legacy of Blair (and the Milibands) are behind Labour’s defeat in 2019. Part of the reason why a large number of would-be Labour supporters sincerely doubted the Labour left’s cornucopia (which appeared like a childish competition with the Tories) is the shrieking silence by Blair, then by Brown and then by (both) Milibands as they covered up the seminal role of the banks in the 2008 crash. Instead, the madness of the Tories that Labour caused the crash and created the need for austerity became ‘common sense’ instead. This idea remained lodged in the minds of millions of British people.

Why did all parts of Labour cut their own party’s throats, for more than a decade? Because the banks and finance corporations were (and remain) the centre of British capitalism. And this fact was still only whispered, even by Labour’s left leaders in 2017 and now. The ‘Transformation’ spoke relatively nothing about opening the terrible truth regarding Britain and its financiers. How was the City to be nationalised? How can the tax havens be raided? Instead we had a proposal that state finances would create a new economy from money gathered from the top 5%. Does anybody believe the top 5% would shell out? Where, and most importantly how, would the Labour led state get its money? Would the billionaires really give it all up? This mess was a concession made by the left to Labour’s leaders’ murky history and their failure to attack the banks. But that meant no fundamental or believable base was created for the 99% to stand on, at least when it came to proving you really can move large amounts of wealth from the billionaires to the poor.

The failure to call-out the core of British capitalism and the need to break it down was yet another reflection of the unresolved contradictions of the Labour Party, including among much of the Labour left.

Which brings us, finally, to Brexit and to Corbyn.

There is a good reason why the Brexit issue and the anti-Corbin offensive combine. Starting with Brexit, the argument that the 2019 election was won by a brave, apparently ‘to die for’, Boris Johnson ‘getting Brexit done’ hides the really dramatic decision that was made inside the British ruling class following the extended catastrophe of Teresa May. As everybody knows Boris himself took the route of Brexit because it was his only hope to be Prime Minister. What has been hidden is the determined shift in the City of London and the multi-nationals to wreck Corbyn’s Labour Party as the first and most critical priority – if necessary dropping the Tory grandees and accepting for the time-being the Brexit route. After the 2017 General Election, Corbyn’s Labour Party was getting stronger and it had to be destroyed at all and at any costs. Ruthlessly reorganising the Tory Party and accepting the maverick Johnson was the cost worth paying. After all, Johnson would happily come into line in a future soft trade treaty. It was this ruling class led, absolutely fundamental step, not Brexit itself, that destroyed Corbyn’s Labour.

Johnson was successful in splitting millions of working class voters on the Brexit issue. It should be remembered however that the Tories were not much further in their triumph than the vote they achieved under ex PM May in 2017. It was Labour’s failure to marshal theirvote from 2017 that gave the Tories their majority. The Labour vote fell most dramatically in the Midlands and the North East of England. But it fell right across the board. Labour made mistakes over Brexit but did not fail only because of its unsuccessful Brexit policy.

The 2016 Brexit referendum has changed its character over time. Leaving the EU itself was, and remains, simply a frame that surrounds different pictures. It was the political and economic context creating an emerging new leadership in society that shaped the real content of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

In 2016 the huge majority of those voting to leave the EU nominated immigration as their reason for their vote. Voter’s anger with the establishment was expressed by hostility to immigration as the perceived reason for the collapse of vital services and reducing income. It was not surprising. Immigration was the immediate and daily sight that was new and which was apparently changing daily life. It was Blair who had set up the conditions for that particular social confrontation. In other words the initial wave of Brexit was undoubtedly an attack on the elite and their system – but from the right.

More. The 2016 Brexit mushroomed the significance of the extreme far right – who took the leadership of the Brexit movement under its banner of radical racism. The majority of Brexit voters were not fascists or even radical racists. But their initial leadership was. And you can still hear the echoes of the 2016 referendum when mainly Asian heritage children are told that they have to ‘go home’ when Brexit comes. Brexit meant an end to ‘political correctness gone mad’ and a huge eruption of racist slurs, comments and attacks – extended mainly to Asian heritage people. In many impoverished towns and cities the old working class culture, built by communal work and by the effects of the trade unions, had gone. This was the context, the real content of Brexit in 2016. Which meant among other things, that the working class had been split. Millions in the bigger cities, among young people, in Scotland and London, and among virtually all the ethnic working class, voted, holding their noses, to remain in the EU. 2016 was about breaking up the momentum of the national racist right in British politics. Voting ‘remain’ was anti-racist act and was essential. 

Meanwhile, the ruling class in Britain turned away from the social dangers that were emerging. Their main party, the Tories, flew into chaos. Leaders of the establishment bleated about how Brexit would mean poverty. For the poor that had little effect because they were already there.

What began to shift the 2016 Brexit was social impact of the rise of the Labour left and Corbyn. Racist attacks are still higher than 5 years ago but while the new Labour left could not substitute for the missing millions of trade unionists, they shifted the character and the political debate in society through 2016 and 17.  First the youth were mobilised and second the growing extreme far right were minoritised and then isolated. During this time the Tory government did nothing to break the far right. In part they absorbed it. PM May continued her extreme immigration measures.  But by 2018 even Farage himself denounced the active far right and stated that Brexit was not primarily about immigration. The polls showed that immigration was no longer the main reason to support Brexit. This leap forward, led by the Labour left and anti-racist movements, changed the 2016 Brexit in society, at least its context and therefore its real meaning.

The nature and role of the EU is stark and obvious. It is a global centre of modern capitalism. But Brexit has rarely been about that – at least in its British aspect. Brexit has turned into a mirror of the shape of UK society. As Brexit shifted away from racism so its resistance to the British status quo, always there, became the dominant issue for Brexit supporters. Farage noticed this shift too, a shift that meant a new effort to get on the new bandwagon. The prominent issue became the democratic right of millions to be heard and supported. The tottering May government became the symbol of an elite that had failed.

It was then that Labour left missed the trick. Shocked by the enormity of the gathering onslaught on Corbyn, the new content of Brexit was missed. There were three reasons for this; first ‘No Deal’ now became the new flag for the far right. It appeared to the Labour left to be another extreme right initiative that had to be defeated at all costs. ‘No Deal’ offered the end of all positive rules and regulations regarding work and labour. Towards the end of May’s premiership ‘No Deal’ looked like a likely outcome. But it turned out that ‘No Deal’ was a diversion. Nevertheless many Labour MPs, including even those hostile to Corbyn, could ‘unite’ to get a new referendum, which seemed a necessary and sensible response to the disaster of ‘No Deal’. Second, there was fear that the Labour left would lose millions of young people who were opposed to Brexit unless there was a concession to their original views and third, it was argued that a promise of another referendum might even coalesce both sides of the working class. (There was quite a large aspect of ‘uniting’ Labour’s MPs about this too.) The Labour left had led the move to change the direction of the 2016 referendum. But it began to retreat from any positive policy to break from the EU (which would have been an immediate and essential act should Labour get into power and carry out its Manifesto promises!)

In 2018 the ruling class decided on their main move, even accepting for a time the danger of ‘No Deal’. The Labour leadership were thrown into retreat and their defence by the most ferocious attack by the media and large sections of privileged society in modern history. The Labour leadership missed the shifting understanding and depth of the new, democratic question for Brexit voters. Even more importantly, the strength of that fact among those who voted against Brexit was also missed. The Labour left had detached its leadership from the working class both across the Brexit supporters and those non Brexit voters who had decided to uphold the democratic rights of the Brexit voters. Brexit had moved on. The Labour leadership was going in the wrong direction.

Would Labour have won or have at least managed another hung parliament if it had risked ‘No Deal’ and insisted on maintaining the Brexit result as it stood? Unlikely. By 2018 Labour’s new left had lost its momentum in the wider society, bombarded by a focused onslaught set up by the owners and managers of wealth and power in Britain and their allies and mouthpieces. The left were immediately hampered by the structure inside their political organisation where dominance remained with pro-capitalist MPs, despite the Party’s membership and supporters. Labour was fighting inside as well as out. Even if the Labour left had retained their 2017 manifesto promise to support the result of the 2016 referendum, Corbyn’s attempt to find a version of Brexit that shielded ecological and working class conditions would have rapidly been defined as ‘dither and delay’ and would almost certainly have lost to Boris’s ‘at all costs’ program. This was the effect of the direct action of a ruling class that put the destruction of the Corbyn-led Labour Party above all other costs, including, temporarily, Brexit.

Corbyn’s name emerges well from out of the Labour left’s failure. He focused on key possibilities longer and more coherently than many of his team. He stayed as closely as possible to the 2017 manifesto promise to accept the referendum result. At the same time he fought publicly and fiercely against racism (until he was constantly side-winded by the farcical claim that he was an anti-Semite.) He was the best of Labour’s left by far. And the assault which he suffered demonstrates, if it ever needed to be demonstrated, that those who genuinely challenge the system of capitalism have to prepare for every possibility thrown at them from the most powerful forces on earth.

Significantly, and yet again, the the absence of nation-wide working class organisation prevented a coherent and widely understood response to the establishment, the elite the political class, the captains of capitalism. Corbyn became remote and regionalised, as his personal authority and sincerity was torn to pieces. A large part of the base of the Labour Party could never be enough. Instead, for millions of people, Corbyn became the very elite that he was desperately trying to defeat.

The next article will address the possible future for socialist organisation on a wide scale now that tens of thousands stand inside the wreckage of Labour’s left. In essence, Momentum and those sympathetic MPs that remain socialist need to avoid using their energy and motivation parlaying with Labour’s furious right – which intends to smother their colleagues (if they stand firm at all.)  The way to use the gains that have been made is to accept the spilt between Labour’s two opposite classes. It will come anyway in the form of expulsions of Corbyn’s supporters. Instead Momentum and its allies need to work towards a new type of socialist party, with some MPs if at all possible, but most of all together with the working class communities and organisations as they struggle day to day and prepare for action against a (very early) future, run by a dangerous, trapped, right wing government. In other words begin the leadership of the recomposition of the new British working class – with all of its real and actual decisions, in Scotland, Northern Ireland being part of building the new movements, erupting against the goals of Capital across the continent.

By way of a conclusion so far … The most basic reason of all why the Labour left has failed is because it could never win – not without grasping the new and fundamental political reality of modern capitalism (which is decisively not contained in Britain by any particular stand on Brexit!)

As has been suggested earlier, the left social democratic approach to decisive reform is no longer viable (which is not to say that the effort and struggle for reform is worthless. It remains the most effective activity that humanity can make.) The problem is that the political structure of social democracy is an obstacle to progress. It is part of the delay and is forcibly shared with those who seek the opposite.

Post WW2, after the defeat of fascism and the strength of the USSR vis a vis the US and Europe, millions of workers and their organisations in the West were able to make substantial changes to their conditions and their lives. It was not at all a direct product of the poisonous Stalinist regime as such, but rather the impact of the heroic efforts of the Russian people and the weakness of Western capitalism in a devastated Europe while facing the rise of anti-colonialism. across the world.  Social democracy was at its heyday in the West under these circumstances. But such conditions are long gone.

Capitalism has gone global and finds labour across a world among the cheapest conditions. Finance has cut its ties from production and from any particular nation. Nations now are organisations which are safety nets for smash-ups in the disassociated flow of capital. The social democratic route to substantial reform is now closed. Revolutionary action is now the route to reform, and working class organisation in the new societies of the West needs to be redefined. It is virtually impossible to return to the days of Attlee or even Roosevelt. The consequences of the new dispensation are both good and bad, and are already all around us. Syriza (not the Greek people) flopped because they had to take a revolutionary step to win their reforms. Direct and often violent action against the state in France by the Gillet et Jaunes was the means to directly move 6 billion Euros a year back to the French people.

This is not an argument against organisation. A short term positive response by the state to gather time is just that – not any sort of long term change. In France, Macron is now embattled in a bitter and prolonged struggle cut pensions. And the centre of this battle is the French trade unions.

Unfortunately the political use of the term ‘betrayal’ has now spread widely, from disappointed sections of the far left across the world, to the day to day politics of the western mainstream. If the argument about Labour’s left is reduced to ‘betrayal, across the whole group, or its leaders or even all those under pressure from the right wing of the Labour Party, it simply tells us that only a tiny expert number can produce the the right way for humanity.

The fundamental issue here is the nature of the structure of Social Democracy. It is a vehicle that had an historic success in the West and now cannot deliver a serious inch of social progress. Accordingly, under leaders like Blair, the social democratic Labour Party becomes the operative shadow of the Tories. In many parts of the West, social democracy has shrivelled. In others it has genuinely transformed into total capitalist parties. Corbyn’s new Labour left tried to struggle out of its Social Democratic history. But, as even Brexit shows, it becomes immediately outflanked by the organised action of big Capital. This experience contains many mini ‘betrayals’ and more mistakes, but that is not the point. Brexit was never going to be a Social Democratic victory. And now the new Labour Party leadership is about to devour its left, its mass base, its challenge to ‘the system.’ As a consequence the British Labour Party may well end by by devouring itself. Many social democratic parties in the West have done just that.

The melee in Britain will begin with the demand that Momentum be dissolved, as a foreign carbuncle on the now healthy body represented by the Chuka Umunna’s of this world. That will start Labour’s collapse. The process will happen behind the big news of Boris Johnson’s restored honeymoon with the main leaders of Capital in the UK and a fresh wind for Calais. 

It is an essential and even desperate purpose to maintain the thousands in Momentum and all the bits and pieces of Corbynism that remain, inside and outside parliament. It is truly unlikely that will happen within the walls of the dying Labour party.