People's Assembly demonstration, 20 June 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons People's Assembly demonstration, 20 June 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Looking at how we got to where we are, Tony Dowling argues that the left must pivot to the streets

It was great while it lasted: four years of campaigning with the prospect of electing for the first time a genuinely internationalist socialist-led Labour government. Sadly, however, it was not to be.

As Sky branded it, and much of the media followed, it was after all a ‘Brexit Election.’ 

There were great efforts by Labour to turn the focus of the election campaign onto the NHS, education, homelessness, nationalisation of public services and justice for the WASPI women, but to little avail. The electorate was angry, had a score to settle and they were not going to be persuaded otherwise.

They voted Leave in a national referendum and parliament didn’t Leave, so they voted in a parliamentary election mostly for the party that said it would Leave. Of the 60 seats Labour lost, 52 voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and 6 were Scottish seats.

However, as Marx said, men make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. And given these extremely challenging electoral circumstances, it is remarkable and worth noting that around a third of electors, over 10 million people, still voted for a hugely radical party manifesto led by a socialist.

In fact, more people voted for each of Corbyn’s manifestos than for any of the previous three Labour manifestos! 

There are a number of reasons it was not to be and many lessons to be learned, which have been addressed elsewhere, including in Lindsey German’s briefing and articles by David Moyles and Brian Heron, but it is now important to consider what is to be done.

And in considering what is to be done it is worth reminding ourselves some of how we got here.

Back in 2015 after Ed Miliband’s election defeat, no-one expected there to be a left of centre candidate for the Labour leadership, let alone one who was a socialist, life-long anti-racist and pro-Palestine campaigner, and rooted in the social and trade union movements, chair of Stop the War Coalition as well as being the most high profile critic of Tony Blair’s New Labour neoliberalism and disastrous intervention in Iraq. 

And of course, there shouldn’t have been a left candidate – Corbyn’s candidature was a fluke, and only happened because the PLP had little political awareness and thought he was an unelectable nonentity. 

So how did he get elected? 

He was elected because many millions were suffering the effects of five years of Tory austerity (with the collusion of the Lib Dems) and were angry that there was little genuine political opposition to austerity coming from the other Labour party leadership candidates in the wake of the 2015 General Election defeat. As Corbyn said before his candidacy, none of the other candidates in the leadership race had addressed the essential problem that austerity would have continued had Labour come to power.

And after a brief period of disillusion and disappointment at the Tories winning the General Election in May 2015, there had been an outpouring of anger and opposition with big protests, demos and meetings all around the country, culminating in the quarter million strong ‘End Austerity Now’ national demonstration in London on 20th June, organised by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

The keynote speaker at the demonstration, just 5 days after his leadership nomination as an anti-austerity candidate had barely scraped the necessary number of endorsements, was Jeremy Corbyn, who declared: “It is possible to have a different world!”

Following much media coverage of the demonstration, Corbyn noted that the People’s Assembly had, after 5 years of Tory/Lib Dem cuts, finally put ‘austerity’ and ‘anti-austerity’ into the national media narrative. And it had. 

Not only had that demonstration put ‘austerity’ into the national media narrative, but the anti-austerity movement that had been built by the People’s Assembly would now provide much of the organisational and mass support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign. A campaign that within days began an exhaustive tour of the country with huge rallies and hustings events attracting thousands upon thousands to hear Corbyn speak wherever he went. 

And, to the disbelief of the entire political establishment, he won. Because his campaign resonated with that anti-austerity movement. 

Sadly, however, we now appear to have reached the end of that electoral adventure. But austerity and its effects are still very much with us. 

Whilst a further general election is unlikely for another five years, as Kevin Ovenden has commented in the Morning Star, “the yearning for an end to the baleful consequences of neoliberal capitalism and austerity is as strong now as it was in 2017” when, once more to the disbelief of every single media and political commentator, Corbyn shocked the establishment by winning the highest Labour share of the vote for 18 years and the biggest increase in Labour vote since 1945.

And although, as John Rees has noted, the 2019 General Election was an electoral defeat and a serious one and it will have serious consequences, it is, he suggests, no more than that. Instead of disillusion and panic on the left we should look back at where we were at the start of this process “when that remarkable surge into the Labour Party from the social movements began this phase of radicalisation.”

So where were we then? We were actually in midst of the ongoing breakdown of the neoliberal political consensus. A process which began with the anticapitalist protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999, the subsequent world social forums, the anti-war movement in the years after the 9/11 attacks and then the growth of the anti-austerity movement after the global financial crisis of 2007/8, all of which played a part in creating the broad movement which precipitated the thrusting of Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour Party.

But while the attention of the British left has been on campaigning for Corbyn in the parliamentary and electoral arena these past four year, as Rees says, “the rest of the globe has seen a remarkable resurgence of street protests and a rebirth of the social movements on issues ranging from climate change to transport fares, from pensions to racism.”

In fact, despite the understandable focus on trying to get Corbyn elected, street protests around climate change, the NHS, racism and austerity have been sustained in Britain, even if at a lower level. But with the defeat of the Corbyn project now is the time to make a turn to the streets once more.

At the Dangerous Times Festival organised by Counterfire at the end of June 2015, just a week into his first leadership campaign, Corbyn said:

“What I want to see at the end of this is a stronger left in this country, a social movement opposed to austerity. On international policy, we need to build a different foreign policy that isn’t based on military global reach, nuclear weapons, nuclear annihilation or starting one war after another.”

We must now ensure that we urgently build, rebuild and reinforce that social movement, that foreign policy and set out a vision for that “better world.”

Over ten and a quarter million people voted Labour on 12th December. They should be the people we immediately begin to connect with to build resistance to the coming attacks from Johnson’s reactionary Tory government. 

And it is crucial that we don’t dismiss those would-be supporters who did not vote Labour this time. There must be no sneering, mockery and derision as has unfortunately often been the case during the Brexit debates. What is needed is the recognition that people’s ideas change in struggle. So we need to draw people into struggle. As Kevin Ovenden put it, “The labour movement has to put its own radical position not as an electoral offer to working people but in the course of common struggles that do not write off as reactionaries vast swathes of people and whole towns.”

But we must also harness to the social movements those hundreds of thousands of new Labour Party members and the enthusiasm shown by the Corbyn-supporting activists who have flocked to the party since the leadership elections of 2015 and 2016. Many, many thousands of them turned out in unprecedented numbers to campaign magnificently day-after-day during the election period.

What must not now happen, is that those thousands of activist campaigners retreat from the streets and wait patiently for the next general election. After a well-deserved rest they need to remain active and campaigning, turning outwards to the streets to build the social movement to which Corbyn aspired.

That shouldn’t, of course, mean the Labour party substituting itself for the movements by what one activist identified as “busting our asses trying to bring NHS activism into the party.” Turning outwards should be about Labour members and groups engaging in activism with local and national campaign groups like the Keep Our NHS Public.

There are many campaign movements already in existence with which to engage, such as the People’s Assembly, Stop the War, Keep Our NHS Public, Climate Change campaigns, Stand Up to Racism and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. But in coming months there will need to be consideration given to the further building of anti-austerity and anti-Tory movements. And, of course, there is a need to seriously strengthen links with trade unions and for union activists to encourage their unions to become more combative, as they were in building the massive TUC ‘March For The Alternative’ in 2011.

Above all, as journalist Jonathan Cook says:

“We must head to the streets – as we have done before with Occupy, with Extinction Rebellion, with the school strikes – to reclaim the public space, to reinvent and rediscover it.”

Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.