Grenfell – the symbol of 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Natalie Oxford Grenfell – the symbol of 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Natalie Oxford

The rollercoaster of polarisation was in full flow this year and shows no sign of relenting, writes Lindsey German

What a year! A shock upset for the Tories who went to the country within two years and lost their majority. The Ulster unionists back playing a central role in politics. The eating of humble pie by most of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour critics, and the prospect of a left Labour government for the first time in decades. All against a background of intractable divisions and problems over Brexit.

The mess which is British mainstream politics reflects the impasse of decades of Thatcherism and Blairism – and also the inability of those successive governments to deal with the problems of British capitalism. The sordid sale of public assets and the enrichment of a tiny minority, the featherbedding of private industry while the public sector is impoverished, the ruthless ban on building social housing while ‘luxury’ private estates mushroom everywhere, an infrastructure which fails to deliver the most basic services, and industry which depends on cheap labour and worsening conditions. This is what Britain looks like today, and it is showing, to millions of people.

Symbolic of everything rotten with British society was the fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. Coming so soon after the election, it highlighted the abysmal treatment of council tenants and their housing, the contracting out of everything to the profit-driven private sector, and the total disregard for the poor by the rich in one of the wealthiest areas in the world. It was not just the human and social tragedy of Grenfell that was so telling, however, but also the inability of capitalist society to deal with this tragedy – in stark contrast to the help from volunteers, neighbours, community organisations and faith groups. It is telling that six months on, most families have not been rehoused in permanent accommodation.

Grenfell came against a background of growing inequality in Britain and against growing disquiet about future jobs growth. While Britain has relatively high employment, the quality of such work is another matter, with minimum wage, precarious, low skill work becoming more common. The high levels of employment include those who work part-time but would prefer to work full time, and those women who have been forced to work longer as the retirement age has risen. On all criteria, such as health and social care, education and housing, the ability of British capitalism is increasingly found wanting.

Hence the electoral shocks that Britain has experienced – first the closeness of the Scottish independence referendum, then Brexit, and then the big shock of this year to the media and political establishment, the relative success of Jeremy Corbyn in the June election. Called by an overconfident Theresa May in the near certainty that she would prevail, instead, the election process exposed her as weak, incapable of appearing to have a warm or even human thought.

Corbyn played a blinder in the election, determined to put forward policies of social ownership, equality and protection of public services. His policies and his honesty struck a chord, and his ability to mobilise huge numbers of supporters to canvas and get the vote out made a big difference, winning seats unexpectedly and turning safe Tory seats into marginals.

But whatever the strengths of the campaign, and they were many, it could not have succeeded to the extent that it did without this background of a failing society and growing public discontent with it. It must be said that this was a defeat for the labour right as well as for the Tories, since they had confidently expected a humiliating vote for Labour and the immediate dispatch of Corbyn to be replaced by a more amenable middle of the road centre candidate.

More broadly, they are so wedded to the failed model which has dominated the Thatcher-Blair years and since, that they genuinely cannot envisage a left alternative succeeding. So they continue with the parliamentary charade, obsessed with Brexit and manoeuvres around it, and deeply lacking in understanding or empathy for the people who actually voted them into their privileged position.

The same the whole world over?

The politics of the past year could be summed up as: no one likes neoliberalism anymore, and its political representatives struggle for survival, but the political outcome of this is a polarisation from the neoliberal centre parties towards both left and right. In this polarisation, far right parties are so far stronger than those on the left. This is in part because their ideas find a constant echo throughout the media, and respectable politicians rush to adopt tougher measures against Muslims and migrants in order to win back some of their votes. This, in turn, pushes society further to the right with the danger that this further marginalises the left.

If the past year has seen political surprises and upsets throughout the developed world, Donald Trump’s Presidency alone has been enough to boost these far right tendencies. His tweets of videos first put round by the far right group Britain First show that he is deadly serious about building a domestic base outside of mainstream Republican support, and policies such as the Muslim travel ban and wall on the Mexican border reinforce this view. But it is also the case that Trump so far has not been able to notch up concrete achievements. Most of his legislative programme has been a flop, his support for Ray Moore in Alabama has been an embarrassment, and he seems incapable of holding on to his advisers and political appointees. Fascism it is not, but it is a serious attempt to build a far right base which can only help the fascists.

This pattern has emerged in a number of countries – with the AfD in Germany, the FPO in Austria, in Poland with Law and Justice, and in Hungary. All use familiar scapegoats – Muslims and migrants _ to increase the level of racism and to build their organisations to a wider milieu than has been the case with hard fascist organisation in recent years. The levels of misery felt since 2008 and the financial crash make easy pickings for some of these ideas.

Objectionable though this sort of politics is, it also underlines the lack of alternatives from the mainstream parties – who still don’t really get what is going on – and the desperate need for a left alternative internationally which can challenge the politics of despair. What is certain is that as long as the policies of austerity and inequality continue, there will be this political fight to win over those suffering through the crisis.

For the left, this is not an academic argument or debate. It has to be carried into workplaces and communities, schools, universities and housing estates. Socialists can’t just talk a good fight, they must help lead a good fight against injustice and inequality as well. This means fighting for an election and a Corbyn-led Labour victory – but also not relying on that being able to achieve this goal on its own.

And they call this civilisation

Governments, rulers and employers like to promote the idea that they are egalitarian. Meanwhile, they worship and justify the most unequal society imaginable, in the name of profit. This year has seen some horrific examples of sexism and sexual harassment, begun with the Harvey Weinstein case but now identified in all manner of professions and areas of life. Racism and Islamophobia are now a regular part of mainstream political discourse.  Sexism and racism are not aberrations inside capitalism, but an integral part of it. Sexual harassment happens to most women for much of their lives. Black and ethnic minority people experience racism as an everyday occurrence.

War, climate change, displacement and migration, shortages of food and water, persecution of minorities, terrorist attacks: this system doesn’t deal with them except in the most cursory way, and sometimes makes them worse. There are solutions to the problems of the world, but they require working people imposing their solutions and control, not allowing those who created this mess to carry on.

Peace and goodwill?

There won’t be a briefing from now until early January. I hope everyone is safe and warm, and that you are with loved ones and not having to work too hard. So wishing everyone a Happy Xmas and all the best for the New Year. And in 2018, we should fight to make peace and goodwill a reality all year round.

Lindsey German

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’.