John Rees looks at what can rise from the ashes of the election
In the run up to the election we argued that it was always going to be about Scotland. That turned out to be even more true than we thought at the time.
Labour's defeat has more than one cause. But there is no doubt that its biggest single cause is the loss of 40 MPs to the SNP.
Ed Miliband's explanation this morning, that Labour was 'overcome by a wave of nationalism', echoes what many of its activists are saying online. But this just won't wash. The SNP surge is not a reactionary nationalism. It is anti-austerity, anti-war politics that has taken a nationalist form. The defeated Labour shadow cabinet member Douglas Alexander was much closer to the truth when he said that the people of Scotland had chosen to oppose the Tories but had rejected the Labour Party as the vehicle with which this could be done.
That rejection of Labour had everything to do with its alliance with the Tories in the No campaign during the Scottish referendum last September. Labour voters will put up with a lot, but seeing their leaders openly campaign for the Union alongside the Tories is not one of them. Electing the neo-conservative Jim Murphy as leader of Scottish Labour after the referendum was the final signature on the suicide note.
The consequences of the SNP landslide will be different north and south of the border. The radical left in Scotland need to insist that the debate about independence and a second referendum is re-opened. The SNP landslide is so great that it is hard to see how it cannot promise a second referendum in the Scottish Parliament elections next year. This will allow the radical voice about what kind of Scotland independence will bring to re-ignited. This is essential because the SNP's best radical days will all be before independence. After that it will become simply a government of a small capitalist state where the normal rules of politics will reimpose themselves, including the emergence of a domestic right wing.
South of the border the Scottish crisis is a Labour Party crisis. Labour should have embraced the SNP surge and moved left to accommodate it. Just as in Scotland, clear left politics were attractive to voters. John MacDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas all increased their majorities by significant amounts. The only left winger defeated was George Galloway for typically idiosyncratic reasons in Bradford West.
But in general it was the indistinct and half baked Miliband message that failed. The 'a few lefty bits, but mostly righty bits' was hardly a message which clearly cut through the election debate. The hardline Unionist rejection of the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon's offers of a coalition simply made Miliband's moments of left rhetoric look insincere. And, of course, central to this disaster was Labour's refusal to challenge the Tory lie that they had caused the economic crisis and to lay the blame at the door of the bankers.
Miliband's failure to fight austerity is also a large contributory factor in the rise of the UKIP vote, although the Parliament long support from the media and the Tory right wing should not be forgotten. In addition Labour's pandering to the right over immigration and its failure in many Labour heartland areas to combat the anti-immigrant rhetoric benefited only UKIP, as its high votes in many Labour areas signifies.
There will now be a huge crisis in the Labour Party and its outcome will determine the possibility of serious left electoral politics. In the short term it will require at least a partial break from the Labour Party by the unions to create a viable left electoral alternative. What the results of the existing far-left groupings in this election, all deposit losing percentages of 1 to 3 percent, demonstrate is that none of them alone, or even in combination, can provide a basis of this. This is not fundamentally because left policies are unpopular, indeed many clearly command significant opinion poll support. But the propagandist approach of standing without rooting those campaigns in local communities and issues, and not building the mass campaigns which might lead to success, as was done with Respect a decade ago, has been shown not to work. Indeed many on the far left do not actively participate in united mass campaigns against war and austerity, although of course their rhetoric is suitably correct.
A break from Labour would need to involve substantial forces including unions and MPs, and will depend on many contingent factors on which we cannot predict and which will in any case take time to work through. One useful start would be for the unions to establish a labour representation committee that could work for and help finance candidates with a left agenda.
The Greens had a moderately successful result, but in the course of the campaign rather dissipated the pre-election surge in membership rather than capitalising on it. But in any case the Greens, their good candidates and left policies notwithstanding, are in no way organically connected to working class organisations or communities. Their performance in pushing through the austerity budget when they controlled Brighton council is one expression of this fact.
So for the time being, electoral politics will not be a fruitful field for the left. But then it's only in recent years that anyone on the left thought it should be. Historically electoral politics was considered both a secondary and tactical question. Secondary because other forms of struggle are more important. Tactical because its only worth standing if there is a chance of a decent vote or a viable organisation to be built. Its time to rediscover this basic sense of proportion. Indeed this will be essential if we are to make progress.
The Tories appear, and to an extent are, stronger. But this bears examination. They only gained by first using the Lib-Dems as a human shield and then feeding on the corpse. The Tory majority will be much smaller than the combined Coalition majority in the last parliament. The Tory share of the vote has only increased at the Liberals' expense. Indeed in terms of share of the vote the much derided pre-election opinion polls were not that far out. The Tories are on about 34 percent and Labour on about 31 percent.
This still leaves the Tories trying to govern with only a third of the electorate supporting them, and with the combined votes of Labour, the SNP and the Greens opposed to them.
The task now is to give that majority an extra parliamentary representation in direct forms of struggle. The People's Assembly is the only serious organisation able to do this. Every activist should redouble their efforts to build the People's Assembly and especially the 20 June national demonstration.
Beyond this there is a need for the kind of clear strategic thinking of the kind that the revolutionary left at its best is capable of delivering. Too much of the far-left, some for electoralist reasons, some for semi-autonomist reasons, some for sectarian reasons, has fought shy of this task in recent years.
But now is a moment for clear, historically informed analysis. Its a time for effective and well thought out strategy. Its a time for constructing principled but flexible unity in action. An attractive and decisive revolutionary left will be an essential component of rebuilding the left in all its forms.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.