This moment offers an opportunity for radical change, but the path to victory lies in political confrontation, argues Kevin Ovenden
Another council by-election in Hackney, London, last night showed a large swing to Labour. At the same time a recent poll put Labour 11 percent behind the Tories in national voting intention.
An earlier poll put Labour ahead on the raw figures and just one point behind when the figures were adjusted, weighted, to take into account turnout and how that impacted differently on different parties in 2015, when it hit the Labour vote.
But how can it be that Labour is winning a number of council by-elections handsomely but still we get these polling results?
It is important not to cherry-pick results to suit our own wishes. There are ongoing serious problems for the polling companies, which got the 2015 election badly wrong, when it comes to weighting their raw figures.
The problems are greater now than they were before this year’s referendum. Pollsters had developed methods of weighting their results to factor in the turnout, and the differential turnouts between parties, of the 2015 election when 66 percent of people voted.
But the turnout at the referendum was 72 percent. A extra 2.8 million people voted compared with last year’s general election. The turnout was the highest since 1992.
No one really knows what a general election result would look like if that number of people participated in the future.
That said, the polls cannot be simply discounted. Or rather, the standard polls of voting intention cannot be discounted; we now have also a series of propaganda interventions masquerading as polls over other things.
That was the case recently with a YouGov “poll” which purportedly showed declining support among members of Labour affiliated unions for Jeremy Corbyn, but which on inspection could not even show that it had asked actual union members for their opinion of him.
I should add – nor should council by-election results be discounted either. It is symptomatic of a certain pathological pessimism in parts of the movement that positive evidence is disregarded in some quarters.
So there is something of a mismatch between actual electoral performance by Labour and national polling figures.
One reason for that is that they tend to measure two different things.
A council by-election is an actual choice between parties (candidates play a minor role in most cases, except in smaller highly contested wards) but usually with little direct consequence.
National polling intention for the major parties – the Tories and Labour, and the SNP in Scotland – normally is an index of who people want to form a government.
And it is here that the sabotage of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party can have an effect on Labour’s standing in the polls.
There is no evidence that the kinds of values, policy thrust and actual policies promoted by Jeremy Corbyn are unpopular. Quite the opposite. Even on Trident, where there is still minority opposition, there is no evidence that that plays any role in voter switch away from Labour.
If anything, there is strong evidence that even where people say they do not agree with Corbyn there is a lot of support for the idea that he is honest, says what he thinks and is not just spinning like a “normal politician”. That is one reason why friends who think that the way forward is to come up with a series of fudges over those issues where the left is not in a majority are mistaken.
While we need to persuade and win support on those issues, they are not the reason why Labour is suppressed in some of the polls.
The question of who you would vote for if there were a general election tomorrow connotes a series of issues, in a very conventional way, to do with government, party in parliament, leader and so on.
While Britain has a parliamentary system supposedly of cabinet government, it has for 30 years been quite presidential in the role ascribed to party leader and prime minister. That began under Margaret Thatcher and was deepened under Tony Blair.
One of the most powerful attractions of Corbyn in last year’s leadership contest and this is his channelling not just of new policies – declaring that Labour is an anti-austerity party – but a new politics. That is – a challenge to the conventional idea of what politics is.
That remains attractive. But it runs up against the ingrained idea of what a leader/prime minister, a party and a government should look like.
That is where the right wing assault is honing in. At its most sophisticated it concedes that Corbyn is honest and full of political integrity. But it maintains that he cannot be a “real leader”.
On a limited level, there’s some truth in that. A radically democratic break with the old politics is also a break with the manicured, spin doctored, conventional conception of Westminster leadership.
In this thinking a proper leader is “able to communicate” because they are an entirely accepted part of the microcosm of parliament and its surgically attached London media.
Of course, the charge of lacking actual leadership capacity and the ability to communicate is wholly misplaced. There’s an implicit acknowledgement of that when Owen “Pfizer” Smith complains that Corbyn’s support for democratic reselection of MPs is tantamount to him being a “bad boss”.
So which is it? Is Corbyn a gentle soul incapable of strong leadership, or Alan Sugar on steroids?
The “bad boss” line did not originate with Smith. Theresa May used it at PMQs on Wednesday. That was where one Labour renegade after another stood up to congratulate the Tory prime minister over the Trident renewal vote.
That takes us to the central political issue behind the polls. For all the hollow talk of “real opposition to the Tories” the hard right of the PLP are, quite simply, engaged in an extended operation to provide support to the government and to undermine their own party. It began with Hilary Benn leading the pro-war Labour MPs over the Syria vote last December.
Partly it is about suppressing Labour’s polling support. The capacity of the media to move people directly against Corbyn is limited. But it does have the power to amplify the voices of one Bitterite MP after another savaging the Labour leader and pronouncing that the party is imploding.
It is little wonder under those circumstances that polling which is asking whether you want a Labour or a Tory government shows Labour trailing. Most people may never have heard of the Labour MP in question vituperating against Corbyn, but they do know that to form a government Corbyn would need to have Labour MPs supporting him.
The hope is to demoralise Corbyn’s support, play on the deep, conventional view of what it takes for a party to win a general election, and thus to topple him in the leadership election. Then, we can get back to business – big business – under Mr Normal as leader.
But it runs deeper than even the next two months of the leadership contest.
The political collaboration from the Labour benches with the Tory government is firmly rooted. The Labour right shares the essential view of the Remain Tories, as illustrated in the official Remain campaign in the referendum.
That is not going to go away. The Brexit vote has posed the most almighty problem for the government. It has to come up with a coherent strategy for British capitalism. May has reorganised the government and Whitehall to do that.
By placing prominent Brexiters almost like human shields in the frontline of the negotiations with the EU she has skilfully managed to reboot the government and create an air of unity in the Tory party.
Barring a week in September, parliament is not back now for two and a half months. Angela Merkel has agreed to Britain delaying triggering the formal Brexit process for six months.
All of this buys time. But the fundamental difficulties facing the government will not go away. And with a majority of only 16 MPs the secret to the May government’s stability actually lies in the collaboration of the likes of Hilary Benn and his claque on the opposite benches.
A battle of fundamentals
It is about more than immolating Labour under Corbyn in the hope of removing him. It is about squeezing out of political life the new political surge he represents. That is continuing, as the 183,000 sign-ups in two days this week demonstrated, and in the post-referendum atmosphere of greater politicisation it can become a potent threat to the establishment.
That’s why this battle is so big and will be so brutal. It’s also why attempts to mitigate it by coming up with Heath Robinson ideas about how the irreconcilable forces may be united on the Labour benches are futile.
You cannot have, to use the term as Bernie Sanders does, a political revolution in the labour movement and in Britain at the same time as some old-style Westminster fix.
On one level, everyone this week at least paid lip service to the extraordinary feat of 183,000 paying £25 each to affiliate to the Labour Party. Even the pantomime cynic Michael Crick recognised that there is no precedent in British political history for such a phenomenon.
But then he, and other commentators, return to “normal” with a comforting circular argument: Corbyn cannot win a general election, because general elections are won by normal leaders, of normal parties in normal circumstances. The proof? Look at the precedents.
The challenge for the radical left is to be as radical as the unprecedented reality itself.
That means acting in good faith with the developments before our very eyes. The surge for Corbyn is not something that can be bolted on to an essentially conventional political strategy.
But it is also true that it does not come with its own political strategy. There’s a huge desire for a new politics. Yet it runs up against conventional thinking which is socially rooted.
The radical – and politically coherent in the new circumstances – answer to whether Labour under Corbyn can win entails conducting at a mass level an argument about what it means to win. That is an argument which shifts people’s understanding of their own role in the political process and their capacity through collective struggles to win things now – election or no election.
This is a fundamental question which goes far deeper than whether Labour can be shorn of its worst Blairite excrescences.
It touches on the perennial socialist questions of strategy – whether the pivot for radical change lies more in representation in parliament or the collective struggles of working people, mass social movements which themselves alter the political landscape.
And it has a direct bearing on electoral strategy also. Nearly three million extra voters took part in the referendum. Some of those were young people between 18 and 24, whose participation was 64 percent, not the 36 percent which had been assumed.
All the indications are that their motivation was strongly anti-racist. They voted largely for Remain, but not out of some settled commitment to the EU, more out of a wonderful hatred for Nigel Farage and UKIP.
More of the 2.8 million were older voters of the unskilled and poorer sections of the working class whose voter turnout has, like that of young people as a whole, been low for 25 years.
They mostly voted Leave, largely with what Diane Abbott called a “roar against the establishment”.
These newer voters are but a part of wider demographics which have, until recently, felt more and more alienated from Westminster politics.
Together with the base of Labour’s support they constitute a potential vote which could sweep a general election in England and in Wales.
The obstacle to mobilising that is not that the left is too radical but that it remains too conventional, not radical enough.
Recognising that does not, of course, do away with all the difficulties bound up with the fact that the radicalisation is coming up against the very structures of a Labour Party which has been deradicalised, not just in the Blair years, but for the past 35 years, ever since the campaign around Tony Benn last raised within the party fundamental questions about social transformation.
There remains a full-time Labour Party apparatus which is profoundly undemocratic and whose thinking is closer to Theresa May’s than to Jeremy Corbyn’s or the majority of Labour’s members. There remain the right wing Labour MPs, and alongside them some “soft left” MPs. Both groups see politics as about what politicians do.
Confrontations and schisms lie ahead. The left needs to understand that and why they are inevitable. Tactical good sense can lead to more favourable outcomes to those confrontations. But it cannot prevent them.
A movement for radical change is developing. It will not win by playing the conventional game. The path to victory lies through political confrontation.
For radical change to win, the other side has to be beaten.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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