John Rees looks at Labour’s strengths and weaknesses
One of the most common political errors is to think that tomorrow will be the same as today. But current realities almost never develop in a linear way that result in easily predictable futures.
Tory leaders have certainly made the mistake of thinking that they do. Cameron thought that the opinion polls would be reflected in the European referendum result. They weren’t. May thought the polls would be reflected in the general election result. They weren’t.
But the same attitude can be found on the Labour side of establishment politics. Blair is still wandering the political landscape, disoriented by the fact that his brand of neo-liberalism is no longer dominant.
Further left the same problem exists. The current cheerleaders of Corbynism, from the reconverted Owen Jones on the left to new apostle Polly Toynbee on the centre right, were only yesterday convinced that Corbyn’s low poll ratings would be reflected in a disastrous general election result. They weren’t.
Even Iago Watson can now be seen standing next to Jeremy Corbyn on stage at Labour conference mouthing along with the ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ chant like a politician caught out not knowing the words to the national anthem, despite the fact that, in this case, there are only three of them.
But the left should not imagine that it is immune to this syndrome.
There is now euphoria on the left, and much of it is justified.
After so much trial, in the face of massive opposition, not least in the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party, to have pulled off the feat of having nearly 13 million people vote for the most left wing manifesto in a generation, and the most left wing Labour leader ever, is a transformative moment.
Potentially because the Tories are not yet defeated, much less is neo-liberalism at home and neo-conservatism abroad defeated. Those are peaks that still rise ahead of us.
And the dangers that the current hopeful trajectory can be reversed should be obvious.
First among these dangers is the ‘wait until the next election’ mind-set. It should be a prime worry of everyone that wants to see the Tories defeated that we have reached ‘peak Corbyn’ too early. Enthusiasm can wane as well as wax, especially if it isn’t underpinned by organisation, mobilisation and struggle.
Pure electioneering won’t supply this. Protests, demonstrations and strikes can. Labour needs to turn its attention to this, and put aside election-only thoughts, because election-only thinking is the sure way to lose elections. People want to fight, and fight now. Wouldn’t it be great if, for instance, Momentum’s much vaunted call centres were put into action to mobilise for a protest or to back a strike, not just for electoral or internal Labour party purposes?
A related danger is the ‘government in waiting’ mind-set. It’s good to hear from John McDonnell that Labour advisors are ‘war-gaming’ for what will happen if there is a run on the pound under a Labour government. But though policy wonking on what Labour will do in office and meeting with civil servants to discuss implementing the manifesto is necessary work, no one seriously believes that this alone, or mainly, would enough to prepare for the onslaught that Labour would face?
The establishment backlash would be far wider and deeper than a run on the pound. So the much bigger question is how a Labour government will be defended by the unions and the mass movements from the inevitable attack from the political establishment, the civil service, the business elites, the media, the police and the armed forces.
This threat cannot be met by policy. It needs a very different strategy of popular mobilisation. Not to prepare for this eventuality is the political equivalent of jumping from an aircraft without a parachute. It won’t end well.
It’s one thing to policy wonk about a run on the pound and quite another to prepare for serious class struggle. One can be done with ‘experts’ behind closed doors. The other has to be done openly, democratically, and with mass mobilisation.
There is another huge weakness that needs addressing immediately. It is the not insubstantial matter of war and peace.
Labour should be brilliantly placed to meet the challenges of a uniquely unstable international situation in which Donald Trump is President of the most powerful military on earth. It has a convinced anti-war leader whose credentials are beyond doubt.
In the general election Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to confront the situation after the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks by pointing to the link with foreign policy saved and rebooted the Labour election campaign at what might have been a fatal moment.
But having an anti-war leader is not the same as having an anti-war party. And, as things stand, Labour is a pro-war party with an anti-war leader.
In fact on all too many issues Labour’s foreign and defence policy is the same as the Tories. The Tories are pro-Trident, and so is Labour. The Tories are pro-NATO, so is Labour. The Tories are for increasing defence spending to meet the NATO requirement of 2 percent of GDP, so is Labour…at least according to Emily Thornberry’s conference speech.
And on Palestine the left is in danger of losing ground for the first time in over a decade because the accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party are being allowed to undermine Palestinian solidarity.
Some on the left in Labour are shying away from these arguments, some consciously so.
This won’t work. There is never going to be a moment when the Tories don’t attack Labour on foreign policy, linked as it is to issues of patriotism, terrorism, racism, and immigration. Adopting Tory policy won’t work. The Tories will always demand more and, in any case, the electorate are sick of it. It’s unprincipled and it will fail electorally.
Euphoria is fine. But it needs to be channelled into class struggle in the here and now. Issues of principle that are ducked now will, sooner rather than later, turn into weakness and defeat. If that happens euphoria will turn into despair very quickly.
For those that realise that every current state always contains the potential to turn into its opposite these issues should be addressed with honesty and courage. Now.
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), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.