In a time of the rebirth of mass politics, the right is fighting back. The left must meet this challenge, argues Kevin Ovenden
Theresa May's riposte to Jeremy Corbyn's conference speech yesterday shows the shift that has happened in British politics.
She must be spectacularly ill-advised to have so firmly embraced free market capitalism, with the insipid coda that excesses and niggling problems must be addressed. Even more mistaken was to trumpet what she claims are the Tories' successes in dealing with those systemic defects.
Against all that, the single powerful image in Corbyn's speech of the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower standing as a monument to the failed system is both vivid and something people can understand directly.
What a shift in the terms of the ideological national debate.
This time last year May was trying to outline under the influence of her advisor Nick Timothy a Joseph Chamberlain-esque National-Liberal politics and ideological position. Now the words coursing through the debate are socialism versus capitalism.
Does anyone remember all the hype 12 months ago claiming that the Tories had become the party of the working class while Labour was the voice of metropolitan leftists more concerned about Cuba than Coventry?
Any distinct Mayism was blown up on 8 June this year. She and the Tories have struggled to find an ideological groove since - the difficulties deepened by the splits over Brexit.
Now, with a stunning lack of innovation, May has settled on the old Thatcherite ideological ground. There is even less by way of counterbalancing with an appeal to national community than there was last year - though we will see if more of that gets filleted in to her actual conference speech.
I also suspect at the Tory conference that there will be from a number of quarters the kind of ideological attacks on socialism and the left we have not seen since the heyday of Thatcher in the late 1970s to late 1980s. A vicious anti-leftism. It may come as a shock to those who were not around then.
This is already being trailed by Tory columnists, the attack dogs of the S*n and Daily Mail, and various Tory MPs.
Conservative Central Office bungled recently a prototype of what we should expect. It claimed that an image of cars queuing on a petrol station forecourt was of chaos caused by the "socialist Labour government" and a tanker drivers' strike in the 1970s. It was in fact from 1973 during the oil crisis following the October war in the Middle East - and under the prime ministership of Ted Heath.
We have also had a whiff of it with the propaganda campaign by Uber against Transport for London's licensing decision - complaining of infringement of market competition which will show Britain is not "open for innovative business". For those with long memories, Uber and its ponzi-scheme business model have echoes of Polly Peck and the crooked Asil Nadir under Thatcher.
Just as with the right under Thatcher, the ideological battle will not be restricted to domestic and national economic policy.
She was nothing short of obsessed by anti-Communism. For her, the Second Cold War of the early 1980s was a front of the same battle against the "socialists" at home - the Labour Party, the trade unions and the influence of collectivist ideas in society.
So fixated was she that she famously told friends that a book by Michael Heseltine, who had actually overseen the "right to buy" scheme aimed at destroying council housing, in the late 1980s was "socialist - it is pure socialism".
We've seen a dry run of what the contemporary version of Tory anti-socialism will look like with the campaign over the summer to try to implicate Jeremy Corbyn in the crisis in Venezuela.
It would not surprise me if the word Venezuela is uttered more frequently at next week's Tory conference than it was at Labour's in Brighton. If I could get odds I'd punt a tenner on May referring to Venezuela in her own speech.
The Tory right will not silo off foreign from domestic policy, defence from privatisation of the NHS, keeping the essentials of the broken housing market from using political and state power to defend British capitalist interests in the global market and economy.
This is one reason why the left cannot do that either. We know what that looks like and leads to. Neil Kinnock's Labour Party of 1986 to 1992 tried to combine a tepid social democracy at home with an alignment with Tory foreign policy, nuclear weapons, the EU, Nato, the special relationship and war in the Middle East.
And ideologically, assisted by intellectuals in the "Great Moving Right Show", it so qualified and enervated any reference to socialism that a considerable amount of the foundations for Blairism in the following decade were laid.
Among other differences between now and then there are two that stand out proudly.
First, 30 years ago the free market model - pushed with revolutionary zeal - could appear as new and a solution to the crises of the mixed economy of the post-war consensus. Now there is reaction against what came to be known as neoliberalism. And there is a crisis of pro-capitalist economics.
Second, while massively exaggerated there was an ideological shift to the right, which became a stampede following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a social recomposition of the working class in which enough people saw themselves as gainers to keep the Tories in power.
Now, the line of ideological division between Labour and Tory, and the advance that Corbyn-Labour has made, reflects a long-standing rejection in mass consciousness of so many free market dogmas, and even - as evidenced also in the US - a more sophisticated hostility to "capitalism" and renewed positive identification with the word "socialism".
Another difference has sharply contradictory aspects. Trade unions were much stronger, though were losing, 30 years ago compared with now. Today, conversely, support for trade unions among those not in them is greater than it was then.
If, as hoped, the CWU wins its ballot for strike action in what is a highly significant and major dispute we will see both aspects - with Tory MPs and the right wing press spewing out attacks on "union bully boys" and "hard-left union barons". It is likely to be the most intensely political of disputes.
Far from history having ended or economics having become depoliticised, to be replaced with political spats on the margin or about the changing social culture, we are seeing the recapitulation of all the moments of national political trauma in Britain since the post-war boom came to an end.
That is not a simple repetition, of course. It takes place in today's unique conditions, with massive contradictions pitting technological potential against climate chaos and destruction.
But the immediate and combative response from May to Corbyn's speech should make one thing clear.
There are two sides in this sharpening ideological and political battle, not one. That is shown in the opinion polls also. They tend to show Labour slightly ahead. But the Tory support is not collapsing (yet). It is only a couple of points at variance from Labour's (and sometimes ahead). Simple extrapolation is a fool's game - but the polling figures today point still to a hung parliament of some kind.
It is not just that the Tories as a party of governmental power will hang on "by their fingernails " as Corbyn put it.
It's not just that they will, like John Major's government, seek to carry through reactionary and pro-capitalist policies despite repeated parliamentary crises.
It is that they will fight back.
There will not be an unimpeded space for the rising left to war game, think tank, theorise and pore over its ideas. Corbyn is right that the centre ground has shifted. But the right understand what those of us on the radical left did when we rejected triangulation.
The "centre" can be shifted by demarcating a space and fighting hard to influence people.
And nor is this going to be only among the more politicised and ideologically engaged people. The battle is not restricted to opinion columns in traditional or new media.
For the other difference between now and the 1990s is that we are seeing a re-politicisation of society. Blair's landslide in 1997 actually came off the back of the lowest turnout up to that point at a British general election since 1918.
Both the EU referendum and this year's general election showed rising turnouts. There is no sign of mass political engagement diminishing since. Not only in Britain. The turnout in the German election - apparently so boring - was up by 4 percentage points on four years earlier.
The French presidential election saw fewer people voting for the two runoff candidates, but an unprecedented "active abstention" registered with blank papers at the ballot box.
The great political and ideological lines of division of the last century are surging again in the conditions of this.
So too are the strategic debates for the left over how to win these battles at the base of society, in every area, and to forge a counter-power to the rule of capital.
We are not between two big political battles - the last general election and the next one, which might be a long way off.
We are in the midst of the most extraordinary political and ideological struggle.
And it's one where it would be the greatest of mistakes to underestimate the other side and what it is capable of.
Just as with the advances made so far, future success is not going to come through the slow accretion of support.
It will depend on the outcome of these clashes. And in those, it is not just through racism and xenophobia that the right can organise and provide a breeding ground for the worst reactionary forces.
It is also through the historic weapon of frenzied anti-socialism.
Against that, we need the most robust and determined response.
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.
More articles from this author
- Neither a rigged market nor Vera Lynn will pick the crops
- The sociopathic calculus of capitalism in a crisis
- Coronavirus is exposing capitalism - video
- The socialist argument against the Tory anti-immigrant offensive
- Corbynism from Below – book review
- The devil and the deep blue sea: Labour and Johnson’s deal
- Israel's electoral stalemate shows Palestine is still the issue