The current ascendancy of the left in the UK is beset by serious threats. They must be faced and defeated, argues John Rees
Suddenly there are some clear and present dangers for the left. And the even greater danger is that they might combine to form an existential threat to the current phase of left mobilisation. Here is an analysis of that possible conjuncture and some recommendations about how the perfect storm can be avoided.
The rise of the far right
The most important aspects of the surge in the new far right are as follows. They have emerged very quickly as a serious street presence from the electoral collapse of Ukip. The Brexit vote led to the electoral collapse of UKIP but the remaining rump has moved rapidly and decisively to throw its lot in with the street movement around Tommy Robinson. It is not the first time that the far right has shifted between an electoral strategy and a street-fighting strategy but it is the first time that an organisation which recently experienced considerable electoral success has done this.
As importantly, the far right in the UK is benefitting hugely from the international success of Trump and the populist right in Europe. Britain is different precisely because the electoral populist right has been marginalised, but the street fighting movement that has emerged from this is still massively emboldened by the victories of the populist right internationally. The equivalent for the left would have been if Bernie Sanders had won the US Presidency. Every section of the left, electoralist or not, would have felt hugely uplifted and emboldened. Of course, the far right has always had international links. But, for instance, if the National Front in the 1970s went on an international junket it was likely to be to some discredited and discrediting Waffen SS reunion. Now the far right can look to the most powerful politician in the Western world.
And it’s not just the ideological support that is important to the UK far right. They are getting direct material and practical aid from both the US far right and the European populist right. Steve Bannon, who was Trump’s key facilitator in spite of losing his White House post, is directly organising in the UK and on the Continent. Geert Wilders, the Dutch right wing populist, is a speaker at the Tommy Robinson rallies. And the money for those rallies comes in part through an alt-right operation in the US run by Daniel Pipes. I’ve chronicled all this here, and so I won’t repeat the detail now.
The far right is still relatively small as a street movement. Even the largest of the Tommy Robinson protests were a tiny fraction of what the left mobilised against Trump’s visit. If they were unopposed they would, of course, grow. But they will be opposed, although there is an important discussion necessary about how this can be done most effectively.
Nevertheless, there is one thing that could give the far right a huge boost irrespective of how seriously they are opposed on the streets.
Big capital gets its way over Brexit
The Brexit debate is so full of misdirection that, on each and every occasion it is discussed, the most basic things have to be repeated. Most importantly: the majority of the British capitalist class (99 out of 100 top firms in the FTSE) support Remain. So do the majority of Tory MPs, and the most powerful sections of the wider political establishment and the media. So do most Labour MPs, and the majority of trade union leaders.
That leaves the majority who voted Leave, including voters in most Labour constituencies, with very few effective voices to represent their views except the Tory right and the minority of the press (and it is largely populist newspapers, not broadcast media). Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain during the referendum campaign but has since developed the People’s Brexit strategy. But he is constantly under pressure from the majority Remain PLP and his own Brexit shadow ministers to collapse into a Remain position. The far left is with a few exceptions for Leave but struggles to get its voice heard by a mass audience.
Fortunately, for now, events have conspired to limit the far right’s ability to gain from this situation. The Tory party’s civil war, produced by the fact that the party of big capital is saddled with a Leave vote that is the opposite of what big capital wants, has prevented either wing making much political gain from Brexit. Even the post-referendum spike in racist attacks and in anti-immigration views has given way to more positive views on migrants in general.
UKIP’s collapse has deprived the populist right of an electoral vehicle. And in the last local council elections, where UKIP was wiped out, between a third and a half of its votes went to Labour. For many Leave voters that referendum was always about kicking the establishment. Now they are being won to Corbyn’s Labour Party as an effective way to do that - so long as it continues to say that it respects the Leave vote. Even Nigel Farage admitted this:
What so many didn’t understand was those supporters UKIP picked up last time round and building up to it came from Labour backgrounds. They wanted Brexit but they also wanted change. They also wanted an anti-establishment voice and Mrs May’s ‘strong and stable’ actually repelled quite a few of them.
But if Labour weakens or abandons that position it will strand Leave voters with the only the right to represent them. That would be the dream scenario for everyone from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson to Tommy Robinson. Suddenly a hugely angry and disappointed, mostly working class audience would be available to them. That could lift the far right into a different league.
Remain campaigners might have a case if their preferred option was to quickly and effectively lift the living conditions of poor and working class Leave voters. But even they must know that won’t happen. It will be EU neoliberal business-as-usual and the anger at the base of society will increase with few progressive outlets.
Similarly, if more trade union leaders were to actually lead some struggles to improve the lives of their members, instead of waiting for a Corbyn government, that could transform the landscape. But it would be folly to wait on that eventuality.
The Corbyn project in peril
The latest onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn is the most dangerous yet. It's more effective than the ‘chicken coup’ because it is not just a straightforward attempt to confront Corbynism with Blairism in the hope that the members of the Labour Party will ‘come to their senses’. That prospect was finished off by the 2017 general election result which demonstrated beyond all doubt that the elusive electoral middle ground was nowhere near where Blair’s heirs thought it was.
So now a much more effective strategy has been adopted: to try and demoralise and confuse Corbyn’s supporters by showing that their lifelong anti-racist leader, and a large part of his support base, are actually racists, specifically antisemites.
This fantastic deception is sustained day after day and week after week by a pile-on of the entire mainstream media, the Labour right, the Tories, and the Zionists, up to and including the Prime Minister of Israel.
It’s an attack which catches the left on its flank, especially that part of the left that defines itself predominately through the lens of identity politics. The narrowness of this approach to fighting oppression, its lack of class analysis or any broader contextualisation of how oppression is constructed, has long made it vulnerable to right wing co-option. Perhaps the earliest modern use of a ‘left wing’ reason for a reactionary cause was during the Afghan and Iraq conflicts when ‘humanitarian intervention’ was used as an excuse for war.
Remember Cherie Blair and Laura Bush defended the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan on the grounds in would liberate Afghan women? This became the standard technique of the former left wingers who supported the war - Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, and Christopher Hitchens. Now even the fascists who attacked Bookmarks bookshop were shouting about how the left are racist towards Jews.
This attack has also given the right of the trade union bureaucracy the chance to damage Corbyn. Dave Prentis of Unison, supported by the GMB and Usdaw is publicly calling for the Labour Party to adopt the IHRA examples. It is a considerable mistake by Len McCluskey in an otherwise useful article to join this chorus.
This is a specific example of the wider tendency among some of the left to take the view the foreign policy is ‘too difficult’ and that it is, at best, ignored or, at worst, given up to compromise so that the policy focus can be on domestic issues. This is not only unprincipled, but damaging. Both Jeremy Corbyn and the wider left have been right on so many foreign policy issues and enjoy public support for their stance that it is simply self-harming not to campaign on them.
Among Corbyn supporters there have been some weak responses to the attack. Some attempted to deal with the onslaught with the line that ‘yes, there is antisemitism on the left and we have to deal with it, but there is also a right wing witch-hunt which uses accusations of antisemitism and we must deal with that too’. All of which is fair enough, except that it is an entirely abstract formula.
The truth is that antisemitism on the left is much lower than it is on the right and mainly expresses itself in memes or comments on social media. In his video on the issue Jeremy Corbyn gave a figure of 0.1 percent of the current membership of the Labour Party who have been accused of antisemitism. On any count they are vastly outnumbered by the active, identifiable members who have a lifetime record of anti-racist work behind them.
The scale of the attack of Corbyn is a much, much greater problem. It involves the entire political establishment. On any serious reckoning then 90 percent of the left’s time and effort needs to be directed at fighting off an attack which threatens the entire Corbyn project.
How should this defence be conducted? One thing is for sure: trying to talk about another topic, evasion, apologising, or ignoring the core issues won’t help.
Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s intervention provides the key. When the Israeli PM attacked Corbyn on Twitter he achieved two things. One, he made it impossible for Jeremy Corbyn not to respond directly. Two, he made it clear that this was all about the state of Israel and its oppression of the Palestinians, not about the safety of the Jewish community in the UK.
Corbyn’s response was the first direct and unequivocal attack on Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians that the Labour leadership has made in this entire debate. And it worked. It emboldened his supporters, many of whom had been demoralised by the three apologies on this issue that went before, and it re-focused the debate.
Labour is never going to avoid an argument on this issue. But it can choose to make the argument about Palestine, not about domestic anti-Semitism. That is what it should do. While this furore has been going on there has been a major attack on Gaza, the Israeli state has passed the nation-state legislation which enshrines its apartheid practices in law, and there have been huge protests against this law by Arabs and Jews in Israel.
Labour needs to hammer home, in press events, meetings and protests, the real meaning of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It would be popular with an electorate that already supports the Palestinian cause. And, more importantly, it is the principled way to resolve the crisis around Corbyn’s leadership.
Fighting back, not caving in, must be the strategy. And for this reason, Labour’s NEC needs to stand firm and not adopt the IHRA examples which make it impossible to describe the Israeli state as a racist endeavour without being accused of antisemitism. To do so will be to risk another slew of expulsions and bans and will weaken the entire Palestine movement. If this came on top of Labour’s already confirmed support for Trident and NATO there really would not be much that distinguished the foreign policy of Labour from that of the Tories.
The coming storm and how to avert it
Worse than any one of these crises (the rise of the far right, Brexit, the attacks on Corbyn) is the way in which they may combine.
If Labour collapses into a Remain position, abandoning working class Leave voters, and if this combines with the attacks over antisemitism that undermine Corbyn’s leadership, then we will enter a very dark place indeed.
The far right will have been gifted a huge, angry, disappointed mass of traditional Labour voters from whom any prospect of progressive change under Corbyn will have been removed. In the minds of every right-wing politician from Boris Johnson to Steve Bannon this would be the equivalent of hitting the motherload.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But to avert it the left needs to deal swiftly and effectively with the emerging threats and not give them the space to coalesce into an existential crisis.
The fascists are still, relative to the left, the Labour Party, and the trade union movement, small. But those forces need to express themselves in mass mobilisation. We need to confront the fascists when they march. But we also need to march ourselves, on a date and place of our own choosing, where we have the time to build in every community, every workplace, a really huge turnout. We need a demonstration on the scale of the Trump protest specifically against Tommy Robinson and the far right. Let the fascists see if they want to counter-protest on that day!
If the nascent fascist movement can be stopped in its tracks swiftly, it cuts off one possible scenario: a Nazi revival fuelled by disappointment over Brexit and a successful attack on Corbyn.
Secondly, Corbyn needs to be encouraged to stick to his People’s Brexit strategy. Let the Tories own the Brexit debacle. The left can pose its own programme of public spending, house building, investment, trade union rights and anti-racism to both the Remainer’s neoliberal EU and the Tory Brexiteers free market car crash.
Thirdly, Corbyn’s leadership cannot be successfully defended by a more radical version of triangulation. Tacking to the new centre and trying to avoid controversy isn’t working and won’t work. The whole ‘government in waiting’ approach amounts to passivity breeding demoralisation.
The peculiarity of radical left reformism is that it can’t be realised by reformist, electoral methods alone. It relies on a mobilised, active, self-determining mass movement. Momentum once had the ambition to be that. But even with stronger leadership it was always likely to become an internal Labour Party lobbying operation, reserving any campaigning for internal and external elections.
Mass movements are fundamentally different. They can never be the creature of one party. They lack dynamism and reach when they are simply expressions of one party’s view. No matter how big one party is, the working class movement is always bigger and always contains a wider spectrum of political views ranging from revolutionary socialists, through Communists, to non-aligned radicals and militants of no party affiliation.
And mass movements are much less likely to be tempted by electoral compromise. It is this combination of sticking to principles and mass mobilisation that is now the only way the left can win. Indeed, it is the only way the left has ever has won. A vibrant mass movement was the basis of Corbynism, it was the only defence that worked against the ‘chicken coup’, and it’s what is needed now.
Revolutionaries have a vital role to play here. Even reform can only be delivered by a movement infused with the energy that revolutionaries often bring to such mobilisations. Self-active strategies inspire, educate and organise working people to defend their leaders insofar as their leaders represent them rightly.
Small wonder then that Rosa Luxemburg said revolutionaries are the best fighters for reform. That is because we see reforms as a step on the road to working class emancipation, not a sufficient end in themselves.
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.