Labour is at an electoral crossroads and must come out as a radical alternative to the establishment, argues Alex Snowdon
Can Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, plausibly win the next general election? If so, how? There is increasing likelihood that an election will take place before the end of 2019. As things stand in the polls, it doesn’t look good.
I have encountered people who assume that Labour doesn’t stand a chance and can write off any prospect of victory. That tends to be based on certain assumptions: Boris Johnson will succeed in pulling Brexit Party supporters back into the Tory fold, Brexit is highly divisive for Labour and it will lose votes in different directions, and the 2017 general election surge was something of a fluke (helped by Theresa May and her campaign being poor) that can’t be repeated.
The opposite view is the rosy forecast of a surge in Labour’s electoral support similar to that in 2017. Labour went from just over 30% of the national vote share in 2015 to 40% merely two years later. The transformation compared to polling early in the election campaign was equally astonishing. There is, for some people, no reason why it won’t happen again: just give Corbyn a chance to address more rallies, remind people of the popular policies in the ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ manifesto, utilise the mass membership for campaigning, and victory is assured.
Neither of these views is especially accurate, but both contain grains of truth. The pessimists are right to say that the Tories could pose a much greater threat than their polling might suggest, with Johnson going into an election relatively soon after becoming leader and the possibility of an unambiguous Brexit pitch (‘We will get out of the EU as soon as possible, deal or no deal’) attracting those currently flirting with voting for Nigel Farage’s party. They are also right that Labour’s current Brexit policy, re-positioning the party as a straightforwardly Remain party, brings serious risks electorally.
The optimists are correct in recognising the potential of Labour’s policy platform to appeal very widely. The 2017 election gave Labour the leap forward it desperately needed following the slow decline in support during the Blair and Brown years (very little of which was recovered under Miliband).
The party’s two great assets in 2017 were its manifesto and its leader. And it was only possible for Jeremy Corbyn, who has generally fared badly in polls showing leader approval ratings, to become an asset because he had a more left-leaning policy platform to champion. It is also true that campaigning by the mass membership can compensate for Labour’s huge disadvantage, relative to the Tories, in the matter of wealthy donors.
But there are a number of big dangers for Labour that cannot be overlooked. At the same time, there are potential ways of addressing these and plotting a way to victory. The three major obstacles are to do with Brexit, policy and the campaign itself.
Firstly, Labour has a confused and divisive Brexit policy that could alienate those voters who support leaving the EU. Corbyn’s recent announcement of his intentions to form a caretaker government, in the wake of a successful ‘no confidence’ vote in the Commons, followed by calling a general election, was highly effective. It put him on the offensive, largely united Labour’s own MPs, exposed the weaknesses of the Lib Dems and made it clear that Labour is dedicated to stopping Johnson’s ‘no deal’ Brexit and, crucially, kicking the Tories out of office.
Yet there was a catch. Corbyn also pledged to hold a referendum after a general election and the subsequent negotiating of a Brexit deal between a Labour-led government and the EU. There is pressure from some, including prominent left-wingers John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, to get Labour to campaign for remaining in the EU. This would make Labour look incoherent as it would mean the party campaigning against its own deal in a referendum.
It entrenches the sense that Labour is a Remain party, making it harder to win round Leave supporters and maintain the voter coalition that brought positive results in 2017. There are some Labour seats where Leave comfortably won in 2016, especially in the north east and the Midlands, that will be looking very vulnerable indeed. Labour should instead focus on making sure a general election happens, then outline a progressive approach to Brexit combined with promoting its alternatives across a range of policy areas.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that Labour policies will work the same magic as in 2017. A big announcement like scrapping tuition fees can only make a splash once. Also, the Tories are shrewdly already proposing policies with an election in mind, including a pledge to increase NHS funding. Labour cannot hope to be distinctive simply by opposing austerity and promising more money to areas like the NHS.
The debate has moved on and more radical approaches will be needed to inspire enthusiasm in the next election. This is especially so when Labour’s approach to Brexit makes it appear tame and timid to many voters: part of the establishment, not an anti-establishment counterweight.
This means looking at a range of policy areas and treating the 2017 manifesto as a bridge towards something better, not the finished product. On housing, for example, the current commitments on house building do not go far enough to address the housing crisis. The party’s public transport policy is a step in the right direction, but nobody could feasibly claim that it rises to the massive challenge posed by climate change. A National Education Service is a nice idea, but still frustratingly vague and in need of fleshing out with serious, bold proposals.
In these areas - and others - some big plans are needed. There has to be an overarching sense of steering a completely different course to the last four decades of neoliberalism and of addressing the multiple crises of our times, from the climate catastrophe to the looming global economic slowdown.
Finally, there is the campaign itself. This isn’t an entirely hypothetical matter: in a sense we are already in the countdown to an election. Labour’s campaigning needs to enthuse and inspire, to have an insurgent, anti-establishment dynamic, and to decisively break through the stultifying sense of parliamentary deadlock around Brexit.
Corbyn has given a sense of how to do it by getting on the road in recent weeks. More of this approach will be needed in the actual campaign - and it shouldn’t rely entirely on Corbyn. Mass campaign rallies will be crucial for inspiring supporters, generating popular momentum and raising the profile of the party and its policies.
It would also help if Labour became more closely associated with mobilisations by social movements and trade unions. There are good examples of some left-wing Labour figures looking beyond Westminster and supporting extra-parliamentary struggles. More action of this kind can make a difference, for example around the global climate strike on 20 September and the demonstration at Tory conference on 29 September. A number of strikes have taken place recently and there are other strikes or strike ballots in the pipeline. Labour associating itself more strongly with these examples of workers' resistance would help the entire labour movement.
Breaking out of the Westminster-Brexit impasse is essential. Above all that requires triggering a general election and taking the fight to end Tory rule out into every community and every workplace. It means active solidarity with strikes and full participation in demonstrations as well as deploying the methods of mass campaigning in an election.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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