Labour’s radical policies are visibly popular on the doorstep, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
This election has the potential to be a game changer, like 1945 and 1979. Britain – and Scotland – stand on the crossroads.
If the Conservatives win a majority, we are likely to see a brutal assault on living and working conditions on a scale unseen since the Thatcher years.
If they do not, the Tories may find themselves in disarray, and Labour may get the opportunity to rebuild the welfare state and lift the confidence of working class activists across the country.
My constituency, Glasgow North, is unlikely to see a Conservative majority. The Tories are consistently third, and the seat is between the incumbent Patrick Grady of the SNP and Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy.
The seat is a marginal: the difference between the SNP and Labour in 2017 was just over a thousand votes. That was roughly 3 percent of the vote.
While I do not like Scottish Labour’s adamant opposition to a Scottish independence referendum, which unleashed popular enthusiasm in Scotland on a scale similar to Corbynism’s effect on England, I decided to canvass for the Labour party because I believe that Jeremy Corbyn will ultimately not stop the will of the people in Scotland should they wish to hold another referendum.
Moreover, I felt that canvassing for Labour on a radical, socialist programme would strengthen the working class movement in any event. It is a way of engaging people and arguing for a radically different vision of Scotland and Britain than that on offer from the other parties.
Being on the campaign trail for a week has been inspiring and instructive. As elsewhere in the country, canvassing appears to be a mass and enthusiastic activity. We have had young and old out, men and women. Students, NHS staff, lecturers, pensioners, the unemployed, service sector workers.
Some are Labour stalwarts who’ve been around for years. Some people had only joined Labour in 2015 after Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Others had been active in support of Tony Benn and have now re-joined. Some, like me, were not even members. But the overwhelming feeling is that most are relatively new members, socialists and with experience of union or social movement activism.
It was very clearly obvious very quickly that class matters in this election. The affluent areas tended to be Tory. They saw us coming, didn’t open doors, or opened doors and responded in arrogant or even abusive ways. They knew who they were, and they knew who we are. No surprise there, really!
By contrast, in more middle class and popular areas, there was more variety: confusion, indecision and discussion. That too was not surprising.
Given the erosion of working class militancy since the Thatcher years, the betrayals of working people under Tony Blair’s New Labour, Scottish Labour’s corruption in power and its role in defeating the independence referendum in 2015, and the years of austerity and neoliberal assaults on working conditions, it is to be expected that politics is not something many ordinary people follow closely.
I found on the doorstep that many had not thought about how they would vote yet. A number shied away from discussion, saying they were not political and did not really know what the issues were.
But some did want to have a discussion. They were unsure, and said they had voted SNP in the past but were now considering Labour. Several self-identified as ‘WASPI’ – ‘Women Against State Pension Inequality’, who feel they are losing out because their retirement has been postponed. Hundreds of thousands face poverty as a consequence of losing out on retirement benefits, and I met 3 or 4 just on my first afternoon campaigning.
Others, mostly younger people, explicitly mentioned Labour policies as a reason why they were thinking of abandoning the SNP. They said that the SNP was a party to represent Scotland in Westminster, but that this election felt bigger to them: the climate and the NHS were the topics that came up most often in such discussions.
The longer I campaigned, the more I also heard a standard line: ‘I’ve always voted Labour’. These were clearly the voters who had kept the constituency (albeit with different boundaries) solidly Labour for decades before 2015.
It did not come as a big surprise, but it was a slight relief, to see that the opinion polls over the last week have begun to detect what I felt was seeing on the doorstep: that undecided or wavering working class voters were beginning to shift to Labour as the class character of Labour policies began to trickle into households and be clearly understood, following the recent launch of the manifesto.
Similarities and differences with 2017
That was certainly the case in 2017. But there are of course differences with 2017 too. In Labour’s favour, the number of canvassers hitting the streets has been greater from earlier on.
But against Labour, some issues have also visibly impacted on the enthusiasm of voters. Labour is proving less ambitious in terms of holding open air mass meetings, which created so much of the enthusiasm last time round. The machine politics is more important – and, while more impressive than in 2017, it is also visibly less inclusive of non-party folk.
Certainly, Labour’s shifting Brexit position has left many suspicious, though Brexit has not come up as much as I expected. It came up more frequently in more affluent areas than in the working class areas.
What is also visible is that Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity has taken a visible dent since 2017, as the press have had more than two more years more to chip away at his credibility.
This does not mean that many people have brought Corbyn up, but several did. Their dislike of Corbyn seems to be picked up from media reports and is not well articulated. It is simply asserted and no discussion is broached. But most accepted discussion of policies and appeared to be able to see beyond their superficial dislike of Corbyn.
His stance on Brexit did however cause some genuine discomfort. This is to some extent to be expected in a constituency in which almost four fifths voted to remain in 2016, but most comments – when they came up – centred on Corbyn’s neutrality.
This recent position is poorly understood: most who brought it up saw it as dithering and a lack of principles. One said: ‘I’m waiting for the wee man to make his mind up.’ It is very likely that such thoughts are expressed even more in Leave areas. And it is a genuine weakness in comparison with Labour’s 2017 position of respecting the referendum result and promoting a ‘people’s Brexit’.
That position held a sizeable number of voters in Leave constituencies in 2017. Nonetheless, what is clear is that even in many Remain areas, Labour’s move towards a second referendum position still leaves doubters unconvinced. That may not be helping the LibDems greatly in England, but it could help the SNP in Scotland.
And it is also visible that Scottish Labour’s insistence on a hard line against a second referendum is helping the SNP. While some fellow canvassers have repeated Corbyn’s more emollient line on this question on the doorstep, others have been less forgiving, clearly costing Labour potential SNP votes.
That is a pity in circumstances when the SNP has not just drifted to the right, enabled by Labour’s evacuation of the independence field, but has been shamefully joining the British establishment’s attack on Corbyn on allegations of antisemitism.
This attack has come from the top. Nicola Sturgeon this week has said that Corbyn was guilty of failing to deal with antisemitism properly, and various SNP candidates have chimed in, following the cynical attacks on Corbyn earlier in the week by Ephraim Mirvis.
Such attacks on Corbyn can only strengthen the right and weaken the SNP’s challenge to the British state.
This shows how damaging Scottish Labour’s position on independence is for Labour, too: if it fought for the independence vote, it would be pulling the SNP left or at least exposing its right wing. This might have allowed Labour to more effectively challenge the British state, which is undoubtedly doing everything it can to stop Corbyn from being elected and subsequently implementing his manifesto.
Popularising socialism is the key
There is no saying how my constituency could go, the SNP could hold it but could equally lose it. As election day looms, and as the polls tighten across Britain, it may be the case that Scottish Labour gets the last-minute swing as it did with the ‘Corbyn effect’ in 2017.
In the remaining period, the class edge of the vote is important. The ability of the Labour Party and movement across the country to inspire a vision of a radically different and more benevolent future for the population will be critical everywhere, including in Glasgow North.
Labour’s Manifesto is key but it in and of itself is insufficient for victory. This is in part because it is not that radical. What is radical about it is that it challenges the direction of neoliberal travel over the last forty years in Britain.
But it would not make Britain’s state spending extraordinary by European standards, merely bring Britain more in line with other welfare models.
In this sense, the important thing is that Labour should make sure that people understand not only that its programme is achievable, but that it is the opening gambit in a bigger struggle against a foe who would even deny us that: a modern welfare and eco-friendly state for a new era.
Corbyn has been at his best when he has been radical and polarising, and this has lessons for the last days of the campaign. People should feel that what happens between now and polling day can be the start of a more exciting time when they themselves can enter the scene of history.
And, whatever happens on 12th December, it will be important for the left across the country to be prepared to fight. In Glasgow and Scotland, that has to mean that we have to find ways to enthuse unity in action between the organised labour movement and the independence movement. Both have a mortal enemy in the British state – and that should be an important lesson for the future.
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