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Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Worcester, December 2019. Corbyn via Flickr

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Worcester, December 2019. Corbyn via Flickr

Win or lose, Labour's strategy in this general election campaign gives us an insight into the priorities for the fight after the results are announced on Friday, argues John Rees

Not all elections illuminate the political landscape, but this one has done. Win or lose the whole labour movement will need to think clearly about what the election campaign has shown us.

And it has been illuminating, but not because there have been a lot of political pyrotechnics. There haven’t.

Johnson has been in hiding, or at least as much in hiding as a prime minister in a general election can be. And Labour has run a much less insurgent campaign than in 2017.

Yes, the manifesto is stuffed with good left wing policy, with the notable exception of foreign affairs where MoD handouts on Trident, defence spending, and NATO are reproduced only mildly diluted.

But there is a point where the advantage even of the good policy turns into its opposite. That point arrives when electors feel they have been hit by policy buckshot.

It’s not just that this dilutes a central, simple message to counter the Tories ‘Get Brexit Done’. It’s that the policy becomes unbelievable. Three good things looks attractive, but 200 good things looks unlikely. And desperate.

Behind all this lies a certain amount of mythology about the 2017 manifesto, credited by some as responsible for Labour’s increased vote last time out. No doubt it helped, but no manifesto is the silver bullet that wins an election. And even if it were, history rarely repeats itself. And sure enough Labour got no poll bump from the release of the manifesto in this election.

Then there’s canvassing, the only consistent mass activity of the campaign and a real electoral asset. Labour has a mass membership and it’s been mobilised on a considerable scale.

But context matters here. Both policy and mass canvassing need to be embedded in a wider insurgent strategy. Otherwise the campaign becomes like a more left wing version of a very conventional electoral strategy: policy announcements and door knocking.

The mass rallies on the model of 2017 have been too few. The excuse often heard that such events are impossible in winter. Meteorology has replaced strategic thinking here. But that excuse is given the lie by the rallies in Bristol, Pembroke and Sheffield and, in the same time frame, the Trump protest which drew thousands to a very atmospheric night rally, as did the Julian Assange campaign protest with rapper MIA at the Home Office. Heavily ticketed, mostly internal, events don’t have the same galvanising effect.

It’s often been suggested to Labour strategists that Bernie Sanders should be invited over to appear at a rally with Corbyn. You could book a football stadium for that one. The campaign could have been set alight by that kind of dynamism.

But above and beyond the tactics of the electoral campaign is the larger strategic question of the relationship between Corbyn’s Labour Party and the mass of the working class.

At first sight this seems a given. And many activists talk as if it is automatic that working class voters will relate to a Labour Party and the trade unions that still provide one of its most important foundations.

And to a certain, important, extent that is true. But there are also important specific ways in which it is not true.

For instance, Corbyn’s Labour is not the traditional social democratic alliance of right and left, usually with the the left in a small minority. Consequently it cannot rely on party loyalty from right wing MPs, or, and this is crucial, from the more conservative sections of the working class.

This is not the same issue as the loyalty of ‘Labour Leave voters in northern towns’ as the media loves to call them. Moderate Labour voters are as likely to be found in Plymouth or Putney as they are in Stoke or Scunthorpe.

Corbynism was created by the inrush of activists from the social movements into the Labour Party in the first leadership campaign. It created a mass party in excess of 500,000 members. That’s huge, but it’s not the 14 million voters Labour needs to win the election, let alone the 40 million in the working class.

So the question is this: has Corbyn’s Labour created an organic relationship with this wider working class constituency?

Some say the unions provide this. But that is only partly true. Today’s 6 million trade unionists cannot provide the connection to Labour that 12 million trade unionists did for Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. Nor are the unions as combative as in previous periods. Strike days still languish at historic lows.

It’s this void into which the Leave vote exploded, enhancing an already existing fissure between Labour and a section of its base. This situation was made worse by the pivot to Remain driven by John McDonnell, Jon Lansman, and others.

What should have happened is a decisive strategy aimed at re-establishing this link from the beginning, both by the left and the unions. Many recognised the problem, so why was no such strategy forthcoming?

Fundamentally, because it’s almost impossible to formulate a serious strategy like this in a divided party where the right wing are not only uninterested in such strategy but are working night and day to remove the left leadership altogether.

But that explanation only carries us so far. The resistance of the right has to be overcome. If Labour wins on Thursday it is precisely these disenfranchised layers of workers that the populist right will seek to mobilise to overturn a left Labour government. If Labour loses the election any future resistance will depend on the unions and the left rebuilding and extending their reach into the contemporary working class.

In either case this work cannot be accomplished by the Labour Party alone. It will need the whole left, in and out of Labour, the social movements, and the trade unions working together to re-root socialist politics among the mass of workers.

John Rees

John Rees

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.

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