The left must turn to rebuilding dynamic extra-parliamentary resistance to the Tories
December’s election result was a serious defeat for the left. Polling shows that Labour’s radical economic programme was popular. There is majority support for reversing soaring inequality, ending the years of savage cuts to public services and renationalising key services. Unfortunately, these weren’t the issues that dominated the election. The Tories managed to make it primarily about Brexit. They plugged the issue relentlessly, but were helped by the Labour leadership giving in to pressure to support a second referendum, meaning Labour could be painted as pro-remain and called out for disrespecting the original referendum result.
In the 2017 election the fact that Corbyn was arguing for a People’s Brexit meant that the right couldn’t make the EU the central issue. In general the Corbyn leadership looked less insurgent two years on. The constant attacks from the mainstream media – particularly over anti-semitism – caused damage, especially as they went almost unchallenged.
Because of the years of Blairism and the dreadful record of Labour councils which have presided over the worst ever cuts to local services, Labour has not escaped the widespread cynicism of mainstream politics. Whereas in 2017 a Corbyn-led Labour Party looked like it would break the mould and come out fighting for working people, by December last year defensiveness over the attacks from the right and the change of course over Brexit made the radical promises a whole lot less convincing.
The explanation for defeat is important. There is a danger that people accept the mainstream commentators’ predictable view that Corbyn was too left wing. You can see this in all the leadership candidates’ calls for unity and their distancing from Corbyn’s foreign policy agenda. The apparently most left wing candidate, RebeccaLong-Bailey, has pledged to pushthe nuclear button if need be and has committed to a ‘progressive patriotism’, as well as signing up to the ten point charter of the Jewish Board of Deputies which would take the handling of anti-semitism out of the control of the Labour Party altogether.
The risk is that the demoralisation of defeat will lead Labour Party members to back a turn to the centre. This would spell the end of the radical challenge to moderate Labourism represented by Corbynism.
It comes at a time when Tory attacks are going to intensify, when the NHS is at breaking point, homelessness is out of control, and food banks are being normalised in the fifth richest country in the world.
This situation presents many problems for the Tories. They were elected to deliver Brexit, not to implement more sell offs and more cutbacks. They made promises over the NHS and ending austerity which they are unlikely to honour. They face big problems over Brexit in Ireland and mass opposition in Scotland threatens the very future of the UK.
Ten million people voted for a Corbyn government. You wouldn’t know it from the media, but this is higher than the vote for Gordon Brown in 2010 or Ed Miliband in 2015. It means a huge swathe of the population backs radical, progressive change. On top of that Corbynism generated a surge in activism. There are tens of thousands of campaigners, many of them young people, who see themselves as socialists and are looking for ways to take the fight forward.
In this situation we need to recognise that there is more to politics than what happens in parliament. The struggle against the Tories won’t be decided in Westminster, it will be depend on how well organised we are in communities and workplaces, whether we can defeat cutbacks and win some key trade union battles and whether we can build effective mass national campaigning against the government.
The last four decades of politics has been shaped more than anything by great social battles. It was the defeat of the miners heroic year-long strike in 1985 that allowed Thatcher to consolidate her power. It was the defeat of the poll tax through mass non-payment, protests, and a huge London demonstration in 1990 that brought her down. The anti-war movement, despite not stopping the invasion of Iraq, helped create the conditions in which Blairism would be rejected and Corbyn could win the leadership of the Labour Party.
Resistance requires organisation. We need a concerted effort to rebuild the unions if they are not to become irrelevant to the majority of working people. We need a national campaign to defend the NHS, we need to focus in particular on campaigning in the areas where Labour lost the trust of working people in the Midlands and North, and we need to work to link the various struggles to create an effective anti-Tory movement.
All this in turn requires a left that looks beyond parliament and is committed to building solidarity with workers’ struggles, with strengthening activism on the ground and campaigning for real socialist politics. Dynamic extra-parliamentary organisiation has never been more important.
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