Whatever happens on Thursday, we need to get ready to take to the streets to defend a left wing government, or to force out a right wing one
Some journalists, commentators and Labour candidates remain in a state of denial about this election. They seem to believe that Labour’s surge is happening despite Jeremy Corbyn rather than because of him. Friday’s Evening Standard ran a feature claiming that Labour would be doing better under Sadiq Khan. Labour’s candidate in Enfield North, Joan Ryan, has actually written to her constituents distancing herself from Corbyn, saying ‘many who have previously voted Labour…have more confidence in Theresa May as prime minister than they would have in Jeremy Corbyn.’ Other candidates are by all accounts saying similar things.
Some sceptics on the liberal left are at last coming round to Labour. The Guardian’s endorsement of Labour is welcome, even if it follows months of attacks on Labour’s leader. But even the announcement of its last minute conversion displays little understanding of what is actually going on. The surge began when the Labour manifesto was leaked a little over three weeks ago. It was at that moment that it became clear that the manifesto featured some radical policies that would challenge the consensus that has smothered politics almost to death over the last thirty years. It would actually transfer wealth from the rich to the poorer, reversing the trend that began a little before Thatcher came to power in 1979 and continued through successive governments, including Labour’s. It was this that sparked interest in Corbyn and lit up this election. And let’s be clear, none of the other recent leadership candidates would have come remotely close to producing that manifesto.
In from the cold
Up until the election the media had almost universally ridiculed and most of all marginalised Corbyn. Now, for the first time, he was the centre of attention, and of course his qualities and his policies began to be appreciated by millions. Once people realised that he was an insurgent candidate, even if he was leading a party with a dreadfully poor recent record, people suddenly started to hope against hope that he might actually be serious about delivering change.
The sheer velocity of the surge shows that there was an enormous pent up demand for a challenge to the status quo, the relentless cuts, the foreign wars, the insecurity and misery of the low wage economy, and the hateful class arrogance of those who believe they are born to rule over us. And why wouldn’t there be? The last four decades have seen not just standards of living but quality of life in freefall for the vast majority, while London has the highest concentration of ‘ultra high-net-worth individuals’ (that is actually a category now) of any city in the world.
Straws in the wind
You have to have a low opinion of the majority of the population not to have been expecting something like this to happen. But the problem has been that ever since Tony Blair the consensus that there is no alternative to the market has been bolstered by the view that ordinary people have given up on collectivist or socialist ideas. Even some on the left fell for the notion that working people bought into Thatcher’s brave new world. Actually this was never the case. Polls show from the 1980s till now the majority of working people supported an enlarged welfare state, stronger trade unions and redistribution of wealth away from the rich.
And there have long been signs that anger at the neoliberal scam was coming to the boil. Some academics who were paying attention have charted a post-1980s upward curve of protest that has matched increasing cynicism about mainstream politics.
Their studies show that 2015 was a peak year for protest. The massive demonstrations against the Iraq War and in support of the Palestinians were just part of a wider trend of popular mobilisations that have included a series of huge marches against austerity and cutbacks, against climate chaos and more recently against Donald Trump.
Somehow, a lot of people missed this. One problem was that many people misinterpreted the Brexit vote, seeing it simply as a retreat into reactionary small-mindedness and racism. In fact, as all of the serious studies showed, it was much more complicated than that. Fears about immigration played an important role in galvanising the leave vote, but even Lord Ashcroft’s elaborate exit polls showed that the main driver was a feeling that people were losing control over their lives. As some of the left argued at the time, the Brexit vote was largely a displaced protest against the destruction of working-class neighbourhoods, jobs and lives that was the main outcome of globalisation.
Of course this resentment can be channelled in different directions, but by being radical, confident and outward looking, the Corbyn campaign has shown that the left can address the real issues. The result, despite the best efforts of the Tories and the press, was that immigration has not been a major theme of the election and in most places by all accounts, voters haven’t brought up Brexit much either. The Ukip vote has collapsed and in some areas as much as thirty per cent of it has gone to Labour.
There are important lessons for the immediate future from this. One is that we have to reject out of hand the pessimistic view that society is moving to the right, or is dominated by an immovable Middle England moderate bloc. Whatever happens on Thursday, the momentum is with the left. Millions and millions of people will have voted for arguably the most left-wing Labour leader ever. If Corbyn had had a little longer and the right and even some of the soft left in Labour hadn’t spent so much of its energy attacking him, he could have polled much better.
Secondly, after the election, we should ignore the siren voices who will inevitably call for compromise and conciliation with more moderate positions. Let me say it once again, such is the anger pent up in society, that it is precisely Corbyn’s radicalism that has won him so much support. Attempts to steer to the centre and accommodate to the right will actually dissipate the excitement, demobilise support and undermine the credibility of the whole project. Those who have argued – as Paul Mason continues to do – that we should avoid the ‘difficult’ questions around security and foreign policy have been proved wrong. Corbyn’s post Manchester bomb speech calling for a change in foreign policy helped to shape the response to that dreadful atrocity and was, as polls showed, tremendously well received. What it helped to do in fact was to re-popularise what was already a very widespread opposition to foreign war.
Finally, we must commit now to not being passive bystanders. Obviously the next two days are crucial to maximising the vote. But precisely because the election has unlocked a deep sense of outrage and resentment against the powers that be, it won’t resolve the situation. It will be the beginning, not the end of a struggle. The establishment has been thrown completely off balance by the wonderful upsurge of the last few weeks. There must be pandemonium at Tory central. But even if he were to win, or there was a hung parliament, the right wing are not going accept a Corbyn-led government without a fight. There have been well sourced reports of the Blairites discussing the option of leaving Labour and setting up a centre party. The right-wing Economist magazine is this week calling for a vote for the Lib Dems so that they can form the core of precisely such an organisation. The media, the courts, the financial elites, the military top brass all of whom have intervened against Corbyn in one way or another are not going to sit back and allow the him to take office and enact policies to which they are implacably opposed. The day after the celebrations we will have to get organised.
If May wins by a small majority her authority will be gone. But the Tories' manifesto sketches out one of the most aggressive programmes of attacks on working people in recent memory. A Tory government will be both very nasty and very weak. If they win we will need to get over the disappointment fast and build on the momentum that has already been generated.
Whatever happens on Thursday the crisis of the establishment will be deep. The deliciously simple slogan ‘Vote Labour, Corbyn for PM’ will no longer be enough. We will need to be getting ready to take to the the streets to defend a left wing government, or to force out a right wing one.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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