All change - and things are shifting in our direction at last, writes Lindsey German
What a very strange and exciting place British politics is now in. In a situation which now defies all political logic the winners of the election look like losers and the losers look like winners. That’s because everyone can see the direction of travel. Jeremy Corbyn – for two years the subject of the most appalling abuse and disloyalty from both sections of his own party and the media – now stands in a strong position. Indeed, his party is probably the only one which will not be plunged into crisis as a result of this election.
More fundamentally, we are now in a new era of politicisation which is seeing a rising challenge to neoliberal economics and the politics of 'there is no alternative'. What is now happening to the Tories reflects the major crisis in the ruling class not just over Brexit – where the traditional party of the British ruling class is now at a divergence with that class’s interests – but also because the weakness of the British economy is becoming more obvious. Corbyn’s manifesto tries to address some of these weaknesses – low wages, low productivity, over-reliance on the City of London, and lack of investment in jobs and industry.
This election has weakened the right wing parties, with UKIP in total meltdown and the Tories losing support, and not succeeding in picking up the lion’s share of UKIP votes that they expected. This, in turn, reflects the fact that the Brexit vote was not the major move to the right that many people thought, but involved a much more complex set of motivations. The election became a clear choice between policies, where nearly 13 million voted for the most radical Labour manifesto for decades. This manifesto is not just a real alternative to Tory policies but a total break with Blairism. The result represents a rejection of policies which have been forced on people for decades. Above all, in my opinion, it expressed a clear class divide and the expression of working class anger at Tory and, let’s face it, Blairite policies.
A matter of life and death for the Tories
There is little overstating of the crisis for May and the Tories. We still do not know whether May can actually form a working government, or indeed whether she can survive as leader over these next weeks. She is, in any case, fatally wounded. She can’t enter serious negotiations over Brexit, she is hardly capable of fronting a debate in parliament, and of course there is no way she can be leader in another election. The problem here is that it is likely there will be another election within a year. The Tories don’t want this, of course, because they can see the writing on the wall. Labour is – all other things being equal – very likely to improve on its performance last Thursday, and will be in a strong position to form a government. May is dependent on the vicious right wing DUP for her survival. As people get to know them, the less people will like them and the more they will despise the Tories for going into alliance with them. On the other side, the Scottish Tories will try to call the shots over May’s policies, given that Scotland was the only success story for the Tories on Thursday. In both cases, because they are now disbarred from voting over English issues, May will have no majority on a wide range of important issues.
The votes pile up for Jeremy Corbyn
The election results have defied most predictions of the experts. We were told up till the night that Labour would lose dozens of seats. I was told by a Tory commentator at 7pm on Thursday that the Tories would win with a 50 to 70 majority. This was a view shared by most pundits, including those in Labour. In fact, Labour lost only 5 seats to the Tories: Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East, Stoke South, Walsall North, Mansfield and Derbyshire North East. These areas had high UKIP votes in 2015 and big Leave majorities in 2016. They are also the kinds of area where labour has taken its electorate for granted over the years, and in most, there are Labour councils implementing Tory cuts. In some areas, there was a small swing to the Tories as they benefited from gaining sections of a high UKIP vote. But apart from these five constituencies, there were not sufficient votes for the Tories to win. Commentators are saying that Labour is now winning seats in middle-class student areas, rather than its traditional heartland. True, Labour won seats from the Tories in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Canterbury but also in Bury North, Stockton South, Derby North, across Wales – and held places like Halifax and Hartlepool which the Tories were confident of winning. All of these were in areas that voted Leave too.
The results in London were spectacular, with wins in unexpected places like Battersea, Southgate and of course Kensington. A clear majority – 55% - voted Labour in the city, and cut majorities in places where they did not win. Even in Scotland, Labour benefited from the Corbyn surge to win back seats lost to the SNP in 2015. It can have had little to do with the lacklustre campaign of Labour's Scottish leadership. The SNP lost a lot of seats and some good anti-war MPs by paying insufficient attention to the sorts of issues which motivated Corbyn supporters, especially the class questions. On the other side, the Tories played the unionist card (with all that still means in Scotland) to good effect. Perhaps one of the best aspects of this election is that while millions voted for an anti-racist and inclusive Labour Party, the hard right electoral face of British politics collapsed.
What brought about these results? By all accounts, campaigning on the ground made a real difference, and we are beginning to see the effects of Labour’s mass membership here. The Tories’ millions spent on advertising and mailshots – which they see as a substitute for having an active membership, which they now really don’t – did not have the impact of real people arguing on the doorstep, at work, in colleges, in the streets, for change. The result could have been better if Labour HQ had helped more in this, but as I understand it, it often refused requests for funding and canvassers in seats which it deemed unwinnable. Activists in Battersea – a surprise win for Labour –were at first told to go to neighbouring Tooting.
The biggest single issue in winning was, however, Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto. As soon as it was leaked it made a real difference to discussion and put on the agenda some of the most radical policies. It was clear and made promises about issues which affected the lives of millions. Perhaps more than individual policies, although abolishing tuition fees was a standout, it crystallised the desire for change that so many people wanted.
The dogs that didn’t bark
We were told this election was all about Brexit. Indeed, post-election, the media and Tories keep wanting to bring it back to that. But Brexit, while important, was not the main issue. According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll, among Labour voters only 8% said it was their main issue. Indeed, Labours approach to try to unite Leave and Remain voters, which was scoffed at early in the campaign, proved correct. It also proved correct to try to concentrate on issues which affected everyday life.
So, taxing the rich, the NHS and education, tuition fees were some key issues, helped by campaigning over specifics through doctors and nurses, teachers and the People’s Assembly. Nationalisation also pointed to an end to profiteering. This election also put the lie to the conventional wisdom that it would be dominated by right wing agenda items such as Immigration, foreign policy and terrorism. We have been told even by some on the left that only such an agenda could flourish post-Brexit, and that the far right, or even creeping fascism, was on the march. This has proved very wide of the mark. Instead, immigration was not a major issue in most places. Despite two appalling terrorist attacks in the middle of the election itself – which again conventional wisdom said could only benefit the right – the Tories were not able to win on this issue. On Trident, war and terrorism, despite unprecedented smears on Corbyn, enough people either knew some of the truth (thanks in no small part to the role of anti-war and anti-Trident campaigns over the years) or did not feel these questions would affect their vote.
Who failed us?
In a week when the left can take credit for a real advance in terms of the election, it is worth asking who can’t take credit. First prize must go to pretty much all the experts, whose mixture of arrogance, complacency, class condescension and ignorance of real life led them to ignore what was right in front of them. Second prize must go to those in Labour who tried to do so much damage to Jeremy. Those who kept telling us Labour faced disaster, or like Jess Phillips attacked him on television during the campaign, either knew little about their constituents or were simply being untruthful. They are now all saying they will eat humble pie. Unfortunately, that involves them opening their mouths, something we’re all a little tired of. Apologies are good, but only if they lead to different behaviour. Personally I would wait and see before welcoming any of these back into the shadow cabinet. And as for Tom Watson…
Third prize must go to the TUC, which went along with May’s claim to be the party of working people, and some trade union leaders like Dave Prentis who did little to mobilise in defence of the NHS – unlike the doctors and nurses, and the NUT and its members.
With another election on the cards, these people all need to understand something big has changed – and it isn’t going back. Credit for this huge achievement must lie with many, many people, but let’s remember how tough this has been for Jeremy Corbyn and those closest to him. Respect to all of them, and now we must fight on the streets and in the workplaces to ensure not just a labour majority in parliament, but the fundamental change in the balance of wealth and power which can change this society.
I’ll be back
I have really enjoyed writing this briefing. Thanks to all who signed up for it, shared it with their friends and family, sent me feedback, corrected mistakes, and generally made it a positive experience. Thanks too to Cameron Panting for mailing it every morning. Because things are so interesting, I’m planning to write a weekly version. I’d be delighted if you would keep reading and sharing.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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