As we start the new year, Alex Snowdon looks back at the political developments of the last year with a view of what to expect from 2018
The end of one year and beginning of another year is a good time to pause and reflect on political developments, and to consider what might lie ahead. This is an attempt at sketching the major current trends in British politics, with a view to how we on the political left might shape what happens next.
Polarisation and Tory crisis
Two-party polarisation is the order of the day in British politics. This has come as rather a surprise. It contradicts what almost everyone was saying as recently as three years ago, and it's roughly at odds with international trends. But there is no doubt that a stark Tory vs Labour polarisation dominates parliamentary and electoral politics.
There is a big, clear political divide between the two main parties. This is very different to mainstream politics during the 20-30 years before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, a period characterised by Labour’s adaptation to a new ‘political centre’ defined by an aggressively neoliberal Tory Party. It is also unlike many other European countries, where social democracy remains in crisis.
This is the core reason why parties like the Lib Dems, Ukip and Greens are all consigned to the margins. They have been squeezed by the central, defining contest in British politics. Scotland, where the SNP is by far the biggest party in terms of both Westminster and Holyrood representation, is of course very different, yet it is far from immune to the wider trends. And there is no mistaking the sense that Scottish independence has (for now) faded into the background as an issue: while the independence question certainly hasn’t gone away, the locus of anti-Tory opposition has shifted somewhat.
We should not forget that the Tories were widely viewed as being very strong just a year ago. That was always an example of short-term impressionism, failing to grasp some big underlying trends and exaggerating the honeymoon period enjoyed by Theresa May. It also failed to recognise that the EU referendum outcome created a dislocation between a Tory government and most of the ruling class it is meant to represent. The referendum also did nothing to resolve intra-Tory tensions.
The Tories are stuck with negotiating Brexit. They are stuck with underlying problems in the British economy such as low productivity, weak growth, real-terms underemployment and stagnant living standards. There is no obvious way forward for them, either in policy terms or in personnel terms (despite May being a lame duck). They limp on.
Breakthroughs for the left
The left's advances in the electoral arena have been very significant in such a short time. A year ago the Tories had double-digit poll leads over Labour and the whole project of a left-led Labour Party looked extremely vulnerable.
June’s general election results were nothing short of sensational for Labour - an increase in vote share of almost 10% in two years - and this was overwhelmingly a breakthrough from the left. It came on the back of a left-leaning campaign with an inspiring and cogent manifesto that broke emphatically from the old Westminster consensus, inspiring mass rallies addressed by Corbyn. The whole British political landscape has shifted as a result.
A quick glance at continental Europe serves as a reminder of how utterly dependent Labour's good fortunes are on its move to the left. Elsewhere social democracy is in crisis - hardly in office anywhere, not even faring well as an opposition party in many countries.
Since the economic crisis of 2008 the Blairite ‘Third Way’ hasn't fitted the times. The combination of corporate globalisation, free markets, modestly increased public spending, some dashes of social liberalism and a comparatively relaxed approach to immigration has suffered. There has been greater fragmentation (to both left and right) and the decline of liberal centrism. But it is the centre-left that has suffered most acutely, with the shoring up of centre-right parties as the natural parties of government, especially in economically fraught and difficult times.
The leftwards shift in Labour, combined with the conservatism of our first-past-the-post electoral system, largely explains why British politics isn't characterised by any serious hard-right or far-right formations (unlike many European countries). Of course it's also true that the EU referendum result deprived Ukip of much of its purpose, while the Tories did a fairly shrewd job of reincorporating hard-right Euroscepticism back into the Tory brand.
Islamophobia is the dominant form of racism across Europe and the main breeding ground for far-right politics. It's a major feature of British society too and there is still potential for that to be channelled in dangerous directions, electorally or perhaps in other ways. The main bulwark against this is a powerful left - in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary terms - contrary to the desperate pleas from liberal centrists that the only solution is to turn back to their own failed politics.
The struggle for the Labour Party
Labour has made leaps forward, but it is likely to remain in opposition for some time. Theresa May's government is pathetically weak, but that doesn't mean it is doomed to collapse (recall John Major's sleaze-ridden, sclerotic 1992-97 government). There may not be another general election until 2022, but even if it is sooner it could still be some distance away.
Big questions for Labour like 'what happens when we get into government?' and 'how do we get into government?' are important strategically and vital to discuss. For now, though, the most pressing question must be 'how do we operate as an effective opposition?'
Those on Labour’s right wing who urge a more timid and cautious approach offer no credible answer to that question. That will not stop them from trying to shape the Labour Party’s direction though. Anyone who thinks the intra-Labour battles have been decisively won for the left may be in for a nasty shock. There have been breakthroughs in 2017 – above all the political impact of the election results (which vindicated the left and disciplined the right), but also specific things like a handful of new left-wing MPs being elected, a very good annual conference and one or two good internal elections.
But what happens with Labour is about more than shifts in personnel or processes. There is inevitably enormous political pressure at work: to tone things down, be responsible, prepare for government. This necessitates, so they say, putting a premium on party unity– and therefore a willingness to compromise on some of the very policies that generated such enthusiasm and support in the election campaign several months ago. This political pressure is a huge pull away from pursuing a left-wing agenda.
The siren voices of the Labour Right have adapted to circumstances: they are not stupid, and they are not going away. They are dedicated to regaining influence (one lesson of June 2017 is that there's no hope for them outside Labour, no serious basis for an SDP-style split). Their focus is now on subtly moderating Labour's politics within a framework of preparing to be a 'responsible' government.
Foreign policy is a battlefield
The political differences are sharpest in the field of foreign policy. Three things have got better since the Blair/Brown years: an abandonment of the idea that foreign military interventions are generally a good thing, a willingness to talk about the links between terrorism and the mis-named ‘War on Terror’ (famously expressed by Corbyn when responding to the Manchester and London terror attacks which punctuated general election campaigning), and a greater willingness to talk about what's wrong with the British arms trade, especially regarding close ally Saudi Arabia.
But a great deal has regrettably remained largely the same: a commitment to stay in Nato and spend 2% of GDP on 'defence', the policy of keeping Trident nuclear submarines, a chronic reluctance to confront Israel, and more. Labour's foreign policy is more conservative than its domestic policy. This reflects its history of strong allegiance to pro-US, Atlanticist foreign policy and the commitment of a major social democratic party (with the credible prospect of being in government) to the British state and its interests abroad.
Foreign policy issues are not going away. It is naive to think - as some in Labour (including on the left) have argued - that Labour can unite around domestic and economic issues while relegating international affairs to the background.
Donald Trump's Jerusalem announcement has eroded the already weak idea that a two-state solution is viable for the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, armed partly by the UK, is responsible for an ongoing war in Yemen that has developed into a truly massive and devastating human catastrophe. Countries like Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are still politically fractured disaster zones and sites of multiple foreign intervention.
The UK's role in the world is a profoundly important dimension of British politics. The foreign policy status quo is utterly discredited. The rightwards pressure here is not from public opinion - Corbyn's anti-war, anti-militarism politics has widespread support - but from Labour's eternal balancing act between class and nation (i.e. the interests of the nation state).
Perhaps the most disappointing feature of 2017 was the failure of the left (broadly defined) to move the debate on when it comes to Brexit. It might have been expected that any lingering sentiment for demanding a re-run of the referendum among left-wing Remain voters would fade. Instead the big issues concerning what type of Brexit we want – what it will mean for trade, investment, public services and ownership, migration and so on - would come to the fore.
To some extent that has happened - Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have generally tried to move the debate on - but not much. A great deal of left-of-centre politics is still stuck in the Remain/Leave binary that became prevalent in the run up to June 2016’s referendum and in opposing Brexit outright. This is a hopeless approach that is both politically suicidal (from Labour’s perspective) and a failure to grasp new opportunities. It rests upon a mistaken, parochial and overly positive view of the EU.
The debate desperately needs to shift towards offering a positive vision of exiting the EU and discussing the opportunities it presents. This is closely linked to the wider need for a radically different economic policy - one that confronts the power of the banks and finance capital, involves a very ambitious strategy for investment and raises living standards.
The way ahead for Labour
If, as I suggested earlier, the big question for Labour is how to be an effective opposition then what answers might we suggest? Labour should constantly take the fight to the Tories and set the agenda around major issues like NHS funding, school cuts, Universal Credit, social housing and pay restraint. It needs to articulate the progressive opportunities latent in Brexit but without getting bogged down in allowing the EU exit negotiations to dominate politics.
Labour should get more radical (not less) and mobilise members and supporters to campaign, not merely at election times, around its policy alternatives. But it's still more than that. The labour movement isn't just about parliament. It will always be constrained if it limits itself to electoral perspectives.
On important issues like Palestine, nuclear weapons and opposing a Trump UK visit it is in the movements that both independent politics and campaigning energy can be found. Hopefully a lot of this can feed into the Labour Party, strengthening Corbyn's own left-wing positions against resistance from many of his parliamentary colleagues.
Left-wing MPs are at their most effective when operating as a megaphone for wider movements and the working class interests they represent. Recall the vitriol directed towards Laura Pidcock, newly-elected socialist MP in North West Durham, after her fairly mild comments (about not wanting to be chummy with Tory MPs) that affronted the Westminster gentlemen's club. This reflected a terror of politics moving beyond the conventional parliamentary boundaries.
Winning in 2018
On a wide range of issues it will take a combination of trade unions, protest movements and Labour Party pressure to really make a difference and achieve change. This is true on all sorts of questions including pay, workers' rights, Universal Credit, health and education funding, housing and so on. We need demonstrations, concerted campaigning and sometimes strikes, not just parliamentary activity.
We may be a long way from a Labour government and, for now, the many good things in the party's 'For the Many' manifesto should be thought of as demands around which to fight - not as a wish list for a somewhat distant government. Action by social movements and unions can win results in its own right, but it also provides impetus to the leftwards direction of Labour.
For socialists, it is also about boosting confidence in taking action - developing a sense of combativity and collectivity, rather than relying on others to represent us. This kind of collective self-activity is, as always, the fertile ground for radical left-wing politics to flourish in. In coming months the mass protests against a likely Trump visit in late February, the national anti-racist demonstration on 17 March and the TUC national demo on 12 May will all provide opportunities for mass mobilisation and a degree of focus for a burgeoning left. Other flashpoints will no doubt emerge.
Events of the last 30 months have decisively moved left-wing politics into the mainstream, and re-shaped political debate, opening up new opportunities. In 2018 we must seize those opportunities, make advances for the whole labour movement, and build a more powerful left.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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