Labour did better in the local elections than the loss the media are portraying, but they could have done a lot better, argues Cameron Panting
Forget the spin and the press. This is what is at stake in Labour’s election results. The real results in a real election showed the same as the polls. Labour might just squeak a three seat majority in a general election, or it might be another hung parliament.
The blunt fact is that Labour hasn’t moved forward since the general election in 2017. But for the left there is no such thing as treading water. If you aren’t moving forward, you are moving back.
So why is this? Corbyn and the left’s rise is a story of insurgency, and must continue to be that if it is to actually win the next election. They aren’t going to quietly wander into office after a few good media performances, some great policies, and a ton of door-knocking. The only way a serious left wing alternative is going to find itself in government is if it throws the current government out the way with a transformative programme, and a transformative politics, embodied in an active and empowered mass movement.
Yet the big Corbyn rallies stopped a while ago, to be replaced by staged Labour policy announcements that go unnoticed, partly because they seem to happen when there is another big news item and they are avoiding taking on the question of the moment, and so get buried by the real news and the real political argument they should have been taking on. There should have been a national demo around Grenfell. They should have called one on Windrush. Corbyn should have spoken on the Palestine demo, which, by making the arguments around this issue, would have done far more to take on the anti-Semitism accusations than a defensive damage-limitation press operation, which only made them seem weak and unsure of their own views.
Labour members and politicians should be at the front of campaigning around the NHS, and around antiwar issues. They should go for it in terms of making anti-racist arguments, taxing the rich, changing our foreign policy, and everything in between.
This will, of course, polarise opinion, but if we are to change peoples’ minds about the potential for change, then we need to tackle the issues head on.
One important issue remains the fallout from Brexit. The UKIP vote collapsed, but not all in the Tories direction as the pundits are claiming. In very important areas (Liverpool, Birkenhead, Basildon) Labour’s share of the vote increased as UKIP collapsed.
If Labour are to have any chance of winning in the places the Tories did well in - small towns like Nuneaton - it has to be even clearer with its message of a People’s Brexit. They clearly aren’t seen as ardent Remainers like the Lib Dems, otherwise the vote would have collapsed, and they wouldn’t have taken any ex-Ukip voters, but people are still pretty unsure about where the party stands on this issue.
This doesn’t need to be done in isolation. It can form part of a larger campaign around improving pay, money spent on local services, house building etc, that push the concerns people have around immigration out of the picture. It has to be transformative, or people just won't come out. It’s a strong anti-establishment politics that can win over ex-Ukippers, not lying to them that you think immigration is in any way a problem. They aren’t stupid. We all know that UKIP or Tory voter who was impressed by Corbyn’s response to the Manchester attacks during the last election, and who thinks more seriously about voting Labour when the policies are more radical, and therefore more clear in their intent.
Don’t let's get fixated on the sociological obsessions of the media; young against old, black against white, Leavers vs Remainers. The divisions really worth talking about are around class, and the more we can make that clear, the other stuff pales into significance.
The other big lesson is that canvassing will only get you so far. Huge numbers of Labour and Momentum activists were knocking on doors in key marginals and this is no doubt necessary work as anyone who has fought an election will tell you.
But no amount of door-knocking and ‘conversations’ can make up for not battling and winning the big political questions of the day. It has to be a mass participatory politics - not just going round peoples’ houses and telling them that if they vote Labour their lives will improve. This is particularly true of an established party, much more than a new one. One huge national demonstration changes the political landscape, engages hundreds of thousands who talk about it with tens of thousands more. It activates, engages, and educates in a way that door knocking does not. Of course, its not either/or. But Momentum and others are playing it as if it is.
We need a broader political battle if we are to convince enough people that change is possible. There is nothing to be won from the centre. Right now, there are only a handful of Labour MPs saying the right things and campaigning on a clear class basis. You can talk all you like about de-selecting Labour MPs who are hostile, but in the here and now, why not get on the picket lines and protests with the folk who will be on message - the trade unionists, the activists, the working people on the ground who were so enthused by the gains made in the general election. There is so much to win. Complacency will not do. We need to get this government out as soon as possible, and it will take some real radical moves to make it happen.
Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.
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