Waiting for the Tories to fail is a losing strategy, argues John Rees
The Tory party and the Tory government are in an unparalleled political crisis. It should be a golden moment of opportunity for the Labour Party.
But it is not.
Instead, Labour are at best a few points ahead in the polls, endlessly recycled rumours of a right-wing split dominate the news, more submerged rumours of a leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn circulate privately, and the mass of Labour supporters are left as mere observers of this scene.
So what is the problem?
Let’s start with the most obvious, but actually least important issue. The Labour Party is, like the Tories, divided over Brexit. The majority of the PLP are for remaining in the EU, and, if anything, Momentum is even more committed to a pro-EU position. In addition, many of Corbyn’s most determined enemies want to use the call for a second referendum to both delay a general election and weaken his leadership.
Thus, Jeremy Corbyn, who has historically held an anti-EU position only altered under pressure from the right wing in the first days of his leadership, and now aware that Labour would lose the next general election if Labour deserts the very large number of Leave voters, is embattled at the head of his party.
One way of improving Labour's prospects would be to face down the remainers and second referendumers. All the placatory talk of Labour being a broad church which can accommodate diametrically opposed views is doing nothing to quell the determination on the part of the remain right-wingers to see the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Worse still, placating these forces in Labour sends a signal to Leave voters that Labour is not serious about respecting the outcome of the 2016 referendum. The secret of the Tories continued relative success in the opinion polls is that they look like the only party seriously committed to delivering Brexit. If Labour allows this to continue it makes the next general election a much more close run thing than it ever need be.
But, despite the fact that Brexit dominates the news, it is not the main reason why Labour, specifically its Corbynista wing, isn’t doing better.
The reason for that failure lies in the way in which Labour is campaigning as much as it does in the content of Labour’s Brexit policy.
In the midst of an unprecedented political crisis Labour’s response has been wholly Parliamentary. Remainers take to the streets. Leavers take to the streets. The far right take to the streets. But the Labour left? Even Momentum, which used to pride itself on being a social movement, is in entirely passive in respect of any large-scale extra Parliamentary movement.
In two leadership campaigns, and in the general election, Corbyn and his supporters addressed mass rally after mass rally in every town and city in the country. Those rallies exposed the media lie that Corbyn lacked support, enthused his supporters, and so transformed those campaigns into outright victories.
At a moment when the Parliamentary system is manifestly failing, when every dog in the street knows that the government is willing to sacrifice the interest of ordinary citizens on the altar of Tory party unity, why would any left-wing organisation simply play by the Parliamentary rules?
Radical movements always thrive on activity, and always wilt when passivity takes hold. Jeremy Corbyn’s whole history as an activist bears out this truth, and the way in which he won the leadership of the Labour Party simply underlined it.
Mass activity can never be a ladder which activists climb and then kick away once leadership has been attained.
The ‘General Election Now’ demonstration early in January should have been a swallow followed by summer. The Labour Party and the trade unions should have by now called a second demonstration to ram home to the political establishment the simple message that voters will not tolerate a government which flouts every day democratic norms to stay in power no matter how many votes it loses in the House of Commons.
Call the rallies now. Send left leaders of the movement out to address them. Call a mass national demonstration now. Call on every Labour movement organisation to build for it. Break the bounds of the Parliamentary deadlock and give ordinary people the chance to shift the political spectrum to the left, open up the path to a general election, and win a left Labour victory.
If Labour cannot act now, if it cannot show decisive leadership now, it will allow this political crisis to benefit the Tories and the right. There is no such thing as a political crisis which automatically benefits the left. Political crises are not like ripe apples that simply drop into the hands of those who wait. Political crises have to be shaped, their outcomes determined by those brave enough to act.
The whole left, but crucially the Labour left, will allow their best opportunity yet to create a left Labour government pass by if they remain passive for much longer.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.