Mobilising the labour movement behind a radical anti-austerity programme is Corbyn's best bet to win, writes David McAllister
The next six weeks will clearly be a defining moment in British politics. Years of Brexit deadlock have dominated the political landscape, diverting attention from the far more immediate and pressing problems facing working class people after ten years of Tory rule, and have fed into wider malaise and anger at the political establishment. The situation is more volatile than ever, and the left faces the battle of its life to convert this situation into a victory for Corbyn’s Labour.
In a year which has blighted the left with strategic differences over the correct orientation towards Brexit, the call of a general election has rapidly refocused everyone’s priorities. This election isn’t just about kicking out Johnson’s shambolic government, but presents us with a chance to uproot a generation of neoliberalism in which public services have been successively gutted, poverty has risen, democratic accountability has been eroded, and wages have stagnated while the incomes of the top 1% have disappeared into the stratosphere.
This is the context which drove, and continues to drive, the popular appeal of the Corbyn project. Despite the most ruthless attempts by the establishment, the media and Blairites in Labour to destroy Corbyn, he still retains huge mobilising capacity amongst huge swathes of people who know that an alternative to the status quo is desperately needed. Earlier this month, he spoke to a sold-out city hall here in Newcastle. The electric and confident atmosphere at this event will need to be replicated up and down the country in order to get mass socialist politics on the front foot.
However, it is important that we are honest about the weaknesses and the dangers which face Labour going into this election. Though the Labour right may feign party unity in the context of a general election, the fact remains that majority of the PLP is hostile to Corbyn, and with Labour currently 10 points or more behind in the polls, figures such as Jess Philips are already cynically countenancing themselves as replacements for Corbyn in the event of an election defeat.
While such internal hostility to the leadership has often had a negative impact on Labour’s polling, it certainly hasn’t helped that they have allowed themselves to be seen as part of parliamentary dithering over Brexit. Even at this year’s Durham Miner’s Gala, which is held in a strongly leave voting area, I heard grumblings from a few people expressing hostility to what they see as Labour attempts to frustrate the result of the referendum. The truth is that in many communities like this, anti-establishment sentiment is very raw. There is a perception of the political establishment as just being generally very useless and unaccountable to the people it claims to represent. Dithering over Brexit has fed into this anger, which is why Boris Johnson will try to make this an exclusively Brexit election, positioning himself as the man who has tried to ‘get it done’ in the face of bureaucratic delays.
That said, Brexit is not at the forefront of most working class people’s minds on a day-to-day basis. As much as Brexit might be a crisis for the establishment, millions of people up and down the country have been experiencing a different kind of crisis. It’s very difficult to remain fixated on all the guff of Parliament when you’ve spent the best part of the decade struggling to meet basic living costs. According to the latest statistics from the Trussell Trust, annual handouts of emergency food supplies by food banks now stand at 1.3 million. It’s equally difficult when your entire life is defined by long hours and low wages. The majority of people who rely on benefits to survive are in work, while the number of nurses, teachers and social workers reporting mental health problems is at unbearable levels.
It is by connecting with these, and many other, class-based grievances that Corbynism can lead a new insurgency to kick out the Tories. Recent bold policy announcements at Labour Party Conference have given some of these a platform. The Green New Deal is an excellent start, and should be built upon. Recent polling indicates that two thirds of British people see the climate emergency as the biggest issue facing humanity. By promising new investment, renationalisation, jobs and infrastructure, Labour can be very effective in relating to this new mood by making the necessary links between climate justice and social justice.
This election should also be a referendum on the NHS and education system. Thousands of teachers, parents and children have been worn down by progressive cuts, privatisation and increased workloads. This is where Labour needs to put more meat on the bones of its proposed National Education Service, which would resonate with millions of voters while also giving solid ground for teachers and parents to campaign on. The NHS is also as central an issue as ever. The new film Under The Knife by ‘Keep The NHS Public‘ is proving to be hugely popular, with one film-showing in North Tyneside attracting easily over 100 attendees. While covert privatisation continues unabated with shady meetings taking place between NHS directors and American corporations, the demand to renationalise and to take on Big Pharma through the nationalisation of pharmaceuticals needs to be heard in every community.
The need to stay radical and revive the insurgency on which Corbyn has always depended is more urgent now than ever. Corbynism’s success so far lies in its ability to mobilise and inspire people far beyond the Labour membership, and from all layers of society. People’s Assembly Against Austerity, other anti-cuts groups, and the unions – not least the CWU who voted overwhelmingly for nationwide strike action – will all have a role to play in putting radical anti-austerity politics on the agenda.
Don’t forget that in April 2017, Theresa May called a general election entirely on her own terms while Labour was a depressing 18 points behind in the polls. Two months later, her majority was gone and the Tories have stumbled from crisis to catastrophe ever since. Mobilisations of the labour movement behind a radical anti-austerity programme is what made that happen. It shifted the narrative away from the one May had written, and it cut through the Brexit divisions by making an alternative to neoliberalism visible to millions.
We need that alternative now.
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