Lindsey German continues her sober assessment of the Johnson victory and its implications
It is said that when the Paris Commune – the first attempt at workers’ government – was defeated by counter revolution in 1871, the ladies of Paris poked their parasols at the corpses of the Communards who died in street fighting. We have seen a glimpse of that same sort of vindictive class hatred in the past few days as Labour’s devastating defeat unfolded. Pundits on every media platform, MPs from Labour’s right and centre, and Corbyn haters from every corner, have joined in the abuse and vilification of the left.
Labour’s bitter result has already caused an explosion in the party, where the right and centre are reasserting themselves and trying to bury socialism and the left. They hated Corbyn from day one and are now rejoicing as they believe they can return the party to its centre ground. While the left will try to ensure continuity in the leadership election, Corbynism as a project is over, and while socialism is much stronger within Labour than before 2015, there will be huge pressure to move the party to the right. The left will quite rightly fight against this process, and will aim to keep as much of Corbyn’s legacy as they can, but the combination of the scale of the defeat, the onslaught by the right and centre, and the inexorable logic needing someone ‘electable’ will all lead in this direction.
Labour’s defeat is on a major scale. Scotland is lost to it, and many of its northern and Midlands seats have gone. Labour is still strong in the major cities but struggling to win in many areas that it once held. Nor has it hit its lowest shelf - Thursday night would have been worse were it not for the Brexit Party taking votes which might otherwise have secured a Tory majority, for example in Ed Miliband’s Doncaster seat. The corrupt and dishonest campaign by the Tories has won Boris Johnson a comfortable majority which he will use to further his right wing aims.
The main reason for the defeat is clear – voters were angry that their Leave votes in 2016 were ignored and, worse, were going to be overturned by a second referendum. This is the deep-seated resentment which underlay so many Labour voters switching for the first time in their lives to a party which closed the mines and steelworks, presided over a decade of austerity and headed by an old Etonian charlatan. Crucial to this defeat was the adoption of a second referendum position by Labour earlier this year.
This was forced on Corbyn by the insidious People’s Vote campaign, which has played its part in getting this result, and which was always an anti-Corbyn project. Unfortunately, too many of his allies went along with this, and it was only compounded by John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, as well as Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, all saying that they would campaign for Remain. This cemented in people’s minds that Labour was disregarding the democratic vote of 2016 and that Corbyn either went along with this or wasn’t capable of standing up to his colleagues.
Facts are stubborn things and the fact is that of the 60 seats lost by Labour in this election, 52 were in Leave areas, and of the remaining 8, six were in Scotland, where independence was the bigger factor. The loss of another, Kensington, can be put down to dishonest calls for tactical voting for the Lib Dems, who were never challengers here but who were backed by the Observer.
It was obvious to many of us that there was such anger in many Leave areas over this that it would cost Labour electorally. I was surprised by the scale of it – I expected a small Tory majority or a hung parliament. I also expected and hoped that some of the other major issues would overtake Brexit in importance. Unfortunately, neither of those happened. The feelings over Brexit were compounded by the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. Actually, I think these things were intertwined – the policy on Brexit helped feed the sense that he was no longer ‘straight talking’.
He has also been vilified with calumnies from across the board. Those people who hated and attacked him from day one are now indulging in vile personal attacks and abuse. This is coming not least from his own MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party. This shower, with a few honourable exceptions, have done everything they could to weaken Corbyn, they have rushed to the television studios to denounce him, they have staged a coup and a leadership challenge against him, and they have helped orchestrate a vicious campaign about antisemitism. Jonathan Ashworth denounced him to a Tory friend, the conversation was then leaked to a right-wing website.
All of this has been aimed at destroying his reputation and his support. They then turn round and say that he is unpopular on the doorstep when they have been major contributors to this unpopularity. The very same MPs who demanded that Labour adopt the second referendum position which has cost it so dear are now attacking the whole idea of socialism, even though the difference between last week and 2017 was not Corbyn or a left manifesto, but the second referendum position.
Labour’s mistake in conceding to this followed its other major retreat for which it paid dearly - that over antisemitism, when it accepted the IHRA definition last year. This was done in order to prevent further attacks over the issue but had the opposite effect. Apologies just led to further apologies in an atmosphere of growing witch-hunt, which is by no means over for the left.
However, it is obvious from the defeat that this was not just about Brexit or about Jeremy Corbyn or any other single issue. We are seeing the legacy of Thatcherism and – as importantly – the failure of Blairism to address any of the issues which arose from deindustrialisation, the destruction of well-paid jobs, austerity and cuts implemented by Labour councils. Indeed, the right-wing Blairites predominated in these areas and used their safe seats to provide national platforms, with scant regard for the people represented by Tony Blair or Peter Mandelson.
A criticism of the past four years is that Labour has done too little to address these problems or the people who helped create them – and just promising infrastructure only takes you so far when people feel let down by politicians for decades. The party may regain many of the seats after the experiences of a Tory government, but this will not happen if they are ignored, patronised or condemned as all racists as so much of the left has done.
Working class consciousness is created as a result of activity and struggle – this is what gave us Labour ‘heartlands’ in the first place and this has to be rebuilt again through the attempt to build unions, campaign against school cuts, create a stronger role for public provision, fight against fracking and environmental disaster. It requires the left to reject the whole culture wars approach to politics, and to understand that class interests cut across these. We need to assert that age, race, gender, nationality are all affected by class and it is on the basis of class that we have to organise a fightback.
Most importantly for those of us who have set so much store in a Corbyn government, the pendulum will now swing towards extra-parliamentary activity and this is the main way in which success will be achieved. Johnson has a strong majority and will be a right-wing prime minister, boosted by his taking of these Labour seats. But he has huge problems over the economy, over what sort of Brexit he can achieve, and over delivering on the promises he made to working class voters.
There is much to fight for and the campaigns and unions have to work hard to strengthen their support, influence and reach in the coming year.
This has been a bitter blow, and there will be much debate about the way forward. For socialists in and out of the Labour Party, there will be the need for unity over specifics, but also for comradely debate on which way forward for the left.
This is my last Briefing until the new year. Thanks for reading it and for all your feedback. Have a restful and happy Xmas and New Year – because then we need to start organising against Johnson and his government for the rich and powerful.
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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