We need to analyse the last 2 years and place events in their proper context, argues Richard Allday
Some thoughts on the election: without a shadow of a doubt (and as I edit this, the proof is out there) the abysmal results are going to be used as a stick to beat Corbyn, and equally ferociously, ‘Corbynism’. His critics will hide behind the need for ‘utter frankness’, the need for ‘brutal honesty’ and the like. For which read ‘put the boot in’ and ‘peddle old prejudices as new insights’.
To put these lazy ‘analyses’ into perspective, consider the following facts, drawn from the general elections of the last 40 years:
- Corbyn’s “crash” still puts him mid-table when compared to Labour’s performance since 1979. In 5 of those 11 elections, Labour polled less than Corbyn this time (in 1983, 1987, 2005 – when Labour won – 2010 and 2015, Labour polled less than Corbyn’s 10.29 million this week).
- Only Blair’s landslide in 1997 saw a bigger vote than Corbyn’s in 2017.
- In 4 of those elections (1983, 1987, 2010 and 2015) Labour polled less in percentage terms than this time round.
- Only Blair (in 1997 and 2001) won a bigger percentage.
- In terms of votes, Corbyn has outperformed every Labour leader in the last 5 general elections. His 2017 showing is only matched or equalled by the 1997 landslide, and even this year’s result is better than Blair managed in his 2005 victory.
So the torrent of criticism he is now receiving is somewhat misplaced. But as its purpose is not so much to enable a future Labour victory as much as to ensure the Labour Party returns to being a safe part of the establishment, who the hell cares about objective analysis? Pat McFadden (MP for Wolverhampton SE) summed it up in his public statement: “The most disastrous thing we could do is carry on with Corbynism with a new face.”
So perhaps Mr. McFadden, quoted in the Observer, could explain an interesting statistic in the same article? The article is themed around the unpopularity of Corbyn, personally, on the doorstep – which was undoubtedly true in many, many constituencies in this election. However, this is the same man who achieved a near-record swing just two years ago. So what had changed?
The Observer cites the findings of its pollsters (Opinium) and it makes interesting reading:
“the reasons people rejected Labour: 43% cited the leadership, 17% its policy on Brexit, and 12% its economic factors. Among Labour defectors – those who voted Labour in 2017 but didn’t this time – 37% mentioned the leadership, 21% Brexit and 6% its economic policies.”
So of the lost Labour voters this time round, over a third of them rejected Labour because of the leader, who was the same leader they had voted for two years ago. What had changed in the meantime: not his views, nor his policies - except on Brexit, where two years ago he had rested firmly on the statement “The Labour Party respects the result of the referendum. We will seek to leave the EU on the best terms for our people” but this time around had been coerced, by the likes of Pat McFadden, into promising a second referendum.
Corbyn’s remarkable success in 2017 was based on the support he received outside of the traditional Westminster bubble; the fragmentation of that support this time was a result of too much credence paid to the ‘great and the good’.
Instead of the clear answer he gave in 2017, that he would respect the result of the referendum, this time the message was far more equivocal – to satisfy those elements of the party who have no conception of what drove millions of ordinary people to vote against the EU. (Remember, every poll taken showed support for Remain increasing in line with income, and support for ‘Leave’ increasing with marginalization.)
Even now, these people’s (the Tony Blairs and Tom Watsons and Peter Mandelsons and Alastair Campbells) genuflection towards the ‘left behind’ conceals a deep-rooted belief that we were motivated by racism and xenophobia. Because at the end of the day, we are not fit to be trusted with making our own decisions, that is the role of our ‘betters’ – by which they mean them, the better educated, the more rational, the more objective. The more comfortably-off.
So more than 1 in 5 lost Labour votes were due to the Brexit fudge forced on Corbyn – by precisely those elements now slagging him off!
More than 1 in 3 lost Labour votes were ascribed to a leader they had voted for two years earlier. I can find no explanation for this other than the unremittingly hostile press coverage, aided and abetted by precisely those Labour MPs now so enthusiastically demanding his departure. Of the 6 MPs quoted in the double-page spread in the Observer (laughingly entitled “The big debate”), I cannot recall one of them publicly denouncing the attacks on him, not one! Every single one heaps the blame on Corbyn (usually accompanied by a mealy-mouthed acceptance that ‘other factors’ may have played a part). Not one of them mentions that Corbyn’s election (twice) as Labour leader has led to the biggest growth in party membership Labour has ever experienced; nor that, against all predictions (including theirs), he led Labour to one of its biggest votes in their political lives.
Enough of these political chancers. What about the chancers who won the election?
The last time the Tories saw a result this good was 1987, and the overconfidence this caused in Thatcher led to the imposition of the poll tax, and we all know how that ended - her being kicked out on her backside by her own party.
The time before that was the Tories’ victory over Harold Wilson in 1970, and the overconfidence that time led to their introducing the Industrial Relations Court, that imprisoned 5 shop stewards from the London docks which led to a strike wave which freed the Pentonville 5, and saw the first national miners’ strike for 50 years (under the most right wing President the miners’ union had had), engineering factory occupations in the North West, and the Upper Clyde shipbuilders’ occupation. Heath went to the country on “who governs Britain, us or the unions” – and the country kicked him out.
I am not arguing that our side will necessarily rise to the challenge, and certainly not that we should welcome a ruling class onslaught in the hope that it will spark a reaction. Indeed, not even the 5 jailed shop stewards knew in advance that they would be freed by unlawful working class action. All they knew is they were not prepared to bow down before unjust laws and betray the people who had elected them.
The point of these facts is two-fold. Firstly, progress for our side is, and always has been, dependent more on social forces outside parliament than well-meaning politicians inside, and those forces are rarely faithfully re-presented in parliament. The right in the Labour Party have been so viciously opposed to ‘Corbynism’ not because of any deep-rooted principled objection to reform (after all, what principles they may possess have very shallow roots indeed) but because of a visceral objection to independent working class action - which is why three Labour governments on the trot refused to repeal Thatcher’s anti-union legislation. And the reason they fear independent working class action is, quite simply, because there is no knowing where it might end. If working people took control of our own lives, what would be the point of MPs? Labour or otherwise?
The second point is that independent working class action is never something that is purely spontaneous. The Pentonville 5 did not know that they would be freed by fellow trades unionists taking solidarity action. What they did know is that there was a political current among the most conscious activists in the trades unions that cooperated and organized together. They had a shared political analysis, and a shared organizational structure. So they had allies to turn to when they needed, and those allies were prepared to act in their support.
So if there is to be an alternative to black despair as a response to Johnson’s electoral gains, it needs to be rooted outside parliament, in the real world. And it needs to be organized, and collective. Support inside parliament is welcome, but cannot be the sole, or even the dominant, determinant of our response.
That means that building the resistance starts now. The Bromley library strikers, who are entering their sixth month of strike action; the Felixstowe dockers who announced today their intention to strike over contracting out; the Argos drivers at the Burton site who have just called off their strike, following a 4.5% offer from management – these are the people we should be looking to.
And let’s not forget the school students, striking over climate change. They are the trades unionists of tomorrow. We need to encourage them to be the socialists of tomorrow as well. And we need to support them so that there is a tomorrow to be a socialist in.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
More articles from this author
- “We need to work together”: school student climate striker speaks to trade unionists about the way forward
- Why we all have to support the climate strike
- Something in the air? The strike action in aviation
- Can the Working Class Change the World? - book review
- Workers' occupation at Harland and Wolff shows how to take on the Tories
- Corbynism wins in Peterborough
- We need the labour movement to win the fight against climate change