John Clarke reflects on the Tower Hamlets revolt and what lessons it offers working class people and the left internationally seeking a way forward in the midst of crisis
The breakthrough achieved by Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire in Tower Hamlets, during the local elections, was an encounter with Banquo’s Ghost for the Labour right. The accusing finger was pointed directly at the Starmer leadership and the rightward course it is steering. At the same time, however, it represented a vigorous repudiation of a local “administration (that) was characterised by vicious cutting of services” and that embodied “the contempt and entitlement which Labour has shown over many decades for the local community, especially its Bangladeshi members.”
Rahman himself has stressed that that the recent victory was part of a local history of resistance that goes back to “the Poplar Rates Rebellion of the 1920s, where councillors refused to inflict austerity on their residents.” He has also suggested that, with this breakthrough by “our left-wing independent party,...in every conceivable sense, ours is a historic victory to which the whole world should pay attention.” Whether this assessment proves to be overstated or not, the Tower Hamlets result does raise important question about the political direction and viability of social democratic parties internationally.
Social democracy and crisis
The end of the the long economic boom that followed the Second World War also brought to a close the relative class compromise that had marked this period. In place of this approach, a drive to restore profitability, by intensifying the exploitation of workers, removing restrictive regulations on capital and cutting back on state systems of social provision, was initiated. This turn to neoliberalism, as it became the dominant political agenda, created major difficulties for social democratic parties everywhere.
In Britain, the Labour Party had to contend with the fact that the turn to this regressive agenda was pursued with particular vigour. Whenever the attack dog regimes of the initial neoliberal years are considered, the name of Margaret Thatcher always stands alongside that of Ronald Reagan as a key example of uncompromising class war. Labour faced a choice between holding the line against this political attack or of adapting to it. That the latter approach was taken is now a matter of historical record. Thatcher herself infamously declared that her greatest achievement was “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”
Very similar developments took place in country after country, as social democratic parties adapted to a changed global order. While the working class support bases in such parties and left currents within them were not reconciled to the place within the austerity consensus that Blair and Thatcher saw eye to eye on, the fundamental political assumptions of social democracy worked in favour of this adaption.
Rosa Luxemburg challenged an early expression of the reformist view by Eduard Bernstein, when she wrote ‘Reform or Revolution’ in 1900. Bernstein had decided that capitalist crises were manageable and that social democratic parties could win elections so as to incrementally transform the profit system. As this political project was put into effect, reformist parties found themselves managing capitalist economies that were based on the exploitation of working class people and that were also far more crisis-prone than Bernstein had wanted them to be. This lent itself, of course, to pragmatic adaption to the needs of capital, with the reform agenda inevitably blunted and delayed.
During the postwar years, the capitalist system was in a position to provide a level of compromise in society and social democratic parties were able to play the role of brokering concessions. Sometimes, with trade union and community-based struggles pushing them to go further than they might otherwise have done, these reform measures were very substantial. However, the end of the economic conditions that had made this postwar compromise possible left those who manage capitalist economies with a choice between going beyond capitalism or accepting its diminished possibilities. Thus, social democratic parties found themselves reduced to being agents of a reformism without reforms. One after another, they went over to a ‘Third Way’ that represented, at best, a brand of austerity and class war that was less severe than that which would be imposed by their electoral rivals.
This adaption to the neoliberal order created varying political crises within social democracy. The dogged determination of parliamentary careerists and party establishments to offer solid and reliable political management for capitalist interests produced discredited political specimens like Keir Starmer or the agents of austerity that have just bitten the dust in Tower Hamlets. In Canada, where I live, this same approach has created a situation where the New Democratic Party (NDP) is unable to present any kind of serious alternative to the centre right Liberals and, indeed, the NDP is disgracefully providing the Trudeau government with the parliamentary votes it needs to remain in office.
The travails of social democracy in a period where there are few concessions for it to broker, have been considerable. Sometimes, the adaption to the hated agenda of neoliberal austerity has weakened support for social democratic parties to the point where more radical parliamentary rivals have challenged them or even pushed them aside. The rise of Syriza in Greece is very much a case in point, as is the emergence of Podemos in Spain. Both sought ground that had been lost by discredited social democrats, though it must be acknowledged that each of them, in their own way, have dramatically failed to provide the effective radical alternatives they promised.
The period in which the Corbyn project unfolded created a great sense of hope internationally. Here in Canada debates raged on the left over whether such a development could take place within the NDP. The combination of forces that defeated Corbyn’s leadership and the internal weaknesses that contributed to that defeat have been considered at great length. The point I want to draw out, however, is that what underlay the victory of Corbyn was a deep-seated striving for a way forward that has been blocked by the rightward trajectory of social democratic parties.
The restoration of a Labour leadership that would again enjoy the confidence of Margaret Thatcher is now an accomplished fact. That leadership is bound and determined to ensure that nothing like Corbyn ever happens again and the ferocious determination on the part of many within the Labour left to preserve a ‘broad church’ with the right at all costs weakens left opposition within the party. In this bleak situation, the upset in Tower Hamlets has occurred and this is where Rahman’s assertion that ‘the whole world should pay attention’ isn’t such an outlandish assertion.
The impact of the pandemic, coupled with the Ukraine conflict, has unleashed a cost of living crisis that has only intensified the striving for a way forward that fuelled the Corbyn project. The voters in Tower Hamlets expressed that striving when they brought down a discredited local administration that had treated them with contempt. In this crisis ridden period, the fightback will find its chief expression in movements on the streets and on the picket lines but it will also seek a political direction that includes an electoral strategy.
As I write this, a provincial election is underway in Ontario. A right-wing Tory government seems likely to capture a second term in office. In the city of Toronto, where I live, there are communities that face conditions that people in Tower Hamlets would understand very well. As the election unfolds, the Ontario NDP, just like the Starmer-led Labour Party, fails to offer those communities a clear radical alternative or a means of fighting back but they are looking for such a means to resist. As John Biggs, the former mayor of Tower Hamlets, could confirm and, as Ontario Premier Doug Ford may learn if he is reelected, that can turn working class people into a very dangerous and powerful force.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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