‘Anti-austerity first’ will be the watchword of our fight for the next five weeks, argues Lindsey German
This is going to be the most important election for decades, at least since 1979, and one that will change things for a generation. It is going to be a tremendous fight – with everything thrown at Labour from the right. But early signs are that Jeremy Corbyn can overcome much of this. It all depends on what we (in the broadest sense) do between now and12 December.
The general election which so many didn’t want has got off to a good start. Labour’s launch was enthusiastic and positive – and already the policies are creating fear and loathing at the BBC. Emma Barnett’s astonishment that people might think billionaires were a bad thing shows just how much inside the elitist Westminster/corporate bubble the media is, and how out of touch it is with ordinary people.
And Jeremy Corbyn had the added bonus of an early attack from Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was booed when he visited Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the government has had to officially announce that it is abandoning fracking, dropping the freeze on benefits and putting up the state pension. All before the official start of the race.
Most importantly, many Labour members and supporters have reacted with enthusiasm to the announcement. It’s as though a great weight has been lifted from them, after months of endless and often meaningless carryings on in parliament. There isn’t a huge amount of false optimism about either – people are very serious and recognise the challenges facing them, but also recognise that if they carry out a major ground operation they can turn the situation around.
That’s why there have been very big turnouts for rallies and canvassing at the weekend. This is a huge advantage that Labour has over the other parties. Its strength is its grassroots support and membership. It’s a shame this energy and activism doesn’t find enough reflection in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Instead, far too many MPs and some of the motley crew in the House of Lords did everything they could to prevent this election (unfortunately backed by too many on the left). They prioritised internal wrangles in parliament, including endless talks with the other opposition parties, rather than taking the fight to the Tories as so many activists wanted.
Even when Labour looked like it might be outflanked by the Lib Dems and SNP demanding an election, many MPs still threatened to vote against it and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into putting themselves forward for an election. Luckily, events moved too fast for them, but let’s remember that Owen Smith – who challenged Corbyn back in 2016 – told Newsnight that he didn’t want an election because Labour couldn’t win, then promptly stood down the following day.
This election changes the balance of forces in Labour – the Lords and right wing MPs who hang around the lobby and brief journalists against Corbyn no longer have that luxury for the next six weeks. The election will dominate the media but it will be won or lost on the ground.
Here Labour faces different sets of challenges – from the Lib Dems, The Brexit Party and of course the Tories. It is at a disadvantage over the Brexit issue not because its policy is unclear (it really isn’t), but because the Lib Dems claim it is a Brexit party while the Tories and The Brexit Party claim it is Remain. As they all know these are lies. I don’t agree with Labour’s policy, but it is an attempt to represent both sides of the debate which none of the other parties are doing.
There is nothing to be done about this except to keep plugging away at their argument and to insist that this election is not just about Brexit but about what sort of society we live in. Put simply, there is no point in voting for your preferred Remain outcome if you are then lumbered with Jo Swinson, who happily served as a minister in the Tory coalition and who will sacrifice workers’ rights at the drop of a hat.
Labour will be at its strongest on the terrain of fighting neoliberalism and it can highlight policies to change society for the better which can appeal to Remain and Leave voters. One such is the decision to support the WASPI women and allow them to retire earlier. The raising of older women’s state pension age has been one of the great scandals of the past decade, and it has aroused real anger. If I were deciding Labour strategy, this would be one of the main policies I would push in working class areas that voted Leave.
The Tories are aware that this election will not just be a Brexit election. This is why they are obsessing about the NHS and are bringing in policies to reverse or minimise some of the damage that their previous policies have done. They know they need this to eat into Labour’s vote in areas like Yorkshire and the north east. So Labour needs to respond accordingly with demands for publicly owned transport services, not privatised buses and trains, a programme of council housing, decent jobs on permanent contracts.
We will see how it pans out but already the election looks like it is more of a two-horse race than it might have seemed a week ago. Nigel Farage will not get a pact with the Tories, who can never agree to one, and who are increasingly ruling out no deal, since they have a deal on the table. Farage is therefore going to stand a lot of candidates. This will split the hard Leave vote but will also damage Labour as The Brexit Party will be able to attract voters who would never vote Tory. It will however I suspect damage the Tories more.
Farage must be called out for the wealthy ex stockbroker that he is – not least on racism and immigration. There are signs in polling that immigration is less of an issue now than it was during the referendum. If only there had been an honest debate about it, including from Labour, and about the benefits of immigration to Britain, then there would be far fewer who see it as a ‘problem’.
As for the Lib Dems, it is difficult to know where to begin. They are an appalling mixture of arrogance, dogmatism and right wing politics. Nearly all their new recruit MPs have come from the Tories, and nearly all their attacks are on Labour and Corbyn. They are putting around totally spurious leaflets claiming only they can win in a number of seats where their votes were a distant third only 2 years ago. In many cases this will have one effect – to stop Labour gaining Tory marginals and to help the Tories win.
So a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote to help the Tories. And no one should believe their ridiculous propaganda about Jo Swinson being the next prime minister. It’s just embarrassing. According to a recent Financial Times article, they are likely to get 30-40 seats – an improvement for sure, but almost certainly this will again make them the fourth largest party, not forming a government.
My hunch is that as the election goes on, Lib Dem support will fall and we will move onto all sorts of different ground. And that can only win Labour votes.
Protest is a long game, but you do win
I was reminded recently that it is 50 years since I went on my first demo. I was 18 years old and it was in protest at the all-white South African Springbok rugby tour. I was, like so many of my generation, horrified by the injustice of apartheid, and found the excuses for not allowing blacks to participate in sport just intolerable. Since then I have been on many thousands of marches and protests, and I’ve organised quite a few.
It is worth remembering how important they are in changing people’s minds. Then, apartheid was justified by successive governments and this was sustained by a belief among some people in Britain that black people ‘weren’t ready’ to vote and to govern countries. The Labour government of that time was incredibly lenient with the revolting white supremacist Ian Smith, who ran Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) on white minority votes. Struggle in those countries and protest here helped change all that.
The same is true on dozens of issues, from war to abortion rights. In all of these the direct action and involvement of millions of people has helped change the world. Today we see huge protests from Chile to Lebanon and Iraq, demanding change. They deserve our support. And a big shout out to our own recent protestors at Preston New Road site of the Cuadrilla fracking operation.
I spoke at their two year anniversary protest in August and thought them a hugely determined and well organised group of people. Now Cuadrilla is ending its fracking – not before causing loads of earth tremors – and even the Tories have announced a temporary ban. Even when you might think you aren’t getting very far, your enemy may also be facing huge difficulties, not least because of your protest.
The Daily Briefing
This briefing started life during the 2017 election, as a contribution to helping socialist arguments to get out into the campaign. Then it was daily on weekdays, and I’ve decided to return to that format over the next month and a half, once the election formally begins. It’s onerous but enjoyable as well, and I hope helpful. I hope you enjoy reading it and please send any thoughts, ideas, news and even criticisms (all comradely of course) that you have.
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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