Two years ago Labour seemingly faced a catastrophe in the general election. Instead Corbyn campaigned enthusiastically and Labour’s manifesto, endorsed and enthusiastically advocated by thousands of members on the doorstep, fired up millions. In a near miracle the political situation was transformed and the Corbynist movement produced the biggest electoral stride forward for Labour since 1945.
Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and subsequent success in the 2017 election was based on the hope he gave people that we could defeat the neoliberalism of the Tories, which has wrecked lives and inflicted austerity on the working class. A movement – if an amorphous one – was built on that hope.
The movement seems to have run out of steam for now. If the Corbynist bandwagon is not moving forward it inevitably rolls back. The whole project is now in danger. It is the task of the LRC, part of that movement, to try to explain where we are now and how we can progress. The sudden emergence of the Brexit Party as a force with mass support represents a political earthquake in Britain, albeit one that might be shortlived, though it would be wrong to assume that. The revival of the Liberal Democrats, previously considered to be on life support after their spell supporting the Tories in coalition government, is also considerably disturbing.
The political situation has been dominated by this issue for the past three years. Part of the reason for Labour’s success in 2017 was because the general election provided the occasion for Labour to spotlight all the ills of Tory Britain, not just the issue of Brexit. As we have explained in the past, Brexit has split the working class.
The LRC’s attitude to the Labour leadership’s position on Brexit, as with much else, has been critically supportive, not afraid to disagree when we consider it necessary, but not to lose sight of the break that leadership represents with neoliberalism. For instance our 2019 Conference reaffirmed our support for free movement of people.
The leadership’s position on Brexit was that they respect the result of the referendum, but oppose the terms of exit which Theresa May negotiated, and which were not outlined on the ballot paper in 2016.
Labour’s position has been deliberately misrepresented by the ‘usual suspects’ in the media and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). We expect nothing less. The big majority of the PLP remains hostile to Corbyn and loses no opportunity to sabotage the leadership on this issue as on others.
The Labour leadership’s stance has been difficult. It has tried to find a way to appeal both to working class Brexiters in ‘left-behind’ places and working class Remain voters in metropolitan areas (although this is a simplification of the complex cross-currents caused by the debate).
There is no doubt that there have been real differences between Labour’s representatives in the way they presented our Party’s position. The 2018 Conference resolution presented our preferences in order as:
· Acceptance of a Labour deal
· A general election
· A confirmatory vote on a deal,
though the precise meaning of this motion has led to much argument within the Party.
Differences between Labour spokespersons have been accentuated by the catastrophic collapse of our vote in the elections for the European Parliament. The leadership now seems to be changing its position without a wider discussion within the Party, increasing the impression of ambiguity and shiftiness. Labour urgently needs a democratic discussion on the issue.
The fact is that May declared a dictatorship on becoming a Prime Minister determined on delivering Brexit. She was really negotiating not with the European Union, but with her own refractory backbenchers. The result was a deal that was totally unsatisfactory to the labour movement. Labour was in no way responsible for this. Rather, Labour was stuck with reacting to government proposals. It was not in charge of setting the agenda.
May only approached Labour for negotiations when her own authority was crumbling. The Labour leadership was in a difficult position. It had to be seen to help deliver a deal when Parliament was deadlocked, but it quickly became clear that May was not willing to make concessions, and in any case was unable to deliver them. Labour should have withdrawn from negotiations earlier.
The Euro Elections
The British public is heartily sick of Brexit dominating the news day after day. They were promised this would all be over by now. They were lied to by both sides in the 2016 referendum debate, which was dominated by the Tories. They were told withdrawal would be the easiest thing in the world. In fact trade negotiations will drag on for years into the future if the UK withdraws from the EU.
This weariness allowed Farage to popularise his narrative of ‘betrayal’. Farage is of course a charlatan. Despite being a career politician himself, he plays on a deep distrust of establishment politicians, which can include Labour. That means Labour must show itself to be a genuinely anti-establishment force.
It is an indication of the fragile and fraught nature of politics in Britain today that the Brexit Party could emerge as a mass force in a few weeks, with impressive rallies all over the country, despite having no programme and being run as a dictatorship by Farage, with supporters rather than members.
Labour’s result was an electoral disaster. The party was seen as fudging the issue, or as Remain to Brexiters and Leave to Remainers. There is a real danger that lifelong Labour voters, having voted once against the Party, may permanently change their allegiances.
The campaign itself was poorly conducted. Canvassers could expect to encounter difficult questions on the doorstep. There was no briefing for members to deal with these. Supporters were not helped by the vagueness and ambiguity from our spokespeople when speaking to the media. Pathetically inadequate numbers of leaflets were issued to the areas. The publicity material itself was very poor. Though it emphasised there were other issues than Brexit, it did not deal with the fact that many were treating the vote as in effect a second referendum. The leadership gave the impression that it was not engaged. There was no recognition either that a poor showing in the Euro elections would be a setback on the road to a Labour government, or that advance for the Brexit Party would reinforce racism. Little was done to enthuse Party members.
A ‘People’s Vote’
It is preposterous that this phrase has caught on. A general election of course would also be a people’s vote. In the 2018 Conference composite resolution a second referendum was seen as a tie-breaker. Now it is quite true that Parliament is deadlocked. There is no majority for a second referendum, for remaining within the EU, or for withdrawal without a deal. It is not at all clear how a people’s vote would resolve the deadlock.
Many of those who propose a people’s vote are unreconstructed, uncritical Remainers. They want to reverse the 2016 result. It is not obvious that a second referendum would achieve that. What is plain is that the 2016 referendum had the effect of poisoning the water of political discourse for years. A second referendum would probably be even more divisive.
We may be sucked into a referendum process in the future, but it cannot be Labour’s preferred option, not least because at present there is no acceptable deal on which a confirmatory vote can be taken. What would the wording on the ballot paper be in any case? That would have to be decided by the Electoral Commission.
Alastair Campbell’s Expulsion
Everyone on the left knows that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as a real socialist Party leader was bound to lead to hysterical denunciations and media booby traps from the capitalist press. We have to answer the lies and expose the squalid manoeuvres that are bound to come. At the same time we should not lead ourselves open to accusations of inconsistency and ‘unfairness’.
We have no time for Alastair Campbell, he of the `dodgy dossier’ justifying the invasion of Iraq. He has been automatically expelled from the Labour Party for publicly announcing in advance that he would vote for the LibDems, the party that backed Tory austerity to the hilt from 2010 to 2015, in the European elections. The Labour Party’s rules are for automatic expulsion for supporting parties against Labour.
However, we should bear in mind that Campbell is an accomplished PR hack, who could well have been setting us a trap. Campbell knew he was breaking the rules, and flaunted the fact in order to make front page news. Margaret Hodge encouraged Labour supporters to vote for other parties, but has not been expelled. Labour has to have consistent procedures.
Shami Chakrabarti has said that Campbell’s case could be reviewed. But since there is no appeals procedure against expulsion, this smacks of making the rules up as we go along, of dithering and weakness, making the situation worse, not better. And we have to ask whether the expulsion of Campbell was really the number one priority after the disastrous Euro election result.
The media is asking why alleged antisemites are not summarily expelled. Members’ activities have to be investigated, and their misdeeds proven. That is their democratic right. The Party’s disciplinary procedures have improved since the departure of Iain McNicol as General Secretary, but they are still imperfect.
We should brace ourselves for a further onslaught on the issue of antisemitism. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is poised to investigate. They have been urged to do so by the Jewish Labour Movement (an organisation which, at its recent conference, declared that Corbyn is unfit to be Prime Minister), and egged on by the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which poses as a charity but acts in practice as a political campaign organising against Labour. Where there is antisemitism in the Party it must be rooted out. The LRC believes the claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party are wildly exaggerated and accusations of antisemitism are conflated with criticism of Israel.
The uproar around Pete Willsman’s comments to a journalist is a case in point. While his words were badly formulated, the fact that Israel intervenes in British politics is well-documented, not least in the Al-Jazeera documentary The Lobby. As Jewish Voice for Labour has said, it is this which needs investigation.
The lesson of previous witch hunts is that there is no use in just going on the defensive and apologising for imaginary misdeeds within the Party. That just produces a feeding frenzy and renewed attacks. What is needed is a political critique of who is attacking us and why they are attacking.
The Way Forward
The success of Farage’s Brexit Party in the Euro elections has panicked the Tory Party - rightly so. We shall not miss Theresa May as Conservative leader. She has been a colossal failure as Prime Minister even in her own terms. The effect of her government’s policies on working class people has been appalling. But the Tory leadership contest has already thrown up even more right wing contestants who vie with each other as to who can deliver the hardest Brexit.
The threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit is real. The time bomb is ticking. A majority within Parliament opposes leaving without a deal. But the executive, not Parliament, has the choice of leaving the EU with or without a deal. Many of the Tory leadership candidates seem unconcerned about the chaos that will be caused by a no deal Brexit as long as they get the top job first, or, indeed, they and their friends in business believe they will prosper from the scrapping of workers’ rights and regulations which would follow. They are prepared to charge ahead for withdrawal without a deal in October. Labour has been unable to warn sufficiently of the approaching danger.
It is grotesque that Britain’s next Prime Minister is likely to be selected by the Conservative Party membership, a dwindling bunch of bigots. Theresa May was of course earlier subject to a ‘coronation’ as leader, without a vote being taken. We must insist that the next Prime Minister is validated by a general election, not just foisted on the country after a Tory leadership contest. With the Tories in disarray and tearing themselves to pieces, this should be a good time for Labour to advance. It is significant that several Tory leadership candidates have warned of the ‘threat’ of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister in the chaos. With the Tories at rock bottom, Labour ought to be doing much better.
To future generations it will seem absurd that politics in our time was dominated by the issue of Brexit. The threat to the future existence of human life on earth on account of the climate emergency seems a much more important issue. Labour is developing policies to address this theme. They should be presented centre stage to attract the burgeoning movement of young people against environmental catastrophe.
Britain is riven by grotesque inequalities and deep poverty, as the Report to the United Nations On extreme poverty and human rights by Philip Alston shows starkly. The Brexit debate seems to have produced a political paralysis on all the other issues facing the country.
Take the issue of social care, which is in deep crisis. The government was supposed to produce a green paper on the subject in 2017. Two years later it has still not appeared. A green paper in any case is only a consultation document, not a plan for legislative action, which seems a very long way off.
Local authorities have been starved of funds by Tory austerity. Austerity has savaged the land. It is not over yet. Many local authorities have lost two thirds of their central government funding since 2010, with worse to come. This is a crisis all over the country. We desperately need to drive the Tories out of office. It must be possible to put together a vast anti-Tory and anti-austerity movement including millions of people who have been hurt by the policies of the Conservatives, but have traditionally never regarded themselves as ‘political’. We can only do so by highlighting the issue of austerity rather than allowing ourselves to be sidetracked into discussing Brexit to the exclusion of all other issues.
These are issues that demand a clear political programme from Labour. We all understand the problems. With a largely hostile PLP, far too much pressure is piled on John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn as individuals. They are beginning to assemble an enthusiastic team of younger socialist Parliamentarians. In the country they have the priceless asset of a new generation of political activists, keen to do the best they can to advance our cause. But enthusiasm alone is not enough. The democratisation of the Party’s structures, and the transformation of its policy-making processes need urgent attention. A start must be made by allowing CLPs to begin the process of selecting their candidates for the coming general election, allowing those who want to rid themselves of MPs who have constantly worked to attack the radical leadership.
This remains the best opportunity for socialist change in the UK for decades. But we are not there yet. The LRC is part of this movement. We want it to win. What is needed is a clear political perspective. Our leadership has got bogged down. The LRC is a small force in the Corbynist movement. We hope to help provide political clarity. Labour’s leadership needs to take control of the agenda, to point out what are the real priorities and to present solutions to all the grievous problems afflicting British society.
Above all, the movement which won Jeremy Corbyn the Labour leadership, and nearly won Labour the general election in 2017 needs to be rebuilt. If people have the impression that it has stagnated, that grassroots initiatives are no longer welcome, the hope for change necessary to win will not be there. The LRC aims to be part of rebuilding that movement and that enthusiasm.
The great result in Peterborough in seeing off Farage was achieved by the hard work and determination of hundreds of volunteers. The media cannot hide their disappointment at not being able to report Labour losing a seat, and sections of the Party would rather attack the Corbyn-supporting Lisa Forbes for alleged antisemitism than celebrate a victory. We should, however, be wary of drawing too many conclusions from one by-election in a very febrile political situation.