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A Fate Worse than Brexit (Part 2)

[An earlier article, A Fate Worse than Brexit – The December Election, provides the author’s background analysis, here pursued in the first paragraphs.] 

A Fate Worse than Brexit – Where to now?

Gordon Gibson

In the fateful December General Election, the British Labour Party lost over 50 seats in its traditional heartlands. Three decades of unemployment, zero-hours contracts, benefits, no hope, loss of industry and manufacturing, replaced regular unionised work and self-organisation in communities that had virtually defined Labour.

Collective life was wrecked in favour of isolation, Sun and Sky journalism, gambling, football and pornography, much of it heralded in under Blair’s deal with Murdoch. No wonder people were disillusioned with bourgeois politics.

Alienation had begun in earnest after Thatcher’s defeat of the miners in the early-mid 1980s.   

Gains made under Blair’s early Labour were washed away by the Iraq war and neo-liberal economics. Older white workers in particular were left behind; communities became vulnerable to racism and English nationalism, blaming everyone but the rich for their loss of dignity. As far back as 2009, UKIP won 17% of the vote. The writing was on the wall.

Labour persisted with its decline. Blair had lost millions of votes, then came Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, with two brief stand-ins by Harriet Harman. That changed with a bang when Jeremy Corbyn sneaked on to the leadership ballot and shocked the still-Blairite, comfortable middle class ‘champagne socialists’, bon-viveurs, career politicians and that layer of young New Labour apparatchiks, fresh from university. Shocking the system, the establishment, Corbyn provided a huge boost to Labour with rocketing membership, a regeneration of party democracy, a campaigning base, and a policy break from austerity. There was a new enthusiasm with deep roots amongst young people.  

As the US turned right, followed by much of Europe and South America, Britain looked leftward. We would almost certainly have gone down that right-wing road sooner without Corbyn. He wasn’t helped by the Brexit referendum and the embodiment of Murdoch-style politics into the erstwhile discreet and stable British bourgeois democratic tradition. Corbyn may have failed but his framework was the antidote to the rightism and even fascism sweeping the world from Burma to Brazil, India to Israel, US to UK, and much of Europe.  

Here can be found the substance of resistance. Labour’s manifesto; the questioning, albeit insufficient, of the Brexit deal; the belated and forced recognition of the alienation of traditional Labour voters; the new active campaigning membership of Labour; indeed, the democracy of the Party – all matters currently being challenged in Labour’s leadership contest, and being resisted by most candidates. The stakes are high.

The media is complicit: no coverage of the French general strikes; continued play on Labour’s anti-Semitism as the US-Israeli deal tolls a terrible blow to Palestine; a real danger of capitalism using war, as it does, to alleviate economic crises. Ironically (a gentle word in this context), the media’s complicity gets it nowhere: the print media is in crisis, owned by a narrower spectrum of ruthlessness; the BBC for all its supposed bias is in serious danger of destruction in favour of a Fox type media that has so well served Trump. This is not a time for centrism, compromise and cosy negotiations. These people are very nasty.

Scottish workers have written their own script of opposition, workers in London and Liverpool have remained resolute. Wales continues to waver. Many north English losses are now new marginals, ripe for campaigning, action, and resistance to what promise to be tough times ahead. Extinction Rebellion and the environment movement are mobilising new layers to innovative forms of struggle. Community self-organisation takes on new forms, if often in defensive mode. And the anti-racist movement, perhaps not yet as strong as the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism of the 1980s, is nonetheless significant and certainly an organising base against the re-emergent right, it being nourished by the new Tories and their media.  

Our people have been much abused over the past three decades and more. The huge social gains of the post-war period, under both Labour and 50s Conservatives (yes really!), have been eaten away by privatisations and obscene profiteering, in favour of which current governments, not least the Tories, promise less regulation and controls, less social protections and a singular focus on economic growth and fast bucks.

Against this, ease away from the drive to the centre, for there lies disaster – aka the Liberal election dream and the Labour renegades. ‘In which direction to turn’ is a universal, not solely Labour problem. To be slightly parochial, the SNP, now clearly a social democratic party, will not find it easy against Tory populism, not that Scottish Labour is currently capable of stepping in. Similarly in Wales, unless Welsh Labour is seriously shaken up, the chances of survival as leaders of the Welsh Assembly are tenuous.

Only popular movements can resist rightist pressure. In the main, that will be through single issue campaigns. Politics has to be alive to that. For sure, if they are to survive, political parties must find policies that service popular campaigning. An orientation to the ‘green new deal’, more than planting trees, valuable as that is, towards establishing industries for renewables and energy is essential. Get in there first as the investment capitalists, short of homes for their ill-gotten gains, have an eye on that market and the Tories will be close behind them. In Scotland, there is valuable discussion in favour of a Green Investment Bank so that such policies as infrastructure investment are decided there, locally, rather than by the Tories in London. 

Turn towards our people for these campaigns. Focus there on needs and strengths. Base that, in the first instance, on youth, on the new generation of activism. Never forget that Corbyn was a significant catalyst for that generation. There is no going back to the old ways, no risking the alienation of youth.

If we fail, the vulnerability of the class to English nationalism, to fascism, or to ‘progressive patriotism’ is a fearful danger. The election gave us yet another reminder. Remember the referendum. If we are complacent, if we are led back to the old ways that have so betrayed our voters to the point that they are in social and political purgatory, then the price will be unbearable. Back 100 years ago in the 1920s, ‘socialism in one country’ left German workers isolated and vulnerable. That didn’t end well.

For now, resistance (for that is the reality of the day) will express itself in single issues – defence of jobs, the Health Service, social welfare, workers’ rights, pensions, heaven knows what arising from Brexit, anti-racism, Stop the War, Climate Change and the environment. An early challenge is to turn the fraudulent anti-Labour attacks towards the real anti-semites, spurred on by Brexit and already expressing themselves in physical attacks and graffiti in Britain and in organised fascism in the European mainland.

These issues are comprehensively covered in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, for all the weaknesses the right seek to dish it with.      

The future is always, first and foremost, to work with and for our own people. Never forget. All this talk of being electable is tosh; we are to cringe towards those that berate us. No! We have to be out there providing real answers to our real people.   

Gordon Gibson

February 2020

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