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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

A Fate Worse than Brexit

A three-parter: 1. The December Election; 2. Where we are Now; 3. What Next.

A Fate Worse than Brexit – The December Election

Everyone – nearly everyone – got it wrong.

The opinion polls got it wrong. Their much-publicised glee at getting the exit poll right – not the most difficult exercise, papered over the lies and fraud of the whole election. They had told us it was increasingly a close-run thing, probably a Tory win but perhaps a hung parliament. Much of the left, including myself and Rebecca Long-Bailey tended towards this outcome.

The right of the LP got it more wrong and now disguise their own role by further denunciation of Corbyn. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and their allies in the media were the worst offenders. They hounded Corbyn; they force-fed the anti-Semitism filth; they called for a second referendum; they assumed that ‘Remain’ would be the winner; some of the worst of them resigned. They remain horribly wrong on all counts.

The ‘leftist’ post-election pundits are getting it wrong, mostly baying for some movement towards the mythical centre, despite that that centre also got wiped out or barely registered in the election. Paul Mason and Owen Jones, who both swung like a pendulum over the Corbyn years, now construct rightward critiques: Mason completely loses the plot with some fanciful call for a new centrist unity; Jones claims that we should have campaigned on a Norway-style Brexit and that we don’t have enough bureaucrats and organisers, negating the fantastic shift that young activists have brought towards social media and new campaigning. ‘Few experienced bureaucrats and organisers’ indeed! Jones should look again to Wales where the same bureaucrats have maintained a strangle-hold over the party, distanced themselves from Corbyn with their ‘Welsh Labour’ wrappings and are likely, as a result, to lead us to losing the leadership of the Welsh Assembly. John Harris was never on the side of the left despite the language he uses.  

The leave side was dismayed with the conference’s change of position on the second referendum – we should have accepted the result. They were right but, unfortunately, not in such simple terms. Nothing has been simple about the EU.

A Brexit Election    

Starmer’s six tests had provided a framework to manage the post-referendum rift: an ongoing relationship with the EU; the ‘exact same benefits’ from the Single Market and Customs Union as now; fair management of migration; defend rights and protections; protect national security; deliver for a regions and nations of the UK.

These conditions could never be met. The rabid Brexiteers leading negotiations on behalf of the May government got nowhere near, hardly leaving the starting line. They achieved virtually nothing in three years and, one after the other, resigned from their task.

Corbyn was more sceptical. He branded the EU as worth 7/10. Starmer’s six tests provided a useful foundation; Corbyn was more explicit – workers’ rights, protection of the NHS, defence of the public sector against EU privatisation options, the addition of the green agenda. This was a sound basis for the resistance to Brexit or, alternatively, to set an agenda for a leave deal.

From day one after the referendum, whilst respecting the result, it was the deal, the shocking implications of Leave, that both sides (of Labour) should have concentrated on. That was the mistake. The pro-EUer’s made it during the referendum and since, including in the December election. First there was complacency, led by Tory Cameron’s call for the referendum on the assumption that he would sort out his anti-EU right wing. Then a total lack of effort (on all sides) to counter the years of media propaganda – the square tomatoes and straight bananas, the ‘political correctness’, the bureaucrats, the ‘frogs’, the Germans and the war. It had been relentless.

The referendum campaign itself was vile, not least with Farage being forced on us from all directions. Yet it was assumed ‘remain’ would win. The shock was that towns like Ebbw Vale voted Leave, despite that their precarious survival before and after steel had been solely down to huge EU financial support. That’s alienation for you.

No-one saw it coming; not Cameron, not Labour (torn both ways already), not British capitalism, and certainly not the Remainers; all were devastated by the result. Many were devastated, disbelieving even more, by the December election result. How could it happen? How could working people, low income families, disabled, the working class of the mining communities, of the north, of north Wales; how could they desert Labour and vote Tory?

We should look at our disbelief for explanations, not ‘turkeys voting for xmas’, not our class inflicting untold damage on themselves. They will need us to stand by them in the weeks, months and years to come.     

In short, disbelief is rooted in the complacency of the Remainers. If we shout loud for ‘Remain’ and have a second referendum all will be resolved. History passed its verdict on that theory in December. That pressure, largely from within the PLP, did for Corbyn and for Labour’s election hopes.

Of course there were other factors – the sustained media hostility, the fraudulent anti-Semitism, weaknesses in Labour’s campaign strategy, etc., but the main factor was that Corbyn was the only one that was cautious on Europe; virtually everyone else knew better. Corbyn gave ground under that terrible pressure, and we will all pay the price.

Labour’s campaign assumed that if we presented a comprehensive socialist programme it would swamp what was and is the empty Brexit barrel – a slogan with no substantive content since day one.

Brexit alienation.

This analysis is relatively easy in hindsight.

The full impact of Brexit alienation is visible: how we failed to address it back then and continued to get it wrong into the election. Labour’s ‘muddled’ position: ‘Are you Leave or Remain?’. The party, influenced largely by the PLP and the anti-Corbyn Progress faction, wanted more and more ‘Remain’, a second referendum. Only Corbyn was concerned with our Leave voters. But by then, he and we were making the best of a bad job, a lost cause. On the other hand, the new Tories, the populist nationalist Tories, played on alienation – a very dangerous rebranding indeed.

Back in 2016 and the heady days of 2017, we had a chance. Tens of thousands, inspired by Corbyn, were joining the Labour Party. The 2017 manifesto began to address the real concerns of the class. That programme was developed further, with more thought, care and underpinning, in the run-in to the December election. In amongst that were the reasons to remain in Europe, or to protect if we leave: the defence of rights and regulations, of holidays and leave, of unions, of free-movement, of the environment, of investment in our post-industrial communities, of welfare. It all got lost in the Remain muddle. The Johnson-Cummings single issue campaign rode over the disarray, a disarray that had emerged in 2016. Alienation of the class is rooted decades before.

A second referendum could even have been defended. Accept the result; now it is about the deal.

Could we accept a deal? In truth, whatever the Tories put before us, or not put before us, will be thoroughly unacceptable. Had we argued the case from 2016 we might, only might, have had a chance. But we were served by a hungry media, dining on our Remain hotpot, the side dishes being provided by our own party.  

Everything should have been about the headlines and detail of the deal. That could appeal to both leave and remain and focus minds on the substance rather than the propaganda. What, in practical terms, is leaving the EU going to mean to most of us? Just to scratch that surface is a horror story.

Most of all, ‘What’s in the deal?’ could talk to the alienated class in the north and in Wales, those that have fallen victim to Labour’s woes. It may even have had some resonance in Scotland, but that is another kettle of cauliflowers.

For all the efforts to blame Corbyn and the campaign, there is no getting away from the fact that of 54 Labour seats lost, 52 were in Leave constituencies. Back in 2017, Labour had gained its biggest increase in vote share since 1945, and its biggest share since Blair in 1997.  Corbyn transformed the party, its politics, its support and its active base. That didn’t just disappear in two years. Yes, it was eroded and the long-discredited ‘first past the post’ electoral system didn’t help.

Back in the Blair years, we should have ditched the Tories for good and revealed the LibDems as their clones, the combined opposition. Heaven knows Clegg and Cable gave us every chance.

Now, after the Scottish debacle, it is Labour that is in danger, having learned little. A leftish social-democratic SNP, if tinged with nationalism, has wiped Labour off the page.

The Scots are fortunate. The danger south of the border is that Tory populism, variants on ‘progressive patriotism’, English nationalism, xenophobia, racism or even fascism will do the job for capitalism. The Labour leadership contest has much responsibility if it is to serve our people.     

To be continued…

Gordon Gibson is a Scot, a long-time resident in Wales. He is a Labour member and currently Chair of his local Constituency Party in South Wales.

January 2020

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