SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 219 June 2018

Britain after the May elections

On the surface, it might appear that nothing much happened at the local elections. But what that means is that the Tories remain riven with splits, and there is no let-up in the sustained assault on Jeremy Corbyn by Labour right-wingers. Political volatility reigns – something has to give. PAULA MITCHELL writes.

"Neither can break the deadlock", said the Guardian, echoing the general commentary that the local government elections in May were a stalemate between Labour and the Tories. The theme after last year’s snap general election, of the ‘return to two-party politics’, superficially appears to be confirmed. However, what we really face is tremendous volatility. The principal conclusion for the labour movement must be that the retreats before the Blairites must stop. The task is to prepare for an early general election – with a bold socialist programme, a mass movement, and deselection of the pro-capitalist, right-wing MPs.

There have been three Corbyn surges: the leadership election in 2015, the defeat of the Blairite coup in 2016, and the general election in 2017. There was no surge this time. Projected onto a general election this would mean Labour and the Tories would be even on 35% each, according to the BBC.

Of course, it is not as simple as this. For a start, young people voted in large numbers in the general election and have tended not to vote in council elections which, because of the way the Labour Party campaigns in these contests, appear to have no relevance to their lives. When the question of governmental power is posed nationally, young people could again be motivated if an inspiring manifesto is presented.

Moreover, the efforts of the pro-capitalist MPs to undermine a Corbyn-led Labour victory are relentless. Unlike the temporary pause in hostilities after the general election, when the Blairites felt they had to bide their time for a while, this time there has been no breathing space. As soon as the elections were over, the right wing used the results to attack Jeremy Corbyn. Blairite MPs like Jess Philips and Chuka Umunna immediately called for an inquest into ‘what went wrong’. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, declared: "If we cannot beat this shambles of a Tory party, we don’t deserve to be in the game".

The Momentum leaders and activists argued in their defence that there had been important gains for Labour, and that ‘turnouts are always low’ in local elections. Some local Momentum members tweeted along the lines of ‘Labour had a fantastic night and we’re on track for winning government’. While it is true that the Labour vote in London was the best since 1971 – in part due to black, Asian and migrant communities voting against the blatant racism of the Tories exposed in scandals such as Grenfell Tower and Windrush – this is not an adequate explanation of why Labour did not trounce the trouble-ridden Tories.

No question the results were deliberately undermined by the Blairite right wing. Most immediately this is evident in the antisemitism smears which had an impact in areas with big Jewish populations. Most notably in Barnet, where the Tories went from a majority of one to 13 councillors, but also in wards in Hackney and Haringey, where Labour was defeated by the Tories and Lib Dems respectively.

The smears could have been overcome if those around Jeremy Corbyn had challenged them. There is no place for antisemitism or any form of racism, but neither is there evidence of there being more antisemitism in the Labour Party than anywhere else (see article on page 14). Instead of conceding to the attacks, those around Corbyn should make it clear that criticism of the brutalities of the Israeli state is not antisemitism. Instead, they have taken the mistaken line that any challenge to this narrative would show signs of division. Why would voters disbelieve what they are being told if Labour Party members do not stand up and defend themselves?

The other main way in which the Blairites undermined votes was through the role of right-wing Labour councils. We have warned consistently that their policies of cuts and privatisation, passing Tory cuts on to the shoulders of the working class, would undermine support for Corbyn and reinforce the scepticism of a big layer of people that anything is really going to change.

Turned off, not turning out

Socialist Party activists, with over 100 candidates around the country standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) challenge against prominent Blairite cutters, were able to take part in multiple discussions: in hustings and public meetings, on protests, online, and in the countless conversations on street stalls, at school gates and on the doorstep. Putting forward a clear no-cuts alternative of deeds as well as words meant we were able to take part in the central debates in our communities.

What is clear is that support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto does not seamlessly equate to support for the Labour Party. The loyalty to Labour expressed by an older generation who experienced the post-war reforms is not there in the same way among those who have no experience of a Labour Party actually delivering council housing, improved education and so on.

Clearly, many people felt they had to vote Labour locally to support Corbyn nationally, despite the role of their local councils. This was the position argued by Momentum and the SWP. But they fail to understand the real experience of working-class people at the hands of Labour councils and what that means for the political conclusions many draw.

The fragmentation of politics during the pre-Corbyn years, with voters turning to alternatives such as Ukip and the Greens, has a material base. In an age of economic crisis and austerity there is no stable base for reformism. This is not understood by the leaders of Momentum, who conduct business as if there is a seamless progression towards a Corbyn victory in a general election. There was a layer who drew a distinction between how they voted nationally and locally. We met a number of people who said things like, ‘I support Jeremy Corbyn but I can’t bring myself to vote for this lot’.

Some opted for a protest vote. The increase for the Greens in some areas was primarily a search for something more in line with Corbyn’s manifesto, with the Greens benefiting from their national profile. We also talked to people who were thinking of protesting by voting for the Lib Dems and even the Tories. This is why it was important for TUSC to stand – to offer a socialist alternative rather than allow reactionary forces or dead-ends to be the only available outlet for people’s anger at their Labour council.

While many held their noses and some looked for alternatives, however, the biggest number did not vote. Overall turnout was estimated at 36%, the same as four years ago, pre-Corbyn. It would be a mistake to interpret this as apathy or complacency, as Owen Jones has done. A big layer of people are sceptical that anything has changed. The massive wave of discontent which found expression in the Brexit vote – due to austerity, the rich getting richer, and the sense of having no control over their lives – has not gone away. But there is a feeling among many people that their votes won’t make any difference. Anger is being expressed by not voting.

Brexit was undoubtedly a factor. Ukip’s vote collapsed with many of its previous voters turning to the Tories in predominantly leave areas. But to pose this as Ukip voters returning to their natural home would be a caricature. This is especially illustrated in Basildon, where the Tories defeated an outgoing Labour-Ukip coalition council! For a significant layer, Corbyn’s manifesto in the general election offered a potential alternative. A million voters moved from Ukip to Labour. In the council elections that transfer did not take place automatically.

Councils could fight back and mobilise

It is simply unacceptable to excuse this away, as Owen Jones did in the Guardian: "Local authorities have such limited powers, and have been decimated by cuts, so it’s also much harder to offer the sort of radical policies Labour offered in the general election and which turned its fortunes around". In reality, councils have a lot of power. Councils in England control budgets totalling £114 billion. They have powers over housing, social care, childcare, libraries, youth services, schools, housing and council tax benefits, parks, leisure facilities, and more. They can create jobs, they can ensure good pay levels.

They can resist austerity and, if Labour councils acted together to do so and mobilised their communities and trade unions, they could spearhead a massive campaign that could bring down the Tories. But wrongly, Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have not challenged the idea that resisting the cuts now, before a Labour government is elected, is not possible. While they have argued for a return of ‘municipal socialism’ – bringing privatised services back inhouse, building council houses and so on – these are primarily ideas for the future.

The dangers of this half-hearted approach are illustrated in Haringey. As part of a community campaign against housing privatisation, right-wing councillors were deselected, and the new crop of candidates stood on a manifesto promising to build council houses and pay the living wage, among other good policies. However, this was a ‘wait for Corbyn’ manifesto, with most of the progressive policies postponed till 2022. Turnout was up slightly to 39% as people voted with some heightened expectations, but the failure to put forward a bold no-cuts programme and stand up to the Blairites meant losses to the Lib Dems.

While local government turnouts do tend to be lower than general elections, there is no automatic reason why the participation is this low. The question is, what will motivate people to vote? In the 1920s, a struggle was waged by Labour councillors in Poplar, east London, over council funding for poor relief and wages. Their slogan was ‘better to break the law than break the poor’. They were prepared to be jailed. This was not a passive campaign but involved the mobilisation of the community in mass protest. In 1922, at the height of the struggle, the council was re-elected on a turnout of 51.5%, compared to a London average of 36.4%.

Similarly in the 1980s, when Liverpool Labour council was led by supporters of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, the mass of the community and trade unions were mobilised in marches and strikes to defy the Tories’ demands for cuts. The socialist Labour leadership set a needs budget and built houses, leisure centres and parks, and created jobs. The turnout in the 1984 elections was 50%. The elections were an integral part of the struggle since, at the earlier budget-setting meeting, the sabotage by right-wing Labour councillors meant that the Labour budget did not have a majority. So the budget was decided by the outcome of the May elections and the return of socialist councillors. The elections were a tool for working-class and young people to fight for their interests.

Tory divisions

For the Tories, this year’s results were a relief considering the possible disaster they faced, given the anger against austerity and inequality, and multiple crises of the NHS, Grenfell, Windrush and more. Consequently, Theresa May could continue to just about hold things together for a while longer. But the serious division that threatens to tear apart her premiership and her party is Brexit. The elections have done nothing to resolve the fact that the British ruling class is approaching its most serious crisis in over half a century with no reliable party to represent its interests.

The majority of big business wants to remain in the single market and customs union, in order to best make profits and super-exploit workers without barriers. When the working-class rebellion delivered a Brexit vote, it was not only a crushing defeat for David Cameron and the Tories but also for the capitalist class. The long-term division in the Tory party, between those who attempt to represent big-business interests regarding Europe and those who hark back to former ‘glory days’, has burst open and threatens to split the party. After Theresa May’s disastrous general election, the only reason she is still Tory leader is that there is no one else who can hold the party together.

While claiming to have "absolute determination" to deliver "what the people want", May has been kicking the can down the road, trying to avoid a complete meltdown. Since the Tories gained votes in predominantly leave areas, the right-wing Brexiteers have been emboldened. Boris Johnson calls May’s customs proposal "crazy"; Dominic Grieve calls for him to be sacked. Cabinet meetings have been postponed, and it is literally split in two to ‘explore’ different options on trade – May’s ‘customs partnership’ and the Brexiteers’ ‘maximum facilitation’. The government has faced a series of defeats in the Lords and a tussle with the Scottish parliament. As the EU deadline approaches, there is talk of extending the transition period.

If the Labour Party were still a fully Blairite, pro-capitalist party, the ruling class would undoubtedly be looking to it to save the situation. Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, however, that is not so straightforward. Not primarily because of Corbyn himself. His programme is very modest in comparison with that of Tony Benn or the manifestos of the early 1970s and 1980s. Yet, because of the potential he represents, they fear a Corbyn government could be pushed much further to the left by the demands of masses of people whose expectations had been raised.

The ruling class would prefer to keep May and the Tories in power until after the 2019 Brexit deadline, but it is not in control of its supposed political representatives. So, while the Tories could stagger on for some time, it is also possible that cabinet members could walk – and May could be out very soon. The divisions are so great that it would be extremely difficult for the Tories to survive a leadership contest without collapsing and precipitating a general election.

Brexit and right-wing Labour

This is why, in the relentless efforts of the Blairites to undermine Corbyn, Brexit is increasingly the main issue. The Blairites will do all in their power to sabotage a Corbyn victory. As the representatives of capitalism inside the Labour Party, they would rather keep the Tories in power than allow a Corbyn government.

In the EU referendum, in an early attempt to satisfy the right wing, Corbyn mistakenly moved away from his historic position of opposition to the EU as a capitalist club and campaigned for remain. This – and with most trade union leaders adopting the same position – meant that the vast majority of working-class and young people never heard the socialist, anti-racist, internationalist case against the EU. Both leave and remain were led by Tories.

Since the referendum, Corbyn’s position has improved. He says he will respect the leave vote and calls for a Brexit in the interests of working-class people – against the rules that enforce privatisation or restrict state intervention, against the ability of the bosses to exploit migrant labour to drive down wages, and to protect workers’ rights and living standards.

Nonetheless, he is under pressure from an open campaign by the right wing, in collaboration with remainer Tories and Lib Dems. David Miliband, Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock have all returned to fight for ‘remain-in-all-but-name’. Chuka Umunna is leading a cross-party campaign for a ‘people’s vote’ on the Brexit deal. Rebellion comes from the Lords and the backbenches. The Guardian excitedly reported that a million students will protest for a vote. This actually turned out to refer to letters written by the right-wing-led National Union of Students – in reality, the student wing of the anti-Corbyn campaign (see article on page ten).

Yes, the majority of young people voted remain in the referendum – as would most of those who were ineligible to vote at the time if they could do so now. A poll by Opinium shows that 65% of 18-34 year-olds support a ‘people’s vote’. Just as the vote for Brexit among working-class people was an expression of anger and fears, however, so is this behind the view of many young people: fear for their future study and jobs, and more generally about the state of the world – an internationalist, anti-racist rejection of the bigotry of the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

It is true that the Lib Dems made some gains, most notably in Richmond and Kingston, southwest London, by posing as the only remain party and doing a deal with the Greens – who anecdotally appear to have gained some votes from remainers. But this was very limited. In reality, most people’s concerns are not about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, but about the conditions of life.

Getting the Tories out

The answer for Corbyn is not to retreat but to boldly put forward a socialist, anti-austerity, anti-racist and internationalist Brexit that could cut across the fears of those who voted leave and remain. One risk of retreating is continued fragmentation and the possibility of the rise of racist formations. Ukip’s crisis does not mean there is no room for it or something like it to develop if Corbyn’s Labour capitulates on Brexit.

It is essential to prepare now for a general election. The volatile world situation means that the next election could take place in completely different circumstances. Trump is due to visit Britain in July and, if he is not forced to cancel it, there are likely to be massive protests – especially if his actions in relation to Iran and Israel continue to lead to escalated deaths and even war. Jeremy Corbyn, with his anti-war position and opposition to Trump, could benefit.

Nonetheless, the local election results are a clear warning that the longer the situation goes on – with retreats before the Blairites, no mobilisation to drive out the Tories, and Tory cuts continuing to be passed on by Labour councils – there is no guarantee that Corbyn would win a general election. Building a mass movement is vital.

It would be wrong to conclude from the small turnout on the TUC demo on 12 May that the trade unions cannot mobilise big numbers. In 2011, three quarters of a million marched behind the TUC banner when they believed it was the first step towards national action to end austerity. If workers thought that the trade union leaders were going to use the demo as a staging post in building up a serious fight for pay, pensions, jobs and against the Tories – and if Corbyn had put out the call for everyone to go on it – it could have been massive, a step towards coordinated strike action and a nail in the coffin of the Tory government. It is still necessary to fight for that to happen.

A mass movement would not only hasten the demise of the Tory government but would also be essential to back up a Corbyn government, which would come under immense pressure from the capitalists not to carry out even his modest programme. Not least, that pressure would come from the capitalist representatives in the Labour Party. This is why absolutely essential preparation for a general election is to deselect the Blairites.

All the issues we have raised and campaigned for since Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party are urgent: to democratise the party, reinstate the rights of the organised working class expressed through the trade unions, for a federal structure that will allow all anti-austerity forces to participate, readmit the expelled socialists. But none is so urgent as reinstating mandatory reselection with the aim of deselecting the pro-austerity Blairites. If this step is not taken, the right will do all it can to sabotage a Corbyn government.

Political volatility

It is possible that the right wing could decide to split away, before or after a general election. Discussion has taken place in the serious bourgeois press, discussing likely donors and champions of a new party. Of course, David Miliband played down the possibility when he was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, but it cannot be ruled out that a new ‘centre’ (pro-capitalist, pro-remain) party could be established, involving a right-wing split from Labour and perhaps with a split from the Tory party as well.

It is therefore posed that, far from the ‘same old, two-party’ illusion created by the outcome of the May council elections, we could be facing a much more chaotic situation. Many possibilities are posed, including a minority Labour government or coalitions. In a desire to avoid this much more fluid and apparently messy situation, the argument for ‘unity’ put forward by Momentum is likely to continue. This could morph into the lesser evil idea that it would be better to cave in to the Blairites to keep them on board.

It is impossible, however, for unity to exist between opposing class interests. Any such outcome would mean a continuation of the ruling class forcing the working class to pay for economic crisis. This includes the social catastrophe in housing, crisis in the NHS, the severe drop in living standards of people in receipt of benefits, wage stagnation, the huge debt burden on young people, and the violence plaguing the lives of many.

In addition, tragedies and scandals such as Grenfell and Windrush have underlined just how expendable are working-class, black and migrant people’s lives. None of these realities are about to disappear. Current economic doldrums could tip into another crisis – including, possibly, from external shocks created by turmoil in the Middle East – which would sharpen all of these issues even further.

The anger and desire for something different that has been displayed again and again – in the fracturing of politics, the Scottish independence referendum, the Brexit vote and the Corbyn surge – will not go away. The movement around Jeremy Corbyn has, even in the most general way, put the alternative of socialist policies into the debate. There is no longer just one mantra, that there is no alternative to austerity. Ideas of nationalisation, free education, council houses and rent control have been put on the agenda. Out of the complications and volatility, what has opened up is the possibility of a mass, democratic working-class party with socialist policies – if it is determinedly fought for now.

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