The 2019 local elections saw Labour suffer a net loss of councillors. The editorial from the June 2019 edition of Socialism Today, issue No.229, was published just before the further warning sign of the 2019 European elections.
The promise of the Corbyn insurgency that began in 2015 is in danger. The triumph of the left-wing backbench outsider in the Labour leadership election four years ago opened up the prospect of overturning Tony Blair’s 1990s transmutation of the Labour Party into New Labour. By qualitatively changing Labour from a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ working-class political representation had effectively been eliminated as a mass force for over two decades. Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory was a bridgehead from which, potentially, this process could be reversed and workers achieve a mass party of their own.
This potential was reinforced in 2016 by Corbyn’s defeat of the leadership coup organised by the still-Blairite dominated Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and, even more profoundly, the general election surge a year later. Labour saw the biggest increase in its vote between elections since 1945 with millions inspired by Corbyn’s manifesto which, while falling short of the socialist programme needed to end the power of the capitalist class, signalled a break with the austerity consensus of the Tories and the Blairites.
Since then, however, momentum has stalled. The local election results at the beginning of May and the likely outcome of the European parliamentary elections later in the month (after we go to press), with Labour set to be outpolled by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, are a serious warning. By not completing the insurgency set in motion in 2015 and transforming Labour ideologically and organisationally into a mass socialist workers’ party, a vacuum remains which can be filled by other forces dangerous to the working class.
Message of the May polls
The narrative of the May local elections promoted by the Blairites in the PLP and the liberal media commentariat was that the Liberal Democrats had staged a triumphant recovery because they were the voice of opposition to Brexit. Labour on the other hand suffered a net loss of 84 councillors because Jeremy Corbyn failed to say that he would reverse the 2016 referendum result. But that is a superficial reading of the facts – and a disastrous political prescription.
The Lib Dems did win an extra 704 councillors compared to the last time these seats were contested in 2015. But it was a limited recovery. The Lib Dems’ projected national share of the vote, calculated by the BBC to take into account that not all councils had elections on 2 May, was 18%, well below their share in any round of council elections between 1993 and 2010.
Nor were their gains more than marginally greater in areas that had voted remain in the EU referendum compared to those that had voted leave. The Liberal Democrats notably won Chelmsford council, for example, by overturning a 45-seat Tory majority in a city where 53% had voted leave in 2016. The Lib Dems have seemingly acquired momentum ahead of the European elections, the immediate effect of which is to be seen. But the most accurate assessment of the local elections is that they managed to partially regain the position they held before 2010 as a protest receptacle for ‘none of the above’.
The Lib Dems were not unchallenged even in that respect, however. The Greens gained an extra 194 councillors and there were more than 900 candidates elected not standing on a party label – a net gain of over 500 – averaging 25% of the vote where they stood. The leader of the independents on Darlington council, which Labour lost control of for the first time in 28 years, put their rise down to a reaction against Labour councillors who had “stopped listening and become complacent” on local issues. These were, after all, council elections, with a turnout typically half of that in a general election.
That is not to say that there was no correlation between attitudes to Brexit and voting patterns on 2 May, which of course will be even more marked in the European elections. Labour lost control of Bolsover council, which voted 71% for leave in 2016, Hartlepool (70%), Burnley (67%), Middlesbrough (66%), Stockton-On-Tees (62%), Darlington (56%), and Lancaster (51%). All of the 21 councils where Labour lost five or more seats were in heavily leave-voting areas.
The vote for leave in 2016 was, at base, a working-class revolt against the capitalist establishment, a shout of rage at the age of austerity and all its consequences that followed the financial crash of 2007-08. That this is not finding its outlet through the Labour Party after four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a grave warning to him, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and their supporters in the labour movement.
Workers still disenfranchised
Asked what the single most important reason was for why they voted as they did in the EU referendum, Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll – taken on the day of the 2016 vote – found that 49% of leave voters said that it was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. The leave victory was, above all, an expression of the alienation and powerlessness felt by working-class people in the face of remote and uncontrollable forces shaping their workplaces and communities.
Three years later, the Hansard Society’s 2019 audit of political engagement found that 47% of adults in the UK still feel that they have no influence at all over national decision-making, the highest level of feeling powerless recorded in the 16-year history of this annual survey. This is the same study that showed 63% believing that “Britain’s system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful”. How is it that big sections of the working class can feel so disenfranchised after four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party?
Even Labour as a capitalist workers’ party in the past was seen by the working class as their party, the means by which they could ‘influence decision-making’. Bringing workers together to struggle and discuss collectively helped develop a broader class consciousness beyond their own particular interests or special oppression, and impelled them to consider how together they could take on ‘the rich and powerful’. It is through organisation, including in a workers’ party, that the working class on a mass scale moves from being a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself, coming to see the need for an alternative to the ‘rigged system’ – socialism against capitalism – and its defenders.
The major mistake of the self-declared US ‘democratic socialist’ senator Bernie Sanders not to direct the support he won in his 2016 presidential bid to building a new working-class party meant that a mass socialist class consciousness has not developed as rapidly as it could have done in the US, although there are enormous opportunities for it to do so. (See Bernie Sanders and the road to a mass workers’ party, by Tony Saunois, Socialism Today No.229 June 2019) Ultimately conciliating instead with the Democratic Party establishment in 2016, unfortunately it is a mistake that Sanders seems set to repeat.
There is not an exact parallel with the Labour Party which was founded by the trade unions while the US Democratic Party has been capitalist since its inception. But why, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, has mass consciousness not developed as it should have done here in the past four years? Because the Corbyn insurgency has not been completed either politically, with a clear socialist programme, or organisationally, with workers and their trade unions at the core of a party democratically restructured from top to bottom.
Rescuing the insurgency
Reflecting on the May elections, the Guardian columnist Owen Jones wrote of Labour being “robbed of that sense of insurgency by Brexit” (9 May). What is necessary, he argued, “is to pick fights with unpopular vested interests, causing almighty public rows which reinforce its ‘many’ versus ‘the few’ insurgent appeal”. Jones’s solution, however, was just more policy proposals for what a future Corbyn government should do – scrap knighthoods, abolish private schools, a state-backed national estate agency – rather than steps Corbyn could take to change the lived experience, and consciousness, of workers today and to link that to the need for governmental power.
Labour councillors lost seats because they have acted as implementing agents, willing (the Blairites) or not, of Tory austerity measures. Over 90% of schools in England, for example, are facing a funding shortfall, meaning fewer teachers and support staff, rising class sizes, and shrinking subject choices. Labour councils could use their licensed deficit powers to underwrite shortfalls, and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could pledge to reimburse them on coming to power for all the cuts they prevent. Isn’t that a better ‘fight to pick’?
Yet four years into their leadership not a single Labour council can be held up as a model of defiance, even when faced with Theresa May’s weak and demoralised government. If anything the Blairites have entrenched their grip on local government after a change to Labour’s constitution in 2016, without opposition from Corbyn, made it a disciplinary offence for potential rebel councillors to propose allegedly ‘illegal’ budgets.
Moreover, why should Brexit have necessarily ‘robbed’ Corbynism of its insurgent character? Corbyn is suffering the consequences of his first concession to the Blairites when, in September 2015, he committed to support a remain vote in the EU referendum in all circumstances. But there have been opportunities since to demystify Brexit – just another term for renegotiating relations with the 27 member states of the EU bosses’ club – and transform the debate.
A pledge that any government he leads would not be bound by the current EU rules on nationalisation, state aid, public-sector procurement, restrictions on workers’ collective bargaining rights, etc – and that scrapping them would be the basis on which he would negotiate a new deal – would undercut the propaganda of both the right-wing Brexiteers and Blairite remainers. Combined with a call to scrap the EU fiscal compact commitments to continental austerity, write-off the eurozone debts, and create a common economic area based on public ownership of the banks and major monopolies, Corbynism could become an insurgent force across Europe, too.
In addition, Jeremy Corbyn could present his own proposals for a democratic reconstitution of the Labour Party, including mandatory reselection of MPs and restoring the trade unions’ rights of collective representation in the formation of policy, the selection of candidates, and the governance of the party locally and nationally. Also vital to ensuring the necessary discussion and clarification of policies and ideas would be the right for all socialists, including those previously expelled or excluded such as the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), to organise within the party in a modern version of Labour’s founding federal structure.
At every stage, however, the same obstacle looms – Corbyn’s determination to conciliate rather than break with the Blairite representatives of capitalism still dominant in the PLP, the local council chambers, and significant sections of the party machinery. To rescue the promise of Corbynism the struggle for independent working class political representation is an ever-more urgent task for every labour movement militant, young climate striker or social movement activist.