The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Where next for Labour?

The outcome of the 2019 UK general elections dealt a huge blow to the Labour Party and its policy programme around issues of social justice. In this post, I am reflecting on the causes of the defeat, the things to come as well as possible next steps for the party. I will argue that we must not succumb to the vilification of Jeremy Corbyn, be it by the right-wing media, be it by the right inside our own party.


Brexit

The fact that the elections took place against the background of Brexit proved to be a disaster for the Labour Party. Since the referendum in 2016, the party and its voters have been deeply split over how to deal with this. Some observers say now that Labour should have respected the outcome of the referendum and endorsed Brexit and, therefore, would not have lost so dramatically. However, this completely overlooks that a pro-Brexit position would have turned away many party activists as well as voters, who already complained that there had been no remain position. Fewer losses in the North of the country would have been confronted with more losses elsewhere. Equally, of course, as the election outcome shows, a clear remain position would not have saved the party either. Labour has been genuinely split over Brexit. Boris Johnson turned the Conservatives into a pro-Brexit party and expelled those, who did not like it. The Liberal Democrats became first and foremost a Remain party. Neither course was ever a realistic option for Labour. 



The local Stapleford South by-election in early June was a sign of things to come. Labour had two excellent local candidates, who had worked for over two years forming relationships with local residents. They were supported by a large group of activists participating regularly in door-to-door canvassing sessions. However, taking place shortly after the elections to the European Parliament Labour had no chance. Both candidates came a distant third after the Liberal Democrats, the preferred choice of Remainers, and Conservatives, the preferred choice of Brexiteers.

The party’s decision to back a second referendum to bridge this divide ultimately failed. Some argue now that it might have been strategic to support Theresa May’s Brexit deal and then fight the subsequent elections on social and economic issues. With hindsight, this can easily be said. However, at the time the party’s internal divisions over Brexit ruled out this particular course of action.


Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity

Photo by The Pinefox
Many try now to blame Jeremy Corbyn personally for the defeat. And yes, he was not popular on the doorstep during canvassing sessions. However, people who had the opportunity to meet Corbyn – and voters in Broxtowe, my own constituency, had many opportunities to do so over the last two years – know that he is a warm, caring person, who is committed to social justice. From the very moment that he was elected as Labour Party leader in 2015, the political establishment, including many Labour Party MPs, has vilified him. Especially after the much better than expected elections in 2017 he had become a realistic threat to entrenched economic interests (Jack Peat, 19 November 2019). ‘The vast majority of the mainstream press and the BBC have done all they can to smear him as a terrorist sympathiser, a Stalinist and an anti-Semite’ (Sean Vernell, 14 December 2019).

To argue that the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK is a problem is important, to lay the blame for this at the door of the Labour Party and here especially Jeremy Corbyn is political electioneering. Eventually, the character assassination of Corbyn came through in voters’ perceptions of him. While canvassing in Stapleford, Broxtowe, in November, a builder shouted across the road that ‘Jeremy Corbyn was the biggest anti-Semite since Adolf Hitler’.


Of things to come

The new Conservative MPs for Broxtowe and the neighbouring constituency of Ashfield show the calibre of the new Tory personnel and are a sign of things to come. Lee Anderson, the new Conservative MP for Ashfield, produced an infamous video during the campaign, stating that 'nuisance tenants' should be made to live in tents and pick potatoes.




Darren Henry, the new Conservative MP for Broxtowe, when challenged about the increase of people having to rely on foodbanks, recommended that they should be given lessons in budgeting.




There will be nothing to hope for from the new Tory government for people, who voted Conservative for the first time in the Midlands and the North of England. In Blyth Valley, the first traditional Labour seat, which went to the Conservatives on the night, 24.18 per cent of children live in poverty. 26.7 per cent of households are classed as fuel poor and the unemployment rate is 31 per cent. It is precisely these regions, which would have benefitted from a Labour government and the abolition of zero hours contracts, the introduction of a £10 per hour minimum wage, proper funding of education and the establishment of a regional development bank to revive UK manufacturing.




To say now, as some on the right of the Labour Party argue, that we should return to the ‘centre’ and New Labour type policies completely overlooks that the party’s disconnection with these traditional working class communities started already decades ago precisely under the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson (see Aditya Chakrabortty, 14 December 2019). The biggest failure of Labour now was that it did not manage to connect its programme of hope with the aspirations of these traditional working class communities. The Corbyn project was extremely popular with younger people in cities, but hardly reached into the neglected communities in the Midlands and the North of the country. Many new activists joined the Labour Party under Corbyn and participated actively in campaigns, but few of this new intake came from the traditional working class.

Overlooked, disregarded and without hope after decades of neglect, these communities had first voted for Brexit in a protest about their situation and now felt betrayed by the long process of actually implementing it. The Conservative message of ‘Let’s get Brexit done’ proved to be too seductive in this situation. The economic fallout of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal combined with Conservative party austerity policies will ensure that these communities will have to pay a heavy price for their decision.

Of course, there are also winners due to the decisive Tory victory. Shortly after the announcement of the exit poll, the financial markets rallied and the Pound gained vis-à-vis the Dollar and the Euro. The Conservative victory ensures that Labour’s plans for the nationalisation of key industries such as water, the railways and postal services are off the table for now. Capital can continue to rake in super profits at the expense of working people and their hefty bills for these services. The Conservative victory guarantees that employers such as Sports Direct and Amazon can continue to exploit workers on zero hours contracts and poverty pay. These are the real winners of the elections.


What next?

First, we must not succumb to the vilification of Corbyn, be it by the right-wing media, be it by the right within the party itself. Corbyn has revived the Labour Party at all levels and instilled an enormous dynamic. There is no other politician in the UK currently, who can draw such large crowds. Second, a step back from the Corbyn project of social justice has to be avoided at all cost. There can be no return to New Labour style policies, which have done so much to facilitate Tory restructuring in the first place. Third, there can be no return to centralised decision-making by the party bureaucracy in London with local members having no opportunity to contribute to policy discussions. The regular consultations of members introduced by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have to be maintained.


Fourth, Labour Party members have to bury their divisions over Brexit. This struggle is over and should no longer influence discussions about who should be the next leader and where the party should go. Fifth, the party has to make renewed efforts at gaining the trust of the abandoned working class communities. ‘Providing advice to those whose benefits are being slashed, legal support to tenants under the cosh from their landlords, haggling with the utilities to provide cheaper and better deals. Add to that: teaching political and economic literacy to voters, not just activists, and consulting constituents on what issues Labour should be battling on’ (see Aditya Chakrabortty, 14 December 2019).

Manifesto policies such as nationalising water are popular with people up and down the country. Reconnecting with people in deprived areas, making the case for these policies in a sustained way and not only around the time of elections are the tasks for the future. The Labour Party has many excellent young, female politicians such as Rebecca Long-Bailey or Angela Rayner, who can continue the project. As there is no final victory, there is no final defeat!



Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK


Andreas.Bieler@nottingham.ac.uk
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net

15 December 2019



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