No Final Defeat

As crushing as Labour's electoral defeat was, the Labour left must find a way of picking itself up again - because the alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

Now is the time of monsters, as Gramsci once wrote. The morning after the 2017 election, socialists across Britain felt as if they’d woken up “in a country they didn’t know existed”;1 on Friday, they woke up once again in a country whose various pathologies and malfunctions they were only too familiar with. Over the preceding few weeks, thousands of them had mobilised, aware of the scale of the task but resolute in their efforts, in pursuit of a radical Labour government, one they hoped would be serious – at long last – about striking at the root of Britain’s myriad social injustices, and setting it on a new and entirely different path.

Instead, they now find themselves being used as a punching bag by the bien-pensants of the centrist commentariat, scarcely less gleeful about the election result than the Tories themselves. These are people who believe in nothing beyond their own career interests and those of their friends – career interests which, they hope, have been drastically revived by Thursday’s commanding Tory victory. Having been denied it in 2017, they feel their moment has now arrived, despite the election being no triumph for the liberal centre. With a regal sweep, they think regardless that they can swagger back into control of the Labour Party, dictate the terms of surrender, and clear away its bruised and demoralised left, which they never accepted as in any way a legitimate presence on the political stage. Normal service resumed.

Their hubris, once again, threatens to run away with them. This might be a moment of political desolation for the socialist left in Britain, but those revelling in their apparent triumph – right and centre alike – still have no answers to any of the problems we face, or even a willingness to face up to their severity. The sole aspiration of British liberalism now is to go back to being dull, unambitious, and unthreatening to any of the real vested interests doing so much damage to Britain’s social fabric. The struggle for social transformation in this country must continue, and those serious about it must pick themselves up and fight on, because the alternative – a washed-up liberal centre lining up against an emboldened far right with climate breakdown looming large on the horizon – hardly bears thinking about.

The Old World is Dying

The most obvious consequence of this election is that Britain now inevitably faces a full-bore, hard Tory Brexit of some description. The People’s Vote campaign has ended in disaster on its own terms, and were it not for its general utility in disorientating the left and undermining the difficult position of the Labour leadership, would have doubtless received a far harder ride than it got in the media. The consequences of all this in those Leave-voting former Labour strongholds that deserted the party, some for the first time in many decades if not the first time ever, will be especially grim. The already long-established spiral of disinvestment and decline afflicting these places is only likely to be exacerbated in the years ahead. No doubt for some the Brexit vote was a cry of despair and alienation, but the inevitable result from a further five years of reactionary Tory government will be more of the same, only worse.

A decade of social murder under the Tories will now extend to at least a decade and a half, perhaps two. The consequences for the most vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised people in Britain scarcely need to be spelled out, but to take one particularly harrowing example, child poverty is forecast to hit 34% by the end of the coming parliament. Even many of those who trooped out to vote for the Conservatives yesterday, a good number of them in areas which still haven’t staged a meaningful recovery from the onslaught of Thatcherism, will find that their celebrations turn to ashes when the ramifications of five more years of Tory government hit home, as they will. The post-election vox pops from old industrial towns, though not the most scientific of indicators, made depressing viewing: interviewees were seemingly genuine in their hopes that Boris Johnson, of all people, would revive long-destroyed industry, or rebuild the public services shattered by his own party.

In a country with a halfway functioning public sphere, the shameless disinformation campaign directed by the Tories and their outriders would have been run out of town in disgrace. As a functioning public sphere is entirely absent in Britain, this campaign reaped rewards it did not deserve, and its success has only given the green light to even more of such conduct in the future. The right in this country can say what it wants and get away with it, because it knows it can rely on most lobby journalists either to demur from calling their lies out for what they are or simply to ‘both sides’ everything to death. It was telling that the only journalists to land a real glove on Johnson and the Tories in this campaign were regional journalists, not their Westminster counterparts, the latter still intoxicated by Johnson’s celebrity aura and always instinctively hostile to Jeremy Corbyn.

How is it that so many now former Labour seats were left so vulnerable to the appeal of nativism and reactionary populism? Labour’s Brexit position undoubtedly cost it dearly in these constituencies, but the weakening of loyalties has been ongoing for many years. Among other factors, the steady disappearance of the labour movement from the everyday life of these ex-industrial communities has done much to weaken any residual bonds to the Labour Party. While the discontent with Labour in Scotland found a more centre-left expression than that in England and much of Wales, it should have served as a warning that the base as a whole was at risk of coming apart. There is a good chance that many of the ex-industrial constituencies lost to Labour at this election will go back the other way next time, but without a serious and sustained effort to rebuild at the base, any Labour comeback will always be fragile to future right-wing incursions.

No doubt Labour’s Brexit position hurt it badly in a lot of areas. However, it does little good to condemn most of those who pressured it to support a second referendum; certainly there were some opportunists who instrumentalised the issue to weaken the party leader, but there are many very good reasons to fear what Brexit is likely to entail, as it appears we are about to find out. While self-criticism on this point and many others is certainly necessary, bitter recriminations and intra-left blood-letting are best avoided. It may be that the contradictions within Labour’s electoral coalition (coupled with the advanced decline and fragmentation of its older base, fuelled by deindustrialisation and the years of defeat endured by the working-class movement) simply could not be reconciled on this issue when it came to the crunch, and had Labour persisted with its 2017 position of respecting the first referendum, it would have doubtless faced a backlash from the other side. Whether the electoral consequences of this would have been worse than those on Thursday cannot be answered definitively, but the evident nervousness of the Corbyn leadership over Brexit now looks more understandable.

The Labour left has previously demonstrated an understanding of the inherent weakness in the party’s base, and not solely in the former industrial heartlands of the north, Midlands and Wales. It has, however, been unable so far to really change the way the party relates to the people it aims to represent and serve. The Labour left’s long march through the party’s institutions has made considerable if painstaking progress over the last four years, but the institutions themselves are essentially unchanged: there is always the danger, as has historically been the case for social democracy in general, that those institutions do more to change the radicals who enter them rather than vice versa. The besieged nature of the Labour leadership, meanwhile, and the constant battle simply to retain some sort of control over the party apparatus did much to prevent it from fostering a more open political culture at the grassroots. A certain bunker mentality in circumstances like these was probably unavoidable.

Labour’s recent experiments with community organising have been positive, but now need to be drastically scaled up simply as a matter of self-defence and self-preservation against the coming Tory attacks. This needs to involve the industrial wing as well as the political wing of the labour movement: given the likely offensive against trade unionism over the next five years, the trade unions need to do something drastic if they are to resist it. We need to think about how we rebuild trust and faith in the ability of political action to change society markedly for the better. This needs to encompass not just cultural engagement and socialist political education, but practical acts of solidarity as well, including organising against the far right in defence of those who will now find themselves on the sharp end of a triumphalist, reactionary backlash. John McDonnell was set upon by a right-wing lout at his election count, while Labour canvassers across the country were assaulted and abused during the election campaign; sadly, a mere taster of things to come.

Bleakest of all is the reality that we are now faced with another five years of climate inaction, with the threat of environmental breakdown already towering over us. Labour’s proposals for a Green New Deal were really the bare minimum of what was required to help set the country on a sustainable path for the future, and the Tory pledge of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (not that even this can be taken seriously as a genuine aspiration) can only be described as ecocidal. Even a socialist British government could do little to avert climate disaster on its own, but this is just one more defeat for those forces working worldwide to avert it, and another nail in the coffin for those on the frontline of environmental destruction in the global South. Long-term trends might be working against the Tories, but how much time do we have?

The New World Struggles to be Born

After the election, Labour right-wingers and their centrist allies in the press wasted no time in insisting that not only must Corbyn depart the stage, but that he must take his policies (and, presumably, his supporters) with him. Let’s not pretend that this is about the 2019 manifesto alone: the same people laying into it had hoped to do the exact same in 2017, only to find themselves forced to shelve their premature obituaries for Jeremy Corbyn and the left. These obituaries are now being dusted down again. The 2019 manifesto was certainly more radical than its predecessor, but its key policies generally polled strongly and it did not represent such a quantum leap over 2017 that it was uniquely unacceptable to large sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the media. These elements would have worked tirelessly to undermine the implementation of any left programme.

While the Labour right was unable to mount an open challenge to the last manifesto, beyond the occasional murmur of veiled discontent, it now feels sufficiently confident to attack the party programme. But Labour’s right wing has yet to posit any alternative, primarily because it remains mired in its own political and intellectual crisis. It has not shown any interest in discovering why it ended up so scorned and derided by so many within its own party. Quite the contrary: such is the Labour right’s hostility towards most party members, it wallows in that scorn and even actively encourages it, seeing in this proof of its own righteousness. It remains averse to undertaking the sort of self-criticism that might help it find a way back, and prepare it for patiently rebuilding over the long haul. Labour’s right wing makes a fuss about reclaiming the label of social democracy for itself, but makes no effort to expand on what it understands this to mean.

Most unforgivable of all, the right has strained every sinew and pulled every bureaucratic lever at its disposal to disempower, demoralise and even demonise Labour’s new-found mass membership. Rather than engaging constructively with this expanded membership (which again remains, despite all the caricatures, a very long way from being monolithically socialist) and taking the opportunity to renew and rebuild the party with a different approach, the Labour right continues to treat most members – many of whom have discovered real hope in politics for the first time in decades, if not in their entire lives – as an enemy to be expunged. These members now find their totally reasonable and frankly modest aspirations for social reform being laughed at by people who consider themselves social democrats.

In a way, the impending Labour leadership contest might be useful if only for the purposes of clarification: what does the Labour right want, and what is its vision for the future of the country? Already the partisans of Blue Labour are doing the rounds, insisting as ever that the post-industrial working class can only be reached through social revanchism and misanthropy with a red rosette apologetically attached. But there is no future in any form of Labour politics which fails to address the working class in its full diversity, and the post-industrial working class would be failed by such a prospectus as much as anyone. Furthermore, many of Britain’s most precariously employed workers are young, BAME or both, and it would be a dereliction of duty to treat them as a second-class concern (at best). Of course Labour needs to find ways of rebuilding in its former heartlands, but to abandon those groups which had found real grounds for optimism in Corbynism, after so many years of being ignored by politicians and demonised in the press, would be a grotesque betrayal as well as self-defeating.

It should be self-evident already that were the right ever to retake the leadership of the Labour Party, though it remains unlikely to do so outright in the forthcoming leadership election, the subsequent salvo against the bulk of the party’s membership would be brutal. Those who have spent the last four years wringing their hands about the apparent threat to Labour’s ‘broad church’ could be expected to cheer the onslaught to the rafters. To these people, the mere idea of playing second fiddle to the socialist left is resented as intensely as an inversion of the natural order. The bile aimed at Corbyn’s leadership from people nominally on his own side since 2015 has again demonstrated that the Labour right directs a hatred and venom towards the socialist left that it rarely, if ever, aims at anyone else. The percipience of Stuart Hall’s verdict thus rings out louder and clearer than ever today:

The right of the labour movement, to be honest, has no ideas of any compelling quality. It would not know an ideological struggle if it stumbled across one in the dark. The only ‘struggle’ it engages in with any trace of conviction is the one against the left.2

The immediate challenge facing the Labour left now is that of retaining the leadership of the party. It might be tempting to conclude that a younger and fresher left leadership candidate, without Corbyn’s ‘baggage’ (i.e. his history of anti-imperialism) would be immune from the worst of the media assault that eventually succeeded in taking down Corbyn. We should be under no such illusions: anyone who attempts to lead the Labour Party from left of centre should expect to be monstered. It might be that we could have dealt with that monstering better than we did, but we should be braced for it nevertheless regardless of the individuals involved. So extreme are most of Britain’s print media that they succeeded in portraying even Ed Miliband, the epitome of a moderate social democrat, as a dangerous radical (with the assistance, of course, of dogwhistle antisemitism).

However, even if Labour’s socialist left were to retain control of the party leadership, there would be little point in presiding over an essentially unreformed apparatus. Even if it had found itself in a position to form some sort of government, would Labour have been able to see a left programme through anywhere close to completion? A largely unchanged PLP would suggest not. The hung parliament after 2017 left the Labour leadership paralysed with regard to party reform, unable to proceed with real purpose for fear of splitting it. The failure to secure mandatory open selection curtailed any ambitions to reshape the PLP more in the mould of the party leadership, and by the time trigger ballots eventually came around, most members were either unwilling or insufficiently well organised to force the issue. If a new socialist leader were returned in the forthcoming ballot, Labour must be decisively transformed.

Finally, a word on Jeremy Corbyn himself. This is a man who never had any personal ambition to attain high office before his shock elevation to the Labour leadership in 2015; an elevation which only came about because there was nobody else prepared to take on the mantle of left candidate (presumed, at the time, to be a hopeless endeavour in any case). Through a freakish turn of events, Corbyn rose to a position that even his great lodestar, Tony Benn, could never manage. The most left-wing Labour leader since George Lansbury, Corbyn can hopefully take some comfort in the knowledge that he inspired a genuine enthusiasm and loyalty that none of those queuing up to bury him could ever hope to match. Simply surviving the barrage of abuse and vilification, a four-year hate campaign unseen since the heyday of Benn and Arthur Scargill in the 1980s, as Corbyn and McDonnell did is by itself a substantial achievement. They and those closest to them deserve a rest.

In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s exit poll, and as the full horror of the election result was unfolding, one quote in particular was circulating around social media: Tony Benn’s dogged insistence that for socialists, there can be “no final victory, and no final defeat”. It is difficult, at the moment, to take too much consolation from this. The tragic reality is that for too many people who were desperately hoping for a socialist Labour government, the sick, disabled and impoverished, this election will mark their final defeat; many simply won’t live to have another crack at dislodging the Tories. But there is a real movement that’s been left behind, which will rethink and rebuild, and will survive to fight another day, as it must.

  1. Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2nd ed.), Verso 2017, xliii. 

  2. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, Verso 1988, p74.