By Kumar David –
The UK Labour Party Conference (24-26 Sept.) ended on an upbeat note with a resoundingly confident closing address from a self-assured Corbyn, re-elected to leadership by a landslide majority. The unconcealed hostility of the British press, to its shame the Guardian included though it salvaged its reputation somewhat afterwards, attempted to undermine Corbyn and flog the “Corbyn can’t win a general election” canard. This was ignored by every category of the Party – members, trade unions, associate members and constituencies. Tony Blair and the Miliband brothers stretched themselves in a dump-Corbyn exertion to no avail. Blair was paid his wages of sin when Corbyn’s apology on behalf of the Party for involvement in the Iraq war was greeted with a standing ovation.
Let me begin by disposing of the oft heard “Labour can’t win the election under Corbyn” canard, which can be safely confined to a dialectical rubbish bin. The evolution of the electorate can never be assumed, especially these days where we witness amazing conversions at hard to imagine speeds. Which of these pundits foresaw Brexit; who said the preposterous crank Trump would ignite the US electoral scene and drive the GOP to extremis? Out of what woodwork did Sanders emerge to make everyone “feel the Bern”?
The pundits assured us that the Columbian peace deal would garner 65% support but its rejection at the 1 October referendum was as shocking as it was foolish. Whoever saw the maverick Rodrigo Duarte brazenly order extra-judicial execution of 3000 (so far) drug peddlers and criminals and rise to 90% approval ratings thanks to it? (En passant, if Ranil and Sirisena displayed a fraction of Duarte’s spheroids in dealing with Rajapaksa era scoundrels, their esteem now would have been sky high). Who would have predicted two years ago that Marine Le Penn is likely to win the first round of the next French presidential election? The Austrian far right came within 0.1% of grabbing the presidency; ‘far-left’ Syriza governs Greece and further left Podemos will be the main opposition in Spain after the next election. Only nitwit British journalists and a few soft-left oddballs predict the certainly of a Labour Party defeat at the next elections.
The simple truth is that ever larger numbers of people in the West are becoming disillusioned with the status quo, the establishment, the capitalist system – take your choice of nouns. The middle is being hollowed out and folks are piling up on the ‘far’ right and the ‘far’ left. In truth it is no longer possible to say ‘far’ this and far that, it is the new normal. Nor are their programmes extremist; not fascist, nor cranky rebellious, nor war mongering. This is the new normal in Western society. Oh for an Edward Gibbon!
The fractal geometry of the left and right across the developed world displays startling leap-frog styles. The transformation of electorates is at astonishing speeds. Phenomena leap frog sideways from country to country (disenchantment with the EU in Europe to Brexit in Britain), or vertically in a country. Labour MPs plotted to kick Jeremy Corbyn but he scored a landslide victory in the leadership poll. Taking account of the enthusiasm he wound up at the Conference and thanks to the passion of fired-up young Labourites, I see a galvanised Party in the fray, be it in 2017 or 2020. Labour will be helped by an economic downturn as Brexit begins to bite. Don’t imagine the Brexit plunge is over; Britain is merely passing through the eye of the storm.
Does this guarantee victory? No there is no guarantee. That Labour will win back the disillusioned-with-EU British working class in the north of England, I have no doubt. The removal of emigration from centre stage and the re-radicalisation of Labour is a death sentence to UKIP. The obstacle is elsewhere, the generation gap. Rural England is greying and dying, the over 65s are a large proportion of provincial England and they are afraid of the future. A radicalised and rejuvenated Labour Party is in their interests (resuscitation of the NHS for example) but many won’t see it. Thanks to a toxic mix of anti-emigrant paranoia and illiberalism the Tories will poll well in the generation preparing to shuffle off its mortal coil. Once the crocks are spent the future will be bright.
There is a second hurdle, Scotland. The Scottish voter, even the working class cannot be expected to desert the Scottish National Party and return in droves to Labour; nationalist emotions are too strong. If Labour can work a tactical electoral agreement and eventually a coalition government, that would be capital. The future belongs to Labour unless it does something absurdly imprudent. If not in power, it will nevertheless be the principal force in British politics. The networked surge of social democratic activism in Momentum – the re-elect Corbyn campaign – is a winning machine.
Twenty-first century socialism
Labour with a membership of over half a million is the largest political party in Europe by membership and its traditions are rooted in democratic principles. Historically it has not been as left as European communist or social-democratic parties of yesteryear. Is this changing? Otherwise how explain the unprecedented venom and vitriol with which Corbyn’s resumption of leadership has been greeted in the British press and among pundits. There is a paradox here. If you listened to Corbyn’s Conference speech where he laid out his programme, it was surprisingly tame – no blood and fireworks, no abolition of the monarchy nor subduing of finance capital, not even much socialist rhetoric except that cryptic reference to “twenty-first century socialism”.
So how interpret this paradox? Why the hand wringing of the establishment “Oh dear, oh dear, Labour has become unelectable”? Since when has the plight of the Labour Party caused the well-heeled classes so much anguish? But they are right. The small steps that have been promised (I am persuaded both by character and the ball that he has set rolling that he will do it) will give momentum to bigger changes in British society.
These small steps look like no more than a simple return to the welfare state of the post-war capitalist boom and a repeal of the worst neoliberal excess of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But this small turning back, this promise of greater welfare and less austerity, not during a boom but with global capitalism still the doldrums of its greatest recession since the 1930s, will unlock Pandora’s Box. There will be no retreat for Labour and Corbyn once they set out on this road; they cannot stop history. In Tamil we say ‘Koothuku vesham pottal aadiya theera vendum’ (Once rigged for the ball, there is no end till you have danced).To turn to welfare and against austerity and to demand greater equity at this time when capitalism is in distress, is to provoke the privileged, the powerful and the wealthy to fight. The steps sketched at the Conference may be small, but then the Rubicon was a narrow stream when Caesar crossed it.
What concretely were these small steps; what the specific proposals?
- Invigoration, nay rescue of the National Health Service from the strangulation it has suffered at Thatcherite and Blairite hands.
- A small tax on business (the eventual beneficiaries) to overcome student loan problems.
- Repeal of the reactionary Trade Unions Act.
- A national investment bank and investment in infrastructure to rebuild the economy.
- A new settlement for small business. Self-employed people will eclipse the number of public sector workers so a bold appeal was made to people in the informal economy offering them social security and access to finance. Assistance for “successful innovators”.
- Refusal to abandon immigrants and minorities. A firm no to racism.
- Patriotism (“A Labour government will never accept second best for Britain” and “There is nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes – it is vandalism”), but nationalism was tempered by class politics, a call for social justice and a turning away from imperialist foreign policy orientations.
There was careful tactical calibration of what was said. For example though Corbyn and his inner core are all for scrapping Trident nothing was said to this effect. Nor was opposition to Brexit mentioned – it was assumed as a done deal – because a huge chunk of working class Labour voters voted for Brexit and it is no secret that Corbyn himself views the EU as a rich man’s club.
Seventy percent of labour parliamentarians voted to kick out Corbyn in a political coup three months ago on the heels of the Brexit vote – which by the way will be a disaster for the Tories as the economy goes into a tailspin in the next two years. But the coup misfired and they were hoist with their own petard. The damage done by the parliamentary labour contingent must be undone and the Augean Stables cleaned out. There must be a wholesale reselection of Labour candidates before the next elections. With the Party on an uptick the leadership now has the authority to do it.