A disastrous election result: defend the gains of Corbynism.

In Chingford & Woodford Green, Faiza Shaheen narrowly failed to unseat Iain Duncan Smith. But the hundreds of activists who turned out in all weathers to work for her victory can be part of a rebuilt left

On an emotional level it feels like a death in the family writes Andy Stowe.

The Tory victory was, above all else, a triumph for a reactionary project of the hard right that has been incubating in the Tory Party for many years. They managed to persuade many Labour voters that an assertion of English nationalism was more important than getting rid of food banks and homelessness or making sure that people don’t die while waiting to be admitted to hospital.

Only anyone who chose not to hear Johnson’s sole slogan “get Brexit done” can believe otherwise.

The Tories won 43.6% of the vote, gaining 66 seats and Labour’s vote share fell by 7.8% to 32%, resulting in a loss of 42 seats. These mostly went to the Tories in England and to the SNP in Scotland. Even in many of the seats that Labour held the party’s vote share went down, often by about 10%. 

All this, despite a Labour campaign that managed to get hundreds of activists travelling long distances to work in marginal seats. In the end the ruling class acted in their own class interest despite their dislike of Brexit, the working class in the deindustrialised north ignored their class interest and bought into the Brexit and the “taking control” rhetoric. 

The outcome in Scotland is more promising. Thee SNP now holds 48 seats and is stepping up its demand for independence in an explicit rejection of the wave of English chauvinism. In the north of Ireland the DUP is now outnumbered by pro-remain MPs, prompting the leader of the unionist Alliance Party to say “it is almost inevitable that there will be a push for an Irish unity referendum.” 

Britain, however, will be out of the EU by the end of January. We could be facing another no deal Brexit by the end of the year and a highly damaging free trade deal with Donald Trump. Get Brexit done was the biggest lie that was used in this post-truth Trumpian election campaign which delivered a flagrant racist as Prime Minister.

Two issues stand out. 

As John McDonnell has rightly said, the election was dominated by Brexit to the extent that Labour’s radical manifesto was unable to cut through. Brexiteers voted Tory in huge numbers. The psephologist John Curtice says:

 “The Conservatives’ share of the vote rose on average by six points in those seats where more than 60 per cent voted Leave in 2017, whereas it fell by three points where more than 55 per cent voted Remain.

In contrast, Labour’s vote fell by 11 points in the most pro-Leave seats and dropped by a more modest 6 points in the most pro-Remain constituencies.”

Brexit sentiment had hardened over the past year with many strongly resenting Labour’s role in opposing a no-deal Brexit and its pledge for a second referendum if it took office. 

The second factor has been the relentless vilification of Jeremy Corbyn in the two and a half years since the last election. He was slanderously depicted as not just as an antisemite and a defender of terrorism. Not even Scargill in the miners’ strike faced the degree of abuse directed against the Labour leader. From the first moments of Corbyn’s leadership the entire media establishment and virtually all Labour’s right set out to slander him. 

We are now, however, confronted with a Tory government with an untouchable parliamentary majority and a mandate to implement Brexit. Many on the Labour left will be demoralised and already the right wing is arguing that Corbynism must be undone to return Labour Party’s credibility. The right are rubbing their hands with glee and will no doubt push for the expulsion of the Corbynite left from the party and a sharp tack rightwards to appeal to the English nationalism of Brexit supporters.

Nor is this just a defeat for the British working class. A Corbyn Labour government would have had a global impact on progressive movements, climate activists and the left internationally.

What could have been done differently?

First of all the decision to hold the election before a referendum was a disaster, coming as it did before the struggle in Parliament for a second referendum had run its course. The initiative for it was made by the Lib Dems and the SNP who jumped ship and left Labour with little option.

Second, Labour should have adopted and campaigned for a second referendum at a much earlier stage and made the case for retaining the benefits of EU membership while setting out ideas for reforming the organisation. It’s hard to recall any serious challenges by senior Labour figures to the mainstreaming of anti-EU rhetoric. It was difficult for Labour to turn around this perception, but a clear remain for change position from day one would have minimised the scale of the loss.

In the inquest that will now take place the pro-Brexit left will tell us that it is the remainers’ fault and of those who defend freedom of movement of labour.  

Lindsey German of Counterfire argues that Corbyn’s big mistake was to have supported a second referendum, rather than supporting Brexit itself.  She points the finger of blame at the People’s Vote Campaign and Another Europe is Possible who managed to lead him astray.

We should stand our ground against all this stuff and defend the platform on which Labour stood. The Labour manifesto set out to meet the needs of the British working class and was a serious effort to address the climate crisis. It appealed both to the workers’ movement and to the new generation that flocked to Corbynism. Next time around Labour should include a more democratic voting system so that people aren’t obliged to engage in tactical voting.

Corbyn has said he will step down as leader after a period of reflection in which the party can draw some lessons on what has happened. That’s probably the best way to avoid an ugly interregnum. It also gives the left a chance to survey the landscape and hold on to what it has gained in the Corbyn years.

Johnson is not going to have it all his own way. He has put a border down the Irish Sea and has set up an ongoing constitutional crisis with Scotland that is likely to lead to independence. His project challenges the foundations of the British state and this will have huge implications for his party. He is also looking at an immediate future of economic fragility that will quickly take the sheen off his government. 

However, we have to be realistic. The election result was a major defeat for the left and the interests of the working class. The Johnson government will have the upper hand for a period as people despair of the possibility of radical chance or even effectively defending their jobs and working conditions. Anyone who says that there is a quick fix is selling snake oil, but in the first days of the new decade our job is to rebuild a left that can defeat the Tories and the people who say Labour has to become more like them.

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6 Comments on A disastrous election result: defend the gains of Corbynism.

  1. Raphael De Santos // 13th December 2019 at 10:49 pm // Reply

    Labour fought the 2017 election on honouring the result of the referendum. In 2019 they spent the whole year trying to stop May and Boris’s deals. I think they ere punished for that. Election clearly about Brexit and nothing else. Labour policy on renegotiating a fresh deal in 6 months and then having another referendum was unreliable to the majority of Labour leave voters. Now we have a hard right government the prospect of a no deal Brexit. Tactically they would have been better to support May’s initial deal and then fight an election in 2022 on the manifesto.

  2. Tactics should never compromise principles, in this case being utterly opposed to the racism on which Brexit was based. Not least, because your right wing opponents can always trump you with a harder line. Brexit should have been opposed absolutely and positive alternatives promoted. We and Labour should defend migrants and in this case EU migrants.

    However I don’t think the article completely deals with the long term problems caused by the shattering of the labour movement in the north, by the defeat of the miners strike and other struggles back in the 1980s. This has had a long term effect; Aditya Chackrabortty’s recent article in the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/14/labour-meltdown-decades-govern-votes, and mine posted on-line only https://www.facebook.com/mark.findlay.92/posts/2747330068638470 explain this in more detail.

  3. I agree with much of the above. But as well as the strategic mistakes around Brexit, there is no mention of Labour’s failure to spearhead building an (informal probably) alliance of anti-Tory parties and tactical voting to keep them out. It was obvious for months before the election that only such disciplined anti-Tory tactical voting could defeat the Tories but Labour did nothing about it – steadfastly refusing to even discuss it. Labour could and should have led these moves but locally activists from different parties took it into their own hands to get alliances. Finally, the Tories now have a massive majority. They will add to it by forcing through the election boundary changes they put on hold last year (which ogres them another 20+ seats), voter ID & other voter suppression techniques, making their lead almost unassailable. And if Scotland forces the Tories to hold an independence referendum (which we should support) and it is successful, that takes another 50+ anti Tory seats out of the arithmetic. Labour could be looking in England & Wales at a 200 seats deficit. The idea that “one last push” will deliver a Labour victory next time is a fantasy. Socialists need to downgrade their work inside the LP structures and work across parties now to establish movements that prefigure a broader anti-Tory alliance.

  4. Garth Frankland // 14th December 2019 at 4:14 pm // Reply

    Corbyn should be asked to stay on for two years. There is is not going to be an election soon

  5. Why do you suggest Corbyn should resign – before and without any strategy towards that move? Blairites and the media say that everyday – blaming Corbyn Manifesto, anti-semitism and many other stuff for the defeat.

    But people from the left doing that? Corbyn shouldn’t resign before we – all the Labour left – put in place a strategy to revamp the movement and face the new times ahead – within and outside the party

  6. Agree with most of the above, sadly. But we must be honest and say that when Brexit was first mentioned, with the emergent Ughkip, it seemed so obviously a vehicle for the racist right-wing, no-one in their right mind could possibly think it would be more important than reversing the devastation of communities savaged by Tory policies and Labour indifference since the early 80’s. And at the election, surely working people would recognise that here was a party (THEIR party) prepared to raise the flag of socialism not just on one social issue, but on many…that this would be the clarion call that would bring workers flocking back to vote Labour…? [that was my view as well, so I’m not blaming anyone here any more than myself].
    But, just wait…we’ve been here before haven’t we? No one Governement could have inflicted more misery on working people than Thatcher’s Tories of the early-to-mid-1980’s: massive year-on-year cuts in public spending to local authorities and NHS, hiving off public services and corporations to fat cat private companies, deliberate destruction of the UK manufacturing industry, the annihilation of the coal industry after precipitating a brutal war on mining communities in 1984….leaving the Labour Heartlands decimated…the next Election after this was in 1987….the Labour Manifesto was a thousandth as radical as Corbyn’s …yet the result was an even bigger majority for the Tories than last Thursday’s…
    Not trying to be a wisacre here, just making a point that what seems obvious to us radicals doesn’t necessarily seem obvious to our target audience.
    Many of those communties have had no plan for regeneration since the 1980’s. In this election (2019) period, the TV cameras have panned around the landscape in these areas and the derelict old buildings and constructions are still sillouetted against the skyline as a monument to the cynical destruction of whole communities. When Thatcher destroyed them, there was no alternative plan as to how to rebuild or regenerate them. In the New Labour years, they continued to decay. In the 2008-(2019..) economic crisis, they fared even worse than most others. Might it be that Brexit – which people seemed to have voted in favour of in some numbers in these areas – might have at least seemed like a vehicle for protest; that delay to implementation represented further proof their views were being ignored, and that the people who seemed to be determined to push Brexit through (without apparent prevarication) were at least taking note of their views, unlike any politicians in the previous 30 years…?
    So, if the most radical Manifesto programme since 1945 wasn’t going to spike Brexit for them…what would…? I’m just a worn-out old Trot activist, so I don’t have many (or even any) of the answers, but mightn’t it have been a good idea to include in the very broad Manifesto a section on a programme of practical regeneration for those areas that Thatcher destroyed and have been left slowly drowning unattended for the last 35 years…?

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