On May the 4th, 2017, local council & mayoral elections were held in England, Scotland & Wales. The results are the first indicators for both commentators and the electorate at large which way the General Election of June 8th might swing. It seems that the Conservatives are making considerable gains across the board, while Labour is struggling to cling onto its own heartlands and UKIP, a party essentially without a purpose post-Brexit, has lost every seat it had been defending. Many are now suggesting that, come June 8th, Labour will be ‘annihilated’ in favour of Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise of ‘strong & stable leadership’, though of course Corbyn’s young and idealistic supporters remain hopeful.
Strong and Stable Leadership?
This is what Theresa May is promising. The Conservative Party is advancing two main appeals to the electorate. The first is that Theresa May is the only candidate who can be trusted with the Brexit negotiations. Only Theresa May, it is argued, can extricate the UK from the EU with minimal harm to the British economy or society and lead it into a strong position, with its economy intact and its options open. The other parties would botch, and perhaps even try to reverse, Brexit – so goes the Conservative Party’s narrative.
The second appeal is that the election is a simple matter, a choice between two candidates for the office of Prime Minister: Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn? In this case, Theresa May should be trusted to lead the country in a decisive way and in the national interest, because Jeremy Corbyn is finding it difficult enough to keep his own party from falling apart at the seams and would preside over a return to the factional warfare and political-social anarchy of the ’70s should he enter No. 10 – so goes the Conservative Party’s narrative.
This Conservative narrative must be questioned. May is arguing that neither Corbyn nor anyone else can be trusted to deliver a favourable Brexit deal, but we must ask, is she so trustworthy? I am personally opposed to the EU, I do not think it is a viable project for many reasons. However, reading my country’s Prime Minister accuse the EU of meddling in the General Election with a straight face, and some of the stuff coming from hard Brexiters to the effect that “we want the EU’s trade benefits but not its freedom of movement”, it seems to me that May and her party are suffering delusions of grandeur with regard to the EU. The UK, after all, is one country whose economic strength is due in large part to its position as a centre of finance, a position which has been, to say the least, thrown into question by Brexit, while the EU is 27 countries and one of the most significant economic entities on the planet. Theresa May promises to “fight for Britain” and deliver a clear Brexit deal in Britain’s national interest. But we must ask, what is she going to negotiate with? How is she going to persuade the EU, which forced Greece to sell off its national assets and demanded billions of Euros worth of cuts in return for useless and even harmful loans (which support not the relief, but the increase of the country’s unsustainable debt) to be lenient and give the UK a beneficial deal? The EU’s negotiators might not be inclined to go easy on Britain when they hear how they’re being attacked by its politicians. Frankly, anyone who thinks that Britain’s Brexit deal will come on any terms other than those dictated by Brussels is deceiving themselves and will soon get a bitter dose of harsh reality, when the talks go sour. Britain has nothing to negotiate with, and Theresa May’s bombast will make the country’s hand in the negotiations weaker, not stronger.
The Conservative Party’s other claim must be questioned as well. Theresa May claims that a Corbyn government would be a “coalition of chaos” unable to unite the country and carry it through these difficult and crucial times, while a Conservative government with a renewed mandate would do just that. However, the Conservatives don’t exactly have a rosy history when it comes to the well-being of the country’s ordinary, working folk – after all, last year DWP figures showed that 2,380 people declared ‘fit to work’ had died between 2011 and 2014, while underemployment and in-work poverty have soared and the housing crisis has deepened. The NHS is at breaking point, with neither enough beds nor enough staff to handle an increasing burden and the staff that remain overworked and underpaid, while across the country real incomes have stagnated and are beginning to be outpaced by inflation.
These are hardly the hallmarks of a government that has the interests of the “just about managing” and the working class at heart. Working class people shouldn’t delude themselves and buy into the Tory rhetoric about Brexit and Britain – her government stands opposed to them, will squeeze them hard, and will, eventually, either land them in or drive them to the brink of a disastrous new recession. Continued Tory governance would be a tragedy.
The Labour Party’s Agony
The actual choice to be faced by the electorate on June 8th is not entirely clear. The Conservative Party’s narrative is that the choice is between ‘strong & stable leadership’ with a clear objective and direction, the sort of leadership which can carry the UK through the Brexit negotiations in a dignified way and deliver a deal favourable to British economic and social interests (as the Conservatives define those interests), on the one hand, and the chaotic and weak leadership of Jeremy Corbyn who cannot even keep his own Labour Party united and, therefore, cannot be trusted to lead a government in the national interest or muster the political will to ‘stand up for Britain’ as Theresa May supposedly will.
Personally, this reminds me of an intensified version of the ‘stability or chaos’ rhetoric utilised against Ed Miliband in 2015. The most important press outlets in the UK, including both televised news and printed newspapers, tend to share and support the Conservative narrative. Several academic studies have found media coverage of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to be ‘overwhelmingly negative’, and this is of course an important factor in shaping public opinion against the Labour Party and in support of the Conservatives. Furthermore, while outlets such as the BBC consistently turn a critical eye towards Labour, they just as consistently fail to mention outstanding weaknesses or failings of the Conservatives – such as, for example, the fact that several Conservative MPs were under investigation for electoral fraud prior to the announcement of the General Election, as well as some newspapers’ attempts to associate Labour’s Corbyn and MacDonnell with communists & ‘Stalinists’ because of their appearance at the same May Day event as the latter, despite the fact that the actual communists present tend to shout anti-Labour Party slogans throughout that demonstration (I know, I attended last year and witnessed it first-hand).
However, the blame for Labour’s electoral retreat cannot rest solely at the feet of the press, or even the admitted rightward shift in the British political climate which allowed a party like UKIP to enter the national conversation just as it has successfully painted Corbyn’s relatively moderate left-wing views as extremist. Corbyn himself has failed to provide effective leadership of the Labour Party, for a variety of reasons. His supporters would emphasise the consistent attempts of Labour’s MPs to destabilise his leadership; some have publicly denounced him, and then there’s the ‘coup’ that they attempted to stage in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. It is not only the internal conflict within the party which undermines Corbyn’s prospects of a successful election, though – the man who was once considered a saviour of the British left-wing has failed to convey his political and social message to the electorate. The large rallies of enthusiastic supporters we’ve seen on the television since he became leader haven’t translated into electoral success, and Corbyn’s own politics remain dubious.
Corbyn’s supporters among the Labour membership see him as a man of principal and vision, a leader with a human touch who represents a rupture with the cold, impersonal, careerist politics of the past. However, there own politics is anything but clear, and it is somewhat problematic. It is undeniable that Corbyn’s election in 2015 was the beginning of a leftward turn for a Labour Party that had been dominated by Blair’s ‘third way’ brand of politics for two decades, but this turn was less radical than the enthusiasm with which left-wingers, fatigued by a lack of alternative to neoliberal centrism, greeted it made it seem at the time. It was, at best, a cautious attempt to take a few steps in the direction of a more labour-centred politics, not an outright departure from the capital/business centred politics which the Conservatives and Labour shared and, to some extent, still share.
Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters on the left-wing of the Labour Party are struggling to define their political position at its root. After having spent decades in the movement of opposition and protest, they suddenly find themselves having to manage a political party within the framework of electoral politics and electoral contestation of power. They are faced with a choice, a dilemma they cannot resolve – if they resign themselves to their penchant for protest and opposition, they will condemn their Labour Party to permanent opposition and therefore exclude themselves from the possibility of winning political office, which alone would give them the opportunity to implement a progressive programme on a national scale. If, however, they choose to step into their position of leadership in the Labour Party, to play the political game and go along with the prioritising of electoral contests and parliamentary opposition, then they will have to choose also the politics of conciliation between the left, centre & right of the party in order to keep it together and present a united opposition in parliament. This, in turn, would mean the watering down of their left-wing, social democratic principles and the reversal of even the few cautious step towards labour-centred politics they have taken.
The question for the left in the UK, then, seems to be, ‘which road’ – resignation to permanent opposition and conflict within the party in the name of ‘principle’, or the politics of conciliation and reduction of the Labour Party to the old, dull, uninspiring opposition it once was in acceptance of the narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ to the choice between neoliberalism and the proto-fascist right?
The Left’s Only Option
The problem with this question is clear, but difficult for some to acknowledge or even understand. The problem is that both options, both choices, centre on the idea that the Labour Party is the left’s main political vehicle. The Labour left often finds itself equally opposed to the Conservative Party and the ‘Blairite’, ‘moderate’ Labour MPs, but advocates voting for and working with the Labour Party because it alone gives the left even a slight chance of entering government and removing the Conservatives. Removing the Conservatives from government at the first possible opportunity is its most important, unifying priority of this ‘left’ – more important than building a viable political alternative, more important than the neoliberalism and incapability of challenging the vested interests of finance capital Labour invariably displays in office.
This is a harmful policy, because it focuses political strategy on the short-term. The necessity and moral pressure of either removing the Conservatives from office, or keeping them from it, overrides everything – including the actual policies, ideological, political and institutional weaknesses, and political and social objectives of the Labour Party itself. There is always an excuse for the Labour Party, and it invariably boils down to, ‘opposing the Conservatives is the most important thing, it overrides everything’. But opposition to the Tories, though necessary, does not override everything – the left must resist its own pressure and recognise this standpoint for the self-defeating twaddle it is.
To the Labour Party’s narrow electoralism must be opposed the long-term and difficult work of infiltrating working class communities and organising a popular, democratic network of institutions centred upon mass participation and a decidedly socialist programme. The strategic goal of such organising efforts is not to win elections, but to create “dual power”: instead of winning elections and inheriting existing institutions, we must build new institutions organised around the central principle of mass socialist politics, capable of challenging and eventually superseding the entire existing political structure.
This programme sounds, under present circumstances, idealistic, it seems little better to many left-wingers than wishful thinking: Of course, they tell us, such a programme sounds very nice, but it cannot be done without surrendering government to the Tories, or to a Labour Party dominated by its Blairites. Our answer is that the masses of working folk, the victims of capitalism and neoliberal rapacity, must leave their position as observers of the electoral spectacle and step onto the stage of history as participants, not as voters but as political actors in their own right. Until this happens, until the left starts organising for it, we will be stuck in a perpetual trap: The Labour Party no matter what, no matter who leads it, no matter what its policies are, no matter how capable it is, because short-term opposition to the Tories overrides all other priorities. The left must stop telling itself electoral fairy-tales and vying for the inheritance, through parliament, of existing institutions, which have perfected over centuries of operation their functions in defence of the social, economic and political power of capital, and would not allow a dent in this power. Instead, we must build new institutions, popular, democratic, mass and revolutionary institutions which alone can transform the country and lead it in a genuinely progressive and socialist direction.
The choice this election is not May or Corbyn, not Tory or Labour – it is General Election, or people’s democracy?