The Labour Party is heading into its first election under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and a host of left-wing groups are rallying in its support. Momentum, which describes itself as a “grassroots campaigning network” says that it’s “mobilising the mass campaigning movement that we need to get Labour into government”, while the Socialist Workers’ Party (whose signs & slogans are a familiar sight at protests) believes that “an insurgent Labour election campaign” can defeat Theresa May’s government and boost the fortunes of Britain’s scattered Left. Even the Communist Party has said that it will field no candidates and throw what little support it has behind Labour.
However, in spite of the support it can count on from students (55% of whom apparently plan to vote Labour) and left-wing activists, Labour’s electoral prospects are looking bleak. Opinion polls are predicting a landslide victory for the Conservatives on June 8th, and although such polling has lost a lot of credibility lately, the results of the local elections on May 4th, in which Labour lost control of many of its most reliable strongholds including Glasgow and the Welsh heartlands of Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, seem ample evidence that Corbyn’s Labour will take a battering on June 8th.
The question of why people are turning away from Labour is not a simple one. Some political analysts suggest that national issues such as Brexit are undermining traditional party alliegences, and that Labour doesn’t appear credible or capable of delivering a beneficial Brexit deal in the eyes of the electorate, while the Conservatives offer a strong hand in the UK’s negotiations with Brussels. This is, at the very least, questionable – while Theresa May continues to take a confrontational stance against the 27 countries of the EU, and with inflation already outstripping wages and eating into long-stagnant real incomes after the fall of the value of Sterling, it seems unlikely that May will be any more capable than Corbyn of delivering a ‘favourable’ Brexit deal. Most of the evidence points to the opposite being true – that the little England mentality which drives the Conservatives towards advocating a ‘hard-Brexit’ will lead to considerable hardship and insecurity for the majority of working people in the UK. That is not to say that the EU itself is a guarantor of economic security or prosperity (after all, it is still dealing with the consequences of the 2008 economic crash it failed to predict, and Greece is likely to be crippled with unsustainable debt for the next seventy years because of EU policy there); simply that the illusions of Conservative voters and politicians alike will soon unravel as the UK sinks deeper into poverty and crisis.
The cracks in the Conservative Party’s narrative notwithstanding, Labour is not heading into the election in a position of strength. An overwhelming bias on the part of the country’s major televised news channels and newspapers directed against Jeremy Corbyn has apparently (as far as the local elections indicate) taken its toll on public opinion and presented Labour as a party at war with itself, incapable of offering ‘strong & stable leadership’ (which is conveniently the Conservative slogan for the election). A not insignificant number of people who usually support Labour, it seems, are turning away from the party because they do not see Corbyn as capable of leadership.
The problem with this narrative is clear: it assigns blame for Labour’s disunity to Corbyn and ignores the evidence that it is the parliamentary Labour party’s refusal to rally behind their elected leader which is responsible for creating this disunity. Corbyn’s supporters recognise this, but they refuse to acknowledge that Corbyn himself isn’t free of blame.
In 2015, when Corbyn won the Labour leadership election by a landslide, he found himself in a position to change the nature of politics in the UK. He and his supporters could’ve offered the British people a radical alternative to both the populist hard-right, represented at that time by UKIP under Nigel Farage, and the impersonal, careerist, neoliberal mainstream the failure of which had accelerated the political turmoil not only in the UK, but throughout Europe. Both the UK and the rest of Europe are torn today between far-right populism (Le Pen, Wilders, Farage until his resignation, etc.) which sees migrants as less than human and offers a false sense of community by measuring people against an abstract, idealised ‘identity’ (‘Britishness’, ‘Frenchness’, etc.) penalises deviations from that identity, on the one hand, and the impersonal, neoliberal establishment whose failure to manage the social contradictions which have arisen since the 1980s produced far-right populism in the first place. The UK is bizarre, because Theresa May and her Conservative Party seem to represent both, the hard-right insurgency and the institutionalised establishment. Nevertheless, rallying around one is insufficient opposition to the other – the situation desperately cries out for a viable left-wing alternative.
Many of the young voters who flocked into the ranks of Labour and Momentum in support of Corbyn hoped that he would be this alternative. But the hope and enthusiasm soon dissipated as folks realised Corbyn wasn’t offering what they had hoped for. He has shown that he lacks the political will to be the insurrectionary he needs to be – after all is said and done, he instructed Labour councillors to implement the Tory austerity measures he was supposedly dead-set against, he climbed down over Syria and Trident in a vain effort to maintain the unity of Labour’s disparate factions, and he offered policies insufficient to meet even his own declared aims of reducing the influence of the finance sector and improving the well-being of the majority. While his core of support continues to champion him as a radically progressive option, the rest of us recognise that Corbyn’s Labour is just about staggering along and is not capable of being the mass, popular, democratic and socialist opposition which the UK needs so badly.
Whenever election-time comes around, the overriding priority of the political left becomes the removal of the Conservative Party from office. This implies campaigning for Labour as a matter of course, because it is the only vehicle with any prospect of unseating the Tories and, therefore, must be supported in spite of its ‘imperfections’.
The language with which this position is articulated has changed since Corbyn’s election as leader. Before September, 2015, it was said that the Labour Party must be supported ‘reluctantly’ or ‘critically’ as the only available alternative to the aggressive policies of the Conservatives. After Corbyn’s election, Labour was framed by the numerous, splintered left-wing groups as a genuine progressive alternative, a ‘new kind of politics’. As I explained above, however, this was not so. In fact, Corbyn represents not a new politics, not a break with the established and failed norms, but, on the contrary – because of the passionate support, opposition and general discussion & debate he provoked – a revival, a re-legitimation of the same tired old politics the failure of which is why people were crying out for change when Corbyn appeared on the scene in the first place. The language changed, but the position remained the same: whether reluctantly or enthusiastically, whether as an imperfect shield against the Tories or as a progressive socialist party, the left must support, campaign and vote for Labour.
This is political blackmail. The narrative that any leftist who criticises or refuses to support Labour is complicit with the politics of the Conservatives, that failing to vote against the Conservatives is tantamount to voting for them, must be refused and resisted. Simply casting a vote for Labour under current circumstances is harmless enough, but urging left-wingers to support and campaign for Labour is counterproductive. I agree with Slavoj Zizek, when he says that the most useful thing for the left today is not to “stop talking, start acting”, is not to scramble to ‘do something’ because the Conservatives are so cruel and their policies creating such hardship, deprivation and discrimination, but the opposite – stop rushing to ‘do something’ and start talking seriously again about mass democracy and popular, unconventional alternatives to the existing model & framework of politics.
Isn’t the demand that we ‘stop talking, start acting’ nothing more than a rephrasing of ‘stop thinking and do something’? Politics throughout much of the Western world has brought itself to crisis point. In France, the United States, and much of Europe right-wing populists are drawing on and spreading the apprehension many people feel at the state of things today, directing it against everything from impersonal financial institutions, immigrants and ‘unpatriotic’ people. It offers a false vision of restoring the ties of community, tradition and stability (drawn from the idealised image of a past which never really existed) which have been dislodged, disjointed or outright destroyed by changes in the economic structure of the wealthy countries towards post-industrialism, atomisation (that is, destruction of ties of class and community solidarity in favour of cold individualism, or, more accurately, fend-for-yourself-ism) and sweeping privatisation & marketisation without, however, changing the fundamental economic organisation of society and, therefore, turning the concept of community into a cannibalistic and racist one. Meanwhile, the neoliberal establishment presents itself as the champion of superficial ‘tolerance’ and ‘respectability’ while continuing to champion the very speculation, sweeping privatisation, technocratic and business-centred model of politics of which today’s far-right populism is a bi-product.
This political situation – like the spread of the speculative and unpredictable marketisation which produced it – is multinational and deeply complex. In its midst it is perfectly legitimate for the serious leftist to see campaigning for an institutionalised, dyed-in-the-wool establishment party in a national election – a party which offers no substantial alteration of the political climate but a mere set of moderate reforms it would struggle to pass given its internal disunity, no less – as the waste of time and effort it is. It is time to stop scrambling to do something immediate, to act in the short-term, and start thinking and talking seriously about alternative models of politics. This might mean surrendering to the prospect of a Tory government in the immediate future (as if this wasn’t inevitable anyway), but if we refuse it in favour of Labour campaigning we shall never extricate ourselves from the predicament in which people are uttering the phrase, “If Macron wins in 2017, Le Pen will win in 2022”. Do we want to be perpetually returned to the predicament of “Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022” to which politics will be reduced if we continue to neglect serious thinking, talking, debating about alternatives in favour of our current strategy of never looking beyond the next election? No. At the moment, there is no alternative to the false choice between neoliberalism or neofascism. As long as removing the Tories, and not radically changing British politics and society remains the priority of the left, no alternative will ever emerge. We must build one, it is imperative that we build one, and that starts with resisting the blackmail, the moral pressure, the “vote Labour or be complicit with the Tories” pessimists and nay-sayers. It starts with resisting the urge to stop thinking and start acting, and taking up serious, critical thinking again.