Britain’s Conservative prime minister Theresa May has called a snap election for 8 June to capitalise on the Tories’ decisive lead in the opinion polls and a severely divided and demoralised Labour opposition.
May hopes that an overwhelming victory will strengthen her hand to push through the harsh austerity measures associated with her plans for a hard Brexit from the European Union. She wants further attacks on the National Health Service (NHS), racist immigration restrictions and more attacks on workers’ rights.
Recent opinion polls have Labour on just 25 percent, trailing the Tories by 20 points. Yet the polls also show growing opposition to austerity and rising support for increased welfare spending. The NHS remains exceedingly popular. How can this contradiction be explained?
The long years of “New Labour” governments, from 1997 to 2010 under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, alienated Labour’s working class voting base with unrelenting neoliberal policies, warmongering, arrogance, lies and deceit.
After the defeat of the Blairites in the 2010 elections, Labour installed a vaguely more left wing leader, Ed Miliband, in an attempt to repair its brand image among its traditional working class supporters. But Miliband remained beholden to the party’s right wing and was not prepared to campaign relentlessly against the Tories’ austerity measures.
His calls for a “responsible capitalism” did nothing to inspire workers suffering wage cuts and threats to their jobs, or young people looking for an alternative to status quo neoliberal politics. The result was that Labour lost even more seats at the 2015 elections.
In the aftermath of Labour’s electoral debacle, Jeremy Corbyn seemingly came from nowhere to win the leadership. Corbyn, a long term left wing backbench MP, was aided by rule changes that opened up the leadership ballot to Labour Party members and registered supporters.
The Blairites had pushed through the rule changes because they believed that they would entrench right wing domination and undermine the influence of the unions in the party. But rank and file party members were becoming increasingly fed up with Blairite neoliberalism; Corbyn’s more left wing vision inspired tens of thousands to sign up to vote for him.
A number of key union leaders, even though they were not as left wing as Corbyn, also backed him, in part because of his principled pro-union stand, but primarily because they realised that the Blairites offered no road forward for Labour. Something new had to be tried.
Corbyn had hardly any support among the Labour MPs, who were miles to the right of him. He faced bitter opposition not just from Blairite MPs but from the great bulk of the supposedly moderate and soft left MPs, and from the central party apparatus.
The Labour establishment, which is thoroughly committed to managing British capitalism in the interests of the rich, was never going to allow some upstart self-proclaimed socialist to take over “their party” just because he was voted in by rank and file Labour members and supporters.
So they set out on a never ending campaign of sabotage, leaks, destabilisation and red baiting to destroy Corbyn. This wrecking operation had the full-throated support of the British establishment.
The tabloid press went into overdrive with hysterical headlines denouncing Corbyn as a commie traitor and terrorist sympathiser who was undermining the very fabric of the British way of life. And it wasn’t just the tabloids. The supposedly liberal media, such as the Guardian, joined the wolf pack to get Corbyn.
The right wing attacks, however, inspired more rank and file support for Corbyn. If the whole of the establishment was against him, then clearly he was doing something right.
The attempt by Labour MPs to overthrow Corbyn in a second leadership ballot decisively failed. Despite the expulsion of a number of Corbyn supporters and bureaucratic rule changes to deny the vote to thousands of others, he was re-elected with an increased majority.
But unfortunately, Corbyn failed to use this renewed democratic mandate from the mass of the rank and file to push ahead with hard hitting left wing policies to improve working class living standards and to clear out right wing saboteurs from the party.
He combined calls for party unity with attempts to placate his right wing critics by watering down some of his more radical left wing policies such as opposition to NATO and the renationalisation of vital former government services.
But his entrenched party opponents were never going to rally behind his pleas for unity. Nor were they appeased by his more moderate stance. The conciliatory approach just made Corbyn seem weak and directionless and did nothing to inspire his base. Labour’s standing in the polls gradually ebbed away, from more than 30 percent to around 25 percent.
May’s calling of a snap election has sharply shifted the grounds of the political fight. Corbyn responded well, with a fighting opening speech that railed against the establishment, denounced the rich and powerful and championed the interests of working class people. Declaring the election battle “the establishment versus the people”, Corbyn decried “rules that have allowed a cosy cartel to rig the system in favour of a few powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations”.
“We don’t accept that it is natural for Britain to be governed by a ruling elite, the City and the tax-dodgers, and we don’t accept that the British people just have to take what they’re given, that they don’t deserve better.”
“I don’t play by their rules”, Corbyn went on. “And if a Labour government is elected on 8 June, then we won’t play by their rules either.”
If Labour is to have any hope of galvanising its supporters into action and reaching out to the mass of workers totally disillusioned with the whole political process, this fighting opening stance needs to set the tone for the whole of Labour’s campaign.
Corbyn had already announced that a Labour government would raise the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour and introduce free school meals for all primary school children. These positive announcements need to be backed up by a further raft of concrete left wing policies that benefit workers and the poor by taxing the rich and powerful.
It is far from guaranteed that such a fighting left wing stance will be sufficient to win the election for Labour given the weight of establishment opinion and resources stacked against Corbyn and the sabotaging efforts of right wing Labour MPs. But it is much better to go down fighting than succumbing lamely to politics as usual and adhering to the rules of their game.
Even more importantly, a clear left wing campaign could help change the whole shape of the political debate. It could combat the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism with its endless demands for more privatisations, more wage cuts, more cuts to health, education and welfare and the total subordination of everything to the profit motive. It could begin to popularise the idea of socialism.
Such a fighting stance could help rebuild the confidence of workers and students to stand up for their rights at work, on the campuses and on the streets. That is vital whoever wins the election.
Without a fighting movement behind him, a Corbyn government would be powerless to introduce fundamental changes. And if the Tories get back in, such a fighting movement will be vital for the ongoing defence of working class living standards.