Every left-wing person watching the British general election results come in will do so with a heavy heart. The new Tory government is set to be headed by the absolute worst elements of the Etonian ruling class – a vicious, racist, anti-working-class regime with the vile Trump-loving Johnson at its head.
Many will draw conclusions similar to those drawn by the ALP and the media here after "Smoko" Morrison’s victory – that left-wing politics cannot appeal to working-class people, that working-class people are increasingly right-wing and racist and that only a Tory/Liberal-lite party can win.
This narrative will be championed loudly by the Labour right who have done their absolute best to undermine Jeremy Corbyn in their efforts to maintain Labour as a neoliberal party absolutely committed to their role as capitalism’s plan B party. They will argue that this result confirms that the sensible centre is the only way forward in politics.
Yet the story of this election is not a wholesale shift to the right in British society – but a dramatic decline in Labour’s vote. Those people who come to bury Corbyn are in large part to blame for this. Alongside their allies in the media, the Lib Dems and the establishment, the majority of the parliamentary Labour party have spent the last 4 years attacking both Corbyn himself and the more left wing policies he has championed. The attacks have been vicious and unrelenting, with Corbyn dishonestly portrayed as an antisemitic, authoritarian, Communist cult leader. At every turn they have undermined the growing left wing sentiment that put Corbyn into the leadership in the first place and saw him achieve the second best post-World War Two swing to Labour in the 2017 election.
They have been as responsible for making this a Brexit election as Johnson – with the aim of using it to crush Corbyn. They will be much happier with this result than they would have been with a Corbyn victory which cemented his position.
They posture as progressive pan-Europeans, but the small-l liberal opinion-makers of the BBC, the Guardian, the Liberal Democrats, and the centre-right of the Labour party have waged a savage campaign to slander and destroy Corbyn – and in so doing, they’ve ensured a heavy majority for Johnson’s reactionary pro-Brexit government. That shows their real priorities. For all their huffing and puffing about Europe, their main priority was stopping Corbyn from having any chance to implement a left-wing economic policy. They have used the most despicable slanders in the service of this cause, notably totally cynical accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone associated with even the mildest support for the Palestinian national movement. The impact of this ideological war will weigh heavily on the broad left in years to come. It was an ultimately successful counter-attack to the ascension of Corbyn to the Labour leadership.
In the past year they have mobilised huge numbers on the streets in the cause of Remain, have succeeded in winning Labour to support a second referendum, and contributed to the polarisation of British politics around this issue – as opposed to the class questions of inequality, austerity, education and the NHS which saw a strong result for Corbyn in 2017. Their strategy has succeeded – not in stopping Brexit, but in ensuring Labour lost votes at both ends.
Working class communities in the Labour heartlands have borne the brunt of neoliberalism since the early 1980s. Both Tory and Labour governments have carried out policies that have further entrenched the vast inequalities in British society that have seen a cycle of unemployment, poverty and neglect. For many of these people, voting for Brexit was a reflection of their anger and bitterness at politicians and the establishment. Labour in their areas represent that establishment – as the local councils, the Mayors and MPs. It was this disillusionment that outrageously created the space for Farage’s Brexit party to portray itself as the voice of the voiceless – a rhetoric reinforced by Labour’s support for a second referendum. The ultimate defection of Labour voters to Johnson’s Conservative Party in those areas, when Labour has been running on its most pro-worker platform in many years, represents a dramatic weakening of class consciousness amongst those long-suffering workers in the years since the Brexit vote. But in this election, many of them just didn’t bother to vote at all.
Corbyn’s early surge pointed to the potential for a different expression of that anger at neoliberalism. Hundreds of thousands of young people especially were drawn to Corbyn’s vision of socialism but that hope was consistently channelled into electoralism instead of mass action and struggle.
It is more accurate to describe British society as polarised than on a right wing trajectory. Corbyn received a positive swing in some constituencies like Liverpool and Manchester. The British Social Attitudes survey in 2019 showed, for example, that 86% of people believe the NHS faces a “major” or “severe” funding problem, up 14 points since 2014. 61% “would be prepared to accept” tax rises to increase NHS spending, up 21 points from 2014.
But aside from one demonstration two years ago Labour failed to mobilise its over ½ million new members into any increase in mass protests or strikes.
Neither did Corbyn put up a serious fight against the continual onslaught within his own ranks – capitulating at different times on the Trident nuclear weapon program, free movement of people, and the deselection as candidates of the Blairite MPs hell-bent on his destruction.
Without an increase of struggle and mobilisation, even popular and radical policies could not overcome the disillusionment sewn by decades of Labour betrayals from the Iraq war and privatisation to the response to the global financial crisis and austerity. This cynicism towards politicians, even more left ones like Corbyn, is in fact based in a certain reality about the world.
Even if Corbyn had won, his parliamentary approach would not have been able to overcome the right wing resistance of the bosses, the media and his own MPs to be able to implement even his moderate social democratic agenda. The woeful experience of reformist governments in Greece and Latin America demonstrates this.
The world is now witnessing an upsurge in struggle from below, from Lebanon to Iraq to Chile to France and beyond. The same anger that puts millions on the streets of Paris, Santiago and Hong Kong exists in London, Glasgow and Manchester.
Corbyn’s Labour received overwhelming support among young people, even in the Leave-voting areas of the north of England and southern Wales, alongside the Remainer stronghold of London. Those young people who tried to vote to defend the NHS, renationalise privatised industry, and reject Johnson’s reactionary politics can play an important role in building resistance to the attacks to come.
But that will be squandered if it is spent in more years of electoral work seeking power on the terrain that most favours the ruling class – building electoral majorities through official politics. That seemingly easy option has undermined the desire to resist austerity and neoliberalism in country after country. Waiting 5 years is not an option. And parliament is not where our power really lies anyway. We need the politics of struggle from below, and revolutionary, not parliamentary socialism.