by Paul Feldman
Labour’s catastrophic defeat, which will have serious consequences for the wellbeing of communities of all classes, cannot simply be reduced to issues about the party’s leadership or even confusing or misunderstood election policies, especially in relation to Brexit.
Ultimately, Labour was thwarted by trying to do the well-nigh impossible through Parliamentary methods alone – turn the tables on a brutal, neoliberal economy and neutered political system.
Control of the economy is in the hands of transnational corporations and financial markets who care little for tax bills or the interests of individual nation-states or their populations.
Inequality knows no bounds. While millions toil in the gig economy for a pittance, others live comfortable lives with well-paid jobs. The climate emergency, meanwhile, is just that – an “emergency” noted in pious words but with precious little action.
In this culture of rampant individualism and superficial imagery, sound bites are everything and radical policy proposals count for little. A traditionally hostile press and manipulated social media that wildly exaggerated everything about Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s plans, did the rest.
If there was a failure by Labour it was its inability to grasp in any meaningful way the combined social, economic, political and environmental crisis – of which the vote for Brexit was but just one indicator – and offer a vision of an alternative way forward for society as a whole.
In almost 27,000 words, Labour’s manifesto – which abandoned the progressive 1997 slogan of “for the many, not the few” in favour of the meaningless “time for real change” as a title – failed to mention the terms “capitalism” or “neoliberalism”. References to the elites and the super-rich were poor, vague substitutes.
The workers in the Midlands and the North-West and North-East who lent their votes to the Tories did so, in many cases, out of desperation and despair of seeing any significant change in their areas and their Brexit votes being ignored. Yet as others have pointed out, their desertion from Labour can be traced back to the Blair years.
In efforts to revive the best of the traditions of Old Labour, Corbyn and John McDonnell offered a blizzard of attractive policies but many of them were of the top-down, state-managed economics variety, presented as a kind of neo-Keynesian mash-up. Given the result, a failure to reach out and listen to voters in the leave areas smacked of Old Labour paternalism, doing things for workers, not with them.
There were other significant issues, of course. Despie four years in control, there was a patent failure to develop a collective leadership at the top of the party. McDonnell was walled off from close collaboration with Corbyn by senior advisers like Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy. One of the consequences was a failure to develop a coherent strategy for power.
The Influence of Milne and Andrew Murray – one a sometime cheer leader for Vladimir Putin, the other an ex-Stalinist and both crude anti-Americans – led to a wretched and somewhat embarrassing response to the Salisbury nerve agent attacks by Russian agents. Their equally inept handling of anti-Semitism cases meant that the issue was not dealt with promptly and allowed to fester.
As a result, the right-wing press painted Corbyn as unpatriotic for not standing up to foreign attacks on UK soil. His standing was weakened, perhaps irretrievably, especially in Northern seats where service in and support for the armed forces is strong. It could have all been avoided.
Meanwhile, the Momentum leadership in its lack of wisdom rejected any attempt to understand let alone accept the meaning of the Brexit referendum result. Pressure by Keir Starmer in the shadow cabinet led to a move away from respecting the 2016 vote towards a second referendum.
Focussed on trying to woo the remain vote in the south, the end result was Corbyn saying he would be neutral in a referendum on any Labour-negotiated Brexit deal and McDonnell declaring he would back remain. Clarity this wasn’t.
Yet Brexit is not a distraction, as suggested, but actually contains all the pent-up contradictions, despair, hope and, yes, illusions of over half the UK electorate. The challenge was and remains the development of an alternative to neoliberalism, inside and outside the EU.
Corbyn’s position was, of course, made intolerable by the malign role played by a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They never accepted his two overwhelming victories in leadership elections. Every meeting of the PLP became an opportunity to abuse Corbyn and his supporters who were shouted down.
Making changes to deal with anti-Semitism did nothing to stop the right-wing from their incessant attacks. It was clear that many preferred a Tory victory to Corbyn becoming prime minister. During the election campaign, no fewer than 11 former Labour MPs urged people not to vote for the party. Astonishing but true.
Added to the list of dishonour must be the trade union bureaucrats who watered down attempts to strengthen the reselection procedures and their refusal to back the abolition of Trident nuclear weapons. On both issues, the Labour leadership was further weakened and Corbyn exposed to a defence policy he could not support.
The Labour Party is in an existential crisis, its future uncertain. It can’t carry on like before. Thinking that a new leader alone will do the trick would be a grave mistake. Labour’s so-called “broad church” is in fact an unreformed conclave. It is time for Labour to stop kidding themselves that the two wings of the party can continue to co-exist as before. December 12 showed that to be impossible.
A Labour Reformation is long overdue if socialist and democratic ideals are to flourish. The party should be refounded, with a new constitution that abandons the old hierarchical way of doing things and puts the mass membership on a par in terms of status with the PLP, not subordinate to it.
A vision to defeat Johnson and make his regime short-lived has to embrace real democracy in communities and, above all, in the workplace, to challenge neoliberal capitalism. So the new Labour leadership has to turn the party out into communities outside London and co-develop policies with local voters that they support and campaign for.
Labour cannot wait for another general election or restrict their activities to Parliament, which is more than an ever a powerless body that Johnson treats with disdain.
After the result one commentator said, “Labour had nothing to say during the election campaign about democracy and power”. So Labour’s new leaders could make a real contribution by declaring their immediate support for an independent, citizens-led convention to remake democracy by deliberating on and proposing the framework for a new, democratic constitution.
Behind their sinister slogan of a “People’s Government”, Johnson and advisers like Dominic Cummings will reconstruct the state to make it more pro-corporate than ever. Disenchantment with Brexit as a “solution” will grow against the background of a looming financial crash and recession.
Resistance to the inevitable Tory offensive and move towards outright authoritarian rule will have to come through independent Citizens Assemblies and similar bodies because the Parliamentary road is well and truly blocked off.