After the general election – where do we go from here?

Graham Bash and Glyn Secker offer some personal reflections on what has happened to us and why.

Graham Bash emphasises the scale of the defeat and the enormous forces that have always been arrayed against us. That sets the backdrop for some ideas on where we go from here.

Glyn Secker focuses on the erosion of the traditional working class with nothing to replace the unions and social clubs of the past which gave these communities their working class identity and socialist values.

After the election

Graham Bash

The knives are now out. Caroline Flint, Margaret Hodge on the attack against Corbyn and the left. Wes Streeting calling on the Parliamentary Labour Party to elect their own leader if Labour elects another Corbynite leader. And Neil Kinnock having the gall to lecture us about winning elections. We need to organise – but first we need to mourn.

We need time to mourn Labour’s decisive defeat – as we do the death of anything precious to us. For the moment we feel crushed. I certainly do, though I’ve seen it before. But after we have mourned we need to re-emerge, reflect, assess, and organise – stay together and act collectively.

To change reality, we first need to understand what it is.

When Jeremy won the Labour leadership in September 2015, it was a shifting of the tectonic plates. It was in part historical accident – the outcome of the new electoral system for electing the Labour leader passed after Ed Miliband’s Collins review. But it wasn’t just a historical accident that won it for Jeremy.

Something was happening in the world outside. In Greece, the rise of Syriza, in Spain, Podemos, and in the United States, Bernie Sanders. The years of stability and had been broken by the economic crisis of 2008.

It is conditions that determine consciousness. Just as the First World War was the precondition for the Russian Revolution, the 1929 Crash the precondition for Hitler’s rise to power, so too the 2008 crash undermined the stability that sustained New Labour and moderate bourgeois governments and brought in its wake the radical movements of the left and populist movements of the right.

But the odds were always massively against us.

We were fighting:

  • the state, with veiled threats by generals to overturn a democratically elected Labour government;
  • the media, with relentless attacks and ridicule;
  • the Tories, moving to the right;
  • the undemocratic structures and rules of the Labour Party, with the right wing dominated Compliance Unit, now Legal and Governance – another party within a party – being used to suspend hundreds of Corbyn supporters;
  • and all this in the context of a referendum vote on Brexit that put Labour between a rock and a hard place and the near death of Labour Scotland that would take years to recover from, whoever was Labour leader.
  • We were also fighting the PLP, shamefully refusing to accept the party’s overwhelming verdict, briefing against Jeremy, forcing a second leadership contest, acting as a party within a party and fearing a Corbyn government more than another Tory government.

The only possible way to fight against such powerful opposition forces was to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below. That insurgency had to be a radical crusade against the establishment and an authentic voice for the dispossessed. It had to overturn the undemocratic procedures of the party and its right wing bureaucracy. And it had to transform the PLP to bring it in line with the new leadership.

But this was not the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, when the working class in Britain was powerful – so powerful that Heath called an election in 1974 on the theme of “who rules, the government or the unions”, and lost!

We have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike. Although Jeremy’s victory reflected in part a genuine disaffection from below against austerity and neo-liberalism -part of an international movement – at the same time our movement was at a low ebb. That was a key contradiction – between the rise of the most left wing leadership in Labour’s history and the low ebb of class struggle. This despite Labour’s post-Corbyn transformation to a mass party of more than half a million.

There was a further problem. Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy had to operate day-to-day in a parliamentary framework, putting together a parliamentary opposition within a hostile PLP. He and John McDonnell were embattled on the front line from the very start. But here was the conflict – how to achieve a root and branch transformation of the party while at the same time achieving some unity within the PLP and shadow cabinet sufficient to keep the parliamentary opposition on the road. There were two aims – parliamentary party unity and the building of a radical, democratic grassroots movement. How were these two opposites to be reconciled? Ultimately they couldn’t be. Our insurgency has to target the PLP itself if we are to take power.

This in the context of a witch-hunt in the Labour Party that was based on a lie – that the party was rife with antisemitism – the victims of which were primarily the anti-racist left, many of them Jewish or black. These included Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein, Ken Livingstone – probably the best anti-racist leader our party has produced – Marc Wadsworth, Chris Williamson, Jeremy himself and so many more. A witch-hunt that received support from some sections of the left – including the leadership of the 30,000 + strong Momentum group – that raises the need for an alternative Labour left.

And this in the context of growing attacks on black and Asian people, the embryo of a far right movement that we ignore at our peril and the silencing of independent black voices in our own movement.

This too in the context of a global axis of evil – from Trump to Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Modi, Victor Orban, Putin, now Boris Johnson. And in the context of looming climate catastrophe. The Arctic and the Amazon on fire. The tasks so urgent. So little time to lose.

And in this country till 12th December our best defence against these dangers – it seemed like our only defence – was a Corbyn-led Labour government.

So what now?

  1. Beware simplistic explanations that blame it all on Jeremy’s Brexit fudge.Within an hour of the exit poll I received two messages. The first said we lost because Jeremy embraced the second referendum, the second that we lost because we were not sufficiently in the Remain camp. Both were wrong. Both underestimated how toxic Brexit was and is. There are material reasons for this – the weakening of class identity and how vulnerable therefore class is to the myth of national identity – to an English nationalism rooted in the imperial past. This loss of class identity is rooted in the defeats of the last 40 years, the breakdown of working class communities, the shrinking of public services. Yes, Jeremy’s fudge didn’t work – but neither would either of the alternatives.
  1. It wasn’t just Brexit. It was also about Jeremy.All of us canvassing heard the abuse all the time. It was a product of course of the establishment media but it was made far worse by the critical lack of solidarity and support and treachery of most of the PLP. How Jeremy coped with that baying mob behind him in Parliament is beyond me. That took such strength. And also the failure of some of the left to defend him against the antisemitism slurs was shameful.This is not new. The establishment always attacks its enemies. Remember Tony Benn was pathologised as a madman. And now Greta Thunberg has been called “a mentally ill Swedish child” on Fox News in an advert paid for by big corporations.
  1. This was different from the 2017 election.Firstly personalities matter. We were lucky in 2017. We were against probably the most useless Tory leader – Theresa May – for years, and still we couldn’t win. And secondly, Johnson’s victory in Parliament on the Withdrawal Bill was a final straw, as he could claim he would get Brexit done. A victory won by Labour defections!
  1. Don’t blame the working class. 

    I feel deeply uncomfortable when sections of the left blame the quotes ‘racist bigots’ of Blyth Valley or wherever for our defeats. This is a view that is both elitist and fails to understand the material roots of the problem.

  1. Stop apologising. 

    We have been weakened by the constant apologies before and after the election. Apologies for antisemitism and for the election campaign. Stop being on the defensive. That way we did not win and cannot win. This was a key difference. Boris Johnson sacked his political opponents. We apologised to ours!

  1. Rebuild the left. 

    There will be voices that will proclaim that the deficiencies of the existing left were a critical reason for the ultimate failure of the Corbyn project. I’m not convinced these factors were decisive but they certainly were a factor – the combination of the bureaucratised trade union left around Unite and the top-down, unaccountable, Momentum leadership, at times supporting the witch-hunt and the false narratives about antisemitism in the party and staging a coup to abolish any democratic accountable structures. Above all this left failed to defend members unjustly witch-hunted and Corbyn himself when under the greatest attack. All this despite Momentum’s undoubted achievement in mobilising members for general elections.Their methods were a product of years when the left was marginalised and were totally unsuited to the upsurge of the Labour left and the new vibrant membership of more than half a million.How can we rebuild a left in the party, in the unions and in the wider movement that is both politically sharp enough to avoid incorporation into the bureaucracy and broad enough to reach the mass of our membership, and avoid being just another small sect?

    What is our model? Well to start with continuity Corbyn based on the 2015 insurgency that won us the leadership rather than the paler version of 2019. However good the manifesto was, we can only win as a movement powered from below.

    And no trust in any future leaders. Whoever wins will be nowhere near as good as Jeremy. The best we can hope for is Rebecca Long-Bailey – and we must support and vote for her. But it is she who said she would press the nuclear button, criticised Chris Williamson on bogus antisemitism claims and who will no doubt continue – even accelerate – the antisemitism witch-hunt.

  1. Continue to fight the witch-hunt. 

    I have previously argued the antisemitism witch-hunt would not stop till Jeremy was removed. I was wrong. Jeremy will shortly go but the witch-hunt will probably continue – even accelerate – as a means of wiping out the left.I fear that Jewish Voice for Labour still has a massive job on its hands. Please show your solidarity and join the JVL. And to underline the threat, the new Conservative government will pass a law making it illegal for public bodies to engage with BDS, UK Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues Eric Pickles said at the International Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s conference in Jerusalem the Sunday after the election. We have been warned.

  1. Keep our members. Stay in the Labour Party. Defend and extend the link with the trade unions. 

    This speaks for itself. We must avoid at all costs a counter-revolution in the Labour Party. Never again can we allow our movement to be deprived of political representation. Do not leave in despair. That is what the right wing want. And build and strengthen the links with our unions and communities. We have Labour Party community organisers in place. Use them.

  1. Organise the fight back. 

    Remember the Tory government will be in crisis sooner rather than later. Their Brexit is undeliverable, their economy is in crisis. But have no doubt our public services, welfare benefits, employment and trade union rights, civil liberties and environment will be under attack from a government which has won an overwhelming victory. There is already a threat to make strikes in essential services like rail illegal. Only the labour movement, environmental groups and people in their communities and on the streets can stop the government. Connect – as EM Forster put it, ‘only connect’.We must build our resistance from below and empower our supporters. That must be our central focus. Back to our communities. From there find a route to the Labour Party. It won’t be easy. Our backs are to the wall. But we have no alternative but to fight. The future of our world depends on it.

By all means mourn – but then organise!

Unpacking the General Election

Glyn Secker

To understand what happened to Labour in the General Election it helps to look at the structural and historical context.

In the Thatcher period we saw the destruction of the core of the working class: leading industries, like mining, were demolished or, like print and the docks, transformed by technology. The consequence was the removal of the working environment which generated and sustained powerful trade union organisation and socialist beliefs.

With the defeat of the industrial action against the closures the communities were cut adrift from the practical foundation from which flowed their consciousness, their beliefs and their lived identity – the bedrock of the communities.

This was starkly expressed by people interviewed during the election period, repeatedly we heard people stating their grandparents and parents would be deeply ashamed if they could hear them say they were voting Tory.

The core of our working class trade union movement has been hollowed out.

And this has left a class fragility: it was on this weakness that neo-liberalism wrought its austerity, and which enabled the gross transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

The social response to this was the UK’s Arab Spring, expressed through Corbynism. It was a threat to the fundamental restructuring of capital and labour of which Thatcher had been the manager – where capital claimed back its ransom, the social distribution of wealth (the welfare state) which it had been obliged to concede after the Second World War. There had been two drivers: the need for a healthy and educated workforce to rebuild a profitable economy, and the need to ensure social stability in the face of militant working class demand. Whilst sections of the establishment were not hostile to a radical re-balancing of the economy (voiced, for example by Andy Haldane, Economics Advisor to the Bank of England),  Corbynism was a threat to tax havens, venture finance and the new land owning oligarchs, the depositories of the obscene accumulations of wealth.

Unlike the Arab Springs the first line of counter attack was ‘soft power’: the control of information, ideas and opinion. Brexit and antisemitism were the vehicles. There is nothing new about character assassination – Kinnock, a mild, safe reformist was also targeted, as was Michael Foot, both less so than Corbyn because  they were less radical.

If Corbyn had won then the next level of attack would have been an engineered run on the pound creating a financial crisis, loans from the IMF and a new austerity. Any labour and social unrest which followed would have been met by hard power: the police and if necessary the armed forces, along the lines of the model in place during the miners’ strikes.

When communities are decimated, social relations fragment. Explanations of the underlying causes fail to connect with personal experience and present as (middle class) political opportunism; class solidarity is displaced by an expansion of prejudice, chauvinism and scapegoating. This is the classic breading ground of the far right.

It’s true that the Labour Party failed to connect with the northern communities. Deprivation, abandonment and credibility were the issues, brexit was their expression. When they were communities led by organised, militant trade unionists they had an input into the national narrative and were listened to. When this structure disappeared they lost their voice and became invisible to the party, for decades. Whether credibility could have been re-established by presenting a single, soft brexit policy is a moot point. It would have been vulnerable to being defined by Johnson and the media as remain-in-all-but-name. Brexit tapped decades of despair and anger at explosion point.

Johnson is acutely aware of how much brexit was (excuse the sexist term) an Aunt Sally: knowing his reputation for lying and doubling back on policy, he is already making statements to reassure those in the  Labour heartland who deserted Labour. He knows that if he fails to live up to his promises they may come back to bite him. So it is likely that investments will be made in the ‘red wall’ towns aimed not at transforming the deprivation but carefully crafted to sufficiently engage leading community groups, to do just enough, leaving the rest out in the cold.

The weakness of the Corbyn movement was that, in spite of it being a mass movement in terms of the size of the party membership, it was still a top-down process – manifestos announced from above, not a set of proposals generated from a multitude of organisations on the ground in the communities, where the demands and the solutions were owned by the members.  In the pit and steel communities the trade unions and social clubs fulfilled such a function. There is no getting away from the structural issues: the organised workplaces which gave these communities their working class identity and socialist values have gone.

So the election was a battle of ideas, information and consciousness, which the establishment, with its monopoly on all platforms of soft power,  won with élan.  Effectively Corbyn was turned into a stereotype of the lefty, the red-under-the-bed, and set up as the scapegoat for all that was despised about politicians.

So where does this leave us?  The first point to make is that the party manifesto was not revolutionary. The scale of inequality made it appear so, but it merely planned to return distribution of wealth to the level of the 1970s. It would have placed us somewhere alongside France and Germany today. Given that there has not been mass industrial action against austerity, it appears that things may have to get a whole lot worse (unbearable as that is to contemplate) before social disruption makes itself felt. There was the predictable ‘dead cat bounce’ of the stock market immediately after the election, but if all the predictions are to be believed the economy is now in for a sharp decline, and this in the context of a developing international crisis.

How we in the party prepare for this will be critical. The expectations in the ‘red wall’ constituencies are high. Will there be enough Tory-directed investment to head off reactions down the line?

From the start Labour needs to be in there, on the ground, connecting with the wide range of unions, community groups and key people, to assist in defining the demands, to create networks within and across constituencies, and to draw up plans to be presented to the local and national Tory leadership. This is slow, long-term work. If the people are failed again there will be even deeper disillusionment and anger, and a real danger of moves to the extreme right. So it is necessary to build organisations on the ground, democratically controlled from the bottom up, not the top down, and able to fight. serves only the opposition and demoralisation.

Then of course there is the need to transform most local government councils from tools of austerity in the hands of the old Labour right, into organisations which actively resist cuts in services and housing ‘redevelopment’. This means transforming them into campaigning organisations. Complementing this could be constructive initiatives like the Preston Model.

So where does the left go? To organising on the ground, into building organisation around the detailed manifestations of deprivation and oppression, and into organising Labour Party constituency opposition to Labour Party local government administrations where their policies contradict Labour Party policy.


Comments (6)

  • Kwame says:

    I couldn’t agree more that we must remain left wing socialists and to continue expose the fascists that are guilty for their lying corruption as well as dividing and ruling our masses non Westerners especially.

  • Steven Taylor says:

    The best article I’ve read about Labour’s defeat …. deserves the widest possible audience ….. thanks comrades

  • Mary Davies says:

    Thank you for this brilliant, insightful, inspiring article. We must have the courage and determination to carry on the struggle against this corrupt government.

  • Gerry Glyde says:

    If Streeting is suggesting the PLP elect its own leader that really would be a ‘party within a party that he is supposed to be vehemently against. In effect they would be leaving the party and its resources and everything although we suspect that from the debacle in 2016 they had taken legal advice that they wanted to take the ‘brand’ and resources with them. I assume the lawyersbtold them it was not a runner

  • Jessica says:

    Forgive me.

    I have spent three years looking at where the Party is weakest.

    I think we really HAVE to look at the micro level of the party to be able to win.

    For example: when we campaign for, I don’t know… Whistleblowing for NHS workers, we have no such process for party members.

    When we campaign for equality, we STILL have nothing like the equality we should have for the vast array of minority groups within our ranks.

    When we campaign for ethics, fairness and best practice in employment, we have gross conflict of interest, cronyism and unethical practices at work in CLPs that is ENABLED by a rulebook riddled with inconsistencies and vagueries.

    We have a policy system that is not fit for purpose: Conference once a year to vote our policy changes through is not frequent or agile enough to keep pace with the huge surge in political change and velocity.

    We have to work on what is rotten WITHIN our Party. We need to pick apart what we have and refine and reform it to make it fit for purpose. At the moment, what we have is an organisation that can turn upon its best activists and kick them out for speaking truth to power.

    We must look at where the levers of power are, and where the bottlenecks to change are. We need to educate our members politically, organisationally and digitally. And we need to create our own media network to stop the right from dominating the narrative.

    Yes we need a groundswell from beneath, but it has to be prepared to have a wholesale examination of the processes, procedures and culture inside the party machine.

    We also need to help and call on other socialist networks… Podemos, Bernie Sanders et Al. We need to look at how they work, learn, blueprint and adapt to our political scenario.

    And, I’m afraid that however historically linked the unions are to us, we have to start looking at how THEY have been used to weaken and attack us too. The role of TULO must no longer be given to just anyone: we need people who are going to help recruit Union members into the Labour Party because they believe in our values.

    The party needs to redefine what it’s values are and kick out people and groups who adhere to those values selectively. Anti racism means 💯% anti racist… We cannot have affiliates who house exceptionalist views to suit their narrative.

    Unless we do this, we will always be hampered by a membership that is exposed to hypocrisy, attack from within and so much weaker against the hatred outside.

  • JanP says:

    An excellent analysis by Graham Bash. Clearly sets out the forces ranged against us and starts to put together some ideas for moving forward. Exposing Johnson will be difficult without it being published in the msm. I found I was ” kettled” in social media leading up to the election so I received only certain posts on FB. This changed back immediately the day after the election so I really noticed what had happened. We must deluge the Mirror, and perhaps The Guardian, with letters, articles, facts and statistics to contradict government propaganda. Possibly the local newspapers too.

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