What can stop the Tories in Britain’s election?

April 27, 2017

In an article for Australia's Red Flag, Mick Armstrong explains the background to an election campaign in Britain that starts with the Labour Party far behind the Tories.

BRITAIN'S CONSERVATIVE Party Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap election for June 8 to capitalize on the Tories' decisive lead in the opinion polls and a severely divided and demoralized 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, racist immigration restrictions and more attacks on workers' rights.

Recent opinion polls have Labour winning just 25 percent of the vote, trailing the Tories by 20 percentage points. Yet the polls also show growing opposition to austerity and rising support for increased welfare spending. The National Health Service remains exceedingly popular. How can this contradiction be explained?

The long years of "New Labour" governments, from 1997 to 2010 under former Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, alienated Labour's working-class voting base with unrelenting neoliberal policies, warmongering, arrogance, lies and deceit.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally in Cardiff
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally in Cardiff (Liberty Russell)

After the defeat of the Blairites in the 2010 general election won by the Tories, 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 wasn't prepared to relentlessly campaign 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 alternative to status quo neoliberal politics. The result was that Labour lost even more seats in the 2015 elections.

In the aftermath of Labour's electoral debacle, Jeremy Corbyn seemingly came from nowhere to win the party's official leadership position. Corbyn, a long-time left-wing backbench member of parliament (MP), was aided by rule changes that opened up the leadership vote 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 realized that the Blairites offered no road forward for Labour. Something new had to be tried.

CORBYN HAD hardly any supporters 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 supposed moderates 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, destabilization 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 sympathizer 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 attacks, however, inspired more rank-and-file support for Corbyn. If the whole of the establishment was against him, then he was clearly 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 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 support for the renationalization of vital former government services.

But his entrenched party opponents were never going to rally behind 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 supporter 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 ground 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 cozy cartel to rig the system in favor 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 June 8, then we won't play by their rules either."

If Labour is to have any hope of galvanizing 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 pounds an hour and would introduce free school meals for all primary school children. These positive announcements need to 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 to lamely succumb 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 in society. It could combat the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism, with its endless demands for more privatizations, more wage cuts, more cuts to health, education and welfare, and the total subordination of everything in society to the profit motive. It could begin popularize 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 defense of working-class living standards.

First published at Red Flag.

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