Corbyn's triumph and what it means for the left

Politics in Britain have been upended by the results of the June 8 election that Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May called two months ago, expecting to win easily. Instead, the Tories lost their parliamentary majority--they will cling to power by bringing the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), based in Northern Ireland, into the government.

In a matter of weeks, the opposition Labour Party came from far back in opinion polls to rival the Conservatives for most votes overall and increase their seats in parliament. This is a vindication of party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his avowedly left-wing message--and a further indictment of the party establishment that has tried to bring down Corbyn since he was elected Labour's leader in 2015.

The election has raised hopes on the British left--along with a host of questions about what comes next to engage the millions of people, predominantly young, who saw Corbyn as a new direction for politics. Here, Neil Davidson, a member of revolutionary socialism in the 21st century (rs21)/International Socialism Scotland (ISS) and author of numerous books, including We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions, talked to Alan Maass about the outcome of the vote and the issues at stake in the coming weeks and months.

Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trail with other Labour Party members  (Andy Miah | flickr)Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trail with other Labour Party members (Andy Miah | flickr)

THIS RESULT is something no one would have predicted in April when Theresa May called the snap election. Can you introduce the factors that led to this?

THE MAIN thing is that nobody expected Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to be anything like as successful as they were.

One reason for the success was that hundreds of thousands of people joined the Labour Party in the last year and a half--and a lot of them became activists and were involved in the campaign. So we've had a whole bunch of young people doing electioneering for Labour in a way the party hasn't seen in 10 or 15 or even 20 years.

Another reason is that the manifesto that Labour ran on was fairly left wing by contemporary standards. It wouldn't have been particularly left wing in the 1960s, but it has to be considered left wing now, compared to Labour under Tony Blair. The manifesto talked about renationalization, doing away with student fees, defending the National Health Service and so on.

Frankly, a lot of people had just never heard that before--especially young people, who were highly mobilized during this campaign. Some of it is old hat to socialists of my age--but this is stuff younger people never heard before, and it was extremely attractive.

I also think it's the case that the left badly overestimated the strength of racist and anti-migrant feeling on the basis of the Brexit vote. There was an assumption that because people had voted for Brexit, they must automatically be racists.

That was always an oversimplification. And what we saw in the election is that a lot of the people who previously supported the right-wing UK Independence Party and voted to leave the EU actually voted for Labour.

This happened in some quite extraordinary places. In Canterbury, which has been a Tory seat since 1831, there was a massive swing to Labour of almost 30 percent, which must have been made up of a number of previous UKIP voters, because UKIP didn't stand in that race.

That sort of result happened all over the place, and it speaks to the strength of Labour's turn to the left and Corbyn's own impressive abilities as a campaigner.

But the other side of the election was that the Tory campaign was a complete disaster, in ways that even they had to concede.

The Tory manifesto had no cost estimates at all for its proposals, unlike Labour. The Tories started off saying they were going to make ordinary people pay for social care, and then, when faced with a massive response to that, they reversed themselves and said they wouldn't do that, all in the space of a day. Theresa May appeared to be incapable of defending her position.

I'm less surprised by the collapse of the Tories. I've been saying for some time that the quality of British ruling class leadership is appallingly low--it has been for a good 30 or 40 years, and this was just demonstrated again. These people aren't used to having to fight--they haven't had a union movement or an effective opposition, so they don't know how to do it.

But what I think what is in some ways quite surprising is the revival of Labour as a left-wing social democratic party.

MAY IS making a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to cling to power, so she'll still be the prime minister. Does that mean it isn't such a bad defeat for the Conservatives?

NO, I think this is catastrophic--an absolute disaster for the Tory Party. This is as bad as the Iraq invasion of 2003 was for Tony Blair, or the Suez crisis in 1956 before that.

May had, I think, four things in mind when she called the snap election.

One, she knows that Brexit--or at least the particular Brexit the Tories have in mind--was going to be really damaging to the people who voted for it in the referendum, and working-class people in particular. And with Brexit due to be completed the previous year, the effects would kick in just about the time that the next election would have been scheduled. May wanted to circumvent that by holding an earlier election.

Second, of course, May thought the Tories could win easily because Labour was obviously not going to--not with Jeremy Corbyn, the mad, IRA-supporting pacifist who nobody was going to support.

Third, I think May wanted a reinforcement of the Brexit referendum last year--to say: I was elected on the program of leaving the EU, so shut up about it.

The fourth reason was what she called strengthening her hand in negotiations about Brexit, which people took to mean gaining leverage with the EU negotiators. But what she really meant was to strengthen her hand within the Tory Party, against the ultra-right Brexiteers.

The negotiators for the EU will be laughing themselves sick, I would think. This obviously hasn't strengthened the power of whoever's going to be doing the negotiating for Britain. The Tories are badly divided, and it's a divided parliament, so clearly, the EU will be able to make demands that they might not otherwise have made.

I think the Tories have virtually no cards to play in the negotiations. There must be some talk at the moment about delaying the start of the talks, because the British side is simply in no position to enter them. There's some flexibility on when negotiations begin, but no flexibility about when they end--Britain has to be out of the EU by March 2019.

But to go back to the election, May was claiming she would get a gigantic majority--like what Margaret Thatcher won in 1983. But she actually ended up with fewer seats than she went into the election with.

So this is a disaster. Everyone knows it--the right wing press, her own party members, who have been lining up to stab her in the back since the vote. The general line is that May can't leave immediately, because that would produce complete chaos, but she'll get the Brexit process started, and then there will be a leadership election in the Tory Party.

But that's a problem as well because it would mean another election--presumably, any new leader of the Tories would run in a new election to gain some legitimacy for themselves. And now, we know that Labour could possibly win that election.

The snap election was the latest in a series of unbelievable miscalculations. First was the Scottish referendum, which they almost lost. Then came the Brexit referendum, which forced out the last Conservative prime minister. And now this. If I were a British capitalist, I would be tearing my hair out at the moment at the condition of the political leadership.

Plus, the Tories will have to rule with the Democratic Unionist Party in the government in order to have a parliamentary majority.

This is the Irish equivalent of the Tea Party. They're not just a unionist party that's committed to preventing unification of Ireland so the North can remain part of the UK. These are people want to stop abortion, they believe in creationism, they're climate-change deniers.

And they're linked to ultra-loyalist terrorist groups from the 1970s and '80s. Given all the smears about terrorism that were thrown at Corbyn, the fact that May is consorting with a party with links to loyalist terrorist organizations is going to play very badly.

So everything's been thrown into the air. To quote Chairman Mao: "There is great disorder under the heavens--the situation is excellent!" Because the ruling class is in extreme disarray.

CAN YOU talk about what happened in Scotland? The Scottish National Party (SNP) lost a number of seats, more of them to the Tories than to Labour.

YES, THE Tories are up from one seat in Scotland to 13, and Labour went from one seat to seven seats. The SNP still has more seats in Scotland than all the other parties put together, so we shouldn't exaggerate this.

This is coming after the SNP result in 2015, where they ended up with 56 out of 59 seats in Westminster. That was purely on the basis of the massive radicalization of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. That was never going to be sustainable, so what's really happened is that the SNP is back to what is still a commanding position.

As to why the Tories did well, I think the unionist vote for staying in the UK has consolidated itself around the Tory Party, which in Scotland is led by Ruth Davidson, who at least appears to be reasonably intelligent and personable. Also, a lot of people in the northeast of Scotland, which used to be a Tory stronghold, went to the SNP last time on a fairly conservative basis--a lot of those people are just coming home to the Tory Party.

So it's not a new group of people abandoning the SNP. But I think there's a limit to how much support there will ever be for the Tory Party in Scotland. They're probably about at that limit at the moment, with around 28-29 percent of the population.

On the other hand, the Labour Party in Scotland had a revival because of Corbyn. The Scottish Labour Party is on the right wing of Labour, and it was really hostile to Corbyn. Yet a lot of people in Scotland voted for the Labour Party anyway because of his left-wing message.

I did. This is the first time I voted for Labour in 30 years, because I'm done with the SNP, and the candidate for Labour where I live was a real left-winger. I think that's what gave Labour its revival.

The SNP made two miscalculations. One was to think that everyone who supports independence supports the SNP, which isn't true. At least a third of the independence vote isn't SNP supporters.

And the second was to assume that everybody who supports independence supports staying in the EU. The SNP made that a major plank of their argument for a second independence referendum--which would be about staying in the UK or going back to the EU. That was a really stupid position to take, because there's quite a big section of the Scottish population that supports independence, but doesn't support the EU.

I think those assumptions meant the SNP was exposed to the unionist argument on the one hand that drained votes to the Tories, but also to the arguments of the anti-EU wing on the other.

However, I don't think the SNP is going to collapse. A lot of what's been said about how the SNP is in decline is nonsense. I think that Scottish politics has become normalized. We're back to talking about class issues, for both of the two major classes--and that's done away with the idea that everything is about independence.

People are starting to talk about social questions again, and that's obviously good for the left, and something we have to encourage. But I suspect the SNP will continue to be the dominant party for the foreseeable future, and the Tories will be their main opponents in the Scottish parliament.

CAN YOU look ahead to the future and talk about the impact of this election for the left? Let's start with struggles outside the electoral arena. Will the Labour Party's success build working-class confidence?

I THINK a lot of the campaigns that are already running--for example, unionization campaigns for people on zero-hour contracts or initiatives to abolish zero-hour contracts--are going to gain new momentum, because a lot of the people involved in these campaigns are young people, and they're precisely the people who came out to support Corbyn.

The same will be true about anti-racist campaigns, campaigns to defend the National Health Service, and so on. Previously, people didn't feel like the Labour Party was the party behind these campaigns. But because of Corbyn, they do now.

Plus, people have seen that it's possible to mobilize in political ways. Because that mobilization took place on the basis of a series of Labour Party manifesto commitments--all of which relate to these kinds of social struggles--I think this will give them an added impetus.

A lot of this depends on whether people go beyond an exclusively electoral focus with the Labour Party.

There are a lot of issues here that aren't new. We've all known, going back decades, about the difficulties of working within the Labour Party. It's only because the Labour Party has been so right wing for the last 20 to 25 years that this appears to be a new set of questions.

A lot of the people who joined Labour are more like the people who joined Podemos in Spain or SYRIZA in Greece, or the people who supported Bernie Sanders in the U.S. They're not embedded in the old kind of constituency parties, like Labour has always been. They're much more interested in struggle and political activity than in traditional election campaigning. That's much healthier.

The question is how the radical left, outside of the party, is able to work with these young, very motivated people who are in the Labour Party, and build a relationship with them.

That hasn't been an issue we've had to confront over the last 20 to 25 years, because there haven't been those kinds of people in the older mainstream parties. Now there is, and it means that a lot of the things the left used to take for granted about relating to people with reformist ideas moving to the left have to be rethought--or at least we have to go back over some of that ground.

It would be a problem to just sloganeer at people about the dead end of reformism. Because at this moment, it doesn't seem like a dead end. It seems like it's actually going somewhere.

I think the debate will come up now about whether people on the left should be inside the Labour Party. That has obviously been an argument since Corbyn took over the leadership, and I think it's a serious discussion now. Given that the radical left is dispersed among different organizations, there's an argument for at least temporary membership in the Labour Party.

I'm not sure what the answer to that is yet. I think we need to see what the fallout is after the election, once it's settled down, assuming it does. But certainly, it's not a stupid question--it's a legitimate one for revolutionaries to discuss now.

WHAT ARE some of the questions the left needs to ask and answer in having that discussion?

I THINK the main issue is about forms of organization and the assumptions people on the left have made for past hundred years--or at least the last 50 years, from 1968 onwards--about the need for revolutionary parties.

To what extent do we need to rethink that assumption, given that no one has successfully built a mass revolutionary party anywhere, at any time, through different periods and different situations, even if you take the mid-1960s as a starting point?

Maybe the answer to that question is the object now is to create a cadre--a group of people who have experience in the class struggle, who participate in campaigns and trade unions, who learn to operate and to argue and to lead.

That's something that is still possible. Whether it's possible to do in the form of a mass revolutionary party, outside of a revolutionary situation--that's what I'm dubious about. To go back to the early 20th century, the problem in Germany--and Italy, too--wasn't that there wasn't a party beforehand. It was that there weren't enough experienced cadre able to form that party when the time came and have people listen to them.

So I think there are two separate questions. There's a need for some kind of organization or structure for revolutionaries--that's certainly necessary. And then there's the question of whether it's possible to build a mass revolutionary party, which I'm not sure about, based on the experience of the last half century.

One way of reaching people and having that discussion is to actually be inside the reformist parties--on the condition that you don't make staying in those parties the main priority.

I would think that the question is different in the U.S., where there isn't an actual social democratic party, and where Sanders didn't succeed in transforming the Democratic Party--it's doubtful that anyone could.

But here, that's the issue, and I think it needs to be looked at seriously, especially during the centenary year of the Russian Revolution--what is still relevant and what is of historical versus contemporary significance.

These are very difficult questions, and of course, as soon as you say any of this, the specter of revisionism is thrown at you. But it's something that has to be confronted.

We need to talk about the question of organization--and the implications flowing from that answer in terms of whether people on the left go into, individually or in groups, social democratic organizations to try to influence them, but knowing that these bodies can't by totally transformed.

We're just at the beginning stages of this discussion, of course. I know a lot of people are thinking these things through and haven't reached conclusions yet.

WHAT QUESTIONS need to be asked about revolutionaries joining the Labour Party?

I THINK the first question would have be whether you can operate openly as a revolutionary within the Labour Party, without silencing yourself on certain issues in order to stay in. That's absolutely fundamental.

If people can operate openly, make arguments and sell literature, that makes it possible. If you have to make compromises about your positions and not openly tell people what you stand for--if you have to have some kind of a secret organization--that won't lead anywhere. There are plenty of historical examples of that failing.

So this question is actually going to be about the Labour Party from Corbyn on down. Corbyn did usually defend revolutionaries in the Labour Party in the past. So it's possible he might be in favor of people coming in. He might see it as strengthening his hand, and also on the basis of a belief that revolutionaries ought to be there.

What it comes down to is whether the Labour Party becomes the kind of organization that allows people on the left to organize openly. I have enough historical experience with the Labour Party to wonder whether it will, even under a left-wing leadership.

And I don't think it's possible to go in without the ability to be open as a revolutionary. Because that means deceiving people, and I think you ultimately end up deceiving yourself. We've seen many times in the past people going into reformist parties, hoping to change them and ending up being changed themselves, and accepting reformist positions.

I guess it's an open question at the moment, but the main point for me starts with this: Can you be a revolutionary without compromising or hiding your views?