Articles  •  Britain

The Labour defeat that never was

12 May 2016

By Dave Stockton

The press reported David Cameron as jubilant – can he do anything else beyond jubilating?

On the morning after the 5 May elections, it became clear that their results were a disappointment to a wide spectrum of politicians, journalists and assorted “think tanks”; indeed to all of those who had already written their stories as a “Dismal Night for Jeremy Corbyn”. Only ITN News managed to blurt this out. The rest had to think again.

Of course the Tories can indeed boast of their “recovery” in Scotland, and jeer at another severe discomfiture for Labour. Scottish Conservatives won 31 seats in the Scottish Parliament, up from 15 in 2011. Meanwhile once-Red Clydeside is now totally tartan, as Labour lost its last remaining seats in Glasgow (Glasgow Pollok and Glasgow Maryhill & Springburn). In all Labour slumped from 37 to 24 MSPs at Holyrood.

In Wales Labour did better, but still lost overall control of the Welsh Assembly, and lost Rhondda to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. This has caused a constitutional crisis, since Plaid nominated its leader for the post of First Minister, and with the backing of the Tories and UKIP were able to tie the vote 29 to 29.

But none of these losses can be attributed to Jeremy Corbyn, given that Labour’s Scottish and Welsh leaders Kezia Dugdale and Carwyn Jones are openly cool towards Corbyn, and have allowed the nationalists to steal Labour’s anti-austerity rhetoric, if not its policies. Only a credible turn to the left and some fresh left-wing faces at the top in both countries can stand a chance of recovering Labour’s lost heartlands – heartlands lost on the watch of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.

However apart from Scotland the Tories had few reasons to cheer, making only one net gain in seats in the English local council elections, with Labour losing only 18 seats more seats than it lost and holding onto 58 councils against the Tories’ 38. And this despite the fact that Labour’s victories in 2012 were a record high, and despite the Tories’ shock general election victory barely a year ago. Indeed Labour in 2016 held onto key southern towns and cities like Exeter, Southampton, Crawley and Slough – places supposed to have been alienated by the party’s new left leadership.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell stated “All across England last night we were getting predictions that we were going to lose councils. We didn’t. We hung on and we grew support in a lot of places”.

The Tories’ Islamophobic dog-whistling in London

The Tories are desperately trying to play down their trouncing in London, after their foul racist campaign against Sadiq Khan, claiming he consorted with Muslim fundamentalists and radicals.

Indeed the Tories’ desperation was exposed by the fact that, despite the revelation that the “dangerous radical” imam Suliman Gani that they blamed Sadiq Khan for meeting had also met Zac Goldsmith (and moreover had campaigned for the Tories), and despite the fact that the “dangerous terrorist” Babar Ahmad who extradition Sadiq Khan had opposed had also been defended by Zac Goldsmith, the Tories carried on with this campaign message regardless.

Goldsmith obviously thought he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, and replied to Sadiq Khan’s criticism of his tactics as follows:

“I think he is playing with fire. The questions are genuine, they are serious. They are about his willingness to share platforms with people who want to ‘drown every Israeli Jew in the sea’. […] It’s about his career before being an MP, coaching people in how to sue the police. […] The reality is the vast majority of Muslims don’t share platforms with terrorism, they don’t give oxygen to terrorists and they don’t apologise for or excuse extreme language either.”

In addition Goldsmith wrote an article for The Mail on Sunday, illustrated with a picture from the 7/7 bombings in 2005, headlined: “On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world’s greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists is its friends?”

No wonder even prominent Tories expressed their repugnance at these tactics. Yet David Cameron supported them to the hilt; and George Osborne referred to them as just “rough and tumble”.

Sadiq won a record victory too, despite the deafening media hue and cry in the last week before polling day, about the supposed existence of a serious problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party. This campaign was aided by Labour’s own right-wingers like John Mann MP and assorted Progress types and, alas, was also abetted by Sadiq Khan himself, opining that Corbyn had not acted quickly enough and that the furore would harm his chances of winning.

Fortunately Londoners shrugged off this entire poisonous demagogy and voted on the issues and on class instinct. Indeed turnout a was record high in the London mayoral elections as voters rallied to Sadiq, giving him 56.9 per cent of the total votes, 1,536,146 of first and redistributed second preferences. Zac Goldsmith got 43.2 per cent with 1,159,000 votes.

Sadiq Khan’s “big tent”

However Sadiq, while denying that he wants to make City Hall an alternative power base to Corbyn at Westminster, has signalled his preference for the ancien régime of the Blair years by going straight for the strategy of “triangulation”, of taking your own voting base and their wishes for granted and appealing to the Tory values of those who voted against you.

Thus he criticized Labour posters that urged voters to “take sides”, something that one might have thought was pretty obvious piece of advice in an election. In The Observer, Khan contradicted Corbyn’s electoral strategy, saying: “My slogan was ‘A Mayor for all Londoners’. It should never be about ‘picking sides’, a ‘them or us’ attitude, or a having a political strategy to target just enough of the population to get over the line. Our aim should be to unite people from all backgrounds as a broad and welcoming tent – not to divide and rule.”

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he said: “My point was I want Labour to be a big tent, and if we want to form the next government we need to speak to everyone, not just Labour voters, not just our core vote. I have to speak to chief executives, people who voted Conservative last time, Ukip or stayed at home.”

A big tent? More like a circus tent. Sadiq doesn’t get it that people all over the world are rejecting the corrupted and degrading politics of triangulation and neoliberal consensus and going for radical solutions to the radical problems they face.

In his post-elections speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), Jeremy Corbyn emphasised that Labour won all the mayoral elections (making gains in two of them), held seats in two Westminster by-elections, made three net gains in Police and Crime Commissioner elections and held onto councils across the south of England. But he admitted:

“The results were mixed. We are not yet doing enough to win in 2020. This is only the first stage in our task of building a winning electoral majority, attracting voters from all the other parties and mobilising those who have been turned off politics altogether as we did last week in Bristol and London. But overall we have moved in the right direction and now we have to build on these results.”

To this end he warned MPs to “reflect on the impact of what we do and say here on the public outside, across the country. […] Members also tell me that they don’t think Labour MPs should be parading on the media to give a running commentary on our party. If we are on the media we are there to give our verdict on this failed and divisive government, not on each other.”

Labour right’s coup-plotting thwarted – for now

It now seems that all the talk of a challenge to Corbyn for the party leadership this summer or autumn has faded away for the time being. The more astute (and therefore more dangerous) figures on the Labour right realise that such a challenge would enrage the membership, who would inflict a thumping defeat on any “stalking horse” who dared to enter the race. Sadly for them, they failed to get their Labour electoral disaster, despite some of them doing all they could to court it.

But the left cannot afford to bide their time and rely on appeals to the bulk of the PLP or to the London Mayor to be loyal and concentrate on fighting the Tories. That said, they certainly should demand loyalty from their elected representatives, and Party members should exert the maximum pressure on them through frank and open criticism and replies to the right-wing MPs’ public carping in the Tory rags like the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. Turning the other cheek is just asking for one slap in the face after another.

What the supporters of Corbyn and MacDonnell need to do is to change official Labour Party policy to fit the anti-austerity message embodied in the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, a message of defiance not just in words but in action aimed at this tottering Tory government, with policies for a future government that could be nearer at hand than the “commentariat” feel ready to admit.

This message needs to be fleshed out into manifestos on a whole series of areas (for example the National Education Service that Corbyn talked about), just like the Labour Party used to before 1945. Then we must demand campaigning for these policies on the streets, on the doorsteps and in the workplaces. The trade unions need to pile in with all their resources and their mass memberships. If we do this, then the right wing will not just have to “put up or shut up” as John McDonnell said, but ship out if they won’t carry out the democratically agreed decisions of the Party membership.

Defeating the Tories in 2020 – or earlier – demands that the Party maintains its course to the left, and that the left in the Party takes responsibility for steering this course.

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