On the surface, recent by-elections and polls seem to back up the Labour right’s mantra that the left can’t win elections.
Even some Jeremy Corbyn supporters now say Labour is doomed to permanent opposition unless it ditches the “hard left”.
The reality is much more complicated. Moving right would do Labour—and working class people it claims to represent—more harm than good. The left’s present strategy is failing, but not through being too left wing.
Left wing ideas are presented as “out of touch”. Yet the last social attitudes survey found support for welfare rising and support for austerity plummeting.
While polls show many people support harsher immigration controls in an abstract sense, they oppose them in concrete cases.
Some 61 percent of people opposed the recent deportation of Irene Clennell, a YouGov poll found, and just 17 percent supported it.
A party’s vote depends on many factors.
Labour was wiped out in Scotland in 2015 but not in England and Wales, despite having largely the same political direction.
Corbyn’s troubles follow the pattern of the 1930s and 1980s. The right has tended to dominate Labour. The left has generally only taken the leadership after disasters that shook the right’s authority—and the party’s reputation.
So Labour’s most left wing leaders have had to grapple with the fallout from the worst right wing Labour governments.
The Labour right benefits from history it doesn’t create.
For instance, Labour’s landslide 1997 victory came despite Tony Blair, not because of him. Tory attacks on workers had provoked hatred.
Divisions and conflicting interests in society can’t be papered over indefinitely
Some of the biggest swings to Labour were in constituencies that had seen big protest movements—such as against education cuts in Warwick and Leamington Spa.
Labour’s pandering to big business, soft Tory voters and the right wing media weakened the party’s core vote.
This neglect would come back to haunt Labour. The 1997 election saw turnout reach a record low—and then under Blair’s governments it fell further.
The Labour vote also fell in large parts of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield and Nottingham, and stagnated across inner London.
Blair and his imitators today count on “triangulation”—offering something to everyone, but not too much to anyone.
But divisions and conflicting interests in society can’t be papered over indefinitely.
So why is Corbyn’s Labour behind in the polls? One big issue is the constant sniping and undermining from the right. The image of disunity and civil war is harmful,
If people do think Labour under Corbyn isn’t credible, they are only believing what most Labour MPs have spent the last two years telling them.
Another problem is that powerful forces are against those who seek to change the system.
Most of the media have waged a vicious campaign to undermine Corbyn. So has most of the Labour Party machine.
And when the left wins office the opposition from the ruling class will be vicious.
The European Union and the banks waged economic warfare in 2015 to stop Greek left party Syriza implementing even a fraction of its watered down programme.
The hint by an anonymous general after Corbyn became leader that a military coup could stop him becoming prime minister is an even starker warning.
But pointing to these obstacles isn’t enough. Any left challenge will come up against them. The left needs a strategy to overcome them or it is admitting failure in advance.
YouGov pollster Laurence Janta-Lipinski commissioned a survey last October. He asked people who said they didn’t trust Labour to choose from a list of reasons for why that was.
His sample by definition was disproportionately full of right wingers.
Yet the top option, chosen by 46 percent, was a “weak leader”.
That’s hardly about being too left wing. Corbyn looks weakest when Labour acts against principles he has campaigned on, either because MPs defy him or because he compromises.
Like previous left wing leaders, Corbyn and his allies have met attacks with calls for “unity”.
Both of last month’s by-elections saw Labour’s vote share decline. Right wing candidates ran right wing campaigns—with the left’s support.
Once you accept that Labour campaigns must “convincingly” support nuclear power or immigration controls, any figure with anti-nuclear or pro-immigration views seems a liability.
But that doesn’t undermine right wing parties, it pushes people toward them.
If immigration is a problem, why not vote for parties promising to “get tough” on it? If nuclear power is necessary for jobs, why not vote for Tories with no links to environmentalism?
Concessions weaken arguments that immigration isn’t a problem and that jobs can be protected in a transition to sustainable energy.
One of the most galling polls concerns the NHS. It is reeling under Tory attack. All wings of Labour make it a campaign priority. Yet apparently May is more trusted with it than Corbyn.
Labour can’t win the easier arguments while it dodges the harder ones.
If it was true that immigration caused the NHS crisis, May’s racist clampdown on immigrants would be an effective response.
It’s a lie, of course. But most of the Labour left has decided to say immigration puts pressure on services.
Many people correctly blame Tory cuts. But it doesn’t follow that they trust Labour. People don’t just vote according to what they want, but what they think is possible.
One mainstream description of this is the “Overton window”. It’s a range of positions that seem acceptable, with those outside it appearing unrealistic and “radical”.
Most Labour activists want to win a better world and see electing a Labour government as the way to do it. But if that means conceding to the rotten policies of the right it defeats the object
But this isn’t static.Corbyn’s “hard left” policies seemed normal inside the Labour party when he first became an MP in 1983. Now they are regarded as very left wing.
The issue is how the left can shape people’s views. It requires a bold vision of change to excite and motivate people, and organisation and politics that makes change seem possible.
The left makes a mistake when it endlessly compromises with the right.
By playing down its socialist principles it makes them seem embarrassingly “extreme”, sapping its own credibility.
The pain and uncertainty of austerity and capitalist crisis raise big questions that meek policies can’t answer. Big questions demand bold answers.
If people march together they feel part of something bigger, with shared interests and an ability to fight for them.
If workers strike they experience power where bosses usually lord it over them. The relationship between such movements and votes isn’t straightforward.
Some huge struggles were provoked by Labour governments’ attacks—from the 1978-9 “winter of discontent” to protests against the Iraq war.
These obviously didn’t help Labour.
And people fighting for themselves can be unimpressed by cowardly politicians. Why would striking miners in 1984-5 trust Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader who refused to back them?
The pattern is often for Labour-type parties to gain from movements in their decline.
But only such struggles can shift the political terrain decisively leftwards. And crucially, they represent a potential for workers to do themselves what no government can do for them.
Most Labour activists want to win a better world and see electing a Labour government as the way to do it.
But if that means conceding to the rotten policies of the right it defeats the object.
There is an alternative. Syriza capitulated to its enemies’ blackmail. But successful resistance could have come through the struggles on which Syriza had poured cold water to seek credibility on its enemies’ terms.
Without a serious shift towards building mass opposition to austerity and racism, Corbyn and his allies could end up being removed.
Mass revolts can’t just be conjured up. But imagine if Labour had mobilised all its MPs and its vast membership on last Saturday’s demonstration.
Imagine if Labour councils refused to make cuts, or if constituency offices organised to support strikes.
Power in society runs far deeper than the ballot box and the pollsters swarming around it.
Corbyn’s hope lies in being bolder, not moving rightwards.