When Theresa May called a snap general election at just seven weeks’ notice it came as a shock. She had insisted, since her coronation as leader following David Cameron’s accidental self-removal, that she would not call an early election and would instead steer a steady path through the Brexit negotiations until 2020.
But there are, of course, several good reasons for her to call the election now — not least, though she doesn’t mention it, the 20 point lead the Tories have had over Labour in recent polls. It is also advantageous to May to get the election in quickly before the fractious Brexit decisions have to be made — assuming the election leads to an increased Tory majority. And the Tories calculate that they could benefit from an election now, giving them time to push through further cuts in services and welfare while potentially postponing judgement from the electorate until 2022.
But a Tory landslide is not a foregone conclusion. The events of the last couple of years have demonstrated that in a period so characterised by polarisation and disillusionment with political elites we can expect the unexpected.
The Tories have so far played it safe, staying quiet and hoping to maintain their lead in the polls. Theresa May has barely been seen since the announcement. But this inertia is unlikely to continue. The right wing tabloids have already been attempting to scare Tory voters into turning out by crying about broken promises on tax rises. The fear of low turnout hurting the Tories is a real one.
For socialists the hope is that the enthusiasm that brought Jeremy Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership battles two years running — and which flowed from the real popularity of his anti-austerity, anti-racist and anti-war stance — can translate into an anti-Tory vote on 8 June.
To his great credit Corbyn has so far come out fighting. His first speech the day after May’s announcement lifted activists’ spirits as he asserted that this election is about “the establishment versus the people”. He continued, “It is a rigged system set up by the wealth extractors, for the wealth extractors.” The policies Labour has so far announced — the manifesto is set to be formally launched on 15 May — chime with workers’ anger over austerity.
These include ending privatisation of the NHS by scrapping the Private Finance Initiative and non-renewal of private contracts; reinstating bursaries for student nurses; guaranteeing the existing rights of EU nationals residing in Britain; raising corporation tax and the top rate of income tax; raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour; renationalising the railways and Royal Mail; banning fracking and investing in low carbon energy sources; building a million homes over five years.
George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, has pointed to a ComRes poll which shows how popular some of these policies are —
71 percent backed the £10 minimum wage and 62 percent supported raising the rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000.
But Corbyn is under attack from all sides. The right wing media, not surprisingly, dismiss him as an extremist. But the liberal media’s aim is squarely directed at undermining him too. In the week the election was called, The Observer devoted several pages to the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and his attempt to turn the election into a rerun of the EU referendum, while utterly ignoring Corbyn’s many and forthright policy announcements. The Guardian is full of articles and opinion columns bemoaning Corbyn’s “weak leadership” and “incompetence” and advocating tactical voting rather than straightforwardly calling for a vote for Labour to beat the Tories.
These attacks don’t spring from a media conspiracy — they originate with the Labour Party right wing.
Tony Blair is an extreme example of this. For the man who led Britain into two disastrous wars tailing George W Bush, and under whose leadership the party lost millions of votes between 1997 and 2005, to call for voters to choose any candidate who “doesn’t support hard Brexit” — even if they are a Tory — is beyond reprehensible. But he has so far been able to get away with saying this and not being disciplined.
But beyond the toxic Blair is a broader argument, often advanced by good left wingers, that Corbyn’s Labour Party can’t win and we need to look to “progressive alliances”. In practice, however, this tends to lead towards realignment — in other words, splitting from the Labour Party to form some kind of pro-EU force. This could only have the outcome of condemning Britain to Tory rule for decades to come.
There are real constraints on Corbyn and his ability to lead and to wage the election campaign on his own platform. The Labour Party machine is still in the hands of the right wing of the party. This is likely to play out in the manifesto that will be launched shortly after we go to press.
The to-ing and fro-ing over Trident renewal is an example of what this might look like. Corbyn is a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons and always, previous to his position as leader, argued for unilateral disarmament and scrapping Britain’s nuclear “deterrent”. But Labour Party policy — partly due to the influence of the Unite union which represents workers in the industry — is to renew Trident.
When on the Andrew Marr show Corbyn refused to advocate renewing Trident he was immediately attacked as a “threat to security” by the Tories — whose defence minister, Michael Fallon, was quick to reassure us all that he would not hesitate to strike first in a nuclear conflict. And Corbyn was quickly overruled by a Labour Party spokesperson confirming party policy.
Over the question of defending freedom of movement in Europe there already look to be compromises. Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, appears to have conceded the end of freedom of movement when Britain leaves the EU, with Corbyn and Diane Abbott — a stalwart anti-racist campaigner — apparently having agreed to this concession.
It is vital that the left holds fast on anti-racism, particularly as Theresa May’s campaign manager is Lynton Crosby — the man who engineered the notoriously racist (and unsuccessful) Tory Zac Goldsmith’s London mayoral campaign last year.
The local and municipal elections already set for 4 May could also impede Corbyn’s campaign. Some predictions suggest that Labour could lose 75 council seats while the Tories might gain over 100. Labour’s prospects in Scotland are particularly bleak, where the Scottish National Party is completely dominant.
Any hint of a poor showing in the local elections will be leapt upon by the right. And the Tories’ and the Labour right’s attacks on Corbyn will only increase as the general election approaches. All of this can undermine the confidence of the hundreds of thousands of people who joined Labour over the past two years in order to back Corbyn — and the millions more who want to see an alternative to the Tories.
For this reason it is clear that this election will not be won simply by Labour Party activists going door-to-door talking to individuals. Corbyn’s support is rooted in a deeper and broader rejection of neoliberal austerity — the same feeling that delivered 7 million votes for socialist Jean Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential election or that inspired tens of thousands of Bernie Sanders activists in the primaries for the Democratic presidential nomination.
For the next month socialists and activists who want to see Corbyn win — whether members of the Labour Party or not — need to create the atmosphere on the streets and in the workplaces and colleges that shows we can fight and we can change things. We can defend our European colleagues from post-Brexit uncertainty; we can build a movement to save the NHS locally and nationally; we can challenge racism wherever it rears its head and fight to keep it out of the election campaign.
The next few weeks are an opportunity to get out and build the movement against Tory austerity — and this will strengthen Corbyn’s campaign. So it is unfortunate that some unions have argued that anti-cuts demonstrations or protests in the next few weeks would be a distraction from the election campaign, instead encouraging members to use their time canvassing for Labour.
Corbyn can win because we live in a world in which eight people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population and he represents an alternative to that.
Tory cuts mean that spending on local government services in England has fallen by £3 billion in the past five years, and it is the most deprived areas that have been the hardest hit, some facing an overall drop of 20 percent or more in spending. Some 3 million children in Britain risk going hungry in the school holidays when they don’t have school dinners, according to a new report.
This is the world that the Tories have built — and it’s one that millions reject.
The weeks running up to 8 June are an opportunity to shout socialist ideas from every street corner and have political debates in every workplace. They are an opportunity to kick the Tories out — or at the very least to kick them.
This election doesn’t only have two outcomes — Corbyn wins or loses. There is the possibility that Theresa May increases her majority but only by a small amount, quite likely if turnout is low. This might mean a number of new Tory MPs who feel they owe their seats to UKIP or Lib Dem voters and won’t necessarily be loyal during votes on any future Brexit deal.
If Corbyn loses by a small margin, will the Labour right attempt to get rid of him anyway? Even if they do this won’t solve the long term erosion that the Labour Party faces. As Polly Toynbee admitted in a mournful piece in the Guardian, “deep dislike of Labour long pre-dates Corbyn”.
And if Corbyn wins his troubles will only just be beginning. One look at the experience of the left wing Syriza government in Greece in 2014-15 is a clear warning that what happens in parliament is not the decisive factor. This is another reason that fighting this election in the streets, workplaces and colleges is crucial — because Corbyn won’t be likely to win if there isn’t a confident movement on the ground; but also because if he does win, it will be the strength of the movement outside parliament which will decide whether real change happens.
A Corbyn victory would be a huge boost to the idea that there is an alternative to austerity and racism. With the rise of Le Pen in France, Trump’s victory in the US and the interpretation of the Leave vote in the EU referendum which sees it as wholly racist, there is a tendency to see only a shift to the right in society. It is crucial to emphasise the polarisation that actually characterises this period. For every Trump there is a Sanders; for every Le Pen there is a Mélenchon. In Britain the figurehead for the anti-establishment left wing mood is Jeremy Corbyn.
We must take the opportunity of this election campaign to go all out building the anti-Tory mood on the streets. Let’s make June the end of May.
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