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Democracy and the Labour landslide

So huge a majority on so small a vote points to the widening gulf between rulers and ruled and a deep crisis of bourgeois democracy, argues BEN CHACKO

TODAY’S march for Palestine will send an uncompromising message to Keir Starmer: there is no honeymoon for a government that backs Israel’s Gaza genocide.

Palestine was an issue at the general election. Four independent MPs have taken seats from Labour standing essentially as single-issue Palestine solidarity candidates: an equal number to the parliamentary breakthrough of the Greens on the soft left and not far behind the five taken by far-right Reform UK.

Many others came close, with Leanne Mohamad falling a few hundred short of ousting the appalling NHS privatisation fan Wes Streeting, perhaps the most frustrating result of the night. 

These breakthroughs show the cause of peace matters. They reflect, too, a fragmentation of the vote, as the gulf between what the big two parties offer and what worries ordinary people grows ever wider.

In 2017 Labour and the Tories between them took 82.3 per cent of the vote (admittedly up on preceding years). Now that’s down to 57.4 per cent. The lost votes are going in various directions: some to peace candidates, some to the Greens and Lib Dems, some to Reform UK. Overall turnout is down 7.4 per cent on 2019, so quite a lot of people have just stopped voting, too.

The first-past-the-post electoral system has given Keir Starmer a huge majority, but with fewer votes than Jeremy Corbyn won at his lowest ebb. 

The four years of “new management,” the courting of big business donations, the Establishment newspaper endorsements, have not won Labour any additional voter support at all: something even more extraordinary given the ferocious media hostility and internal sabotage Corbyn’s Labour faced, which Starmer has been spared. 

The lesson? The status quo is really unpopular in Britain. The previous party of government has now found that out with an unprecedented collapse in the Conservative vote, but the opposition’s gambit of offering no alternative to Tory economic or foreign policy demonstrates it too. Labour has managed to lose support yet win by default.

This is not new. Not many governments since 2010 have had popular mandates. 

David Cameron failed to win a majority against Gordon Brown then, cobbling a government together with the Liberal Democrats, and then proceeding to enact a vicious programme of privatisation and spending cuts that people hadn’t voted for. 

The Lib Dems, reasonably enough being blamed, gave him a small majority by collapsing in 2015 (they have only now recovered, thanks again to Tory collapse and the electoral system: they have gone from 12 to 71 seats, a 492 per cent increase, while raising their vote from 11.6 to 12.2 per cent, a 0.6 per cent increase). Theresa May lost that majority in 2017. Boris Johnson’s 2019 win was more convincing but he owed it entirely to a promise of rupture with the status quo in Brexit, and the failure to change course from zombie neoliberalism since has now led the Tories over the cliff.

Britain’s claim to be a democratic country is seriously undermined by this pattern. 

The polls that show majority support for public ownership of rail, mail, energy and water (to take just one of Starmer’s discarded promises) have actually been consistent for years, but Westminster doesn’t reflect public opinion on economic policy any more than on questions of war and peace. The electoral argument for Labour to tack to the so-called centre has always been that it wins votes: it doesn’t.

This matters beyond the socialist left, because as Labour MP Barry Gardiner warns, Labour’s majority is big but fragile. The right haven’t gone away, merely split, and a hard-right Reform UK is coming second to Labour across much of the old “red wall.” Look across Europe and the collapse of social democracy and rise of an intolerant nationalist right are stand-out political developments of recent years.

The response of states to a loss of consent to the political system — something Parliament’s Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has admitted to in Britain — has been an authoritarian one, as ruling classes seek to enforce where they cannot persuade. 

This is very marked in Britain, where the anti-system revolts of Brexit and Corbynism have provoked parallel repressive processes. 

From the dearly departed Tories a whole series of authoritarian laws restricting democratic rights, from protest to free speech to the right to strike. Other than the last, these have mostly been supported or abstained on by Keir Starmer’s Labour.

And within Labour, a purging of candidates who stand for systemic change, most famously Corbyn himself, a crackdown on democracy within the party (changing the rules around leadership elections, banning whole topics from discussion by branches) and an explicit narrowing of permissible levels of dissent, as with Starmer’s assertion that there is “no place in my Labour Party” for MPs who oppose Nato membership, for example.

The processes are linked, and on questions like Palestine solidarity — the rights to protest, what’s deemed acceptable and unacceptable speech about Israel — the two parties have sung from the same hymn sheet. What we’ve seen is a ruling-class project to protect the system (which includes the state’s ability to pursue an unpopular foreign policy) from being challenged from below.

Starmer could face the same fate as Emmanuel Macron, pursuing neoliberal orthodoxy and further undermining what remains of public tolerance for the system, until the far-right revolt already visible becomes politically dominant.

But even before that, we need to recognise that a Starmer government is likely to share the same motivation as the Starmer leadership of the opposition has done — the restoration of ruling-class authority — and that it will do so through repression of alternatives, as it has so far.

That’s because the system itself cannot satisfy public expectations. The demand for ever-greater profits by the rich cannot be squared with properly functioning public services, rising wages or action on climate change.

No realignment of centrist forces, no new branding, has resolved this contradiction anywhere. Neither Macron nor Joe Biden has managed it, though both had more ambitious economic policies than Starmer.

The only answer is to break with the orthodoxy he is trying to restore, and pursue a redistributive agenda that involves direct confrontation with capital.

To do that we must defend and extend democratic rights the state is desperate to take away. First of all, the right to demand it ends its complicity with Israel’s war as we take to the streets for Palestine.

Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.

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