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We need a return to class and class organisation

In the wake of a devastating electoral loss, the labour movement has to put its own radical position as part of common struggles, not write off vast swathes of people and whole towns as reactionaries, says KEVIN OVENDEN

ON THE steps of Downing Street the morning after the election Boris Johnson thanked those voters in the Midlands and north of England who he said had “lent” him their votes.

It was painful for any Labour supporter to hear. It was also a major admission by Johnson that indicates one side of the dilemma his government is going to face despite its large majority.

That this was the Brexit election is nearly universally acknowledged. The Tories picked up Labour Leave voters in strongly Leave towns and constituencies. Labour additionally lost votes to abstention. 

The Tories also appear to have gained some of those Remain voters who believed that the referendum result should be respected and that it was time after three-and-a-half years to “get Brexit done.” Many outgoing MPs in Leave constituencies have said for two years that this was a strong sentiment.

The continuity-Remain operation that has been so disastrous for the Labour Party (the aim of those running People’s Vote) never spoke for most Remain voters.

Labour’s Richard Burgon put it succinctly: the Labour Party as a whole underestimated the desire of those who voted Leave actually to leave.

At the European elections in May, many used a vote for the Brexit Party to make their point. Last week enough of them in the right (wrong) places used a vote for the Tories.

Some rather baroque statistical conjectures purporting to show that Labour was not Remain enough have to ignore reality. 

There is what voters told surveyors immediately after voting about whom they had switched from and to. 

More importantly, continuity-Remain have to disregard what Labour activists on the ground in those lost seats are saying.

Of course it was not only about Brexit. But Brexit became about more than “Brexit.” It was, and became more strongly, about exactly the disregard that became an insult.

The failure to carry out the result of the referendum, with various QCs’ antics in the highest courts in Edinburgh and London, became a leitmotif for many millions of being ignored, patronised and having their democratic choice taken away from them. 

That was coupled with nothing short of disdain from liberal commentators and, sadly, parts of the labour movement.

Brexit also became a totem of change. In 2017 Labour’s policy of implementing the referendum meant it could be seen as a vehicle for real change. The abandonment of that in favour of an essentially Remain position did two things.

It meant the Leave/Remain divide continued and that Johnson could perversely position himself as the instrument to change at least some things. He could get Brexit done. And whatever you think about that it is undeniably a change from the last two-and-a-half years.

Even in 2017 the warning signs were there. That was despite Jeremy Corbyn winning seats and bucking the trend of Labour losing MPs at every election since 1997. Still, Labour lost Mansfield and four similar seats.

Theresa May had hoped to do what Johnson did achieve last week. That is to exploit a long-term decline of Labour support in the ex-industrial, ex-mill towns through a policy of National Conservatism delivering on at least one thing that a majority voted for in a referendum with the highest turnout since 1992.

Johnson’s strategy is not dissimilar to that pushed by May’s former adviser Nick Timothy — though it should be remembered that supreme in any Boris Johnson strategy is Boris Johnson.

That brings us back to the “lent votes,” the problems facing the government and how the labour movement is to win. 

Much as the Tories and Tony Blair are seeking to whip up a kind of counter-revolutionary frenzy, Labour got 10.5 million votes under its most left-wing leader ever and on the most left manifesto for over 30 years.

And those working people who abandoned Labour in this Brexit election have not moved to embrace the Thatcherite free-market politics of the hard Tory Brexiters.

Both of those facts are potential sources of problems and crises for the Johnson government.

The yearning for an end to the baleful consequences of neoliberal capitalism and austerity is as strong now as it was in 2017. So is the desire by working people to get back some control of their lives, a sentiment tapped by the Leave campaign’s omnibus slogan in 2016.

They find the palest of reflections in Johnson’s election campaign and programme for government. 

There is a modest shift in public spending. It is nowhere near enough — not so much from the standpoint of socialist policy, but from that of the mass of people it is designed to placate.

School cuts will continue. The limited extra health spending comes with more privatisation. An impeccably orthodox central banker has just been appointed governor the Bank of England. The Treasury imposed on Johnson’s ministers the limit of a balancing of the budget in three years.

The promise to increase the minimum wage to over £10 an hour has melted to “when circumstances allow.” Earlier concessions on workers’ rights have gone from the withdrawal agreement for exiting the EU. And there is going to be a major assault on trade unions.

If the aim is to turn the Tories’ parliamentary majority into a fundamental political realignment, cementing a larger share of working-class voters and turning the party into something closer to the national conservative Law and Justice party in Poland, then there is an enormous gap.

It is most apparent in the welfare system, which the Polish government has expanded, and in the lack of any grand policy to address the cocktail of problems facing working people, notably in the towns that the Tories have just won. From transport to housing and chronically low pay Labour’s manifesto sought to speak to those.

The blight on many people’s lives remains under Johnson. The cost to capital of ending it means he cannot do much more than gimmicks — and this is with global recession looming. He floated a big gimmick this week of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The politics of suggesting a mega garden bridge are obvious: to answer the existential crises that are coming for the British state from the Irish and Scottish questions. 

Not only will it not do that, Francois Mitterrand found out to his cost that grand infrastructure schemes that filled the coffers of private contractors left working-class and small-town France cold.

Capital predictably rallied to the Tories during the election campaign, despite being deeply at odds with the hard Brexiters. The pound shot up the morning after the election.

It lost those gains the day Johnson scotched ruling-class hopes that his big majority would lead him to dump the Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world and pursue negotiations with the EU along the lines that the City of London would like.

The dilemma for capital in Britain over lacking a reliable political instrument remains, even though the Establishment has resolved for now the disabling parliamentary crisis. 

That is why the Establishment intervention in the Labour Party to reclaim it from the left leadership is going to become much more ferocious.

But this is Johnson’s dilemma also: trying to cement a National Conservative majority cannot be done just by nationalist rhetoric or a slew of authoritarian policies on law and order and plenty of xenophobia.  

The thin promises to working Britain clash with the need to rule for capital, and not only on Brexit. 

He has already had to ditch a cut in corporation tax to cover the cosmetic spending on health and education. 

The ultra-Thatcherites are desperate for 1980s-style tax cuts, and big business would also like to see them, as pre-tax profits are heading downwards.

This is the looming contradiction that the labour movement can and must exploit. But it requires a major reorientation and the heading off of both demoralisation and false prescriptions.

There will be no knife-edge votes in Parliament and that cannot be the focus. That has to be instead encouraging the real struggles of working people in communities and workplaces that clash with this government and the employers and landlords it governs for.

That standpoint has to inform the response to all the political questions. If Labour for the next 12 months hankers for staying in the EU or becomes a ventriloquist’s dummy for what the City wants as a future relationship with Europe, then it could really collapse. Brexit is happening — we want a Brexit for working people.

The labour movement has to put its own radical position not as an electoral offer to working people but in the course of common struggles that do not write off as reactionaries vast swathes of people and whole towns.

It means a return to class and class organisation. There are some backward-looking culture war polarisations about what that means.

As someone once said, the truth is concrete. Postal workers are in a “traditional” occupation. They face the imposition of Amazon-style working conditions — those of the so-called “new working class” — and are engaged in a pivotal dispute. 

A few weeks ago postal workers in Bootle walked out in support of a colleague subjected to anti-Muslim bullying by management. 

That is what the working class means. That is what the left should turn to — in Hartlepool and Hackney. And on that basis to give the big answer to Johnson’s government and to all the national political questions.

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