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The left will only meet the challenge of Covid-19 if it learns the right lessons from recent defeats

THE devastating reality of the coronavirus pandemic has inspired demands that we don’t settle for a return to “normal” afterwards but build a better future.

The British state has been particularly ineffective in containing infections and deaths, both because of political blunders but also down to years of cuts, a marketised public service model which is inept at responding to emergencies and wilful irresponsibility by Conservative governments — infamously ignoring the findings of 2016’s pandemic drill Exercise Cygnus, for example.

Socialists have long-standing criticisms of these policies and calls for big increases in public spending and a return to straightforward public ownership and control of services including the NHS but also transport, communications and supply, utilities and so on were popular before this crisis and will be amplified by it.

Thanks to work done by Labour’s shadow team and advisers during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, detailed and costed blueprints for much of this agenda already exist.

The government’s forced intervention in the economy, combined with debacles such as the apparent communications meltdown over the manufacture and purchase of personal protective equipment, validates deeper criticisms of the globalised market model.

The fact that domestic manufacturing capacity is a strategic asset is not news to unions like Unite, which has repeatedly warned ministers that refusing to act to save industries threatened by market volatility risks a permanent loss of skills and assets.

The case for a planned “green industrial revolution” — again as mapped out to some extent in recent Labour manifestos — is compelling.

Campaigners who have found their calls for action on climate change frustrated by governments’ refusal to contemplate serious restructuring of the economy can now argue that radical interventions in the market are possible and that major changes in lifestyle can enjoy wide consent if the reasons for them are generally accepted.

The viability of far more home working and the need for all families to have access to green open spaces are just two aspects of the current crisis our movement must take up.

It’s quite easy for the left to look over a list of what has gone wrong in recent months and think: “We warned about that.”

It’s not too great a leap from that to the politics of “I told you so” and the sadly common social media refrain “Thanks, Tory voters” in response to mounting evidence of capitalist injustices.

But if this is a time for society to reflect on its priorities and mistakes, that applies to the labour movement as well.

If the British state went into this crisis in no shape to tackle it, the left went in in even worse condition — bruised and battered from a humiliating election defeat, despite having the only coherent response to the crises of capitalism from the bankers’ crash onwards.

The ruling class staggered under the successive impact of the collapse of the financial system, the popular vote to leave the European Union and the return of socialism as a significant political force.

From 2016-19 it seemed to have lost control of both Britain’s main political parties. 

Parliament stood paralysed by the contradiction between its public mandate (to deliver our exit from the EU) and the loyalty of most of its members to capitalist globalisation, a process represented across most of Europe by the EU.

Attempts to rally public support behind a return to the pre- crash status quo, via the Liberal Democrats or Change UK, were miserable failures.

And yet the left was still unable to secure electoral victory. Why?

A popular answer will be treachery. As commentators such as Justin Schlosberg have pointed out, the near total silence of the mass media over the leaked Labour report on internal sabotage of the Jeremy Corbyn leadership is damning evidence of the partisan and downright dishonest character of our main newspapers and broadcasters, who devoted acres of coverage to internal Labour factionalism when it could be used to harm the left.

I wouldn’t want to downplay the significance of the leaked report. The hostility of the Labour “machine” to Corbyn’s leadership was well known, but the indisputable evidence contained in emails and WhatsApp messages of vile abuse directed at Corbyn-supporting MPs, staff and activists, the deliberate obstruction of the leadership’s attempts to do anything — including when it came to tackling complaints of anti-semitism — and the casual purging and persecution of party members is still an object lesson in the ruthlessness of the right.

And for many the most shocking revelation of all was that senior Labour officials had worked to lose the 2017 election.

Again, some of what we now know could be guessed at before the leak. A number of Labour candidates who came within a whisker of election in 2017 complained at the time that their campaigns were given no central assistance or resources, or even faced active obstruction.

The fact that Momentum did more than the party itself to mobilise activists to marginal seats was a major talking point of the summer.

But there is a difference between a lack of enthusiasm and actually working for defeat. The bitterness of activists who invested so much time and energy in a Labour victory is entirely justified.

That has led to claims that 2017 was a “stolen” election. One statistic — that Corbyn was just 2,227 votes away from forming a government — has gained wide currency.

Distributed in the right constituencies, these extra votes could have put Labour in a position to muster a majority, if smaller parties had co-operated.

But the claim is still misleading: the Tories’ 13,636,684 votes in 2017 were 758,224 more than Labour’s 12,878,460. And the idea that Corbyn could have formed a minority government and enacted Labour’s manifesto is only plausible if you ignore the politics of the leaked report and most of the last five years.

Corbyn did not face internal sabotage, multiple revolts by MPs and wall-to-wall character assassination because of some inexplicable plot by shadowy forces, but because he represented a real break with the system, a system to which most MPs, Labour HQ and the British media establishment are committed.

This would have proved a huge barrier to his forming a minority government. As for such a government delivering on his manifesto, it would have faced all the attacks from Parliament and the press we saw anyway, and active obstruction by the institutions of the British state that would have proved far more serious than anything done inside the party HQ.

The lesson of 2017 is not that victory was snatched from our grasp but that we almost won despite the tremendous forces ranged against us, which included much of Labour’s own hierarchy.

The left had real cause for celebration that year. It was an example of what a mass people-powered movement can achieve, a victory for democracy against the oligarchy that calls the shots and shapes the narrative in British politics.

That’s why the left — and Corbyn himself — emerged enormously strengthened from the 2017 election. The key to the left’s defeat in Labour is not to be found there but in what changed between 2017 and 2019.

Treachery continued to play a big part in those years. Anti-Corbyn media frenzies and savage attacks on him and his allies were as common as they were savage and unfair. But given what the movement Corbyn led represented, this was to be expected.

Did the left do enough to fight back against the blows rained on it? The answer is clearly no, and many Labour figures from MPs through staff to ordinary members have good cause to be bitter about the lack of solidarity shown them when they were targeted by the right and the press.

In addition, Corbyn’s seemingly miraculous victories against the odds in 2015, 2016 and 2017 encouraged a reluctance to see the hard work of democratising party structures or candidate selections as necessary.

MPs who opposed any discussion of these matters as “navel-gazing” had an obvious motive, but also spoke to a truth.

The failure to change the nature of the Labour Party and particularly the make-up of the parliamentary party were problems and would have become bigger problems had Corbyn ever formed a government. But they did not lose the 2019 election.

The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott has previously observed that the left, unlike the right, seems incapable of detecting opportunity in a crisis.

He repeatedly warned that, just as the 2008 crash was a crisis of capitalism that the right turned into an argument for further privatisation and cuts, Brexit threatened to be another crisis for the ruling class that the left succeeded in turning into an own goal.

As Labour approached the 2019 election it increasingly failed to be “as radical as reality itself” — reacting, with increasing distaste, to the Brexit vote rather than fighting to realise it and shape its consequences; as complicit as the Tories in parliamentary paralysis; championing unelected judges and Britain’s so-called constitution to the point where the party of the organised working class was calling on the Prime Minister to apologise to the Queen and protesting furiously that the outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons wasn’t getting his customary seat in the Lords.

The assessment of MPs such as Richard Burgon and John McDonnell on election night, soon thereafter endorsed by Corbyn and in line with warnings well before the election from Ian Lavery, Laura Smith and others, that Labour lost the election over Brexit above all, remains true, not so much because of the content of the Brexit question itself but because resistance to it was identified (often correctly) with support for the status quo and contempt for large sections of the working class.

The left’s failure to resist the co-option of the Corbyn project by an entirely different and actually antagonistic project, the second referendum campaign, revealed an inability to distinguish between socialist and liberal causes.

Few even on the Labour left drew the connections between support for the EU and for the international capitalist order it champions.

The socialist left has a big task in reviving a largely lost culture of political education among activists, one which must also address the common tendency in Labour especially to replace political argument with a call-out culture based on identifying and denouncing heretical positions.

The leadership of Keir Starmer, the figure most heavily implicated in the “continuity Remain” campaign’s takeover of the party, carries the obvious risk that Labour will double down on the policies that lost it the election while the right succeed in driving the socialist content of two manifestos off the agenda.

That would be a tragedy when the case for a radical overhaul of our economic system is being made every day by the Covid-19 crisis, and when an upsurge in trade union and community organising to protect people could be turned into a powerful movement for change.

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