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Eyes Left What kind of a parliament and government have we just elected?

ANDREW MURRAY looks at Labour's shifting fortunes, the left as it stands in the new parliament and the likely character of the Starmer government

A post-election article by former Tory cabinet minister Justine Greening caught Eyes Left’s eye.

She congratulated Keir Starmer for his feat in bringing Labour back from the fringe to the mainstream.

There’s a primer in bourgeois politics.  Forty per cent support for a radical programme equals “fringe.”

Seven per cent less on a centrist no-change platform is “mainstream.”

So we have indeed a “Labour government of a new type.”

Its novelty is that it is apparently unwanted by most of the country.

A Labour Party that got half a million fewer votes than it did going down to what was often described in the media as “the worst result in history” in 2019 and three million less than 2017’s peak Corbynism.

A Labour Party that cannot any longer even win a majority of the votes in Rhondda, for God’s sake.

A government that is buoyed by none of the enthusiasm of Blair in 1997 but is instead mandated by the approval of the establishment and the British state.

How do you get into Downing Street while losing half of your personal constituency vote? You have the City, Washington, Murdoch, “the great and good” all rooting for you. That’s mainstream.

Nothing more fringe – and alarming – than mass support.

Those forces turned to Labour because it is safe, and the system needs new management.

It bears repeating here that Labour won more than 40 per cent of the popular vote in all eight general elections from 1945 to 1970, but has done so only three times in the 14 elections since.

Its success last week is built on two things only – a first-past-the-post system that could be passed off as workable only in the days when nearly everyone voted Labour or Tory but that is now an anachronism. 

And sand.

We have a Labour government resurgent as the Labour Party appears to fade away.

But – a parliament unlike any seen in our lifetimes either, with nine candidates in England winning on a left-of-Labour prospectus.

The total elected at the 21 preceding general elections since the war? Three – two Communists in 1945 and George Galloway in 2005.

We may look enviously across the channel at the New Popular Front of the far left, Communists, socialists and Greens together winning a plurality in the French Assembly.

Here we are starting from a different place. The national-populist threat is emerging, but is not matured. And the left is structurally divided along different lines.

Still, three strands of left-wing resistance can be identified in the new House of Commons.

First, there is the left of the Labour Party, slightly smaller than in the last parliament, and definitely shrivelled as a proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Can it get its act together? One leading left MP told me after the election was called that he felt he had “wasted the last five years of his life.”

Indeed, the Labour left almost disappeared into irrelevance during the last parliament. Once it had acquiesced, however unhappily, in the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn in October 2020, it was on the back foot, cowed and mute.

It did rediscover its principles and voice over the Gaza war, genocide trumping fear of the whips. Like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, it may yet learn to roar.

Certainly, it should be able to carve out a distinctive position.

There are several issues on which the government is immediately vulnerable to pressure: the two-child benefit cap; the nationalisation of Thames Water and banning arms sales to Israel while pushing to recognise a Palestinian state are all examples where allies could be found both outside the PLP and deep within it.

From there, it could incrementally develop a more ambitious critique. The Labour left will need to take more risks than it is maybe comfortable with if it is to re-emerge as a political force, but the election results should embolden them.

It will clearly now have dawned on Morgan McSweeney that Labour cannot take its left flank for granted. The votes speak for themselves. 

Threats to the Labour left as the whips did in the last parliament would be a callable bluff. There are other places to go if needs be.

Second, the newly elected pro-Gaza independents. We can here include Jeremy Corbyn who, although his victory was clearly powered by special factors and a national left mobilisation, shares their agenda and, indeed, broadens their appeal.

Their election – and their number could easily have been doubled – was one of the big stories of the election. The mass movement for Gaza has had a direct read-over in terms of parliamentary impact in a way which has few precedents.

By the time this is read, they will have met together for the first time to concert strategy. To make an impact in the Commons they will need to work not just with each other, but with the Greens and the Labour left.

And to turn their wins into an enduring political force – not to mention secure their own eventual re-election – they will need to develop a clear brand and national structure that is consistent with their original community-rooted independence but can provide essential political and financial advantages.

Doubtless, they are a heterogeneous force.  But they have two overriding qualities. Their presence in the Commons is directly due to mass politics, and it is based on an implicit understanding of the barbarity of the British state, which has enabled and sustained the Gaza genocide.

Third, the Greens. They have a recognised identity, a national organisation, activists everywhere and a claim on the outlook of many 2017 Corbynistas, more than doubling their 2019 vote.

Across much of the country, a Green vote was the only way to express fidelity to the spirit of the radicalism of Labour’s last two manifestos.

The Greens appeal particularly, but not exclusively, to the younger metropolitan wing of the Corbyn coalition. Many Muslims were quite ready to vote Green too, although the commitment of their candidates to the Gaza cause seemed to vary. And, of course, they won two Tory seats.

Whether they are ready to talk alliances with socialists and anti-imperialists may be presently unlikely – but they ought to be, in the French spirit.

You may add to this array the newly strengthened Plaid Cymru parliamentary group too.

If this collection of forces maintains a close connection with the mass movements outside, first of all the Palestine solidarity movement, and if it is buttressed by a new militant trade unionism – Sharon Graham’s pledge to be “a pain in the proverbial” to the Starmer government is welcome – then there is our own united front in outline.

Its prospects depend somewhat on which kind of Starmer government shows up. It will not be a government of the left for sure.

“A return to centrist sobriety” the Financial Times crowed at the weekend. But there are two types available.

One is Macronism, after the French President. It leans heavily towards neoliberalism and favouring the wealthy, with a bit of technocratic flash. In today’s Labour, it is the preference of Peter Mandelson, Wes Streeting and undead Blairism.

Then there is Bidenism – more interventionist, more at ease with “working people” rhetoric. That is where one might place Angela Rayner and Ed Miliband, for example.

Maybe think Blair and Brown – united on essentials, but differences of emphasis and policy detail.

Neither offer any serious change. But – Macronism without the Jupiterian pretensions, or Bidenism without the senility?

I would be inclined to bet on the first, mainly because the pound ain’t the dollar, and Rachel Reeves will therefore stamp on any Biden-style investment packages.

Then again, Nigel Farage, unrepentant in his hard-core neoliberalism and a Thatcherite privatiser and tax-cutter to his boots, is not Marine Le Pen, who leavens her nativism with welfarism, either. He may get found out.

At any event, our united front will have to be built against the leadership of the Labour Party, not with it. The better that goes, the less likely we will find ourselves looking down the barrel of Farageism in 2029.


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