Unlike any general election in decades, this election will offer a clear choice for workers in Britain, between the brutality of the Tories – whose Prime Minister has tried to justify nurses being forced to go to food banks – and a Labour leader who has said that “I don’t play by their rules”.
If a Labour government is elected on 8th June, then we won’t play by their rules either. They are yesterday’s rules, set by failed political and corporate elites and should be consigned to the past. It is these rules that have allowed a cosy cartel to rig the system in favour of a few powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations.
The stakes are obviously very high for those who want to see a change of direction. The election will be an opportunity for workers suffering the most prolonged squeeze on wages since the mid-nineteenth century, benefits cuts that are leaving millions without enough money to feed themselves and their families and, of course, the growing crisis in the NHS. In 2015, a record 185,000 bed days were taken up by people admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition. A bold, confident campaign by Corbyn can undermine the Tories’ support and challenge for power.
But the stakes are also high for the establishment. Theresa May calling this election, we are told, is a sign of strength but the truth is it reflects serious divisions within the Conservative Party and weakness on the part of the government. May feared that, given the Tories’ wafer-thin majority in parliament, she could be overwhelmed by forced U-turns. In the first year alone, there were eleven. Now, she has done a U-turn on a snap election she had previously ruled out.
She is gambling, based on current opinion polls, that she will win the general election with an increased majority and will then be better able to carry out her austerity programme. She is partly posing the election as a referendum on Brexit, hoping that the third of Tory voters who voted ‘remain’ will reluctantly continue to support her government. This is not guaranteed, however – some may well switch to the Liberal Democrats.
The local elections show the real challenges that Corbyn faces in overcoming the Tory lead. Labour lost 383 council seats, while the Tories gained 563 and won four of the six ‘metro mayor’ positions. The Tory gains came partly from the collapse of UKIP, which was left with only one council seat compared with the 140 it had previously. Its vote share reduced from 22% to less than 5% in four years. A factor in the election results was the policy of local councillors. Working class areas have been devastated by cuts to council jobs, closures of libraries and children’s centres, privatisation of vital services and of council housing. Blairite Labour councillors have carried through these attacks and found themselves punished at the ballot box, largely by traditional Labour supporters not coming out to vote. Unfortunately, in a vain attempt to compromise with Labour’s pro-capitalist right, Jeremy Corbyn has not clearly demanded that Labour councils refuse to pass on the cuts.
Brexit a central issue
May’s nauseating mantra that “strong and stable” hands are needed to carry out Brexit negotiations has clearly had an effect on a layer of people. Their jingoism is given an added bite because of the rhetoric of the EU negotiators. Yet May was a Remain campaigner in the EU referendum because she recognised the importance of the EU for the interests of capitalism. What is certain is that the Tories will seek to negotiate a Brexit deal in the interests of the bosses and bankers, not working class people.
Corbyn is not seen as being clear on Brexit. This stems from his mistaken decision – under pressure from the Labour right – to back Remain during the referendum campaign, despite his historic position of left opposition to the neo-liberal EU. Corbyn should be more confident in arguing that a Labour government would carry through a Brexit in the interests of the working class. A workers’ Brexit would mean freeing the government from the EU’s restrictive laws on state investment and ownership to create homes and jobs with decent pay and bring privatised industries back into public hands. This would require rejecting the Blairite mantra that access to the single market is sacrosanct. It would also be an internationalist and anti-racist Brexit, defending the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
Labour’s Scottish blunders
In the local elections in Scotland, Labour lost a third of its council representation as its vote share fell from 31% in 2012 to just 20%. Labour was relegated to third place, behind the SNP and the Tories. The increase in Tory support is overwhelmingly based on being seen as the most effective anti-SNP and anti-independence force.
Corbyn’s approach of attacking the SNP for implementing Tory austerity is not enough, particularly when Labour councillors in Scotland and across England and Wales continue to implement Tory cuts themselves, and his refusal to support a second independence referendum is a major mistake. Support for independence is strongest in the traditional Labour heartlands and is driven largely by a desire to break free from Tory austerity. The Blairite Labour Party’s decision to line up with the Tories in the ‘Project Fear’ campaign waged against independence greatly undermined the party and helped the SNP to become dominant in working class areas.
Back to the 1970s?
Corbyn’s strength lies in his popular, left-wing policies. The leaking of the Labour manifesto was accompanied by the usual screeching attacks from the right-wing press about going back to the 1970s but a poll of Daily Mirror readers after the leak showed that 70% would support this programme. Broader opinion polls show 71% of people support a £10 minimum wage, 53% support free school meals for all children and 57% support introducing a cap on executive wages at firms with government contracts.
His workers’ charter – which includes a ban on zero-hour contract and repeal of anti-trade union laws – can help win over the millions in precarious work. His education programme, including scrapping tuition fees and restoring education maintenance grants, will be popular among young people and families.
While the policies outlined in the manifesto are a welcome break from “Tory-lite” policies of the past, they do reflect a willingness on Corbyn’s part to compromise with the right in his party. For example, instead of simply pledging to renationalise the railway companies, the manifesto pledges to bring the various franchises in-house as they expire. Reflecting the pro-imperialist position of the Blairites, pledges to renew the Trident nuclear missile system and meet NATO’s military spending targets are included. These do not represent the interests of the working class.
A key question Corbyn will face is how he would fund these popular policies. He has pointed in the right direction – the super-rich. He correctly has said that there will no new taxes on those earning less than £80,000 a year, 95% of the population. The figures detailed in the Sunday Times Rich List should be central to all the election debates. They explode the myth that there’s “not enough money” for jobs and services. There’s plenty – it’s just in the wrong hands. The total wealth of Britain’s 1,000 richest individuals and families has soared to £658 billion, a 14% rise on last year and an increase of £226 million per day.
The enemy within
Not only does Corbyn face a challenge from the vested interests in the media but also from opponents within his own party. The nature of this battle is shown by the many Labour MPs who are refusing to endorse Corbyn as a future Prime Minister and want to remove him at the earliest opportunity after the election.
Corbyn was mistaken in his decision not to pursue mandatory reselection of MPs, giving local Constituency Labour Parties the right to replace sitting MPs at each election. This would have allowed the hundreds of thousands who have joined to support his leadership to replace the pro-capitalist Blairites with candidates who support Corbyn’s programme. Only 13 MPs are standing down, meaning there are few opportunities for new, left-wing candidates to enter onto the stage of the safest Labour seats.
Mass campaign the road to victory
In order to overcome these serious issues, Corbyn needs to wage a different type of election campaign; speeches and election broadcasts aren’t enough. Thousands are turning out to Corbyn’s rallies. These should be replicated in every major city to mobilise the support that exists for his policies. Faced with a Prime Minister who refuses to have a public debate and seems terrified to meet the public, this could have an important effect. The trade union movement should throw its full weight behind this fight to take out the Tories and put a socialist in Downing Street. They should turn their offices into rallying points for people to get active and wage a campaign to convince the six million trade union members and the wider working class to vote Labour.
Whatever the result of this election, British politics has entered a new, volatile period. Even if May is returned with a strengthened majority, she will not find it easy to pursue her endless austerity agenda. If a Corbyn government is returned, he would face major challenges to implement his programme against a hostile capitalist establishment and will have to rely on mobilising workers and young people to defend him and build a society run “for the many, not the few.”
By Kevin Henry