The promise of the Corbyn insurgency that began in 2015 is in danger.
The triumph of the left-wing backbench outsider in the Labour leadership election four years ago opened up the prospect of overturning Tony Blair’s 1990s transmutation of the Labour Party into New Labour.
By qualitatively changing Labour from a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ – with pro-capitalist leaders but democratic structures that allowed organised workers to fight for their interests, particularly through the trade unions – working-class political representation had effectively been eliminated as a mass force for over two decades.
Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory was a bridgehead from which, potentially, this process could be reversed and workers achieve a mass party of their own.
This potential was reinforced in 2016 by Corbyn’s defeat of the leadership coup organised by the still-Blairite dominated Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and, even more profoundly, the general election surge a year later.
Labour saw the biggest increase in its vote between elections since 1945 with millions inspired by Corbyn’s manifesto which, while falling short of the socialist programme needed to end the power of the capitalist class, signalled a break with the austerity consensus of the Tories and the Blairites.
Since then, however, momentum has stalled.
The local election results at the beginning of May and the likely outcome of the European parliamentary elections later in the month (after we go to press), with Labour set to be outpolled by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, are a serious warning.
By not completing the insurgency set in motion in 2015 and transforming Labour ideologically and organisationally into a mass socialist workers’ party, a vacuum remains which can be filled by other forces dangerous to the working class.
Message of the May polls
The narrative of the May local elections promoted by the Blairites in the PLP and the liberal media commentariat was that the Liberal Democrats had staged a triumphant recovery because they were the voice of opposition to Brexit.
Labour on the other hand suffered a net loss of 84 councillors because Jeremy Corbyn failed to say that he would reverse the 2016 referendum result. But that is a superficial reading of the facts – and a disastrous political prescription.
The Lib Dems did win an extra 704 councillors compared to the last time these seats were contested in 2015.
But having suffered a net loss of 1,159 in this four-yearly cycle of elections while they were participating in the Con-Dem coalition – across the contests of both 2011 and 2015 – it was a limited recovery.
The Lib Dems’ projected national share of the vote, calculated by the BBC to take into account that not all councils had elections on 2 May, was 18%, well below their share in any round of council elections between 1993 and 2010.
Nor were their gains more than marginally greater in areas that had voted remain in the EU referendum compared to those that had voted leave.
The Liberal Democrats notably won Chelmsford council, for example, by overturning a 45-seat Tory majority in a city where 53% had voted leave in 2016.
The Lib Dems have seemingly acquired momentum ahead of the European elections, the immediate effect of which is to be seen.
But the most accurate assessment of the local elections is that they managed to partially regain the position they held before 2010 as a protest receptacle for ‘none of the above’.
The Lib Dems were not unchallenged even in that respect, however.
The Greens gained an extra 194 councillors and there were more than 900 candidates elected not standing on a party label – a net gain of over 500 – averaging 25% of the vote where they stood.
The leader of the independents on Darlington council, which Labour lost control of for the first time in 28 years, put their rise down to a reaction against Labour councillors who had “stopped listening and become complacent” on local issues.
These were, after all, council elections, with a turnout typically half of that in a general election. That is not to say that there was no correlation between attitudes to Brexit and voting patterns on 2 May, which of course will be even more marked in the 23 May poll.
Labour lost control of Bolsover council, which voted 71% for leave in 2016, Hartlepool (70%), Burnley (67%), Middlesbrough (66%), Stockton-On-Tees (62%), Darlington (56%), and Lancaster (51%).
All of the 21 councils where Labour lost five or more seats were in heavily leave-voting areas.
The vote for leave in 2016 was, at base, a working-class revolt against the capitalist establishment, a shout of rage at the age of austerity and all its consequences that followed the financial crash of 2007-08.
That this is not finding its outlet through the Labour Party after four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a grave warning to him, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and their supporters in the labour movement.
Workers still disenfranchised
Asked what the single most important reason was for why they voted as they did in the EU referendum, Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll – taken on the day of the 2016 vote – found that 49% of leave voters said that it was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.
The leave victory was, above all, an expression of the alienation and powerlessness felt by working-class people in the face of remote and uncontrollable forces shaping their workplaces and communities.
Three years later, the Hansard Society’s 2019 audit of political engagement found that 47% of adults in the UK still feel that they have no influence at all over national decision-making, the highest level of feeling powerless recorded in the 16-year history of this annual survey.
This is the same study that showed 63% believing that “Britain’s system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful”.
How is it that big sections of the working class can feel so disenfranchised after four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party? Even Labour as a capitalist workers’ party in the past was seen by the working class as their party, the means by which they could ‘influence decision-making’.
Bringing workers together to struggle and discuss collectively helped develop a broader class consciousness beyond their own particular interests or special oppression, and impelled them to consider how together they could take on ‘the rich and powerful’
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