Monday, 20 February 2017

Rise Up, Reject Nuttall's Nutters. Resist Brexit

If Paul Nuttall fails to win, on Thursday, in Stoke Central, it spells the end of UKIP. It will represent a part of the process of social-democracy, across the globe, beginning to fight back against the wave of reactionary nationalism that has developed in the last decade, and the conservatism that dominated the last thirty years. Tony Blair was right, last week, to call for an uprising to resist Brexit, of which Nuttall and UKIP are the standard bearers, but such an uprising requires, also, a rejection of the nationalism inherent in the current Labour position, and of the conservatism that was inherent in the politics of Blair and Brown.

There ought to be no problem in Labour winning in Stoke. For the last century, from the time the TUC conference met in Hanley, in 1905, and took the decisions that set up the Labour Party, Stoke has had Labour MP's. For as long as I could remember, Labour held 57 of the 60 council seats, with the Tories being holed up in the Trentham Ward, where the small and medium sized business owners, the higher paid professionals and the like were concentrated, until the 1960's, when the construction of new estates, opened the door to sections of better-off workers.

The right-wing Tory policies of Paul Nuttall, and UKIP should then have no appeal for the workers of Stoke. Nuttall had one advantage. He is, as he has repeatedly stated at his press conferences, and on hustings, a national figure; he is, to be fair, a competent speaker and media performer. Moreover, given the near 70% vote for “Leave” in Stoke, he had a simple message to convey. He only had to keep hammering UKIP's only real political message, which is “It's all the fault of foreigners and immigrants.”

That is the message that won a majority for Brexit; it is the message that won a majority for Trump; it is the message that has built up support for Le Pen, Wilders etc. But, Nuttall seems to have thrown away that advantage. There was no reason for him to have stated his address to have been in Stoke, and the consequence of him doing so was to distract from his message for a week or so. Nor was there any reason for what now appears to be a series of Walter Mitty like claims about himself that he has made, which not only distracted from his campaign, but now seems to have led to him going into hiding. But, we shouldn't place too much store in that having an effect. After all, the same could be said about Trump, and it didn't stop him winning.

Labour should be winning in Stoke Central by a huge margin. At the last election, Labour secured nearly double the vote share of UKIP, who came second, with the Tories slightly behind them in third. But, a marked feature of the poll was the turnout of barely 50%. It reflected the fact that Stoke, as an industrial area, based on three dominant industries – ceramics, coal and steel – had been hollowed out during the 1980's, 90's and 2000's, by the conservative policies of Thatcher and Major that were essentially continued by Blair and Brown. The only other major employers were the NHS and Local Government, both of which suffered from policies of austerity. Tristram Hunt was a personification of those those politics, and its no wonder that voters were not enthused by them. But, since 2015, a dramatic change has happened in the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn became Leader, and the party membership soared to over half a million.

Corbyn proposed building a social movement, as opposed to being limited to purely electoral politics. That is precisely what an area like Stoke needed, if Labour was to rebuild all of those communal structures required to activate large numbers of people, to give them hope, and a way out of their immediate situation, and on the back of it, to transform Labour's electoral standing.

I set out, when I first started writing this blog, how such activity was able to succeed in conditions far less favourable than today, back in the 1980's. Back in the early 1980's, the period of sharp conjunctural crisis, typical of that Autumn phase of the long wave (1974-87) was drawing to an end. In the earlier part of that phase, workers had won considerable victories with the 1972 and 1974 Miners' Strikes, with the victories of women workers over equal pay at Ford's Dagenham and so on. Even at small workplaces like Grunwicks, huge mobilisations of the working-class took place. But, by the early 1980's, conditions had changed. The steelworkers had been defeated, and previously strong groups of workers such as those in the print industry went down to defeats, as new forms of technology undermined their industrial position. Eventually even the miners were defeated in 1984-5, having battled valiantly for over a year.

And the Labour Party reflected that change. From a position of being a hollowed out shell during most of the 1970's, and moribund in most of its branches, it began to take on new life by the late 1970's, and into the 1980's. A series of wins for the Left had begun to transform it, but the right-wing continued to control its upper reaches. Having lost the elections of 1979, and then 1983, the right-wing targeted the hard left as a scapegoat for its failures, and it was accommodated by a soft left that tailed behind a rapidly right moving Kinnock, who paved the way for Blair, having failed to dislodge Thatcher after having gutted the party, and shifted it ever rightwards for more than a decade.

From 1980 onwards, barely a week went by that I was not the subject of some local media article about left wing groups in the Labour Party, often accompanied by threats from nearby MP John Golding (Hammer of the Left) about imminent expulsion, and at its height that was more like every day. That experience was shared by thousands of left-wing activists in the Labour Party across the country, during that period.

For me, it reached a peak in the weeks preceding the 1983 Stoke City Council elections, when myself and Jason Hill were the Labour candidates for the Burslem Central Ward (formerly Ward 2). Given what happened to Labour nationally in the 1983 General Election, given the level of opposition from the local media, especially as I had ousted the long-standing former Labour Councillor, Stan Dutton, who stood against me as a “Labour Moderate”, the victory that Jason and myself achieved is all the more testament to the importance of standing on a clear, consistent and principled programme, and of having built up local support networks.

The turnout in Burslem Central that year was 40%, compared to an average of around 25% for previous elections, and was higher than in any other ward. Both Jason and me won over 49% of the vote, whilst our Labour Moderate opposition secured barely half that amount, despite large numbers of the old right - whilst still in the party – lending him their support.

Our platform in the election was “No Cuts, No Rent or Rate Rises”. Both Jason and myself were founder members of the local anti-fascist group back in 1974, and both of us were prominent members of CND, at a time when nuclear disarmament was a prominent issue, and coming shortly after the Falklands War. Our victory showed that the way for Labour to win is not to pander to backwardness, or to opportunistically tail public opinion, but to stand firm on your principles, and to consistently build up your support, year after year, on the basis of them, within the community.

With Corbyn as Labour leader, with Momentum standing behind him, with thousands of supporters, even allowing for the distractions of the leadership contests, foisted on us by the right, this should have been a golden opportunity, over the last year, to have built such a social movement, and organising resistance to Brexit, and the wider nationalist assault should have been part of it. Unlike the 1980's, when a period of economic stagnation was setting in, the world today is in a period of long wave expansion, much like the 1960's, with the global working-class expanding at a rapid pace. It is a period when rank and file labour movement organisation and restructuring should be taking place.

Instead, what we have had is a collapse into the old electoralist politics. And, when it came down to it, instead of a principled position, and a mobilisation of the labour movement to fight for it, the Labour leadership rolled over, and fell in behind Theresa May's reactionary nationalist agenda, whilst trying to justify it with a series of weasel words that necessarily results in a confused and unconvincing message, when it comes to by-elections like that in Stoke.

So, despite the advantages that Labour has had historically in Stoke, despite the fact that Corbyn as leader, and the half million, mostly Corbyn supporting members, should have been a beacon for Stoke's hard pressed communities, despite the disarray of the UKIP campaign, it is still not clear who is going to win. If the Tories all vote for Nuttall then Labour will lose. One hope seems to be that with Nuttall's apparent self-destruction, the Tories have sensed a glimmer of hope, and sent May to the constituency. If the Tory vote holds up, or takes votes from UKIP, then Labour will win.

But, in a constituency like Stoke Central, whose Labour Party members backed Corbyn by a 10:1 majority, winning should not be a matter of hoping that UKIP self-destruct, or that the Tories might come to Labour's rescue by splitting the opposition vote. Labour should already be miles ahead on its own merits.

In the US, Trump's election has already generated a large oppositional movement drawing in many of those who were part of the movement behind Bernie Sanders, and before that the Occupy Movement. Every week, large numbers are turning out to Town Hall meetings held by Republican politicians, heckling them and demanding they answer questions about the promises they made in the elections, as well as demanding that Democrat politicians fight back against Trump. We need workers in Britain to also rise up, and challenge the Tories, and demand that Corbyn and the Labour Party fight back against May and Brexit, rather than acting as her support act.

In Austria, the challenge of the nationalist right was pushed back in the Presidential elections. In France, Le Pen is not likely to win, despite all of the attention she and other right-wing nationalists are being given by the British media. In fact, it is the Left in the shape of Hamon who are more markedly on the rise, as the challenge of Fillon fades. If the rest of the Left falls in behind Hamon, the second round might even be fought out between him and the Blairite Macron.

In the Netherlands, the latest polls show Wilders and his party have peaked, and their support is slipping, partly as a result of the effect of people seeing what having a right-wing populist like Trump in charge actually means. Wilders also has no chance of winning. In Germany, the SPD is seeing increased support at the expense of Merkel. Moreover, across the EU there seems to be a growing recognition that the reason that the nationalist right has been able to grow and to challenge the existence of the EU itself, cannot be separated from the policies that conservative politicians, occupying the political centre, have pursued. The policies of malign neglect that led to the de-industrialisation and decay in the US rust belt, that fed support for Trump, are the same policies that led to the decay of places like Stoke, that led to Brexit, and that led to Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, and Golden Dawn in Greece.

If the EU is to survive, then in place of the conservative politics of the last thirty years, that focussed on blowing up financial and property bubbles, that created a delusion of fictitious wealth for a minority, and the reality of poverty, debt and austerity for the majority, it instead will need to adopt the same kind of social-democratic policies that have been promoted by Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn, Sanders, the Left Bloc and so on.

But, for even these social-democratic policies to work, it will require more not less Europe. It will require a much greater, and more rapid integration of European institutions, the extension of the Eurozone, the introduction of a single fiscal policy and so on. In today's world there can be no policy even of social-democracy in one country.

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