Friday, 13 December 2019

Why Labour Lost

This is, and can only be, for now, a first analysis, because it will take time to analyse all of the results. I agree with a lot of what Paul Mason has said in his initial analysis

Labour lost because of its attitude to Brexit. The Tories consolidated the Leave Vote, Labour and the Liberals divided the Remain vote, whilst Labour itself dithered, and presented a vague position that came over as more pro-Brexit than pro-Remain. If you want to understand the dynamics simply compare Scotland to England. In Scotland, the SNP economic and social programme was not that different to Labour's. The SNP said they would basically support the programme put forward by Labour. But, the SNP have all-out opposed Brexit from day one, prior to the referendum, during the referendum, and after the referendum. It meant that they could argue consistently that Brexit is a reactionary policy. They could mobilise their existing support around that opposition, and they could tackle, head on, those in Scotland that argued in favour of Brexit. By contrast, Labour, which had talked in 2015 about building a mass social movement, was lacklustre in opposing Brexit during the referendum, and the position of saying that Labour would “respect” the reactionary Brexit policy, after the referendum, was both a betrayal of principle, and strategically stupid. 

It was a betrayal of principle because the reactionary nature of Brexit was not, and could not have been, changed simply because a majority of electors voted for it. If it was reactionary before the vote it was reactionary after the vote, and socialists have a responsibility to stand firm and oppose reactionary positions, in order to try to defeat them. Had Labour actually built a mass social movement in 2016, as part of mobilising progressive internationalists against Brexit, there is a possibility that the referendum would have gone the other way, but, certainly, it would have meant that, in 2017, Labour would have been in a much stronger position to have won the General Election. The commitment to “respect” Brexit was stupid, both because it probably lost Labour the 2017 General Election, but also because it tied Labour in to having to argue in favour of Brexit itself in the following period. 

Whenever the Left tries to steal the clothes of reactionaries it always ends in disaster. In the 1930's, when the Nazis mobilised reactionary sections of the population around nationalist slogans, complaining that the problems facing Germany were all due to foreigners, primarily the consequence of the Versailles Treaty, the Communist Party, which was the largest workers' party, also jumped on that bandwagon. It wasn't alone; the SPD also followed suit. The outcome was obvious. By also adopting this nationalist position the Stalinists and the Social Democrats simply validated the reactionary arguments that the Nazis were promoting, and so, when it came to the crunch, those persuaded by those arguments chose the genuine nationalists of the Nazi party over their pale imitations in the KPD and SPD. 

Corbyn's Labour has made exactly the same mistake, and that is no coincidence, because Corbyn himself, and his inner circle, along with those such as McCluskey of UNITE, and Dave Ward of the UCW, have this same Stalinoid mentality. Where, therefore, the SNP was able to promote its own clear anti-Brexit stance, as were the Liberals, Labour was left presenting its own pale imitation of nationalism, in the form of its fantasy “Jobs First Brexit”. It is impossible to convince progressive Remain voters of your progressive credentials if, all the time, you are promoting the idea of Brexit, albeit an impossible “Jobs First Brexit”. At the same time, it is impossible to win Labour, or any other Leave voters, away from their support for Brexit, if you are yourself arguing that there might be some form of Brexit that is preferable to the current position of being in the EU! 

On the one hand, Labour lost progressive voters, most notably in Scotland, but also in England and Wales to the Liberals, Greens and Plaid, but on the other it could not win over Leave voters, because its whole position of “respecting” the Leave vote, and of promising to negotiate its own Brexit deal, simply confirmed, for those voters, that their support for Brexit was justified. Its no wonder that those Labour MP's that were most closely associated with arguing for Brexit, such as Snell, Smeeth, Flint, Skinner, Campbell, Pidcock, Mann and so on were the ones whose seats swung most decisively over to the Tories, whilst those like Chi Onwurah, in Newcastle, who have held on to a principled anti-Brexit stance, held on to theirs. 

John McDonnell has said that Labour tried to uphold a principled position of trying to bring the country back together, but it was impossible to have a principled position, on that basis, precisely because there was no principled compromise position. The country was, and is, divided by a fundamental and antagonistic contradiction. It is not possible to reconcile the principled internationalist position of around 54% of the population that opposes Brexit, with the reactionary nationalist position of around 46% that supports Brexit. And that division has again been reflected in the election result. Much as he will claim that his government is a “People's Government”, echoing the slogans of Bonapartists and dictators through the ages, and so, as Andrew Marr pointed out, making those that oppose this “People's Government” thereby “Enemies of the People”, the fact remains that the majority of the people reject the basic premise on which this government is based! They have again pumped out the nonsense that the majority of the people were fed up with Brexit, and wanted to just get it done, but the simple fact is that the majority of the electorate voted for parties opposing Brexit; their version of ending the Brexit nightmare, was to simply scrap it, to Revoke Article 50! A government representing a minority of the electorate, now facing a majority that is mobilised in its hostility to Brexit, and whose hostility to it is only going to grow as the next year proceeds, will not have an easy time, despite its parliamentary majority. 

The facts have not changed. And, it is a failure to address those facts that was part of Labour's downfall. Labour wanted to ignore the Brexit question. It wanted to pretend that the election was going to be all about its radical economic and social offering. As I said some time ago, it is what Marxists call Economism. But, the more the reality of the election, and the centrality of Brexit imposed itself, the more Labour tried to compensate by offering yet more goodies, plucked from a hat, but without any of the long-term groundwork having been done to have argued the case for such policies, or how they would be financed. The more in fact it acted to undermine Labour, because it appeared to be fanciful, and duplicitous. 

I remarked to a Momentum activist who had come up from London to canvass in Newcastle on this, pointing out that, in none of its literature, in the constituency, did Labour even mention Brexit, other than for a single line. She agreed that it seemed bizarre. But, that was characteristic of Labour's general approach. It failed to address the reactionary nature of Brexit, by confronting the underlying ideology of those that support it, including most Labour Leave voters. The reality is quite simply this. There has always been a sizeable proportion of Labour's vote that was reactionary. It was nationalistic – that goes back to the nationalism that was displayed in the eagerness of workers to sign up to die in World War I, for example – xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, homophobic and so on. Labourism was always prepared to ignore it, so long as those workers voted Labour anyway. Economism again. Its not just been a feature of Labour voters. I related how in the 1960's, one of the Labour councillors where I lived, had called on people to petrol bomb a proposed gypsy camp if the Council went ahead with it. Not only was he not expelled, but he won the next council election with a thumping majority. It puts some of the present outrage by the Right against supposed anti-Semitism, in some perspective. 

Labour has never properly confronted the reality that a sizeable proportion of the population that traditionally voted Labour hold thoroughly reactionary views. At the same time, the reactionary workers voted Labour, because they did so out of tribal loyalty.  The Labour councillors were people they went to school with, their union officials and so on, and so when they called on them to vote for Labour MP's they did so instinctively.  Labour's own electoralist, parliamentarist politics, in which winning elections is the most important thing, means that it is always hamstrung in confronting those reactionary views, because to do so means, in the short term, being prepared to lose votes, to lose elections, in order to build support, in the longer-term, on a more solid foundation. If we look at the situation today, the overwhelming proportion of Labour voters, around 70%, back Remain. They are younger, better educated workers, whose views are a million miles away from the reactionary ideas of those older Labour voters.  Of the other 30%, they are mostly older, less well educated, and around 10-20% of them are people who are bigots and soft racists. Labour has failed to challenge the reactionary nature of their views over decades, and now it has paid the price for that, because it is this minority of Labour voters that has swung behind the Tories in this election. Of the population in general, the working-class comprises around 75%, the other 25% comprising the small business class, with less than 1% comprising the upper echelons of the ruling class, the owners of the controlling shares of fictitious capital and property. It is the small business owners that comprise the core of the Tories, and of the Brexit vote. But, together with those reactionary segments of the working-class, they have managed to form an electoral bloc that has put the Tories in government. 

Paul Mason is right that, what the election shows is the lunacy of the position of the Lexiteers. It would be a disaster to see as a lesson that Labour should appease these reactionary elements, by adopting a more pro-Brexit position. Quite the opposite. It shows why it is necessary now for the Left to build from the ground up, a progressive, internationalist opposition to Brexit. Disillusion in Johnson will quickly set in. For the next year, most people will see no change, as Britain remains in the EU's customs union and single market. Disillusion will start on February 1st, when people see that Brexit continues to dominate the newspapers and TV. The EU has already set down markers. It is demanding access to UK waters for fishing, it is demanding a “level playing field” for any trade deal, meaning compliance with the customs union and single market rules. Britain is in a weak position to resist. Johnson already had to go back to the EU deal that May had rejected, in order to get a deal prior to January 31st. He will not be able to get a deal by end of 2020, without effectively capitulating again, and so, especially with his new majority, he will ask for an extension of the Transition Period. During all this time, the forces of Remain will continue to press forward, to demonstrate, and to prepare to demand another referendum, or readmission. In to the mix will come demands from Scotland for an independence referendum, and even in Northern Ireland, with a majority of Nationalist MP's, for the first time, there are rumblings that even the DUP might enter talks with Dublin about a closer relation to the Republic, as they recognise that it is now English nationalism that is their main threat. 

But, Paul is wrong, when he says, 

“we need a leadership contest in which an internationalist left takes control of the party and builds a genuine alliance with the centre left based on respect and compromise.” 

Who is this “centre-left”, and what do they represent. The reality is that this centre left has collapsed. It is a mirage. This is the same mistake that the popular frontists made in Spain during the Civil War, of chasing after a bourgeois centre, whose politicians no longer represented anyone, because the social forces they were supposed to represent had already gone over to Franco! What this election has demonstrated is that this centre-left, as with the centre-right, no longer exists. That is most clearly shown by the failure of all of the Independents, of the ex-Tories, and ex-Labour MP's to even register on the electoral seismograph. It is reinforced by the utter failure of the Liberals themselves that had these other bits of political flotsam attach to them like barnacles. The Liberals and these other elements went the way of others of their ilk throughout history. They cried out against the advance of the Left, launching moral panics over bullying and anti-Semitism, using it for their own sectarian ends, as a fanciful basis upon which to demand that the populace abandon the Left, and flock to their banner, and to demand the right with their insignificant numbers to dictate to Labour who its Leader should be. In doing so they invoked the forces of reaction to act on their behalf against their larger opponent. But, as always happens in such circumstances, having invoked that reaction, they found themselves put to the sword by it without mercy. 

The main reason that the Tories won, as I had intimated the other day, was the failure of the Remain bloc to vote tactically.  In large part blame for that resides with the fantasy politics of Swinson and the Liberals, who continued to put up candidates against Labour, and refused to promote tactical votes in favour of Labour, in places like Canterbury or Kensington.  But, Labour's own soft Brexit position promoted by Corbyn also facilitated that.  I expected the tactical voting by voters to be larger, and had it been, its clear from the actual voting percentages that a Tory victory could have been stopped.  It is again a reason why Britain's undemocratic voting system should be scrapped in favour of proportional representation.

It is necessary to build the resistance, but that resistance must be built on a principled basis. It must be militantly internationalist and socialist. We must vigorously challenge the reactionary ideas that reside within the sections of the working-class that voted for the Tories, and in doing so, we must draw in to that fight the new, young, vibrant and progressive workers that, over recent years, have formed the backbone of the core Labour vote. We must provide leadership and organisation, in a way that Lansman's private Momentum company has signally failed to do, so that we can take control of branches, and CLP's, turning the party outwards to build a true social movement that extends the resistance into all areas of life. We must democratise the party and the trades unions and the cooperatives, turning them into fighting organs of the working-class that also perform the vital role, or agitation, organisation and education

Building this organisation is the most important thing, but nor can we ignore the question of leadership. History has shown that a right-wing leadership, particularly in concert with a right-wing trades union bureaucracy, can quickly take control of the party machinery, using it to hold up membership, begin witch-hunts against members, followed by expulsions of individuals and whole branches and CLP's. We cannot allow that to happen. But, nor do we want a new leader who, like Corbyn, is in thrall to Stalinoid union bosses, and advisers. Those like Long-Bailey, and Rayner, touted for leadership, are too much in the mould of Corbyn, and his nationalistic Brexit stance, to offer a way forward. In truth, the failure to democratise the party, in the last few years, has left us poorly placed. Its necessary to steer a narrow course between avoiding a return to some Blair-right or soft left offering a more progressive and internationalist position, whilst also avoiding some new Corbynite, Stalinoid candidate, who might simply bureaucratise and ossify the party in order to double down on the failed pro-Brexit stance. It possibly requires someone like Thornberry or Lewis, but whoever the party chooses, the lesson must be to ensure that the rank and file is able to exercise maximum democratic accountability and control. 

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