A Sarah Jones contribution on the UK general election and the situation in the country
“Oh simple thing, where have you gone?
I’m tired and I need someone to rely on”
Lily Allen, ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ from Labour Party Campaign Video, 2017
The fire at Grenfell Tower in London is a reminder of the current state of the UK, in which the ruling class rides roughshod over a greatly weakened working class. Despite repeated warnings by the residents about the safety of the building, they didn’t have the strength to make themselves heard. In November they wrote:
“Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”
This serious loss of life has happened, and has indeed exposed malign governance. A privately financed refurbishment of the building to make it more appealing to the wealthy neighbours had spread the fire from the fourth floor to the top floor in a matter of minutes, the fire alarms didn’t work, and the official advice for people to remain inside their flats was wrong. The Conservative council had ignored fire regulations and residents’ complaints. The Conservative government had made huge cuts to the fire service and had not followed the recommendations of a report commissioned after six people died in a tower block fire in South London in 2009, which included warnings about flammable cladding, used in over sixty tower blocks in the UK. Given the clear role of her party in the disaster, it is unsurprising that Theresa May was scared to meet the survivors.
But it was a Labour government that rolled out private partnerships in the public sector in the name of efficiency savings, and weakened fire safety procedures in the name of deregulation. And many Labour run councils have used the same company to install the same flammable cladding in their own tower blocks: indeed, it was in a Labour borough that the 2009 fire happened. And it is Labour run councils that are currently destroying some of the largest council estates in Europe to make way for luxury housing. This fire could just have easily happened in a Labour borough or under a Labour government – so why aren’t Labour scared?
Because, despite their own best efforts to get rid of him, it has Jeremy Corbyn. Having always voted against the worst of Labour’s excesses, he is the party’s Jiminy Cricket, its good conscience. His leadership undoes the party’s past sins in the mind of the electorate, giving them hope that there is an alternative to years of privatization and welfare cuts. The Labour Party’s final campaign video, set to Lily Allen’s ‘Somewhere only we know’ paints a picture of a lost and tired working class, longing for a father figure to lead them to a better place. Although this is one of the few Labour campaign videos that Ken Loach didn’t make, there is still something of Daniel Blake about it – good, honest working people simply asking to be given back that which they have lost. They are not a threatening, collective and fighting subject, but a series of isolated individuals wanting nothing more than that disappeared ‘simple thing’: the welfare state. And indeed, Labour’s message is that this would be as simple as increasing taxes on the richest 5% of earners and returning corporation tax to 2010 levels. With this move, Jeremy Corbyn, or JC, as he is often called, could produce loaves and fishes for all. So it is no surprise when a resident local to Grenfell Tower says: “People need a revolution in this country, and nothing short of that!”, and then goes on to suggest that this revolution is Corbyn.
Theresa May had called the election because she was twenty points ahead in the polls – from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, everyone agreed that Corbyn was ‘unelectable’. In a weak and unstable post-Brexit Britain the people wanted a ‘strong and stable’ Conservative government. And so the election was to be a replay of 1983, when Margaret Thatcher thrashed Michael Foot, wiping out the Labour Party for more than a decade. Dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’, Foot’s openly socialist manifesto had called for taxes on wealth, the renationalization of industries privatized by Thatcher, an emergency programme of infrastructure and house building and immediate withdrawal from Europe. If no one wanted to return to seventies style socialism in the 80s, they certainly wouldn’t want to now. May was so confident of her position that she thought she had a free hand to do what she pleased. She proposed that elderly care should be paid for by selling peoples houses when they died and questioned the Tories’ previous generous pension commitments (attacking her key voter base, property owning over-65s), wanted to re-legalise fox hunting (a sport enjoyed only by aristocrats and farmers and hugely unpopular in the country as a whole) and refused to engage in televised debates with other leaders (because she needed to ‘get on with the job’).
She did in fact get the highest share of the vote since Thatcher’s landslide in 1983, but unfortunately for her, Corbyn got the highest share of the vote since Blair’s landslide in 1997, and the biggest vote increase since 1945. In some ways this election can be seen as a victory for the establishment, a re-engagement with politics post-Brexit and post-Scottish independence referendum: it saw the highest turnout in 25 years and the return of a strong two party system. The two recent referendums seem to have had a major effect: the Conservative and Labour gains in Scotland were considered a protest against the SNP’s call for another independence referendum, and the swings between Labour and Conservatives were clearly influenced by voter positions on Brexit. The swing to the Conservatives was particularly marked in traditional Labour seats which voted to leave the European Union, and most notably amongst the skilled working class. Conservatives made most gains in seats where in the last five years average incomes had dropped most, and made no gains where incomes had risen most: perhaps people weren’t voting according to their pay-packets, but according to their different expectations about what a hard Brexit might do to their pay-packets. Conversely, Labour gained most ground in Remain voting areas, with the biggest swings from the Conservatives in areas with large numbers of wealthy middle class professionals. It increased votes across the political spectrum, picking up support not just from the Conservatives, but in equal numbers from people who had last voted for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP.
Corbyn’s popularity increased considerably after the publication of his manifesto. Much as some on the left hailed it as Labour’s return to socialism, the only proposal it had in common with Foot’s was withdrawal from Europe. In fact, it was more like Labour’s 2015 manifesto: where Ed Miliband had wanted state run companies on the railways, Corbyn wanted to nationalize them; where Miliband wanted to cut tuition fees, Corbyn would abolish them; where Miliband wanted to increase taxes on incomes over £150,000, Corbyn would increase them on incomes over £80,000 and so on. And although Corbyn proposed renationalization of the railways, water industry and the country’s postal service as well as the setting up of a state energy company, he did not touch on the programme of full privatization in other sectors. His corporation tax rise would still leave the country with some of the lowest corporation tax in the OECD. In theory this is only the first step towards a system of workers cooperatives, locally led ownership, and re-nationalisation of ‘natural monopolies’ set out in the party’s research document ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’. One need only see that Legacoop in Italy1 is cited as an exemplary workers’ cooperative to understand the limits of this vision. His manifesto did little more than undo some of the most brutal benefit and tax-cuts of the last ten years, and nationalize industries where privatization has been widely perceived as damaging to the consumer. Of course implementing even this programme would be difficult in the absence of struggle, but it was hardly a socialist suicide note.
Not only was Corbyn’s manifesto comfortingly moderate, but as the campaign wore on he proved he could be tough when he needed to be. Against expectations, Corbyn’s support rose as he responded to the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, arguing that cuts in policing and British foreign policy had made the country less safe. He also explicitly changed his position on a number of security issues, agreeing to work with NATO and supporting the police’s right to shoot to kill (both of which he had previously openly criticized), accepting the renewal of Britain’s nuclear arms system, and pledging to increase the number of border guards.
But this didn’t stop first time voters, and those who had abandoned Labour under Blair, seeing him as a fresh, anti-establishment alternative, an image that was only reinforced by his vilification in the mainstream media. Manifesto pledges aimed at the young, such as scrapping tuition fees and reintroducing education maintenance allowance were of course fundamental to the youth vote, and helped to engage young people from the early stages. The campaign group Momentum, set up during Corbyn’s leadership bid, brought in activists from the Bernie Sanders campaign to teach its army of young people how to produce and disseminate viral videos aimed at ‘mobilising’ more youth. Against electoral wisdom, Corbyn held his first rallies in areas with a strong Labour tradition, to ensure they would be packed out. These were then broadcast across social media2 and self-designated a social movement. Much was done to make 68 year old Corbyn - historical fighter against apartheid and unjust wars –seem youthful, fresh and forward looking. He hung out with grime artists, talked about football and spoke at rock concerts. The incongruence of this is beautifully demonstrated in a video in which Corbyn’s head is superimposed onto grime artist Stormzy. In contrast, the Conservatives were portrayed as kid hating bastards: “Daddy, why do you hate me?”. If Corbyn wasn’t convincingly young, then at least he looked like a daddy that loved us. And the kids loved him back. Labour led 35 points over the Conservatives amongst 18-24 year olds, with all of the swing towards them being among under 44s, and the biggest swing coming from 25-34 year olds. Young people not only put their crosses in the Labour box, but knocked on doors in their tens of thousands. Despite Conservative attacks on the old, this election saw age replacing class as the key determinant of party support.
Although Blairites’ repeatedly insist that only they are youthful and electable, any hopes Blairism seemed to provide have burnt up in a post-crisis Britain - we can no more go back to the 1990s than we can go back to the 1970s. Meanwhile, Corbyn is offering a third way between Blair and Foot. If you are a young radical he is an anti-establishment firebrand, who challenges everything you know and hate. If you are an affluent Remain voter he is a buffer against a hard Brexit - a process which threatens everything you know and love. He has something for everyone; in this sense he really is ‘for the many, not the few’. Of course young people and affluent people are not mutually exclusive, in fact the main swing to Labour was amongst young affluent voters, well off but afraid for their future. Corbyn’s contradictions can reflect our own, and so are rather comforting: the same voter can simultaneously have a clear conscience voting for a man who was against nuclear arms, while sleeping safe in the knowledge that he would never actually get rid of them. And 95% of the electorate can vote for his kinder politics knowing that he would not raise their taxes. He was a win-win candidate.
He didn’t win. However, the prospect of a Corbyn government is at least no longer impossible. If Corbyn becomes Prime Minister the immediate consequences would relieve, at least for a time, some of the greatest burdens of those living most on the edge. But he is likely to find that a manifesto that tries to please everyone, ultimately pleases no one. And unlike other recent left wing victories Corbyn is not riding on the back of a movement, and is leading what was recently a greatly hostile establishment party (and could quite easily be so again). Such contradictions might be helpful for winning votes from a broad electorate, but they will become real obstacles if Corbyn ever gains power. And the block of his party will be only the first front of battle against the structural constraints of capitalism.
The response from the left seems to be to insist that ‘the movement’ will support him. For instance, author and activist Alex Nunns, interviewed in Jacobin argues:
“If we got into government the movement behind the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn would have to step up and exert itself in society. You can’t just leave someone in number ten to implement your program, that’s not going to work. There has to be a broad expression of social power behind the left government or it would get crushed.”
There are a number of problems with this:
1. Attendance at rallies, sharing videos and knocking on doors is not a movement, indeed it is only the fact that no-one in the UK remembers what a movement is that allows the Labour Party to make the ludicrous claim that it has created one;
2. Corbyn’s program is not ‘our’ program, but the program of the Labour Party (see above);
3. Getting ‘behind the left government’ sounds suspiciously like stamping out dissent.
What happens when people realize Corbyn’s government doesn’t make all that much difference to their lives? What if they start demanding more? Will they be asked to get “behind the left government”, or will the government make more concessions? And what happens if companies do start pulling out investment or attacking the currency? What happens if the pound, which has already suffered post-Brexit, is devalued even further, hitting both the government’s tax revenue and workers’ real wages? Could Corbyn end up being sandwiched between attacks from capital and from the working class? What would he do? Would he borrow more? Would he seize assets and nationalize industries? Would he lock down the borders and declare social democracy in one country? Or would he capitulate to the demands of capital? A Corbyn government would be no simple thing. Luckily for him, he managed to look like he won without actually winning – and so for the time being these questions will not need to be answered, and he will not be faced with his own contradictions.
But in the meantime the continuing focus amongst much of the left on getting Corbyn into power can only channel energy and material support away from struggles that could actually challenge the structure of the system. There are few major struggles in the UK at the moment, and strikes are at historic lows3. But people are angry and small cracks of resistance are emerging. Not least in the streets around Grenfell Tower. Local residents see the fire not as an isolated disaster, but as only the last in a series of attacks – indeed, some actually think it was done on purpose. In the immediate aftermath, the council was absent. It was the people themselves who organized provisions and support for the survivors, and opened up their houses for those who had been left without water and electricity. And their anger has been bolstered into strength: they have stormed the council offices, marched on Downing Street and told the media where to go. There is even talk of holding rent strikes. This is presently only one small struggle amongst many micro struggles in workplaces, neighbourhoods and institutions happening across the country. But they all represent a widespread anger brewing against a malignant system. Although things look bleak for the time being, or perhaps precisely because they do look bleak, we need to put our energies into supporting, making connections between and widening these struggles. This is not a simple thing either, but it is a lot more simple than finding a daddy who doesn’t hate us.