May’s fatal miscalculation
Corbyn must press home his advantage after June 8, urges Tony Greenstein
As with all good fairy tales, the wicked witch of Westminster was rumbled before she was able to cast her evil spells. The good news is that she is not yet dead. The longer she lives, the more damage she is likely to do to the Tory Party. Theresa May’s promise to the 1922 Committee that, having got them into “this mess”, she is the best person to get them out again would, in normal circumstances, indicate that she had a sense of humour.
The question for us to understand is how and why May and her supporters made such a catastrophic political misjudgement and what the consequences may be. It was not simply political hubris that led May to call a general election when she had a workable parliamentary majority for the next three years. There was a collective act of self-deception by the political class - the talking heads and self-styled experts who feed off each other’s delusions. It was taken for granted that in a general election Corbyn was a lamb going to the slaughter.
Almost alone amongst the political commentators I predicted the outcome.1 The day after parliament voted by 522-13 for dissolution and with the polls showing a lead of over 20% I wrote:
… it was Harold Wilson who said that a week is a long time in politics. Seven weeks is a political eternity. Theresa May has taken a gamble that her 21% lead will hold. It is a gamble that she may yet come to regret.
There is only one direction that her lead can go, and that is down. Once her lead falls, then a snowball effect can take over. What is essential is that Labour marks out the key areas on which it is going to base its appeal. The danger is that Corbyn is going to continue with his ‘strategy’ of appeasing the right and appealing to all good men and women. If so that will be a recipe for disaster ...
Theresa May is a cautious conservative. She is literally the product of her background - a conservative vicar’s daughter. Reactionary, parochial and small-minded, she is a bigot for all seasons. What doesn’t help is that she is both wooden and unoriginal. The danger is that Corbyn tries to emulate her.
The key question is whether or not Corbyn can rise to the occasion. Even Jesus ... didn’t allow the gospel of love to prevent him from driving the money lenders from the temple ... There is everything to win if Labour has the courage of its convictions.
On June 3, five days before the election, when all the polls were predicting that May’s lead was widening, I wrote:
My initial predictions, that there would or could be a hung parliament was based on my assessment of the situation. This is still quite possible, as the Tories are widely detested for their attacks on the working poor, people on benefits and the continuous privatisation of the NHS. They are seen as the party of a vicious class rule, which is what austerity is about.
That does not, however, mean that the Tories will necessarily be defeated. People do not vote in line with their class interests. The whole purpose of the patriotic card, used by a succession of ruling class scoundrels from Pitt to May, is to blind people to their real interests ... The Tory press, of course, is doing its best to foster illusions in Strong and Stable.
.... The Lib Dems are not going to gain enough seats to prop up another Tory coalition ... By ruling out any form of pact with Labour under Corbyn, the Lib Dems have guaranteed their own irrelevance.
We could be in for a period of political instability such as we have not known for 40 years ... A Tory government is still possible if it cobbles together a coalition of the Lib Dems and the Ulster Unionists-DUP. Even a majority Tory government cannot be ruled out.2
Contrast this with the drunken pundits who inhabit the Westminster bubble, who competed with each other in their efforts to describe how badly Corbyn would be defeated. Prime among them was Nick Cohen, who writes with all the passion of a neocon convert for the once liberal Observer. In March Cohen predicted that in the event of a general election:
Labour will get around a quarter of the vote ... The Tories have gone easy on Corbyn and his comrades to date for the transparently obvious reason that they want to keep them in charge of Labour … In an election, they would tear them to pieces. They will expose the far left’s record of excusing the imperialism of Vladimir Putin’s gangster state, the oppressors of women and murderers of gays in Iran, the IRA, and every variety of inquisitorial and homicidal Islamist movement, Will there be 150, 125, 100 Labour MPs by the end of the flaying? My advice is to think of a number then halve it.3
Suffice to say, Cohen was faced with having to eat rather large helpings of humble pie. How did he explain himself? Primarily by blaming others! It was all because “the paralysed Tories don’t know how to govern or what to do next”. Having informed us through gritted teeth that May’s electoral defeat “is not only due to the PM’s monumental incompetence - Corbyn deserves credit”, he then tells us, by way of an alibi, that “most Labour MPs stayed in their constituencies, convinced defeat was at hand. They kept Corbyn’s name off their leaflets and told anyone who asked that Corbyn did not represent the real Labour Party.”4 Not once did it occur to Cohen to question these MPs’ cowardly behaviour, still less talk to some real people instead of embittered Labour MPs. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
If he had felt particularly brave, Cohen might have ventured into the crowds at one of the 90 mass rallies that Corbyn addressed up and down the country and asked himself whether something was happening beneath the surface of British politics. Instead Cohen, who even today defends the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, tells us that he “doesn’t swing with the polls”. Instead he reverts back to the horrors of the “links between the Corbyn camp and a Putin regime that persecutes genuine radicals”, to say nothing of his support for “an Iranian state that hounds gays, subjugates women and tortures prisoners” - and, of course, Corbyn’s “indulgence of real anti-Semites (not just critics of Israel)”.
The question is why 99% of the pundits and ‘experts’ got it so badly wrong. The answer is really not so difficult. Their understanding of what is happening in the country is limited to the latest opinion poll and soundings at Westminster. In essence what they are doing is testing whether the ideological broadside of the popular press against Corbyn has been successful or not.
Corbyn’s election was accompanied by hundreds of thousands of people joining the Labour Party. Contrary to the self-deluding nostrums of Labour Party MPs and the Tory media, this was not a far-left takeover. Would that the far left in this country accounted for even 10% of these numbers. Corbyn’s election was symptomatic of a wider revulsion at Cameron’s narrow victory and the years of austerity, cuts to benefits, a housing crisis, the plight of the NHS and the enrichment of the already rich.
It is this mood that not only Cohen and the media, but also the far left, has failed to pick up on. The growing disillusion in modern capitalism and its inability to provide even a basic and acceptable standard of living to people. The fact that young people are forced to live with their parents because they cannot afford to rent anywhere, the food banks and homelessness. The only response to growing impoverishment has been to redefine what poverty means.
I campaigned in Brighton Kemptown, a Tory marginal of 690 votes. Every school had displayed outside it large banners explaining how the cuts were affecting them. Robotically quoting figures saying that education funding is being increased means little when the actuality of what is happening in education is very different.
There was clearly a massive swing amongst young people to Labour. The effect of benefit cuts to the under-25s, combined with tuition fees and the removal of student grants and student nurses’ bursaries, have taken their toll.
Labour’s manifesto was genuinely radical in a number of ways. The decision of the right in Labour Party headquarters to leak it in advance ironically worked in favour of Labour by giving it nearly a week of extra publicity. Corbyn broke with Miliband’s legacy by openly opposing the politics of austerity. This was in contrast to the Tories’ promises of more austerity, with the abolition of the triple lock on pensions, means testing of pensioners’ winter fuel payments and the removal of free school meals. Labour’s promise to abolish tuition fees, and to restore housing benefit to the under-21s, struck a chord with younger people. Today no Labour rightwinger dares defend Miliband’s austerity-lite politics. The promise to renationalise the railways, post office and utilities was also genuinely popular. Of course, we should call for workers’ control in industries that are renationalised, in order that what happened previously - whereby private-sector managers just moved over from the private to the public sector and carried on in the same way - does not happen again.
We are not in a revolutionary situation or anything even approaching it, which is why it is not possible to put forward a demand for nationalisation without compensation and gain any measure of support. It is, however, possible to demand that any compensation paid is linked to the price that the industries were originally sold for, minus the profits taken out and, not least, in the case of water, the land that was sold off by the water companies.
We should also call, in the case of the NHS, for the statutory reversal of private finance initiative contracts which have enabled private companies to literally make a killing. We should demand that, adjusted for inflation and say a 2% return, companies which have already received their initial investment back should not receive further compensation. We need to be able to formulate concrete demands which, though they go against capitalist economic ‘logic’, also resonate with sections of the class. I have no doubt that this will be controversial with some on the far left, but it is also necessary to link one’s demands to existing consciousness.
I also have little doubt that Brexit played a major part. The reason that the Liberal Democrats did not benefit from the support of remainers was that they were not a credible electoral vehicle, especially after they explicitly ruled out supporting a Corbyn-led government. We saw two conflicting tendencies.
First, Labour clearly benefited from pro-European Tories who were alienated by a hard Brexit. There is no other explanation for the victory of Labour in Kensington, possibly the richest constituency in Britain. The votes in Brighton, Hove and Canterbury, among other places, indicate that this was not just confined to London constituencies.
There was also the collapse of the UK Independence Party vote. Unlike most received wisdom, I have argued that the suggestion that Ukip votes would go automatically back to the Tories was mistaken. Although we may not like it, Ukip posed as a party of protest against the establishment - Farage’s peoples’ army. With its virtual collapse at this election, the majority of working class Ukip voters in the north went back to Labour, not the Tories. Even in the south a large proportion appear to have supported Labour too. People voted for Ukip not because they were racist, but because they believed that immigration was responsible for their decline in living standards.
What then has been the reaction of the Labour right? During the campaign the theme of many - like Peter Kyle, the MP for Hove - was that a vote for them was not a vote for Corbyn.5 The Zionist lobby that Corbyn was so assiduous in appeasing paid him back with studious contempt. Joan Ryan, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, whose sole achievements have been to claim the second highest expenses of any MP in 2005-06 and the highest amounts in 2006-07,6 asked her constituents to elect her “despite Corbyn” because May would win.7 Jeremy Newmark, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, the British branch of the Israeli Labour Party, likewise assured voters that if they voted for him Corbyn still would not win.8
For all his attempts to please the Zionist lobby, including suspending supporters of the Palestinians and supporting the redefinition of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, the Zionists treat Corbyn with utter disdain. He is not reliable compared to Tom Watson.
Some on the right like Owen Smith9, Chuka Umunna and even Peter Mandelson10 have recognised that they were wrong in writing off Corbyn as an electoral liability, although Mandelson returned to type pretty quickly with his bizarre suggestion that Labour MPs should prop up May in order to achieve a soft Brexit.11 Others, such as Chris Leslie, the former shadow chancellor, complained that, despite the fact that Corbyn had been fighting the Tories as well as fighting Labour traitors like himself, he had not achieved an outright victory.
It must be very painful for the Labour right to admit that the Labour Party under Corbyn won the highest vote since 1997 and the largest increase in any party’s percentage of the vote since 1945. The right’s whole narrative revolves around the idea that warmed-up Blairism would still prove attractive - despite having lost nearly five million votes between 1997 and 2010. Corbyn’s 12.9 million votes were, with the exception of Blair in 1997 (13.5 million), the highest for Labour since 1966 (13.1 million). The right has been forced to acknowledge that it was Corbyn’s strategy of ignoring the print media and using social media that contributed to Theresa May’s defeat.
The question for the left though is ‘Where next?’ Of one thing we can be in little doubt. Theresa May is, in the words of George Osborne, a dead woman walking. There can be no future in her putative alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP is not simply anti-gay and anti-abortion: it is above all a racist, sectarian party of Protestant supremacy. It was created in reaction to the formation of the civil rights movement by Catholics in 1969. It has strong links with loyalist terror groups, including the Ulster Defence Association and its death squads. Only a few days ago its leader, Arlene Foster, met with Jackie MacDonald, a senior leader of the UDA, in the wake of the UDA murder of another loyalist in Carrickfergus.12 But then some forms of terrorism have always been acceptable to the Conservative and Unionist Party.
It is important that the previous strategy of appeasing the right is not pursued. It would be a strategic mistake to take Chuka Ummuna and Angela Eagle back into the shadow cabinet. In a reversal of Lyndon Johnson’s maxim, it would be better to have them pissing outside the tent rather than fouling the shadow cabinet!
It is essential that Corbyn purges Labour’s civil service. It is absurd that the left leadership of the Labour Party has next to no control over its unelected staff. This meant that virtually no resources were directed to any seat that Labour was trying to gain. Under Iain McNicol, Labour’s witch-hunting general secretary, a strategy of defending Labour marginals - especially those where Progress MPs were in danger, like Hove - was pursued. That was why no help whatsoever was given to crucial marginals like Brighton Kemptown, where a Tory majority of 690 was turned into a Labour majority of nearly 10,000. Labour HQ swallowed the tabloid and media nonsense about Labour being in for a catastrophic result. What this meant in practice is that at least 15 seats that Labour could easily have won were lost - and with them any chance of a majority. McNicol, if he is not prepared to fall on his sword, should be sacked for gross incompetence.13
As the right in the Labour Party recover from the shock of Corbyn’s performance and take stock, I predict a renewal of the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign. It is essential that the compliance unit is wound up, that all those suspended - including Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and myself - are reinstated. At the beginning of the election campaign Mel Melvin, women’s’ officer for Brighton Kemptown, was suspended for posting a satirical tweet, in response to reports of the bullying of Dianne Abbot: she said that Abbot should claim Jewish ancestry, then action would be taken. It would seem that any form of humour, if it involves poking fun at the false anti-Semitism campaign, is also verboten. Mel’s comment was nothing more than a satirical joke.
The key Zionist activists in the Labour Party have demonstrated that their first loyalty is to Israel and British foreign policy. Newmark, Ryan, Gapes and Kyle did their best to undermine Corbyn during the election campaign and no-one could be more disappointed with the election result than these Labour Zionist candidates.
The one issue that never really came to the fore, but underlies much of the voting, was the question of Brexit. May’s hard Brexit has clearly hit the buffers. Labour’s position at the moment is incoherent. Corbyn’s reference to “managed migration” during the election campaign and the myth that immigration, rather than the erosion of trade union rights, leads to lower wages, has to be fought. Labour’s stance should be clear - Britain should stay in the single market and the custom’s union and it should accept the free movement of labour. Corbyn should not pander to the myth that immigration lowers the price of labour. There is already a crisis of a lack of nurses in the NHS and now there are reports that the number coming in from the EU has declined by a massive 96%.
The message for the left inside the Labour Party is that it has to go on the political offensive. We need to deselect large numbers of what were imposed candidates. Never again should the Labour machine be allowed to choose the candidates, as happened this time. Another general election is probable within a year. The Tory Party is divided over Brexit and it is highly unlikely that the present government can continue with the support of the DUP. John Major has already spoken out against it, following on from the comments of the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson.
1. http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/labour-can-win-if-corbyn-is-bold-key.html (April 20 2017).
3. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/19/jeremy-corbyn-labour-threat-party-election-support (March 19 2017).