Second Place Winner
I’m not talking about the 45th President of the USA. My reference is Thursday’s general election in Britain. While Theresa May’s Tories won the most seats in the House of Commons there is near consensus among the pundits that the real winner was the second place Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.
May could have governed for three+ more years but chose to call a snap election to strengthen her majority—and authority in negotiating Britain’s Brexit departure from the European Union. At the time of her hubris polls were predicting a landslide victory for her–ranging from 20-35 percent–over a Labor Party seemingly plagued by internal spats led by the remnants of Tony Blair’s “New Labor.” A majority of Labor MPs had tried, unsuccessfully, to remove the socialist Corbyn from his elected leadership. The Blairites warned old school Corbyn would lead the party to such a drubbing it might never recover.
The same pollsters who had predicted a Labor victory in 2015 got it very wrong this time as well. The Tory plurality in votes was about two percent over Labor. But they lost 13 seats—leaving them seven short of a majority.
Labor gained 30 seats. The xenophobes of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who had been granted a White House audience with Trump, won zero. The republican Sinn Fein picked up an additional three seats in occupied Ireland for a total of seven—but they don’t actually participate in the occupier’s parliament.
May immediately secured Her Majesty’s blessing to try to form a minority government with the backing of the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party in Ireland who won ten seats. The DUP was founded by the late infamous Ian Paisley who once heckled a Pope giving greetings to the European Parliament. Despite their virulent anti-Catholicism they are defacto champions of the Vatican’s efforts to outlaw birth control and same sex marriage. They believe Darwin was evil and share Trump’s views on climate change. And their base is divided over May’s “hard Brexit.” It remains to be seen whether this union can be consummated. Even if it does it probably will not long survive the normal attrition of by-elections.
But these shenanigans pale in significance to the renaissance of the historic party of the British working class.
In 1918, undoubtedly influenced by the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky, the Labor Party adopted the famous Clause 4 of their constitution calling for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange,” and “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
The Labor government that replaced Sir Winston Churchill in the summer of 1945 partially implemented some of this socialist agenda. Their biggest lasting achievement was the socialized medicine of the National Health Service—still the best health care system by far in any industrialized country despite whittling away by Tories and Blairites. They also carried out extensive nationalizations of industries–though nearly all of those were later reversed by the Tories.
The 1918 Clause 4 language stood even through the Cold War until Tony Blair’s “New Labor” makeover in 1995. New Labor diluted the power of the trade unions and strengthened the rule of the party’s Leader and MPs. It was designed to imitate the American Democrats—though Blair was actually closest to the Republican Bush II as a junior partner in the Iraq war. Blair also had a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, a godfather to one of the media mogul’s children. After serving three terms as Prime Minister, this Fabian Socialist became a well compensated adviser to JP Morgan Chase, and collected many six-figure speaker fees.
During the reign of the Blairites, there were attempts to form a new left working class party but they never got off the ground. Workers showed great loyalty to their traditional party. British socialists I have come to know often advanced the slogan—Vote Labor With No Illusions. But not this time. Socialist Resistance ran an editorial For a Labour Victory on June 8! which said in part,
“Labour’s General election manifesto launch has boosted Corbyn’s campaign, which has been drawing thousands to rallies across the country. Debate has shifted to a new level, replacing endless ridicule of the Labour leader with a serious discussion on an alternative policy; not to only to end austerity but seeking to reverse it – for the many, not the few….there is a real alternative on offer in this election to the politics of austerity, welfare cuts, low wages, job insecurity, zero-hour contracts, and food banks. It is a unique opportunity for the left. It is a manifesto that can cut through the shadow of Brexit that May is using in an attempt to win a Tory majority.
“It does not contain everything we wanted, but it is a radical departure from the politics served up by Labour leaderships since Kinnock and then Blair in their embracing of ‘new realism’ i.e. neo-liberalism….We are calling on our supporters to pull out the stops, get fully involved, and strain every nerve to bring a about Labour victory.”
In their first post-election article the same publication noted,
“We are seeing tectonic shifts taking place at several levels in British politics. Labour’s anti-austerity election platform has appealed to many of the same marginalised people who were drawn towards a Brexit vote. The vote is a massive rejection of austerity—bringing about a fundamental change in British politics. There is a new generation on the scene for the first time, completely open to the kind of radical alternative Labour is putting forward. For example, it was the student vote which took Canterbury for Labour which has been Tory for 170 years….In this situation the job of the radical left is clear. Join the Corbyn movement if you have not done so yet, help him to change and democratise the Labour Party. Deepen the political trajectory that he has initiated, and stand ready to fight the next election as and when it comes.”
American socialists who have advocated a labor party in this country, beginning with the great Eugene V Debs, have long recognized that elections are a tactic, not a salvation, for the working class in our struggle against capital. But they are useful in assessing the progress of that struggle and election victories can ratify and codify nonelectoral ones. Within that context, I agree with both the British comrades and the pundits that this election was a victory for our side in the class war, though more like Stalingrad than Waterloo.
The Labor Party Manifesto was not a hastily prepared collection of bullet points for a snap election. It was the platform Corbyn had been campaigning for since Labor’s 2015 loss—first to recruit tens of thousands of new, mostly young members to the party. That was the initial base that elected him party leader.
Corbyn became the first leader in decades to reach out to the unions that had initially launched the party and again put Labor squarely in solidarity with their strikes and demonstrations.
He also continued his support for the Stop the War Coalition he had long headed with its record of mass antiwar demonstrations going back to Blair’s criminal Iraq war.
In December, 2015, Corbyn spoke at a big trade union rally in Paris to pressure the summit then in progress hammering out a climate change accord. He worked to incorporate key demands of the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy in to the election Manifesto.
I agree with my British cothinkers the Manifesto doesn’t go as far as I would like. But endorsing their positive approach puts us both in harmony with the advice of Debs. In advance of a union conference in the 1920s that failed to launch a labor party he wrote,
“If a genuine labor party is organized at Chicago I shall not expect the platform to go the limit of radical demands but shall be satisfied with a reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests as well as its duties and responsibilities, doubting not that with the progress of the party its platform will in due time embrace every essential feature of the working class program for deliverance from industrial servitude.”
Corbyn appears to be making an honest, and so far effective effort to return the British Labor Party to the road to that deliverance. In this country our class still doesn’t have a competitive party of our own. The British example is the best current model we can learn from.
I know some readers were among the 4,000 who attended a Peoples Summit in Chicago this past weekend where Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders declared he was delighted with the Labor Party showing in Britain. I will offer my take on this event next time.
That’s all for this week.
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