Seb Cooke looks at how the left can win in the upcoming election
It is less than four weeks away from a general election that could have major ramifications for the working class and the left in Britain. Not many elections are like this.
If May fails to secure a bigger majority at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn, or if he wins extra seats with that manifesto, it would represent a humiliating defeat both for her and the class she represents. For our side it would signal a giant step forward. This is not because Corbyn will magically change everything, but because the working class would have successfully imposed itself on British politics in a way that has not happened in decades. It is from there that genuine change can occur.
On current polling though, May will win. In themselves, these polls are narrowing and showing encouraging signs, but this period is about so much more than polling. We cannot allow the next few weeks to be characterised by declarations that the left will lose.
Instead this immediate period must be met with a level of political ambition that is largely out of step with where most of the radical left has been for years. This is not just because the prize on offer is too big to warrant any other response, but because we have a unique opportunity to build a more combative radical left in this country.
How can we do this?
First we must reject the dominant premise of this election: that the left is irrelevant to the crisis in British society. It is this which underpins the assessment – there from the start – that Corbyn will be smashed under a tide of Tory blue. This projection has a simple political goal: to neutralise and disorientate Corbyn’s campaign. So far it has failed.
Instead, we must assert the validity of left wing politics and support Corbyn. Our society has been hammered by years of Tory austerity. In many cases this has come on top of decades of wage suppression and the loss of decent jobs. Since 2010, the war on ordinary people and the services they use has been phenomenal.
May is desperate to keep a lid on this. She does not want the election to be fought around the NHS, education, pay, poverty or any of the issues that define her party’s term in office. She wants to sweep this entire slate aside in a chauvinistic, anti-Corbyn tide.
This is impossible to do completely because of the scale of the crisis. However, there is no guarantee that just because things are bad, people will turn against the Tories. Instead there is a polarisation taking place which, south of Scotland, is forming around May and Corbyn on a left vs right basis.
May’s hard approach will have traction as we see not only in polling but also the in the local election results. But Corbyn’s radical turn in this campaign (save for a few issues) will also pull people towards him. Some will support things such as abolishing fees or nationalising rail not because they have always leaned left, but because their experience of both travel and education under neo-liberalism has been disastrous.
The challenge is not in convincing people that it would be good to have these things in place; it is in convincing people that they are even possible at all within our political system.
A very common response I have had when talking to people about the election is that nothing really changes. This is pretty much correct when it comes to our political system. For decades no big party has gone outside the neo-liberal doctrine. Whoever gets in, things don’t seem to change.
In this election however, there are genuinely different political choices on offer. Much of what Corbyn is offering is a break from the free market consensus. This in itself can cut through the layers of alienation.
But it’s not enough to just say vote Labour and all these wonderful things will emerge. We know that Corbyn himself will have a huge fight just to be PM if he gets in. It would cause a major crisis and there would be a backlash.
Instead of saying to people simply ‘vote Labour’, the election should be about setting off a political earthquake in this country. A ‘day of reckoning’ as Corbyn has said. People must realise that they can create this earthquake on 8 June.
Not only does this have more chance of success because many more people will be mobilised, it increases the numbers who associate with the left and hardens the opposition to the Tories. The next few weeks are a chance to rapidly build the left in this country on this basis, via a very serious attempt to defeat the Tories and advance our class.
The Corbyn campaign is providing a lead around this, both in terms of its politics and its method. The campaign is mobilising people against the Tories on a left basis. In itself, this will bring in more MPs behind Corbyn and the manifesto. The bigger the sense of momentum behind the campaign, the more dissenting voices will fade away. This unity around Corbyn, however fragile, is vital to boosting his chances.
How do we support the campaign and make it better?
First of all we can’t necessarily rely on official Labour canvassing operations – the most immediate way people think they can get involved. Most MPs are well to the right of Corbyn and even running on their own, 2015 style manifestos. Canvassing in this way will dissuade people from actually talking politics to people or from presenting the ideas in the official manifesto. If there are more radical, pro-Corbyn candidates then it may be a different picture.
We have to understand that in this situation small groups of people can have a big impact. Politics is out there. Left wing solutions to the crisis – far from being irrelevant – are dominating the election. This is an open invitation for audacious and bold forms of political activism which aims to mobilise as many people as possible not just into voting booths, but out onto the streets as well.
You could not stand outside a busy train station in morning rush hour in 2015 wearing a Milliband T shirt and talking about some pithy price ratio. You can, however, get a few people; wear Corbyn T shirts and talk about the need to renationalise the railways to every commuter coming through. It could be done with a megaphone if you think it won’t annoy people so early in the morning. In the same vein, a group could take over a high street with an anti-austerity / pro-Corbyn street stall. This kind of action can appeal to a layer of new Labour members who don’t want to spend all their time just knocking doors. It can begin to reverse a process whereby new Labour members get drawn to the right through the multiple layer of bureaucracy.
It’s also worth going to some of the places that the left hasn’t been so well organised recently but where the impact of austerity has been particularly severe. Social housing tenants have been very hard hit although they’re not the only group. If you have some links, get some people to go around and talk about the election, the impact of cuts and why June 8 is a chance to turf out the people who have been making working class people poorer.
A group of us did this the other day. The most common response we got was a stated apathy towards all politics but when you managed to talk more in depth, people started to switch on. It was very open to clear left wing arguments but the hard bit was getting them a hearing. We have now planned an open air, emergency community rally for the following week.
Austerity is of course not the only issue to agitate around during the election. War and racism are both central to what May is about and both are areas where a radical message around Corbyn is credible.
One group of people doing this sort of thing won’t do much, but there are thousands of political activists across the UK who can, over the next few weeks, try to generate a sense of urgency around this election and popularise an anti-Tory, pro-Corbyn message in various ways. This can help generate a kind of ‘tipping point’ where people begin to get a sense of their collective power and want to use it. Such activity shouldn’t be confined to marginal seats either. Taking this chance to mobilise ordinary people against the government is about so much more than just wining seats.
None of this is about giving people false hope, but about advancing our class now to prepare for any outcome.