Theresa May’s snap election call brought forth no end of statements, editorials and rallying cries from every little group going. e details di er, but the overall picture is of dreary homogeneity. May has called the election because she is in a position of weakness. Never mind the polls: Jeremy Corbyn can lead Labour to victory. His policies are popular. All he needs to do is take a strong line on such-and-such an issue which is our group’s particular hobby-horse, and the great escape is on.
Take, for example, the Morning Star and its ebullient April 22 editorial. “When Theresa May says that the general election result is ‘not certain’ despite opinion polls giving the Tories a huge lead,” writes (presumably) editor Ben Chacko, “for once her words can be taken at face value.” May is bottling debates with the leaders of other parties because she is scared: after all, “many Labour policies are popular with the electorate”; better to concentrate “on flimsy pretexts such as parliamentary frustration of the ‘leave’ decision”. “Corbyn and his team have hit the ground running”, and “[May’s] lead may dwindle more quickly than expected.”
On closer inspection, Chacko does not seem sure – may dwindle more quickly than expected – how much more, and expected by whom? You know the polls are looking bad when this is the best the Star will do; anyone who got all their news from this grovelling daily could be forgiven for thinking that the last two years have consisted entirely of a single, continuous red tide of Labour success, and a statue of Jeremy was already on order for Parliament Square.
The final words of the editorial – “all labour movement activists need to give full backing to Corbyn, move beyond media obsessions with establishment obsessions and image and argue the case for a Labour victory” – at least nod to the problem, which is that the whole labour movement is not at all united in giving full backing to Corbyn, but instead riddled with saboteurs. All along, of course, the Star has acted as a mouthpiece for the leader’s office line of compromise, which is what has landed us here, with Labour’s electoral campaign beset constantly with outright and unchallenged sabotage.
The Star seems to think that Corbyn’s programme is acceptable in itself: abolishing grammar schools, raising the minimum wage and four entire new bank holidays – a cornucopia of socialist progress! Backsliding on Trident is, at least, regretted, although blamed on “an anonymous party official”.
Other groups, in the grand Trotskyist tradition of positioning oneself a meagre few seconds of arc to the left of the prevailing Stalinist wisdom, demand more. From the Socialist Party in England and Wales comes the call for a “bold socialist campaign” (The Socialist, April 25). Socialist Resistance cries out for a “radical left programme” (April 19). Socialist Appeal wants a “bold socialist alternative” (April 18) … and so on.
What counts as a socialist programme nowadays? SPEW provide some details, as comfortingly familiar as a pair of slippers – “renationalisation of [all] privatised public services”, and the banks, and the pharmaceutical industry, all of which should be “linked to the need for fundamental socialist change”. The last phrase sounds radical, but is actually entirely meaningless – linked how, comrades? When Theresa May ‘links’ such plans to the gulag, will that count? If the ‘link’ is so important, why not just demand Corbyn puts the actual transformation in his programme?
Remarkably, neither Resisting Socialism’s Alan Thornett nor the relevant issuers-of-statements of Socialist Appeal have anything much to say on the matter of “radical left” or “bold socialist” policies. Both, however, urge Corbyn to permit the Scottish nationalists their second referendum (and indeed both endorse a ‘yes’ vote, though neither say so in their election statements). Socialist Worker went further in an article prior to May’s election call, suggesting that Labour’s poll ratings could in part be repaired by “backing Scottish independence”.
The SWP version of this is useful as an extreme point of the sheer madness of this method. If Jeremy Corbyn came out tomorrow with a statement backing Scottish independence, the immediate response would likely be a unilateral declaration of independence of the Scottish Labour Party. Theresa May would gladly cash the blank cheque, and denounce Labour on the basis of English chauvinism. Labour would be crucified both sides of the border.
We need to be clear about the point of all this. If it were a matter of principle to support Scottish independence, then that might be a sacrifice worth making. But Socialist Worker sells it not as a sacrifice at all, but as a sure means of victory; and likewise do SA and SR sell their milder versions of the same as a promising electoral gambit; and so also does SPEW claim that wide nationalisation is the royal road to popularity … This logic is so common on the far left that it barely passes notice, but under the circumstances we must insist that it is nonsensical; for it consists of utterly marginal forces in society imagining that their particular combination of shibboleths already possesses enormous mass support which has somehow heretofore gone unnoticed.
A particular case of this syndrome is Brexit, where our comrades are at sixes and sevens, having taken entirely different lines on the matter. Thornett demands that Labour “present an alternative to the hard Brexit being planned by May, including the retention of free movement in the event of access the single market [sic – presumably this should be ‘losing access to the single market’ – PD]”. In similar mood the ultra-remoaners of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty call “for opposition to the Tories’ Brexit plans, for defence of free movement and migrants’ rights, for remaining in the single market” – otherwise “Labour will go into the election echoing, or scarcely contesting, the Tories’ main message” (April 18). Equal and opposite are the left Brexiteers of the Morning Star and SPEW.
Both sides argue that a clear line on Brexit is fundamental to success – their line. And for both sides the argument is substantially negative, in that choosing the opposite line is an error. For the AWL, a firm perspective for Brexit will leave Labour indistinguishable from the Tories; for The Socialist a ‘soft’ Brexit or ‘remain’ position would alienate “workers who voted for Brexit [who] did so primarily because they were in revolt against all the misery they have suffered over the last decade”. The problem is that they are both right: if Corbyn drifts towards the remainers, he will be torn apart for being ‘out of touch’ with ‘ordinary people’, in his ‘cosmopolitan elite bubble’. If he hardens on Brexit, the pace of Blairite sabotage will be accelerated, and he will be lambasted for losing control of his party.
In short, the game is rigged, and all this ‘tactical advice’ from well-meaning lefts is utterly facile. It reveals the serried ranks of Britain’s Marxists as what they are, which is to say, merely pale echoes of Labourism. What has Corbyn been up to, after all, if not casting around for wizard wheezes and gimmicks to shore up his short-term popularity? The Corbyn office’s strategy has been to give all the ground asked of them on issues of ‘high politics’, and fight purely on a platform of modest economic reforms. The result is that he and his allies refuse to confront the actual arrangement of power against him, leading to the present situation, where he must fight a general election under constant assault from his own side. The far left does not seriously confront this problem, merely recommending a different slate of gimmicks.
We live in strange times, and it may be that there is a startling reversal before June 8. Yet that is in many respects besides the point. The left so fears defeat that it refuses to even think it possible, insisting that May could come unstuck, or isn’t as strong as she looks, or whatever other comforting delusions are available. But, on the basis of all currently available evidence, the left will not wake up on June 9 with a friend in Number 10. What then, comrades? Do we go back to our papers, and write in sadness that everything would have been different if Corbyn had promised to nationalise Pfizer under democratic workers’ control? Or do we fight to purge the labour movement of traitors and build it into a social force that can withstand the attacks of the bosses’ media?
We would hope for a renewed commitment to the latter. Yet we must admit it is probably a more forlorn hope than the most dewy-eyed Corbynite expresses for June’s election. The Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain are incapable of political lines that seriously oppose the left wing of the bureaucracy; SPEW prefers to obey the orders of the RMT union rather than actually get involved in the Labour Party struggle; the SWP actively discourages its members and periphery from engaging in such internal struggles; the AWL involves itself, but often on the wrong side; Socialist Appeal has fallen so utterly into flighty eclecticism and millenarian crisis-mongering that we cannot be sure when their attention will stray elsewhere; and Resisting Socialism is reduced to hopeless liberal philistinism, and will abandon Labour as soon as they deem something else sufficiently attractive to ‘the youth’ they (and, these days, most of us) so conspicuously lack.
Thus the paradox of the situation: the greatest opportunity the left has had in a generation coincides with its political nadir.