Britain: Corbyn presents a radical alternative

May 4, 2017
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is running on a radical anti-austerity platform.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has done remarkably well since Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s April 19 announcement of general elections on June 8.

The veteran socialist hit the ground running and launched Labour’s campaign with a speech that attacked the rich and pledged to speak on behalf of the dispossessed. He and other key members of the shadow cabinet have been speaking at big public rallies up and down Britain.

May, on the other hand, has been hiding from the electorate in closed private meetings.

Corbyn has faced down not only dire poll ratings — deliberately generated by the right inside his party against him — but also the Tory campaign of personalised vitriol enthusiastically backed by the media.

It is clear that a Tory victory would be a disaster. It would be full speed ahead with austerity policies for the next five years and a hardline, anti-working class Brexit. This would spell disaster in relation to political and social conditions in Britain for a long time.

Corbyn’s response has been to turn to politics, with Labour policy announcements coming thick and fast since the election was announced. This process had already started before May’s announcement, but has quickly accelerated. Clearly a lot of preparatory work had already been done.

Labour is also campaigning to get people onto the electoral register. More than 100,000 young people registered in the first three days after the election was called — but with voting figures low among the under-25s, there is still a way to go before the deadline of May 22.

The Labour manifesto had not been published as of May 4, but it is clear Labour will be standing on an anti-austerity platform radically different from other parties. This has already started to have a resonance, with a Sunday Times poll showing a drop in the Tory lead from 23 points to 13.

As a Sunday Mirror editorial stated: “The battle lines in this general election become clearer as each day of this campaign unfolds.”

Kick out the Tories

Labour still has a mountain to climb, but the big Tory majority May is banking on might be wishful thinking. A Labour victory in the form of a Labour-led anti-austerity government with the support of the Scottish National Party, the Greens and Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru should not be discounted.

This is going to be an election based more on competing policies and visions of society than any other election for a long time. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, pointed out at the London May Day rally that this is completely different to the past two elections where the challenge was to spot the difference — elections that Labour lost.

It is also completely different to the Tony Blair years when the watchword was reach out to the Tories.

Labour policy announcements continue to come out every day and the list is impressive. It includes:

  • A £10 minimum wage;
  • Renationalising the railways;
  • Higher taxes on the rich, reverse the Tory’s £72 million tax cuts;
  • Higher corporation tax;
  • Repealing the Tory anti-union laws;
  • Ending zero-hour contracts;
  • Full employment rights from day one;
  • Ending undercutting by posted workers;
  • Pay for interns;
  • The right to trade union representation;
  • Outlawing the sacking of women because they are pregnant;
  • Tackling the gender pay gap by forcing companies to publish pay differentials;
  • Four new bank holidays, reflecting Britain’s national diversity;
  • Abolition of fees for industrial tribunals;
  • Ending the pay freeze in the public sector;
  • Giving a pay-rise for NHS staff;
  • Ending privatisation in the NHS;
  • Halting all current emergency department closure proposals;
  • A pay cap – not more than 20 times the average – on public sector bosses and those companies with government contracts;
  • Defending Britain against the environmental effects of Brexit;
  • Banning fracking;
  • Raising the carers allowance by 17%;
  • Reversing the £3 billion education cuts;
  • Abolishing tuition fees;
  • Reintroducing NHS bursaries;
  • Reversing the housing benefit cut for 18-21 year olds;
  • Free school meals;
  • Ending the opening of free schools, no new grammar schools;
  • Building a million houses over five years, half of them council houses;
  • Acting against rogue landlords in the private rented sector to ensure rented accommodation is fit for human habitation; and
  • Banning weapons sales to repressive regimes.

A detailed policy on Brexit has been presented that includes: a unilateral declaration that European Union nationals living in Britain would be allowed to stay; opposition to a hard Tory-style Brexit; insistence on a meaningful vote in the parliament in the process; and freedom of movement for those with a job offer.

It includes scrapping the proposals in May’s Great Repeal bill and replacing it with a positive bill enshrining key rights that would be lost with the termination of EU membership.

If this reflects the manifesto, it adds up to exactly the kind of radical anti-austerity platform that Labour needs to cut through in this election — completely different from what it has offered in recent years.

It is a platform that represents a vision of a different social model — for the many, not the few. And Corbyn himself has been to the left of Labour’s “official” stance, arguing for unrestricted movement and insisting that the Trident nuclear program would be the subject of a strategic defence review if Labour won.

There is no sign as yet, however, of a pledge for electoral reform in the Labour manifesto. The absence of such reform would be a mistake and a missed opportunity.

Such a commitment would attract a lot of votes to Labour from many desperate to see a grossly undemocratic system changed. Britain’s first-past-the-post voting is getting more undemocratic as each election goes by.

Why an election now?

Three principal imperatives appear to have brought about the dramatic U-turn involved in calling this election — which has destroyed the Fixed Parliament Act and reintroduced the grossly undemocratic practice of the election date being determined by the incumbent.

The first was a realisation of the risks of waiting until 2020. Predicting the political situation in two-year’s time with Brexit negotiations underway is impossible — anything could happen.

The second was that the Tories were 20 points ahead in the polls and have a trump card to play in the Brexit vote. May calculated that the Tories, already absorbing the politics of the far right UK Independence Party (UKIP), could speak for the Brexit vote and appeal for a majority on the basis that she will ensure that Brexit takes place without backsliding.

The third was the right-wing Labour MPs who were still campaigning to get rid of Corbyn. Many would rather see a Tory victory than a Labour win under Corbyn.

If May wins a significantly increased majority, this would put her in a strong, possibly unassailable, position to determine the character of Brexit — which would be unambiguously hardline. She wants a big majority that would allow her to dictate terms that could be very unpopular.

At the same time, the UKIP vote appears to be collapsing and the much-vaunted Liberal Democrat revival appears to be fizzling out. In the Sunday Times poll, UKIP was on 6% and the Lib Dems 11%.

Given that Labour is continuing to defend a unionist position in Scotland — opposing a “Yes” vote in a second independence referendum in support of Scotland’s continuing “union” with Britain — its electoral position is not going to change there. In fact, it could get worse.

Anti-austerity alliance

This means that winning an overall Labour majority in the House of Commons is very difficult. If Labour is going to “win” the election, this will mean Labour being the biggest single party governing with the support of other anti-austerity parties — that is, the SNP and the Greens.

Corbyn’s current hostility to this makes no sense and needs to change. If Labour does become the biggest party after the election, it will have the choice of working with other anti-austerity parties, including the SNP, or inviting the Tories to form a government. Put like that, there is no choice.

But whether it is cooperation before the election or afterwards, we are talking about an anti-austerity alliance and not the ambiguous concept of a “progressive alliance” as defined by and campaigned for by some.

Unfortunately, the “progressive alliance” is also what the Greens are pushing — an alliance that includes the Lib Dems, the same Lib Dems who propped up the Tories for five years, enabling them to force through its austerity program.

That is not the message that will galvanise the hundreds of thousands of voters who have stayed at home in recent elections, feeling that there is no difference between politicians of any hue. That crucial sector can be most effectively mobilised around a clear anti-austerity message.

[Abridged from Socialist Resistance.]

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