Britain: Left surges in inspiring challenge to Tories, austerity

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with Labour's Manifesto that contained many popular polices that break with austerity.
June 15, 2017

In the aftermath of Britain’s June 8 elections, in which Labour defied expectations to make major gains while the Conservative government of Theresa May lost its majority, the surge of support for Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity platform has grown.

The Canary reported on June 11: “Just days after the election, Labour has received two bits of very good news. Firstly, its membership has surged since the general election. Secondly, a new poll suggests that, were there to be another general election, Labour would now beat the Conservatives by a country mile ...

“A new poll by Survation — a company whose final poll before the election accurately predicted that Labour would win 40% of the vote — puts Labour a staggering six points ahead of the Conservatives.”

With a humiliated Theresa May holding on to seek to lead a minority government with support of the ultra-conservative, paramilitary-linked Democratic Unionist Party, an energised left wing is seeking to ratchet up the pressure. A mass protest has been called by the anti-austerity group People’s Assembly for July 1 to oppose a new Tory-DUP government.

Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a close comrade of Corbyn’s, urged the Trade Union Congress on June 14 to back the July 1 protest with the aim of mobilising 1 million people to topple May and force new elections.

Derek Wall is an ecosocialist activist and joint international coordinator for the Green party of England and Wales stood against Theresa May in Maidenhead on June 8. Below, he takes stock of the results and their fall out.

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The British general elections led to dramatic gains for the left. In calling the elections, Theresa May, the now-embattled leader of the Conservative Party, took a gamble that went badly wrong.

In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s left-wing leader since its founding, hugely increased Labour’s share of the vote. 

May called a snap election after opinion polls showed the Conservatives were over 20% ahead of Labour. Installed by the Conservative party after last year’s Brexit vote, she was aware she lacked popular legitimacy. Facing difficult negotiations to leave the European Union and a divided party, she assumed the election would give her a sweeping majority that would allow her to control her party.

Corbyn, under constant assault by the media and his right-wing parliamentary party was assumed to be a push over.

Stunning results

The results stunned Britain. May lost 13 seats. Instead of increasing her majority perhaps by as many as 100 seats, as expected, she lost her majority. She is now trying to broker a deal with Northern Ireland’s bigoted, anti-Catholic sectarian DUP.

Despite receiving polling figures as low as 25% at the start of the campaign, Corbyn’s Labour increased its vote from just over 30% in 2015 to more than 40%, gaining 30 seats including wins in previously Conservative strong holds. Kensington, seen as one of the richest constituencies in Britain, went Labour, so did Canterbury, which had remained Tory since 1918.

Corbyn did not win government, and parts of his manifesto such as continued support for the Trident nuclear program were concessions to the parliamentary party, the result is a clear success for the left.

Corbyn is a left-wing figure sympathetic to ecosocialism and is a long term opponent of right-wing leaders in his party, along with his closest ally John McDonnell. The right-wing made much of the “extremism” of these two “Marxist”, often based on their calls for peace talks with the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s. More than £1 million was spent by the Conservative Party on ads claiming Corbyn supported the Irish Republican Army.

Yet on June 8, Corbyn-led labour increased its vote by the greatest margin since 1945.

Corbyn surprised most commentators when he won nearly 60% of the vote from members and supporters to become Labour leader in 2015. Such was the opposition from the right-wing parliamentary party that he lost a vote of confidence 170 to 40 last year. Yet when he ran again for leader, he increased his vote to 61%.

Corbyn has faced constant opposition from virtually the entire British media and his MPs, but the election results mean he is now very much in control. After being dominated by right-wing leaders like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour now has a consolidated socialist leadership seeking to transform the party.

Corbyn and his allies will continue to face an institutional battle to democratise the party and cement the left, his former opponents are in disarray. But the election’s most important long term effect may well be to transform Labour in a socialist and perhaps ecosocialist direction.

Rather than being a return to “Old Labour”, Corbyn provides a break with the past and the inspiration for a left party committed to democratic control, ecology and, above all, a foreign policy based on peace rather than imperialist intervention.

Right weakened

Another immediate effect has been a weakening of the right.  May had hoped to absorb the votes of the right wing anti-European Union UK Independence Party. However, many of their votes moved to Corbyn.

Instead of hegemony, May has reaped personal catastrophe. The election was called purely at her whim to improve her personal political position, despite repeatedly insisting she would not call an early election.

May argued that she could provide a “strong and stable” government — and that it was essential to win a big majority so that she could negotiate a strong exit deal with the European Union.

Instead, in losing the Tories’ parliamentary majority, her personal position has been shredded. May is expected to resign as prime minister, perhaps after EU talks but many suggest sooner.

Instead of overcoming the contradictions in the Conservative Party between MPs who are more or less hardline on EU exit, she has made them worse. Most commentators expect new elections sooner rather than later that could put Corbyn into power.

May’s efforts to stay in power with the aid of 10 DUP MPs have been met with a mixture of horror and ridicule even within her own party. May helped push the false slur of Corbyn’s alleged support for the IRA, which had little impact on voters, but she is attempting to govern with a sectarian party with links to Loyalist paramilitaries.

The DUP’s opposition to abortion, LGBTIQ rights and Trump-like climate denial mark them as pariahs, even among many on the right.

My party, the Greens, stood 457 candidates, with our co-Leader Caroline Lucas re-elected in Brighton, gaining 10 points and increasing her vote above 50%.

Where the Greens go next strategically is going to be the subject of much debate. We lost heavily in Bristol West, where an anti-Corbyn Labour MP increased her vote. Generally our votes fell, with many former Greens understandably voting Labour.

Progressive alliance

The Greens did promote a “progressive alliance” to maximise the left-of-centre vote, and stood down in a number of constituencies where Labour won.

My view is that we should promote stronger links with Labour, but being supportive of Corbyn, acknowledge Labour still has a way to go on issues such as Trident and others.

If Corbyn cooperates with the Greens on badly needed electoral reform to bring in proportional representation, and succeeds in democratising Labour, then cooperation with the Greens is likely to deepen.

Lucas has been a strong advocated of greater cooperation on the left. With her support, the local Greens did not contest a second Brighton seat, which Labour won. Her approach of Green Party independence plus cooperation to challenge the Tories, is likely to continue.

Outside of Scotland and Wales, the left outside the Greens will continue to support Labour. The Communist Party of Britain declined to field election candidates for the first time in its history. Neither did small left groups Left Unity or the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.

It is difficult to judge without serious academic research into voting patterns, but the indications are that a poor campaign by May, mobilisation of young voters inspired by Corbyn, opposition to austerity and Corbyn’s personal charm, all helped Labour advance.

The Corbyn revolution has only just started. But a new election would see him win on current polling, his previously precarious position as party leader is now secure and a new young left in the Labour Party is mobilising to transform the party and British society.

For the first time in my lifetime, the left in Britain are making dramatic gains. Exciting and challenging times beckon.

Events are moving fast. Corbyn has he told his MPs to prepare for a new election in the coming months. He has announced plans to start campaigning in 65 Conservative marginal constituencies.

When he announced these plans to his fellow Labour MPs, most of whom have long and loudly opposed him, they gave him a standing ovation. By contrast, May is still struggling to make a deal with the DUP and her government totters on the edge of destruction. 

British politics may resemble a soap opera at present, but its most popular character is on the left.