After the surge: Corbyn and the road ahead

Issue: 156

Mark L Thomas

The June 2017 general election saw a voter revolt, once again, shake the political establishment in Britain. And once again, like the close-run 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, almost all the defenders of the existing order failed to see it coming.

Labour’s remarkable success under Jeremy Corbyn, depriving Theresa May of the mandate she confidently expected when she called a snap election in mid-April, has transformed the political landscape. Labour achieved the biggest increase in its share of the vote between two elections in the whole post-1945 era. Labour’s vote rose from 30.4 percent in 2015 to 40 percent just two years later.1 For the first time in 20 years Labour came out of an election with more MPs than it went into it with.

Labour successfully took seats in areas usually seen as Tory heartlands, winning seats such as Canterbury and Portsmouth South, both held by the Tories since 1918. In south west London a near 8,000 Tory majority in Battersea collapsed under Labour’s assault. In Kensington a knife-edge recount finally returned the constituency’s first ever Labour MP. Labour also swept out Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem architect of coalition with Cameron’s Tories, in Sheffield Hallam. And Labour re-emerged as a meaningful parliamentary presence in Scotland after its near wipeout in 2015, increasing its number of seats from one to seven.

Labour in 2017 did not just win more votes than it did in the defeats under Ed Miliband in 2015 and Gordon Brown in 2010; it got more votes than Tony Blair did in two of his three victories (2001 and 2005). Apart from Blair’s first election in 1997, you would need to go back to Harold Wilson’s landslide in 1966 to find Labour getting more votes at a general election. In fact, Labour got more votes than any party coming second at a general election since it lost the 1951 election.2

Labour under Corbyn was able to win almost 13 million votes for a platform that rejected austerity and challenged the neoliberal settlement that has existed in Britain since the late 1970s. It represents a return of the left at the ballot box, legitimising left wing arguments in mainstream debate and emboldening millions to feel change is possible. Whether it was in the rapturous response to Corbyn at the Glastonbury festival or at the Durham Miners’ Gala, or the bitter anger that exploded after the Grenfell tower fire, the left and left wing ideas feel on the front foot in a way we have rarely seen in Britain for decades.

Labour’s success on 8 June also challenges the pessimism that has all too often gripped much of the left—the acceptance that Britain is predominantly right wing, with neoliberal individualism displacing class collectivism and its corollary that elections can only be won by abandoning any radical measures and that the right wing press will destroy any Labour politician who tries to defy this bitter truth.

A recent powerful iteration of such assumptions has been the notion that Brexit was purely a right wing vote that can only see Britain move further to the right. Yet the convulsions unleashed by Brexit—the departure of David Cameron and George Osborne, the collapse of Ukip and May’s decision to call an election to assert her authority over the Brexit negotiations—have instead left her authority shattered. Labour now has the potential to shape Brexit and British politics more widely.

But Labour’s advance also poses critical questions about how they can win a parliamentary majority, what obstacles a Labour government would face in office over implementing its programme and the relationship between electoral advance at the ballot box and increased collective struggles on the streets and in the workplace.

Defying the pundits

Labour’s vote under Corbyn at the general election defied the conventional wisdom of the entire media and political commentariat. As Jon Snow candidly admitted on Channel 4 News the day after the election, “We the media, the pundits, the experts, know nothing”.3 The near universal assumption was that Corbyn was taking Labour to a potentially existential meltdown. Speculation revolved around whether the outcome would be merely on the scale of the 1983 disaster, when Labour under Michael Foot put out a left wing manifesto and plummeted to 209 seats and its lowest percentage of the vote since 1918. Or would it be worse? Perhaps closer to the performance of 1935 when it got just 154 MPs? Some even suggested Labour might be facing a collapse on the scale of 1931, when in the election that followed the great betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald, who as Labour prime minister split to form a coalition with the Tories, Labour slumped to just 52 MPs.

On the right Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail predicted:

The brutal fact is that Labour cannot survive as a mass political party after the general election on June 8. Jeremy Corbyn’s restless rabble now stands at 23 percent in the opinion polls… The chances are that the 23 percent figure will fall like a stone as the election progresses, because he has shown little ability to fight an effective general election.4

While in the Guardian Polly Toynbee, bewailing Corbyn’s acceptance of May’s decision to call a snap election (in an article titled: “Corbyn is Rushing to Embrace Labour’s Annihilation”), fulminated:

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Was ever there a more crassly inept politician than Jeremy Corbyn, whose every impulse is to make the wrong call on everything?… The mother of all bombs is about to drop on Labour, but what does he do?… Remember Tony Benn celebrating the millions of votes for “socialism” under Michael Foot’s 1983 political suicide manifesto, though Labour had crashed to epic defeat? Fantasy politics reign again when Momentum responds to May’s announcement by tweeting about the “path to victory for Labour”.5

From the pro-imperialist ex-left, Nick Cohen in The Observer argued:

In an election, they [the Conservatives] would tear them [Corbyn’s front bench team] to pieces. They will expose the far left’s record of excusing the imperialism of Vladimir Putin’s gangster state, the oppressors of women and murderers of gays in Iran, the IRA, and every variety of inquisitorial and homicidal Islamist movement, while presenting itself with hypocritical piety as a moral force. Will there be 150, 125, 100 Labour MPs by the end of the flaying? My advice is to think of a number then halve it.6

And the academic and “constitutional expert” Vernon Bogdanor penned an article for The Times headed, “Labour may be heading for its worst humiliation since the 1930s”.7 Such moods of despair even affected sections of the left, so Owen Jones after Labour’s defeat in the Copeland by-election in February, saw Labour facing an “existential crisis” and called for Corbyn to resign.8

What is even more remarkable is that even when the polls started to show a major shift in support for Labour—the “Corbyn surge”—again and again this was simply dismissed as impossible by the pundits. John Rentoul, the Independent’s chief political commentator (and author of a sympathetic biography of Blair), insisted on 31 May that a YouGov poll predicting a hung Parliament was “bunkum and balderdash”,9 while Dan Hodges, writing in the Mail on Sunday four days before the election was equally incredulous at the polls:

Over the past week I’ve spoken to Labour MPs and Tory MPs. I’ve spoken to Cabinet Ministers, Shadow Ministers, backbenchers, advisers and activists. I haven’t found a single person—not one—who believes the “Labour surge” is real… Corbyn will struggle to significantly exceed the 31 percent Ed Miliband achieved in 2015… Anything less than a Conservative majority in excess of 100 seats would be surprising.10

Just two days before the election the editor of the New Statesman was gloomily predicting that Labour could be “heading to its worst defeat since 1935”, insisting that “whether it loses 30, 50 or even 70 seats, the Labour Party is heading…for a shattering defeat under Jeremy Corbyn”. He added, “The picture emerging is bleaker than the polls would suggest and the mood is one of foreboding…candidates with majorities under 10,000 are trying to hold back the Tory tide”.11

What this near universal “common sense” across the political spectrum ultimately reflected is the deep gulf between the world view of the establishment—the ruling class and its intellectual and political guardians—and the bitterness of the mass of the population and the capacity for this mood to channelled by a left wing rejection of neoliberalism.

The uneasy compromise

When Theresa May called the snap election in mid-April, polls showed that support for Labour had slumped to the mid-20s. This was largely due to the constant drum beat of attacks from within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Corbyn, each one seized on eagerly by the media, right wing and liberal alike. This was despite Corbyn’s resounding victory in the leadership election the previous September after a drive inside the PLP to force Corbyn out.12

But what followed was an uneasy compromise with the Labour right: Corbyn was safe from further challenges for the immediate future but unable to command the acquiescence, let alone the loyalty, of much of his parliamentary party. Yet neither was he willing to launch a sustained attempt to bring them to heel through disciplinary measures such as backing a move to deselect openly disloyal sitting MPs. Instead Corbyn and those around him repeatedly pushed to try and placate the Labour right in an attempt—largely fruitless—to dampen the internal fight and project an outward image of unity.

The result was that Labour was visibly divided, with leading figures putting out differing and conflicting positions on Brexit, immigration and foreign policy. The charge that Corbyn was a “weak” leader gained purchase from his inability to stem the public attacks from his own MPs. The pressure to maintain a degree of unity with the Labour right also saw Corbyn make concessions—often reinforced by pressures from some of his allies in the trade union bureaucracy, most notably Unite’s Len McCluskey. Corbyn announced Labour was “not wedded to freedom of movement” for EU nationals.13 And, already forced to accept Labour’s continuing support for the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, he also reversed his long-standing opposition to nuclear power during the by-election in Copeland, where the Sellafield nuclear plant in situated.14

Yet while such concessions failed to satisfy the Labour right, they did serve to create a degree of frustration and demoralisation among some of Corbyn’s supporters. And the absence of either external mass mobilisations and campaigns or a serious assault on the Labour right produced a crisis in Momentum, with those around Jon Lansman—a key Corbyn ally—manoeuvring to prevent a decision-making conference of the organisation from taking place and seeking to marginalise those calling for a more robust challenge to the Labour right.15

Nor did concessions to the PLP boost Labour’s electoral fortunes. The Copeland by-election, triggered by the resignation of Jamie Reed, a high profile Labour critic of Corbyn, was a disaster. A seat held by Labour since 1935 was lost to the Tories: for the first time since 1982 a sitting government had won a seat from the opposition in a by-election. And, when Corbyn backed the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (the formal instrument to begin the process of Britain leaving the EU) by Theresa May, a section of the Labour right led a rebellion in parliament over it with around a fifth of the PLP defying a three line whip.16 Yet the general election, far from leading to a disaster for Corbyn, resulted in his authority being dramatically enhanced.

An insurgent campaign

Why was this? Crucially the election provided an opportunity for Corbyn to cast aside many of the compromises of the previous months. A “moderate” campaign to keep the Labour right on board would have been political death for Corbyn. As Socialist Worker argued early in the campaign, his only chance was to reject a conventional campaign trying to show his “responsibility” as a prime minister in waiting coupled with a business as usual canvassing operation:

Labour has a mountain to climb. Its best chance will come if it runs an insurgent, irreverent campaign based on radical ideas for extraordinary times. Corbyn needs rallies of thousands—better, tens of thousands—to enthuse and inspire activists and wider groups of supporters. The very worse strategy is to move rightwards over policy and try to sound like the usual party leaders.17

And from the outset Corbyn grasped some of this. His first speech in the campaign evoked a note of class anger largely unheard in mainstream British politics for decades as he attacked the “gilded elite” and the “rigged system set up by the wealth extractors, for the wealth extractors”:

If I were Southern Rail or Philip Green, I’d be worried about a Labour government. If I were Mike Ashley [the owner of Sports Direct] or the CEO of a tax avoiding multinational corporation, I’d want to see a Tory victory. Why? Because those are the people who are monopolising the wealth that should be shared by each and every one of us in this country… We will no longer allow those at the top to leach off of those who bust their guts on zero hours contracts or those forced to make sacrifices to pay their mortgage or their rent.18

Crucially, Labour’s manifesto built on this radical promise with a number of key policies that proved popular and allowed Labour to be seen as representing a real challenge to the status quo. This centred on higher taxes for the rich to help pay for increases in public spending, an end to the pay cap in the NHS and education, the introduction of a minimum wage of £10 per hour and the abolition of university tuition fees. Alongside this were commitments to at least begin to roll back privatisation by renationalising Royal Mail and the water industry, to return the railways to public ownership as existing franchises expire and to establish a network of regional state energy companies.

Judged by Labour manifestos of the 1970s or early 1980s this was not the most radical programme Labour has ever put before the electorate and some measures were comparatively modest. So, for example, the proposed hike in corporation tax from 21 to 26 percent still put it below the 28 percent rate Gordon Brown had left it in 2010. But the overall package, whatever its limitations, represented the first attempt to move away from a neoliberal model in decades, marking it out as a break with the past and serving to galvanise Labour’s campaign further.19

Labour’s campaign was boosted by the mobilisation of whole layers of its new, hugely expanded and pro-Corbyn membership, by Momentum, which organised both an effective online campaign and mass canvassing in key marginals.20 This helped offset the highly cautious campaign pursued by the Labour Party apparatus which, convinced that Labour was on the ropes, prioritised resources to defending existing Labour seats, even ones with large majorities.

But radical policies and even dynamic canvassing would not have been enough on its own. The key was to combine this with shifting the atmosphere in society through mass rallies and mobilisations. This second element was slower to appear. Too many of Corbyn’s events were invite only or called at very short notice meaning that, for the first few weeks of the campaign, they were much smaller than they had been during his rallies in the leadership contest the summer before.21

The turning point came in mid-May when Corbyn addressed a crowd of 2,000 in York, hundreds in the small Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge and then 3,000 in Leeds. A few days later Corbyn spoke to thousands on the beach at West Kirby on the Wirral and then was greeted ecstatically by a young crowd of thousands when he appeared on stage at a Libertines gig at Prenton Park stadium (where the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant that echoed through the summer’s festivals and beyond was born). These mobilisations reached a crescendo with the huge 10,000-strong crowd Corbyn drew three days before the election in Gateshead.

And, contrary to the received wisdom of his critics, far from such mass rallies being a diversion that only spoke to the converted, they gave Labour supporters confidence and helped create a pole of attraction in society that boosted the idea that Corbyn and his programme were popular. Research by Alia Middleton at the London School of Economics suggests there is evidence that Corbyn’s rallies significantly boosted Labour’s vote. She notes that the “Labour vote share rose by almost 19 percentage points in constituencies where Jeremy Corbyn had visited” (by contrast, “Theresa May’s visits appear to have made little difference”).22

However, the mass mobilisations were largely confined to election rallies. The argument that other forms of protest during the election would be a “distraction” from the real business of canvassing to get the Labour vote out generally held sway.23 But more protests—and indeed more strikes—can boost the class feeling in society to Labour’s electoral benefit. Where mass campaigning did continue during the election period, most notably by the National Union of Teachers and parent groups over Tory cuts to school funding, including marches of 5,000 in Bristol and 2,000 in Lancaster, the evidence suggests that far from being a distraction it had an impact on how people voted. Polling company Survation suggested that 871,000 people changed their vote over the question of school cuts, undoubtedly to Labour’s advantage.24

The biggest test of the campaign for Corbyn came in the form of the two terror attacks, one at the Manchester Arena in late May and the second in London Bridge that took place during the last few days of campaigning, both claimed by Islamist groups. These threatened not only to interrupt the growing momentum Corbyn was gaining but to throw his campaign onto the defensive as the Tories and right wing press attacked him as “weak” on security. Yet this failed to materialise, crucially because Corbyn again defied political convention by going onto the offensive linking such attacks at home to the wars Britain has fought abroad, an argument reinforced by his well known long-term opposition to Britain’s wars in the Middle East and his prominent role in the Stop the War Coalition.25

Corbyn’s insurgent campaign, with radical policies and mass mobilisation centred on the campaign rallies, enabled him to tap into the “live rail” of British politics—the deep wellsprings of bitterness and class anger at the base of British society, the result of decades of neoliberalism amplified by nearly a decade of austerity. Radical geographer Danny Dorling notes that May was the month everything changed in British politics:

In May 2017 support for Labour was rising among the public at a rate of almost six percentage points a month. By the 1st of June 2017 it stood at 36 percent; a week later they polled 40 percent in the actual election (the polls always lag actual voting intention). There was a change in public sentiment during May 2017, a huge change; the antecedents of which has been building up for years. Spring 2017 was when the pressure finally became too much. No major party has ever seen such a great and rapid rise in the opinion polls, since polling began.26

If there were any doubts that such a mood exists, the annual British Social Attitudes Survey published shortly after the election confirms it. Its authors write of “evidence of a shift to the left on the economy since the financial crisis and the austerity that followed. We are more likely to expect government to create jobs and redistribute wealth and many of us are happy to pay more tax”. The BSA found support for higher taxes to pay for more spending on health, education and social benefits is at its highest for a decade (48 percent). They also found that support for government action to redistribute income from the wealthy to the less well-off has grown since the financial crisis in 2007-8 from 34 to 42 percent, while those disagreeing has fallen from 38 percent to 24 percent. At the same time, support for scapegoating those on benefits has weakened, with the numbers of people saying “most dole claimants” are “fiddling” dropping from 35 percent in 2014 to 22 percent in 2016—its lowest level since 1986 when the question was first asked.27

Nor is this the only evidence of the resilience of social democratic views, much closer to the kinds of positions articulated by Corbyn in the election campaign but long marginalised in mainstream politics before him. A major poll from Populus conducted in early June, just as the election campaign was at its height, found strong levels of class identification with “61 percent of voters perceived themselves to be working class, 37 percent middle class, and 2 percent upper middle class. This exposes as a myth the claim that Britain is now an overwhelmingly middle class society”.28

The poll also found a widespread feeling about the growing gulf between the rich and poor:

The public in our survey overwhelmingly believe that Britain is a country where the rich are getting richer. 66 percent of respondents think that the living standards of “the rich” in the UK are getting better; but only 13 percent agree living standards are improving for “you and your family”; 9 percent for “people in Britain”; and 7 percent for “the poor”. Conversely living standards are believed to be getting worse for the poor (65 percent), “people in Britain” (54 percent), and “you and your family” (39 percent)… Moreover, 77 percent of respondents in our survey agreed that “the gap between rich and poor in Britain is too large”.29

The election also offered another advantage to Corbyn. The Labour right, convinced Corbyn was toxic and headed for disaster, muted its attacks during the election. This was less from any noble desire to unite to maximise the vote, and more from a belief that Labour would perform atrociously and that Corbyn and the left must be see to “own” the result rather than being able to blame the right. This would help pave the way for the widely anticipated leadership challenge to depose the “unelectable” Corbyn. But the dialling down of attacks boosted Corbyn.30

Who voted Labour?

How do we understand the social and political basis of the 2017 Labour vote under Corbyn? The Labour right and sections of the media sympathetic to them have sought to interpret the Labour surge under Corbyn through the prism of the old assumptions that governed mainstream politics since the 1980s. The result is an attempt to marginalise class questions by arguing that the Labour vote was instead driven by a youth revolt and opposition to Brexit and was largely middle class. What is the real picture?

The young?

Labour did win a big majority among the youngest group of voters, those aged 18 to 24, who also turned out to vote in much larger numbers than in the previous election, proving that a radical campaign could mobilise supposedly “apathetic” young people. But equally significant was the surge in support for Labour among 25 to 44 year olds (table 1).

Table 1: Votes for the Labour Party and turnout by age
Source: Ipsos Mori, 2017.

Age

Vote for Labour (percentage)

Increase since 2015

Turnout

Increase since 2015

18-24

62

+20

54

+16

25-34

56

+20

55

+8

35-44

49

+14

56

+2

As Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation notes, this age group have been among those hardest hit by the baleful interaction of austerity, the housing crisis and pay stagnation:

In the past two decades, young people have seen the dream of home ownership pushed further out of reach—the number of young families owning their own home has halved since the 1990s in places as far flung as Bristol, Manchester and Leeds. This is not just a London problem. In the last decade, young people have also borne the brunt of Britain’s unprecedented pay squeeze, as well as wider labour market shifts. Young people experienced the tightest pay squeeze in the wake of the financial crisis—with real pay falling by 13 percent. A decade on they are still moving jobs less frequently than they used to, and those born in the late 80s are the first cohort in living memory to earn less than the one born 15 years before them.31

A challenge to austerity and to neoliberalism more widely resonated with such groups.

Remainers?

Labour voters were more likely to have voted Remain than Leave in the EU referendum. But the vote was also composed of a significant minority of Leave voters. Ipsos Mori suggests 47 percent of Remain voters and 39 percent of Leave voters backed Labour. Lord Ashcroft’s poll gives a much higher and lower figure respectively—51 percent of Remain voters and 25 percent of Leave voters voting Labour. But even here it is clear that Labour won a significant layer of Leave voters—in fact, without them it would have barely improved on its 2015 performance.

Even more interesting is that Ashcroft’s poll asked people to give the most important reason in their choice of which party to vote for. Among Tory voters Brexit was by far the decisive issue, with 48 percent saying Brexit (next came “the best leader/PM” at 13 percent—there may be some buyers’ remorse on this point now). But among Labour voters Brexit was far less important, coming third at just 8 percent. The NHS dominated among Labour voters at 33 percent, followed by spending cuts (11 percent). Overall, anti-austerity issues (NHS, spending cuts, poverty and economy/jobs) dominated Labour voters’ concerns (combined they account for 57 percent of the most important reasons given for voting Labour).32

Moreover, by voting Labour, people were clearly supporting a party that had made clear it had accepted Brexit.33 Those parties that were still identified with calling for Britain to remain in the EU all saw their votes fall.

Labour was able to weld together a coalition of Remain and Leave supporters around class arguments combined with a democratic acceptance of the Brexit vote. This combination, together with Labour being seen under Corbyn as much more distant from the establishment, also allowed Labour to pick up an important tranche of Ukip supporters, contrary to initial predictions that the Tories would be the sole beneficiaries of the collapse in Ukip’s support. So while three fifths of Ukip’s 2015 vote went to the Tories, 16 percent went to Labour (around 620,000 votes).

Middle class people?

A chorus of voices, largely emanating from those who before the election had confidently predicted that Corbyn was taking Labour towards electoral oblivion, emerged after the election to declare that Labour’s vote was increasingly middle class while the Tories had made major inroads into the working class. So Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer declared that the election had produced a:

Realignment of traditional party allegiances based on social class. Labour did well among the more affluent ABs. Fans say this proves that Corbynism can be just as appealing to the middle classes as Blairism once was. Labour also won at the opposite end of the social spectrum. The party’s support is increasingly concentrated among the highest and the very lowest earners; Labour MPs sit for seats as wildly different as Canterbury and Knowsley.34

The Blairite think-tank Policy Network also argued that the election demonstrated “Labour is securing more support among the highest social grades. Conversely, workers in the low to middle income range were more willing than ever to vote Conservative”.35 Phil Wilson, Blair’s successor as the Labour MP for Sedgefield, put the argument even more crudely: “Jeremy Corbyn proved he could campaign and the middle classes rallied to the cause. Working people, on the other hand, favoured the Tories. The world has indeed turned upside down”.36

The core of the argument centres on evidence from the polling companies which breaks the population down into various “social grades” which are then identified with different classes. How do we assess these arguments? Table 2 gives the share of the vote according to Ipsos Mori at the 2017 election for each “social grade” for both the Tories and Labour with the percentage change since the 2015 election (the vote “swing”) given in brackets. It is true, on the basis of these figures, that Labour saw its vote among ABs (“higher and intermediate managerial, administrative and professional grades”) increase by 11 percent from the 2015 election, though overall the Tories still led Labour among the ABs by a sizeable margin, comparable in fact to Labour’s lead among the DEs (semi and unskilled workers and the unemployed).

Table 2: Votes for the Conservative and Labour Parties by social grade
Source: Ipsos Mori, 2017.

Social grade

Con (and percentage swing)

Lab (and percentage swing)

AB

47 (+2)

37 (+11)

C1

44 (+2)

40 (+12)

C2

45 (+13)

41 (+9)

DE

38 (+12)

47 (+6)

But the real problem is that the categories the polling companies use—based on the old Registrar General social stratification classifications—are hopelessly misleading about the realities of class. Most important is the underlying assumption that white collar workers are middle class while the working class is supposedly made up solely of manual workers. Yet the idea that the majority of white collar work is fundamentally different to manual labour may have been true at the end of the 19th century or even the early part of the 20th century but hardly corresponds to the reality of 21st century capitalism. Whether measured in terms of levels of pay, security of employment, conditions of work and prospects for individual advancement there has long been a convergence between white collar and manual work, between the office and the factory. And white collar work has also become subject to the same levels of managerial pressures and discipline as manual work, with its targets, assessments and surveillance and the same constant pressures to work harder. This is true, for example, of routine bank work and administrative work in large swatches of the civil service, local government and big firms. In other words, most white collar office work has long been “proletarianised”.37

And more recently, large numbers of such workers have seen further intensification of their work and increased management bullying, especially in the public sector, alongside the impact of austerity cuts often combined with ideological attacks from the Tories about how they are “overpaid”. No wonder many switched to Labour especially when presented with a Labour leadership under Corbyn willing to articulate opposition to austerity and low pay.

This picture goes beyond “routine clerical workers” (who make up the C1 category) and also applies to many of those seen as “professionals,” that is to a significant part of the AB group. Teachers, for example, are usually allocated to the B social grade, but again, whatever the past position of teachers, they too have been proletarianised and have become subject to much greater managerial discipline and erosion of autonomy at work. These longer-term developments have also been amplified by more recent government policies to deepen the role of the market in schools and universities by increasing competition between institutions and cutting budgets. So there is evidence, for example, that there was a significant swing to Labour among teachers at the election. A survey by the Times Education Supplement of 1,200 teachers found 68 percent planning to vote Labour, up 17 percent since 2015.38

Is Labour losing skilled manual workers?

The Labour right also insisted that under Corbyn the party was struggling to win C2s, skilled manual workers. The fate of the five seats Labour lost at the election—Mansfield, Middlesbrough South, North East Derbyshire, Stoke South and Walsall North—became a proxy in the argument that Corbyn’s leadership is “losing” working class support in the Labour “heartlands”.

But as table 3, which charts the Labour C2 vote, shows, this too is ­misleading. Labour’s vote among C2s rose sharply at the election, by 9 percent. In fact, Labour’s support among C2s had collapsed during the New Labour period (down from 50 percent in 1997 to 40 percent by 2005 and then to a nadir of just 29 percent in 2010).39 Corbyn, far from being toxic among this layer, has started to rebuild Labour’s support. This is masked by the swing towards the Tories because the Tories were able simultaneously to increase their share of the C2 vote from 32 percent to 45 percent.

Table 3: Labour and the C2 vote, 1974-2017
Source: Ipsos Mori, 2010; Ipsos Mori, 2015; Ipsos Mori, 2017.

General election

C2 vote for Labour (percentage)

October 1974

49

1979

41

1983

32

1987

36

1992

40

1997

50

2001

49

2005

40

2010

29

2015

32

2017

41

What is perhaps true is that May’s embrace of Brexit did help the Tories rebuild support among C2s, appealing to an argument that Brexit would offer the kind of radical change that could offer hope to areas hit hardest by economic decline.40 As Tom Hazeldine has pointed out in a recent article in New Left Review, there is a link between the Brexit vote and the highly uneven impact of the economic restructuring of the British economy which has left the UK with sharper regional disparities than any other EU member state.41 But this suggests that Corbyn’s best prospects for winning more support among C2s is not to retreat from Brexit but to present a radical challenge to May’s neoliberal version of Brexit.

The Labour right after the election

The Labour right has been weakened by the outcome of the general election but it remains entrenched inside the party. Its central claim, that Corbyn is unelectable, has been dramatically undermined. In the immediate wake of the election, the right suddenly, and utterly hypocritically, loudly discovered the virtues of party “unity”. This was, for example, a prominent theme of the post-election event organised by Progress, the Blairite continuity wing of the Labour right. This was in part a defensive manoeuvre reflecting their desire to prevent Corbyn’s increased authority in the party from translating into any serious attempt to discipline his critics on the right and to weaken their base, for example through deselections of disloyal MPs or excluding them from seats in the shadow cabinet.

But this was only part of a wider strategic shift. With the calling of the general election, the Labour right’s expectation that Labour would perform disastrously had once again renewed hope that this would allow Corbyn to be forced out. Rumours circulated that leadership challenges were being prepared.42 With such hopes dashed, the Labour right has been forced to shift to a more protracted project of offering a conditional acceptance of Corbyn’s leadership, at least for now, while seeking to influence its direction, curbing its radicalism, while not ruling out more direct attacks as opportunities present themselves. In other words, a war of attrition in place of a war of manoeuvre.

So Tom Watson, a vocal and combative thorn in Corbyn’s side as deputy leader, has shifted from open dissent to arguing that Labour’s further advance electorally depends on the creation of what he calls a “new alliance” between young, affluent voters in the big cities won over on 8 June by Corbyn’s anti-austerity message and Labour’s “traditional working class voters” who, according to Watson, are so far unconvinced by Corbyn. Watson’s prescription for reassuring such voters is predictable—“policing and security” and new post-Brexit restrictions on immigration to replace the free movement of labour. In other words, Labour’s anti-austerity turn has proved electorally popular but that can take Labour no further and now needs to be combined with social authoritarianism, a shift to the right on foreign policy and more measures to limit immigration.43

The weakness of the Labour right has been reinforced by its poverty of ideological vision. The once vaunted “Third Way” with its over-inflated claim to provide an alternative to both Thatcherite neoliberalism and “Old Labour” state interventionism have long proved hollow. The Labour right’s co-thinkers in Europe are also in a parlous state. The Dutch Labour Party suffered a Pasok-style collapse at the general election in March, slumping from 24.8 percent to a humiliating 5.7 percent—coming fourth in Amsterdam and seventh in its former bastion of Rotterdam after its willingness to join the free-market Dutch Tories in an austerity government.44 The French Socialist Party seems on the brink of disintegration after its disastrous performance in the presidential elections (beaten into fifth place with 6.5 percent of the vote) and the elections to the National Assembly.45 And the early hopes that the new leader of the German SPD, Martin Schulz, would reverse the party’s decline have evaporated.

In Britain the pre-election hopes that calls for a “progressive alliance” of the Green Party, Labour, the SNP and, crucially, the Lib Dems could be the kernel of a British version of the Emmanuel Macron phenomenon in France, fell flat. One of the most striking features of the election was the re-emergence of the two-party system (at least in England and Wales), with the combined vote for Labour and the Tories increasing from post-war lows in 2010 and 2015 (65.1 and 67.2 percent, respectively) to 83.3 percent, its highest level for 47 years. The space for such an electoral project shrivelled. This is one reason why, despite endless rumour and speculation, there is little sign of a right wing split from Labour.

Andrew Adonis, a former SDP convert to Labour and a minister under Blair and Brown, made this plain in a post-election article for Progress where he dismisses the “fantasy of a new party” and notes that the SDP in the early 1980s was “unable to overcome the fact that Labour did not split enough” despite the much more favourable context of the slump in support Labour suffered at the 1983 election. But Adonis does not see this as a counsel of despair for the Labour right, which he sees as enjoying significant prospects for a future fightback:

Moderate Labour MPs remain overwhelmingly entrenched in the Commons, as do moderate councillors at local level—including the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (in contrast to Ken Livingstone in County Hall in 1981). It looks unlikely that this position will change much in the coming few years; just as it looks unlikely that another candidate from the uncompromising hard left will repeat Corbyn’s victory when he stands down. A soft left leader is far more likely.46

Navigating Brexit

The Labour right will continue to look to influence the direction of Corbyn’s leadership to attempt to extract retreats and compromises. The key terrain on which they will seek to do is over Brexit. This has centred on attempts to commit Labour to a position of seeking to continue membership of the EU single market in opposition to May’s “Hard Brexit”. So Chuka Umunna led a rebellion against the Labour whip by putting an amendment to the Queen’s speech which argued for staying in the single market as against simply seeking “access” to it and called for “cross-party” talks or institutions to draw Labour into collaboration with pro-EU Tories, the Lib Dems, the SNP and big business, etc to pursue a “soft Brexit”.

The shift announced at the end of the summer by Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, that Labour will now support continued membership of the single market for a two to four year “transitional period” after Britain’s planned departure from the EU in March 2019, marks a victory for the Labour right and a compromise by Corbyn. The outcome of such bargaining inside the Labour leadership is also influenced by the position of the major unions, especially Unite, where McCluskey has been a strong advocate of staying in the single market.47

The danger is twofold. First, it aligns Labour with the vital interests of the bulk of British capital which is looking to minimise the disruption to supply networks, market access and financial interests that it depends on. This risks becoming a step towards subordinating Labour under Corbyn’s leadership to the priorities of capital. Secondly, the single market is organised around economic and legal imperatives that are heavily weighted in favour of neoliberal policies. Staying in the single market would be a major barrier to breaking with neoliberalism, through renationalisation for example.48 Commitment to the single market can then become a lever for seeking further concessions from the Corbyn leadership such as seeking to reduce its anti-austerity programme to what is acceptable to the EU Commission.

A radical option is available. This is to put forward a break with the EU in order to break with neoliberalism and to combine this with a robust defence of the free movement of labour, the rights of EU workers to continue to come to work and live in the UK. This would allow Labour clearly to differentiate itself from May’s free market “Hard Brexit” but also the big business “Soft Brexit”, both of which maintain a commitment to neoliberalism whether inside or outside the EU. Yet, as Starmer made clear, Labour sees the requirement to maintain the free movement of labour as the only obstacle to staying permanently in the single market.

Support for the single market also creates the danger that the debate within Labour will be framed between those who wish to go further than Starmer’s position and commit Labour to advocating staying in the single market no matter what or even to opposing Brexit full stop, and those, like the Labour MP John Mann, who demand an immediate end to the free movement of labour even if this means being outside the single market. This, of course, channels bitterness towards neoliberalism and the establishment in an anti-immigrant direction.

For all the boldness and radicalism Corbyn displayed during the election campaign, the pressures to compromise remain powerful. Some compromises had already been imposed and were not overturned even during the election campaign. Most importantly, Labour is committed to the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, despite Corbyn’s evident discomfort (and to continued UK membership of NATO, the lynchpin of the alliance between the European ruling classes and US imperialism).

Labour’s post general election position is contradictory. The confidence Corbyn and the Labour left gained can increase its boldness and radicalism. The most effective path to winning a parliamentary majority lies in pursuing, indeed deepening, the combination of radical policies and mass mobilisation. Corbyn’s enhanced authority ought to allow him to make fewer compromises with the right.

Yet Corbyn has also now moved from being an outsider with little to lose to the position of a prospective prime minister in waiting. This in turn can expose Labour to much greater pressures to moderate its message. This was the process that took place in Greece after Syriza made its major breakthrough in the 2012 elections, when it leapt from fifth place to a close second, with the looming prospect of government then signalling a shift rightwards.

A crucial element determining the balance between radicalism and compromise by the Corbyn leadership will lie in whether the renewed confidence of the left and working class movement after the general election is not simply channelled onto the electoral terrain but lifts up the level of struggle on the streets and in the workplace.

The revolutionary left are not by-standers in this. Revolutionaries will need to challenge the view among a large part of the trade union bureaucracy that the answer is effectively to wait for a Corbyn government. But we will also need to seek joint action with the left inside the Labour Party as well as any sections of the trade union bureaucracy that do seek to mobilise around opposing the public sector pay cap, around strikes by new groups of workers like those we saw in McDonald’s in early September, around housing in the wake of Grenfell, over the health service and crucially around anti-racism through united fronts such as Stand Up To Racism. Lifting the level of struggle would both boost Labour’s electoral prospects under Corbyn and also prepare the ground for the battles that the left will face if a Corbyn government is elected.

Government office and ruling class power

What are the prospects for a Corbyn-led Labour government? The weakness of the Tories as they enter the rapids of Brexit and the gains made by Labour mean that a Corbyn government is now a real possibility. What would its fate be? Would it be able to implement its programme? The onslaught on Corbyn’s leadership from much of the media and the Labour right, often acting in concert with each other, over the last two years is a warning that considerable forces hostile to Corbyn and any project that threatens to break from neoliberalism will be mobilised by the establishment against a Corbyn government.

Yet the media and the Labour right in no way exhaust the full armoury of ruling class power that can be deployed to set limits to any radical agenda a Corbyn government could pursue, to force it into compromises and retreats to break its morale and demoralise its supporters, and if necessary break his government. There have already been some glimpses of the wider forces at the disposal of the ruling class. The bitter reaction of Virgin Trains and its owner Richard Branson to footage of Corbyn being forced to sit on the floor on a train journey due to overcrowding is a foretaste of the hostile response to any attempt by a Corbyn government to carry through its call for the renationalisation of the railways.49

Even more sinister was the briefing by a “senior serving general” to the press in the immediate wake of Corbyn first being elected to the Labour leadership in September 2015. The general said that a Corbyn-led government could face “a mutiny” from the army if he moved to abandon the Trident nuclear weapons programme, pull Britain out of NATO or announce major cuts to the size of the armed forces.50 And a few weeks later the then chief of the defence staff of the British Armed Forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, went on TV to announce that he would “worry” if Corbyn became prime minister with a commitment never to use Britain’s nuclear deterrent.51

These are not mere aberrations. They reflect the fact that ruling class power does not fundamentally reside in governmental office and that the “sovereignty of parliament” is a liberal democratic ideological fiction. Economic power is concentrated at the top of unelected hierarchies inside capitalist firms which are not subject to democratic control either internally—by the workers whose labour generates their profits—or externally by elected governments. Where social democratic governments are viewed as a threat to the privileges and profits of capital, their command over the economic levers of society enables the capitalist class to apply enormous pressure to bring such governments to heel or to break them entirely. The Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-9 both came under pressure from the City of London and sections of big business, with massive capital flight and investment strikes.52

But it is not just the power of private capital that can act to constrain the ambitions of a left government. The state machine itself will not be under the control of a left government, whatever its democratic mandate. Parliament is also hemmed in by powerful unelected hierarchies that command the resources of the state and carry out its imperatives—if necessary regardless of the wishes of the elected government. Those who sit at the top of these hierarchies are tied with big business not just by shared class background, education and social networks but, even more fundamentally, by a common interest in the competitive position of British capitalism. This, after all, is what generates the revenues to pay for the state’s soldiers, police and civil servants. Far from any left government being in control of this machine it is likely to find itself trapped inside it.

As Chris Harman and Tim Potter put it 40 years ago in a round of earlier debates about the prospects for left governments:

It is only governmental positions that the bourgeoisie give up. They maintain their control over the major sectors of the state machine, over the key areas of the economy and over most of the means of communication. In other words, they retreat from the “front-line” of the state, which in any case has less and less importance as the concentration of capital proceeds, but instead consolidate their power in the hierarchies of the state machine and in the economy.53

The real question is whether such arguments remain valid today. Corbyn supporting journalist Paul Mason has suggested that they do not. Contrasting the situation in the early 1980s in Britain at the height of the left wing movement around Tony Benn in the Labour Party with today, Mason argues that the state will be unlikely to attempt to sabotage a Corbyn government because “the rule of law is stronger…today, though the secret state is large, it is under much stronger legislative control…”.54

This claim rests more on wishful thinking than objective reality. Much more realistic is Owen Jones’s assessment that:

The establishment will wage a war of attrition in a determined effort to subvert [Corbyn’s] policy agenda and bring his government down… Three decades of neoliberalism—which promotes lower taxes on top earners and big business, privatisation, deregulation and weakened unions—has left them high on triumphalism. They find the prospect of even the most modest challenge to this order intolerable… Labour’s opposition to US dominance and a reorientation of Britain’s foreign policy is also viewed as simply unacceptable.

Civil servants will tell Labour ministers that their policies are unworkable and must be watered down or discarded. Rather than blocking proposals, they will simply try to postpone them—hold never-ending reviews, call for limited trials—and then hope they are forgotten about…

[For hostile media outlets] every drop in the pound, every fall in the stock exchange will be hailed as a sign of economic chaos and ruin. Demands for U-turns and a moderated agenda will become increasingly vociferous and backed by certain Labour MPs. The hope will be to disorientate, disillusion and divide Labour’s base.55

The clearest example of the inability of a left government to challenge the priorities of capital is the fate of the Syriza government in Greece after it was elected in January 2015 on an anti-austerity programme. The clash with the Troika—the European Union, European Central Bank and IMF—over this programme rapidly resulted, despite a second and overwhelming mandate in the “Oxi” referendum, in abject capitulation by the Syriza government which performed a dramatic reversal that saw it carry through austerity measures on a scale even greater than its hated predecessors.56

Would this apply to a Corbyn government? There are two arguments that suggest that it need not that should be addressed. Firstly, there is the argument that Britain is a much larger and more powerful economy than Greece, with much greater scope to implement reforms without provoking an all-out assault by capital and its allies in the state machine. It is, of course, the case that British capitalism occupies a position much closer to the top of the global capitalist hierarchy of states than Greece. Britain’s Gross Domestic Product, for example, is over 13 times greater.57 And, as Tony Norfield has recently reminded us, Britain is, by a range of measures, a major imperialist power and in the field of finance, centred on the City in London, it stands in the front rank.58

But the fate of François Hollande’s Socialist Party government in France is a warning that social democratic governments do not only come under huge pressures to abandon reforms in weak and crisis-racked economies. Though elected in 2012 amid huge enthusiasm and promises to curb austerity, increase taxes on the rich (Hollande had proclaimed that “my enemy is finance”) and to renegotiate the austerity-driven EU Stability Pact, as the French economy continued to stagnate, the pressures from French business grew. Hollande capitulated, announcing in 2014 a “pact of responsibility”, in reality a pact of austerity, which offered £25 billion in payroll tax breaks for French business while pushing through a further £53 billion of public spending cuts.59 Hollande’s government followed this up with a new Labour Law in 2016 that granted employers more power over hiring and firing and the length of the working day, which provoked a massive wave of strikes and protests in response.

Some now point to Portugal as a more favourable example of the successful implementation of a programme of reform. The Socialist Party minority government has been in office with the parliamentary support of both the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party. Under pressure from the left and with an uptick in the economy, which began before the new government but which has picked up speed in part based on exports, some austerity measures such as cuts to public sector wages have been reversed. The minimum wage has also been increased by 10 percent. But going beyond this will require a greater level of confrontation with Portuguese bosses and the EU, with Portugal dependent on the European Central Bank to service its debt and to sustain its fragile banking system. And any downturn in the economy can see the same pressures to attack workers that destroyed Hollande’s government in France.60

Beyond electoralism

Pointing to the array of power possessed by the ruling class that can allow it to put enormous pressure on a left Labour government to compromise and retreat, even to abandon its own programme, is not to accept defeat in advance. It is, however, to point out that the outcome of such a government will not in the end depend on its manifesto commitments, the integrity of its leader or the scale of its mandate. Its fate will be decided by the clash of forces outside parliament and the political clarity and organisation possessed by the left.

As Alex Nunns, author of The Candidate, an excellent account of Corbyn’s successful bid to become leader of the Labour Party, rightly told the Morning Star after the general election:

If Labour had won, it would be in the midst of a monumental struggle with a weak economy and a parliament totally divided on Brexit. When it does win, we must anticipate that the forces that will be thrown against it will be huge. To sustain a Corbyn government and to see its programme implemented will require popular mobilisation on a far greater scale even than the election.61

But to will the end must also involve creating the means. Labour is organised around elections. Even the continuing and impressive mobilisations by Labour over the summer—the thousands attending Corbyn’s rallies and the hundreds turning out for Owen Jones’s mass canvassing operations in marginal seats—are driven by electoral logic. But faced with capital orchestrating a currency crisis or an investment strike to undermine a Labour government, mass mobilisations beyond the ballot box will be required. This requires a left that is organised independently of the Labour right and the trade union bureaucracy with all its attendant pressures for compromise and vacillation. It also requires a left that is clear that real power does not lie in parliament, which will not compromise on questions such as immigration or Trident and seeks on a continual basis to build up networks orientated on mobilising where our side is strongest, in the streets and crucially the workplace.

Building a left oriented on such tasks cannot be postponed until the future. This means strengthening the revolutionary left as part of the renewed growth and confidence of the left in Britain. This will not be done in splendid isolation and through propaganda alone, but will depend on revolutionaries constantly seeking to work together with Corbyn supporters in joint campaigns and united fronts around concrete battles. This alone can offer an audience among at least a layer of Corbyn’s supports in and around the Labour Party that can allow for patient discussion on the basis of shared experience about the kind of organisation and politics that the tests ahead will demand.

The growth of the Labour left, of groups like Momentum, has created a much bigger organised left in Britain than we have seen in decades and the influx of a new generation into socialist politics. But within this advance, a stronger revolutionary left, which is both uncompromising over questions like Trident or immigration, oriented on extra-parliamentary struggle and which constantly seeks to apply the method of the united front, will be a crucial precondition for the future advance of the left.

Mark L Thomas is industrial organiser for the Socialist Workers Party.


Notes

1 Labour increased its vote by 9.7 percent at the 1945 election but this was over a ten-year period rather than two years, as the previous election had been in 1935.

2 In absolute numbers, Labour received just under 12.9 million votes, an increase of 3.5 million over 2015.

3 Sommers, 2017.

4 Oborne, 2017.

5 Toynbee, 2017.

6 Ponsford, 2017.

7 Bogdanor, 2017.

8 Jones, 2017a.

9 Rentoul, 2017.

10 Ponsford, 2017.

11 Cowley, 2017.

12 Corbyn defeated his challenger in 2016, Owen Smith, by an even larger margin (61.8 percent to 38.2 percent) than his original victory in 2015 when he had received 59.5 percent of the vote—see Stewart and Mason, 2016.

13 Swinford, 2017.

14 Edwards, 2017.

15 Syal and Mason, 2016.

16 Stewart and Mason, 2017.

17 Kimber, 2017.

18 Corbyn, 2017.

19 Labour Party, 2017.

20 Peggs, 2017.

21 See Thomas, 2016.

22 Middleton, 2017.

23 See the debate at the Communication Workers Union’s conference in late April, for example, over whether calls for a national demonstration against the Tories would detract from campaigning for Labour—Clark, 2017.

24 Stewart, 2017, and Socialist Worker, 2017.

25 Merrick, 2017. Though Corbyn’s calls for more police as part of his opposition to budget cuts to emergency services was also a concession to right wing arguments within both the Labour Party and the electorate.

26 Dorling, 2017, p67.

28 Diamond and Cadywould, 2017, p17. In fact, there is a remarkable consistency in such class identification despite wide claims that class identify has declined. So the British Social Attitudes survey in 2012 similarly reported 61 percent identifying as working class, barely changed from the 1983 BSA survey which reported that 60 percent of people saw themselves as working class—see Thomas, 2013.

29 Diamond and Cadywould, 2017, p14.

30 Many Labour MPs, convinced of Corbyn’s unpopularity on the doorstep, not only failed to mention Corbyn’s name in their local election material but also told voters that they were voting for them personally and not Corbyn. YouGov subsequently found that only 6 percent of Labour voters said that their main reason for voting Labour was their local MP. See YouGov survey results available at https://tinyurl.com/y8o7yrnl

31 Bell, 2017.

32 Ashcroft, 2017.

33 Labour Party, 2017, pp4 and 24.

34 Rawnsley, 2017.

35 Diamond and Cadywould, 2017, pp7-8.

36 Wilson, 2017.

37 On the proletarianisation of white collar work, see Harman, 2002.

38 George, 2017. And similar moods also affected layers who can much more plausibly be described as middle class professionals. So a survey of GPs found “a significant shift away from the Conservative Party among GPs” with only 52 percent of GPs who voted Tory in 2015 saying they would do so in 2017 and that “the largest beneficiary of this switch…is the Labour Party” with Labour on 30 percent among GPs ahead of the Tories on just 23 percent—see Bostock, 2017.

39 See also the arguments put forward by Unite’s Andrew Murray, who points out that in the five seats Labour lost it did better than at any time since at least 2005, often since 2001 and in some cases since 1997 and that “if Labour has lost heartland votes…then the problem arose much earlier, during the Blair-Brown years, and Corbyn’s Labour has actually gone a long way to reversing the losses”—Murray, 2017.

40 For a breakdown of the Brexit vote and a social class, see Kimber, 2017.

41 “At sub-regional level, output per head is eight times higher in inner west London than in west Wales and the Valleys, the largest difference to be found in any EU member state from Bantry Bay to the Dniester”—Hazeldine, 2017.

42 Fletcher, 2017.

43 Savage, 2017.

44 Robinson, 2017.

45 Giudicelli, 2017.

46 Adonis, 2017.

47 Unite the Union, 2017.

48 See the argument put forward by Larry Elliott, for example—Elliott, 2017.

49 Walker, 2016.

50 Mortimer, 2015.

51 Cooper and Withnall, 2017. The same report makes it clear that Houghton escaped even a reprimand from the Ministry of Defence for his remarks.

52 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp281-288 and 324-332.

53 Harman and Potter, 1977.

54 Mason, 2016.

55 Jones, 2017b. See also the observation by Corbyn supporters Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna on the New Socialist website that: “getting elected may be the easy part…it’s increasingly evident that a high price will be exacted from any left government with the temerity to pursue serious departures from the status quo… Capital flight, investment strikes, foreign exchange crises, trade retaliation—all are possible, whether as market reactions or deliberately administered punishment beatings”—see Guinan and Hanna, 2017.

56 Garganas, 2015.

57 See World Bank figures for Greek and UK GDP, at http://data.worldbank.org/country/

58 Norfield, 2017.

59 Carnegy, Thomson and Stothard, 2014.

60 See Finn, 2017, and the interview with Catarina Martins of the Left Bloc in the same issue of New Left Review—Martins 2017.

61 Nunns, 2017.


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