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Theresa May? Theresa couldn’t

Comment on the outcome of the British General Election 

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

28 June 2017

Three weeks before the British general election, it was clear that the Tory strategy had failed. Opinion polls showing a shrinking government majority could not be dismissed as blips any longer, but were recognisably expressions of a consistent trend. Corbyn’s packed and enthusiastic rallies contrasted with May’s very obviously stage managed private visits and her refusal to debate the election issues with her opponents. Attempts by the mainstream media to attack Labour spokespersons on anything they could find became increasingly desperate. May’s plea for a majority of 50-60 seats, grossly inflated as it proved was still a realistic amendment of her original expectations of a walkover of 1983 proportions. Such hopes were less than mirages as was shown on the eve of the poll, when May staged her last visit, to a London butchers and had the boos for her recorded on camera. Had the Grenfell Tower holocaust occurred a week before, rather than a week after the election, Labour might have been left the largest party in the House of Commons

How did matters come to this? Firstly, it must be said that, despite the tarting-up accomplished by ‘New Labour’ and by Cameron, Thatcherism’s appeal has been threadbare for years. It would be wrong to exaggerate this. Thatcher’s victories were won because of an opposition divided between Labour and the Lib-SDP Alliance. May won a larger share of the vote than her predecessor. Yet the attempts, dishonest and partially effective as they were, by Cameron and May to portray themselves as ‘compassionate Conservatives’, reflected a recognition that, for some reason unknown to these politicians, allowing the entrepreneurs to do as they list could not advance the living standards of the majority. People knew that unleashed capitalism had led to slump and austerity. They did not want any more of it.

To counter this, May’s handlers concocted a strategy. There were hopes that Corbyn would prove a Michael Foot and allow the formation of a New Labour/ Social Democratic Party mark two, but this did not happen.  Nonetheless, Labour was divided against itself. Accordingly the Tories sought to outflank it on two sides using Brexit as a weapon as divisive as it had been for Labour in the referendum. From outside, the Liberal Democrats would eat into Labour’s Remain supporters, whilst Ukip would grab those disoriented by New Labour who would be willing to support a hard, racist Brexit. Instead, fn this, the centre held. Labour voters showed themselves more interested in the party’s revival of old social democratic demands than in a rather abstract sovereignty. Those who would have put Brexit first found Labour’s common sense approach of waiting to see the terms before deciding finally more intelligent than either the LibDem demand for a prompt new referendum or the Tory-ukip line of Brexit at all costs.

The personal aspect was very much a third factor, but it was there.  Corbyn is, quite simply, a better campaigner than May. He accepted the challenges which May funked. He showed himself to the electors consistently, whilst she limited herself to her own press conferences and photo-opportunity visits to guaranteed supporters (not, eventually, that even these could be guaranteed).  Corbyn’s tactics succeeded. The more he appeared, even on the telly, the less effective the media campaign against him. People had been urged to regard him as practically a mad bomber. Now they saw him for what he is: the latest of a long line of English radicals stretching back to the Levellers.  In comparison, when they were allowed to see May, they saw the vicar’s daughter doling out soup to the deserving poor, with the suspicion that the soup was poisoned. (For economists, the vicar in this metaphor, would have been called Malthus.)

Of the smaller parties, there is little to add. The Lib Dems numbers of MPs grew from the Liberals’ 1950s figures to those of the ‘70s, but failed miserably to approach those before the 2015 election. (However, they did give many students a ‘Portillo Moment’, when the mendacious Mr Clegg lost his Sheffield seat.) The Scots Nats made a similar hames of their campaign. Simply demanding a new referendum so soon after the old one was never going to be popular, and it was made the less popular by the nats’ complete lack of vision as to how their new Scotland would appear. The Tories were able to mop up swaves of rural Scotland, whilst Labour made inroads in suburban areas. This setback does provide grounds for hope. Scottish Socialists may fill the nationalists’ gap with their own Workers’ Republican Party. Whether they do so is up to them.

And Northern Ireland; what of that? The complaint is that the province has been polarised by the election. The trouble is that the area has been polarised since before the province was established formally. The result here is one of those phenomena that exposes the truth. To that extent it is relatively progressive. What should cause socialists to doubt is the major growth of the Orange vote in Belfast. The loss of the SDLP seat, the failure of Naomi Long to regain Belfast East, and that of Sinn Fein to win Belfast North are less important in themselves than as expressions of the continuing strength of Protestant ascendancy feeling.

They are also, of course, the setting of the stage for the salvaging of the Tory government. That that government is prepared to jeopardise the agreement signed by its predecessor on terms favourable to the UK is not surprising. It does not see any serious danger of the Ulster cold war becoming hot; the physical force republicans are divided and British capitalism believes, perhaps correctly, that the extent of Sinn Fein’s victory gives it a mandate to keep down the lid on any excessive agitation. Where it was wrongfooted was in believing that the DUP would try to treat with it from its political-social Neanderthal positions. Instead, the northern party has concentrated on economics. Apart from the obligatory call for reduced corporation tax for Northern Ireland, it has won a billion pound subvention for Northern Ireland and UK welfare reforms reversing Tory policies. That this is grandstanding does not matter; it will favourably impress electors both in Northern Ireland and on the neighbouring island, while Sinn Fein, their former partners on the austerity Executive remains silent.

The obvious reaction to that would be for Sinn Fein to abandon abstentionism. This could not end the new Faustian alliance, but it could prevent it from surviving the full parliamentary term of five years. Were Sinn Fein a genuinely revolutionary party or a genuinely reformist party, it would do so, tactically in the first case, strategically in the second. It is neither; it is a formerly revolutionary nationalist party moving in the manner of its republican predecessors over the decades into becoming a reformist one. In doing so, it is trying to groom what is left of its militants into accepting its trajectory. Abstention from Westminster is its revolutionary figleaf and it is not ready to expose itself.

Ultimately, the major question is the effect of the result on the left, including the parliamentarians. Triumphalism would be misplaced. Labour is still only the second party, even if it has survived better than expected. The number of seats between it and the Tories is wider than after the general election of 2010. Though its programme is its most radical since the eighties, it is way behind the minimum programmes of social democracy. Nor is it clear how far many of those closest to Corbyn are to be trusted. The Tories are going to fight to keep in power for the next five years with or without May.

The real significance of Labour’s performance is the fact that it can be seen to have disproved the lies of Blair and Mandelson that it is not possible for the party to win votes in opposition to neo-liberalism. Whether it can win an election outright is not proven, nonetheless it is not as impossible as it seemed. There is probably still a majority of Labour MPs who would have liked to see Corbyn gone, but it is divided, with a large part of it, represented by Chuka Umuma ready to follow him loyally for now. A large percentage of the malcontents who remain are those who would have been Old Labour moderates in the past, but who have been convinced by Blair and Brown that their traditional remedies are impractical, and who seek to give benefits to the British workers at the expense of the ethnic others.  Racism and xenophobia were always implicit in Labour’s essentially nationalist approach; Blairism has given them the excuse to out themselves. Former and present opponents of Corbyn are having to learn not only that the promise of capitalism is fulfilling diminishing returns but that its offspring, New Labour is bankrupt.

For now, the left must redouble its efforts to show that a true workers’ republic will be built not through a general election vote but through the organised mass struggle of the working people.

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