Despite everything, the left remains strong

By Nadine Finch

Nearly 18 months after the 2019 election, that brought to power a populist government intent on rewarding those who have championed English nationalism and individualism, the Labour Party’s share of voting intentions continues to decline expeditiously. This is despite the fact that the Government used the urgency caused by its failure to prepare for the pandemic to provide contracts to friends, who were incapable of providing the equipment necessary to protect the population or NHS workers, and that its leadership continues to lie about its role in both the pandemic and the many adverse consequences of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party leadership has torn up the 2017 and 2019 manifestos and is touring the country in a bid to find a role for itself. The very fact that it cannot identify such a role in the context of an international pandemic and an impending second wave of austerity, caused by both Brexit and the lockdown necessitated by the ravages of the pandemic, may be the ultimate criticism.

The new leadership also faces another difficulty. After five years of shouting at every opportunity that what was wrong with the Labour Party was that it had the wrong leader, its new leader, and not its policies, become the focus of media and popular attention. In the context of a growing distrust of intellectuals and the metropolitan elite and the growth of movements such as Black Lives Matter, Kill the Bill and support for Palestine’s right to self-determination, the leadership’s choices made and the array of men in suits, who appear on social media posts, are not proving to be the answer.

A strategy to attract what used to be termed ‘Mondeo Man’ is anachronistic in the midst of what Mark Carney has termed the fourth industrial revolution, a climate change emergency and savage attacks on the rights of both migrants and anyone who wishes to protest.

But in the current political context, the question of who should be leading the Labour Party is just a secondary issue in the absence of any leadership challenge from someone who is even more unlikely to lead opposition to the present Government. The key issue is to ensure that there is opposition to the growing attacks on democracy and rights, whether at work or in the personal sphere.

The left in the Labour Party and its supporters in social movements have the clear advantage over the right here. They have always been more active in campaigns and policy-making, but the five years under Jeremy Corbyn and the remote political activity during the pandemic has accelerated the pace. In social movements from mutual aid groups to Kill the Bill, individuals from the Labour left are visible at meetings and undertaking campaigning work.

The strength of the left has been widely under-estimated. It has, at least temporarily, lost control of the National Executive Committee but the growth of militancy in the trade union movement may make this a temporary gain. Thousands of disillusioned and young members have left the party but a very significant number of members remain, young and old, who support the policies of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos.  Those from the 1960s and 1970s can share their collective experience of past struggles and those who are younger can share their energy and the intensity of their first defeats.

I am old enough to remember the rise of the left in the 1970s and early 1980s and its subsequent decline, as even members of the Tony Benn campaign and Tribune decided that they must trim to the right in the face of Thatcherism. But the numbers who remained on the active left then were minuscule in comparison to those who are still active in and around the Labour Party now in social movements such as Stop the War, The World Transformed, Extinction Rebellion, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Liberation, Caribbean Labour Solidarity and many, many more.

Those who have remained since the days of Benn have also used the time to build their knowledge and experience as politicians, academics, lawyers and activists and remain a resource to those coming after them.  When doing so, they learnt from the energy created around the Socialist Movement and the Chesterfield conferences of the 1980s.

Five short years were never going to be sufficient to divert completely the drift away from socialism that was ushered in by Neil Kinnock and continued until the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But it was sufficient to create and re-create policies that responded to the situation in which the country now finds itself, but which remains hidden from many in the population by a mainstream media which largely speaks to itself from a gilded cage.

It was also sufficient to build the strong alliances with active trade unionists and social movements which had been the bedrock of the rise of the left in the 1970s and 1980s. All too often, all we hear about are the leaders of those days, but they stood on the shoulders of an emerging shop stewards movement, Lucas Aerospace workers, local authority workers at the Greater London Council, women protesting against the strip-searching of Irish women and women protestors, those who campaigned for Black Sections in the Labour Party and local law centres.

Those on the left who remain in the Labour Party and the social movements that work with socialists within the Party continue to believe that change can and must be assisted by activism undertaken with and on behalf of others. At the Debate of the Decade in March 1980, Tony Benn MP recognised the inherent limitations of trying to reform the present system but also that:

“We have to run the economic system to protect our people who are now locked into it while we change the system. And if you run it without seeking to change it then you are locked in the decay of the system, but if you simply pass resolutions to change it without consulting those who are locked in the system that is decaying, then you become irrelevant to the people you seek to represent…

We cannot content ourselves with speaking only to ourselves; we must raise these issues publicly and involve the community groups because we champion what they stand for. We must win the argument, broaden the base of membership, not only to win the election but to generate the public support to carry the policies through.”

It is simplistic to accuse the left under Jeremy Corbyn of losing the Red Wall seats and Scotland. I was a member of Unison and also the National Labour Women’s Committee in the 1980s and was active on a national level and watched the right of the Labour Party undermine and marginalise left Labour and trade union representatives chosen by local members in Scotland, Yorkshire, Merseyside and London and many other places.

They did so because their pollsters believed that voters were not attracted by those who campaigned for others. They bought into the myths created by Thatcher, which further divided the haves from the have nots and the black community from the white. It was no surprise to many active in the Labour Party, especially at a local government level, who chose to use their political energy and skills elsewhere, or that the electorate became suspicious of the Labour Party. It is these trends which finally came home to haunt the Labour Party in 2019.

At the same time, the policies which are relevant to those in need and in struggle continue to remain potent. For those who wish to create a society for the many, not the few, the struggle continues within the forums which an individual feels have the most to offer.   

The best of the Party’s international policies were built on the work of groups such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom. The Sure Start Programme under the Blair government was the ultimate result of many community campaigns by women for affordable and safe childcare. The 1970 Equal Pay Act resulted from the strike by women sewing machinists at the Ford Plant in Dagenham for equal pay for work of equal value. It will be the Labour Party’s ability to work with and on behalf of such people that will define its chances of meaningful success in the future.

Nadine Finch is a former barrister who specialised in human rights law and is the author of several books on family, immigration and comparative law.

Image: Tony Benn 2008. Source: Own work. Transferred from en.wikipedia by Ronhjones. Author: Gingerblokey at en.wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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