Labour's gains have put socialism back into politics

Author: 

Cathy Nugent

The 2017 general election was a stunning success for the Labour Party and within the terms that Theresa May set for this election — to hugely increase her Parliamentary majority — a failure for the Tories.

At the start of the campaign, the Tory Party had a 20 percentage point lead on Labour in the opinion polls and was predicted to get a landslide victory. Labour's result is partly down to a reaction against May's arrogance and dismay with election issues such as the “dementia tax”, but it is much more.

Labour's advance will prepare the way for renewed interest and commitment to explicitly socialist ideas. During the election John McDonnell explicitly spelled out his commitment to socialism. At the very least the election opens up a chance to remake the Labour Party into a strong political voice for working-class people, for two reasons.

In its manifesto, despite a number of serious problems and limitations (e.g. no commitment to freedom of movement), Labour issued a clarion call against the ideologues of “capitalist realism” who say that poverty and inequality are inevitable, or even the fault of the people who are capitalism's victims. It pledged to bring the railways, mail, water and the national grid into public ownership; to make university tuition free; to increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour; to ban zero-hour contracts; and to pay for all this and more by taxing corporations and the richest 5%. As such, support for Labour, increasing their share of the vote to just under 40% with a net gain of 31 seats, is a truly remarkable achievement. It shows that by challenging the consensus and offering bold, left-wing policies, Labour can win back support. It nails the lie that such policies make labour "unelectable".

This election result also sees politics once again polarising around class. In our society, there are two important classes. The Conservative Party represents the capitalist ruling class; the Labour Party is supposed to represent the working class. Labour lost support when Labour governments abandoned and even attacked working-class people, many of whom became alienated from politics, some of whom turned to minor parties, whether of the right (UKIP) or the apparently-left (the Greens). This election shows that this 'New Labour' approach was wrong. One of the most significant features of the election result is that support for those smaller parties has shrunk to insignificance, and that the LibDems' hoped-for rejuvenation has evaded them.

It is now clear - Labour can win elections when it fights on ideas that challenge ruling-class orthodoxy.

We have a Tory minority government, but how long May stays is not clear. As of now, the Tories will get a working majority in Parliament by relying on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But there will be divisions between the Tories and the DUP and from within the Tory Party as the talks on Brexit proceed. The Tories are in deep trouble and Labour was right to immediately call for May to resign and to say that they are ready to form a minority government. The Tories may survive or rather they will only go down if Labour keeps up the public pressure.

Millions of people listened to Labour's call and responded positively. Labour's support included some people who have never voted before and former UKIP voters and this too is significant. That is why there is now a huge opportunity for the labour movement — which at is best has always been the guardian of a working-class moral authority against capitalist realism — to reassert itself in political life.

It is down to the left to solidify and expand on these gains. In achieving this, it is very important that Corbyn has increased his own personal standing. Die-hard Blarites in Labour will be forced to shut up — for now. It is to Corbyn's great credit that he has faced those people down.

In success, just as much as in defeat, it is important to reflect on the new trends and opportunities and that is what revolutionary socialists should do now. We have some initial observations.

The increase in young voters is highly significant; it is a reversal of a long-term trend of young voters being turned off mainstream politics and participating in elections. The Corbyn team's strategy of holding rallies in safe seats and using Corbyn's facility for speaking “on the stump” and then building support through social media succeeded in the context of an election campaign. The strategy of turning a layer of new activists in Labour out to marginals made those 31 seat gains and helped to close the gap elsewhere. The gains for Labour in Scotland, while being distinctive political trends, also represents a significant breakthrough for Labour. What can be done to build on these things?

The Tory minority government may not survive for very long. But whether it stays for one year or five years Corbyn's team, Momentum and the broader left have to do some things they have so far failed to do. We need to make a serious turn to building the organisational strength and reinvigorating the political culture of the labour movement.

Rallies are good in election campaigns, but we need solid local Momentum groups and Labour Party organisations, which meet regularly and take political debate seriously.

To do that, the left needs to step up the fight for an open, democratic Labour Party, against the still-strong old regime of bureaucratic manipulation and political purges. The leadership of Momentum made peace with that old regime; it must reverse that choice.

Social media is a powerful tool but we also need much more face-to-face campaigning — on the streets. Labour and the Labour left need both a vibrant social life and a serious turn outwards to political campaigning — fighting the cuts everywhere, continuing to argue for the best ideas in Labour's manifesto on education, health and the minimum wage. Above all we need to be drawing much wider layers of Labour's expanding membership into political activity.

Young people should not be a “stage army” on which Labour relies every time there is an election. The left needs to rebuild Labour's youth wing so that young members have space to develop socialist ideas and can also take a central role in shaping the political life of the Party and the broader labour movement.

This election is a huge step forward for the "Corbyn surge”, for the constituency of people who want an end to austerity. The AWL exists, to paraphrase the Internationale, to bring “reason in revolt”, to forge the kind of class struggle socialism we believe can arm that movement and ensure its fight can grow and win.

If you want to discuss these ideas with us please come along to our Ideas for Freedom event on 1-2 July.