A rising mood that cuts are not inevitable, a rising anger against economic inequality, and a rising confidence that alternatives are possible, has damaged the Tories in recent months.
Ian Duncan Smith resigned, demagogically spilling the truth that the Tories have been victimising the worst-off to benefit the rich. That was one of the side-products of the Tories’ splits over Europe, which have seen Tory right-wingers suddenly “discovering” that the NHS is underfunded and suggesting Britain’s EU budget contributions could fill the gap.
The Tories were forced to retreat on disabled benefits. The Panama Papers and George Osborne’s welcome for Google’s token tax payoff have shown that they represent and serve a system of squeezing the maximum out of working-class effort and siphoning it off to tax havens. Now the Tories hope to recover some poise from the 5 May elections.
The Tories have been helped by the crass and insulting anti-semitic words said, and reaffirmed, and reaffirmed again by Ken Livingstone in three radio interviews on 28 April, and the storm they have provoked. Labour needs to deal with anti-semitism, including the anti-semitism which thinks of itself as left-wing. The labour movement can defeat the attempts of the Tories and the Labour right to use this issue not by denying it, but only by dealing with it. To deal with the issue, we need a lively, open, thinking labour movement. The last thing we want is a cowed, silent labour movement, reduced to carping at the Tories about details. The last thing we want is to allow the Labour right to use a bad election result on 5 May to launch a coup against Jeremy Corbyn and start to return the Labour Party to the numbed and gutted conditions it was in under Blair and Brown. After those numbed and gutted years, the labour movement needs a thorough self-renewal, to restore its democratic life, to regain its confidence, to repair its ability to fight, to make it capable of developing and winning people to social and not just administrative alternatives to Tory policies.
That was never going to be an easy, straight-line process. It requires reinstating the ideas of socialism and working-class solidarity in a culture where they have been marginalised and smeared for decades, where even the new Labour leaders rarely dare utter the word “socialism” — and where, as we’ve seen, many of the well-known people who proclaim themselves “left”, like Livingstone, are irresponsible demagogues.
The Tories are chopping the NHS to bits by marketisation and by (as they say themselves) treating the junior doctors as the equivalent for 2016 of the miners in 1984-5 — “the enemy within”. They are recreating the slum landlords, by trying to trash social housing and driving millions into private renting with minimal tenant rights. They are cutting benefits for the worst-off, and especially for the disabled, while giving tax cuts to the rich. They are squeezing local public services to extinction. They are trying, with the Trade Union Bill, effectively to outlaw large strikes by public service workers, and to cripple unions’ political activity. They plan to drive all schools into a quasi-market system where entrepreneur-profiteer head teachers compete with each other to siphon off government funds, local cooperation and democratic control are annihilated, and teacher qualifications become a matter of a head teacher’s say-so. They demonise migrants, and respond to the millions fleeing Syria’s war and other calamities with smug meanness that would shame the openly chauvinist governments of Eastern Europe. Their conflicts among themselves over the EU are between vicious alternatives. Some want to make Britain “like Albania” (as Michael Gove said: a Wild West offshore capitalism, rejecting even the modest regulation won in the EU, and hard-faced against migrants). Others think that trade interests compel them to tolerate some social regulation and some migration, but want to minimise them. Both wings are equally hostile to building on the existing botched, bureaucratic, capitalist European half-unity to move forward to reduced borders and to level up socially across the continent.
The Tories are trying to use the long depression which has followed the 2008 crash to batter and bludgeon, to reduce the “cost base” for bosses, and to make a meaner, nastier, dirtier society. All those things grow from one root, the gearing of all economic life to the competitive profit-greed of a wealthy few. The slightly-softened version of that same profit-gearing which was the “New Labour” formula is utterly discredited. The Labour right has nothing better to offer. What do they mean when they attack Corbyn for being too left-wing? That Labour should return to the stance of criticising the Tories only on technical competence and marginal excesses? That it should revert to telling working-class people that the system which brought us the 2008 crash needs only to have the bankers and bosses refloated at taxpayer expense and be set going again until the next crash?
If the Tories — and their right-flank outriders, Ukip — gain ground on 5 May, the proper conclusion is that the task of restoring the labour movement’s will and ability to reclaim society was never going to be slick and swift, and we need to work on it more boldly, more consistently, more combatively.