It’s hard to see how Labour can fail to win the election campaign.  Pat Stack looks at the prospects for the campaign and beyond and why we need a genuine socialist alternative to Labour, and to parliamentary politics.

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves visit construction site in the City, London, United Kingdom – 07 March 2024. Image under Creative Commons License

As we embark on a general election campaign the Tories are so far behind in the polls that the election of a Labour government is looking a certainty.

The Tories are in complete disarray having been reduced to a mess following the deadlock of the Theresa May years, the chaos of the Boris Johnson’s partygate era and the utter mayhem of the Truss interlude.

Under Sunak the party has further plunged into a morass of squabbling bigotry. More and more they seem to be coming unmoored from their historic role of articulating and representing the interests of big capital and are instead increasingly articulating and championing the prejudices of the petty bourgeoisie. This is a long-term process, one that truly found its voice in the Brexit referendum, and one that has accelerated greatly since.

What this means for the long-term prospects of the Tory Party, particularly with the growth of the right-wing populist Reform party is very unclear, and a subject worth examining in itself, but is not within the scope of this piece.

As already stated, this mayhem puts Labour in a hugely strong position; they are even further ahead in the polls than in the months leading to Blair’s landslide against Major. Despite this, Starmer and his acolytes behave and talk as if one radical slip, one statement or policy that the tabloids don’t like, will cost them the election.

In reality of course they know that’s not the case – there is almost nothing they could do or say now that will let the Tories back in. The truth is they are not (in the main) being cautious of the electorate, rather they are clearly saying to British capitalism you can trust us. We are the party that will look after and safeguard your interests.

They reassure big business that even the reforms they have proposed will only be put in place and if necessary amended, modified or scrapped after consultation with them.

Starmer was elected Labour leader as a sort of ‘Corbyn-lite’ candidate drawing up a list of pledges to continue with many of the reforms Jeremy Corbyn had put forward, yet he has reneged on practically all these pledges. He has backtracked from progressive tax rises, saying the tax burden is too high. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has ruled out a mansion tax, increasing income tax for the highest paid or equalising capital gains tax They have also u-turned on lifting the two child benefit cap, refused to abolish tuition fees for students, and made it very clear that Angela Raynor’s workers’ rights reforms,will be amended where big business objects.

So, while many are desperate, barely surviving on benefits, living on food banks, unable to pay their rents, their mortgages, and in general suffering under cost of living increases, and while local councils are going bust and cutting vitally needed services, Starmer is saying to British capital ‘don’t worry we won’t tax and spend are way out of this, we will be fiscally responsible’.

How then will they offer anything more than the Conservatives currently do? Here they talk about ‘economic growth’ as being the panacea. However, as the economist James Medway pointed out:

…this is social and political calamity waiting to happen. This isn’t the 1990s and early 2000s, where a few tight spending years could be borne out and living standards were largely improving.  We are set to get “reformism without reforms” with a vengeance, in conditions of unprecedented ecological stress and turmoil with an increasingly organised and funded radical right waiting in the wings. The stage is being set for a further authoritarian lurch.

Still growth remains the mantra, yet the reality is that they have no real growth strategy. Initially they put forward a vision of growth built around a ‘green investment plan’ in which they would invest £28 billion but have since slashed that planned spending to under £15 billion.  Only a third of that is new money in addition to what the Tories had already budgeted.

So, their main alternative to wealth distribution, a plan for growth, already lies holed in the water, as Unite leader Sharon Graham points out ‘Ripping up building regulations and tinkering in the public sector are not going to deliver serious growth – that’s for the birds.’ as does any serious plan to tackle the climate crisis.

As if to emphasis where their real loyalties lie some of them have looked back at Margaret Thatcher, and whilst they have criticised many of her policies, they have hedged these criticisms with praise of that champion of neo-liberal capitalism, and the fiercest enemy of workers’ rights and living standards.  Rachel Reeves has even said: ‘My generation of women, of course we have been influenced by Margaret Thatcher.’  Shortly after Starmer said that Thatcher ‘sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism’. And finally, not to be left out, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said she ‘was a visionary leader for the UK – no doubt about it’.

Indeed, Starmer’s praise for ‘setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism’ would seem to be an endorsement of at least some of the economic and anti-union policies that brought misery to millions of working people.

If Labour are not offering anything progressive on the economic front, neither have they been a clear voice in opposition to the nasty right-wing bigotry of the current government. Endless attacks on migrants and immigrants in general, Muslims, Trans people, and ‘wokeism’ have been a central plank for the Tories as they fight their ‘culture wars’. The viciously racist and sexist way in which they have treated Diane Abbott is emblematic of this.

On these issues it is worth saying that Labour do have an eye on the electorate, but it is an eye that’s focused on an assumption that outside the big northern cities, the northern (white) working class is almost entirely a bigoted reactionary bloc. In the Blair years Labour treated this section of the working class with almost careless contempt. They would vote Labour no matter what, it was assumed, so why tailor your policies to their needs.

Ever since Brexit, however, both the major parties have come to view these workers as bigoted, xenophobic, nationalistic, and essentially socially reactionary. The Tories entire strategy seems to be built around the belief that the way to their hearts and votes is to appeal to this bigotry and Labour’s approach is scarcely any different. They have at best been cowardly, and at worst downright reactionary when it has come to the ‘culture wars’.

Labour has opposed the Tory Rwanda plan on the grounds of its efficiency, cost, and unlikely effectiveness. They have by and large avoided denouncing the racism, brutality, and sheer inhumanity of the scheme. They have rarely indicated sympathy for its potential victims, or indeed for the small boat refugees.

There is no doubt a future Labour government will scrap the scheme, it is after all largely unworkable and ineffective, and had become the last desperate shibboleth of a dying Tory Government rather than a coherent workable plan to achieve their reactionary aims.

Scrapping the plan, however, should not be seen as a major break by Labour away from anti migrant policies.  For example, recently the Daily Express published a piece by Josh Simons, the director of the very influential Labour thinktank Labour Together, about immigration policy – where he said

‘The government, have not made the average working family better off, just increased our population’. Migrants ‘should contribute to the pot before they take from it’, and ‘homes should be built for British citizens before those who live here temporarily’.

Similarly on the question of trans rights, prominent Labour figures have spent much time backing away from earlier trans-sympathetic positions, and have used the Cass Review as a cover for turning cautious retreat into a full-scale gallop.

Interestingly Wes Streeting, the loathsome shadow secretary for health and social care seemed recently to combine the pursuance of right-wing economic policy with playing along with ‘anti woke’ cliches.  Talking about increasing the involvement of the private sector in the NHS, he wrote: ‘Middle-class lefties won’t stop Labour using the private sector to cut the NHS backlog.’

In other words, fighting against Labour’s right-wing drift is the preserve of a trendy, comfortably off left, a Labour version of the Tories’ ‘the only people who don’t like this are the Islington set’.

Then there is Palestine. Labour has always been a pro Zionist party, and ironically this is the issue most likely to cost them votes in the election.

It is undoubtedly the case that the impact of the huge demonstrations, and the fear of close votes in certain constituencies, has led Labour to retreat from its initial wild eyed support for all and every action Israel might take. However, ultimately a Labour government will do and say what all British Governments have more or less done since the Suez crisis in 1956; that is whatever the US dictates, regardless of the regime in the US.  They will continue to tail end Biden or indeed Trump in supporting Israel just as Sunak has done.

This should come as no surprise. Labour has always been a pro-imperialist party; Even its most left-wing government under Atlee differed little from the Tory governments that preceded and succeeded it when it came to foreign policy.

Starmer’s tailing of Sunak over Gaza, his clear commitment to increase arms spending and to develop Trident leaves little room to doubt that his government will be any different to its Labour predecessors in this respect.

So, with the lack of any radical changes on the economy, an unwillingness to confront bigotry and an awful stand on Gaza, it is little wonder that despite their huge lead in the polls there is little genuine enthusiasm about the Starmer project, even among most of the huge numbers that will vote for him. There was much cynicism on the left about Tony Blair prior to his first election victory, but in the wider population there was a real excitement and enthusiasm. That seems to be largely absent this time round.  People hate the Tories and want to see them smashed to smithereens at the election.  Starmer’s Labour is clearly the vehicle which will do that. That, rather than enthusiasm for the Starmer project, is what will carry them to office.

That is not to say that the nearer the election we get the more excited people will get.  It would be foolish not to expect a late surge in expectation, and of course there will be much joy watching the Tories get annihilated.  However, that joy will quickly turn to disillusion. The challenge for the left is to make our voice heard for a genuine alternative to Labour’s betrayal.

This challenge will surely come from outside the Labour Party structures. It is difficult to see a left revival within Labour.  The defeat of the Corbyn project led to huge numbers leaving the party, and those that have remained despite suffering defeat seem largely voiceless, badly demoralised and with no clear idea of how the left can revive within a tightly controlled hostile environment.

It’s important that Corbyn has committed to standing as an Independent in Islington.  He has a real chance of winning, and his presence in parliament can provide a platform for alternative ideas that speak to many of those that participated in the strike wave over the last couple of years, who will expect or at least hope against hope that the new government acknowledges their grievances. This can lead to fresh extra-parliamentary resistance.

Most trade union leaders will urge patience with the new government, and desperately try to build a cosy relationship with the Starmer regime. Even before the election was announced they were signalling their willingness to be ‘patient’ with a new Labour government.  But Starmer, with no radical alternative to the current state of affairs will want to show British capitalism that he is not in the pockets of the unions, and that he is willing to stand up to them.

It won’t just be on the economic front that opposition is likely to grow.  Labour will want to show that despite scrapping the Rwandan scheme they are tough on migration and immigration. This will anger many who voted for them.

Those who have fought against and been radicalised by the events in Gaza will most likely still be taking to the streets on the issue, and increasingly on the general betrayal by Labour.

Climate activists are likely to remain highly mobilised as Labour fails to make any meaningful reforms on the issues involved.

A generation of students who have only ever seen a Tory government since childhood will surely have their hopes raised and then dashed by a Labour government. Recent stirrings on campuses around Gaza suggest a revival in student struggle could be on the cards in the years ahead.

For those of us in rs21 relating to those sparks, that anger, spelling out why Labour fails, why the Corbyn project ended up here, and what our alternative vision is both in the immediate resistance and in a transformation to a different world will be key.

rs21 has never operated under a Labour government, it will be a new experience for us as an organisation, and for many of our members and supporters. It will present us with new challenges and new opportunities.

Even though there is enormous cynicism about Starmer, we should not underestimate the feelings of betrayal people will experience under what promises to be an awful government. We need to be offering an alternative vision, not just saying ‘I told you so’.

Furthermore, we will have to be aware that the failure of Labour to deal with the cost-of-living crisis, their inability despite harsh words to solve the migrant crisis, the fact that immigration will remain vital to the British economy will all be seized on by the right and far right.

It is difficult to predict entirely what the Tories will do, but almost certain they will elect a leader to the right of Sunak, and their populist anti-immigrant in particular and ‘cultural war’ rhetoric in general will grow even louder and nastier than it is now. Groups like Reform, and the full-blown fascist right will try to seize on the ground the Tories are laying.

Socialists will have to be prepared to throw ourselves into these battles in just the way we have around the Palestinian struggle.

There will be more left-wing candidates than usual standing in the election.  This is to be welcomed and in general socialists should vote for these candidates, but with a couple of words of warning.

The first is that while it is great to see pro Palestine groups and activists wishing to oppose Labour at the election, it is also necessary that we oppose an electoral strategy becoming the central focus of the campaign.  The demonstrations, pickets, sit ins, occupations, acts of civil disobedience have been the key to ensuring that the mass consciousness has been broadly pro-Palestinian, and has thwarted the Tories and the Zionists from smashing the opposition. An electoral stance can help enhance the movement so long as it does not dominate it.

Secondly it is important to understand that only in a relatively small number of seats will the ‘left of Labour’ candidate offer a viable alternative capable of taking a sizeable chunk of their vote and building on the ground following the election.

For rs21 what we do in the election will mean a realistic assessment of what things are like in our local area. Whether we make general propaganda and continue with our activities around Palestine and other issues, or whether we also seriously work around a particular candidate will depend on our assessment locally, rather than having a one size fits all approach.

For revolutionaries elections are never the key events, but they are important. The election will be the main political focus for most people the nearer we get to it. For rs21 that means relating to the hope, relating to the joy of seeing the Tories defeated, continuing the key struggles we are involved in, and ensuring those issues get a hearing during the election campaign. At the same time, we have to be the voice that explains to all those we will come into contact with why Starmer will fail, and why we need a genuine socialist alternative to Labour, and to parliamentary politics.

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