A radical Labour government would be pressured to drop its left-wing agenda. A grassroots movement could help them resistby Richard Seymour / June 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
For now, Labour’s course is clear. With any Tory government likely to be as fragile as Theresa May’s fleeting popularity, Corbyn has declared a permanent offensive. Labour stands ready to govern and will be campaigning relentlessly to make that point. McDonnell has urged a million activists to hit the streets to help drive the Tories from office.
Labour needs only a small swing to win a majority if there were to be another election, and current polling suggests they would get it. On top of this, the government’s appalling handling of the Grenfell fire, in contrast to Corbyn’s widely welcomed intervention, has blown apart May’s already shaken personal authority. It has also exposed a wider crisis of legitimacy for the growth model that has dominated British society since the 1980s – neoliberalism, wherein markets and competition are sacrosanct. There is a moment of radicalisation taking place, such as we have not seen in years, and it could propel to office the most radical, reforming government since 1945. So, the ‘eyes on the prize’ mentality makes sense.
But proximity to government raises urgent strategic problems, unique in Labour’s history. The current Labour leadership is, for the first time, systematically trying to drive British politics to the Left. Its method of doing so has been to lever into political activity and electoral engagement large groups of people long abandoned by the political system, by making them a political offer they haven’t heard in years. It relies on people being excited enough by the alternative to fight for it. And it is how Labour turned Tory seats red, marginals into safe seats, and safe seats into towering majorities, with thousands of activists ignoring the defensive campaign run by Labour HQ and campaigning through Momentum.
The Blairites were consummate statists. Their mode of securing change was to cultivate an elite of electoral-professionals and state managers on the side of gradual progress. They had little interest in unions, or social movements, except as potential antagonists of a Labour government. And they were prepared to take for granted millions of people outside swing seats, who responded by withdrawing from the electoral system.
Corbyn, by contrast, has long argued that change comes from below, against the resistance and inertia of Westminster. Labour’s job, in this perspective, is to give a political expression to the working class and all those who are oppressed and excluded and failed by the system and, crucially, to be responsive to them. Corbyn’s approach won him the Labour leadership and put him within an inch of government.
The question is what Labour can do from there. If Labour were to win a new election, Corbyn would almost certainly find that government changes the balance of power quite abruptly. Suddenly one is daily dealing with business, the City, the Bank of England, the EU Brexit negotiators, the World Trade Organisation, Wall Street, and a range of forces whose power is considerable. Any government needs the cooperation of such institutions, even if it means to challenge their power. As Prime Minister, Corbyn would have to persuade a capital-hoarding business community to invest while paying more taxes and higher wages, dealing with tighter regulations, and facing more powerful trade unions. McDonnell would argue that more taxes in exchange for public investment in the economy, the infrastructure and a healthier, educated workforce, is a bargain. Whether British business can be that far-sighted remains to be seen.
Another problem for a Corbyn-led government would be that it would immediately have to negotiate the terms of Brexit with Guy Verhofstadt. Corbyn wants “full, tariff-free access” to the single market—because almost half of Britain’s trade is with the EU. But why should the EU’s negotiators offer Britain such a deal, unless the UK accepts single market rules, especially regarding market liberalisation—contrary to Corbyn’s programme of renationalisations? The EU bureaucrats who played hardball with Greece, and Verhofstadt was one of Syriza’s most vitriolic opponents, have no interest in making Brexit a success; least of all a left-wing success.
Corbyn would probably resist such pressures with the same stoicism that he has withstood coups and media hostility. But it isn’t about his will. He is not, pace Len McCluskey, a man of steel. Whereas a Blairite government would find its agenda fitting quite seamlessly into the circulation of public and private power, Corbyn and his allies, fighting alone, would be forced to concede their agenda, inch-by-inch. The moment would be gone. Business as usual would return, with demoralisation in tow.
The point is not that Corbyn should compromise on nothing. Labour’s manifesto is a compromise between a traditional Labour agenda, and that of the radical left. It is rather that the compromises Corbyn would be forced to make would be determined, largely, by the political momentum within the country.
A Corbyn-led Labour government would, quite unusually, need an activist, critical base to hold its feet to the fire. Activists, of course, are always free to go further than their leaders, to build support for ideas going further than ministers are able to go. But in the event of a Labour government, paradoxically, as Corbyn and his allies negotiate with far more powerful institutions, activists may need to build public pressure and even protest in support of government policy.
Corbyn is right to call for permanent campaign mode. But if he is to lead the most reforming government since 1945, the campaigning must not end after election day.