Why Labour lost. What next for the working class?

December 24, 2019

International Socialist League (IWL-FI UK) Statement

A shock wave went through the Labour Party, the Corbynistas, many political commentators and even the Tories on 12 December as Boris Johnson led the Tories to a landslide victory with 365 MPs (43.6%) against Labour’s 203 (32.32%) and have won the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 election.
The election results reveal the depth of anger against Labour. One Labour activist said, “In the Black Country we were smashed by the decision to move in the direction of a 2nd referendum losing all of West Bromwich, nearly all of Wolverhampton, and of course Dudley North.” Corbyn was very unpopular in many working class areas as they no longer trusted him to fight for their interests because of his record as leader of the Labour Party and the long years of Labour’s austerity betrayals.
Outside of the big cities workers in Labour’s heartlands, the so-called red wall in the North, Midlands and Wales voted for Brexit because they had given up on Labour. That is in the old industrial areas of mining, mills, manufacturing, engineering, steel and shipyards. Labour lost because the overwhelming majority of the working class in these areas voted against remaining in Europe and on 12 December 2019, voted for the only viable Party that was going to take Britain out of the EU.
Workers have felt increasingly abandoned since the days of Thatcher.  Pit closures in the 80s and 90s, Labour councils poll tax implementation including imprisonment of non-payers, privatisations and PFI of health and schools by Blair’s Labour, the Iraq invasion, the rise of precarious work, families having to choose between feeding their children or heating their houses, pension age 67 years of age, Tory austerity and Labour’s implementation and endemic poverty that is the legacy. All these things were driving the break with Labour because they never built a mass struggle on the streets against Tory policies.
Labour say they are an anti-austerity party and Corbynistas accept that label without criticism. They should say anti-austerity in words but not in practice. Over many years and at many times they could have built a national mass movement on the streets to fight austerity and to bring the Tories down, but they didn’t and they won’t.
John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, apologised for losing the general election. What he meant was in 2019 he pushed the Labour Party to support the 2nd referendum. The reason? He thought Labour would lose members if they did not support a 2nd referendum. During the election, he said he would support remain while Corbyn said he would be ‘neutral’ during a referendum. So, the two foremost left leaders were publicly divided, almost no one wants to discuss that.
What a way to give leadership to the working class! In 2016 many workers had broken from Labour’s influence to vote for Brexit. In 2017 Corbyn said Labour would respect the referendum result, in 2019 he changed. Brexit and Labour’s contradictory backsliding, history of betrayal and its anti-democratic position was the decisive factors in this election. The disgust over EU membership fuelled hostility to what is happening to the working class and Labour’s lack of fight.
So, these leaders acted to defend the bureaucratic apparatus of the Labour Party. Their watchword became “say what you think will win, not what you think is right”! These leaders follow the old Fabian ways that Socialism is to introduced through Parliament – the leaders know best. But without mass class struggle nothing will change.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected, millions of workers felt there was a new possibility to overturn Blair’s support for neo-liberalism. Corbyn’s words were different, and many youth trade unionists and neighbourhood activists felt that – but the practice did not match the words. McDonnell’s insisted on being business-friendly, maintaining the banks and all commanding heights of the economy on a capitalist basis. No wonder millions of workers thought Labour could not implement their promises.
Labour MPs in remain areas such as Merseyside, Greater Manchester, London and many big cities retained their seats. The hatred of the Tories and the relative differences with the conditions of workers’ lives in small cities and towns was decisive.
By refusing to fight for a workers and socialist Brexit and by suggesting that a Labour government could implement their manifesto promises without challenging the banks, multi-nationals and financial institutions and without mass struggle Corbyn allowed Johnson to appear more credible on Brexit.
The electoral promises of the Corbyn manifesto could only be credible if linked to the defence of a socialist Brexit. Which would also mean raising concretely and permanently solidarity and common struggle with European workers. Only in this way could Tory Brexit be defeated. Without these conditions, Johnson’s central slogan “get Brexit done” won millions of workers.
Get Brexit done and EU crisis
The Brexit Tory project is a nationalist project for decadent imperialism and more subject to US influence and pressure. The project is based on parasitism, deindustrialisation, ultraliberalism, more extreme precarity, greater inequality, and a great increase in Xenophobia and racism.
Johnson has no intention of dealing with all the pressing problems workers’ areas face except to make them worse, and he is aiming for a minimal EU exit agreement.
Brexit will affect the future of the EU, which is already experiencing a structural economic crisis, caught in the middle of the confrontation between the US and China. It will cause a realignment of forces in the EU, one of whose consequences is the current friction between France and Germany, which is the centre of the EU.
Macron’s frontal attack on workers’ historic gains such as pensions shows the social war is deepening across Europe – that is the project of the EU.
A rising struggle in Europe led by French workers highlights the necessity and increased possibility of common struggles between European workers: south, west, east and north against Europe’s neoliberal governments and the EU. Such efforts must aim for the socialist united states of Europe, which is incompatible with the existence of the EU. At the same time, the British working class will have to fight for its independence against the US, EU and Chinese influence and control on an anti-racist, working class international programme.
Labour only anti-austerity in words
On 29 October 2019, the ISL wrote that Corbyn,  “…is not trying to unite workers in mass struggle on the streets. In fact, with his policy Labour will not even win the next election.”[i]
The complete acceptance by the right and the vast majority of Left in the Labour party for a 2nd referendum on Brexit sealed their fate.
We never thought Corbyn would win but the size of Johnson’s majority shows the class fury against austerity is growing and will become a force on the streets if the rank and file in the unions and communities deepen and widen their fights against the attacks they suffer from the Tory government.
However, local struggles will not begin under the leadership of Labour or the TUC. Corbyn always claimed to be against austerity, but he instructed councils to make the cuts in councils by setting a legal budget. Union chiefs in such areas, at best, only gave very weak challenges. In practice, Labour expelled any councillor who voted against cuts such as the four who did four years ago, and they are the last who voted like that. Since then all Corbynista councillors voted to implement Tory austerity. There was no criticism of Corbyn’s social democratic programme, and the vast majority of the Left imposed self-censorship and only praised Corbyn.
The Socialist Workers Party wrote an article after the result published by the UCULeft union tendency which gives their general outlook, We dared to dream. “Boris Johnson’s victory at the general election has sent a shiver of fear down the spine of all those who dared dream that this election would bring about a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. A government that was caring and progressive.” Sean Vernell, the main SWP leader in the UCU.
So even after Corbyn’s defeat, they try to continue the illusions.
The Socialist Party still call for the impossible task of transforming the Labour Party, while now making criticisms of Corbyn (repeating some of the points the ISL has made for years). They forget they said the “Corbyn revolution” could open a workers and socialist road. Even now they call for the Labour Party to become a Workers Party, in which of course they would be admitted.
This pie-in-sky approach of the SWP and SP just reveals how close and even merged politically they are with the left bureaucracy of Labour and the unions.
Corbyn did stand on picket lines during the election, but he never called to deepen strike action or build a front of strike action. Labour candidates spoke at strike rallies in December, but that was more to win votes and not to build the mass movement. A general call for mass struggle to end austerity was never made during the election by Labour or by the leadership of the TUC unions. But national and local strike actions did take place.
The ISL said, when Corbyn became leader, that his only way to build a real combative workers movement was to leave the Labour Party and build a new and democratic party of workers. The question came up again when the right-wing imposed the position of Remain and a 2nd referendum. Corbyn could only have answered that attack by leading a campaign for a workers and socialist Brexit fighting against the right-wing and breaking with the Labour Party while overturning the acceptance of council austerity.
It is not only Corbyn and McDonnell who are responsible. The vast majority of Corbynistas stopped their struggles against austerity when Corbyn got elected, while all Corbynista councillors continued voting for cuts. They went along with PFIs and gave hero-worship of Corbyn heard through their “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” chant. For many the Labour party was more important than the working class.
Labour is not a socialist party
Thinking inside a bubble developed over many years in the Labour Party and the trade unions. Every attack over the last 40 years also gave new possibilities to organise the class but generally, that was never done or was cut short. For the ISL, the struggle for the independence of the working class is paramount but time and again community struggles were held back and taken into the ‘safe’ waters of Labour. Time and again, unions abandoned workers. When the mines, mills and factories closed unions such the National Union of Mineworkers could have organised to face the problems of unemployment and low wage work, but in general the leadership abandoned workers and their communities.
Just as struggles were moving forward and beginning to win was precisely the time when the bureaucracies and their friends abandoned the battle, and sometimes they never moved into the struggle. Such was the case in the anti-Poll tax struggle, led by the Militant (now the Socialist Party) who dissolved the movement just after the massive demonstration in London, or when the majority of trade unions did not mobilise against the invasion of Iraq. After 2008, when the mass joint union strike arose against public pension attacks (November 2011), and workers wanted more, it lasted one day. Most anti-austerity, anti-cuts groups that appeared from 2012 to 2015 collapsed (with few exceptions such as Old Swan Against the Cuts in Liverpool) because to struggle against austerity in practice meant fighting Corbyn and his supporters.
Corbyn’s support for a Labour broad church, meant giving in to positions such as Remain, Council imposed austerity, surrender to Zionism and refusing to call for mass struggle on the streets while supporting trident, nuclear weapons and NATO.
The promises over the anti-trade union laws were vague but were drawn up by layers of left academics as if the anti-trade union laws can be removed one step at a time. Or the promises about detention centres where two detention centres would be closed. Labour Lefts said Labour would close all detention centres when speaking in meetings that included immigrant workers and asylum seekers, but it actually meant eight detention centres would be kept open. Or the promises to nationalise the railways, which even RMT leaders repeated. But they only promised the takeover of franchises when they ended legally. Such a commitment would have taken 20 years to fulfil.
Many of Labour’s activists and supporters made these exaggerations. After this, for any Labour supporter to blame workers is the height of confusion and arrogance.
What next?
There will undoubtedly be a first period of confusion, with the Tories on the offensive and, at the same time, with certain expectations in the sectors of workers who have voted Tory that the situation will improve. But the Tory government will deepen its social war on workers, the youth and oppressed.
Labour’s election manifesto called for some concrete measures which we support and fight for, such as £10 minimum wage, ending tuition fees and promising to end the brutal Universal Credit.
Boris Johnson’s Tory government has announced that it is planning to introduce minimum service levels in the transport sector during industrial action that outlaws full strikes and supports the private rail companies. It means trade union grassroots and working class communities have to support the RMT opposition and demand that all unions take action against these laws including strike action and build a general strike with all unions to stop this attack!
The retreat of Labour over Zionism gave Johnson a greater opportunity to attack. During the election, he threatened to outlaw any public body (including local authorities) in the UK organising support for the international campaign for Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions against Israel.
Palestinian solidarity struggle in the UK has to build a real struggle to stop Johnson proceeding with the threat.
Corbyn never acted as on opposition on the streets. Such a movement has to emerge to stop Johnson and build unity with workers’ committees and alliances with union rank and files and neighbourhoods.  At the same time, it must build international solidarity with French strikers and the mass struggle and revolutionary situations in the world from Chile to Hing Kong.
The United Voice of the World announced a victory on 16 December at outsourcing at St Mary’s hospital in London – only gained by taking repeated strike action. They show that immediate struggle is both possible, necessary and can win.
The conflicts of the working class against the interests of capital inside a deepening economic crisis will increase. The more these conflicts are prepared from below independent of Labour’s and union leadership control, the higher the chance of success. We will support new alliances based on the independence of the working class and its struggles, and we will demand that the union leaders take action, but class action to succeed must be controlled by workers and their democratic decisions.
Tony Blair tried to make Labour a social-Liberal party like other European Social Democratic parties. Corbyn saved Labour by instilling false hopes of Socialism while maintaining Labour’s Broad Church. Now the right-wing will try to finish Blair’s project to remove working class and trade union influence inside the Party.
Whatever happens, the distrust of Labour will continue because of the Labour and TUC’s betrayals since the days of Thatcher and the sectoral and bureaucratic outlook of the union
leaderships. Today some Corbynistas are even blaming the working class rather than the reformist left leadership for the lost election.
What was concretely promised by Labour and did win millions of workers votes must now start to be fought for, not in parliamentary debate but on the streets. In the “red wall” and in Labour voting areas, the hatred of workers against austerity is the same, as it is against the very dysfunctional transport system and collapsing public services.
The ISL support the fight in the street and the workplaces with the battles in Parliament. We want a party that, as Lenin said in 1920 to the British Communists, will push in Parliament for extra-parliamentary struggle, undermine and break down Parliament from the inside in favour of workers’ councils.
Union struggles are planned for January, support for these must be spread far and wide by the grassroots activists. There can and should be an increase in organised action against austerity, privatisation and precarious work.
The possibility of a reformist solution has been shown to be dead. We always said only a mass working class struggle on the streets against precarious jobs, linking the unions with the communities and those fighting oppression could succeed, while any council or parliamentary wins must be used to strengthen these struggles.
During this election while strikes were raging in France for many days Corbyn never mentioned support for the French working class (or any other international workers’ struggle). We have to break that mold. Internationalism means active solidarity, not something to make a holiday speech about or even ignore.
Even the best Labour parliamentarians subordinate all class struggle to Parliament. For them, including Corbyn, Socialism has to be brought by reforming capitalism a step at a time.
Some workers saw Labour as a Socialist Party; but, the loss of a general election is not a blow against Socialism. It is a blow against reformism, a blow against social democracy.
The ISL will fight in all kinds of alliances and workers’ committees, it will do so in a friendly way with other left groups, who genuinely want to build working class alliances in the fight against the government, the employers, councils or anyone who oppresses the working class. But any alliance must be extremely combative and hostile to those who stand in the way of developing the independence of the working class.
After the resounding defeat of Labour and the organic inability of Corbyn and the Labour left to present a real alternative to brutal capitalist decline, conscious workers, the oppressed and struggling youth need to consider building a revolutionary party. The ISL is an instrument to build that Party. We are an internationalist party and a member of the International Workers League-Fourth International.
Workers will come to the fore in this period. We say to all who base themselves on workers’ struggle the way forward is the building of a revolutionary party. For those who see the need for such a party to assist workers’ struggles, we urge you to consider joining the ISL.

  • Fight for £10-an-hour minimum wage!
  • End precarious work!
  • Fight benefit Universal Benefit attacks, no sanctions!
  • Equality for all, fight to end all oppression!
  • For workers and socialist struggle to end austerity!
  • Build united strikes from below. For a general strike against the outlawing of full strikes!
  • No Xenophobia or racism. Immigrants welcome here!
  • Full nationalisation under the control of workers and users of transport, energy and all utilities and the commanding heights of the economy!
  • Support the international struggle of workers: France, Chile. Colombia, Lebanon…
  • Build the ISL and a revolutionary party to fight the government.

[i] http://internationalsocialistleague.org/break-with-the-eu/

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